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December 5, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Going to Miami

by R.J. Anderson

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired P-L Brad Mills from the Blue Jays for C-R Jeff Mathis. [12/3]

The disdain for Jeff Mathis runs so deep that Mills is the preferable option for many. Keep in mind, Mills is a 26-year-old with a career 8.57 earned run average (in more than 40 major-league innings pitched) and a fastball that tops out in the high-80s. Ubiquitous skill set aside, Mills throws three pitches for strikes and found some success in the Pacific Coast League as a starter. He might work his way into the Angels’ rotation as a back-of-the-line type, but it’s more likely that he winds up in the bullpen.

Credit Jerry Dipoto for a prudent move. Non-tendering Mathis looked to be in the cards, meaning the Angels were willing to walk away without getting anything in return. Instead, the Angels get Mills. No matter how pessimistic one is about Mills, milking the last drop of value from each player tends to be a solid philosophy.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired C-R Jeff Mathis from the Angels for P-L Brad Mills. [12/3]

Alex Anthopoulos’s latest trick is trolling the living daylights out of his most ardent supporters. Not even a year after acquiring Mike Napoli from the Angels (only to send him to the Rangers for Frank Francisco), Anthopoulos decided to acquire the other controversial Angels’ backstop. Unlike Napoli, Anthopoulos appears to be keeping Mathis for the Jays as their new backup catcher.

The free agent market for competent reserve backstops moved quickly, sweeping the Jays’ incumbent backup Jose Molina with it. Thus, the Jays could dip into the free agent market and sign the next-best option—likely Kelly Shoppach—trade for a catch-and-throw type, or look to an internal solution that could spot J.P. Arencibia every now and again. The sexiest option, Travis d’Arnaud, never stood a chance, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, the Jays’ other in-house candidate, Brian Jeroloman, has been exposed to waivers twice already this offseason. Desiring a strong defensive acumen, the Jays opted to acquire Mathis before he received a non-tender notice from the Angels.

Mathis is bench material through-and-through. A defense-only backstop with a reputation that exceeds his quantitative production, Mathis might possess a strong handshake. One thing he owns for sure is a weak bat. If you ignore Brandon Wood, then Mathis owns the lowest on-base and slugging percentages amongst batters with 500-plus plate appearances since 2009. He does profile as a plus receiver, and his arm is fine, but every plate appearance he receives cuts into his value. Give him 200 or more plate appearances, and the advanced metrics are likely to label him as below replacement level.

Such a trait is usual for backup catchers, but therein was the problem with Mike Scioscia opting to play him over Napoli. Is Mathis much worse at the plate than Drew Butera, Dioner Navarro, or Rob Johnson? Probably not. You just are not likely to see any of those players receive substantive time over superior counterparts. Expect people to forget all about Mathis should John Farrell optimize his value by minimizing his plate appearances. Otherwise, expect Farrell (and Anthopoulos) to be castigated in much the same way that Scioscia and Tony Reagins were whenever Mathis started.

FLORIDA MARLINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed SS-R Jose Reyes to a six-year deal worth approximately $106 million. [12/4]

So, get this: the Marlins’ interest in marquee free agents may not have been a convoluted plan to get positive press after all. The hot stove’s Potemkin village proved its foundation is legitimate. Stick all the accusations back into the holster, at least until the Securities and Exchange Commission finishes its investigation into the Marlins’ business practices. Not only did the Marlins flirt with a big-time free agent, but they proposed within a month’s time, too. For the first time in franchise history, the Marlins have given a player a nine-figure deal. Somewhere, Fred Wilpon is Googling Carl Crawford’s contract.

Reyes’s deal is lengthy, rich, and fitting for an exciting talent. That rare blend of contact, speed, power, and flare has led to a .306/.352/.452 line over the past three seasons, and .297/.354/.458 since 2006. With a style of play that serves as eye glue, the adhesiveness only loses its grip when Reyes’s body loses its hold on health. Sadly, Reyes and the disabled list are fond of each other, with at least 30 days spent together in each of the past three years—including a 2009 season mostly lost due to lower leg issues.

