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February 6, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Jackson Settles for One Year

by R.J. Anderson

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American League
National League

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Signed 1B-L Casey Kotchman to a one-year deal worth $3 million. [2/3]

Cleveland’s acquisition of Russ Canzler prompted this paragraph:

The only way to find out if Canzler can hit major-league pitching for sure is to let him try. Alas, the Indians have Travis Hafner, Shelley Duncan, and Matt LaPorta hanging around, and still have to figure out whether they want to add another first baseman or use Carlos Santana there more often. Cleveland made a run at Carlos Pena, offering him more money than the Rays even, and should they feel the itch again, they could plunge into the free-agent market and ink one of the stragglers, thus sentencing Canzler to another summer in the International League, albeit upping his chances to add another piece of hardware to his collection.

It did not take long for Cleveland to tip their hand and sign Kotchman. This is the second straight offseason the Indians and Kotchman have flirted, though Kotchman chose to sign with Tampa Bay prior to last season, rebounding from a difficult 2010 season by hitting .306/.378/.422. The leading explanation for the turnaround was an offseason eye procedure to rid Kotchman of an infection.

But is Kotchman’s renaissance that easy to explain? Maybe not. Improved vision is a good attribute, but Kotchman’s per-plate appearance numbers suggest his greatest gain came in added singles, while his other numbers remained static or worsened:





















Fueling further skepticism that Kotchman’s breakout could be unsustainable and had little to do with his eyes is how he recorded those singles. Baseball-Reference suggests Kotchman had 21 infield hits in 2011, surpassing his previous-career high (nine) by more than 130 percent. Perhaps batting on the Tropicana Field turf helped—a luxury that the grade-20 runner Kotchman will no longer enjoy—and so it seems unlikely that he will replicate those infield hits heading forward. This could be a blow to Kotchman’s offensive value, as he does not walk a ton, nor is his swing tailored for power.

Folks praise Kotchman’s defense incessantly, in part due to his league-best .999 fielding percentage. The pros to his glove work involve the technical stuff. He is a steady receiver, an accurate thrower, and a defender who makes the plays that come at him, even if he rarely makes them look easy. Kotchman’s biggest defensive drawback stems from his lacking athleticism, as any ball that requires lateral movement is one that he may not snag. Defensive metrics agree, across the board, that Kotchman is no longer the defender he once was and may no longer be a top-10 defender at his position.

Invariably, the Indians are going to hope that Kotchman repeats his 2011 performance. They should be happy, however, if Kotchman can merely stay above replacement level for the third time in six seasons.

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Signed RHP Todd Coffey to a one-year deal worth $1 million with a club option for 2013. [2/3]

Until last season, Coffey seemed resigned to a career of good strikeout-to-walk ratios and bad home run rates. His one year in Washington saw him depart from this path, though, as his home run rates dwindled while his peripherals remained steady. These developments led component-based measures to rate 2011 as the second best season of his career.

The easiest explanation for Coffey’s change is ballpark. Shy of that, the Nationals must have used Coffey—best served hot against righties—more efficiently. Sadly, neither convenient explanation seems to be valid. Coffey allowed three of his four home runs at Nationals Park, and while he did face 65 percent righties, that falls shy of his career percentage entering 2011 (66 percent). With the exact reasoning unclear, it seems fair to suggest Coffey’s home run bug might reappear in 2012.

As alluded to above, Dodgers’ skipper Don Mattingly should watch Coffey’s matchups carefully due to a wide gap in his newest reliever’s platoon splits. Coffey has managed a multi-year True Average against lefties of .289 and .226 versus righties. Then again, if Mattingly decides to order Coffey onto the mound in some peculiar situations, it could be that he simply wants to enjoy this sight as often as possible:

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Signed RHP Edwin Jackson to a one-year deal worth $11 million. [2/2]

I must confess that when I wrote about Jackson’s journeys and concluded that I expected him to receive a contract worthy of Scott Boras, a pillow contract was not what I had in mind. Reports that Jackson turned down a three-year offer from a non-contender do help restore my faith in Boras’s ability to sell appendages to an octopus.

Washington gets a coup in inking Jackson to a one-year deal. Everyone reading this knows about the risk of signing free-agent starting pitches, and yet Washington mitigated much of that right off the bat. The three words you should see thrown around most often with respect to this signing’s implications are: 1) contention, 2) draft pick, and 3) prospect. To explain, Jackson pushes the Nationals further to contention, where if they stick, they would hold onto him through the trade deadline and perhaps hook a draft pick should he find a multi-year deal to his liking at season’s end. Otherwise, if the Nationals fall out of contention early, they could always trade Jackson to a pitching-starved contender for a prospect.

The draft pick and trade scenarios are hard to examine at this time, but the idea that the Nationals could contend is one ripe for analyzing. Prior to signing Jackson, the Nationals’ other big offseason addition had to be Gio Gonzalez. So why is Washington becoming a trendy postseason pick? Because it is too easy to dream on a rotation led by Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gonzalez, and Jackson; too easy to dream about Jayson Werth bouncing back; and too easy to dream on Bryce Harper pulling a Ken Griffey Jr. and hitting well despite his age. It’s all too easy, too romantic to picture playoff baseball in Washington for the first time since 1933. But is it likely?

Competing with the Braves, Phillies, and even the Marlins in the National League East and for the wild card will be a big task. From there, should the league add a second wild card, you still have to imagine that St. Louis, Milwaukee, or Cincinnati (one of which is likely to win the National League Central) will be nipping on the Nationals’ heels, and that ignores the National League West completely. Getting to the postseason is not easy for anyone, and it certainly will not be easy for the Nationals. Jackson helps, and nobody can deny that, but the question is how much he helps.

Ostensibly, Jackson replaces John Lannan in the rotation. That should be an upgrade for the Nationals, but the degree depends on how much you buy into Lannan’s ability to outpitch his component measures. As Marc Normandin recently wrote, Lannan appears to fit into the same family as Joe Saunders when it comes to defying fielding-independent measures:

Like with any statistic, there is an expected number of double plays a pitcher is assumed to induce each year. Since 2008, Lannan's first full season in the majors, he has induced 29 more double plays than expected according to Baseball Prospectus, the sixth-best total in the majors. That's roughly seven extra double plays induced per year, a figure that's worth a few tenths of a run of ERA each season -- that explains at least some of the discrepancy between his FIP and ERA. Joe Saunders is similar in that regard as well, as has been discussed this winter, and like Saunders, Lannan is left-handed with average control of his stuff.

Taking the conservative route suggests Jackson will be worth one-to-two more wins than Lannan, which should boost the Nationals’ playoff chances. Will that be enough? Maybe not, even if the league does add a second wild card. The Nationals are in the conversation, though, and if a few things go right for them, they could be in the tournament. If nothing else, give the Nationals credit for being on the cusp with room to grow.

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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