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January 4, 2011
AL East Activity
Traded RHPs Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson to the Twins for SS-R J.J. Hardy, INF-R Brendan Harris, and $$-¢¢ Stacks O'Cash. [12/9]
With the addition of Lee, that makes for three new infield regulars around Brian Roberts, as well as a commitment to put Luke Scott back at DH, all the better to distract Buck Showalter with his interesting interpretation of history and current events. It adds up to a fairly interesting Orioles lineup by patching up their three worst offensive positions last year. Trading for Mark Reynolds last month should already fix third base: last year, Orioles third basemen produced a .232 True Average, and Reynolds was at .267 in a bad year for him. At first base, the Birds received a ghastly collective .220 TAv last year; even if you don't extend Lee full faith and credit for his .308 TAv at the tail end of the year with the Braves once he was fully healthy, he'll be an improvement on that. And compared to the last year's .188 TAv from Orioles shortstops, Hardy's .262 TAv with the Twins looks positively Ripkenesque.
None of them may be significantly better than the MLB-wide positional average, but they're so much better than what the O's were stuck with last season that you're already looking at a possible cumulative six-win boost on offense; that's a bit conservative, if anything. What happens if Adam Jones or Nick Markakis or Matt Wieters bust out as well, given the benefit of a big league-caliber supporting cast? The makings of a turnaround Buck Showalter is sure to get and perhaps deserve a big part of the credit for, but it's important to note that they haven't had to surrender that much talent. Getting Reynolds was more expensive in terms of talent than Hardy was-just two organizational arms. They are only getting the one year of Hardy before he hits free agency, and they had to absorb more than two-thirds of the cost of employing one of the Twins' mistakes, paying $1.25 million but getting the other $500,000 from Minnesota.
That's without getting into the defensive benefits this infield makeover ought to accrue, even if defense doesn't seem like the sort of thing that pops right out of the organizational Easy Bake Oven with off-the-shelf ingredients. Admittedly, Lee isn't the MVP-caliber player he once was, but he remains an mobile defender and a good target around the bag. Hardy is as fine and rangy a defender at short as ever. Reynolds may be a step back from Miguel Tejada, but he had a bad year in the field as well as the plate; if he bounces back to 2009 levels in this area as well, he can be an asset.
While the money spent on Accardo is a nice gesture, he wasn't especially effective last year, giving up a run every other inning, striking out fewer than 14 percent of opponents, but four years ago he notched 30 saves, and it isn't like the Orioles' pen is chock-a-block with ready-made quality. Retaining Uehara was a worthwhile move after the import responded well to last year's move to the pen, accumulating 2.3 WXRL and a 2.49 relief-only FRA that is supported by his 2.04 SIERA; if he's given a shot at winning the closer's job for keeps, that would kick Mike Gonzalez forward into a set-up role, with Jim Johnson, Jason Berken, Rick VandenHurk, and perhaps Accardo making for the right-handers up front.
When Buck Showalter took over, we already expected quick improvement, and last year's 34-23 run with the club to finish the season provided an interesting taste of what's to come. Suggesting that the Orioles will improve by 10 games this year understates the extent of the improvement, even with the unbalanced schedule-if they wind up around 76 wins, that might represent disappointment, especially when the Yankees' rotation is a mess and the Rays seem to have committed to a year to regear. If the pitching comes around, an above-.500 finish really shouldn't be that much of a surprise-these are not the cronied-up Orioles of the lamentable recent past.
Re-signed C-S Jason Varitek to a one-year, $2 million contract. [12/10]
I'm going to be writing about the Red Sox and their place in the big picture at greater length on Thursday, and I already tackled the subject of Carl Crawford's deal, and my own skepticism that it winds up delivering anything like full value, or even significant-fraction value. So let's table the former, and set aside the arguments on the latter, and drill down to the two areas addressed over the rest of December: the almost inescapable decision to retain Tek, and swamping the pen with as much depth as they already had to sort through in the rotation.
