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February 10, 2014

Transaction Analysis

Reeling in Rodney

by R.J. Anderson and Craig Goldstein

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Signed RHP Mitchell Boggs to a one-year deal worth $1.1 million. [2/7]

After Rick Hahn signed Scott Downs in December, Ben Lindbergh noted the White Sox had seven relievers who posted groundball rates exceeding 50 percent in 2013. Make that eight. Murdering ants was the only thing Boggs did well last season, as he went from closer in St. Louis to arsonist in Colorado Springs over a few brief months. Don Cooper is one of the league's finest pitching coaches, and he'll have his hands full reconciling Boggs with his mechanics. If Cooper succeeds, the White Sox could use Boggs (and his additional season of control) as trade bait.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Re-signed OF-S Coco Crisp to a two-year extension worth $22.75 million that includes a vesting option worth $13 million. [2/7]

The last time the A's extended a player with more than six years of service time, it was Mark Ellis in late 2008. That deal appeared good at the time, and so does this one.

Never known for his power, Crisp hit a career-best 22 home runs last season at the age of 33. According to the outfielder, there was no real secret to his success: “I’m just having one of those years. I don’t know if it will ever happen again," he said in September, "but I’m grateful." Perhaps Crisp is right. All but one of his home runs were pull jobs (the exception being an opposite-field shot into the Crawford Boxes), and he had the lowest average home-run distance in the majors by more than 13 feet.

Assuming Crisp's power returns to the norm, he'll remain a valuable player heading forward. Crisp has always been more about the sum of his offensive parts, rather than any one outstanding facet—save for, perhaps, his excellent stolen-base ability. That makes it tough to find a true comparable on the open market. Crisp wasn't going to get Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury money, but is it outlandish to think a team might have offered him a lesser version of Curtis Granderson's four-year, $60 million deal?

For as good as the extension looks, Oakland is taking on some risk by signing Crisp for an additional two seasons right now. Injuries were part of the reason the A's were able to sign Crisp in the first place, as he failed to reach 500 plate appearances in consecutive seasons. (He extended the streak to three years in a row during his first campaign in Oaktown.) Since then Crisp has been, if not the model of good health, well enough to average less than one trip to the DL per season—and, in fairness, one of his two trips was due to an ear infection.

Factor in the qualitative stuff that sees Crisp as a leader of the team, which the A's may or may not value, and this seems reasonable enough to accept.

By the way, the happiest person about Crisp's extension might be Brett Gardner. The Yankees spark plug is now undoubtedly the top outfielder on the 2014 free-agent market. Barring injury, Gardner is going to make considerably more money with his next contract than Crisp will with his.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Signed RHP Fernando Rodney to a two-year deal worth $14 million. [2/6]

These days, few general managers are less likely to receive the benefit of the doubt than Jack Zduriencik. Yet, for all his missteps as Seattle's GM, Zduriencik has never been one to chase saves. His first big move involved trading J.J. Putz for a package of young players. Since then, four Mariners have tallied 15-plus saves in a season, and none of them was a proven closer. First there was David Aardsma—he of zero career saves and a 5.29 ERA in 128 big-league appearances before joining Seattle—and Brandon League—two saves and a 4.09 ERA in 168 appearances—then, more recently, Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar—each of whom had fewer than 75 appearances when he notched his 15th save.

Zduriencik is imperfect, but he's never flinched at using an unproven pitcher in the ninth. So why sign Rodney? There are at least two hypotheses, depending on one's opinion of the Mariners front office. The first theory goes like this: perhaps Zduriencik overlooked Farquhar's gaudy strikeout rate and foolishly focused on his poor ERA—after all, remember what Tony Blengino said? The second theory is Zduriencik wanted to upgrade his bullpen while waiting for the market to present him with a bargain.

Here's another theory: it's a little of both.

If Zduriencik buys into one sabermetric principle, it's probably that closers are made and not born. If he buys into another, it's that reliever performance is volatile. Look at the names of Seattle's closers again. Aardsma, League, and Wilhelmsen each had their moments in the Seattle sun before falling victim to injury, worsened performance, or lost confidence. Perhaps Farquhar sustains his strikeout rate and halves his ERA this season—but what if he doesn't? Without Rodney, the Mariners would have a thinner bullpen; with Rodney, the Mariners have better odds of getting one solid season from the two.

If there is a bone to pick with Zduriencik here, it might be that he didn't spend the $7 million or so on multiple relievers. That's easier said than done, however, given how the market seemed favorable to middle-relief types. Shy of the quantity approach, Rodney was clearly the best and surest reliever left on the market—a distinction that now belongs to either Kevin Gregg or Oliver Perez. Ryan Madson, Andrew Bailey, and Joel Hanrahan could be great value deals, but their health statuses must be questionable for them to remain on the market this late in the offseason.

