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October 18, 2012

The Lineup Card

Seven Moves that Helped LCS Teams

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. Marco Scutaro
When presented with this week's Lineup Card topic, my mind instantly thought about trade deadline moves. I'm not sure why I added the “trade deadline” stipulation in my mind, but Marco Scutaro qualified even with my self-imposed restriction in place. Scutaro helped the Giants immediately by filling in for Pablo Sandoval at third base, as Sandoval was on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. He eventually slid over to second base, where he became the Giants’ starter.

Scutaro has served as the Giants number-two hitter and has performed admirably. His walk rate with the Giants is the lowest it has been since 2004, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone critical of an approach that led to a .362/.385/.473 slash line. Scutaro makes a lot of contact and proved to be the most difficult player to strike out amongst qualifying hitters this year. It's safe to say that the minimal investment of dealing Charlie Culberson and taking on a bit more payroll has paid off handsomely for San Francisco. —Josh Shepardson

2. Hiroki Kuroda
After re-signing CC Sabathia and Freddy Garcia last fall, the Yankees had five starting pitchers, but not the ones they wanted. The problem was that the available free agents mostly weren’t ones they wanted, either. Yu Darvish was very good, but also very expensive and from the same country Kei Igawa came from. C.J. Wilson was very expensive, but not necessarily very good. Edwin Jackson was mercurial, and Mark Buehrle was too old and slow-throwing for a long-term deal in the AL East. The Yankees traded for Michael Pineda in January, but they continued to treat the free-agent market like Goldilocks browsing the three bears’ house.

A few weeks before pitchers and catchers were due to report, they decided that Hiroki Kuroda was jusssst right. Astronomers use the term “Goldilocks planet” to refer to a planet inside the slim habitable zone surrounding a star (the area in which a planet could theoretically sustain liquid water). Kuroda was a Goldilocks free agent. He was expensive, but not too expensive, compared to the market rate. He was successful, but not in the ways that would’ve driven up his price (flashy fastball, lots of strikeouts). He was old, but not ancient. Best of all, he could be had for one year. So for three years less than it took the Marlins to sign Buerhle and $1 million less than the Nationals paid for Jackson, the Yankees landed Kuroda, who went on to finish second to Darvish—third, if you count Sabathia—in 2012 WARP among free-agent pitchers signed over the offseason. At $10 million, Kuroda didn’t come cheap, but given the Yankees’ budget, their position on the win curve, and the short commitment the contract required, he was a darn good deal.

Kuroda entered the season with a 3.45 career ERA in Dodger Stadium and posted a 3.32 mark in a better hitter’s ballpark in a better division in a better league. Best of all, he made a career-high 33 starts and pitched a career-high 219 2/3 innings, not counting two superb starts in the postseason. Paying for wins from free-agent starters is a good way to waste money, but the Kuroda the Yankees got was even better than the one they bargained for. —Ben Lindbergh

3. Anibal Sanchez
My pick for the best move made by a team that has reached one of the League Championship Series is Tigers right-hander Anibal Sanchez. The Tigers acquired Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante from the Marlins in a late-July trade, shoring up two problem spots. The Tigers gave up a lot, as right-hander Jacob Turner and catcher Rob Brantly have a chance to be above-average performers in the major leagues, but Sanchez proved his worth last Sunday in Game Two of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Sanchez pitched three-hit ball over seven shutout innings and got the win as the Tigers notched a 3-0 victory and took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. It's always hard to give up top prospects, but it's also difficult to win a World Series without an organization letting go of some top young talent in order to fill holes at the major-league level. Sanchez looks poised to help the Tigers win their first World Series since 1984. If he does that, it will always be a good trade for the Tigers, even if Brantly or Turner become stars. —John Perrotto

4. Darin Downs
I’m not really suggesting that the Tigers got this far because of a guy who threw barely 20 low-leverage innings for them in 2012. Darin Downs isn’t on Detroit’s playoff roster, either, so he had nothing to do with getting them past Oakland to face the Yankees. But I do think this heady moment, as the Tigers stand on the edge of the World Series, is a good time to salute a player who, but for the game of inches, might have perished long before getting to post his small-sample 3.24 FIP and 3.48 ERA in the major leagues this year.

Downs, a lefty, was a Cubs fifth-round draft pick in 2003 but spent all but 22 games of the first six years of his minor-league career below Double-A. He was acquired by Tampa Bay as a swingman in 2008. On August 17,, 2009, in his second start for the Rays’ Double-A affiliate (Montgomery) since his promotion from High-A Port Charlotte, Downs threw a fifth-inning fastball to Christian Marrero. Marrero lined it back up the middle and the ball hit Downs flush on the side of the head, then ricocheted into the third-base camera well.

Downs fell but never lost consciousness. Blood pooled in his head, swelling his skull. His fiancée (now wife) was in the stands. He could not answer the questions he was asked as he lay there. In the hospital, they thought he might die.

Nine days later, he was discharged.

Downs struggled when he first came up to Triple-A in 2010, but the lefty adjusted and finished the year well. He was probably the nicest guy in the Durham clubhouse, and the only observable effect of the previous year’s near-fatal injury was a stutter, or hitch, in his speech. He became a free agent at the end of the season and signed with Marlins. His 2011 season, split between Double-A and Triple-A, was uninspiring, but lefties who can throw 90 mph are long-lived. He latched on with Detroit, and on July 3, 2012 at Comerica Park, right after Joaquin Benoit gave up a leadoff, ninth-inning home run to Joe Mauer that extended the Minnesota Twins’ lead to 8-6, the just-called-up Downs was summoned to face Justin Morneau.

Got him to fly out to right-center field. Deep.

Deep breath.

(Good piece on Downs here.) —Adam Sobsey

5. Not Signing Albert Pujols
I'm sure that there's a Cardinals fan or two engaging in a little schadenfreude for Albert Pujols. But even in the faint afterglow of a 2011 World Series title, the pre-season narrative surrounding the Cardinals was about the loss of their best player to the Angels. I'd wager that some of those same fans who are looking up schadenfreude now were screaming, more explitive Germanic words at the invisible Cardinals front-office member in front of them. Still, it is Pujols who is adjusting the reception on his television in October to see his former teammates in action, rather than the other way around. By not signing Pujols, the Cardinals made a wise move not only for now, but for the future. And in the process, they may have exploited a market inefficiency.

Pujols got his 10 years and seven billion dollars, and despite early-season struggles still had a decent year (3.7 WARP). Instead, the Cardinals opted for two years of Carlos Beltran, himself 35 at a mere $13M per year, and spread the rest of the money around. Signing Beltran allowed the Cards to slide Lance Berkman's defensive liabilities to first base (before he got hurt), move Matt Holliday from right field to left, and free up playing time for Allen Craig. All told, the Cards probably would have been better off with Pujols this year, but the drop wasn't as major as some feared. It never is, but humans have a tendency to irrationally hold on to whatever is in their hands.

Beltran is the key element here. In baseball years, he is now a high-risk player to sign, due to his age. Older players get hurt more often and are more prone to sudden losses of effectiveness, but there is risk in every signing, and risks can become over-valued in a market. Beltran's recent track record suggested that he is still able to produce a good amount of value, and his age dictated that he would not be demanding a five-year commitment. He got two. In this case, the risk paid off. If we assume that the Cardinals will spend the "Pujols money" on payroll, investing in such older veterans might be a smart move. For one, it allows them to select a player who plays a position of need, rather than being stuck with having that money committed to Pujols at first base. Secondly, it allows them to choose which of a couple of options make the most sense in terms of risk. If there are three potential free agents who fit the Cardinals' needs, they can bid on the one whom they believe has the least amount of risk (or the best risk-reward ratio). If the Cards had gone to the altar with Albert Pujols, they would have been tying their options to the risks inherent in Albert Pujols, and it's impossible to predict what will happen to Pujols over the next 10 years. In financial terms, the Cardinals diversified their risk portfolio, freed up some money for other expenses, and all it cost them was shifting to a slightly less effective player in Beltran. If they can repeat that maneuver for the next few years, they may come out ahead of where they would have been with Albert Pujols wearing Cardinal red. —Russell Carleton

6. Miguel Cabrera Moves to Third Base
Miguel Cabrera's claim to the AL MVP has primarily focused on his winning the historic Triple Crown, yet Cabrera's value to the Detroit Tigers went far beyond his contributions at the plate. When Jason Parks took his informal poll of scouts and executives, at least one FOT's support of Cabrera's MVP candidacy was influenced by the selfless transition across the diamond. The move to the hot corner allowed the Tigers to add a second massive presence to the lineup, with Prince Fielder's left-handed bat offering the ideal complement in the cleanup spot behind Cabrera.

Cabrera's pivotal position-switch enabled Detroit to shock the world by signing Fielder, arguably the off-season's most valuable free agent, to a nine-year deal worth $214 million. Cabrera had not played regularly at third base since 2007, and though his waistline has expanded in the interim, the former Marlin was able to switch back to his old haunting grounds and play close to the level that he had established in his mid-20s. Skeptics were anticipating a disastrous season in the field, particularly after a bad hop plugged his eye socket in spring training, yet Cabrera set out to prove (along with Pablo Sandoval) that a player shaped like a beer keg can still handle the hot corner.

The Tigers had the worst record of the AL playoff seeds, and it took every ounce of Prince Fielder's bat to surge past the White Sox in the final weeks of the season. The Tigers $20 million trio of Fielder, Cabrera, and Justin Verlander are three of the top players in the sport, and the tournament format of the postseason will magnify their ability to carry Motown's title hopes on their collective shoulders. —Doug Thorburn

7. Hiring Mike Matheny
So, you win the World Series following one of the most improbable two-month stretches in memory and what happens? Your inner-circle Hall of Fame manager decides to retire and, months later, your (potentially) inner-circle Hall of Fame superstar leaves town for a gigantic paycheck in Southern California. Talk about handicapping your chances for a repeat! Thankfully for the Cardinals, one thing did go right for them over the winter: they hired longtime adviser and instructor Mike Matheny as manager. It's tough to take over a clubhouse with so many competing pressures and stresses—defending the world championship, handling the fallout of Albert Pujols' departure, bringing Adam Wainwright back into the rotation after his injury, etc.—and succeed, especially as someone who had never managed before at any level. But Matheny definitely succeeded in St. Louis this year, as the club appears to be well on their way to repeating last year's late-season success. He may not get any of the Manager of the Year votes that will rightly fall to Davey Johnson, but Matheny's hiring was a great move by the Cardinals organization. —Larry Granillo

4 comments have been left for this article.

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