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January 4, 2010

Transaction Action

Senior Circuitry, East and Central

by Christina Kahrl

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CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed OF-R Marlon Byrd to a three-year, $15 million contract. [1/2]

My initial response on Twitter (@ChristinaKahrl) was that Byrd won't slug .420 away from Texas, and while that was a flip comment*, the more I think about it, the more I'm comfortable with the idea. It might cost less than half as much as signing Gary Matthews Jr. did, but that doesn't make the signing less than half as dumb. That's the basis of comparison I'm operating from, because we've heard this story before: toolsy 31-year-old ex-fourth outfielder has big year in a superheated bandbox, gets big money, and becomes a permanent punchline on his general manager's highlight reel. No doubt Jim Hendry's moved beyond the laughter, since he's on the downslope of the Milton Bradley experience.

Byrd's performance record is entirely unmysterious. He's slugged plenty in Texas, and not so much anywhere else. On his career, Byrd's hit .309/.375/.519 in Texas. He's hit .269/.319/.388 everywhere else, in almost 2200 plate appearances. If you want to be generous, you can latch onto his most recent work: he delivered at a .285/.322/.419 clip on the road for the Rangers last year, and .297/.362/.411 in 2008, and .259/.304/.410 in 2007. These are three of the four best years Byrd's ever had, the other being that 2003 season with the Phillies that made him appear ready to deliver on his promise as a prospect. So the power? That's not going to be part of what you get with Marlon Byrd.

Wait, there was a happy-looking OBP somewhere in all of that, and that had nothing to do with Texas, so that's cause for enthusiasm. Sure, sort of. The unhappy development of his so-called career year in '09 was his walk rate's decline from 2008, but even that's somewhat predictable: his walking 10 percent of the time in '08 was his career high, and last year's 5.3 percent wasn't much different from his 6.4 percent walk rate in 2007. So no, he's not going to fix the Cubs' OBP problem, any more than he helps in the power department, or with the lineup's now pronounced lean to the right (Kosuke Fukudome being the lone projected regular from the left side).

Another way to look at this, the second half of Operation Go Away, is that the Cubs have acquired two player-seasons of a pitcher and three player-seasons of an outfielder for only a little than what they were set to play Bradley over the next two years. After all, Carlos Silva could conceivably drift into a rotation that's counting on Tom Gorzelanny to come back and Randy Wells to be outstanding again, and on Carlos Zambrano to get serious. That's a lot of wishcasting, so maybe a healthy Silva becomes part of the solution. As arguments go, it's sort of right there with wondering if Dave Otto would come out of the booth, because the alternatives involve despair, self-inflicted head trauma, and listening to the frothy Jeff Samardzija fanciers.

But three years of Byrd can be a good thing because... well, doesn't it sort of open up an opportunity for Sam Fuld? Byrd's been entirely flexible about moving to corners as needed, so on those now seemingly inevitable days off for Alfonso Soriano, Fuld can play center, and Byrd moves to left. Or say you want to sit Kosuke Fukudome? Enter Fuld, bump Byrd. Voila, you have acquired speed; figure out step two, and enjoy your profit. That almost works, except that it means passing on the salt when it comes to Fuld's performance record, and for a prospective regular, he makes a fine fifth outfielder. There's also the nagging fact that Byrd's platoon splits haven't suggested any need to spot him one way or another.

So what's left? Well, he's reunited with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Swell, everybody loves a buddy picture, but as Ken Funck pointed out yesterday, Jaramillo's wood-whisperer act didn't magically keep balls flying off of Byrd's bat away from the Ballpark. Well... he's fast, right? Sure, compared to Reed Johnson, and he doesn't even ask his socks to make that sale; he also stole just eight bases. Defense, surely he adds enough to fix matters on that score? Well, pick your poison, but UZR spits out a value of -9.5 across 150 games, while Clay Davenport's Fielding Runs suggests Byrd was nine runs below average in the equivalent of 100 games.

Which takes us to whether or not they added enough warm fuzzy points to make all of this work, which I very much doubt. Indeed, they would have been better off never parting ways with Felix Pie, but having pulled him out of the oven too soon, they deserved to be burned. We're now so far into this "good money after bad" rabbit hole that the basic problem is that Byrd is just the latest addition to Hendry's collection of liberally overcompensated Cubs outfielders. That Byrd's a more pleasant co-worker isn't really going to mean much in the standings, not nearly as much as bounce-backs from Zambrano and Geovany Soto, or Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Dempster, but he'll no doubt get some recrudescence of credit for just being there. But if it doesn't, Byrd's not going to make an iota of difference.

*: By amusing coincidence, I subsequently realized Gary Matthews Jr. slugged .419 in his first season as an Angel.


CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Re-signed OF-L Laynce Nix to a minor-league contract. [12/18]

As the Reds mull their keepers and discards from among last year's outfield crew, it's interesting to see how they've acted. Setting aside that they're stuck at present with Willy Taveras for another year at $4 million, and committed to Jay Bruce and presumably Drew Stubbs (both making around the minimum, per Cot's). Pace Chris Dickerson as the primary fourth outfielder type and/or possible starting left fielder, should Dusty Baker's brainbox get infected by aliens who worship Whitey Herzog.

Now, they might wind up with a job-sharing arrangement between Dickerson and Balentien, but they'll have Nix to consider as well. No, he'll never walk, nor should he be an everyday player, but lefty power's a nice thing to have around, and Nix can help you in the field, especially in either corner. To his credit, Nix's slugging wasn't just another Gap-inflated fiction, as he was bopping at a .502 clip against right-handers everywhere last season, and .531 on the road. Looking at his underlying rates, he's the definition of free-swinging, generating plenty of strikes of every type and flavor (swinging and foul strikes in particular), and popping out a lot more than is healthy.

Retaining Nix at this level makes good enough sense as a potential lefty bench bat with power who's playable at all three positions, with the key factor being that he's in camp on these terms, and you can let the rest of the roster help suggest whether or not you really want to make space for him on the 40-man. It's sort of similar to playing pre-arbitration hardball with Jonny Gomes when they've got Wladimir Balentien in play; that made complete sense, because how many right-handed power bats for the non-Bruce corner do you need kicking around on the roster? Gomes is a flawed player, Balentien's a flawed player, and Nix is a flawed player. They're not going to get opportunities anywhere and everywhere, because different abilities fit badly or better on different rosters, especially in the age where seven-man bullpens are seen as an unavoidable fact of life.

Now, on the other hand, if Walt Jocketty works up the nerve to sink the expense on Taveras, the Reds ought to wind up with a moderately more effective series of alternatives priced around the major-league minimum, which at least helps take the sting out of the expense. Deleting Taveras even conveniently creates the roster spot necessary to add Nix. Even then, it's not a great situation and far from a good outfield, but at least it's better relative to what they've got. They'd get to play mix and match with Dickerson, Nix, and Balentien, with Stubbs set up as the regular in center, and Bruce likewise squared away in right. Dickerson and Nix can both spot for Stubbs in center, so there isn't even that argument to protect Taveras.


MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Claudio Vargas to a one-year, $900,000 contract; signed RHP Kameron Loe and C-R Matt Treanor to minor-league contracts. [12/18]

There's stuff to like here, even considering the names involved. Treanor's attempting to come back from a season lost to a bone spur in his hip (plus a hernia injury), and will be contending with the likes of Gregg Zaun (regressed to backuppery via advanced age) and George Kottaras (perhaps prematurely decrepit), at least until the organization decides to invest faith in Angel Salome or picks a timetable for Jonathan Lucroy. It's one of the few situations around baseball where a journeyman like Treanor might break back through, simply because he's a good catch-and-throw guy on a team where neither of the "established" alternatives have that rep, and because nobody's an everyday player. Admittedly, I'd like to see Salome get taken seriously now, especially with Lucroy coming up from behind later, but it's yet to be determined whether the Brewers' bold talk about Salome's repeat engagement in Nashville is a locked-in certainty, or a motivational gambit.

As a similar bit of depth acquisition, retaining Vargas is a nice enough little move. He's more probably set to be a back in a relief role, but he is just a year removed from being a swingman option in the Mets' organization, and two years removed from starting 23 games for the Brew Crew. Not that he'd be a good starter, but remember, this is the franchise with the worst starting pitching in baseball, and you've got a rotation that's Wolf and Gallardo and cue Guy Lombardo (cuz the only thing that's going to help is three days of humming a few bars through whatever poundings get meted out to Jeff Suppan, David Bush, and Manny Parra). In the abstract, the pen isn't really short of good help, with Trevor Hoffman, LaTroy Hawkins, and Todd Coffey making a good late-game trio, Mitch Stetter around for situational glory, and Carlos Villanueva similarly poised on the swingman's edge. However, Vargas' career-long struggles with getting left-handed people out probably precludes him from being valuable against any but the worst lineups, or the Cubs, since this handedness thing is sneaky. Given that the Brewers don't have good starting pitching, a little bit of mix-and-match creativity couldn't hurt.


