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January 20, 2010

On the Beat

Midweek Update

by John Perrotto

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Deciding to bid on Type-A free agents beyond those in the elite class always gives general managers reason for pause. Teams that sign Type-A free agents have to forfeit a premium pick in the amateur draft as compensation if that player has been offered salary arbitration by his former team. Teams that finish among the top 15 in the major leagues the previous season are forced to send their first-round pick to the player's previous club.

Jose Valverde fit that mold, as the closer was determined to be a Type-A free agent thanks to an archaic statistical formula devised by Elias Sports Bureau. So even though Valverde has twice led the National League in saves, he found himself still sitting on the free-agent market until Tuesday, when the Tigers signed him to a two-year, $14 million contract. That was far less than Valverde's reported original asking price of $30 million for three years.

"I wrestled with this decision for a while," Tigers CEO/president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We first made contact with Jose's agent before the holidays, but it's really tough to give up that first-round draft pick. I thought about it for a long time and decided to go ahead and do it. Jose is one of the premier closers in the game, and we are a team that needed a closer."

Ironically, what helped Dombrowski decide to become a serious suitor for Valverde was that the Tigers will receive two "sandwich" picks between the first and second rounds as compensation for losing their closer, Fernando Rodney, to the Angels in free agency this winter.

"Having the sandwich picks helps soften the blow of losing the first-rounder," Dombrowski said. "We can be very aggressive with both picks."

In other words, the Tigers can take the money they won't spend on a first-round pick and use it to sign their sandwich picks for bigger bonuses than Major League Baseball recommends under its often-ignored slotting system.

Signing Valverde and allowing Rodney to leave is a calculated risk by Dombrowski, though. Rodney provided 1 1/2 more victories to the Tigers than Valverde did to the Astros last season, as Rodney's 4.519 WXRL was seventh in the major leagues, while Valverde's 2.944 was 26th (although Valverde lost time to injury last season). Considering the Tigers went to a 163rd game last season and lost to the Twins in a playoff to determine the American League Central champion, every win counts. However, Valverde managed a 2.06 FRA during his shortened season, while Rodney's rate was 4.26.

Valverde also did not rank among the elite closers in terms of WXRL in 2008, as he was 26th that season, too, with a 2.813 mark, though he led the National League in saves for a second consecutive year by converting 44 of 51 opportunities. Valverde's 4.256 WXRL for the Diamondbacks did rank him 10th in 2007 when he topped the NL by nailing down 47 of 54 save chances.

Rodney became a full-time closer for the first time last season, as manager Jim Leyland quickly pulled the plug on Brandon Lyon as his primary ninth-inning pitcher after the right-hander blew his first save opportunity. Ironically, the Astros signed Lyon to replace Valverde as a free-agent last month for three years and $15 million. Rodney converted 37 of his 38 save chances in 2009, though he will be remembered for being the losing pitcher in the memorable AL Central playoff. The defeat capped a stunning collapse by the Tigers; they blew a seven-game lead in the final four weeks and became the first team to squander a three-game lead in the last four days of a season.

Though Valverde's WXRL has been far from spectacular for two years running, Dombrowski is convinced he is a better option than Rodney.

"We appreciate what Fernando did for us, and he had a really good season," Dombrowski said. "We just feel more comfortable with Jose in that role. He has done it longer and he has been very good at it. He's a premier guy. You don't always have a chance to sign a premier closer, and it also allows us to use the rest of our relievers in roles we feel more comfortable in them serving."

In particular, that means Ryan Perry, the Tigers' first-round draft pick in 2008, and oft-injured Joel Zumaya will be slotted as Valverde's set-up relievers.

"I like the way our bullpen sets up," Dombrowski said. "We have a chance to have a really solid pitching staff, and we'll have a good defense behind them."

The Tigers were fourth in the AL in runs allowed (4.57 a game) and fifth in Defensive Efficiency (.695) a year ago. Their big problem was scoring runs, as they were 11th in the league, averaging 4.56 a game. The Tigers have not only failed to add an established hitter to their lineup this winter, but they will have a younger look on Opening Day after trading center fielder Curtis Granderson (.266 EqA in 2009) to the Yankees and allowing second baseman Placido Polanco (.254) to jump to the Phillies as a free agent for three years and $18 million. Of course, considering the low EqAs that have left the lineup, plugging in a pair of rookies in second baseman Scott Sizemore and center fielder Austin Jackson might help matters.

"We need to hit better, but you always win with pitching and defense, and I feel our pitching and defense can be very good this season," Dombrowski said.

---

Pitching and defense does indeed continue to be all the rage. The Astros are hoping some P&D can lift them out of the doldrums after they went 74-88 last season, costing manager Cecil Cooper his job. The Astros weren't very good at anything last season besides discord, as Cooper seemed to alienate himself from every player on the roster. They were 11th in the National League in runs allowed (4.75 a game), 14th in runs scored (3.97 a game), and dead-last 16th in Defensive Efficiency (.676).

The Astros figure to struggle to score runs again this season after letting shortstop Miguel Tejada (.284 EqA and team-high 43.7 VORP) leave as a free agent. His replacement will be rookie shortstop Tommy Manzella, who figures to be a defensive upgrade, since Tejada should really be playing third base at this stage of his career. However, there are serious questions about whether Manzella can handle major-league pitching, as he had a .231 EqA at Triple-A Round Rock last season. Pedro Feliz, who had a woeful .241 EqA for the Phillies, was signed as a free agent to compete with Geoff Blum (.242) for the third baseman's job, and they could end up in a timeshare.