Those injuries complicate forecasting matters. The accumulation of lower body dings, strains, and nicks could lead to a premature atrophying of skills. All the maladies have not caught up to Reyes just yet, if his 2011 season is any indication. Then again, performing when on the field is rarely the problem with Reyes. Reyes has recorded four-plus Wins Above Replacement Player in four of the six seasons in which he has made 500 or more trips to the plate. (The exceptions being 2005—0.9 WARP—and 2010—2.8).) Reyes’s reputation as one of baseball’s best shortstops is deserved.

One of the game’s other great shortstops also makes his home in Miami. Where Hanley Ramirez moves on the diamond to accommodate Reyes might be less important than how he reacts to the acquisition. The notoriously moody franchise player could slide to a position of need for the Marlins, either third base or center field. Florida allowed Matt Dominguez to get his feet wet in the majors last season and the results were about what you would expect from a 21-year-old with a history of offensive ineptitude. Shifting Ramirez to third could precipitate a Dominguez trade, which in turn might fill the center field hole.

Speculating on the Marlins’ new defense is hard to do without knowing just where Ramirez winds up. Just know that Miami’s defense ranked 17th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, and that Reyes has finished with better Fielding Runs Above Average scores than Ramirez throughout their careers.

The offensive portion of Reyes’s signing is clearer. Perhaps surprisingly for a team that features players like Ramirez, Mike Stanton, and Logan Morrison, the Marlins finished 21st in team True Average last season. That would have been the lowest rank from a playoff team, with Arizona finished 19th and Philadelphia 16th. Worth noting, though, is that the Braves finished 23rd, and everyone knows how close they came to October. Ozzie Guillen figures to drop Reyes into the leadoff position and let him do his thing. The Marlins led off with Chris Coghlan or Emilio Bonifacio in most of their games last season, and their cumulative leadoff hitter totals yielded a .274/.343/.385 line. A healthy Reyes is almost a slam-dunk improvement.

What is not a slam-dunk improvement is Reyes’s hitting environment. No one is quite sure how the Marlins’ new ballpark will play, but it appears to make PETCO Park look spatially conservative. Reyes did just fine in the pitching-friendly Citi Field, and his skill set does not involve a reliance on clearing the fences, so perhaps he’ll manage in the new park. Just keep this narrative in mind if his raw numbers do suffer.  

It all comes down to the park. The Marlins are taking a considerable risk because of the park and the new revenues that should result from its opening. The risk in any deal increases along with the years and money involved. Guaranteeing any player more than $100 million or six years is going to carry risk. Combining that money and years, then giving it to a player coming nearing his 30s intensifies the risk. Add in an injury history and there is albatross potential. But if Reyes can stay healthy and produce, then maybe part of that new stadium will be named after him one day.

Welcome to the beginning of a new era for the Marlins, whose parsimonious ways are in the rearview mirror for the time being. What’s hot in Miami right now is paying market value for marquee free agents. The hope is that the team wins, that the team draws fans, that the revenues continue to pour in, and that its reputation improves accordingly.  Whether gambling on talents like Heath Bell, Reyes, and likely a southpaw starter turns that hope into reality is to be seen. For now, the Marlins are rewarding their longtime hype-deprived fans and keeping things interesting with more than daydreams.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed IF-L Adam Kennedy to a one-year deal worth $800,000. [12/1]
Signed P-L Chris Capuano to a two-year deal worth $10 million. [12/2]

The going rate for an average starting pitcher this winter appears to be $4-5 million guaranteed per season. Capuano joins Chien-Ming Wang ($4 million), Bruce Chen ($4.5 million annual average value), and Freddy Garcia ($4 million) in that class. Although some may object to describing Capuano as an average anything after he posted an 82 adjusted-earned run average in 2011. One could point to Capuano’s 107 adjusted-Fair Run Average in defense, or note that the pitcher’s ERA undersells his performance due to other factors.

