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January 5, 2011

Transaction Analysis

NL East Update

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Signed LHP George Sherrill to a one-year, $1.2 million contract. [12/10]
Agreed to terms with 2B-R Dan Uggla on a five-year, $62 million contract. [1/4]

Both transactions represent profound acts of faith, although obviously of very different magnitude. Uggla's deal is basically the deal the Marlins offered him (four years and $48 million), but with a fifth year and just enough additional annual average value to get it fractionally closer to the initial reports that he'd need to be north of $70 million so that he wasn't "just" getting Marlins-like money. The Braves can afford to risk the odd expensive mistake, of course, and this deal takes Uggla through his age-35 season, which gets into fairly risky territory in terms of what Uggla is still going to be good for at that late stage. To his credit, he's aged exceptionally well, making better contact, walking more often, striking out less, keeping his power north of a .200 ISO after a peak-range spike in 2008. Turner Field is a friendlier hitting environment for a right-handed slugger than YOUR NAME HERE CALL 1-800-FLOBALL Ballpark, and Uggla's career rates there are lovely enough (.354/.399/.622 in 199 PAs, with a homer every 16 at-bats or so) to inspire confidence that the first couple of campaigns should look very good... at the plate.

That's the one problem, though. An ungainly second baseman at the best of times, Uggla's numbers per various metrics suggest he's gone from adequate to execrable in the last three years. Colin Wyers' nFRAA puts his Runs Above Average from 2008-2010 going from 9.8 to 0.2 to -13.4, that last rating among the worst marks of any second baseman in those three seasons. Seth Smith's Total Zone has him going from 0 to -11 to -9 runs-wise; John Dewan's Plus/Minus paces Colin's results, seeing a drop from 2 to -7 to -9. As much as any defensive metric's output requires a healthy dose of uncertainty best served well-salted, the results are as reliably unpleasant in their trending as involuntary insectivorism in today's society--awareness only creates greater concern. Happily, this should only be a problem for the 2011 Braves, because in the medium term, third base is going to open up after Chipper Jones decides to call it a career. It's fairly easy to anticipate that Uggla will move toward a corner if his play around the keystone doesn't get any better in Atlanta.

As for signing Sherrill, to give the Braves their due as far as process, it's worth remembering that the Brim Reaper is just a year removed from being one of the 10 best relievers in baseball, but 2009 was also a season that tasked him with his heaviest workload in terms of batters faced (282) since 2004, while finishing just a game behind his career high in appearances. As little as we can say conclusively about reliever usage patterns and what represents risk, that's a fairly big bit of piling on for a guy who had to be shut down in 2008 with shoulder problems.

While no gaskets got blown last season, Sherrill had both that workload to overcome plus an early bad start that got him kicked him into the deeper recesses of the Dodgers' pen. In his first month, Sherrill pitched 10 innings, but gave up 30 baserunners to 58 batters faced, saw 11 score, and let six of the 11 baserunners he inherited score. That was enough to get him devoted from last year's honored stretch-drive pickup to roster Gollum, shunned but bound to the team's fate by the expense of employing him and the reluctance to just kick him to the curb; passing him through waivers in July found no takers. Sherrill got all of 26 IP over the next five months. In some ways, the situational lefty's job is like the pinch-hitter's; a bad run buys plenty of time as an unused bystander, which in turn guarantees you won't get many opportunities to dig back out of an early hole. From there, he was spending most of his time making desultory appearances in losing causes.

Is he cooked, or worth anything like what the Braves decided to throw at him? Keep in mind, $1.2 million is a lot to spend on someone whom many might have expected to draw a non-roster deal at best. To Sherrill's credit, he did keep on getting lefties out, holding them to .192/.286/.288. While he joins Scott Linebrink on the list of risky pickups for the Braves' bullpen rebuild in the wake of Billy Wagner's retirement, that duo plus last year's quality crew of Jonny Venters, Peter Moylan, and Eric O'Flaherty should be able to give Craig Kimbrel plenty of support. Kimbrel should be able to give the club a season that conjures up Maalox-munching memories of Mark Wohlers, with plenty of dancing on that knife edge between fireman and fire-starter. To Fredi Gonzalez's credit, he's been able to build effective pens with worse components with the Marlins, so it should be interesting to see how things shake out in camp.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Signed C-R John Buck to a three-year, $18 million contract. [11/17]
Outrighted RHP Brett Sinkbeil to New Orleans; purchased the contracts of RHPs Arquimedes Caminero and Evan Reed. [11/19]
Signed RHP Javier Vazquez to a one-year, $7 million contract; agreed to terms with RHP Burke Badenhop on a one-year, $750,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [12/2]
Signed LHP Randy Choate to a two-year, $2.5 million contract. [12/15]
Avoided arbitration with RHP Ricky Nolasco by agreeing to terms on a three-year, $26.5 million contract. [12/20]

If nothing else, don't let it be said the Marlins didn't do something with their Uggla dividend. Having failed to come to terms with their slugger to extend his association with the club beyond 2011, they settled for converting him into one year of Omar Infante, five or six years of Michael Dunn, and a whole bunch of liquidity. After the revelations of their spectacular, single-minded cheapocritude, you can understand how they've decided upon a new round of expenses to help make them look every bit a big-league ballclub, but in fairness to the Fish, they're plausible contenders, in the way that at least a dozen teams in the National League can entertain realistic visions of a wild-card bid involving 80-something wins.

