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February 11, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Weekly Roundup, February 4-10

by Christina Kahrl

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Agreed to terms with 1B/OF-L Luke Scott on a one-year, $6.4 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/10]

BOSTON RED SOX
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Agreed to terms with LHP Dennys Reyes on a minor-league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/5]
Agreed to terms with RHP Alfredo Aceves on a one-year, $650,000 contract. [2/7]
Designated RHP Robert Coello for assignment. [2/9]

Dorothy Parker quips: The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.

In the never-ending thumb-in-your-eye scrum between the Red Sox and Yankees, there's that special hell reserved for those players who go from one evil empire to the next, whether that's a matter of angrifying the masses allegiant to one spurned squad or the other, or reminding fans of the other 28 teams of the general loathsomeness of both. In Boston just as in New York, getting belly lint in your nose from all that navel-gazing isn't just a fashion faux pas, it's an everyday hazard.

But even so, any Beantown glee over cherry-picking a fairly good swingman, lately of the Yankees, and for so very little, seems appropriate for the occasion. What better way to avenge their getting ear-tweaked in the Rule 5 draft?!? This'll show 'em! They'll rue the day they lost the Ace of Aceves, when he gets the sun to his back and shoots down the Bombers' pennant hopes in a feat of middle-relief heroism sure to be remembered by anyone already committed to the cult of Steamer Bob Stanley.

Unless there's some slow-developing plan to finally deal Daisuke Matsuzaka after all, Aceves ranks fairly low on the club's list of rotation alternatives. Even if you count Michael Bowden among the relievers, Tim Wakefield's already been shunted from the rotation. That makes Aceves an insurance policy on their insurance policy. If they really were to lose two starting pitchers, you might wonder if that wouldn't lead Theo Epstein to make a deal before he'd just hand over his understated hopes for utter domination to the stylings of the Ace of Aceves.

Bringing up injury scenarios raises a major issue, which is that Aceves is still recovering from an off-season bicycle accident that busted his collarbone, that after missing half the season to a back injury. He may get off to a slow start in camp, which means he may not be ready for the start of the season. That's actually not much of a negative; if he's the first man up once a starter breaks down and they need someone else to take Wakefield's place in middle relief, that's not a bad thing to have.

Given Boston's depth, Aceves' real value might be in exactly that middle-innings role. He ranked seventh in the majors in relief innings thrown in 2009, averaging almost two frames per appearance, or doing about the closest thing anyone's allowed to achieve these days that approximates... well, Bob Stanley, not to take the man's name in vain. Aceves did that and posted a strikeout rate north of 20 percent, reflecting the virtues of a deep arsenal. If there's a problem on the performance front, it's that he's going to give up home runs—he's a fairly extreme fly-ball pitcher, so if you keep planting that patch, eventually you're sure to get taters. That may not fly in a contender's rotation, but for a space-absorbing middle man who allows Terry Francona to stack up his expensive famous people for late-game matchups, Aceves could be more than just a bargain, he could be downright valuable.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Signed SS-R Orlando Cabrera to a one-year contract. [2/10]

Dorothy Parker quips: This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.

Believe it or not, but there really are rational reasons to want Orlando Cabrera. Maybe you don't want to be on the MLBPA's sin list, for example, for spending too little; Cleveland's total payroll is in danger of dropping below $50 million, and we couldn't have that, not for a team whose aspirations reach as high as fourth place. Or maybe there's some element of concern over Jason Donald's service time—that stuff adds up, donchaknow, and the kid's just 26 years old. It'll be really very important to make sure that you've got Jason Donald under club control in 2014, because you'd hate to have to face the arbitration panel for the first time with a thirtysomething, right?

