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February 2, 2010

Transaction Action

Thome, Taveras, and 10,000

by Christina Kahrl

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Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Agreed to terms with LHP Joe Saunders on a one-year, $3.7-million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/1]

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed DH-L Jim Thome to a one-year, $1.5 million base contract; noted the loss of UT-R Steve Tolleson on a waiver claim by Oakland. [2/1]

There are all sorts of reasons to love the decision to sign Thome, not least because of Ron Gardenhire's willingness to suggest that Thome's going to play, even if he isn't necessarily guaranteed an everyday job. There is, of course, the intradivisional element, because it makes for a clean meritocracy: performance should equal playing time. For a Twins team gunning for another division title while confronted by strong challenges from the White Sox and Tigers, skipping scrimping on that last extra bat makes for a nice change of pace from a playoff bid nearly blown last year on letting Jose Morales and Brendan Harris get DH at-bats down the stretch. We don't know how Target Field will play, and we don't know what Thome will do beyond a couple of seemingly predictable elements: he'll walk in at least 15 percent of his plate appearances, and crank out an ISO above .200, especially if he doesn't have to log many at-bats against lefties.*

There are three ways to interpret the addition of Thome, but only two of them are practical. The first is that you see Thome as a regular DH, and that this propels Jason Kubel into a more regular role in the outfield corners. That might be so, but Kubel in a corner leads to one of two decisions. The first, unrealistic option would be that they move Michael Cuddyer out of the outfield. Although Cuddyer was initially a shortstop and later on gave second and third base his best shot, he hasn't played second since 2004 or much third since 2005. While this would be a lovely way to resolve the need for a better major-league answer at either position, adding Thome doesn't spare Twins fans the joyless rooting around choices between Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Alexi Casilla, and Matt Tolbert. Even the eventual arrival of Danny Valencia doesn't help this matter all that much: Valencia has to hit right-handed pitching with a bit more authority to make up for the fact that he's an impatient hacker without a lot of defensive value. He might graduate to in-season patch, but he's not a top prospect or a guaranteed solution. So Thome doesn't fix the infield, least of all because he has eight innings' worth of defensive experience in the last three seasons, and those were in 2007 in a single spot start at first base.

So, starting Thome involves his playing at the expense of one of the outfielders. That's that Kubel plays the outfield and someone else sits. It won't be Cuddyer, not after his multi-year extension got inked before the 2008 season, and not in light of Cuddyer's production since. And it won't be Denard Span, because neither Kubel or Cuddyer can play center, any more than the starting left fielder: Delmon Young. Signing Thome isn't a challenge to Kubel or a threat to anyone-except to Young, demanding that he start producing or start losing at-bats to an eventual Hall of Famer. That might seem like a lot to ask of a presumptive future All-Star heading into just his age-24 season, but last year's modest power boost came in train with walk and strikeout rates both headed in the wrong direction, and left fielders who slug under .400 against right-handers while doing nothing else and contributing lousy glove work to the general cause don't have long careers. If challenging Young with a direct threat to his playing time gets him towards becoming the sort of hitter who delivers 190-200 hits per season, that's great. If it doesn't, adding Thome's the most recent bit of punctuation an increasingly sorry-looking sentence about Young's debilitating non-development in the majors.

The third option is that Thome starts at DH once or twice a week (against rough right-handers, sparing Young), and pinch-hits a good bit for the second and third basemen, whoever they may be (and Young, of course). That could work out nicely enough, because even while Gardenhire pinch-hit a lot less last season than in previous campaigns, he also had less to work with as far as what to pinch-hit with, if plenty of options as far as deciding who to pinch-hit for. The 2010 Twins will have J.J. Hardy at short and Denard Span locked in for center-field duties early on, so the possibilities for who Thome can pinch-hit for are much fewer than last year's list would have been. Thome still has considerable value as injury insurance (especially for Justin Morneau or Kubel) as well as performance insurance for Young's ongoing suckitude, especially at this price, and especially at this particular moment in the market, while the White Sox have committed just as much guaranteed money to Mark Kotsay to be a nice guy and an additional roster spot for slightly more than the minimum to Andruw Jones on the suggestion that there isn't a fork sticking out of some part of him to let people know he's done.