The weird thing is that they responded with three different big-ticket expenses that don't really fit into a pattern, except that they're all transparently expensive. Maybe the MLBPA will be mollified, but throwing lots of money and years at Buck after one good season, and one season for lots of money at Vazquez after one bad campaign doesn't have anything in common beyond the lots of money part.

Buck's career is as uneven as you can find, with his receiving skills getting poor marks, but he throws effectively enough that his team can get by. Despite busting out to post a .280 TAv more than 30 points above his career norm, offensively, he's actually still pretty much the same player who the Royals found so maddening; last year's breakout owed much to slugging .705 against lefties. In the meantime, he hit .246/.288/.430 against the normal-handed, or very much like John Buck, because that worked out to a .248 TAv--identical to his overall career mark, but an improvement on his .234 career clip against right-handers. The far more troubling development is a walk rate cratering below four percent last season, but tot the lot up, and you have a guy cashing in on a career year and getting his payday. That's great for Buck, and swell for the Fish if they're intent on signing exhibits to document their willingness to spend money, but not so awesome if the expectation is that they've added an All-Star catcher in anything more than the transient, literal sense.

Two years guaranteed, for Randy Choate? Seems a might bit generous, but bully for him after a pair of decent seasons up in St. Pete. But if you're tired of trying to sort through the good Dan Meyer seasons and the bad ones, it's a nice price to pay for a certain rubber-armed reliability. But having traded for Dunn and Dustin Richardson, is he necessary, or just a showy bit of "see, we're serious about spending on the lower middle class." Swell, why not call it an employment program and hold a photo op with Miami's hard-pressed mayor? (Guess who's getting money from the team, as well as some of the contractors working on the Marlins' stadium?) Oh well, it probably beats pretending trickle-down economics work. In the age of Bud the Builder, strange fortunes are made as easily as some careers get broken.

To turn to the major developments as opposed to the merely expensive ones, the money for Nolasco might seem especially strange, but it makes much more sense. Admittedly, Nolasco's career has been reliably unreliable, as his SNWP marks have bounced from .470 to injured to .551 to .453 to .482. Last year's difference between his RA9 (4.68) and his SIERA (3.33) suggests the scope of the problem: there's every reason to expect him to do better than he has. It's a little strange, because his underlying numbers aren't really that unstable. Although his HR/FB rate tripped dangerously close to 10 percent last season, his peripherals have been relatively flat the last three years, with a walk rate around five percent and a strikeout rate in the low 20s, while getting roughly the same number of grounders and fly balls. Maybe this next season's attention to defense now that they've brought back Perry Hill to coach the infielders will do him a favor or two, but I suspect he'll be much more dependent on the outcome of Chris Coghlan's attempt to make it in center. But as a financial commitment, it's a reasonable exercise, for what little confidence among the locals that the Fish aren't bad actors it might help buy back.

The Vazquez deal comes with a no-trade clause and a proviso preventing the Fish from offering arbitration after 2011, so it's a fairly straightforward rental with no strings, just a full-season shackle, where the only way Vazquez comes off the roster is if they get a handsaw out and cut themselves loose. That's reasonable enough--Vazquez needed the job to win for himself a more substantive contract somewhere else that might really matter in the standings, and the Marlins had a rotation slot to offer.

Will Vazquez earn that new deal for 2012 and beyond? Last year, I sounded a cautionary note about what Vazquez would do in a return to the DH league, which seemed fairly obvious given his track record with the White Sox, but all sorts of people were drinking fairly deeply his brand of Kool-Aid after one great year with the Braves. Now, returning to the NL, does that mean we should expect a complete return to the greatness of 2009? I wouldn't, even if he is coming back to the weaker league, because any comment about how he won't have to face the tough competition from the AL East ignores the fact that he was basically hidden from the Red Sox, making one disaster start against them in August. In taking on a man whose career is defined by flaky performance, the Fish decided to see if they'd get lucky; if you're trying to peg him in your fantasy league, I'd take my cue from them, and not go crazy.

What nailing down Nolasco and adding Vazquez does is create an interesting camp battle for the fifth slot in the rotation, because with Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez already squared away, there should be a desperate contest between Chris Volstad, Sean West (if he's finally healthy), and Alex Sanabia, which should be fun to see sorted out.

