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January 21, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Junior Circuit Jumble

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Designated LHP Dusty Hughes for assignment. [1/20]

Even after Gil Meche's retirement, with the additions of Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen, somebody had to go, so now we know who. There's a much larger-than-zero chance Hughes makes it through waivers and winds up an NRI, so all those Hughes groupies can still harbor some measure of hope.

MINNESOTA TWINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Re-signed RHP Carl Pavano to a two-year, $16.5 million contract. [1/18]

Well, that was a long time in coming, and there's something sort of compelling about the fact that Pavano got less for a shorter period of time than he did after his 2004 season when so much between the two seasons remained the same:

Year
W
IP
BF
UBB
SIERA
2004 18 222.1 909 36 4.17
2010 17 221 906 35 4.15

Yep, that Carl Pavano, a model of consistency. Ahem.

So, after 2004, Pavano gets $39.95 million from the Yankees. Not that we need to throw a pity party, but six years later he gets less than half that for half as long, in a market desperately short of good free-agent starting pitchers. Of course, we know all about the reason why: a four-year exercise in expensive humiliation and shame that we were rewarded with after 2004, we being all of us watching for that rare Pavano appearance, like he was the rotation's designated stealth Bomber. His exit policy required redeployment in Cleveland and sacrificing his upper lip to a throwback porn 'stache, so clearly he has been to hell and back.

The more important thing is that the Twins actually needed him. They were already mid-pack in terms of the rotation's SNLVAR tally last season ranking 15th overall. While Pavano's SIERA suggests that he's going to see his ERA move up by close to a full run, that still puts him between 4.00 and 4.50, or pretty useful, especially if he keeps pitching reliably into the seventh inning every fifth day. It's also worth noting that he and swingman Brian Duensing due for a trip the wrong way down the shady vale of regression, where Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and even the routinely tattooed Nick Blackburn are all due for better times if you take SIERA as an indicator of what the future holds. As shocking as it might be to anybody's ears a couple of years removed from Pavano's last sporadic attendance of Yankee games, the Twins are paying him for durability and innings, not for an ERA down around 3.00.

Where this leaves the Twins in terms of expenses is over $100 million, which isn't all that surprising--starting with $38 million committed to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau every year through 2013 gets them almost halfway there on their own, after all. But to give credit where it's due, this was as far as Bill Smith should have gone, the money isn't egregious, and the Twins obviously had need.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Agreed to terms with RHP Grant Balfour on a two-year, $8.1 million contract. [1/14]
Brad Ziegler on a one-year, $1.25 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/15]
Consummated the Balfour agreement, officially adding him to the roster; designated RHP Clayton Mortensen for assignment; agreed to terms with LHP Dallas Braden on a one-year, $3.35 million contract, with 1B/LF-R Conor Jackson on a one-year, $3.32 million contract, with 3B-R Kevin Kouzmanoff on a one-year, $4.75 million contract, and with LF-R Josh Willingham on a one-year, $6 million contract, avoiding arbitration with all four. [1/18]
Agreed to terms with LHP Brian Fuentes on a two-year contract; designated INF-R Steven Tolleson for assignment. [1/19]

Relief help is sort of the vogue topic of the moment, mostly because there's so little else going on in terms of Hot Stove action at this point. Both Colin Wyers and I are planning about writing more about relievers next week. (I'll specifically be drilling down to talk about the relationship of deep, talented pens with team success.)

But to some extent, it's the A's actions, on top of those by the Yankees and Red Sox in not just stocking their bullpens, but overstocking them, that has really gotten me to thinking about this. By signing Balfour and Fuentes when they already possess a decent gaggle of bullpen talent on paper, you might think the A's were getting obsessive about their need for relief help. Dare we say it? Is a power pen the new black? Defense was so yesterday, or 2008, or 2004, after all.

With Balfour joining Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler, and Joey Devine among the right-handers, and with Fuentes providing a third lefty along with Craig Breslow and Jerry Blevins, you might wonder how the A's are going to be able to keep everyone they've lined up in front of closer Andrew Bailey, never mind keep them all happy. That's seven relievers before you get to Bailey, all of them used to pitching in tight games or high-leverage situations. Looking at the body count alone, you might well wonder who among them is supposed to be the middle-relief sponge.*

That's the pretty picture on paper, and as snapshots go, it's more Dorian Gray than Sistine Chapel. Bailey is still trying to make his way back from elbow surgery in September, and is at risk for starting behind the others in camp. "Lucky Number" Blevins is recovering from October surgery on the labrum in his left hip, and is supposed to be back in time for spring training. If you've already forgotten how well Justin Duchscherer came back from his hip woes--he didn't--you probably live a life free of cares. Devine hasn't pitched a full season or anything resembling one since 2007.

