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December 14, 2008

Transaction Analysis

AL Roundup

by Christina Kahrl


IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Non-tendered RHP Daniel Cabrera and LHP Rheal Cormier. [12/12]

BOSTON RED SOX
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Non-tendered C-R Kevin Cash. [12/12]

No doubt some element of the lunatic fringe in Red Sox Nation will start shrieking over whatever this must mean for Tim Wakefield now that his designated receiver has been appropriately dispatched, but beyond offering the obvious observation-"It's all about Wakefield" sounds like a sit-com plugged in after some other show gets canceled-the Red Sox will be better off without making space for this kind of affectation and making better all-around players catch the knuckleballer. And, I suppose if it really is all about Wakefield, they can always re-sign Cash to minor money free from the worry that an arbitration panel might say "gee whillikers, I can't catch a knuckler, he's good!"

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Agreed to terms with INF-S Wilson Betemit ($1.3 million) and OF-L DeWayne Wise ($550,000) on one-year contracts, avoiding arbitration with both. [12/12]

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Signed RHP Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20.5 million contract with an $11 million vesting option for 2011. [12/13]

With the way this winter's playing out, Wood might rate with J.J. Putz as the bargain pickup in the closer acquisition market. To put it another way, would you take almost three times the risk over half again as much time on Wood that the Indians previously invested in Joe Borowski? That might be too rich for some people's blood, and Wood does have his wild days at the office, so it isn't like the Indians are getting Mariano Rivera. Wood's 3.20 FRA rated 40th among major league relievers with 40 IP, which doesn't sound so great, especially when you consider that ranks behind guys like Dan Wheeler (2.94) or K-Rod (2.97), let alone situational assets like J.C. Romero (3.02) or Joe Smith (2.97). It's also worth noting that Wood's mark is a notch better than current it-boy reliever Brian Fuentes (3.22), who might command more, and much-loved set-up star Scot Shields (3.26), so it isn't like he's not good. If you want to let usage patterns define who you consider, Wood's about the tenth-best closer by FRA, between K-Rod and Fuentes, and after K-Rod's deal, it would seem Wood's gotten an appropriate market-relative contract.

This deal also naturally leaves some Cubs fans weeping into their Old Style, even though they might be fine with Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg, because on some level this is about inking something that seems certain, because it comes in a Kerry Wood wrapper instead of something labeled "Joe Borowski" or "Kevin Gregg." Unlike some analysts, I'm not going to pretend that morale doesn't play a role in the game-just because we can't quantify it doesn't mean it isn't there, and Wood-as-closer has the requisite virtues when it comes to having somebody who looks like a closer, not merely because of the ubiquitous facial hair, but also things like throwing hard and overpowering hitters that have value in terms of game results as well as cosmetics. Wood does and will need to be used with some care, but this isn't exactly a cause for worry. Having gotten into the habit of using Borowski carefully, I'm sure that Eric Wedge isn't going to suddenly go nuts and ask Wood to come into the eighth inning with any regularity, or work five days in a row. The ninth-inning closer's role that Dennis Eckersley made famous was more a matter of keeping an aging former starter in working order than it had anything to do with tactical utility, and as a fragile yet talented commodity himself, it's exactly the sort of thing that Wood should be able to deliver on as long as he isn't warmed up unnecessarily or asked to appear in 75 games or more.

I say triple because the vesting option seems like a near-automatic for budgetary purposes, since it only requires Wood appear in 55 games in either of the two initial years. If he suffers another career-altering injury, blowing out an elbow or shoulder at mid-season in '09, the option won't vest, and that's reasonable enough; in that disaster scenario, he will have failed to have given the Indians the certainty of a season-long closer in either year, forcing Mark Shapiro to make new plays in two separate campaigns.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Signed SS-R Adam Everett to a one-year, $1 million deal. [12/8]
Acquired RHP Edwin Jackson from the Rays for OF-L Matt Joyce. [12/10]
Agreed to terms with SS-S Ramon Santiago on a one-year, $825,000 contract, avoiding arbitration; non-tendered RHP Aquilino Lopez. [12/12]

There's been a rush to congratulate the Rays over this deal, and I like Matt Joyce more than most of the other boys and girls too, but sometimes it pays to think on what it is you're giving up, even when you think you don't really need it. Jackson may seem like he's been around forever, and he's arbitration-eligible, but he's not even a year older than Joyce. He's also been able to make 31 starts in each of the last two seasons, and his .540 rate of Support-Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value (SNLVA_R) of .540 ranked 58th in baseball among rotation regulars. Sure, maybe Joyce blossoms into a playable corner outfielder, but finding outfielders who hit well enough to play is a lot easier than finding quality starters you'll have under team control-at less than market rates-for three years.

That said, Jackson's been a frustrating pitcher to follow over the years, not merely because expectations were so high for him coming up in the Dodgers organization, but because he's flopped in a few high-profile instances, both as a closer and as a starter. Even so, he still throws in the low to mid-90s, he still has that nasty slider, and whatever his earlier hiccups in his career, he has those gifts while moving cleanly far out from the injury nexus. He remains frustrating in that he makes mistakes with fastballs in the zone a lot more often than you'd like, but that's something that can get fixed some of the time, and if a change of scenery helps Jackson get that ironed out, we'll see his strikeout and walk rates move in opposite directions and make everybody happy with him, instead of wondering why a guy with two plus pitches manages only 5.3 K/9 balanced against 3.7 BB/9. Of course, if it was easy, the Rays would have done it themselves, and few things seem to happen automatically or easily where Jackson's concerned.

Nevertheless, I don't think Dave Dombrowski's made the mistake so many statheads have made this deal out to be, and as a way of reinforcing a rotation already plagued by doubts as far as which versions of Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis, and Jeremy Bonderman they get in 2009, that seems reasonable on the face of it, even if in adding Jackson they're also expanding their collection of unpredictables. It's a group of young veterans-at 31, Robertson's the only one over 30-who may at least get the benefit of a more consistent defensive alignment. If that group blossoms, that's probably the best bet the Tigers can make as far as taking their best shot at returning to the top of the division, and given Jackson's not especially old, this isn't easily described as a win-now move. It's an interesting bet, and not as bad as some have been quick to criticize without getting into the uncertainties of Joyce's future.

As for inking Santiago and agreeing to terms with Everett, some might despair that this condemns the Kitties to a certain punchlessness at the position as they (at least notionally) ape the actions of the Royals with Tony Pena Jr. or the Orioles with Luis Hernandez or too many consenting adults in various locations with Juan Castro. Consider this symptomatic of the market's overcorrection in the overvaluing of defense as a quantity, although at least the Tigers aren't spending much in this particular instance of the industry-wide move into fancying leather. What I'm boggled by is the suggestion that signing Everett somehow automatically spared the Tigers from throwing a multiple of their combined salaries to bring aboard the Pirates' Jack Wilson. Maybe Dave Dombrowski operates entirely through if/then statements, as if his wetware was set up like so: if I don't sign Adam Everett, then I must go get Neal Huntington on the phone. This seems inherently improbable, barring a brainwashing-based double-dare conspiracy between Huntington and Lonnie Cooper (Everett's agent). Just keep in mind that the money for the two is roughly even because they provide a certain redundancy: Everett (.231 career EqA) seems unlikely to do anything better than hit about as well as Santiago (.239 career EqA), they're both good defenders, and at these prices, if one doesn't earn Jim Leyland's trust, it'll be easy enough to dispose of him without feeling a payroll pinch.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Claimed RHP Jairo Cuevas off of waivers from the Braves. [12/10]
Signed LHP Horacio Ramirez ($1.8 million) and RHP Doug Waechter ($640,000) to one-year contracts; acquired RF-R Jordan Parraz from the Astros. [12/11]
Non-tendered LHP John Bale, RHP Jairo Cuevas, INF-L Jason Smith, and OF-L Joey Gathright. [12/12]
Signed RHP Kyle Farnsworth to a two-year, $8.75 million deal with a $5.25 million club option ($500,000 buyout). [12/13]