NEW YORK METS
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Signed RHP D.J. Carrasco to a two-year, $2.4 million contract; signed C-R Ronny Paulino to a one-year, $1.35 million contract. [12/9]
Traded LHP Michael Antonini to the Dodgers for MI-R Chin-lung Hu. [12/17]
Signed LHP Chris Capuano to a one-year, $1.5 million contract; signed RHP Taylor Buchholz to a one-year, $600,000 contract; designated RHP Ryota Igarashi for assignment. [1/3]

The Mets' new management team has been understandably conservative as they sort out what they have and what they can do with it. Hauling in utility/swing guys like Carrasco and Capuano aren't solutions as much as inexpensive confessions that there's no established answer for who the fifth starter is going to be.

That's not their only rotation issue, even if Team Alderson doesn't elect to go for the full Oliver Perez experience in his last season on his three-year deal. Even before getting to the back end of the rotation, there's the question of how much trust they should invest in R.A. Dickey's ability to repeat last season's breakout. And wise that skepticism would be, since his 4.04 SIERA stands in suggestive contradistinction to his 3.20 RA/9. Whether they end up using Dillon Gee or Jenrry Mejia as well as Jon Niese, that's a young group, so veteran fall-back options like these make sense.

In the bullpen, Buchholz makes for an interesting flyer to take; lest we forget, in 2008 he managed 2.5 WXRL for the Rockies, so spending barely more than the minimum to see if he's all the way back from his 2009 TJS makes sense. Certainly more sense than the latest ill-considered Japanese import, but perhaps Igarashi will join Kei Igawa on the list of middling NPB vets used to stock the International League.

Signing Paulino is similarly a relatively cheap, worthwhile pickup. As the right-handed caddy for Josh Thole, he'll be returning to the role he's good for, mashing the odd lefty, picking up a third of the starts, while being durable enough to handle a couple of weeks or a couple of months as the regular if Thole gets hurt. There is the minor annoyance of having to wait out eight more games from last year's season-ending PED suspension, but that just means minor-league vet Mike Nickeas is probably going to get to be on the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career.

One of the consistent complaints about the Omar Minaya years was the sloppy inattention to getting the back half of the roster right. The splashy deals that put Minaya's name up in lights were swell for drawing attention to the club, but after the epic meltdowns of 2007 and 2008, details obviously mattered, and that's without getting into the more ludicrous mistakes, like Perez's deal, or Luis Castillo's. While this current collection of pickups isn't nearly so exciting or expensive, they reflect a modest sense of the team's needs. Whether this team still has last year's interesting spread of outcomes remains to be seen, but you can see the same outline of possibility, where this club could win anywhere from 70 to 88 games, making Alderson's evaluative conservative understandable, as well as perhaps all he'll be allowed to afford in the wake of the Era of Omaresque Excess.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Released LHP Yohan Flande and RHP Jesus Sanchez. [12/7]
Signed LHP Cliff Lee to a five-year, $107.5 million contract, with a $27.5 million club option for 2016 ($12.5 million buyout). [12/14]

Cliff Lee's final answer got written up at some length last month, but where do we find the Phillies three weeks later? On the pitching staff, they're still holding onto Joe Blanton, despite plenty of expectations that they'll trade him to cut their expenses. He is something of a luxury for a fifth starter, and it's wise of Ruben Amaro Jr. to see where Carl Pavano goes before really trying to swing a deal.

Among the position players, letting it ride reflects the fact that they're fairly well set if you take Domonic Brown's future in right field for granted. There isn't even much to be determined as far as the bench slots, with Ben Francisco and Ross Gload and Brian Schneider already set, Wilson Valdez looking fairly likely, leaving the only contest to see who inherits Greg Dobbs' role as the disposable pinch-hitter and multi-positional scrub. Pete Orr? Jeff Larish? Or will Charlie Manuel play swing doctor and fix Brandon Moss? Yeah, seven weeks in Florida is what the Phillies really need to figure out those kinds of pressing questions.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed RF-R Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract. [12/5]
Signed PH-L Matt Stairs to a minor-league contract with a non-roster invite. [12/14]
Traded LF-R Josh Willingham to the Athletics for RHP Henry Rodriguez and OF-L Corey Brown; re-signed RHP Chien-Ming Wang to a one-year, $1 million (base) contract. [12/16]
Signed OF-L Rick Ankiel to a one-year, $1.5 million (base) contract; designated LHP Matt Chico for assignment. [12/21]
Outrighted LHP Matt Chico to Syracuse (Triple-A). [12/22]
Noted the loss of LHP Aaron Thompson to the Pirates on a waiver claim. [12/23]
Agreed to terms with 1B-L Adam LaRoche on a two-year, $16 million contract. [1/4]

Last month, my writeup of the Werth deal ran as a piece contrasting Werth's deal to Carl Crawford's (and Alfonso Soriano's), and I'll admit, I was fairly charitable, but between seeing this as a prestige signing and an exercise and giving Werth some benefit of the doubt as far as what has to be accepted as an unusual career arc--from top prospect to injury-prone fallen never-was to platoon asset to star slugger--it will be interesting to see if it compares favorably to the Crawford and Soriano deals.