NEW YORK METS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Kelvim Escobar to a one-year, $1.25 million contract (base). [12/28]

The deal's apparently been made with the intention of making Escobar a reliever, and having him "fight" Bobby Parnell and Ryota Igarashi for the honor and glory of holding leads to hand off to K-Rod. That doesn't really sound like a fight, it sounds like spin: if Escobar's healthy, there's no real fight, and if he's not, then you bet there will be, but it'll be one he's sitting out. In the same way that Escobar's deal has more than $4 million extra socked away in incentives for games, games finished, and being available on Opening Day, the key is whether or not he's healthy. If he were healthy, you can easily see Escobar's repeating his run in the second half of 2005, when he came back from the elbow injury that shelved him much of the year to become a key part of the Angels' postseason pen.

The key word in that last sentence, of course, was "elbow," because Escobar's attempting to come back from a torn labrum this time around, and that's a dicier proposition. The Mets checked him out as he was pitching in winter ball in Venezuela, and saw enough to conjure up their creative bid, one where less than a quarter of the value is guaranteed. That seems about right, and the upside's clear, at least if you want to hold onto memories of Escobar's performance in 2005 (15 baserunners and 17 strikeouts in 19 relief innings). At this point, given that we're talking about a guy who's effectively missed all of the last two seasons, 2005 is as good a year as of any to hang onto as we wait to see what's left of his arm in camp.


PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed LHP Javier Lopez to a one-year, $775,000 contract. [12/21]

On his career, Lopez hasn't been all that special against lefties, at least not by LOOGY standards, holding his fellows to .247/.338/.350; it's nice, but not exactly the nuclear option. He was somewhat better than that in 2008, his last full season in the Red Sox pen (.182/.305/.282), but he wasn't dominating, striking out 19.8 percent of them while getting the benefit of a .217 BABIP. Take it back to 2007 or 2006, and he goes back to being a left-handed person who you can indeed use against lefties, but without acquiring some major advantage. Frank Sinatra may have romanticized Lady Luck, but I figure Rita Regression's more of a shrew, kibitzing about straightening out your line-drive rate before you meet the parents; Lopez ought to be strapped in for that date, even heading to the easier league. Given his history of adequacy, there's not much cause to expect better, and more recent reasons to expect less, what with his pitching his way out of the majors last spring.

The Pirates being the Pirates, they had to give this kind of talent a guaranteed contract to get him, this after he'd slipped through waivers less than seven months ago. Almost anywhere else, and Lopez may not get the gig, and might have to settle for a NRI, but as the designated left-handed person who pitches out of the pen on the 40-man, he's got to be feeling good about his chances. Without that consideration, there's little to no guarantee he'd beat out non-roster types Justin Thomas or Wil Ledezma for a bullpen job.

But wait, you say, there's another lefty on the 40-man who pitched in relief! True enough, last year's Rule 5 survivor, Donnie Veal, did pitch out of the pen when he wasn't spending the maximum amount of time possible knocking around the minors. But the charade of having him be a reliever or injured or hiding in a cupboard or wherever else they needed to stow him to avoid offering him back to the Cubs should be over, as they ran him out to the Arizona Fall League to start, a role they intend to leave him in. Since he cooks with mid-90s gas and the Pirates' mass acquisition of other people's mediocrities seems to involve more warmed-over varieties of prospect, the organization appears interested in leaving Veal be as a starter, especially now that they can safely assign him to Indianapolis.


WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Jason Marquis to a two-year, $15 million contract. [12/22]
Signed LHP Eddie Guardado to a minor-league contract. [12/26]
Signed 1B-L Josh Whitesell and UT-R Eric Bruntlett to minor-league contracts. [12/28]

Well, that is interesting: the man who's become known as the good-luck charm, having been on a playoff team (if not always a playoff roster) all 10 years of his big-league career, off and goes to a team whose likelihood of making it to the postseason perhaps only exceeds the odds of the Pirates, Royals, or Blue Jays making it. On the basis of the kind of year he's coming off of, the money doesn't seem like it was the sort of thing another team closer to contention might have been able to afford. No, this really looks like a case of Jason Marquis deciding he wanted to be a Washington National for a couple of seasons.