The Astros decided to instead bolster their pitching staff by signing three free agents, Brett Myers to join the starting rotation, and Lyon and Matt Lindstrom to work out of the bullpen. Myers pitched only 70 2/3 innings for the Phillies last season because of hip surgery. Lyon posted a 1.931 WXRL as Rodney's set-up man in Detroit, and Lindstrom had a 1.790 mark with the Marlins despite being limited to 47 1/3 innings because of shoulder soreness.

"When you're able to stay in games with pitching and defense, we may be able to put something together and score enough runs," said Brad Mills, who is set to make his major-league managerial debut this season.

That isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of his new team. Still, Mills remains hopeful that somehow he can work some magic and cobble together a contender out of his roster, telling the Houston Chronicle's Bernardo Fallas, "You look at this ballclub and there's a lot of talent in this ballclub, and that breeds excitement."

Astros GM Ed Wade is also sounding a hopeful tone before what could be his make-or-break season, noting, "We're going to need a collective effort, but we're going to be solid."

---

The Diamondbacks closed the books on one of the worst contracts in their history last weekend when they designated outfielder Eric Byrnes for assignment to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche. Byrnes had one year remaining on his three-year, $33 million contract and hurt the Diamondbacks to the tune of -0.2 WARP3 in the first two seasons of the deal.

Byrnes became a fan favorite during the Diamondbacks' improbable run to the 2007 NL West title, as he contributed a career-high 5.0 WARP3 while playing with his usual all-out flair. However, Byrnes' '07 proved to be an outlier, as he only topped 1.7 WARP3 in one other season, when he had 3.0 for the 2004 Athletics.

"He was a mainstay and a critical part of winning the division championship," Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick told the Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro. "The last two years clearly are forgettable in every way. I know fans have a memory for what happened most recently, and I think my view of it is, at least with Eric, I have a broader perspective. This contract clearly was a mistake and probably we'll make some more. It's part of the game. While you don't take a vote and say, 'Public opinion is saying the following, this is therefore what we must do,' but maybe in the future there are times when we'll be a little less identified with public opinion in this type of decision."

Tying so much money into an unproductive player has limited GM Josh Byrnes in trying to make the Diamondbacks better. What hurts even more is that the Diamondbacks were willing to trade outfielder Carlos Quentin to the White Sox after the 2007 season because he was blocked on the depth chart by Byrnes. Quentin emerged as an AL All-Star in 2008.

"Teams are either philosophically or economically more built to take bigger risks," Josh Byrnes said. "We're not. We have to take either proactive measures on contracts or medium-size risks. In the scope of baseball, this was probably a medium-size risk and it didn't work out, and it hurt us."

---

Wrigley Field, for all its history and supposed charm, is badly in need of the kind of makeover the Red Sox have given Fenway Park in recent years. That is scheduled to will happen in conjunction with the 100-year anniversary of ballpark in 2014, as the Cubs plan a complete renovation with a project called "Wrigley 20-14."

The biggest change would be building a large courtyard on the third-base side that would include concession areas and shops. Room would be made for the courtyard by knocking down the outer wall on that side of the park. The plan also calls for wider concourses and expanded restrooms. Construction would take place during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

"A lot of spots in the ballpark haven't been touched in years," Cubs president Crane Kenney said. "We put millions (of dollars) in every offseason just to keep it moving forward without really changing much. We have to be re-thinking long-term."

Meanwhile, the Cubs might be getting a new spring training home, as they are contemplating a move from Mesa, Ariz., to Naples, Fla., that would likely happen in 2012. The Cubs are seeking a new $80 million complex in Mesa, and Naples' officials have already vowed to meet those wishes. Furthermore, the new owners of the Cubs, the Ricketts family, own property in Naples.

The Cubs have long been the biggest drawing team in the Cactus League and would be the first team to leave Arizona for Florida since the Indians in 1993. Ironically, the Indians returned to Arizona last year when they opened a complex with Goodyear that they will begin sharing with the Reds next month.

"There is tradition (in Mesa), but there are plenty of examples where teams move not so much because it's a logical decision, but an emotional decision backed with facts that agree with their emotional decision," Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Robert Brinton told the Seattle Times' Larry Stone. "This is like a game itself. I'd say Mesa is in the bottom of the seventh and we're up a run. But I can't tell you who our reliever is or what's their batting order. Is Florida a threat? You'd better darn well think they are. If you don't, you'll find out the hard way."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Free agent Ben Sheets looked good in his workout at the University of Louisiana-Monroe on Tuesday, according to a scout who attended, as the right-hander's fastball reached 92 mph a year after he underwent elbow surgery. ... One of the highlights of the five-year contract between the umpires union and Major League Baseball is that the ridiculous stipulation that no ump could work in back-to-back World Series has been eliminated. The Blue Jays' payroll will be closer to $60 million than $80 million now that Roy Halladay has been traded. The Cubs and Yankees both have interest in free-agent outfielder Rocco Baldelli as a bench player. The Mariners are interested in signing free agent Fernando Tatis as a utilityman.

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

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