January 2, 2014
Crain So Good Coulda Swore You Went to College
Signed RHP Jesse Crain to a one-year deal. [12/31]
Jeff Luhnow watched his Astros finish with the league's worst bullpen ERA last season, and he doesn't intend to see it happen again in 2014. In addition to signing Crain, Chad Qualls, and Matt Albers to big-league contracts, Luhnow has claimed two southpaws on waivers (Darin Downs and Raul Valdes) and signed sidewinder Peter Moylan to a minor-league deal. The results are to be seen, but Houston has made a sincere (and welcomed) effort to rebuild its bullpen this winter.
Crain is arguably the most accomplished and riskiest of the Astros' bunch. When he's healthy, he employs bow-and-arrow mechanics to deliver a mid-90s fastball, a pair of breaking pitches, and an occasional splitter. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 52 appearances, 2.71 strikeouts per walk, and 2.10 earned runs per nine innings; numbers that either exceed or compare favorably to Joe Smith, who received a three-year deal worth more than $16 million. Why then is Crain signing a one-year deal? A bum shoulder cost him last season's final three months, and caused him to undergo surgery in October. As a result, his status for Opening Day is unknown.
The injury is a double-edged sword for the Astros. Without that risk, Crain signs a deal that sparks a hundred snarky tweets. With that risk, it's possible Houston pays Crain to do nothing. But Luhnow knows the stakes are relatively low. Whether Crain pitches or not doesn't matter much in the end. If he does, then the Astros could use the help, both on the field and on the trade block. If he doesn't, then Houston made a nice bet that didn't pay off. —R.J. Anderson
In a thin bullpen, Crain instantly moves to the front of the line for saves assuming health. He is a bottom-tier candidate for saves due to the trade risk, but Crain was extremely effective when healthy in 2013 and should be fine in the ninth for Houston as long as he is with the team. There is some risk in fantasy, but Crain goes from being a deeper league play to a must own in all formats. —Mike Gianella
So much for Mikolas spending spring training in his native Florida. Acquired by the Pirates in late November as part of a three-player trade, he figures to start the season in the minors. When Mikolas reaches the majors, he'll bring with him a fastball-curveball combination that has resulted in solid groundball rates throughout his career. Though his walk rates have underwhelmed during his cameos in the Show, he's shown better control in the past and should improve in time. No one in Texas will celebrate landing a middle reliever, but the Rangers didn't need McGuiness and could have lost him for less last year, when the Indians selected him in the Rule 5 draft. At least Mikolas might come in handy. —R.J. Anderson
Acquired 1B-L Chris McGuiness from the Rangers for RHP Miles Mikolas. [12/30]
All winter long, the Pirates have sought a left-handed first baseman to platoon with Gaby Sanchez. James Loney and Logan Morrison were reportedly pursued by the Pirates until landing elsewhere, leaving Ike Davis and Mitch Moreland as the top candidates to don the black and yellow. Yet Neal Huntington caused the rumor mill to check its swing by closing 2013 with a trade for Moreland's backup.
McGuiness is, for the time being, Pittsburgh's default first baseman against right-handed pitchers. Since being drafted by the Red Sox in 2009, he's bounced around from one quantitatively inclined team to another. Boston shipped him to Texas as part of the Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade in 2010, and the Indians selected him in last winter's Rule 5 draft, only to return him in the springtime. The rap on McGuiness is that he has a good approach and power, but scouts are skeptical about his bat speed and ability to hit big-league pitching. (On that note, here's a piece of trivia: McGuiness was the only big-league hitter last season to strike out multiple times against Chien-Ming Wang.)
If McGuiness is closer to Travis Ishikawa—signed by Pittsburgh earlier in the winter to man first base at Triple-A—than he is to the answer, then just what is Huntington doing by acquiring him? It could be that Huntington has decided to accumulate low-cost mediocre options rather than trade for a slightly better product. Entering the season with Ishikawa at first base isn't going to do anything for anyone, and adding McGuiness doesn't cause a fizzle. Same thing if the Pirates sign a Lyle Overbay, Casey Kotchman, or Carlos Pena. But, although that's an ugly trio, it's possible one of the three emerges as a passable short-term option.
Of course, adding McGuiness could be unrelated to Huntington's plans for the position—or, conversely, it could be a posturing play. Given the production the Pirates received from Garrett Jones and Justin Morneau last season, it's not like Huntington has a high bar in front of him, no matter how he proceeds.
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson