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August 23, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Jered Weaver's $85 Million Welcome Mat

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
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Signed RHP Jered Weaver to a six-year extension. [8/21]

The Angels locked up their ace for five years for a smaller sum—$85 million—than Vernon Wells had coming to him when they acquired him in January. Of the two, Weaver seems like the wiser investment. Considering how Wells’ season has gone, that isn’t saying much*, but even when judged against players with a pulse, Weaver’s deal looks fairly favorable for the Angels. As has been pointed out elsewhere on the internet, the pact’s parameters owe something to similar deals recently signed by Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander; to the disappointment of many a Yankees fan, it seems as though teams are becoming increasingly reluctant to let their homegrown aces be poached to form a Bronx super-rotation at the first sign of free-agent eligibility.

The terms appear reasonable for both parties, with no hint of an overpay by Anaheim; as Tom Tango noted, Weaver may actually have sold himself a bit short. While he got more in total than either Hernandez or Verlander received, he signed away only one arbitration year, as opposed to the two the other pitchers surrendered. (He had been headed for free agency after next season; instead, he’ll have to wait until after the 2016 season to test the waters.) However, he could make up for any shortfall via incentives, and he’ll also enjoy a full no-trade clause.

What’s more, Weaver had good reasons to take a slight discount to stick around. Not only is he at home in the area, where he was born and raised, but he’s also quite comfortable within the friendly confines of his home park. As Dave Cameron observed, Angel Stadium keeps more fly balls from becoming homers than the average stadium, which suits Weaver—an extreme fly-ball pitcher—quite well. (The righty has allowed under 0.8 big flies per nine innings at home, compared to just over 1.1 on the road.) Aside from the park’s institutional advantages, he also could have had visions of an outfield defense that will likely include Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout for the duration of the deal. Weaver will be 34 when the extension runs its course, so this won’t be his last contract. That gives him ample reason to value the power of park effects to aid his cause.

Weaver’s 2.60 ERA and 4.1 K:BB ratio since the start of last season make him as solid a bet from a performance perspective as any pitcher in the game. The risk, as it always is in the case of a long-term deal—especially one involving a player who pitches for a living—is that Weaver’s arm will expire before his contract does. However, as hurlers go, Weaver has almost always been among the healthy few. The right-hander is on pace for his fourth straight season of at least 30 starts, and his third consecutive campaign of over 200 innings.

Weaver has just one DL stint on his record, which came from a bout with right shoulder inflammation that kept him out for the minimum at the start of 2007 (though he also has four other entries for minor shoulder-related complaints in our injury database). Still, a glance at a list of pitchers whose long-term contracts in the same average-annual-value range as Weaver’s still haven’t expired yields a number of cautionary tales such as Jason Schmidt, Jake Peavy, Barry Zito, Carlos Zambrano, A.J. Burnett, and ex-Angel John Lackey, not to mention ghosts of pitcher contracts past like Kevin Brown, Darren Dreifort, Mike Hampton, Chan Ho Park, and almost everyone else except Mike Mussina.

Weaver has a better track record and prospect pedigree than most of those pitchers did when they cashed in, and the Angels minimized their risk by avoiding the six- or seven-year jackpot that he likely could have commanded had he rolled the dice and remained healthy and effective through next season. This deal looked unlikely to happen several months ago, after Weaver lost an arbitration case with the Angels, prompting at least one pundit to predict that an early payday like this one would not come to pass. There’s also the matter of Weaver’s choice of agent, Scott Boras, who isn’t known for going easy on his clients’ employers.

With Dan Haren and the resurgent Ervin Santana under team control via options through 2013, the Angels have a fine potential playoff rotation in place, so they should be quite tickled that Weaver chose to stick around at a reasonable rate. If they could pair those arms with a better-hitting batterymate, they’d have the makings of a perennial contender through the rest of Weaver’s time in town.

*Wells’ .236 on-base percentage is like one of those optical illusions you have to stare at for a while from different angles and distances to comprehend; I did something like a quadruple-take before I could convince myself that I wasn’t looking at the wrong column. Stay tuned for more on how awful an investment that OBP (and the player who produced it) are in tomorrow’s edition of The Lineup Card. And to think Wells used to have ISOs that high.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Optioned RHP Jordan Lyles to Triple-A Oklahoma City. [8/21]

Lyles' exit isn’t so much a demotion for performance reasons as it is a precautionary move to protect a prized asset, although his performance hasn’t always been pretty—the 21-year-old righty allowed 19 runs in 22 1/3 innings over four August starts. More to the point, he threw 158 2/3 innings in the minors last season, and the Astros reportedly don’t want him exceeding 170 this time around. Since Lyles has already had a finger in 148-plus frames in 2011, Houston’s only chance to have him continue pitching while sticking to their innings target requires a role change.

Thus, Lyles returns to Oklahoma City, where he’ll pitch in relief for the RedHawks before heading to the big-league bullpen after rosters expand. Considering his youth and inexperience, the rookie hasn’t pitched too poorly; his respectable walk and strikeout rates resulted in a 4.44 FIP, which certainly doesn’t lower his lofty ceiling any. The question the Astros have to ask themselves is whether it was worth the service time to let the youngster experience his first taste of success for a 50-something-win team. Branch Rickey’s remark to Ralph Kiner after the 1952 season also applies here—the Astros could have finished last without Lyles.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Designated RHP Pat Neshek for assignment. [8/20]

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that recovery from Tommy John surgery isn’t an automatic success, but Neshek’s post-surgical swoon serves as a reminder that not every pitcher can be counted on to return to his previous level immediately with a new ligament in place. In his heyday with the Twins, Neshek thrived on an ability to miss bats, but he also avoided free passes, walking fewer than three batters per nine innings over his one full season and two partial ones prior to surgery.

Since his return, Neshek has lost not only his velocity—his fastball is three-four miles per hour off its 2008 pace—but the strike zone as well. In 33 2/3 frames at the major-league level since his comeback last season, the side-armer has walked 30 batters. With a walk rate that high, Neshek would have to pitch like prime Carlos Marmol in all other respects to remain playable, but—perhaps not surprisingly, given his velocity loss—his strikeout rate has fallen to the point that he’s actually dishing out more free passes than strikeouts.

Curiously, Neshek has handed out only 24 walks in 64 minor-league innings over the past two seasons—not an especially stingy total, but not far from his pre-surgical rate. The good news, then, is that he likely hasn’t suffered some sort of Steve Blass breakdown (which is not a bad name for a band). Still, the disconnect between his walk rates in Triple-A and the majors does suggest that barring a mental block that applies only at the latter level, diminished stuff has reduced him to nibbling against big-league batters.


For further reading, check out R.J. Anderson’s Transaction Analysis Blog entry since the last installment of TA:

Royals Extend Francoeur (8/18)
Pirates Extend Tabata (8/20)

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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