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November 6, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Another Winter, Another Tigers Closer Search

by Daniel Rathman

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Tigers Looking for an Experienced Closer
Dave Dombrowski’s seemingly eternal search for a ninth-inning force continues this offseason, as Joaquin Benoit ponders his future in free agency. The 36-year-old Benoit performed well during the final season of his three-year, $16.5 million contract, recording 24 saves in 26 regular-season chances while amassing a 2.01 ERA and 2.90 FIP. Benoit is “in the mix,” but Dombrowski has a host of choices in this winter’s free-agent crop.

Is Joe Nathan the No. 1 Option?
Former Rangers closer Joe Nathan might be at the top of the veteran general manager’s list of targets, even though he turns 39 on November 22. Nathan is coming off of a terrific second season in Arlington, during which he compiled a 1.39 ERA and 2.29 FIP despite pitching in the perilous confines of Rangers Ballpark.

The right-hander no longer throws as hard as he once did, registering 92-93 on the radar gun rather than 96, but his outstanding command of the heater has superseded his declining velocity. Opponents hit just .111 against Nathan’s fastball in 2013, consistently struggling to square it up. Nathan’s slider, which held foes to a .168 clip, was almost equally effective.

There are, however, two sources of concern for teams considering Nathan.

Always a fly-ball pitcher, Nathan took that style to the extreme last season, inducing grounders on just 32 percent of the balls put in play against him. However, he surrendered only two home runs in 64 2/3 innings because only three percent of the fly balls he coaxed cleared a fence, the fourth-lowest rate among pitchers who worked at least 60 innings. Nathan has a history of suppressing home runs, but his best work in that department came nearly a decade ago, and his seven percent career HR:FB ratio portends some regression.

The other worry is Nathan’s walk rate, which climbed to 8.8 percent in 2013, its highest point since the 2003 season—before the Giants shipped him to the Twins with Francisco Liriano in exchange for A.J. Pierzynski. Nathan would be a solid pitcher even if all of his peripherals—the three percent HR:FB, the 8.8 percent walk rate, and the .224 BABIP—were to return to their career norms, but he would not be a dominant one.

That should make closer-needy general managers think twice before tendering the two-year offers Nathan is seeking. Nathan declined the player portion of his mutual option—originally a club option, which Nathan earned the right to refuse when he reached a games-finished benchmark—with the Rangers, hitting free agency for the first time since 2011.

Rockies Shopping for Veteran Catcher—Carlos Ruiz?
Can you name the major-league catcher who’s hit the most home runs over the last two seasons? The answer is Wilin Rosario, with 49—which might lead you to wonder why his team is in the market for a starting-caliber backstop this offseason.

According to Denver Post beat writer Troy Renck, the Rockies are interested in ex-Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz and ex-Braves catcher Brian McCann, but they are likely to be priced out of the market for the latter. Renck believes that general manager Dan O’Dowd wants a strong defensive catcher, one who would provide a significant upgrade over Rosario in the squat and perhaps mentor the 24-year-old on the job. Ruiz fits that requirement, which explains why the Rockies are undeterred by his age—he turns 35 in January—and injury- and suspension-shortened 2013 season.

The Panamanian had spent the entirety of his professional career with the Phillies before filing for free agency, and he was worth at least 3.2 WARP in every season between 2010 and 2012. But Ruiz was suspended for the first 25 games of the 2013 season after testing positive for amphetamines, and then missed a month with a hamstring strain. He compiled 1.9 WARP over 92 games, but has racked up a laundry list of injuries since 2009, totaling five stints on the disabled list in as many seasons.

Renck notes that O’Dowd has ample money to play with this offseason, citing the team’s $63 million bid for Jose Abreu, who wound up signing with the White Sox. The Rockies’ main competition for Ruiz might be his previous employer, the Phillies, who have not closed the door on bringing him back. For what it’s worth, Ruiz told the Philadelphia media that he would like to return.

Mets in Touch With Rafael Furcal
At first blush, it might not seem as though the Mets should be in the shortstop market, because Ruben Tejada, still just 24 years of age, was a two-win contributor in 2011 and 2012. But Tejada spent a month on the disabled list with a quad strain—the second consecutive year in which he has pulled the right-leg muscle—broke his left fibula in September, and batted just .202/.259/.260 (.199 TAv) in 57 games while healthy last season. On top of all that, general manager Sandy Alderson and skipper Terry Collins both publicly questioned his #want.

Hence, Alderson is hunting for upgrades—or, at the very least, insurance at the position. Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta are said to be plans A and B, but in case neither of them wants to come to Queens, Alderson has already lined up plan C: Rafael Furcal.

The 36-year-old Furcal is hardly an ideal fit. He comes with an extensive injury history of his own, having missed the entire 2013 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he lacks experience at other infield positions, which limits his appeal in a utility role. Still, Jorge Castillo of the Newark Star-Ledger hears that the Mets are already in contact with Furcal’s agent, Paul Kinzer.

Castillo added that Furcal was healthy enough to participate in the Cardinals’ pregame defensive drills last month, a sign that he is at or near full strength more than three months before spring training.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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