The interesting bit to speculate about is what a left-leaning lineup with Thome playing a more significant part might mean for the team in terms of its southpaw production. Last year's Twins team delivered 251 extra-base hits from men batting lefty and a .158 ISO. That's not all that special; the 2009 Yankees set a Retrosheet-correct record since 1974 with 397 lefty-smacked extra-bag safeties, so it's not simply a matter of getting lefty at-bats, it's about get good left-handed at-bats: Matt Tolbert, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla and the like all contribute-feebly. With a lineup counting on Span from the get-go with presumable full seasons from Morneau and Joe Mauer, plus Kubel and Thome (and Punto, Casilla, Tolbert, and assorted left-finned piranhas and unnamed voles), the 2010 Twins might be better positioned to take a shot at the franchise records for lefty extra-base hits (329, set in 2001) and lefty batter ISO (.173, set by the 2004 Twins). To gun for the 2009 Yankees team XBH mark for left-handed hitters would be a bit much, since that number far outstrips their closest competitors, the 1996 Orioles (351, and thank you, Brady Anderson) and the 2001 Rockies (350). The ISO team marks lower the '09 Yankees down out of the top 10, but they're still in the running, and the Twins still would have to deliver more than a wee bit to get anywhere close:

Rank Year Team      LHB ISO
 1   1994 Mariners    .255
 2   2001 Giants      .247
 3   2000 Blue Jays   .232
 4   1997 Mariners    .230
 5   2006 Astros      .227
 6t  1999 Blue Jays   .223
 6t  2004 Phillies    .223
 8t  2001 Astros      .220
 8t  2006 Indians     .220
10   2004 Astros      .218
11   1996 Orioles     .217
12t  2009 Yankees     .215
12t  2005 Reds        .215

Only one right-handed unit of hitters would have cracked this list as a point of comparison: the 1996 Rangers (.215). Allowing for the fact that these teams from 1974 to the present generally didn't amount to much, the 2009 Yankees notwithstanding, lefty power isn't necessarily predictive up here at the extremes, but I found this interesting enough. While this is an entirely silly and artificial target, it's interesting to note and worth wondering about in the meantime, as we fritter away time wondering how Target Field may or may not play, and what playing in Minnesota's April and September chills will mean for old timers like Thome or younger players from warmer climes.

*: His 2008 rates against southpaws were tasty, but also in great part fueled by his hitting three homers off of CC Sabathia that year. On his career, Thome doesn't really own Sabathia: he has four hits off of the hefty lefty, all bombs, in 30 PAs. He also has two walks and 14 strikeouts, so if it wasn't for that three-homer spin, it wouldn't exactly be a very interesting proposition. While this is so much fun in situational mayhem, it's a reminder to take long-view looks at splits against southpaws, which get tweaked by single-season oddities. Thome's chief value will be against right-handed pitching, but he knows what to do with the occasional cookie from the left-handed; need we say more?

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Michael Wuertz to a two-year, $5-million contract, with a $3.25-million club option for 2012 ($250,000 buyout), and avoiding arbitration. [1/29]
Signed OF-L Gabe Gross to a one-year, $750,000 contract; traded INF-S Aaron Miles and a PTBNL to the Reds for CF-R Willy Taveras and INF-R Adam Rosales; claimed UT-R Steve Tolleson off waivers from the Twins; designated Taveras, LHP Dana Eveland, and INF-R Gregorio Petit for assignment. [2/1]

As far as the trade, the best player in this deal is probably the one who hasn't been named yet, because really, could he be any worse than the principals? This might be the rare instance where everybody involved in the deal gets cut before he can do anything to hurt his employer, and the loser, at least on the diamond, could be whoever plays their guy(s) the most.

The financial trivia's going to take time to untangle. Miles is due $2.7 million in terms of how much he was going to make, which the A's were on the hook for $1.7 million of; the Cubs were agreeably paying $1 million as part of the price for their participation in the deal that put Jake Fox in green and gold. Taveras was due $4 million, but some portion of that can be expected to come from the Reds' coffers, assuming the entire point of the exercise isn't to boost A's payroll past some threshold at which it no longer offends the union. Miles, Taveras, and the IRS won't really care, and I'm not sure how much we should. Perhaps there's a state-level bureaucrat exulting over what this may or may not mean for California's tax revenue over Ohio's. Or not, but let's face it, the money aspect of the deal is both the most important part and the least worthy of comment in this transient exchange of worthlessness. Maybe somebody will grab Taveras to employ him at the minimum, changing the financial calculus slightly, but the only people who need to really worry are the season ticket-holders who made their purchases innocent of the threat that they might have to see Taveras playing for their hometown nine. Well, them, and everyone who's wondering about their Hacking Mass squad for 2010.

