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March 21, 2012

The Lineup Card

10 Favorite Off-Season Moves

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Chris Iannetta Gets a Halo
In 2011, Albert Pujols produced 3.8 more WARP than Mark Trumbo, and for $246 million the Angels made the upgrade. In 2011, C.J. Wilson produced 4.1 more WARP than Joel Pineiro, and for $77.5 million the Angels made the upgrade. And in 2011, Chris Iannetta produced 3.3 more WARP than Jeff Mathis. The net cost of this upgrade: Just $2 million, plus a young pitcher (Tyler Chatwood) who PECOTA projects to have the very lowest WARP of the 955 pitchers we ran through the system this year. Beyond the on-field benefits, the swaps were a relief to those who had become exhausted by the debate over Scioscia's catchers. Mathis was, as far as anybody could tell, a good dude who tried hard. Now that he's a Blue Jay, and no threat to the Angels' offense, fans can quit hating him. Fans on this side of the border, at least. —Sam Miller

2. The Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero Deal
Something you rarely see anymore is top young talents being traded for each other. Whenever a good young player is dealt, he always goes from a contending team to a rebuilding team because of the money aspect. That's what makes the trade the Yankees and Mariners pulled off in January so interesting. The Yankees dealt power-hitter catcher Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi to the Mariners for right-handers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. Montero has a chance to win an MVP award some day, and Pineda could take home a Cy Young in his career.

I had a chance to talk to Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik about the trade a few weeks ago during a Cactus League game and he said, "It's really going to be fascinating to see how it turns out in the long run. We both traded guys with the type of talent to be franchise players. It was a fun trade to make but it was nerve-wracking, too. You keep batting it around in your head, wondering if you're doing the right thing. I didn't sleep much the night before we finally pulled the trigger." —John Perrotto

3. Jamie Moyer Climbs to the Rockies
You’ve all seen those commercials, right? The ones with the ruggedly-handsome graybeard leading horses out of his stock trailer to pull his truck out of the mud, or pouring bottled water into his radiator to cool an overheating Camaro? I hate those ads, and not just because they so purposefully remind me of my advancing age by providing a protagonist to whom I am supposed to relate (except, of course, for the ruggedly handsome part, or the implied need for the advertised product). Mostly what I hate is that the message Pfizer is trying to send, i.e., that I have now reached “The Age of Knowing How To Get Things Done,” is undermined by the fact that the men in those ads are so clearly in the midst of “The Age Of Not Knowing What The Hell They’re Doing.”

Seriously, what kind of man gets a four-wheel-drive vehicle, traveling down a road surrounded by seemingly endless fields of dry, shortgrass prairie, mired so badly that he needs to roll back a full century of transportational advances to pull it out of the mud? I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that guy couldn’t back a horse trailer up to the stable without the aid of a small team of flagmen and a stunt double. Even worse, the guy with the Camaro clearly uses an inadequately tiny amount of bottled water to cool his engines before heading back onto that lonely desert highway, where he’s certain to again overheat and break down long before his destination. Read that sentence again carefully: How many of the images it evokes scream out the word “virility”?

Sheesh. If the folks at Pfizer want to put out an effective ad, they’d best hope Jamie Moyer earns a spot in the Rockies’ rotation. Moyer’s absence while recovering from elbow surgery forced hundreds of thousands of vintage baseball fans to face the fact that we are older than every single major-league ballplayer. A triumphant return by the Ancient Mariner will again put off that realization, making us all feel a little bit younger and more purposeful. Forget those grizzled cowboys and aging muscle-car aficionados; if you want to see the power of wisdom and experience unleashed, show us a beautifully shot slo-mo sequence of Moyer jamming Bryce Harper with a 78-mph fastball, fielding the resulting weak tapper to the mound, and flipping it with practiced nonchalance to a grinning Todd Helton. Now that’s a product I’d buy. Keep it up, Jamie, for all of us. —Ken Funck

4. Cameron Maybin Extension
When the Padres signed Cameron Maybin to a five-year, $25 million extension with a club option for 2017 earlier this month, they locked up a talented young center fielder at a bargain price into what should be the prime of his career (he'll be entering his age-30 season when the option kicks in). They also sent a message to fans that have grown disillusioned in the wake of several high-profile players (Jake Peavy, Adrian Gonzalez, Heath Bell) leaving San Diego in recent years.

For the first time since the Gonzalez and Peavy extensions in 2007, the Padres have committed to a young player who figures to help lay the foundation for a brighter future. Maybin's offensive numbers are depressed in Petco Park, but he hits enough, plays spectacular defense, and possesses an infectious enthusiasm for the game that cannot be quantified but that endears him to teammates and fans alike. And for as good as he is now, he hasn't fully realized his potential.