Hrm, I'm in danger of running out of reasons from the nefarious/unlikely category, so let's turn to the more pragmatic question of projections. The Donald is projected to hit just .235/.304/.351, for a .241 TAv. Since his nFRAA numbers at both short and second ranged from average to bad, for a infield starter, he makes a fine utilityman. So signing Cabrera makes sense, right? Well, no. Cabrera can't hit right-handed pitching (.240/.275/.326 last year) or away from the Gap (.233/.269/.302), so you can take his getting projected to hit .264/.307/.351 for a .237 TAv in the Gap as optimistic in its way—those are numbers sure to drop when projected for the House Jacobs Built in Cleveland, since it rates as one of the AL's best pitchers' parks. But he's famous for once being a defensive stud, so at least the Tribe will get the feel of real leather, right? Well, not so much these days—Cabrera's fielding numbers of late rate among the worst in the majors at shortstop, non-Jeter category.

OK, he doesn't project to hit any better, or field any better... maybe this is about Asdrubal Cabrera's peace of mind, allowing him to move off short to his better position, second base. That might make some sense, if only because Orlando Cabrera's a well-aged simulacrum of a shortstop. The problem with this line of thinking is that many of the Indians' best prospects may be looking for a home at second base: Cord Phelps is almost ready, and Jason Kipnis should be in the picture before season's end. So if Asdrubal moves across the bag to man second, it won't figure to be for very long.

In contrast, among the upper-level shortstop possibilities, the cupboard's not just bare, it's a nudist colony. This winter the Indians lost Josh Rodriguez to the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft, and while Carlos Rivero's prospects as a prospect pancaked as he hit the Double-A wall at Akron, they nevertheless lost him on a waiver claim by the Phillies in November when they tried to sneak him back off the 40-man. Which perhaps goes to the heart of the matter: It isn't that the Indians need Cabrera to start for them so much as they have a genuine shortage of people who can handle the position. Because of that lack of depth, leaving The Donald at Columbus may wind up being as much about making sure they keep the affiliate happy as it does with manipulating his service time—it is, after all, just The Donald.

The result might be a very fluid infield in terms of who plays where and for how long. It also makes for an interesting camp, because other than Asdrubal Cabrera, there may not be a man among the Opening Day options at second, third, and short who is still with the club come 2012. Maybe Manny Acta will find that sort of open competition liberating, and maybe the shortage of good regulars will create accelerated opportunities for Phelps or Lonnie Chisenhall or even Jared Goedert. With so many other clubs, good and bad, already looking somewhat set as far as their lineups and most of their rosters, the Tribe will at least have the potential to provide the odd March surprise or two.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Agreed to terms with LHP Francisco Liriano on a one-year, $4.3 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/5]

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Signed INF-R Ronnie Belliard and 3B-L Eric Chavez to minor-league contracts with spring training NRIs. [2/4]

Dorothy Parker quips: But I don't give up; I forget why not.

There's no reason to harbor any great expectations that Chavez will be healthy enough to play for any length of time, let alone play well. Even though he's now just another stormtrooper signed up to serve the Evil Empire, notable for blown expectations and high-maintenance needs, there was once a time when so much of what Chavez looked to be was cause for high hope in the East Bay. "Barry Bonds at third," among other things. Now that his contract's run out and he's managed to appear in just 154 games over the last four seasons, let's set the money and the regret aside, and remember that he's a ballplayer giving it another shot. If he winds up being able to take advantage of NuYankee's jet stream and pump a couple of pitches into the cheap seats, it will be a nice echo of what he used to be and could have been. If he's healthy enough to spot Jorge Posada at DH, play some first and third base, that would be ideal, but so little of Chavez's career has worked out, there's perhaps not much more here than a favor and a memory.

Considering that the Yankees don't have a good utility infielder, but just another one of Joe Girardi's odd favorites, Ramiro Pena, you might anticipate that Belliard has chosen a great place to try and keep his career going as an "everywhere but shortstop" utility infielder. However, Belliard was horrifically bad for the Dodgers as a bench player last season, hitting .167/.217/.214 coming off the bench. That was in a season where that was his primary responsibility, as he drew a career-low 36 starts, without hitting all that much better in the lineup (.233/.321/.367). Even if Girardi didn't already favor a fairly set lineup, and even if he didn't already seem to have Pena pigeon-holed in the same "my guys" hamper with Francisco Cervelli and Sergio Mitre and David Robertson, that kind of performance is sure to drive a 36-year-old man to choose between Scranton or selling insurance.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Designated 1B/OF-L Leslie Anderson and OF-R Justin Ruggiano for assignment. [2/7]
Outrighted 1B/LF-L Leslie Anderson and OF-R Justin Ruggiano to Durham (Triple-A). [2/11]

Dorothy Parker quips: Look at him, a rhinestone in the rough.

