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November 28, 2011

Transaction Analysis

The Storm Before the Storm

by R.J. Anderson

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed CF-L Grady Sizemore to a one-year deal worth $5 million with $4 million in incentives. [11/23]

After Cleveland declined Sizemore’s $9 million option, Ben Lindbergh offered a wonderful write-up of the Indians’ plight:

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 DunnJack CustMark ReynoldsWilson 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.

Sizemore might receive that $9 million after all, but only $5 million is guaranteed. It makes sense for both sides. Cleveland assumes less risk, and Sizemore has the chance to demonstrate his health and value before hitting the open market again. Sizemore is gambling on himself in the plainest sense. If his body continues to betray his physical gifts with fragility, then who knows where his career will stand in a year’s time. For the sake of quality baseball, you have to hope that Sizemore can get back to being good.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Signed P-L Bruce Chen to a two-year deal worth $9 million. [11/23]

There is someone for everyone. Kansas City, Chen’s 11th organization, is the first willing to take a step beyond casual dating and make a serious commitment. No organization has allowed Chen to make as many starts as the Royals over the last three seasons, and only Baltimore afforded him more appearances. As is the case with most good relationships, both Chen and the Royals have benefited from their union.

With 48 starts over the last two seasons and a 105 adjusted-earned run average, Chen looks like a solid, if unspectacular, rotation option. Making Chen’s ERA more notable is how it came in front of poor defenses that finished 30th and 24th, respectively, in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. The key to Chen’s success is a newfound ability to limit home runs. During Chen’s first 259 major-league games, he allowed 1.7 home runs for every nine innings pitched. Over his last 58 games, his home run rate has dipped to 1.1 homers yielded per nine innings pitched. Giving up home runs is nothing new for Chen, who once inspired Nate Silver to write:

Home run rate is huge when evaluating young pitchers. Lots of guys can put together reasonably good K/BB numbers in the minor leagues simply by challenging hitters; it seems that HR rate is a truer test of how likely that strategy is to hold up in the big leagues. I'd be surprised if Chen puts together much of a career.

What Silver could not have known is that Chen would alter his release point, throwing from a lower arm slot at times. The results in the time since the change are encouraging, although who knows if they are sustainable. Dayton Moore is gambling that Chen will continue to pitch well and that Chen’s strained left shoulder is no big deal. Chen’s new deal pays him like a league-average starting pitcher, and the length protects the Royals should he fall shy of that expectation.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Signed P-R Freddy Garcia to a one-year deal worth $4 million with incentives. [11/24]

New York columnists are hungry for a big signing. Brian Cashman may get to that eventually, but for now has addressed his own first. The appropriately nicknamed “Sweaty Freddy” is the second Yankees starter re-signed this offseason, joining CC Sabathia. While Garcia pales in comparison to Sabathia as a pitcher, Cashman had to enjoy the negotiations more given the lowered stakes.

When healthy, Garcia can give a team 25-30 starts, 60 percent of them being deemed quality. A quality start is not as sexy as it once was, but the Yankees’ lineup can turn it into a victory along with the best of ’em. Garcia does not throw enough innings to earn the horse label—he last topped 160 back in 2006—and constantly finds new ways to get injured. Last season, he sliced his finger open during kitchen duty. Still, Garcia loves New York, the Yankees are comfortable with him and his perspiration, and the money makes sense.

With Sabathia and Garcia back in the saddle, the Yankees’ attention can now turn to finding another big starter. There are plenty of domestic options that the Yankees’ faithful will nitpick—C.J. Wilson is unreliable in the postseason, Edwin Jackson wears the same cologne as A.J. Burnett, etc.—leaving Yu Darvish as the fan’s choice. Darvish might also be the Yankees’ choice thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

New York has built its farm system mostly through the international game. Entering the season, Kevin Goldstein had four international signees in the Yankees’ top five prospects, and six in the top 11. The new CBA limits how much teams can spend in the draft and non-Japan international amateur markets, meaning the Yankees (and other teams flush with cash) can use that money in other ventures. Joe Pawlikowski suggested the new luxury tax rules could incentivize the Yankees to spend more on the major-league payroll.

Put two and two together, then avoid the stormy weather—in this case, an appropriate metaphor for the Yankees’ reaction should Darvish not be posted, or if the Yankees fail to win the bid—and it makes all the sense in the world for the Yankees to wine, dine, and frontline the 25-year-old Japanese sensation.

SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired C-L John Jaso from the Rays for P-R Josh Lueke and a player to be named later or cash considerations. [11/27]

Similar to the John Baker-for-Wade LeBlanc trade in base terms, the Mariners seem to have given up more talent than the Padres—although, as will be covered in the Rays’ section, talent is only part of the story with Lueke.