To that point, Capuano saw more than 31 percent of his batted balls turn into hits. The inclination is to blame the soft-throwing lefty for being too hittable, but a porous Mets defense—they ranked 25th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency—deserves some blame as well. In this regard, a move to the Dodgers and their seventh-ranked PADE should help his performance. Capuano does not shake off every charge against his stuff, since home runs have been an issue with him throughout his major-league career.

Another trend that Capuano has dealt with for years now is performing better at home. Last season, Capuano faced 46 fewer batters on the road but still allowed seven additional home runs there. Pitching in an offense-restricting park like Citi Field does nothing to ease concerns that Capuano is a product of his spacious environment and little more. The table below shows Capuano’s home and road ERAs throughout his career. The takeaway here is not that Capuano is a given to pitch better at home, just that these kind of splits have been prevalent for him without hampering his ability to pitch respectably overall.

Season

Home ERA

Road ERA

2004

4.96

5.02

2005

3.67

4.30

2006

3.43

4.59

2007

4.92

5.32

2010

4.10

3.77

2011

3.82

5.42

Those kinds of ERAs do not support the idea that Capuano is near average, but his peripherals do. This is again a situation where Capuano’s stuff plays against him, since folks assume he will always hold a higher ERA and RA than FIP or FRA, respectively, due to his soft-tossing nature. Believe it or not, Capuano’s career ERA is almost equal to his FIP (4.39 versus 4.34), and his career run average is right there with his FRA (4.74 versus 4.59). Capuano even outperformed his peripherals in 2010, and he moves into a division that featured two of the league’s three worst True Averages and four of the bottom 12. If there is ever a tailor-made situation for a crafty vet to succeed, pitching in this National League West is it.

Of course, the circle of life dictates that when one crafty veteran arrives, another must go. Hiroki Kuroda appears to be on the outs, in part due to his lofty, if fair salary demands. Comparing Kuroda and Capuano is pointless and creates a false dichotomy. The more accurate comparison is Capuano and another one (or two) of Ned Colletti’s offseason signings versus Kuroda. Whether Colletti made the right call in inking Mark Ellis, Juan Rivera, Matt Treanor, and now Capuano instead of re-signing Kuroda is the real debate, and the one that Dodgers fans seem resigned to having throughout the summer.

Another debate lining itself up is whether Kennedy can outhit Aaron Miles’s 2011 offering of .275/.314/.346. Kennedy spent the season with the Mariners, racking up a .234/.277/.355 line and two arrests (both for driving under the influence) while pushing his three-year offerings to .261/.321/.371. Kennedy is a lefty bat and a versatile defender—capable of playing first, second, or third base—but keeping him away from left-handed pitching and the starting lineup is a good idea.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed OF-L Laynce Nix to a two-year deal. [12/4]

Meet the man who will keep Domonic Brown off the Phillies’ Opening Day roster. Nix is a tightly-wound left-handed batter with a taste for right-handed pitching and little else.

Over the last three seasons, Nix has 786 plate appearances against righties and 35 home runs to show for it. Add in the other 49 extra-base hits, and you get the picture. Power is about the long and short of Nix’s offensive game. He does not walk much—even against lefties—and will strike out a fair bit. Nix also offers no production against southpaws, but that should be of no concern to a team with Ben Francisco and John Mayberry Jr. floating around. Nix all but fills the hole created by Raul Ibanez’s departure.

The decision to opt for Nix instead of Brown to replace Ibanez creates a chance for dialogue about the Phillies’ roster construction. Ruben Amaro Jr. is essentially opting for risk minimization over upside maximization. Ryan Howard being out hurts and is perhaps the best argument for Brown. Otherwise, the Phillies look good enough on paper to contend for a playoff spot by going the conservative route.

Conversely, this could positively affect Brown’s development. The Phillies are running the risk that Brown appears bored in Triple-A—like Desmond Jennings and Jesus Montero before him— but additional exposure to left-handed pitching is something the Phillies cannot afford Brown that the minors can. If Brown progresses as a player, then the Phillies could get the best of both worlds. If worse comes to worst, they have a more than adequate fallback plan should Nix crater.


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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