If there's a theory that maturation is something that happens in a linear fashion with the passage of time, how then do we explain the Royals' mad quest to spend big money on bullpen mediocrity after assembling what will eventually be revealed as better units while spending less? Does anyone really believe that they're going to get better work from the notoriously unreliable Farnsworth, the sporadically useful Ramirez, or the well-traveled Waechter for more than six times as much as they paid Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez last season? Why go this route for "known" quantities like these, where there isn't even that much upside, when you're an also-ran? If, on the other hand, you don't see yourself as an also-ran, and want to make a push into a win total in the low 80s, why do you sign these guys, when you might instead spend the money spent on Ramirez and Farnsworth to get someone useful, and when your recent efforts at identifying cheaper relief assets might be something to bank on instead? Oh well, I guess Royals fans can at least take some satisfaction in their recent victory over the Braves in getting Cuevas (again) in this re-enactment of sorts of the waiver-wire brush war over Tim Pugh from the '90s. I guess what we can take from this is that Dayton Moore, former Braves executive, really likes Cuevas, sometime Braves prospect. One hopes there's a bar bet involved, because even before his shoulder woes, Cuevas didn't seem quite that much to get worked up over.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Signed INF-S Nick Punto to a two-year, $8 million contract with a $5 million club option for 2011 (or $500,000 buyout). [12/11]

On a superficial level, Punto's performance has bobbed around all over the place from adequate to horrible to decent, but he's actually been relatively consistent. His walk rates in his four years with the Twins have bobbed between 8.2 (twice) and 10.1 percent, the latter mark in his awful 2007. He's stolen between 13 and 17 bags in 21 or 22 attempts in all four years as a Twins semi-regular. His ISO is equally consistent, in that it'll generally run between 80 and 100 points above his batting average. What's bounced all over the place has been his average, which has bounced around between .210 and .290 in two good seasons and two bad ones, which on some level makes him exactly the sort of player pre-sabermetrics writers could peg exactly right in terms of whether he was having a good or bad year. Given his complete lack of power, these sorts of fluctuations go with the territory; he's not a guy who's going to hit a ton of line drives, and if something happens to his legs, you have to wonder if he'll have any value at all. Between his playability at short and his value at second, he's a fine placeholder at the former and a nice fallback position at the latter should Alexi Casilla fall on his face. The question is whether that's worth at least $8.5 million to a team, and on that I have my doubts, but considering the club's low payroll and disappointments with the Adam Everett experience, it doesn't seem like a bad way to employ a few Pohlad dollars.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Agreed to terms with RHP A.J. Burnett on a five-year, $82.5 million deal; non-tendered RHP Chris Britton and OF-L Justin Christian. [12/12]

There's isn't a lot I have to add to what Jay said on Friday night or Joe said this morning, even if, out of cussedness, I might try to conjure up an argument in favor of A.J. Burnett for its own sake. In this instance, I can't, because there really isn't a plausible line to follow-this is just a bad deal that does little to realize any near- or long-term objectives beyond enriching A.J. Burnett beyond his wildest dreams of avarice. I know, I'm overusing this particular device, but twice as much money for Burnett versus Carl Pavano (albeit with an additional season) does not provide twice as much certainty that you've got a reliable rotation regular on your hands, although I'll allow that Burnett should be able to start a lot more than twice as many games as Pavano. The problem is that he isn't replacing Pavano, he's essentially the big-ticket right-hander who's stepping into Mike Mussina's slot, and he's just not a great bet to provide similar value for the money over five years.

For that matter, if you buy the proposition that the Yankees have to win now to get that last bit of value out of the Jeter/A-Rod/Posada squad, how does Burnett represent a better guarantor than some of the other options still on the market? As much as people are concerned about the uncertainties of whether or not CC Sabathia will stay or go, or stay healthy or break down, why lock into five guaranteed seasons for a starter you can guarantee won't stay healthy, and who you can guarantee will break down for bits and pieces of seasons at the very least? A short-term gamble on Ben Sheets' health or a similarly long-term play to get Derek Lowe would have made a lot more sense; this addition seems to have all of the hazards of the former without many of the benefits of the latter. After the big-ticket addition of Sabathia, this rates more buzzkill than thrill, especially given the dismay found among some Yankees observers.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Agreed to terms with C-S Rob Bowen on a one-year, $535,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [12/12]

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Non-tendered C-R Jamie Burke. [12/12]

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Acquired OF-L Matt Joyce from the Tigers for RHP Edwin Jackson. [12/10]
Non-tendered OF-R Jonny Gomes. [12/12]

