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January 28, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
With the marquee free agents all signed, the blockbuster trades blockbusted, and even most of the bargain bins raided, there's little left to do this winter but count the days until pitchers and catchers report. That is, unless you're into keeping score regarding the players who have crawled out from under rocks or been shaken out of brothels for the purposes of being given a minor-league deals with invitations to spring training, of course. Some of us are, and there's nothing wrong with that. In any event, as teams' major-league rosters come into focus, I figured now would be a good time to examine some laudable moves which teams have made to stock their benches, adding players with the ability to back up at multiple positions, or who can serve as insurance policies to cover for contingencies.
I've arranged these into a lineup for the purposes of balance, though of course part of the point is that these guys aren't really starters at this juncture, and several of them have positional flexibility. Unless noted, all players are signed to one-year deals.
Catcher: Russell Martin, Yankees (signed as a free agent, for $4 million plus incentives)
Non-tendered by the Dodgers, Martin signed with the Yankees, and soon afterwards general manager Brian Cashman declared, "As long as he’s healthy he will be the everyday catcher." That's a big if, on a number of levels, starting with the fact that Cashman's words may not be worth what they once were in the wake of the Rafael Soriano signing. Martin is recuperating from a hairline fracture in his hip as well as a torn meniscus in his knee, so his health is certainly in question. Furthermore, the Yankees have an organizational glut of catchers, though in Jorge Posada, klutzy backup Francisco Cervelli, top prospect Jesus Montero, and highly regarded Austin Romine, they don't really have anyone whose receiving skills they can trust from day one. Posada is penciled in as the regular designated hitter, and while Montero could wind up getting the bulk of the big-league at-bats if he proves at least somewhat competent defensively, he's also likely to get a bit more Triple-A seasoning for service-time purposes. That leaves Martin in a role that could shrink as the year goes on, though of course he could always draw upon his experience at third base as well.
First Base: Mike Napoli, Rangers (traded from Angels to Blue Jays to Rangers)
Napoli has hardly been under the radar lately, having been traded twice within the past week, and it's debatable as to whether he's really going to wind up as a bench bat down in Texas. What we do know is that since a spate of Ranger catching prospects befell a Spinal Tap drummer-like fate, catching has been a weak link; last year, the team's backstops hit a combined .212/.288/317 in 2010, worse than the Tigers' tandem which earned Replacement-Level Killers status. Texas signed Yorvit Torrealba to a two-year, $6.25 million deal in late November, and while Napoli could end up earning nearly that much in one year via arbitration, he's got much less going for him behind the plate. He did play plenty of first base last year, though, and given that Ranger first basemen hit just .214/.310/.345 (even with Mitch Moreland's late-season contributions), Napoli could be helpful at both positions.
Second Base: Jerry Hairston Jr., Nationals (signed as free agent, $2 million plus incentives)
Playing for the Padres in 2010, Hairston was overexposed by injuries to David Eckstein and Everth Cabrera; his 476 plate appearances were his highest total since 2002. Nonetheless, while his .244/.299/.353 line doesn't look pretty, it translates to an almost respectable .252 True Average; meanwhile, he was four runs above average in the field while playing mostly shortstop and second base and dabbling at third and in the outfield corners. The Nationals can use him to cover Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa in case either fails to get going, particularly the latter, who's penciled in for the second base job with just 49 games played above Double-A. That done, they can then flip him to a contender at the trade deadline in exchange for a low-level prospect.
Shortstop: Edgar Renteria, Reds (signed as free agent, $2.1 million)
The 2010 World Series MVP certainly wasn't worth the $18.5 million he was paid over the past two years, in which he generated just 2.9 WARP, and at 34, his best days are so far behind him that he was considering retirement. Meanwhile, incumbent Reds shortstop Paul Janish's .260/.338/.385 line in 228 plate appearances reeks of small-sample fluke; his .266 TAv was 32 points higher than his PECOTA weighted mean, and is a similar distance above any mark he's put up in the majors or minors since at least 2007. Coming off a .263 TAv with the Giants, Renteria should be able to provide enough offensive support to help offset any regression there after signing earlier in the month.
Third Base: Joe Mather, Braves (claimed off waivers from Cardinals)
In 2008, Mather hit a lopsided but useful .241/.306/.474 off the bench for the Cardinals before missing most of September due to a broken wrist. Taking advantage of his versatility, the Cardinals auditioned him at third base (where he had 127 games of minor-league experience) the following spring, and for a time it looked as though he might win the job for Opening Day. Alas, Mather went into a dreadful slump, was farmed out, and wound up needing surgery on the wrist due to a cyst, as well as a .176 batting average. He didn't fare well in an early-2010 trial in St. Louis as a backup outfielder, but rebounded at Triple-A Memphis (.275/.348/.442). The Braves claimed him off waivers in early November, and while they're not likely to use him at the hot corner--Martin Prado can move there when Chipper Jones is unavailable--Mather at the very least provides a right-handed complement to Eric Hinske (see below).