Inking Varitek one more time is more than just an "old-time's sake" proposition. Until Jarrod Saltalamacchia proves he's more than an unkept promise, the market had little on offer but a heap of interchangeable right-handed slugs. If Salty doesn't slug, there isn't a lot of depth to turn to; the most advanced prospect might be Mark Wagner, but he's still recovering from a broken hamate, and has not been able to try and get back in gear in winter ball. Happily, Luis Exposito isn't that far behind, and ripped 50 extra-base hits at Portland. You can expect they'll sign a veteran to cool his heels in Pawtucket, but in the meantime, the idea of Tek playing Jedi master to another promising switch-hitter at catcher makes sense, and the pricing wasn't out of the range for what part-time or backup catchers are going for these days. If Salty flops, Varitek might be able to handle a month or two as the regular, or long enough to afford Theo Epstein the time to find an alternative.
The bullpen's the more interesting area of activity, because Jenks isn't a cheap addition, especially the Sox already signed Wheeler, a quality pickup in his own right. Having dispensed with previous solutions like Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen, they had to go out and get help, but spending more than $10 million for 2011 alone on set-up help (since we don't know the financial details on Okajima's retention just yet) makes it clear this wasn't going to be a forgotten unit after chasing down Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Allowing for the widely accepted fact that Jonathan Papelbon and Jenks both had bad seasons, let's consider the performances of their new front four in the pen (the underlying data can be found here):
Yes, Jenks had a bad year, but in some ways it wasn't any worse than Papelbon's, and the underlying performance was like the Jenks of old. His strikeout rate (and his ground-ball rate) got back up to where it had been in his best years, his HR/FB rate returned to non-Lidgely levels after reaching an insanely combustible 12 percent in 2009. What he didn't have was a manager who had much love left for the Human Barrel, and while I know we're in the sabermetrics racket, it's important to remember, as Kevin always says, "these guys aren't Strat cards." If Jenks thrives with a change of scenery, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.
The question is whether it matters, although for the money he's being paid, you have to think there's another wheel turning here, quietly, on a "just in case" basis. Papelbon will be skipping town as a free agent after this next season, and even anticipating that, his trade value isn't especially high to a potential acquirer, not just after a down season, but also because he'll wind up with an eight-figure salary via arbitration. Papelbon's oft-stated desire to achieve a multi-year payoff is one that, if he performs as poorly, won't be for the same annual payday as he'll get this year, and that's probably not going to sweeten his final eight months or so as a Sock. Will Theo make a change in this circumstance, if things get noxious?
Maybe, but even then, maybe the job ought to go to the other guy who's already here: Daniel Bard. Bard ranked second in the league in ARP behind Joaquin Benoit, and fourth in the major leagues, with Brian Wilson and Hong-Chih Kuo rounding out the quartet. Of course, there is the economic disincentive to keep Bard in the set-up role, and let Jenks make his pay in the role he's accustomed to. Call it the Curse of Jerome Holtzman, but without accumulating saves, Bard's bid to make Papelbucks will be handicapped by the lack of glory footnotes. It may not add up to a significant difference in the Sox' performance on the field, but it would end up making a fairly big difference in Bard's paycheck.
Signed RHP Mariano Rivera to a two-year, $30 million contract. [12/8]
This was the Yankee winter of just keeping the band together, placating the Cap'n and re-inking the surest sure thing in ninth-inning history. Well, that and flirting with Cliff Lee, only to be decisively rebuffed, and too late in this winter's shopping season to find a worthwhile alternative to shore up an uncertain rotation. Maybe failing to outbid the Brewers on Zack Greinke was a tacit admission that nobody knows how he'd handle New York; on the other hand, maybe it was just a simple failure.
The Yankees haven't entirely stood in place, of course. By acquiring a rubber-armed, strike-throwing lefty in Feliciano, they might at least have replaced what it was that Damaso Marte was supposed to be, while sparing them from having to place too much faith in the reliably wild Boone Logan. When two rotation slots are still penciled in with 'staff' after the holiday season's closure, resorting to a deep pen may not be the worst fall-back, although if you thought the pace of games in the Bronx was interminable before, imagine the marathons to come early in the season if the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation are staffed with chuck-and-duck alternatives like Sergio Mitre.
