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December 26, 2012

Rumor Roundup

Wednesday, December 26

by Daniel Rathman

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The rumor mill was predictably quiet on Christmas Eve and Day, but general managers did not exercise their right to celebrate new holidays, preferring instead to work straight through Festivus. Today’s Roundup rewinds to the weekend, when the following nuggets made the rounds…

Derek Lowe seeks guaranteed rotation spot
In January 2009, Lowe—represented by Scott Boras—put pen to paper on a rather strange contract. Then 35, with his 36th birthday less than five months away, the sinkerballer was offered four years and $60 million by the Braves, and he jumped at the opportunity to spend his late-30s in Atlanta. 

The Transaction Analysis for that signing, written by Christina Kahrl, described the deal as “a reasonable investment” in the heat of an aggressive spending environment, not unlike the one that has pervaded free agency so far this winter. Looking back, Lowe may have been moderately overpriced on a $15 million annual salary, but he did not betray general manager Frank Wren’s trust entirely. The former Dodger, Red Sox, and Mariner turned in three steady seasons in 2009-2011, recording a FIP between 3.67-4.02 and eating about 190 innings each year. That consistency led the Indians to gamble on Lowe last offseason, as Chris Antonetti agreed to take on $5 million of his paycheck and send bullpen prospect Chris Jones to the Braves.

Ben Lindbergh, breaking down that trade, cautioned against expecting a significant rebound from Lowe, because of his age and the context of moving from the Braves to the Indians, who had a comparable defensive infield but poorer-framing catchers. And instead of bouncing back, Lowe continued his tumble into mediocrity, with his once-solid strikeout rate plunging toward Aaron Cook territory. After whiffing at least 13 percent of opposing batters in each previous year of his career, Lowe struck out only 8.6 percent of them in 2012, resulting in a 4.37 aggregate FIP. That figure was amassed over 21 starts for the Indians (4.44) and 17 relief appearances for the Yankees (3.72), and it represented his worst effort since 2004.

Additionally, Lowe, always somewhat of a liability versus left-handed batters (.291 opponents’ TAv), became unserviceable against them, a weakness that contributed to his downfall in Cleveland.

The above graphic, from Lowe’s Brooks Baseball Pitcher Card, can essentially be summed up in one sentence: If it wasn’t down-and-away or up-and-in, it was going a long way. Lefties smacked Lowe around to the tune of a .345/.412/.525 triple-slash line and a .332 TAv that, for the sake of comparison, matched Miguel Cabrera’s mark for the 2012 season. Thirty-one of the 290 opposite-handed hitters that he faced notched an extra-base hit, and only 19 struck out. The Yankees, who inked Lowe to a pro-rated contract three days after the Tribe cut him loose, aided the sinkerballer by shielding him from tough lefties during his long-relief gig, but for future employers, his splits scream “buyer beware.”

That’s especially the case because, according to The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, Lowe is hoping to find a guaranteed rotation spot for 2013, having already cold-shouldered five teams that reached out with swing-man offers. In order to enjoy a renaissance and once again emerge as a serviceable starter, Lowe—with his diminishing strikeout rate but consistent ground-ball figures—will require an outstanding defensive infield, and he’ll also need to find an answer for opposing lefties.

Of the top ten teams in batting average allowed on ground balls last year, only the Pirates and his former team, the Red Sox, have potential rotation openings, and nostalgia aside, general manager Ben Cherington might be wary of an Aaron Cook redux. For that reason, Lowe’s wish may well go unfulfilled, unless he waits until March and tries to capitalize on an injury.

Four teams have interest in Yuniesky Betancourt
Betancourt turns 31 in January, has produced two above-replacement-level campaigns since 2008, and was awful (-1.3 WARP) in his second tour with the Royals, a 57-game stint in 2012, during which he hit .228/.256/.400 and was accused of not being a team player. Despite that track record, at least four clubs have phoned his agent, Alex Esteban, to express a desire to bring him in, according to MLB Trade Rumors.

Once a full-time shortstop, Betancourt played primarily at second base for Kansas City manager Ned Yost last season, making 43 of his 50 starts at the keystone, as Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas held down the left side of the infield. Betancourt offers more pop than most infield reserves, a trait that may be responsible for his surprising appeal, but he has shown little in the way of plate discipline, with virtually no platoon advantage to mitigate his .240 career TAv. And the positive FRAA totals that Betancourt logged in 2010 and 2011, which enabled him to surpass scrub status for the first time in three years, are incongruous with his otherwise negative defensive résumé.

Nonetheless, Esteban told MLBTR, “I can assure you that Yuni will be signing a Major League contract.” Betancourt took home $2 million in 2012, on the heels of a four-year, $13.75 million extension that he signed while with the Mariners, before heading to Kansas City for two minor-league pitchers in 2009, and then to Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade two offseasons ago.

MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat wrote from the Winter Meetings that the Cubs were a possible destination for Betancourt, offering an opportunity to share the hot corner with Ian Stewart and Luis Valbuena. MLBTR referenced Muskat’s post but did not confirm with Esteban that the Cubs are among the four teams bidding for his client’s services. On Monday, Darren Wolfson, a contributor to 1500 ESPN Twin Cities, divulged that the Twins are chasing Betancourt, serving as the Grinch for the Target Field faithful. The other three active suitors remain a mystery.

Rays still looking for ‘a bat or two’
With less than two months left until spring training, Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times heard directly from Rays general manager Andrew Friedman that fortifying the team’s lineup remains a priority. The Rays have imported James Loney, Yunel Escobar, Roberto Hernandez, and Wil Myers to replace the departed B.J. Upton, Wade Davis, and James Shields, but they are not quite done yet.

Smith ran down a list of candidates in his post, noting the pros and cons of each, and the current complexion of the roster leaves only a couple of possible openings. Friedman could pursue a right-handed-hitting complement to outfielders Sam Fuld and Matt Joyce, expecting the newcomer to provide an upgrade over Brandon Guyer, while also picking up some at-bats as a designated hitter. Alternatively, he could try to find a near-full-time DH, though that sort of move would decrease the overall versatility of manager Joe Maddon’s lot.

Given Maddon’s penchant for matchup-based lineup construction, the former scenario seems more likely. Smith mentioned that Jeff Keppinger—who thrived in a part-time role for the Rays last year, before securing a three-year deal from the White Sox earlier this offseason—is the type of player that Friedman might find most appealing. And, to further the logic, the diminishing free-agent pool actually has a few platoon-able options to spare, while the DH pool is down to aging veterans such as Lance Berkman, whose future is cloudy at best.

The flipside is that the market for part-time contributors remains player-friendly, with Cody Ross having secured $26 million over three years from the Diamondbacks only four days ago. Scott Hairston, the most popular target of the group, is fielding calls from multiple teams, per CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, and may land a multi-year commitment. For one-year-hopefuls, Friedman might need to drop down a peg and glance at names like Jeff Baker and Matt Diaz, who are coming off of poor 2012 performances but have performed well against lefties in the past. A trade with the Angels for Vernon Wells is another possibility, but the Halos would have to cover nearly all of the $42 million he is due in 2013-2014. 

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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