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January 23, 2009

Transaction Analysis

AL West Moves

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

LOS ANGELES ANGELS
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Signed OF-R Juan Rivera to a three-year, $12.75 million contract. [12/19]
Signed LHP Brian Fuentes to a two-year, $17.5 million contract with a $9 million club option for 2011 (an option that can also vest). [12/31]
Agreed to terms with 3B-S Chone Figgins on a one-year, $5.775 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/14]
Agreed to terms with LHP Darren Oliver on a one-year, $3.655 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/16]
Agreed to terms with C-R Mike Napoli on a one-year, $2 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/19] Agreed to terms with 4C-R Robb Quinlan on a one-year, $1.1 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/20]

There are two solid takeaways here, but also one somewhat more frustrating minor note. First, there's the big deal of replacing K-Rod. Certainly, signing Fuentes, the third-best of the three big-name relievers on this winter's market, to a deal smaller than those of Francisco Rodriguez or Kerry Wood, makes some sense on its own level. Where you might quail about bringing in someone from the softer senior circuit, as a pitcher coming over from having to pitch on Planet Coors, coming into a high-offense league shouldn't represent quite so much of a challenge. Since the team has several worthwhile right-handed relievers already (or, in the case of a guy like Kevin Jepsen, almost ready), Fuentes makes for a closer whose skills complement those of his set-up men, instead of merely repeating them. Add in that neither Fuentes nor Oliver are really all that platoon-handicapped, and Mike Scioscia should have a pen in which he can worry less about who his relievers might have to face coming off of the bench, and instead use them aggressively to attack separate segments of opposing lineups. Because the Halos don't employ a true situational guy but may instead have a half-dozen quality relievers on hand, they may even successfully avoid a needless 12th pitcher.

Then there's the happy commitment to Rivera, and what that represents in terms of papering over the big mistake with Little Sarge. While Rivera's notionally set as the team's left fielder of the present, you can anticipate that if he rounds back into form with regular playing time he'll also end up spotting for Vladimir Guerrero in right field quite a bit. This might seem strange to endorse, given that Rivera's coming off of an unexceptional season in terms of his rate stats (.246/.282/.438, and a .249 EqA), but I'm willing to cut a guy with good power some slack when he had to spend most of his comeback season from a 2007 lost to a broken leg riding the pine. The power's still there, and consistent at-bats should raise all of those rates to the point that he's a respectable regular, just as he was in 2006.

This sort of segues into one of the less-happy suggestions, which is that the Angels are considering making Napoli their semi-regular DH. That's instead of Vladi, which seems odd given the right fielder's decaying defensive game, and it's a suggestion that's stranger still when you consider the organization has a crowd of employable outfielders knocking around, notably Reggie Willits and perhaps also Terry Evans. It's as if getting Gary Matthews Jr. on the bench a bit more often must trigger some if/then impetus to employ another relatively slack bat in a capacity beyond its reach. If this was purely motivated by the hope that Napoli will be healthier catching less, and therefore more able to regularly contribute, that wouldn't be so terrible, but part of the problem is the fluttering pulse and slow death of Jeff Mathis' prospect status, as the team just can't seem to come to terms with the fact that he's not really worthy of a larger role than caddying for a real regular behind the plate. If this winds up being a situation where Mathis gets another 300-plus plate appearances, they're handing back a lot of the potential benefit of keeping Napoli in the lineup. I can see this still turning out OK if, say, the general targets are to have Napoli start 80-90 games behind the plate, spot Vladi at DH about 80 times so that there's something like 120-130 starts in the outfield between the three slots for someone like Willits or Evans, and perhaps employ a third catcher to let them pinch-hit as aggressively for Mathis as they should. Certainly few teams have as much creativity as the Angels have had when it comes to employing multi-positional players and being fluid with their roster management, so here's hoping they get over the fixation on Mathis' non-extant upside.

Finally, speaking of multi-positional fun, retaining Quinlan might seem an overly expensive commitment to a four-corners reserve who's best used as the light half of a platoon, but in the wake of not landing Teixeira and the first shot at first base going to Kendry Morales, I can see how having Quinlan as Morales' platoon partner while also providing bench support at third, right, and left makes sense. I'm always happy to see an organizational soldier get treated well, and while Quinlan's not a great player or a true crusher against southpaws, he's had his uses, and has also done reasonably well when asked to do some pinch-hitting.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Signed 1B-L Jason Giambi to a one-year, $4 million (base) contract, with a 2009 club option for $6.5 million (or $1.25 million buyout). [1/7]

I don't know if we're ever going to get to a post-PC environment as far as PEDs and whether this means you're supposed to root for a player or not, but for those who draw their lines in the sand, I guess I represent their opposite, the person who's so indifferent to such things that I wouldn't even bring it up, except to touch on the subjects of fandom and memory. I know that Joe's been beating this particular tomtom as far as how it seems that some people get the benefit of lasting stigma (say, Barry Bonds or Rafael Palmeiro), while others do not (say, Andy Pettitte or Brian Roberts), and outside of the question of whether or not Bonds has been blackballed, there seems to be little in the way of subsequent financial penalties applied to those who've been caught when their contracts are up. Maybe I'm too much the Mary Sunshine on this subject, but I guess I treat Giambi's return to green and gold in much the same way I felt about Rickey Henderson's various returns, or even Jose Canseco's-these were guys I rooted for fervently in my younger days, and the fondness I felt then echoes still. That's part and parcel of simple fandom, and if I was ever supposed to feel some sort of moral outrage at Jason Giambi, I guess the simple fact of his re-signing with the A's tells me that I don't, any more than I felt any particular betrayal when he did what any sane adult might do and took an awful lot of money from the Yankees.

No, more simply, seeing Giambi back in Oakland is a reminder that fandom is something I still enjoy, even now that I'm all grown up and a working professional and whatever. Sure, maybe there's a bit of relative wariness, born of the memory of all the things fans of a certain vintage might remember and regret. I still see in my mind's eye the days when Giambi was a lankier kid out of Long Beach State that I hoped could really play third, and he really couldn't, and I wondered if he'd be OK in a Brosius-like role wandering around between the four corners, but he couldn't really do that either. What he could do was hit, and that's what has him back, and more power to him.

The more practical question is where in the lineup he'll end up hitting, not in terms of his slot in the order, but whether he'll be playing first base or DHing. For some Yankees fans who bought into the increasingly tortured "he can't DH" thesis, that might seem like a huge quandary, but in light of his hitting better as a DH than at first base the last two years, it seems more likely that this particular bit Big Apple drama is about as overblown as you'd expect if you weren't a pennant-starved Yankees fan. No, the more interesting dilemma for the A's is going to be how the subsequent battle in spring training pans out. There's no doubt that Giambi and Jack Cust will be in the lineup, so it isn't a contest between the two of them to see which showcases his particular brand of that pinioned grace you might recall from your insect collection for high school biology. Instead, it's between Daric Barton and Travis Buck, with Aaron Cunningham perhaps also in the picture, to determine which of the two veterans gets parked in the field, and which gets to more frequently sit out defensive innings.