For the player more tangibly an Athletic for however long, Rosales' chief virtue is that he has options. He's a probable offensive upgrade on Miles or Petit as far as utility infielders go, what with PECOTA's seeming case of mild optimism with a projected EqA in the .250s, plus some modest value as a baserunner. However, his limited experience at second base and the glove work at short that got him moved to the infield corners three years ago merely combine to suggest that he's a choice, but not an especially good one if you're looking for somebody who can really handle second or short for any extended length of time. Rosales' chief rival for a job on the big-league bench may have just been claimed from waivers. Tolleson has gotten considerable experience at second and short with the Twins' organization during his slow climb through their system, but he lacks the range and has been too error-prone to stick at short, which was already tipping him into a utilityman's career path as he reached Triple-A, and with a walk rate headed backwards since his 2007 season. He's added a little power with age, but since he's just six months younger than Rosales, it isn't like he's really an up-and-coming youngster. The most you can say for any of these guys, a list to which you can add non-roster speedster Cory Wimberly, is that some combination of playability and making a nice impression in camp (in and away from game action) will decide who sticks, because there can be only one, perhaps even after Eric Chavez breaks again.

As for the decision to sign Gross, his primary virtues are a measure of patience and some value in right field. It would be too easy to overstate either virtue, but having flopped as badly as he did last year, he's merited only this sort of investment. It's also important to note he's turned 30 and struggles to make good contact. He hasn't hit for much average in the last three seasons; if he provided much power, he'd be more than a bench player, and he might contribute a bit more sock than last season, if only as a matter of a slight recovery in his rate of HR/FB ratio. He might make a nice platoon alternative for Rajai Davis in left field; maybe Ryan Sweeney moves over and Gross takes right field, and maybe not. Assertions that Gross has experience and success in a reserve or part-time role would be only partially true, in light of his struggle to deliver last year, or within the range of average offensive performance for a corner outfielder since 2006. He's an employment-worthy bench player at this price, but he's also just another in the A's ramshackle assemblage of bad bets for outfield offense, and not really a great bet to outhit Travis Buck, let alone Eric Patterson. If the goal is to wind up with an interchangeable collection that allows Bob Geren to swap in anybody at will while never running out of people who can play center in a pinch, that's swell, but it's very much looking as if they're symptomatic of an offense whose low wattage is as much a matter of inability as star power, at least until Chris Carter or Michael Taylor are ready.

No doubt someone might complain if I abstained from commenting on the Wuertz deal, but I'd merely chime in with my happiness to see him getting a just reward. While he's perhaps being overly rewarded for a career-best season, he's been an effective reliever in four of the last five years, and he's been durable enough to handle 62 or more appearances in the last six campaigns (majors and minors combined). As much as predicting how any middle reliever is going to do from one year to the next can be an exercise in wishcasting, Wuertz seems to have graduated to a list of the very few who can deliver regularly. While he's shy of cracking the top 20 lists for WXRL and ARP performers encompassing the last five years, he's 56th in total WXRL over that span at 6.60 (Chad Cordero's 20th at 12.03), and 26th in ARP with 51.08, the top 20 of which comprise:

 ARP    Pitcher
128.76  Mariano Rivera
121.47  Joe Nathan
102.67  Jonathan Papelbon
 80.04  J.J. Putz
 75.32  Matt Guerrier
 70.95  Chad Qualls
 70.93  Takashi Saito
 70.12  Francisco Rodriguez
 69.42  Rafael Betancourt
 68.40  Huston Street
 66.49  Carlos Marmol
 63.23  Jonathan Broxton
 62.96  Billy Wagner
 60.97  Heath Bell
 60.36  Bob Howry
 60.29  Joakim Soria
 59.22  Russ Springer
 59.01  Trevor Hoffman
 58.92  Scot Shields
 58.69  Bobby Jenks

