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January 24, 2010

Transaction Action

Brewing Up a Reunion and a New Royal

by Christina Kahrl

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KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed OF-L Rick Ankiel to a one-year, $2.75 million base contract, with a $6 million mutual option for 2011 ($500,000 buyout). [1/22]

To some people's way of thinking, this "crowds" the Royals' outfield picture, but I guess I look at it more as an instance of adding someone who can probably handle center field better than Scott Podsednik or David DeJesus, the other likelies on the list of likelies as far as ghastly "best options" among the Royals' outfield and DH choices. The good news is that Ankiel's probably better suited for center than the weak-armed alternatives, who should flank him, with Jose Guillen best stranded at DH if he isn't released outright, which may not buy them back the major-league minimum, given how Guillen's run through so many big-league employers has come with the concomitant burning of bridges almost every time out. Brian Anderson might remain a nice right-handed alternative to Ankiel, caddying for him as a defensive replacement when he isn't being spotted against tougher lefties. We might also chuck Willie Bloomquist and Mitch Maier onto this litany of people described as baseball professionals occasionally found in major-league outfields. A multitude might at least involve "depth," but it doesn't quite add up to a quality outfield.

Setting aside the innumerable and inadequate numbered among the punchless possibilities here, there's a lot of risk involved with employing Ankiel, given his still brief career as a hitter. That said, the Royals should be invested in a few more risks on the big-league level, since unhappy results aren't really going to matter much when the annual question's over whether or not the team finishes fourth or fifth in the division, whereas a risk with upside might actually provide an answer towards something really exotic.* Ankiel's ugly 2009 season has injuries to provide an explanation, with his ratio of homers on all fly balls getting cut almost in half from 2008, that at the same time that his pitches per plate appearance dropped from 3.82 to 3.52. There's a lot of stuff we can identify as symptomatic here, without a lot of certainty over what it's symptomatic of. Was it last season's injuries? Or his struggling in a second-half bench role? Or big-league pitchers adapting to an odd talent still shy of having all that much experience as a pro hitter?

Given how Ankiel's career is somewhat unusual from the get-go, I'd argue against anyone's being guaranteed they know the answer, but for a relatively cheap deal, it's worth the Royals' time to find out. If the player who's managed an ISO north of .200 against big-league right-handers shows up, the Royals might have a bargain on their hands, one they can control into 2011. If that slugger doesn't show up, then it's not like they'll be taking a financial bath to excuse him after the season. Credit Dayton Moore for taking a chance. In the most powder-blue blue-sky scenario, Ankiel and Alex Gordon might give the Royals a lovely pair of lefty power sources to wrap around Billy Butler in the heart of the order; it certainly beats wishcasts based on the glowering Guillen and Jason Kendall and Podzilla and Yuniesky Betancourt.

*: Exotic yet achievable would be something like third place, which they've managed twice in 14 years; the Royals have never reached second place in the AL Central in a fully played season schedule, a standard for irrelevant success that even the Pirates have managed to do over in the NL Central once in that same span of time (in 1997).


TEXAS RANGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Elizardo Ramirez and C-R Toby Hall to minor-league contracts. [1/22]

CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Jose Arredondo to a minor-league contract. [1/22]

Arredondo's going to have TJS, so this is really a matter of doing the flamethrower a favor, preliminary to seeing if he's willing to stick around and be a Red in 2011 as sort of an eventual, Trotskyist sort of eventual international tag-along to help in the permanent struggle for NL Central domination.


HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed C-R Kevin Cash to a minor-league contract. [1/22]
Agreed to terms with RF-R Hunter Pence on a one-year, $3.5 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/23]


MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed LHP Doug Davis to a one-year, $4.25 million base contract, with a $6.5 million mutual option ($1 million buyout) [1/22]

When in doubt, it can make sense to go back to your roots. Davis was seen as an uncoachable ditch-worthy southpaw before the Brewers picked him up in 2003, but given that the decision-making involved was by John Hart's Rangers and J.P. Ricciardi's Jays, you can credit the Brewers' Doug Melvin for properly recalling the Davis he'd drafted for the Rangers in 1996, and taking a chance. Davis took the opportunity and promptly fulfilled that trust in 2003, and then three full seasons involving 103 starts and 7.4 WARP later, they decided that his three-year pattern of steadily declining performance plus his final spin with arbitration eligibility was cause enough to flip him after 2006 to the Snakes with Dana Eveland and Dave Krynzel for Claudio Vargas, Greg Aquino, and Johnny Estrada. (No, not all Melvin moves have happy endings.) While his ability to handle a workload has withstood even a cancer scare in 2008, Davis' production has bounced around despite his seeming reliability:


Year GS  QS+  BF/S UBB/9  K/9   FRA  SNLVAR
2004 34  26   25.9  3.3   7.2  3.61   6.5
2005 35  23   27.0  3.6   8.4  4.14   5.0
2006 34  19   26.6  4.5   7.0  5.43   3.0
2007 33  18   26.1  4.1   6.7  4.76   4.0
2008 26  14   25.0  3.7   6.9  4.66   2.9
2009 34  22   26.1  4.5   6.5  4.34   4.2

QS+: Quality starts using runs not earned runs, and only through the first six IP

So, looking at that, you can see a few interesting components to his performance. His strikeout rate's been below MLB-average for the last four seasons, but not too far below it, even as it's decayed slowly over time. Credit Melvin for trading Davis at what seemed like a propitious moment, after that ugly 2006 season, and with an arbitration case in the offing, but to give Davis some due, that was a team with a ghastly pen (that was the year Derrick Turnbow cratered), and with a defense that featured Bill Hall at shortstop, and thirtysomething Brady Clark in center between Geoff Jenkins and Carlos Lee; the Brew Crew finished 22nd in PADE that season.) Credit Davis with bouncing back and continuing to handle a steady workload, and for producing his best season since 2005 last year.

It's an amusing coincidence to note that he's coming back to Beer Town after his second 100-walk season, when the first one helped herald his departure (the two years when his UBB rate jumped to 4.5 per nine), and that his strikeout rate has dropped since the first time around. But where you might consider this symptomatic of wildness, it's more a matter of Davis' active unwillingness to put cookies on the plate, whatever the count: he's going to paint around the edges of any target, fishing for strikes, called or swung at. If he doesn't induce a swing or get a GlavineZoneTM call, he'll give up the free base and take his chances with the next guy. That can put pressure on a defense, of course.

Sifting through the underlying numbers noise for the odd nugget, you get a good dose of noise. If you want to scare yourself, it's worth noting that last season was the first in four that Davis has seen his BABIP get down to league average. On the other hand, last year was also a bad year for his generating infield flies, and you might expect that number to come back around a little. As a fly-ball pitcher coming to Miller Park, he should be better off than he was in Phoenix's Bob-less BOB, and the Brewers' defense shouldn't be that much of a dropoff from last season's glovely Snakeskin support, considering the new Brew involves Alcides Escobar at short and Carlos Gomez in center. While his strikeout rate's dropping, it's still a good strikeout and a half above where Jeff Suppan's rate was before Melvin made his big multi-year mistake on that front.

So, totting all of that up, was this a good idea? Of course it was if you use past examples like Suppan as the standard in play. The money's modest enough, and it's packaged with an equally modest option, where they either get Davis for one year at $5.25 million or for two years at $10.75 million, which seem like equally reasonable propositions in this market. Lining up Davis behind Randy Wolf and Yovani Gallardo more closely resembles a contender's rotation, and has the added benefit of pushing Suppan, David Bush, and Manny Parra into three-headed pile of incumbents competing with the likes of Chris Narveson and a comebacking Chris Capuano in a big, coagulating pile of possibilities for the last two slots in the rotation. Sabermetrically minded bemoaning of letting spring training results dictate jobs, looking at that mess for the last two slots, is there a better idea? Well, OK, eating Suppan's deal would probably at least increase the likelihood of landing on two right answers, but that's going to cost $14.5 million to kiss him off.