I generally decry most Cuban investments, operating from the principle that as prospects go, a lot of Cuban imports are baseball's answer to the cubano itself—sure, it might be a very nice ham sandwich, but do you really want to pay $14 for a ham sandwich? And no, this is not a ham sandwich with future considerations—it does not also take you to the movies. Sometimes, it really is just a ham sandwich, or worse.

Of course, scouting Cuban prospects isn't easy, because you wind up with relatively limited access, and even if you didn't have to deal with the inanities of America's Cuba policy, there's just a 90-game season beyond any international competition to see these guys play. The statistical track record is hard to evaluate, not just because of that short season, but also because you're dealing with a competitive environment shaped by a stars-and-scrubs approach—stars in Havana, scrubs in the boonies. As Clay Davenport noted in the past, you wind up with a lower level of competitive quality than you'd expect (around short-season A-ball).

So, when the Rays signed Anderson last year, I wound up coming to the conclusion that as "an exploratory investment goes, Anderson's interesting, but he's also not someone expected to go nuts at the plate now that he's stateside." Fast-forward a year after signing him, and predictably enough, the conclusion has been reached by the highest authorities that Anderson wasn't really worth a 40-man roster spot after all. This shouldn't be seen as all that surprising—remember, the man's going to turn 29 this spring, so hitting a combined .302/.359/.442 isn't all that special. He didn't look especially mobile in left, and his ISO across three levels (High- to Triple-A) was just .140, or a lot less than you want from a first baseman. Beyond that, he doesn't walk, and you can wonder how effective his aggressive approach will be against more advanced pitching.

Happily, the Rays never made the mistake of paying him all that much, since they only owe him $1.1 million over the next three years; more expensive than your average lottery ticket, but player development has its high-stakes tables as well as its slot machines. With Cuban prospects, the house doesn't always win, but because of the "forbidden fruit from beyond the banana curtain" angle, some folks can't help but want to throw some money on the green and watch it go away, to make an impression as much as anything else. Someone else may get grabbity—did I mention that he's Cuban, Cuban, CUBAN!—which is no great loss or gain, but sometimes, you just have to have a ham sandwich, y'know?

TEXAS RANGERS
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Agreed to terms with OF-L Josh Hamilton on a two-year, $24 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/10]

Dorothy Parker quips: Money cannot buy health, but I'd settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair.

Which is something that young master Hamilton can afford these days, except that he's not quite so young—the deal covers his age-30 and -31 seasons—and there's the legitimate question over whether or not the wheelchair is something he'll need at some point or another during the next two seasons.

Keep in mind, last September's shutdown wasn't unusual for Hamilton: It has become an annual ritual for the man, as he has been sat down for most of the season's final month in three of his four years in the majors. Those injuries do not show up as DL assignments, causing no end of heartache in your average unreformed fantasy league, beyond just Rangers fans. Add in those three non-transactions to a goodly amount of playing hurt and four DL assignments in four years in the majors, and you've got half of the Fred Lynn proposition.

Glum stuff? Sure, but the Rangers are paying $12 million per year for the other half of that proposition: that they're going to get one of the best players in baseball. PECOTA projects Hamilton to hit .297/.358/.513, good enough to rank in a three-way tie for 20th in True Average among big-league regulars at .300. Switch over to a defense-inclusive counting stat, and he's projected to tie with Victor Martinez and Buster Posey for 44th in WARP.

It is perhaps reflective of how much we don't know about Hamilton's ultimate upside that such projections seem strangely disappointing. However, on a pragmatic level, it's important to keep in mind that, as much as his dropping walk and strikeout rates might reflect his increasing knowledge of what he can do to whom as he settles in to the majors, a .390 BABIP is sort of hard to bank on.