Now, maybe it's just me, but given that Wuertz has been durable and relatively effective, as much as you want to zero in on any non-star relief stalwart, it would seem that getting Wuertz lined up for a multi-year commitment seems more than a bit reasonable.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed OF-R Eric Byrnes to a one-year contract; designated 1B/3B-R Tommy Everidge for assignment. [1/29]
Signed 1B-R Ryan Garko to a one-year, $550,000 base contract; designated RHP Gaby Hernandez for assignment. [2/1]

Not a bad pair of low-end, low-cost pickups, although in each instance there isn't exactly a ton of upside. The interesting question now is whether or not the Mariners have exploited the current market to assemble a pair of potentially effective platoons, and at offense-oriented positions: left field, and first base.

The Byrnes deal is for the minimum, so one way of looking at this is that, like Milton Bradley, he's really just another person costing the Mariners effectively nothing relative to what they were already stuck with as far as financial commitments. Adding Bradley's cost them $5 million more than was already sunk on Carlos Silva over the next two years, where adding Byrnes' pickp is completely payroll neutral, in that somebody's going to make that money if they're on the roster. As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, if Byrnes is healthy he might provide a nice blend of pop and speed for a fourth outfielder, and presumably he'll never be tasked with playing much center field as long as he gets to have Franklin Gutierrez as a teammate. He may be done, but there's no real expense in looking at him; the danger is if he plays and plays badly, but here again, the absence of expense and the intelligence of the people taking the chance on him suggests that if he looks cooked, they won't leave him him out there to burn them. Some combination of Michael Saunders and Ryan Langerhans from the left side plus Byrnes from the right could turn into a useful platoon, with Milton Bradley mostly manning DH, and Ken Griffey Jr. parked in a well-compensated bit of cheerleading or being the Sunday starter in home games. Byrnes feels he can earn a larger share of the job, but what would you expect him to say? He's getting an opportunity to prove he can still play; if he runs with it, more power to him, but no matter how much he shows, I doubt he'll squeeze out Saunders for any great length of time once Saunders looks ready to stick, whether that's in camp or at the early going for Tacoma.

An even tastier fun little move was grabbing Garko at this stage and at this price. The General was never a great starter at first base, really only representing a placeholder in Cleveland until something better came along or once he started to get arbitrationally overcompensated. Now free to make less on the market, he still has his uses as a platoon option, having hit lefties at a .313/.392/.495 clip on his career (against .266/.335/.420 against right-handers). Paired up with Casey Kotchman, the Mariners get the benefit of two guys who aren't really expensive, who might produce effectively in a tandem, and who give the club more value than just what they do at the plate: Kotchman's an excellent defender, while Garko can lumber around in an outfield corner when ordered to.

In the era of seven-man pens, that's the sort of thing a team needs from its platoon components if it's going to build them. Even so, the Mariners might end up with "just" six relievers. The rest of the lineup beyond first base and left field boasts six everyday players, but that doesn't automatically mean that they have the space to afford a pair of platoons: they'll carry two catchers, of course and they're stuck with the early commitment to Griffey, but that gets you to nine bodies, plus Garkotchman at first and Saunderbyrnes in left puts you at 13, and you haven't picked a utility infielder yet. Cutting Byrnes if Saunders wins the everyday job in left would be one solution; a Griffey retirement would be another. Since Garko's not making all that much more than Byrnes, it isn't inconceivable that they could cut him if they don't like what they see from him in camp. Or they could wind up with a six-man pen, and just place their faith in the Tacoma shuttle to keep them in pitchers, which wouldn't be the worst way of exploiting what's already a logistical advantage.

If nothing else, it should make for a very interesting camp, because if the Mariners do buck contemporary trends and go with five position-playing reserves and employ a pair of platoons, it would make for just another reason to doff our collective caps to Jack Zduriencik and company, for turning back the clock not just from the relatively dull recent past as far as major trades, but also by resorting to an old favorite gambit to fix a pair of prospective lineup problems. I figure it's more likely that we'll see a seven-man pen after all, with Byrnes or Garko getting cut, but as an interesting on-paper possibility as we near pitchers and catchers, it's just another reason to take note of what's going on in Seattle.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed INF-R Miguel Cairo to a minor-league contract. [1/27]
Acquired INF-S Aaron Miles and a PTBNL from the Athletics for CF-R Willy Taveras and INF-R Adam Rosales; signed SS-R Orlando Cabrera to a one-year, $3-million contract, with a $3-million club option for 2011 ($1-million buyout). [2/1]