Jaso is a left-handed hitter who broke into the majors in 2010. At the plate, Jaso is patient, at times bordering on passive with a walks-and-singles approach. Jaso rarely swings and misses but hits for extra bases almost as infrequently. Occasionally he will put a charge into one, leaving onlookers to wonder where that came from. There was a time during 2010 where Jaso showed a keen ability to advance on balls in the dirt and those put into the field of play. For whatever reason, he appeared more passive in 2011.

Defensively, Jaso is a mess. Murmurs about his poor defense persisted throughout his minor-league career, but reports surfaced during spring 2010 that he had improved. If that is the case, then his defense prior to 2010 would have sent Mike Scioscia into convulsions. It isn’t just that Jaso struggles to throw out basestealers (19 percent in his big-league career) but also that he has the penchant for poorly-timed passed balls.

As long as Jaso hits, all is forgiven. And as long as Eric Wedge allows Jaso a limited ration of plate appearance against lefties, Jaso should hit decently, just probably not at his 2010 levels.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Acquired P-R Josh Lueke and a player to be named later or cash considerations from the Mariners for C-L John Jaso. [11/27]

Writing about Lueke’s value to an organization demands mentioning his past, much in the way that writing about a potential Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez signing would. The difference is that Lueke’s past does not include trivial things like being a cheater or farouche, but something far, far graver. I will offer this link to a story with all the disturbing details. Otherwise, I will avoid making moralistic judgments in lieu of analyzing Lueke as a baseball player. Do not mistake this as excusing or endorsing his alleged actions.

On the field, Lueke possesses an interesting arm. His fastball can get into the mid-90s, and he complements it with a curveball and splitter. In a 25-game sample in 2011, Lueke tallied a 6.06 earned run average, although that came despite striking out eight batters per nine innings pitched and possessing a 2.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If everything goes right, Lueke could assume a late-inning role at some point in his career.

In trading Jaso, the Rays open up a slot on their major-league depth chart. Jaso figured to platoon with the newly signed-but-not-official Jose Molina. Now, the top in-house alternatives are Robinson Chirinos and Jose Lobaton. Chirinos is still green to catching but likely offers more offensive punch than Lobaton, who grades as the better defender and a switch-hitter. Factor in that Lobaton is out of options, and he could be the odds-on favorite to take the Opening Day gig.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Signed P-R Joe Nathan to a two-year deal worth $14.75 million with a club option worth $9 million. [11/21]

When the Rangers acquired Mike Adams at the trade deadline, it fueled conjecture that Neftali Feliz’s stay as closer could end soon. That speculation looks silly now. Adams will remain a premier set-up man—a fancy way of saying closer-in-waiting—for at least another season, as Nathan will get first dibs on the closer job and Feliz eyes a rotation spot.

Proven closers are a luxury good, and the Rangers are living the good life. Skeptics will point to Nathan’s dreadful earned run average and curious home run problems in 2011, suggesting that the Rangers are transfixed by the past, not the present or future. However, Nathan is more than a walking artifact used to collect saves, and he looked like his old self after returning from the disabled list:

Part of 2011

G

IP

ERA

SO%

BB%

Pre-DL

17

15.1

7.63

20.3%

12.2%

Post-DL

31

29.1

3.38

23.9%

4.3%

The usual restlessness associated with giving any reliever more than a guaranteed year is sure to be prevalent. A more interesting question than whether any reliever is worth it is whether Nathan can handle a 60-to-70 appearance workload culminating in a playoff berth. Keep in mind, Nathan has appeared in 48 games over the past two seasons. Feliz threw in 75 games this season, including the postseason. If Nathan is rendered unable, the Rangers have alternatives in-house. The aforementioned Adams, the forgotten Koji Uehara, and other assorted middle relievers like Mark Lowe and Yoshinori Tateyama.

Texas still might acquire another starting pitcher, but the Nathan deal should be viewed with context, too. The Rule of 17 tends to work when attempting to evaluate how a role change will treat a pitcher and serves a purpose in the absence of a PECOTA projection. Here is the result for Feliz:

Role

ERA

SO/PA%

BB/PA%

RP (Career)

2.55

25.7

8.8

SP (Proj.)

3.55

21.3

8.8

Those peripherals compare closely to Ryan Dempster’s performance in 2011. Feliz’s transition may not go that smoothly, but if he does pitch on, say, a three-win pace for the Rangers, then signing Nathan could save Texas money. Consider that C.J. Wilson accumulated an average of 3.3 Wins Above Replacement Player during his two seasons in the rotation and yet has eyes on a gaudy contract that far exceeds Nathan’s deal.

