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January 25, 2011

Transaction Analysis

The Punished

by Christina Kahrl

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

DETROIT TIGERS
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Dealt RHP Armando Galarraga and $$-$ Fabulous Moolah to the Diamondbacks for RHP Kevin Eichhorn and LHP Ryan Robowski. [1/24]

Well, we knew that was coming, but the Tigers didn't exactly strike a bonanza, not that anyone should have expected one. They did get a pair of mildly interesting arms, neither of whom will have to be on the 40-man in 2011. A 2008 third-rounder, Eichhorn--he's the Mark Eichhorn's son--had a decent little season, mostly spent at Missola in the Pioneer League, striking out 71 in 86 1/3 IP against just 15 walks. He possesses a nice off-speed assortment, but little velocity coming out of a six-foot frame. He'll only be turning 21 this year and should be making his full-season debut, but the problem is that this will already be his fourth year as a pro. If he finally shows some zip on his fastball, he'll become something more than an organizational arm with a bit of nostalgia associated with the name.

Robowski is two years older despite being picked a year later. He came to the Snakes in the 16th round after playing for Ohio Dominican University, a school you would have next to no reason to know of if not for its contribution of Jonathan Sanchez to MLB's ranks. He's considered a live-armed lefty, but an aggressive assignment to the Cal League was rough on him in his full-season debut, as he allowed 1.6 baserunners per inning and 5.7 runs per nine, but he did manage to strike out nearly a batter per inning.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Agreed to terms with DH-R Billy Butler on a four-year, $29 million contract, with a 2015 club option for $12.5 million ($1 million buyout), avoiding arbitration. [1/22]

Bully for him. It's telling that the timing coincided with the retirement of Gil Meche, but if the Royals can now afford common sense, more power to them. While this might seem like a lot for a career DH with Hal McRae-like upside, to keep this division-relative, remember, the Glass family and whoever else is in cahoots with them is responsible for less per annum than the Indians have been paying Travis Hafner in any of the last three years, or will have to pay in any single season than they have to pay Pronk in the next two. They're getting Butler lined up for his age-25 through age-28 or -29 seasons, or perhaps as far as you'd want to go for a career DH in the making, so this is a good enough deal on that level.

As far as where that future will be within the Royals' lineup, I suppose that it's possible that Butler will stick at first base. However, there's something a bit uninspiring about having a first baseman whose shout of encouragement to his teammates is the same as Arthur's, from The Tick: "Not in the face, not in the face!" You can hope that becomes less true if they finally do entrust first base to Kila Ka'aihue more often than not, because whether you call him the Kila Monster or the Volcano, as he cruises into his age-27 season it's clear that he's (over)due to erupt. As for Butler, the concerns about his power production are quibbly in nature--the man smacked 96 doubles in the last two years in the major leagues, before reaching his statistical peak range. It might be conventional to bash on Dayton Moore for his past mistakes, but this is one of the moves you ought to credit for being every bit as sensible as if it had been achieved by one of the so-called cool kids in Oakland or St. Petersburg.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Signed LF-L Johnny Damon on a one-year, $5.25 million contract; signed DH-R Manny Ramirez to a one-year, $2 million contract; signed RHP Dirk Hayhurt to a minor-league contract with a NRI. [1/21]

I know we're supposed to fall all over ourselves in congratulations over this, because the Rays are the reigning smart-kid-crush ballclub, and this was pretty sweet. But the genius of signing Manny and Caveman isn't the fact that they were signed; the Rays were going to slip in and get somebody at some point. They could have chased after Vladimir Guerrero or Russell Branyan as easy as his Manny-ness, but there was no point.

No, the real genius to this was when they were signed. The Rays could have cut to the chase a month ago and wound up with both easily enough. It would have cost twice as much or more perhaps, to secure them at a time when there were more potential suitors, but Andrew Friedman would have guaranteed himself this particular pair. However, the Rays understood that the market was flooded with DH types, so they just cooled their heels, secure in the knowledge somebody was going to be left waiting around at the end of January, wondering if they'd have a gig, not just for the guaranteed payday or a roster spot, but one that comes with guaranteed playing time. This late in the Hot Stove League, clean shots at everyday work are just about the most precious commodity on the market.

