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August 3, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Nats Attempt to Plug Hole at Catcher, Acquire Suzuki

by R.J. Anderson, Ben Lindbergh and Jason Parks

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Designated OF-L Johnny Damon for assignment. [8/3]
Designated RHP Derek Lowe for assignment. [8/2]

In early June, a Cleveland resident probably pondered Lowe’s All-Star credentials. Lowe, acquired from the Braves in the offseason for a song, had a 3.06 ERA, a 7-3 record, quality starts in nine of his 11 tries… and unimpressive peripherals. Sure, Lowe’s performance seemed as likely to sustain as an igloo in the summer, but Indians fans had reason to celebrate his decent results to date. Lowe would make 10 more starts for the Indians, after which the only folks left celebrating played (and rooted) for the other team.

Derek Lowe’s 2012 Split in (Nearly) Half

Split

First 11 GS

Last 10 GS

IP

67.2

51.1

H/9

10.6

13.3

R/9

3.32

9.47

BB/9

2.5

4.6

SO/9

2.7

3.7

ERA

3.06

8.77

BA/OBP/SLG

.297/.345/.390

.350/.418/.502

 

The Indians entered the season with ambitions of employing a groundball-heavy rotation and a strong defensive infield. The Fausto Carmona saga hurt the first aspiration. As a staff, however, the Indians have the fifth-lowest batting average on groundballs in play in the majors. Despite this, Lowe still managed to post a career-high BABIP on grounders, thus giving him new career-highs in back-to-back seasons. Lowe’s inflated hit rate on grounders strayed from personal and staff norms alike.

Indians Starters Groundball BABIP, 2012

Pitcher

GB%

BABIP on GB

Jeanmar Gomez

48.8%

.175

Justin Masterson

57.8%

.207

Josh Tomlin

42.8%

.210

Ubaldo Jimenez

38.9%

.211

Zach McAllister

37.0%

.211

Derek Lowe

60.5%

.257

 

There aren’t many reasons to explain the differences. Either Lowe had the worst luck and received the worst fielding of the bunch or he allowed the worst quality of groundball. Cleveland voted for the latter. Lowe’s next team, perhaps Baltimore, will hope they’re wrong. If not, Lowe’s days as a big-league starter are closer to the end than anticipated.

Speaking of players near the end, Damon is another causality of poor performance and the Indians’ fading playoff hopes. Damon spent the entirety of spring training unemployed before latching on with the Indians in mid-April. He reached the majors in early May and showed signs of rust before turning it on in June. But it was a short-lived run, and Damon’s performance in July evidently left the Indians unsatisfied.

Damon still makes enough contact to be effective. The problem at this point seems to be a lack of secondary skills. He doesn’t notch enough extra-base hits or play defense well enough to make up for his deficiencies. Another alarming aspect of Damon’s game is a complete unwillingness to walk. He took a free pass just once after June 21, and that came on July 25.  Joel Sherman reported during the offseason that several teams were leery of signing Damon due to his milestone chase. Whether the Indians suspected Damon put self ahead of team goals is unknown. Damon won’t reach 3,000 hits with the Indians, and it’s looking less likely than ever that he’ll reach the milestone at all. —R.J. Anderson

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired C-R David Freitas for C-R Kurt Suzuki and cash. [8/3]

Every organization in baseball could benefit from having a player like David Freitas, which is why every organization in baseball has a player like David Freitas.  A 15th-round draft pick out of the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2010, the backstop had organizational soldier written all over his profile, where words like leadership, character, and maturity receive a more pronounced font than words like plus or above-average. But something funny happened on the way to minor-league obscurity: Freitas started showing major-league potential. His bat isn’t anything special; the hit tool itself is currently below-average with a chance of becoming a fringe-average tool, but the approach is advanced, and the raw power should play up to at least average (50 on the 20-80 scale).