Happily, youngsters like Dellin Betances, Ivan Nova, Manny Banuelos, David Phelps, and Hector Noesi aren't that far off. Could we actually witness the Yankees break in a crew of young arms, after all of the needless Jobamarama drama? If so, it's a bolder plan than just opening up the checkbook, but it makes for a tough risk to take while the expiration dates on Derek Jeter, Mo, and Jorge Posada all creep closer. A one-year deal with a veteran innings-eater would make sense, but the pickings are slim if they can't pull something off like a consolation-prize swap to get Joe Blanton from the suddenly budget-conscious Phillies. Looking at the numbers from last year's starting pitchers, while I've suggested Freddy Garcia's utility in the past, his upside is non-existent and the Yankees should afford themselves some risk. Jeff Francis would be a fine choice, given a 4.08 SIERA and the off chance that life at a lower altitude suits him, but a more durable alternative would be Kevin Millwood. His .411 SNWP with the Orioles wasn't impressive, but maybe his 4.55 SIERA (almost a full run below his 5.48 RA9) is cause for enough optimism to make him an interesting enough project to take on with an incentive-driven deal.
The other major change was the decision to exchanging last year's collection of DH alternatives for Martin, upgrading their everyday defense behind the plate while moving Jorge Posada DH-ward. After delivering the league's best attack with a .273 team True Average, that's not a bad choice to make, and if they really do wind up using a bunch of kids, taking Posada out of harm's way to let him spend most of his time batting also makes sense. Posada's .286 TAv last year makes for a nice match for what's expected from a DH, and he'll still be available to spot behind the plate as well as man first base as needed, so he's more useful than most full-time DH types. Jim Thome is tempting, but here, as with Rivera and Jeter, the devotion to their recognizable brand names is understandable as well as defensible.
Meanwhile, there will be appreciable defensive benefits to reap, and it isn't like Martin is a useless glove-only backstop. Although Martin is not a perfect receiver, he is significantly better than the aging Posada, with a much stronger arm besides. Ideally, Martin will be liberated from the heavy workload behind the plate that Joe Torre had been sticking him with; before breaking down last year, Martin had averaged 138 starts per campaign across the previous three seasons. Cutting that back by 15-20 games should help him contribute as an OBP source from the eighth or ninth slot in the order. Meanwhile, whatever mad few determined to persist in the faith that Francisco Cervelli is something more than a nice backup will be thwarted.
Re-signed LHP J.P. Howell to a one-year, $1.1 million contract. [12/13]
It you're among those waiting for the Rays to suddenly pounce and achieve new feats of sabermetric brilliance in the offseason, don't hold your breath. While making a decisive commitment to Reid Brignac at short, they've discarded the one season of Bartlett they had under their control for a trio of arms that might pan out in the last slot or two of a bullpen, plus a 23-year-old second baseman coming out of the Cal League. The nicest thing you can say for the package is that it isn't obvious which player you'd say was the best, and that the Rays needed bullpen help, so ready or nearly-ready arms making the minimum aren't evil, they're just interchangeable and not especially hard to find.
Russell has the most major-league experience, and reliably throws the hardest, but he couldn't break into the Pads' outstanding pen last season, not merely because of the quality of the alternatives ahead of him. Stranded in Beaverdom most of the season, the 26-year-old Russell remained as hittable and wild as ever, putting 93 men on base in 51
In the desperation to find sleepers among the quartet, you're left hoping that Gomes or Figueroa might fend off insomnia. However, both are your basic, moderately interesting long-shots. Gomes can throw low-90s heat that touches 95, and mixes in a nice splitter, and although he just repeated Double-A, he has now struck out 193 batters in 144
Basically, it was filler for salary relief. If the Rays currently need relief filler, that's not the point as far as these four, so much as the Rays can continue to wait and see if they can sweat a few veteran relievers into taking low-ball offers later in the month. They can hope that Howell shows up healthy after a year away, which would give them one established good reliever. They can also hope that Peralta repeats last year's tremendous partial season with the Nats (1.8 WXRL), but I'd remind folks about the outcome the last time the Rays signed a "bargain" changeup fiend-if you got worked up over Joe Nelson, you ain't seen nothing yet. The point is that these guys aren't finds, they're low-stakes lottery tickets, where the Rays are spending a buck to make five, and can write off the bill if (or when) he flops. If Peralta repeats, they'll reap the accusation of geniusdom; if he doesn't, he'll be buried as quickly as Nelson was.