So let's not start getting worked up over the A's depth just yet. Even if we generously decide that Bailey won't miss much or any regular-season action, the most likely five in front of him will be Balfour, Wuertz, and Ziegler from the right side, and Breslow and Fuentes from the left. A good group, certainly, but one the A's will need to do a better job than last year's mediocre results. It's also one designed to cover for Bailey if his elbow doesn't come around, because Wuertz and Breslow both stepped in for him last year. Fuentes and Ziegler both have even more extended experience closing, while Balfour may well be the best pitcher of the bunch. Even a Bailey-free bullpen won't be the end of the world.

The key point here isn't that the A's are piling up relief value buys in a market short of premium purchases, the more significant consideration is that the A's added Balfour and Fuentes because they can't be entirely sure how much of what they have on the 40-man will be able to help them. While they have the makings for a true committee because of the mix-and-match possibilities of pitchers with very different strengths in terms of their best pitches, that's less likely to be acted upon than that the A's will remain conventional in their observations of relief ritual, right down to naming a relief ace if Bailey is broken.

*: I know, as a result of their bargain-hunting, perhaps Brandon McCarthy, perhaps Rich Harden, or whoever doesn't win the fifth slot in the rotation. What a difference two or three years makes.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Agreed to terms with RHP Carlos Villanueva on a one-year, $1.415 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/16]
Signed RHP Jon Rauch to a one-year, $3.5 million contract with a $3.75 club option for 2012; agreed to terms with RHPs Casey Janssen on a one-year, $1.095 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/17]
Agreed to terms with OF-R Rajai Davis on a two-year, $5.75 million contract, and on one-year deals with RHPs Shawn Camp ($2.25 million), Jesse Litsch ($830,000), and Brandon Morrow ($2.3 million) and SS-R Yunel Escobar ($2.9 million), avoiding arbitration with the lot. [1/18]

On a simple, superficial level, I love seeing Rauch pitch, so I'm glad to know where to see him on the mound.* Even so, seeing him jump the border to contend with Jason Frasor and Octavio Dotel for the closer's job is a case of deciding that accumulation has provided a solution, sort of like letting the dust bunnies pile up until you can call them a carpet.

As discussed earlier in the month, we already know that Dotel isn't really an answer, not when the lefty-batting portion of the league is there to fold, spindle, and mutilate any lead he's protecting. Like a conversation about your own family members at the point when it comes to the maiden aunt with an abiding passion for philately, it seems as if Frasor gets brought up out of completist's compulsion, at which point an unyielding conversational undertow drags the discussion somewhere else. Enter Rauch, who has been a closer for big chunks of two of the last three seasons, which very nearly almost resembles the full monty.

As a matter of process, though, as with so much else he's done, I like what Alex Anthopolous has done here. It isn't about having the guy so much as it is about having a guy at a price you can live with. Given Dotel's situational value and Rauch's general utility, the tocsin for a committee will get played out for a few beats, and I'm willing to bet that the gross-scale appearance of one is a likely outcome of the Jays' season, in that I'll bet there will be at least two pitchers with double-digit save totals. However, that's going to have less to do with John Farrell mixing and matching than it is with the creeping concern over adding relievers well on the downslop of their careers. Dotel was once one of the game's premium late-game arms, but no longer. Rauch's rubber-armed utility is less of a fact than an item from his past, and his strikeout rates and swing-and-miss numbers have been declining in the last two years.

Happily, these are small bets on small sample sizes. If Dotel or Rauch succeed or fail in their 50- or 60-inning increments, it won't really matter all that much. They're only on board for short-term commitments, no more than they should be, because however good or bad they are, relative to the market they're interchangeable, replaceable assets. If John Farrell unleashes something wonderful by finding a way to exploit Rauch's rare combination of attacking the zone from especially steep angles and planes, that's cool on the Jays, and cool on Farrell, and potentially lucrative for Rauch, but if not, it's just the latest bit of bullpen churn. They can butter up the next guy as well, regardless of whether Rauch gets burned.

*: On the road? I know, this is where a Jays fan is going to point out that we still owe you guys a Toronto event. I know I'd still love for us to have one, and shame on us for not doing so before you had to have a passport to get there. I still remember hitting the border at Point Edward in October 1998--the year I'd decided to skip watching the World Series, because who needed to see the Padres get slaughtered?--crossing the bridge, and the extent of the hassle was being asked by the Canadian border patrolman where I was going. "Quebec City," I piped cheerily. With equal measures of disdain and despair, the Anglophone looked up sharply. "Why?!?" As if to plead for me not to go, because they grind the bones of Englishmen to thicken their poutine's gravy. Criticized thus for a choice in vacation destination back then was as hard as it got, heading north.


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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