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January 7, 2010

Transaction Action

AL Re-Gifting

by Christina Kahrl

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Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed 1B/OF-R Shelley Duncan and OF-R Austin Kearns to minor-league contracts. [1/5]

Both seem to be reasonable selections for NRI-level involvement in the Indians' future. Kearns might be forgiven for some of his horrific production in his last campaign with the Nats, given that he was hurt (again), but there's nothing at stake if he shows up in camp and stays this bad. Maybe in the best-case situation he winds up contributing as a right-handed alternative to Shin-Soo Choo and Michael Brantley, but we're heading into a third season beyond his semi-adequate 2007 season, so how much of his value is left is very much left to the realm of the speculative. Duncan could be much more interesting than that; translating his 30-homer 2009 performance in Triple-A gives you a line of .265/.350/.498, which might play if Travis Hafner gets hurt, or Brantley can't handle the starting job in left, or if Matt LaPorta stalls at some point in his bid to be a regular at first base.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed LHP John Parrish to a minor-league contract. [1/4]

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Fernando Rodney to a two-year, $11 million contract. [12/24]

'Splosions! Big 'uns, too! You like big explosions, don't you? Doesn't everybody? Everyone gets to watch them open-mouthed, and that's a good time at the ballpark. Well, except in Cleveland during midge-outs, but generally it's true 100 percent of almost much of the time! As a result of this stroke of genius, perhaps the marketing campaign should be scrapped and re-pitched: Self-Fraculation: The Final Disaster. I mean, really, what is this, the baseball equivalent of a late-game monster truck rally? "Come watch as Truckasaurus DEVOURS our late-game leads! All week long, and twice on Sunday!SUNDAY!Sunday!!!"

Going by just WXRL, you might think this was an improvement to the Angels' late-game lot. Rodney was in the top 10 in the major leagues, after all, clocking in with a season-ending 4.519, against Brian Fuentes' 2.449, and the so very disappointing Fuentes was the club's closer. Fuentes' tally didn't even lead his own team, ranking second behind Darren Oliver's 2.679, and was 39th in the majors. Unfortunately, that's a function of their respective usage patterns by their managers: after Brandon Lyon went off like a one-man fireworks night to blow his first save opportunity in the season's second game for the Tigers, closing was F-Rod's job to have, win, and lose. Fuentes, in contrast, suffered as far as his WXRL tally by having a quality teammate in Oliver, which wasn't the worst situation for the Angels, as long as Mike Scioscia could play mix and match between Fuentes and Oliver. Jim Leyland may have swigged F-Rod Kool-Aid (and then nabbed a furtive smoke), but Scioscia kept his in-game skippering cap on. To reflect the respective performances of Rodney and Fuentes where manager-defined usage patterns don't define a season's success, let's switch over to a rate stat: Rodney managed a 4.26 FRA last season, while Brian Fuentes was at 3.91. Yet, for all that, Fuentes was the one considered frightening last season. (In contrast, Darren Oliver was at 2.91, but apparently he doesn't come with a closer cape among his accessories.)

So, surely there was something amiss with Rodney's peripheral data? No dice there, either. Other than striking out fewer people than ever before, nothing about the rest of his data is hat-in-hand, pleading for regression-not his BABIP, his home-run rate, his tendency to walk a whole lot of everybody of all types batting with either hand, you name it. Well, perhaps one thing: his ground-ball rate and his double-plays induced, which were the second-best and career-best marks, respectively. That's lovely, but that goes begging for the other side of the regression proposition*, namely, that good things regress too. An exploitable platoon split, that might make him a lovely complement to the left-handed Mr. Fuentes? Not really, as F-Rod's changeup generates strikeouts against lefties, while his mid-90s heat is a bit too much on the straight side.

So there's something special that they see in Rodney? Perhaps it's whatever it is they saw in Fuentes at $17.5 million for two years, or Justin Speier for $18 million for four years. Cold comfort, those things. So there's an upside, right? Well, having Rodney getting some, many, or almost all of their saves should at least spare them having to worry about Fuentes' 2011 option vesting, which means that they'll have both Fuentes and Speier coming off of the books after the 2010 season. Perhaps Rodney has a superhero persona: the Outlasticator? Interpret that as a double-entendre if you choose; I'll focus on the fact that he wound up a closer merely because he outlasted Todd Jones and Brandon Lyon and Joel Zumaya, and he could bury Fuentes and the Angels' playoff hopes in the same season. That's super-something, I suppose. With choices like these, Jason Bulger's FRA of 3.00 is looking pretty tasty; maybe he'll outlast the Outlasticator?

