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November 2, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Weighing the Options

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Declined OF-L Grady Sizemore's $9 million option for 2012. [10/31]

Since 1950, 21 players have had at least four seasons of 4.5 WARP or more through age 25. Nine are in the Hall of Fame; two more (Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds) would be there with them but for being active too recently and/or allegedly brushing their teeth and seasoning their salad with Stanozolol. Six more are still active and range from Hall of Fame locks (Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols) to aging veterans who have built convincing cases (Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones) to players under 30 off to Cooperstown-caliber starts (David Wright, Evan Longoria). Two others (Dick Allen and Cesar Cedeno) fell short but along the way built robust WARP totals that have at various times put them, as they say, “in the discussion.”

That leaves us with two names. One is Grady Sizemore, who was proceeding along the Wright/Longoria path until starting to hit the skids in 2009 and falling off the map entirely over the last two seasons. The other is Jim Ray Hart, the only discouraging comp for Sizemore among all of these fast starters. The similarities are almost eerie: Hart was worth 5.2 WARP in his first full season at age 22; Sizemore, in his first season at the same age, managed 4.6. Over the next three seasons, Hart amassed 16.3 WARP, while Sizemore mustered 16.5. At age 26, the two fell off to 2.8 and 3.1, respectively. Hart never topped 1.0 WARP again, and so far the same can be said for Sizemore. Both suffered a series of injuries that took their tolls in both playing time and talent.

Beyond that, the comparison breaks down. Hart was a slow, defensively challenged third baseman; Sizemore, a speedy player with an athletic body and the leaked cell phone pics to prove it, won two Gold Gloves in center, though he didn’t crack the AL top 10 in center-field FRAA either time. That skill set gives Sizemore more options as he tries to keep his career alive; he could move to a corner or even DH if his bat recovers but his body prevents him from playing the field, an option that arrived too late to prolong Hart’s career.

That body might still thrill Grady’s Ladies, but it’s failed Sizemore on the field. As Aaron Gleeman noted, Sizemore missed 220 of a possible 324 games from 2010-2011. What’s more, he wasn’t a Hong-Chih Kuo type, one of those players who manages to dominate between DL stints; he was clearly diminished when he was in the lineup. While his power was largely intact last season, he struck out at a higher rate than any AL player with at least 250 plate appearances save for Adam Dunn, Jack Cust, Mark Reynolds, Wilson Betemit, and a couple of catchers, Kelly Shoppach and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He also walked about half as often as he did in his heyday and failed to steal a single base three years after swiping 38.

It might seem strange that the Indians would elect not to give Sizemore another shot at recapturing his former glory in Cleveland, but after five surgeries, including operations on both of his knees, they may have reached their limit. Matt Swartz found that free agents who sign with new clubs decline more quickly than free agents retained by their teams, which suggests that teams know their own players best. If the Indians think Sizemore can’t play well or long enough to justify a $9 million price tag, other clubs would be wise to take note.

Of course, this move doesn’t mean that the Indians won’t try to bring him back on a less lucrative deal, but they’ll have some competition; with Coco Crisp the best center fielder on the free agent market and no better option at the corners than the similarly injury-prone Carlos Beltran, Sizemore is sure to draw some interest. In fact, the Red Sox have already been rumored to have interest in making him their latest in a long line of reclamation projects. What potential bidders have to wonder is not only whether Sizemore can stay healthy, but whether the injuries he’s already sustained have permanently eroded his skills to the point that his ceiling is well below where it once was.

COLORADO ROCKIES
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Exercised 1B-L Jason Giambi's $1 million option for 2012. [10/29]
Declined RHP Aaron Cook's $11 million option for 2012. [10/30]

In only 152 plate appearances last season, Giambi amassed 1.2 WARP, equaling his total from the previous two seasons combined. Few former MVPs adjust to life on the bench as well as Giambi has, though he did almost all of his damage in his sporadic starts. As a starting first baseman or DH during interleague play, Giambi hit .290/.388/.700 with 12 of his 13 home runs. As a pinch-hitter, he hit just .133/.229/.233 with one homer in 35 plate appearances. Talk about your pinch-hit penalties.

During his MVP campaign in 2000, Giambi went yard every 15.4 trips to the plate. Last year, he homered every 11.7 plate appearances, and over half of his bombs came away from Colorado. He even held his own against lefties, though he rarely had to face them. He did spend some time on the DL with a quad strain, and as a creaky, over-40 bench bat in the NL, he’s something of a luxury item, even with a $1 million price tag. Giambi’s career earnings have topped $130 million, so at this point, he’s not sticking around for the money. He seems to enjoy the mentor role he’s assumed in Colorado, and as long as his bat still has some bite, the Rockies will be happy to have him impart wisdom to the team’s younger players. In fact, Troy Tulowitzki will reportedly spend part of this winter living in Las Vegas, “picking [Giambi’s] brain to help me become a better player.” What kind of player, he didn’t say.