Is that a good thing? If you go by his performance record, you might think there's not a ton of cause to believe that he'll do anything like what he did with the Rockies last season. However, after his big first half, he settled back down into being Jason Marquis, and while that's not a tremendous asset or an old-school workhorse, he's still a pitcher with value. His Support-Neutral Winning Percentage last season settled down to .521, not great, but nestled between Barry Zito and Andy Pettitte at 50th among all hurlers with at least 100 IP last year. You might readily anticipate that his two seasons with the Cubs might make for a better guideline: an ERA in the 4.50-4.80 range, a SNWP around .480, at least 30 turns taken, and a little more power than Alberto Gonzalez at the plate. If that's all the Nats get, they may well be satisfied, since it would at least double their roughly average starters in rotation, providing John Lannan (.515) company, and of course pending whatever it is we're going to see from Stephen Strasburg.

Before we get too comfortable, however, let's consider a few things about Marquis' performance record:


Year GS   IP   SNWP  BABIP  GB/FB   K%   WARP2
2009 33  216   .521  .291    1.23  12.5   4.0
2008 38  167   .485  .289    0.90  12.3   2.3
2007 33  1912  .484  .274    1.05  12.9   0.2
2006 33  1941  .442  .292    0.76  11.0  -1.9
2005 32  207   .506  .268    1.10  11.5   0.7
2004 32  2011  .539  .302    1.22  15.8   1.9

Now, I admit, I'm being generous as far as stretching this all the way back to when Marquis was a Brave, because the book-ends formed by his first year as a Cardinal and his one-off with the Rockies are interesting, not least because they're very good years, but to provide a reminder that he's been able to generate high ground-ball rates in the past, and last year's spike, impressive as it was, wasn't the first time he's been able to generate grounders. Of course, pitching in front of Tony Womack and Edgar Renteria in 2004 is a bit different from pitching in front of Tulo and Clint Barmes, which is why I'm sort of intrigued by the idea of his pitching in front of an infield that will have Cristian Guzman moving over to second, and with Ryan Zimmerman at third, and perhaps Ian Desmond at short, or three guys who used to play short.

To some extent, he's always going to have to live down being the guy the Cardinals desperately avoided in the 2006 postseason, and the regular-season rotation regular the Cubs generally stayed away from using in October. He hasn't started a post-season game since 2004, when he lost Game Four of the World Series to the Red Sox, managing a quality start by allowing just three runs, but putting 11 men on base in his six innings. Maybe he responded to the challenge of being the veteran stalwart of the Rockies; maybe he didn't.

I'm doing a rosy-lens exercise here, but part of bringing Marquis to the Nats is that he's someone people in the organization are familiar with (not least Stan Kasten and AGM Roy Clark), and he's someone who grew up in the Braves organization working in the shadows of Maddux and Smoltz and Glavine. The professionalism that rotation of the ages had arguably rubbed off on Marquis, at least insofar as he's a good hitter and fielder, and like them, someone who's taken the other elements of his craft as a baseball player seriously. He's someone who's been coached by Leo Mazzone and Dave Duncan, for however much he has anything to communicate from those experiences. Maybe that's going to add up to a hell of a role model.

There's a big difference between pat assertions within the sabermetric community that "chemistry is (nonsense)," and the more basic, true suggestion that it just isn't something we can count. Bringing in a big-league veteran who has worked with some of the biggest names on some of the best teams to provide a working example of how to go about doing your job in the majors might be helpful. It might also be bogus, of course. But as a motivation from an organizational management perspective, finding that kind of guy when you've got a heterogenous mish-mash of unestablished journeyman and dodgy prospects and kids, well, I guess I just think that's relatively reasonable. It's just something where we may or may not ever know if Marquis plays that big a role, in the same way that we can't take public pronouncements at face value.

The rest of this doesn't matter, of course. So Whitesell washes up in an organization familiar with him, and that's swell, but I wouldn't bet that means much beyond a lot less Brad Eldred for the folks up in Syracuse. Guardado might stick as one of the two lefties in the pen, but there's not a lot of reason to prefer him to Doug Slaten, for example, beyond his being ex-famous Eddie Guardado. Bruntlett probably couldn't have chosen a worse organization for him, since the Nats already have a pair of roving utility players in Willie Harris and Mike Morse, and carrying more offense-oriented reserves, something Riggleman was inclined towards during his days as a Padres or Cubs skipper. Bruntlett's former ability at short won't nudge him ahead of Alberto Gonzalez either, so he's basically competing with Pete Orr for "first utility guy kept in case of bad stuff happening to other people," which technically isn't a position, or at least much of one. Case in point: if Ian Desmond doesn't win the job at short outright in camp, that creates opportunities for Bruntlett, and Orr, and maybe even Jerry Owens. See, that doesn't even remotely resemble good news, unless you're one of those three members of BOO.


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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