Damon and Ramirez weren't blind to this, which is why they took the money. It's slightly surprising that Damon made a point of getting attendance incentives in addition to the better package, where Manny had to settle for less and get nothing for the inevitable curiosity factor he'll inspire. Rays television ratings against their chief division rivals should spike. Even playing in the Trop, there should be a reason to watch, because with Manny you just never know...

Which is also part of the problem. He might be excited about being a Ray for weeks or months or an entire season. He might also find a way to hurt himself, or pitch himself into one of his sulks. The performance record at this point is a lot more murky for Manny than it would be for almost anybody else headed into a 19th season, because we don't know how much he lost to the bad hammy in 2009, or how much the combination of a sports hernia and persistent calf and leg issues handicapped him in 2010. If his ISO's really going to drop down around .200 or .240, his OBP will similarly head down, because he's not going to get 20 intentional walks in the American League if that's all the damage he's doing. His unintentional walk rate has already dropped to the 12-13 percent range the last couple of seasons--still very good, consistent with his career rates, but lower than you might think if you have his 2000 or 2006 seasons on the brain. In the AL East, I'd expect to drop, even if he's healthy.

Even then, docking Manny in all these ways, what are you left with? An effective, inexpensive DH, with an added element of notoriety to help generate headlines and ratings. Unless Manny goes walkabout, the worst that happens might be he hurts himself repeatedly, sulks, and gives them just 300-400 PAs. He's still a bargain, and a viable element in a Rays bid for continuing contention.

Can Damon be a major part of that as well? Here, I'm a lot less excited, but that's because I'm inclined to discount his 2009 renaissance in NuYankee. He set a career high in HR/FB rate (10.4 percent), so when that fell below four percent with the Tigers, I'd call that unsurprising, not misfortune. He might goose that up back toward his career rate of six percent in 2011, but the Trop won't help him any. Which gives you a left fielder/DH type who has struggled to slug .400 in two of the last four years for cause, and seems likely to do so again. Because of a stable walk rate, adequate defense in left, and a bit of speed, I wouldn't call him a bargain or an asset. He's a celebrity placeholder, and a guy who would have a fight on his hands for his job if Desmond Jennings gets a fair shot.

What does this mean for the Rays' shot at contention? They're certainly interesting, but it's a roster built on overlapping risks. Will Manny mash, or mope? Is B.J. Upton ever going to stop being a breakout tease? Can Ben Zobrist rediscover his power stroke? Will Dan Johnson be able to hold down a job at first base (on either side of the Pacific) for the first time since 2007? Will James Shields earn his nesting options, or wind up as the latest Rays right-hander tossed on the discard pile as they strive for home-grown rotation perfection? Where do Jennings and Matt Joyce fit into the outfield/DH picture, or will they snap into place as handily at Joe Maddon's direction as all the other moving parts he's juggled? Can they win with a no-name bullpen, potentially reinforced by a comebacking Garfoose?

It's questions like that, in the context of contention past and present, that make the Rays so entertaining, to fanboys and the rest of us alike. Seeing them finish anywhere between second place or fourth, in the playoffs as a wild-card club or not, none of those things would be surprising to me. If they manage it with their pared-down budget south of $50 million, they'll be doing more than counting coup, they'll have produced a legacy perhaps even more compelling than the one Michael Lewis portrayed, because the Rays haven't forgotten that one key detail for why the so-called Moneyball A's hung around in the first place: it's the starting pitching, stupid. As creative as the Rays are being in every other area of their roster, a rotation already boasting David Price and Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and James Shields, and now armed with Jeremy Hellickson, is the platform that will propel any number of experiments onto the post-season schedule. If not this year, then next, and again, not re-gearing, not re-tooling, but just winning, baby.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Agreed to terms with RHP Darren O'Day on a one-year, $1.251 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/23]

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Acquired RHP Armando Galarraga from the Tigers for RHP Kevin Eichhorn and LHP Ryan Robowski; designated RHP Rafael Rodriguez for assignment; signed RHP Micah Owings to a minor-league contract. [1/24]

Meh. As I kidded yesterday on Twitter, when acquiring other people's fifth starters, contents may vary:

  • Dan Hudson was the White Sox' fifth, but he'd have been better than that for most; he was only dealt out of their desperation to get a replacement for Jake Peavy.
  • Ian Kennedy was the strike-thrower the Yankees just couldn't bring themselves to trust.
  • Joe Saunders was the discardable slumping vet worth surrendering to get Dan Haren out of Phoenix.
  • Zach Duke is the Pirate already pushed over the plank, hoping that a change of scenery might get him out of the drink and keeps his career from floundering.