SAN DIEGO PADRES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed PH-L Matt Stairs to a minor-league contract. [1/23]

The point's been made that the Wonder Hamster's gotten his weight down to its lowest point going almost all the way back to his days when he was giving second and third base his best shot as a farmhand in the Expos' system, but I'm not about to sign onto any campaign to start referring to him as the Wonder Weasel. If Stairs makes the team, it'll make for a particularly good pair of pinch-hitting options on Bud Black's bench: the TTO-oriented Stairs, and the more contact-with-pop production they can get from Oscar Salazar. Add in their pair of Hairstons and a backup catcher (probably Dusty Ryan), and that's not a bad little bunch of options from the bench, at least in the abstract. If anything, it's another echo of the extent to which the Pad people take themselves seriously headed in the 2010 season.

But does even a slenderized Stairs have all that much left to offer? In Petco, it's a bit dubious, as Stairs is really more of a pinch-walk threat than a hitter likely to deliver that much in terms of power as a fly-ball hitter in a ballpark that's about as kind to flying things as Slaver sunflowers. Can that have value? Of course it can, and maybe some spring in his step will lead to the occasional single; last year, he managed just 11 single-base safeties against 23 walks.

For the curious, where do Stairs' 53 career pinch-hit walks rank on the all-time pinch-hit walk leaderboard? Not very high among the ranks of those we can tabulate from the Retrosheet era, as it turns out, as he ranks behind an active colleague (Greg Norton), as well as behind the father of two of his prospective teammates, Hairston pere, knotted up in a three-way tie for 27th place with Matt Franco and Ron Fairly:

Rk PH BB  PH PA   Hitter
 1  117     733   Greg Gross
 2  104     703   Dave Hansen
 3   99     799   Mark Sweeney
 4   87     624   John Vander Wal
 5   72     489   Greg Norton
 6t  70     482   Steve Braun
 6t  70     502   Smoky Burgess
 6t  70     500   Gates Brown
 9   69     374   Elmer Valo
10   68     468   John Cangelosi
11t  67     421   Dave Magadan
11t  67     501   Jim Dwyer
11t  67     415   Lee Mazzilli
14   65     419   Dave Bergman
15   64     429   Gerald Perry
16t  63     494   Terry Crowley
16t  63     884   Lenny Harris
18   62     454   Tim McCarver
19   61     588   Manny Mota
20t  59     434   Jerry Hairston Sr.
20t  59     305   Merv Rettenmund
20t  59     423   Mike Jorgensen
20t  59     343   Cliff Johnson
24   58     283   Don Mincher
25   57     334   Oscar Gamble
26   54     420   Tito Francona
27t  53     387   Matt Stairs
27t  53     353   Ron Fairly
27t  53     399   Matt Franco

It's a goofy-fun list of players. Some of the names are unsurprising: Many Mota and Lenny Harris, of course, since this is where they made their careers, but also Gates Brown and Smoky Burgess. Greg Gross was perhaps the paragon of pinch-hitting greatness of the '80s, so naturally he belongs atop this sort of list. But how soon we forget John Vander Wal, Dave Hansen, and Mark Sweeney, let alone Norton. And where else do we get to say kind words about Matt Franco these days? Who remembers this feature of Tim McCarver's career? The other thing to consider is how many of these guys wound up as hitting coaches or hitting instructors of one sort or another. Of course, to some extent, there's going to be a big crossover in this kind of list and the number of people who become baseball lifers: if you're willing to put in the time as a bench player to wind up on this kind of list, chances are you're one of the self-selecting group willing to work for modest pay in the minors, player development, and coaching.


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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