On the more fantastical level, that such projections might be seen as disappointing is a reflection of how epic Hamilton's possibilities have already become. Some players really do possess their own myth-making capabilities, and whether it's in the Rangers' wildest dreams of success and avarice, or every fanthead hoping to get another 2010-like explosion out of the man, in a career this unusual involving a player as gifted as Hamilton always was, somehow that doesn't seem unreasonable. That's the other thing that's so fascinating about Hamilton—because of a backstory Bernard Malamud couldn't have borrowed from any better than he did from the life of Eddie Waitkus, with Hamilton we don't have the same clean proposition as far as how good he's supposed to be, or was ever supposed to be. Roy Hobbs, demystified and tacked to the everyday like it was fly paper? Why not?

That is not to say that we should see Hamilton as any more heroic because of that backstory. But in paying out this kind of cash for a player who comes with the reliable risk for in-season breakdown and the additional risk for the several people he was and is—incomparable blue-chip prospect, addict, comeback success, man of faith—the Rangers also know they're getting one of the more extraordinary choices for "best player in the game" you're likely to see. There's every reason to believe they'll wind up feeling vindicated by the time he reaches free agency after 2012, when he'll be heading into his age-32 season, because even if he's "only" one of the 20 best or 50 best ballplayers, he'll have been worth it. If he's more than that, that just contributes to man's burgeoning legend.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Outrighted RHP Roque Mercedes to Nashville (Triple-A). [2/8]
Agreed to terms with RHP Shaun Marcum on a one-year, $3.95 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/9]

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Outrighted PH-R Oscar Salazar to Tucson (Triple-A). [2/7]
Signed LHP Randy Flores to a minor-league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/10]

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed OF-L Jim Edmonds to a minor-league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/4]

Dorothy Parker quips: Constant use had not worn ragged the fabric of their friendship.

It is a happy thing indeed to see Edmonds come back to where he briefly became one of baseball's superstars—his career deserves to be capped in front of the fans who knew him best. But nostalgia alone doesn't make this a worthwhile pickup. Having him around to spot for Lance Berkman—or to take over in left if Berkman's move back to the outfield ends as messily as Mike Easler's attempt did 20-odd years ago—and Matt Holliday when he's not serving as a high-leverage late-inning pinch-hitter makes him a great February pickup. It may not be a perfect fit, because he probably can't handle center field for an extended stretch, which means that he can't just erase Jon Jay from the roster and soak up all of a normal fourth outfielder's playing time, but it's still perhaps the best elective move of the last seven days.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Re-signed RHP J.D. Martin and signed 1B-L Kevin Barker to minor-league contracts with spring training NRIs. [2/4]

Dorothy Parker quips: Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both.

Since Shairon Martis had already slipped through waivers and will nevertheless be in camp as a non-roster invite, it's nice to see that most of GM Mike Rizzo's Nationals recovery acts were completely successful. With the expectation that Chien-Ming Wang will be healthy enough to compete with Tom Gorzelanny and Yunesky Maya for the last slot in the rotation, it isn't like Martin's recovery from last year's back woes will be a major item of consideration for the rotation. Sound or less so, he's a finesse righty with outstanding control, an aspirant for fifth slot heroics on a good team, and perhaps surprisingly he rates no higher than ninth or so on the organization's list of people who might start games for them in 2011.

Similarly, Barker's a journeyman who has come to the right place conceptually—the Nats have an open casting call for a lefty pinch-hitter with pop, something that Jim Riggleman likes to make room for on his bench. Barker owns 260 minor-league home runs across a 15-year career spent playing for six different major-league organizations, while delivering a .210 ISO. He's re-crossing the border after spending last season slugging for Veracruz in the Mexican League. The problem? He's stuck in an era where managers prefer employing Tim Byrdak to a lefty pinch-hitter, and in that kind of world, he's worse off than your average Gooback—he can't go back to the '70s and underbid Greg Gross for a job, so he had to go south of the border to make a living. The other problem? He's at the back of a line that has Matt Stairs, Laynce Nix, Michael Aubrey, and Jonathan Van Every in it, which means he and most of his direct rivals are going to be teaming up to propel Syracuse towards one form of glory or another.

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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