It's an interesting group, although somebody from among them isn't going to beat out Barry Enright for a slot. I'll put up their Duke, because the oft-bopped Bucco may have trouble beating out the newly unstriped Tiger. Having added Galarraga and some of the money to pay him with should make for an interesting competition, although it's important to keep in mind that Galarraga was ditched for cause. He's not really the commodity you might think after a near-miss on perfection; that lovely improbability aside, Galarraga's career has been a slow, unhappy tale of a limited starter seeing his league catch up with him:

Year
GS
IP
UBBr
SOr
HRr
SNLVAR
SNWP
RA9
SIERA
2008 28 175.2 7.9% 16.9% 3.8% 3.9 .537 4.18 4.36
2009 25 137.2 10.3% 14.8% 3.7% 1.5 .450 5.83 4.95
2010 24 142.2 8.1% 12.0% 3.4% 2.1 .481 4.68 5.23

The ex-Kittie isn't the worst fifth starter out there, and you can hope that the change of leagues helps, but there are few worse locations Galarraga might have landed in. He's a sinker/slider guy who doesn't generate ground balls, instead generating some fairly extreme fly-ball rates. He's a finesse righty who gets routinely killed by making a few too many mistakes inside to right-handers, his slider tends to hang against lefties when they offer on it at all, and he's going to homer-happy Banky Bank Ballpark? That isn't job placement for a young vet on his way out the door, it's HR sadism of the sort only Catbert might approve of.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Agreed to terms with RHP Johnny Cueto on a four-year, $27 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/20]

Thus do the Reds buy out his remaining seasons of arbitration eligibility and his first year of free agency. A four-year contract to a pitcher in Dusty Baker's care? I'm sure that might send some folks to panicking in the streets in the greatest local cause for terror since Morgan's raiders or Robert Mapplethorpe. But what is it that the Reds are getting themselves into? First, a peek at his performance record:

Year
GS
IP
UBBr
SOr
HRr
SNLVAR
SNWP
RA9
SIERA
2008 31 174.0 8.7% 20.6% 3.8% 2.6 .460 5.22 3.99
2009 30 171.1 8.2% 17.8% 3.2% 3.0 .486 4.73 4.27
2010 31 185.2 6.5% 17.7% 2.4% 4.5 .535 3.83 4.14

Now, obviously we're talking about a young starter, one that Baker has had charge of in all three seasons of his major-league career. In terms of workload, Cueto's has been fairly light. In 2008 he faced 30 batters just twice, in 2009 that was ratched up to one 33-batter start, another with 31, and one of 30; in 2010 he had just one 30-batter start. He reached (but did not exceed) 120 pitches in one 2008 start, never topped 112 in 2009, and topped 120 twice in 2010 (122 and 124 in that pair). Now, I know it was in vogue for everybody to be a pitch-count nellie a decade ago, but that involved higher workloads than this--to make one pointed contrast, Mark Prior faced more more than 30 batters in 14 starts in 2003, and topped 120 pitches in nine starts, doing each in five of six September starts as Dusty went to the whip.

So obviously, this ain't that. Abuse is less frequent, that battle's long since been won, we're seeing teams roll back toward reasonable standards like 30 batters and 120 pitches as cutoffs for what constitutes a full day versus a long one at the office. Unsurprisingly, Cueto has managed to stay fairly healthy, visiting the DL once with shoulder inflammation in August '09, and then only serving the minimum sentence. Dusty Baker might be many things, but it doesn't like he's been that much of a recidivist, at least where Cueto is concerned.