There is reason for optimism. Appealing to authority usually does no good, but the Rangers have shown with Wilson and Alexi Ogando that they know how to turn relievers into starters. Feliz has all the makings of another success case, as Jason Parks covered last week.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Acquired P-L Wade LeBlanc from the Padres for C-L John Baker. [11/22]

The Marlins’ front office is normally taciturn, but it gets a case of the giggles whenever a Padre’ arm becomes available. LeBlanc marks the sixth former Friar pitcher on the Marlins’ 40-man roster, joining Brian Sanches, Clay Hensley, Jose Ceda, Ryan Webb, and Edward Mujica. The latter two, like LeBlanc, came over in a trade for a position player who fell out of favor with the Fish.

LeBlanc’s surname means “The White” in French and represents an opportunity to have some fun with literary devices. He started the 2010 season white-hot, allowing six runs over his first six starts and carrying a 2.88 earned run average into late June. The rest of LeBlanc’s 2010 season was pale white—you know, ghostly—as he collapsed and his earned run average increased by a full run. LeBlanc’s 2011 had an indifferent feeling to it, like white noise, save for an out-of-character 10-strikeout, zero-walk performance against the Dodgers in late September that changed nothing about his prospects.

Nobody is sure how the Marlins’ new park will play yet, but anything less than PETCO Park levels of offensive suffocation and LeBlanc could be in trouble. As the table below suggests, LeBlanc struggled on the road throughout his Padres career, yielding more hits, a higher rate of extra-base hits, and racking up fewer strikeouts per walk.

Place

TBF

BA/OBP/SLG

XBH/H%

SO/BB

Home

610

.250/.317/.400

34.6%

2.15

Road

652

.293/.363/.516

40.8%

1.52

Nothing in LeBlanc’s profile suggest he is a surefire major-league starter, anyway. His fastball tops out at 90 miles per hour, and while his changeup is good, it has to be for him to have any chance of getting hitters out. You would think a pitcher who sits in the mid-80s would be unequipped to get opposite-handed batters out, yet LeBlanc has extreme splits that favor pitching him against righties. Could he be the ever-so-rare left-handed one-out guy who comes out only to pitch to right-handed batters? Maybe, maybe not.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Acquired UTIL-R Ty Wigginton from the Rockies for a player to be named later or cash. [11/20]

Whither Michael Cuddyer? Not Philadelphia, the destination du jour after Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Jim Thome, at least not yet. Good substitutes provide the same utility at a lesser cost. Many are painting Wigginton as a Cuddyer substitute. Both are right-handed utility men, with histories of playing all over the field. The difference is in the quality, which is where Wigginton proves he is a Cuddyer derivative, and not a good one.

Before moving to MLB Network, Joe Magrane spent years providing analysis to Rays games. His time coincided with Wigginton’s career in St. Petersburg, and following a Wigginton extra-base hit he quipped, “Sneaking a high fastball by Wigginton is like sneaking sunrise past a rooster.” If that’s the case, pitchers have gotten smarter, sneakier, or both. Once a useful batsman against southpaws, Wigginton’s performance at the plate has suffered a steep decline. Further limiting Wigginton’s offensive value are issues against right-handed pitching.

Wigginton’s poor range has produced another first baseman masquerading as a utility infielder. Players who lack something—be it a good-enough bat or glove—tend to have their defensive flexibility trumpeted beyond its actual value. Wigginton is one such player. Charlie Manuel may opt to use Wigginton at first, second, and third base, but expect pitiable defense to follow. The entire package Wigginton offers makes it no surprise that he has finished below replacement level in two of the past three seasons.

If Wigginton’s play appears to be beyond the useful phase, then why did Philadelphia acquire him? Flexibility, prior success—keep in mind, Wigginton did make an All-Star game recently—and a good personality. Wigginton just looks like an industrious soul who helps to galvanize the clubhouse. You forgive the blemishes on people you like more quickly. The Phillies are hoping the chance to play in the postseason for the first time in his career can revitalize Wigginton, and maybe it will. More likely is that fans will daydream about Cuddyer if Wigginton is the alternative.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Acquired C-L John Baker from the Padres for P-L Wade LeBlanc. [11/22]

The return for LeBlanc is Baker. A left-handed hitter, Baker joins the right-handed Nick Hundley on the Padres’ roster. It would be a match made in platoon heaven, but Hundley is capable of hitting pitchers of either hand. Baker, for his part, is a platoon player through and through, struggling against lefties and hitting righties well enough to be an offensive-plus at catcher.

Reserve backstop became a position of need for San Diego after Hundley missed time due to right elbow surgery and a strained oblique. Players like Rob Johnson, Kyle Phillips, and Luis Martinez received playing time during Hundley’s absence. Baker is better than that trio, although there will be an adjustment period in moving from Florida to San Diego. His best skill is walking, and pitchers have a wider margin for error in PETCO Park. 

Baker missed almost all of 2010-2011 due to Tommy John surgery. Stealers took bases at will against Baker pre-surgery (only a 19 percent kill rate), so how he deals with the running game now will be interesting. On the bright side, Baker does profile as a good framer.


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

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