Cook has suffered DL stints and declining innings totals in each of the last three seasons, so while he still possesses the mid-50s-percent groundball rate that has long served him well in Colorado’s thin air, he never had a chance of seeing an eight-figure salary in 2012. The team isn’t opposed to bringing back the career Rocky (and all-time franchise win leader) on a one-year, incentive-laden deal, so don’t count on Cook changing clubhouses this winter, as exciting as it might be for him to learn how the other 29/30ths live at lower altitudes at age 33.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Declined RHP Francisco Rodriguez's $17.5 million option for 2012. [10/30]
Declined SS-R Yuniesky Betancourt's $6 million option for 2012. [10/30]

At $17.5 million, Rodriguez’s option was unappetizing enough that the Mets were reduced to playing hot potato with it at last year’s deadline. Since New York and Milwaukee conspired to keep him from finishing 55 games (and a total of 100 in 2010 and 2011 combined), Rodriguez was forced to accept the indignity of settling for a $3.5 million buyout. He remains the rare dependable reliever in an ocean of fungible arms, and he excelled in a setup role in Milwaukee, though he clearly would have preferred to be closing. Rodriguez claimed that the Brewers promised him a share of the save opportunities and then went back on their word, though his complaints came off as self-centered in light of John Axford’s flawless performance during the team’s playoff push.

After switching to Scott Boras’ agency in July, he’ll be looking for another multi-year deal with a team that will let him be its bullpen’s top dog, but any deal on the order of his just-completed three-year, $37 million pact would be a serious mistake. Rodriguez’s performance has not yet eroded, but his fastball has lost over four miles per hour since it was first recorded by the PITCHf/x system, averaging just over 90 last season. His secondary stuff has slowed with it, preserving a vital separation in speed between pitches, but hitters should begin to catch on before long.

Those who said a team couldn’t make the playoffs with Yuniesky Betancourt as its starting shortstop were proven wrong by the Brewers’ success last season, though Betancourt did his best to back them up. The nicest thing you can say about his performance is that he’s been worse in the past, but that would be drawing a fine distinction between slightly higher and lower circles of shortstop level.

Betancourt did have some big hits in the playoffs, but his .271 regular season OBP makes further compliments scarce. He walked all of 16 times, seeing the fewest pitches per plate appearance of any major leaguer with at least 300 plate appearances (3.16) and swinging at the seventh-highest rate of pitches outside the zone in the NL, all while playing his usual brand of deficient defense. It’s possible that the Brewers could bring him back for less than he would have made had they picked up the option, but they’ve probably seen enough. The silver lining of spending a full season with Yuni is that it’s always easy to upgrade, and Milwaukee needn’t break the bank for Jose Reyes to accomplish that modest goal—even Ramon Santiago would do.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Exercised LHP Jeremy Affeldt's $5 million club option for 2012. [10/30]
Signed LHP Javier Lopez to a two-year contract. [10/30]

It looks like Brian Sabean was serious when he said his highest offseason priority was keeping his pitching staff intact. San Francisco moved quickly to corner the market on left-handed relievers, picking up their $5 million option on Affeldt, signing Lopez to a two-year, $8.5 million deal, and leaving the ancient Darren Oliver, George Sherrill, and Mike Gonzalez as the best of the rest available. Both pitchers were highly effective against southpaws last season; Lopez held them to a 430 OPS, and Affeldt more than matched that with a 406 mark of his own. Both pitchers are more consistent than your average specialist; since 2007, each has an ERA within .04 runs of 3.00, and Affeldt’s K/9 hasn’t budged from 7.9 since 2008. Finally, both pitchers (especially Lopez) have a special place in the hearts of Giants fans thanks to services rendered during the 2010 team’s World Series run.

All that aside, it’s easy to question the wisdom of a team as pitching-rich, offense-poor, and payroll-limited as San Francisco spending $9.25 million next season on a pair of relievers who might be good for 100 frames between them. “Lefty reliever” is often a job position filled after competing requirements like “leadoff man,” “shortstop,” and “center fielder” have been accounted for, and it’s hard to imagine that Affeldt would have gone for as much on the open market, even though he’s reportedly healing well from his painful close encounter with a frozen hamburger patty. If the worse that could have happened had the Giants risked letting Affeldt walk was that they might have had to make do with Dan Runzler, Alex Hinshaw, or some other marginal lefty from either inside or outside of the organization, they might have been better served by robbing the bullpen to pay for power at the plate.


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

Option Day Craziness (10/31)
Option Day Craziness Part Two (11/1)

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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