*: That's a Clive Cussler title, right? The Regression Proposition, wherein an Affleck TBD apologizes for a long and generally tedious career, and then goes away? Nah, no such luck, I'm sure they'd make a sequel, even to that, Our Man in Jamaica Plain, perhaps.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Clay Condrey to a one-year contract; released RHP Bobby Keppel. [1/6]

Signing Condrey seems an odd decision, because regardless of his participation on the fringes of the defending NL pennant-winners, he only managed a 4.31 FRA and 0.422 WXRL, potentially useful enough for the back of a bullpen, but he's a sort of a supernumerary in a pen that already has Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, and a comebacking Pat Neshek. Even if Neshek's comeback from TJS is delayed for any reason, that's a sixth reliever (maybe) facing a likely demotion to seventh, assuming that Ron Gardenhire doesn't just decide he'd rather have a second lefty around. As for Keppel, he gets the literal sayonara, departing for (perhaps) better days and a bigger pile of yen in the Japanese leagues.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed CF-S Coco Crisp to a one-year, $4.75 million contract, with a $5.75 million club option for 2011 ($500,000 buyout). [12/23]
Signed RHP Justin Duchscherer to a one-year, $2.0 million base contract; designated LHP Jay Marshall for assignment. [12/30]

While I'm glad to see Duke get re-upped and get a chance to redeem a season lost to injury and off-field issues, it's really a repeat of what his function was in 2008 (briefly) after that summer's trades: designated thirtysomething amid a crowd of kids. He stands to make as much as another $3.5 million if he makes certain innings totals or starts-based markers, with the expectation being that he'll remain in the rotation. That said, between his flirting with an ERA title once upon a time and his experience as a set-up man, you have to anticipate he'll be worth something to somebody at the end of July if he's still healthy enough to pitch that deep into the season, especially with a base contract that would cost a contender very little indeed should they prefer him to pitch out of the pen.

The other deal initially seemed ridiculous given the money and Crisp's struggles to do much of anything in the four seasons since his 2005 breakout with the Tribe, hitting just .266/.331/.389 since. And what of Rajai Davis, who seemed to at least deliver something useful? Well, Davis doesn't walk much and doesn't slug much, and his production last season was almost as pure as an expression of the power of the BABIP fairy over a slappy speed guy as you're going to find. But even then, Coco Crisp's separation from his useful years seems pretty wide, so signing him up for this kind of money seems like a steep expense for a player who won't do much, if anything, to push the A's any closer to relevance in the 2010 season. If the year's already becoming one about player development while the other three teams are in it to win it, why spend this kind of money on Crisp?

Depth is well and good, and Davis, Ryan Sweeney, and Crisp are all weak, interchangeable options for one or two slots in the outfield. Apparently, the A's are leaning towards starting all three, with Scott Hairston and Eric Patterson towards the back of the pack. That's a combination where anybody could wind up getting regular playing time, and beyond the defensive value they might provide the pitching staff, contribute little to the team's fortunes. There are platoon possibilities, of course, but there were without Crisp in the mix, and there was already the talent on hand if the club really just wanted to run with a defense-oriented outfield.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded RHP Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays for RHP Brandon League and OF-R Johermyn Chavez. [12/23]
Signed RHP Chad Cordero and C-S Josh Bard to minor-league contracts. [12/28]
Re-signed INF-R Chris Woodward to a minor-league contract. [1/6]

It's interesting to see what this means in terms of either how broken the Mariners seem to feel Morrow was, or how desperately he needed a change of scenery. Either way, contempt or sympathy, it's a nice mercy move for Morrow, but one that doesn't necessarily improve the Mariners' lot all that much in the immediate future. League wins friends and influences people as a speed-gun and garbage-time hero, which is swell as such things go. Put him in front of an excellent defense in a very big ballpark, and maybe he's a bit better off than most, but you could say that about a lot of people. He had a negative WXRL and a FRA of 4.74. He's a nice arm to have, but not necessarily someone you really go out of your way to get, and now that he's pushing 27, this is more a matter of hoping you bottle that one lightning-armed season before seeing about making him somebody else's problem.