Not that Rodney is without uncertainty. He's eccentric and bound to piss traditionalists off with his tilted hat, arrow-shooting celebration, and fondness for sticking plantains in his pants. Even so, the guy has a $14 million arm, with two ridiculous pitches in his sinker and changeup. There are negatives to his game—he doesn't have good control and he's poor at holding runners—but he's coming off a better season than folks realize. Both his ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio were the second-best of his career since he became a full-time closer, back in 2008. That might not seem like much, yet it suggests he improved as a pitcher during his time in St. Petersburg.

Zduriencik sure hopes so. His club's contention hopes depend on what else they do this offseason, with Nelson Cruz and another starter seeming to be inevitable fits. Right now, the Mariners need many things to go right to threaten for the division crown. A few more additions might not swing the pendulum, but it should shrink the gap. Rodney's deal won't preclude those future deals—and if it does, then signing him wasn't the problem to begin with.

Fantasy

While Rodney loses some value going from Tampa Bay to Seattle, don’t let that sway you too much. Both home parks are pitcher friendly, not that Rodney has been allowing many flyballs anyway. There are likely to be fewer doors for him to shut in Seattle, but those wins should be tight ones, given the shape of Seattle’s current lineup. Control will be paramount for Rodney, as he saw his walk rate more than double in 2013 (5.3% to 12.4%) while maintaining, nay, improving his strikeout rate. Separating from a Tampa Bay coaching staff that clearly was able to get through to him is a negative, it’s possible that he’ll be able to retain those adjustments going forward. There’s a small dropoff here, but nothing too significant.—Craig Goldstein

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Signed RHP Bronson Arroyo to a two-year deal worth $23.5 million with a club option worth $11 million. [2/7]

If the Diamondbacks aspire to be baseball's version of the Grit 'n' Grind Memphis Grizzlies—a group of hardworking, potentially underappreciated talents—then Arroyo is a great fit. Consider this excerpt proof, from an August Sports Illustrated article:

Schilling knew Arroyo better by the end of the season—Arroyo went 10—9 with a 4.03 ERA—but the ace still didn’t believe in him. “He’d see me in the hot tub after the game and say, ‘Look at this little skinny guy. Can you believe this little wet rat right there?’ ” Arroyo says. “He told me, ‘You’ll never throw 230 innings with that body.’ “

Two years later, his first after the Red Sox traded him to the Reds, Arroyo reached 233 innings with one start to go. He had a friend take a photograph of his still slight frame, naked save for a strategically placed sanitary sock on which he had inscribed 230+ with a black marker. He had the photo enlarged at a Walgreens and sent to the Red Sox clubhouse. “Dear Curt,” Arroyo wrote in the accompanying note. “You told me in 2004 that I could never throw 230 innings with this body. You should know better than anyone that it’s not how much you weigh, it’s what you’ve got hanging between your legs.”

Schilling, it should be noted, knows just what Arroyo has hanging between his legs, as he inadvertently gave birth to the latter's family unfriendly nickname: Saturn Nuts. To Schilling's credit, he was somewhat right about Arroyo; the crafty right hasn't topped 230 innings since the photo developed. What Arroyo has done is throw 199 or more innings in nine consecutive seasons. Over that span, his run average has been better than his FIP seven times. A fluke, a Mark Buehrle-like outlier, or something in between?

The real secret about Arroyo is he's tremendously talented. Not in the conventional, Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander sense, either. Think about what he does; not just in terms of staying healthy, or resuscitating his public image after wearing cornrows, but going out there and tossing curveball after curveball while changing arm slots and still walking fewer than two per nine. Arroyo does struggle with the home run ball, and it's possible this whole thing collapses on him. But Arroyo is one of the unique pitchers in the game, and it's possible he'll continue to remain effective for years to come.

How does Arroyo fit into the Diamondbacks' plans? One figures he'll push Randall Delgado to the bullpen until/unless Brandon McCarthy, Trevor Cahill, or another member of Arizona's projected rotation suffers an injury in the spring. On paper, putting Arroyo in a hitter's ballpark is a bad idea, yet he survived in the Great American Ballpark all those years without coming out worse for the wear. He's not the ace Kevin Towers wanted, he's just a reliable back-end starter who improves Arizona's talent level and depth.

MIAMI MARLINS
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Signed RHP Carlos Marmol to a one-year deal worth $1.35 million. [2/6]

Run enough queries and you'll find a way to connect most players. For example, did you know Marmol could displace Nolan Ryan as the all-time leader in seasons (min. 40 innings) with a walk rate exceeding five per nine? (He's four seasons away.) However trivial the accomplishment, it celebrates Marmol's past and his rarity; pitchers this wild seldom last this long—even Mitch Williams was done as a regular by the time he turned 30. Marmol himself deserves a spot on the endangered pitchers list, as another rough season could bring the curtains down on his wild half-hour innings.