The new ownership group has had its share of difficulties, and a lack of stability in the front office since Kevin Towers was let go in 2009 may have helped erode fan confidence. But the Maybin signing, along with a resurgent farm system that Kevin Goldstein ranks as the best in MLB, gives people a reason to expect better things from the Padres going forward. —Geoff Young

5. Jose Molina Makes His Way to the Rays
I’ll be honest: I’m a little disappointed that Jose Molina hasn’t played in Tampa Bay before now. The Rays are renowned for their willingness to exploit every edge, and they’ve earned a reputation as a team at the forefront of advanced analysis. They’ve employed unorthodox and innovative in-game tactics. They’ve stocked their front office with former BPers. They’ve had pioneering PITCHf/x analyst Josh Kalk to themselves since spiriting him away from the internet three years ago. Yet it wasn’t until after Mike Fast and Max Marchi alerted the whole world to his abilities as a backstop that Andrew Friedman finally made a move for the middle Molina. You call that the extra 2%?

Even if the Rays weren’t years ahead of the curve, though, they still got a steal. Molina for $1.5 million (plus an option for 2013 at the same price) might be the best value any team got from the free agent market this winter. According to Max’s most recent article, Molina is, pitch-for-pitch, the best defensive catcher of the past sixty-plus years, a player capable of contributing nearly four wins with his glove in a single season. Granted, there’s plenty of fine print. Molina’s .220 career TAv suggests that he won’t hit nearly as well as he did last season, and his durability is an even greater concern. Molina is 36 and far from svelte, and only once has he made it to the 100-game mark, so he can’t be counted on to stay healthy. However, even if he’s on the field for a fraction of the season, the Rays should easily recoup their investment. It’s fortunate for Molina that pitch-tracking technology matured while there was still time for a team to make the most of his true talent, and it's fortunate for the Rays that someone else didn't outbid them for his services once the secret was out. —Ben Lindbergh

6. Hiroki Kuroda Bounds for the Bronx
I'm pretty sure the word "Hiroki" translates as "Steady Eddie" in English, having spent the past four years watching the pitcher ply his trade with the Dodgers as something of the anti-Daisuke Matsuzaka: a fast-working, efficient and consistent strike-thrower with pinpoint control (1.7 UBB/9, 3.9 K/UBB). When Kuroda arrived stateside after an 11-year stint with the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League, he helped the team reach back-to-back National League Championship Series, but since then, he's watched his dream of winning a World Series slip from his grasp with the team's descent into the indignities of bankruptcy. After each of the past two seasons, Kuroda has weighed his desire to continue pursuing that dream against the pull of playing at home.

Kuroda re-upped relatively quickly following a strong 2010 with a $12 million deal signed in mid-November, but when the Dodgers went in the tank in the first half of this past season, he shook off the chance to waive his no-trade clause to join a contender. The move frustrated Dodger fans hoping for a haul of prospects, but Kuroda offered a window into a chasm between American and Japanese cultures with his explanation: "I recalled what I was feeling when I decided to re-sign here and pitch for this team this season. Those feelings are important to me, and I wanted them to remain important. I wanted to see this through until the end."

At the close of 2011, a season in which he set career-bests in innings (202), ERA (3.07) and WARP (2.6), Kuroda was said to be 50-50 on going back home and even had to deny rumors of a deal to return to Hiroshima. Before he could make up his mind, impatient Dodger general manager Ned Colletti looked elsewhere and committed $22 million to Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang—a pair of less-impressive retreads coming off modest rebounds owing something to large ballparks—via heavily backloaded two-year deals. That appeared to set the stage for the 37-year-old to vanish from the stateside stage, but in January, Kuroda surprised the baseball world by signing a one-year, $10 million deal with the Yankees, a pact that could have easily fit into the Dodger budget. As a fan, I'm delighted not only that he chose to stay, but that he picked the local nine, immediately stabilizing a rotation that at the time appeared quite a mess (the Jesus Montero/Michael Pineda trade went down the same night). I'll get to continue watching Kuroda do business on a regular basis, see him at the ballpark for the first time, and watch him pursue another (last?) shot at a world championship. —Jay Jaffe

7. Andrew McCutchen Willingly Extends Pittsburgh Stay
For so many years now, the Pirates have been baseball's laughingstock, so to see them make a move that involves signing a star player to a six-year, modestly-priced extension is thrilling because it is a good move in what has, for so long, been a sea of bad. McCutchen is just 25 years old and posted a TAv of .297 last year; he hit over 20 home runs and has not had any significant injuries. There are lots of players out there who are worth building a team around; McCutchen might not get the attention of Matt Kemp or Ryan Braun, but he could easily fit into that building-block category. There have been a lot of moves this offseason that have been lauded, such as the Montero-Pineda trade, or the Cubs' hiring of Theo Epstein; the McCutchen extension remains likeable not just because it is beneficial to both player and team, but because for perhaps the first time in a long time, a team that is usually the butt of baseball jokes has made an obvious and laudable effort to improve itself—no more talk of rebuilding; now they might actually be starting to do it. —Rebecca Glass

8. Bard to the Rotation
Because the topic as originally proposed was spelled “Favourite Off-Season Move,” I assumed we were required to pick a Canadian move. After the confusion was cleared up, I picked the Red Sox moving Daniel Bard to the rotation. With two members of last year’s rotation working their way back from Tommy John surgery, the Red Sox had spots open. Moving their best reliever into a starting role makes sense because the value of a good starter is higher than that of a great reliever simply because a starter will throw more innings over the course of the season. It makes even more sense because acquiring a starter on the market would have been expensive, whereas moving Bard and acquiring relievers to replace him was much cheaper. Bard has started before, throws three pitches, and wanted to change roles. The move may not work, but it’s an admirable experiment that could pay big dividends for a club in need of good starting pitching to compete in the AL East. —Matthew Kory

9. Mat Latos Sees Red
Looking at the Reds roster on December 17, the eve of the trade that sent Mat Latos to Cincinnati, it wasn't hard to identify the team's most glaring need. That need was perhaps best illuminated in 2010, when the Reds finally returned to the postseason, only to be no-hit by Roy Halladay in Game One of the NLDS. There is only one Roy Halladay, but Dusty Baker's starter that day was Edinson Volquez, who coughed up four hits and two walks in 1 2/3 innings, and was essentially the antithesis of the reliability a team looks for in the pitcher who takes the ball in its playoff opener.

Try as they might, the Reds could not develop their own ace starter; prospects like Homer Bailey and Mike Leake instead settling in as mid-rotation types. Nor could they afford to sign a CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee in free agency, since their resources are relatively limited and must be devoted toward tempting lineup cornerstones Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips to forgo free agency. Trading for an affordable ace was the only way Walt Jocketty could address the biggest hole in his roster.
 
Though most analyses of the trade suggested that the Padres got a king's ransom for Mat Latos, the reality is that Jocketty did not part with any pieces that will be crucial to a Reds contender. Yasmani Grandal is one of the league's best catching prospects, but Cincinnati has a better one in Devin Mesoraco. Yonder Alonso is nice, but Joey Votto is nicer. Brad Boxberger could be a great reliever or a useful number-four starter, but those the Reds can actually afford. Edinson Volquez is getting more expensive, but not really getting any more effective.  

If you believe that Latos—admittedly an imperfect pitcher with fly-ball tendencies and some maturity issues—can blossom into a number-one-caliber starter, then this deal was a no-brainer for a burgeoning contender. With Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols exiting the NL Central, the Reds' window is open now, but it won't be open for long. Jocketty saw an opportunity to add a pitcher who delivered a 4.0 WARP season at age 22, and whom he could control for four years, and seized it. —Daniel Rathman

‚Äč10. A Fishy Rebranding
You know what's a crime worse than garish novelty? Worse than staid traditionalism, even? Garish traditionalism—the kind of literalism and copycat behavior that we've known was a lie at least since Cool Runnings. Miami is a lot of things: the seventh-most populous metropolitan area in the United States, home to a population more than half of which was born outside the United States, and a place where two-thirds of the people speak Spanish as their first language. But here's what Miami is definitely not: drab, the entire state of Florida, or especially concerned with how they did things at Elysian Fields. For the most impressive move of the offseason, I nominate the Marlins' decision to rebrand themselves as a Miami team and adopt the most outrageous color scheme this side of, well, the 90 miles of ocean between Miami and Havana. 

Remember that the Marlins have ranked 16th out of 16 teams in total attendance in each of the last six seasons. They didn't sell more than 19,000 tickets per game in any of those seasons. They couldn't even sell two million tickets the year they won the World Series. It used to be popular to blame the ownership for stingy decisions and fire sales. But the flip side of that is recognizing that creating a culture of winning may require slightly more than overpaying for good free agents. I don't care how many Bells, whistles, and Reyeses you shake a stick at; if you want to fill the seats, you have to do something to provide a shock to the system. Create a new equilibrium. Start going by your given name, Giancarlo. Don't stop at one Latin shortstop when you can have two for twice the price. And sure, build a home run celebration display that looks like the peyote dream of a vengeful spirit animal. Nunca llueve a gusto de todos. —Tommy Bennett

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