I'm more than a little impressed by Walt Jocketty's machinating this turn of events. If the club was purportedly close to being tapped out financially after the decision to re-up Ramon Hernandez, you can consider the decision to somehow magically make Taveras go away as a minor miracle that gave the club financial flexibility while also buying back a roster spot. They might be stuck with Miles as their utility infielder, but since a roster spot has to go to one (Rosales, presumably), and since they were likely stuck with one wasted on Taveras, they got one bench slot back while absorbing the "hit" of switching from Rosales to Miles for their utility infielder.

The money seems to have been perfectly well-spent for a team that had one obvious hole in the lineup. Adding an employable fill-in at shortstop really was where they had no realistic alternatives if contention in 2010 was also supposed to be part of the program. The minimum expectation is that adding Cabrera over Janish might make for a win's worth of difference; evaluate Cabrera's fielding more charitably than FRAA does, allow for his coming to the weaker league and a hitter's haven, and maybe it's a two-win pickup. Admittedly, this is as much a matter of Janish's uselessness at the plate as it represents an endorsement of Cabrera, but Cabrera's not one of the slappy shortstops. Not that he's Cal Ripken, but he is a guy who can deliver power, where getting 35 doubles and 15 homers isn't all that unlikely. Sure, that's a function of playing time in a hitter-friendly environment, but as Janish reflects, not every person who can play shortstop effectively can also provide some measure of power against major-league pitching. The Reds might pick up 25 extra-base hits alone on this move. A cynic might note that it would have taken a player of Cabrera's reputation and experience to wean Dusty Baker from his endorsements of Janish, but to give Baker some credit, what was the skipper supposed to say during off-season interviews? His job in such situations isn't to be entirely honest as much as he's supposed to endorse his players' possibilities. There's no point in playing 'gotcha' here; the man now has a starting shortstop, and however many quotes were expended on Janish's behalf can go onto some other kind of spread sheet tabulating OMB (Organizational Mandatory Blarney) or HMO (Honestly Mistaken Opinions).

The roster spot gained back looks like it'll produce a similarly worthwhile investment. Beyond the obvious endorsement of Drew Stubbs as the team's center fielder (already a foregone conclusion), it also helps open up the spread of potential playing time in the outfield. If he isn't playing in left, Chris Dickerson should get the spot starts in center without Taveras getting in the way. Left field might be Wladimir Balentien's to win, but Dickerson could be an OBP source from that slot. The worst-case scenario might involve Laynce Nix playing his way back into that mix as a non-roster invite. There's also the suggestion that Jonny Gomes would be willing to take a deal to return, but with left field manned by "Staff," there's also the possibility that the position becomes the designated outlet for Todd Frazier if he hits his way into Dusty Baker's good graces.

Cabrera and Ramon Hernandez may be the lineup's worst regulars, and while that isn't great, it also isn't necessarily crippling. The Reds may be an iffy sort of contender, but the NL Central's only boasts that kind. This wasn't rocket science or genius, it was simply a good bit of roster tweaking. The extent to which the expense was only possible in conjunction with the Taveras deal doesn't forgive Jocketty the mistake of making that pickup in the first place, but at least the GM didn't sink a second season out of stubborness.


Before starting to endure some pretty severe computer problems on Friday, I'd meant to make a big deal out of the 10,000th article published on Baseball Prospectus. That happened over this past weekend, and while this article's numbered the 10,000th in some small recognition of BP's longest-running feature, Transaction Analysis has been just one small element of what has given Baseball Prospectus enduring value to readers and joy to write over the years. I'm certainly grateful to all of you as we move into our 15th year, but I'm also grateful for the opportunity to work with so many great sabermetricians, old and new, and to have edited or read so many exceptional articles and regular columns over the years. To Clay and Gary and Joe and Rany and Dave, to Kevin and Jay and Steven and Keith and Will, to Michael and Jeff and Dan and Marc and Derek, to Dan and James, to Eric and Ken and Russell and Matt and Colin, and to so many others, here's to us, and here's to everyone in the audience. It's a great ride, then and now.

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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