Freitas’ defensive skill-set continues to improve, with good receiving and game management skills and improving catch-and-throw skills, despite an arm that isn’t considered a plus weapon. His ceiling isn’t high, and I doubt he becomes a major-league regular, but he has a legit chance to play at the highest level, which should be seen as a scouting success story. If everything clicks, the bat could produce a little average, the approach could add an on-base dimension to his offensive game, and power could keep pitchers honest, while the defensive skill-set will be good enough to play. It’s not sexy, but it has the potential to be solid.—Jason Parks

The A’s acquisition of George Kottaras on July 28th gave the A’s one too many major-league catchers, forcing them to send Derek Norris down to Triple-A. As of today, our Playoff Odds report gives the A’s a 27.6 percent chance to make the postseason. Evidently, they decided that replacing Suzuki—their longest-tenured player—with Norris would make that number rise. It might not be encouraging for the Nats that a team in a playoff race would be willing to get rid of the guy they just traded for, but if the Nats still had Derek Norris—whom they sent to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade—they wouldn’t have made this move. Norris struggled offensively in his first 21 big-league games this season, but he’s hitting a more respectable .271/.329/.477 in Sacramento. Patience at the plate is a big part of Norris’ appeal as a player, so it’s a little concerning that his walk rate has plummeted across two levels this season, but he has shown impressive power. According to Jon Heyman, the 23-year-old will become the starter immediately after being called back up.

The A’s save some cash in the move—something they’re always interested in doing—and there might be further savings in store for the future. Kottaras will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this season. If he gets too expensive to justify paying him at any point between now and 2015, when he’ll hit free agency, the A’s can cut him loose and make the cheaper Freitas their backstop without missing a beat. —Ben Lindbergh

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired C-R Kurt Suzuki and cash for C-R David Freitas. [8/3]

The Nationals are in first place because of their pitching: they lead the majors with a 3.27 ERA. Their offense is another story. It’s a story about a team that is exactly league average: eighth in the NL, with a .260 TAv.

The Nats got Jayson Werth back yesterday, which should help them raise that number slightly, but one very obvious weak point remained. It should stand out immediately when you look at Washington’s positional production in our Visual Depth Charts. And just in case it didn’t, I added an arrow:

Nats catchers have hit pretty poorly this season, posting a collective .236/.295/.353 line. Even worse, the two guys responsible for most of the offensive highlights—Wilson Ramos (.256/.347/.390) and Jhonatan Solano (.294/.333/.529)—are injured. The two catchers on the active roster before the trade—Jesus Flores (.228/.265/.329) and Sandy Leon (.250/.357/.333)—haven’t fared nearly as well. With Ramos out for the season after undergoing multiple knee surgeries to correct a torn meniscus and ACL and Solano nursing a strained oblique, the Nats had some incentive to make a move. Leon will likely be an immediate victim of the trade, along with Triple-A catcher Carlos Maldonado, who was designated for assignment to make room for Suzuki on the 40-man roster.

Suzuki seems like an unlikely candidate to offer any help on offense given that his .200 TAv in 2012 made him the American League’s worst batter (min. 250 PA). (That might explain why no AL teams claimed him when he was placed on waivers.) From 2007-2011, however, Suzuki was an above-average offense catcher, posting a .258 TAv. He’s only 28—though maybe not a young 28, given his workload over the last several seasons—and he’s hit a bit better away from Oakland, so it’s not unreasonable to expect an improvement. After the move was announced, Davey Johnson complimented Suzuki’s “veteran presence,” something in short supply on the Nationals, who have baseball’s youngest pitching staff and third-youngest collection of position players. (He also called Suzuki “a no. 1 catcher,” which suggests that he’ll see the bulk of the playing time behind the plate.) Suzuki lacks playoff experience, but he’ll get some if he can stay healthy for two more months.

If Suzuki’s bat doesn’t bounce back, the Nats will have a weak-hitting catcher on their hands for at least another season. Suzuki, who’s making $5 million this year, will get a raise to $6.45 million in 2013. He has an $8.5 million team option for 2014 that will likely end up being bought out for $650,000. We don’t yet know how much money the A’s are sending to Washington to cover Suzuki’s contract.

Even if the Nats are swapping one offensively inept backstop for another, the new one will be better defensively. Suzuki has been below-average at fielding batted balls, but he seems to excel at everything else. According to Max Marchi’s research, Suzuki saved the sixth-most runs of any catcher from 2008-2011 through game-calling and framing and was also the sixth-best at blocking pitches. He’s thrown out 38 percent of attempted basestealers this season, well above the 27 percent league rate.

In mid-July, shortly after Solano’s started experiencing discomfort, this paragraph appeared in the Washington Times:

One Nationals official, asked this week about the organization's possible desire to deal for a catcher before the trade deadline, brushed that off as speculation because of how comfortable the team is with Flores and how highly they think of not just Solano, but Leon.

Admittedly, the Nats didn’t make a deal for a catcher before the deadline. It took them three additional days. The moral of the story is that no matter what team executives might say about how happy they are with their weak point, they’re almost certainly working on a way to fix it. —Ben Lindbergh


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
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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