Signed 1B/3B-R Edwin Encarnacion to a one-year, $2 million contract, with a $3.5 million club option for 2012 ($500,000 buyout). [12/16]
We can add Encarnacion to the list of people who have had to take a pay cut because they were arbitration-eligible. The Blue Jays (and briefly the Athletics) had the choice between tendering him an offer and facing the panel and try to make a case using his 2010 compensation as a starting point to work from, or kicking him into the free-agent pool and "risking" that he'd find better money with 29 rivals. As the Jays might have reasonably expected, Double-E instead found that nobody was going to give him anything like the arbitration-inflated $4.75 million he made in 2010, so he had to instead settle for a return to his 2009 payday ($2 million).
Now that he's been retained, the question is what he's for. Since the infield corners and DH are his best positions, and including third base is more a courtesy mention than a position at which he's gifted, you have to chuck him into the charnel house of modest sluggers: first base and DH. That's just as well, since Jose Bautista is presumably moving to third base to stay in the wake of the decision to trade for Rajai Davis and assuming that Travis Snider stays in right field forever after. Indeed, carring Davis' glove in left might help them compensate for Snider in right, even if he's a dodgy proposition at the top of a lineup.
Nevertheless, the question of who plays first and who bats at DH are still reasonably open-ended, even with the too-much, too-soon financial mistake of over-committing to Adam Lind (due at least $17 million through 2013). The simplest solution will be to let Lind follow up on last year's season-ending experiment at first, because his fielding wasn't too shabby in limited work, rating positive per nFRAA and Plus/Minus. That lets them plug Encarnacion in at DH, hoping that Encarnacion's ability to hit something like 30 homers in a full-time role gets coupled with a return to a walk rate north of 10 percent, so that he nudges his TAv up from .275 toward something closer to a first-base/DH position average of .288.
However, that already involves a goodly amount of wishcasting, on top of the hope that Lind becomes a reliable regular at first and gets his bat back closer to something like his 2009 production. Unfortunately, seeing his strikeout percentage spike by almost 50 percent isn't very reassuring, since that increase owed much to his swinging-strike percentage by a similar degree-they're not figures totally out of whack with league averages, but they're major changes relative to his past performance, and even if you take hope from his performance over the season's final third (.271/.305/.516), that still involves a low-OBP batsman at a premium offensive position.
Looking at that as well as Encarnacion's past pair of problematic seasons, here's hoping that for the Jays' sake, a few weeks' worth of phones not ringing lower the prices for addition first-base/DH options like Nick Johnson or Russell Branyan. Having either available might push Lind into some outfield playing time-sparing them Davis' punchless batsmanship against the league's better right-handers-to give them a worthwhile bat to stock first or DH with. That's assuming an active pursuit of second place would rank among their highest ambitions for themselves, but so far, this winter's activities give little indication that they've identified the opportunity's existence.
As for signing Dotel, it makes for an amusing data point in the "closer mentality" debate. Dotel has it, to be sure, having logged 36- and 22-save seasons, the latter mostly spent with the hapless Buccos, where save opportunities come along about as often as Stones revival tours. (If you missed the last one, give it another week-for either.) But what's the point, when he can't get left-handed people out? Last year, they hit .301/.412/.581 against him. All of them, even the little ones. That was even worse than his work in 2009, when he "held" them to .268/.422/.577 in 2009.
No amount of moxie, ambitious facial hair, brushing his teeth with licorice, or any other ninth-inning theatrics are going to change the last act-if a lefty steps in, it becomes a matter of desperate drama. It's notable that, among people with 20 or more save attempts last year, Dotel was almost the worst, ranking next to last in FRA (ahead of Alfredo Simon, and just behind the reliably overrated Matt Lindstrom), but ahead of a number of fellow closers via WXRL, including the man he's replacing, Kevin Gregg. That's not the same thing as saying Dotel was a good closer, but if improvement is relative, I suppose we can call this improvement.
Maybe the most generous assessment is that he'll be a placeholder. Who knows, maybe Josh Roenicke finally comes of age; he's only 28, donchaknow, and after letting lefties belt him around at .372/.431/.596 clip in Vegas, he's as familiar as Dotel on how to turn every save opp into a high-stakes gamble. My hope is that his becomes the opportunity Jason Frasor might finally deserve, with Dotel slipping back into the right-handed set-up role he's still an asset in. It isn't nearly as dramatic, but here's hoping the Jays don't feel the need to make every close win an even more near-run thing.