Instead, the juicy bit in the deal is Chavez, who might eventually blossom into something special after a nice repeater season at Low-A Lansing, hitting .283/.346/.474. Just heading into his age-21 season in 2010, Chavez has the tools to be a top prospect, with some speed, a right field-worthy arm, and power potential. He also needs to improve his approach at the plate (39 unintentional walks against 137 strikeouts is glum stuff in 569 PAs), as well as his baserunning and his routes in right, but the Venezuelan's young and raw, and it was always going to be a matter of seeing who could polish him up and help him deliver on his promise. The Mariners are taking that chance. While I fret over what a Cal League bandbox assignment can do as far as getting a young hitter into bad habits, it's definitely worth taking a chance on. As an exchange of upside possibilities, with a dash of scene-changing mercy thrown in, I like the trade a little, even if this seems like a decision to discard and get the best they could out of it.

As for the Nationals recycling program, sure, they're crunchy up in Seattle, and that's nice. Maybe Cordero contributes, and maybe he's done, but it's worthwhile to take the time to find out. Bard represents one of those tissue-thin restraints against either Adam Moore or Rob Johnson, in that both will have to earn jobs on the big-league club in camp, but if one struggles, then Bard's a plausible enough big-league backup to live with for a few months.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Agreed to terms with C-R Kelly Shoppach on a two-year, $5.55 million deal, with a $3.2 million base club option for 2012 ($300,000 base buyout). [1/5]

Thus, a man's arbitration years get bought out. Shoppach can push his 2012 compensation to $4 million (and his buyout to $500,000) if he achieves some unspecified contract escalators. This may not immediately price out Dioner Navarro beyond 2010, but it certainly doesn't help him any. That said, it's really up to Navarro to play well enough in 2010 to avoid being non-tendered in 11 months.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed 1B/3B-R Matt Brown to a minor-league contract. [1/7]

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded RHP Brandon League and OF-R Johermyn Chavez to the Mariners for RHP Brandon Morrow. [12/23]

Another nice little move by Alex Anthopoulos, but this one has better upside potential, in no small part because of how screwed up Morrow's career has been up to this point. League's capacity to tantalize might be just as suggestive as Morrow's, but what's his best-case scenario? He beats the yips in tight games or with men on base, and gives you... a nice reliever. Generally, picking one of those with some transient value off the bullpen bush is something most teams can do by themselves. The real loss was Chavez, but that's to the Mariners' credit; it wasn't like they were just going to give Morrow away, even if they hadn't really sorted out what to do with him.

So, now that he's a Jay, it seems clear that Morrow's future is going to be in the rotation, which really is where it should have been all along. As crowded as the Jays' rotation might seem in terms of possibilities, many of them are recuperation cases or, in the case of guys like Scott Richmond or Brian Tallet, placeholders. The only no-doubt starter would appear to be Ricky Romero, so the opportunity's there for Morrow to step in and deliver. The talent's obvious: mid- to high-90s heat, a sharp curve, and the need to learn how to sell a changeup. The last can be taught, and absent the expectations of being the guy picked before Tim Lincecum (and Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer), perhaps with a new team he'll be able to take the time and learn the lesson. You can't teach the other things, of course, and if he adds that third pitch, you could expect his strikeout rate to jump. Anthopoulos made a comparison to the frustrating yet talented A.J. Burnett, which isn't a bad thing to add for a bullpen arm and a maybe-something in Low-A.

As far as comparisons go, the interesting and fun thing from Morrow's PECOTA comps for 2010 are the names: Joe Dobson (who broke out in his age-25 season), Nolan Ryan (who broke out in his age-25 season), and Ed Whitson (who broke yadda-yadda-you know the rest). Ryan and Whitson both achieved their breakouts after getting traded, no less, Ryan famously to the Angels from the Mets, Whitson to the Giants from the Pirates; Dobson had to settle for serving his country in World War II before his career progressed much further. That said, not every comparison's sunshine: the other top comp was Brewers right-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, whom if you remember from the '70s suggests not enough disco for you; his career fizzled out from his career "highlight" of going 5-13 in a swing role for Milwaukee in the summer of '76.

Is this the sort of move the Jays should be making, considering they've been out of the AL East race since Anthopoulos' 16th birthday? Absolutely, to my way of thinking. Even with, say, "just" four years of team control versus Chavez's future, that's four years in which Morrow could turn into a quality starter, perhaps only a mid-rotation talent, a la Burnett, with the capacity to inspire hope for more. Or maybe, like his happiest comparables, he comes into his own as a top hurler in full. It's certainly worth finding out, and if the Jays are playing meaningful ballgames at the end of those four years, better still.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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