But Werth was just the first in a series of moves to make over the lineup and the organization's near-term talent base. You can see how swapping out one year of Willingham (and his arbitration-driven raise to come) plus letting Adam Dunn depart to get LaRoche and Ankiel as well as Werth makes for a lineup that will still have power while getting a pair of DHs off their diamond. I suppose we can officially acknowledge the Nats' decision to revisit the "Defense is the new black" trend, since all three men arrive with fine defensive reputations, and after the effusive (or ludicrous) comparisons of Nyjer Morgan's value to that of Adam Dunn, what the hey, why not?

But while I'm willing to make an argumentative defense of the Werth signing, the LaRoche and Ankiel pickups aren't quite so much fun. With LaRoche, it's not an indictment as much as an acknowledgment that he didn't come cheaply, this after what needs to be seen as perhaps his most disappointing season yet. Playing on perhaps his most pointless ballclub ever after having had to log time with the Pirates, he dropped off to a .274 TAv despite hitting in the cozy Snakepit, which rates his worst season since 2005 with the Braves. That drop kept pace with his fall back to his career-worst walk rate from that point of his career. The best thing you can say is that he's going to give you somewhere around 200 points of ISO, and that's not such a bad thing. However, to his credit his season in the field ranks among the best at first base via nFRAA over the last three years at +13.0 runs above average, good enough to rate behind the game's most highly regarded defenders at the position last season, Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira. It basically boils down to a lack of enthusiasm for an aging, adequate first baseman. It's better than pressing Chris Marrero into action before he's ready (if he's ever ready), but there's no cause for cartwheels.

At least Ankiel came cheaply, but that's just as well. Let's face it, the phenomenon, no, the mystery of Rick Ankiel is getting reliably less interesting with time, in his latest incarnation as well as his first. At this point his career is so unusual that there's not a lot of point to guessing whether he'll get better. After arriving back in the majors and mashing his first two seasons back, he's lost 100 points of ISO, seen both his strikeout and his swinging-strike rates move toward 30 percent while still popping up a ton--in short, he gets fooled a lot, and pitchers aren't making the same mistakes to him that they used to. Because of his extraordinary career path and unusual talent, we can speculate that Ankiel will finally make an adjustment or three, but he could also just keep getting worse--the way he's going, this should be his last guaranteed deal if he doesn't turn things around.* It's worth spending million and a half to see if there's something there, and it's entertaining to ponder if he and Mike Morse might make a kick-ass platoon in left field. Might.

Let's credit Mike Rizzo and the scouting team for getting an interesting pair of prospects for Willingham, though. Rodriguez is already news-worthy for triple-digit velocity and the sort of stuff that figures to put him into the Nats' bullpen mix from the start, helping upgun a relief crew that could use additional talent. But I've also been a mild-mannered Corey Brown believer, ever since the A's snagged him in the supplemental phase of the first round in 2007. That was before 2009's knee problems put a dent in his future, forcing a partial-season repeat at Double-A in 2010, but last year he hit a combined .283/.370/.466 between Midland and Sacramento while swiping 22 bases in 24 attempts. His defense in center is considered playable, with an arm that would work well in right. Between the injuries, the speed, the broad base of offensive skills, and the defense, he was sort of the A's answer to the Nats' Justin Maxwell, which would make platooning them all the more interesting. Not that the Nats have room for two outfield platoons, but at some point, the importance of being Nyjer Morgan isn't going to be quite so earnest. While Rodriguez should immediately pitch his way onto the big-league roster, Brown could also surprise people and slip into an outfield that, after all, in Ankiel and Morgan isn't exactly set for much more than adequacy.

Meanwhile, until camps open, I'm generally steering clear of getting into NRI-related minutiae, because there's not a lot of point to going into too much detail until we see if they have legitimate shots at making the roster. However, Matt Stairs is noteworthy because, well, he's Matt Stairs, greatest hero ever, and the Wonder Hamster. Jim Riggleman has built his share of effective benches in his days of skippering, and one thing he's usually made space for is a veteran pinch-hitter with some pop, making Stairs a potentially nifty fit.

*: We could say much the same for the decision to give Wang another guaranteed deal, but at this point, my ratio of words on Wang to Wang innings pitched is far too much in my favor to merit further padding.

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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