As a result, I'm somewhat sanguine about the deal, its import and any expectations. Cueto has proven to be a good starter, and fairly durable, at a young age. He hasn't been ground down. Locking him up to a multi-year extension for below-market pricing where good, durable starters are concerned isn't really an act of genius as much as sensible operating practice... not unlike his workload. So kudos to Sir Walter Jocketty and to Dusty alike, because this looks like an earned bit of rewarding a productive relationship with the young Dominican.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Agreed to terms with RHP Kameron Loe on a one-year, $1.25 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/21]

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Signed RHP Chad Qualls to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. [1/19]

Yes, pitcher going to Petco, comeback to follow, and look, his SIERA was 3.85, balanced against his giving up 8.5 runs per nine. All true, and all fair enough, and analysis of the laziest sort will say he was unlucky, and deserves good things, and San Diego's exactly the place to give it to him. As exciting as it might be to speculate that Qualls will be perfectly fine now that he has his banky ballpark boo-boo behind him, I'd focus on a couple of other things.

First, let's start with strikeouts. Qualls' combined 17.4 percent strikeout rate last year was his worst mark since 2006--a season in which he had a good year--while his 14 percent rate of swinging strikes of all strikes was a career low. It was also the major-league average, which is to say, fairly lousy for a reliever. While his fastball was less effective, the main problem that helped generate an especially horrific platoon split (as lefties belted him around at a .391/.448/.583 clip) was that he lost touch on his slider. Per PITCHf/x data from the last few seasons, in 2010 Qualls endured a perfect storm as far as losing that something that made him an effective reliever: hitters started laying off his slider much more frequently, waiting for him to put in on a plate; when he started leaving it out over the plate much more often, hitters--and especially lefty hitters--killed him.

In a nutshell, this is why I hate hearing people talk about "luck" on outcomes or player seasons. Qualls wasn't "unlucky," he was significantly less effective with his slider, and that made that sinker that is his bread-and-butter pitcher less effective. "Luck" isn't going to make him a better pitcher in 2011; execution will. That, or he's done with dominating people out of the pen, and he'll be condemned to wander around from team to team as a series of hard-up GMs hope that Qualls can put the genie back in the bottle.

Here's wishing him luck, but he won't need it--the man has got to work on getting his slider back to a swing-and-miss offering. If he does, he'll be an asset. If he doesn't, he'll be headed for experimentation to find something new that works, and if he finds it, that won't be "lucky" either.

Credit where credit's due to the equally indispensable Joe Lefkowitz and Mike Fast.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed INF-S Nick Punto to a one-year, $700,000 contract. [1/21]

OK, maybe I'm guilty of a reaction formation here, but haven't we in the analysis community flogged Nick Punto enough? The deal the Twins gave him wasn't his fault, and he just kept on doing the things Nick Punto does: draw walks, steal bases, bunt like a Deadball hero, generate longer at-bats than your average utility pest, and play all over the infield. Resenting the contract pointed the finger at the wrong place, and the extent to which Punto still has most of these same skills, he's still worth keeping around.

However, there's cause for concernt that there's less to Nick Punto now than even his noisiest defenders might suggest (assuming any are left). First, he wasn't quite the defensive asset last year. Data from nFRAA (and BIS' Plus/Minus, and TotalZone) doesn't really suggest that Punto is all that much of a playable everywhere infielder--he's down to the mere form of function at short and second, while remaining quite good at third. That's not such a terrible thing for a Cardinals' utility infielder; then again, being a better-gloved alternative to Ryan Theriot or Skip Schumaker doesn't require an especially high standard.

He also lost a lot of value on the bases, dropping to a career-low -1.5 EqBRR last year. But here and in the field, you can wonder if last season's repeated trips to the DL with groin and hamstring issues didn't provide a major complicating factor for his performance. If he's physically sound, it wouldn't be hard to envision his returning to life as the Punto of old.

What does that mean for the Cardinals, though? Not really the epically bad things some might suggest. If you get walks and speed and well-executed bunts and positional flexibility, that isn't a bad guy to have knocking around on a bench. Spotting him for the righty-batting Theriot at short and David Freese at third, either in spot starts, double switches, and early-inning or pinch-running assignments, he makes for a nice tactical weapon. Add in that he's familiar with the responsibilities of a bench player, and he ought to help round out a roster. No, he won't be Jose Oquendo--just get over that, because at least he isn't Aaron Miles.


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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