Assuming that Cunningham's initially the most likely to wind up back in Sacramento, that's actually a pretty fun competition to sort out, picking between Barton and Buck. Both hitters have their virtues: both are relatively young (Barton's in his age-23 season, Buck in his age-25 campaign), both were immensely disappointing in 2008, and both will be coming back from injuries this spring. To make things even more clear-cut, neither is good enough afield to make matters any easier as far as assessing the relative risks of putting Giambi or Cust in the field. So it really is going to wind up being a classic battle for playing time judged on a balance of internal evaluations of the relative upside of each, with Cactus League heroics no doubt influencing the outcome. Certainly, if Barton has to go back to Sacramento, it might not be the worst challenge for him to have to rise to if he's going to reclaim his status as a top prospect, but Buck's not quite so old yet that you can flatly assert that his future is now, or never. The price of defeat might not even be that much of a terrible setback for either within the organization; Giambi's contract is for only one guaranteed season, after all, while Matt Holliday's season in green is only going to go as far as July or November, but not into 2010. A year from now, Cunningham, Buck, and Barton could have clean shots at the jobs at first base and the outfield corners, and the A's might have scored enough runs in 2009 to make things interesting in the division with their rentals of Holliday and Giambi. As ever, A's fans know to be prepared for multiple contingencies.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Signed C-R Jamie Burke to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [12/23]
Agreed to terms with RHP Felix Hernandez on a one-year, $3.8 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/19]
Agreed to terms with LHP Erik Bedard ($7.75 million) and RHP Aaron Heilman ($1.625 million) on one-year contracts, avoiding arbitration; acquired RHP David Aardsma for LHP Fabian Williamson. [1/20]

Aardsma's status as a young, promising, and talented right-hander has slowly transmogrified into that of a not-so-young and frustrating-but still talented-right-hander. Guys with reliable low-90s heat don't grow on trees, and given that the Mariners pen lacks anything resembling a consistent right-handed reliever, you can consider this a sensible addition for doing the Red Sox the favor of getting a spot on their 40-man roster back. That's not to say that Williamson doesn't have some potential, but the Mariners' present-day needs are considerable, and he wasn't a blue-chipper. If Aardsma gets a reliable shot, he has a pretty good chance of panning out.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Signed RHPs Derrick Turnbow, Casey Daigle, and Elizardo Ramirez to minor league contracts with spring training NRIs. [1/1]
Agreed to terms with RHP Frank Francisco on a one-year, $1.615 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/19]
Agreed to terms with LHP C.J. Wilson on a one-year, $1.8 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/20]
Signed SS-S Omar Vizquel to a one-year, $1 million (base) contract; re-signed C-S Adam Melhuse to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [1/21]

To some extent the Vizquel deal had to wait while the kerfuffle over Michael Young's willingness to play third had to get muffed, rebuffed, and fluffed for the 2008 Gold Glove shortstop's benefit, and while the initial argument is that Little O is going to be the club's utility infielder, he's also a practical bit of insurance against Elvis Andrus landing flat on his face in his bid for the starting job at short. Any way you slice this, it still comes out looking like a pretty weak solution for the Rangers. Andrus isn't quite so good a prospect that there's cause to propel him into the big leagues any earlier than he earns, and Vizquel's about as done as done gets before being mistaken for charred. In essence the problem boils down to a heaping helping of the Double Unhappiness Platter: first, there's the belated recognition that Young's five-year, $80 million extension doesn't look so swell as his power-driven peak fades into history, a deal that makes him effectively untradeable without swallowing Hampton-sized chunks of that debt to make him somebody else's player, and second, there's the problem that Young's not really an offensive asset if his bat's being employed at third base. So, to get Andrus' zesty blend of steals and defense and slappiness at the plate, the Rangers will take an additional hit in the lineup by putting Young at third. If Andrus doesn't hack it, you get Vizquel, and a scenario you might hope at least turns out win/lose moves over into lose/lose, with potential for a then extra-cranky Young should he ask what the point of all that was about TBD. If this also sounds like a team that might have trouble outscoring its always-frightening pitching, you'd be right.

The name that's interesting in this group is Turnbow's, because he's somebody who, while still wilder than the great outdoors, is familiar to new pitching coach Mike Maddux from their joint service in the Brewers organization. Presumably Maddux still thinks Turnbow's mechanics are fixable, and should that be the case, at the very least he can be a useful reliever, and in a best-case scenario, he might push his way into cadging save opportunities from Wilson and/or Francisco. In short, he's a nice little pickup that has some chance of making an outsized impact on the big-league roster, and perhaps also on your fantasy squad.


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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