As such, Marmol's decision to sign with Miami is inspired—and not just because his comeback story requires Charles Willeford to pull it off. Although their in-state counterparts receive more praise for their bullpen reclamation successes, the Marlins have saved their fair share of careers over the years (see Chad Qualls for the latest example). Marmol is a different animal than most retreads; his mechanics are messy and his location is sketchy enough to host a future World Cup. The stuff remains good enough to miss bats (and barrels if you believe his Dodgers stint), but he'll need to shave the walk rate to make it work. Consider this a lotto ticket.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Signed LHP Paul Maholm to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million. [2/8]

What does it say about the health of Maholm's elbow and wrist that he signs a week after Jerome Williams for less money? The difference must be medically related, as otherwise it makes no sense—even last season, with Maholm at his worst, he posted a better ERA+ and strikeout-to-walk ratio than Williams did. Health permitting, Maholm has always been a decent back-end starter type who deals in groundballs. He's unlikely to throw 200 innings, even when hearty and hale, but he's good enough to start for a playoff team, and that's just what the Dodgers figure to be.

More stunning than Maholm's salary is his choice of team. The Dodgers had enough starting pitchers to begin with, which made their interest in Bronson Arroyo curious, if not downright greedy. Once Arroyo signed with Arizona, Ned Colletti seemingly moved on to the next-best thing and wrapped the deal within 24 hours—which, perhaps, speaks to the frigidness of Maholm's market. The Dodgers will enter camp with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Dan Haren guaranteed rotation spots if healthy. After that, Don Mattingly has Maholm, perhaps Josh Beckett, and eventually Chad Billingsley to evaluate and employ.

Fantasy

We saw last year with this team that there is no such thing as having too many starting pitchers. Colletti has three starters with durability questions, so his hope is they combine to make the 30 regular-season starts before shuffling to the bullpen or the inactive list for the postseason. If the market is to be believed, the Dodgers will need those extra arms to cover for Maholm.

The low guaranteed dollars on Maholm’s deal makes one wonder how sound the medicals are on his elbow, though MRIs came back clean last season and he only missed one start. That aside, the arrow points down for Maholm because of the crowded field he finds himself in. He’s already stated that he’s open to pitching out of the bullpen, which he’ll do in the event that Josh Beckett is healthy (and later on Chad Billingsley). If Maholm isn’t starting, he’s not worth owning in fantasy, and it appears that him starting is all but a contingency plan in LA. If he does start, he’ll be worth owning as a back end option in deeper leagues (14 teams and deeper) thanks to the likelihood that he can add wins and maintain an average to slightly below ERA. —Craig Goldstein

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Signed RHP Francisco Rodriguez to a one-year deal worth $3.25 million. [2/7]

Rodriguez joins the Brewers for the fourth time, and you wonder if the reunion was his only choice. Even the Orioles, who acquired Rodriguez for the stretch run last season, seemed uninterested in another year together. Doug Melvin's logic seems to go like this: Rodriguez showed enough in 2013—at least while in Milwaukee—to think he could take a late-inning role again. If his struggles in Baltimore and against right-handed hitters prove anomalous, the Brewers will have a nice value deal on their hands. If not, they can cut him without regret. Here's an interesting thought: Will any team bite if the Brewers move Rodriguez at the deadline?

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed RHP Pat Neshek to a minor-league deal. [2/6]

Neshek returned to relevancy last season by topping the 40-inning mark in the majors for the first time since 2007. What's interesting—even more than the side-arm delivery—is how he leaned on a single pitch. Rather than turn into a fastball addict against same-handed batters, like former teammate Sean Doolittle, Neshek used his slider more than 95 percent of the time against righties. The aggressive dosage worked (righties hit .219/.282/.363 against him), but likely had a negative effect on his surgically repaired elbow. Those durability concerns plus his limited utility equal a late-winter minor-league deal that could look pretty smart or pretty pointless in a few months' time.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Washington Nationals

Signed RHP Luis Ayala to a minor-league deal. [2/7]

First Jamey Carroll, now Ayala; someone call T.J. Tucker—the Nationals are putting the 2003 Expos back together. (Just in time for a certain alumnus's book). Ayala is a textbook veteran righty these days, relying on his ability to disrupt timing with his arsenal (led by a high-80s sinker) and various deliveries. This old dog did learn one new trick last season, as he set a new career-high groundball rate. If Ayala puts together a solid spring, he should crack an opening day roster. Whether that's with Washington or whichever team he signs with after opting out is anyone's guess.

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

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