Some of my fellow analysts are treating this like it's a stone-cold steal that might rank with the Treaty of Breda.* In Joyce's case, people are guessing he's automatically asserting that he's going to turn out really well because of selective reference to some of his cumulative season totals: slugging .509 against right-handed pitching, for example, and because he's youngish, and because between hitting well for stretches in the majors after busting out a bit in Toledo (.270/.352/.550, and .286/.366/.610 vs. RHPs), this looks like a breakout right around when you like to see such things. These are especially nice numbers for a kid who turned 24 in August in what was his rookie season. But it does overlook that Joyce did all of his damage up front in his first two months in the majors, and that he disappeared after August 1, hitting .218/.336/.345 in 131 PA after that point. In Joyce's defense, maybe Leyland's seemingly sporadic usage patterns in the second half caused the kid's subsequent contact problems as much as they might have been in response to them. Maybe, and maybe his tendency to go fishing on low pitches or pull off is something he'll work his way out of. Maybe. The league adjusts to a talent, and it's up to him to make his own adjustments to deliver on the promise he's already shown. I like the odds the same as any stathead, but an assertion that there isn't uncertainty on both sides of the deal seems counterfactual to me.

What is certain is that this year's performance from Joyce is a significant improvement on what he'd done in previous seasons, and it's important to note that Joyce has been moved up pretty aggressively. That's what really good players and good prospects do-they make it easy to push them up the ladder, and in his three full seasons, Joyce has gone from the Midwest League to Double-A (skipping High-A) to a year split between Triple-A and the majors, and he really busted out in terms of slugging right-handers in particular in the last of those three. In the majors, he was flashing an improved ability to pull pitches and really mash, but he's also had stretches in both the majors and minors where he gets caught up pulling off the ball. Although for the most part he was employed in left by the Tigers, he's athletic enough and strong-armed enough to give the Rays the right fielder they need.

So, for the Rays, this deal makes a good bit of sense, as they were dealing from their depth in the rotation and using their least-reliable starter to get a hitter with upside. They didn't give up nothing to get something, but they did get something, and it beats scaring up Luis Gonzalez for veteran leadership or the like, of course. Moving the arb-eligible Jackson also seems like a small-scale bit of fiscal wisdom. They might also entertain the reasonable expectation that, in acquiring Joyce, the Tampa native is going to keep busting out with the comfort of moving close to home. I'm not going to call any of these things guaranteed, because Joyce isn't a completely perfect prospect, but given Jackson wasn't without his own warts, this seems like a reasonable bet on both sides of the proposition.

*: Lest we forget, that effectively boiled down to New Amsterdam for Surinam, 1667. Surinam gave the Dutch some short-term seasoning and an expanded Latin development program; the newly named New York gave the English Hall of Fame-worthy power projection. But as I've noted, it isn't like the Tigers only wound up with sugar and spice.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Acquired RHP Beau Vaughan from the Red Sox to complete their 11/28 trade for RHP Wes Littleton. [12/11]
Non-tendered RHP Doug Mathis. [12/12]

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Signed RHP Matt Clement to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [12/12]

Given a hole-y rotation that's been hit at the waterline by a salvo of injuries, a bit of affordable prurient curiosity over whether or not there's anything left in the pitcher formerly known as "Matt Clement, near-ace" makes all sorts of sense. Consider this the latter-day incarnation of the plan the Expos seemed to have down pat in the '80s, when they'd take a chance on Dennis Martinez or Pascual Perez or Oil Can Boyd, or less famously/successfully with Lary Sorensen, Bill Krueger, or Rick Mahler. Which is to say, when you go dumpster diving there are no guarantees what you'll find no matter how deep you dig, you don't know till you try, and beggars can't be choosers, and we'll put away the Ben Franklin-level analysis-o-matic commentary until we can see if Clement's shoulder is sound and he's really ready to pitch. In his comeback attempt with the Cardinals organization last season, he had a good day in High-A, and got belted around a bit in Double- and Triple-A without overpowering anybody or showing much of the old Matt Clement. The Jays say his shoulder's fine, but the Jays have deliberately said things they know weren't true on the subject of pitcher injuries; the proof will have to be in the actual pitching in February and March.


Thanks to Jay Jaffe and Bil Burke for data-wrangling assists.

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

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