Left Field: Andruw Jones, Yankees (signed as free agent, $2 million plus incentives)
This move, which I wrote up at more length for The Pinstriped Bible last week, was the one that inspired this article. Jones isn't the player he once was with the Braves; playing for four teams over the past four years, he's hit just .212/.312/.412, made his exit from Atlanta, drawn his release from the Dodgers after one atrocious season, and lined the benches of the Rangers and White Sox. For that, he's been paid (or will be paid, once the deferrals are all said and done) more than $50 million for producing just 3.9 WARP. As frightening as that is, the Yankees are compensating him much more modestly, and banking upon his remaining ability to hit lefties (.256/.373/.558 in 102 plate appearances last year, .222/.347/.435 in 556 PA against them during that four-year decline phase), which complements the shortcomings of both left fielder Brett Gardner and center fielder Curtis Granderson. Jones rates as an upgrade on last year's pinstriped lefty-masher, Marcus Thames, in that he can actually still play defense. He was four runs above average according to FRAA last year, and is 10 runs above average over the past four years; other systems see him as slightly above average as well. He can still spot in center field, though it's more likely that either Granderson or Gardner does so when the other one sits.
Center Field: Tony Gwynn Jr., Dodgers (signed as a free agent, $675,000)
In a showing that should have triggered a paternity test, Gwynn hit just .204/.304/.287 in 339 PA for the Padres last year. The Padres chose to non-tender him, but he caught the attention of the Dodgers. As general manager Ned Colletti continues to collect irregular parts towards building Frankenstein’s monster in left field (Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames, Xavier Paul), the idea of putting Gwynn in center field and moving Matt Kemp to left at least some of the time starts to have some merit, particularly with Kemp coming off such a lousy year in the middle pasture (-6 FRAA, -15 DRS, -24 UZR). At the very least, having Gwynn around as a defensive caddy for Thames or Gibbons is more necessity than luxury.
Right Field: Eric Hinske, Braves (re-signed for $1.35 million plus 2012 club option)
After helping the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees reach successive World Series, Hinske's luck on that front ran out in Atlanta last year, but he hit a solid .256/.338/.456 with 11 homers in 320 plate appearances, helping to salvage the Braves' outfield production while Melky Cabrera and Nate McLouth were digging in the other direction. Hinske's no longer much of an option at third base—he played just one inning there in 2009, and has just over 100 there over the past four seasons—and he didn't even play right field in 2010, but as a lefty-swinger who can fill in at three corners, he has his merits, hence the decision to re-sign him.
Designated Hitter: Jim Thome, Twins (re-signed for $3 million)
Thome ranked among the best bargains in baseball last year, hitting .283/.412/.627 and bopping 25 homers in 340 plate appearances as a part-time DH, all for just $1.5 million. He was on fire in the second half (.313/.448/.710) when the Twins needed him most after Justin Morneau went down with a concussion. While it's probably asking too much for a repeat performance of such proportions, and while he'll still need to battle Jason Kubel for at-bats as the Twins' DH, Thome—who by the way needs just 11 homers to reach 600—could still be a bargain at twice the price.
Though he was unable to keep the injury bug from biting last year, Padilla has put up a league average-ish 3.82 ERA in 134 1/3 innings since coming to LA in late 2009, and he has yet to wear out his welcome the way he did in Texas. Hell, he even put up career-best strikeout and walk rates (8.0 and 2.3 per nine, respectively) during his 95 innings. With Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly, and Jon Garland lined up ahead of him in the rotation, Padilla wasn't signed with the expectation that he'd make 25-30 starts, he was added as a spot starter and a potential closer in case Jonathan Broxton can't rediscover the mojo he lost last summer. Even if Padilla turns out to be nothing more than middle-relief help while occasionally dabbling at either end of the ballgame, it's a reasonable expenditure.
In a winter where teams threw gaudy multi-year deals at the likes of Joaquin Benoit, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Scott Downs, and Grant Balfour--none of whom has much experience at closer--the Jays' landing of Rauch rates as a coup, given that he's now had two solid partial-season stints in that role in the past three years. Along with Octavio Dotel and Frank Francisco--neither of whom has strong track records for health--Rauch will compete for the ninth-inning role in spring training. At the very least, Rauch had a much higher WXRL than either last year (2.3, compared to 0.7 for Dotel and Francisco), and he's durable enough to have averaged 76 appearances per year over the past five seasons, second only to lefty Pedro Feliciano, so he should be a useful late-inning piece.