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February 28, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Extensions for Everyone

by R.J. Anderson

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Re-signed C-R Salvador Perez to a five-year deal worth $7 million guaranteed, with three club options and incentives that could raise the total value of the deal to $26.75 million. [2/27]

Perez may not turn 22 until later in the year, may not have 150 major-league at-bats, may never have a better defensive game than his debut—when he picked off runners at first and third and almost completed the hat trick by nailing a runner at second—or a better offensive season than 2011. Nevertheless, the Royals guaranteed him $7 million on Monday night, and their decision appears shrewd.

 Don’t let the .331 average fool you: Perez is unlikely to become an offensive force. He will make contact at a good rate, and he does have gap power, but his offensive game is shallow beyond that. That’s not a major problem, since the baseline for catcher offense is low and Perez makes up for it with his defense. Perez combines a strong, accurate arm with good throwing mechanics and footwork to gun down prospective thieves. Perez’s 21 percent caught stealing rate during his first major-league exposure is representative of his potential’s low end—the high end is the 42 percent he threw out in the minors.

More goes into being a catcher than pop times and sticking sinkers. Developing a rapport with the pitching staff is important, and—if Joe Hamrahi is to be trusted—teammates adore the industrious and bilingual Perez.  Good grades in the physical, mental, and executive aspects of catching suggest that Perez should become a quality defensive backstop. The Royals have mitigated much of the risk associated with a long-term deal because of Perez’s defense and the contract’s structure. The worst-case scenario sees Perez becoming a catch-and-throw backstop, and even then, the free-agent market seems willing to pay those types $1 million or more, so the money due to Perez would not be a conspicuous waste.

The biggest question to ask the Royals about re-signing Perez is, “Why now?” Extensions that come this early in a player’s career tend to be reserved for future superstars. Such a description would not seem to fit Perez, unless the Royals feel strongly about his power potential.  But then again, why would the Royals not do this deal? The money involved should not be enough to affect a potential Alex Gordon extension, and locking up Eric Hosmer seems to be a matter of forcing Scott Boras out of the picture one way or another. This is an extension worth signing, even if the Royals see Perez as an average to above-average backstop and nothing more.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Re-signed LHP Sean Marshall to a three-year deal worth $16.5 million. [2/27]

When the Reds acquired Marshall, I wrote:

Marshall is a sturdy lefty who came up as a starter but failed to stick after four seasons of attempting to break into the Cubs’ rotation. Those aspirations were dashed again in 2010, as the organization made Marshall a full-time reliever, but he bloomed in the bullpen. Two seasons, 150 1/3 innings pitched, a 2.45 earned run average, and 4.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio later, Marshall is among the finest left-handed relievers in baseball.

Sometimes, “left-handed reliever” is taken as a fancy way of saying “specialist.” Marshall’s only specialty is retiring batters, and he holds no handedness prejudice on the mound. A fastball that sits in the upper-80s to low-90s may not cause velocity lovers to swoon. Still, Marshall’s tall frame helps him maintain good downward plane on the pitch, which—along with a proverbial cornucopia of off-speed pitches—helps generate impressive groundball rates.

Adding to Marshall’s value is the cost certainty that a contract extension signed in January adds. It expires after the 2012 season, true, but in light of free agent costs, adding a pitcher of Marshall’s quality for an assured $3.1 million at this point in his career is a win. In addition, the Reds will have almost a year to negotiate a longer engagement if they so choose.

The Reds didn’t waste long, hammering out a pact that will extend their relationship with Marshall for four seasons rather than one. This extension still looks like a victory for Cincinnati, which now gets four years of Marshall for around $20 million. Is it ideal to spend that much on a late-inning reliever? Maybe not, but Marshall seems to be cut from good cloth. It is worth noting that Marshall could earn an extra $1 million per season if he closes for the Reds. Alternatively, he could earn an extra $1 million based on games started—hey, laugh all you want, but credit Marshall’s agent for showing creativity and foresight. 

 

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Re-signed C-R Yadier Molina to a five-year deal worth $70-to-75 million [2/27]

The Cardinals entered spring with a franchise bedrock nearing free agency—sound familiar? As it turns out, this is a different story from last year’s Pujols pursuit, but one that may end on an equally sour note.*

*It is worth noting that the deal is not yet official, though it should be completed within the week.

Molina is one of the game’s best catchers—perhaps the best. Molina blocks balls in the dirt, controls the running game, frames pitches, and ostensibly forms as strong a rapports with his pitching staff as anyone in the game. That Molina can swing the bat a bit (his True Average since 2009 is about on par with players like B.J. Upton, Jhonny Peralta, and Starlin Castro) is just icing on a delicious cake. There is a problem, though: Molina is 29 years old. No biggie at any other position, but Molina is a catcher, and catchers age oddly. As Nate Silver wrote in 2005:

Catchers are one of two positions--we’ll get to the other in a moment--at which the divergence from normal aging patterns is unmistakable. There is no good news here; these guys take a long time to get ready and decline very quickly once they do. Some of the slow ascent may be due to their team's reluctance to give playing time to young catchers whom pitchers aren’t quite comfortable working with, but the fact remains that catcher is a unique position that demands different skills and rewards a different, less athletic body type than anywhere else on the diamond. Couple that with the wear and tear that the playing the position entails, and things like the Ivan Rodriguez deal begin to look very silly.

Silver references the four-year, $40 million contract that Rodriguez signed with the Tigers. That deal included a $13 million option, so Rodriguez pulled in more than $53 million from ages 32 through 36 while giving the Tigers three good seasons and another passable one.  Molina’s new deal calls for him to earn more than that over his age 30 through 34 seasons. It’s possible that Molina will age well and give the Cardinals four or five good seasons. But there is a legitimate chance that he’ll give the Cardinals only two or three good seasons. Look no further than Joe Mauer’s extension, signed almost 24 months ago. While most of Mauer’s tale remains to be told, the early returns suggest that he might be in the midst of a descent from the league’s best catcher to a potential albatross.

Molina has a better health record than Mauer, having been to the disabled list just once—in 2005, when he was struck on the hand by a pitch—but all it takes is one knee or back injury to change the outlook for him. You can understand why the Cardinals re-signed Molina and their willingness to take a risk. If you have to run against the odds, do it with a player you love and trust. Will it turn out well? No one can say for sure—just know there’s a fair chance that it won’t.


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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