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January 27, 2009

Transaction Analysis

AL East Moves

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Dealt RHP Randor Bierd to the Red Sox to acquire RHP David Pauley. [1/19]
Signed RF-L Nick Markakis to a six-year, $64.1 million contract (base), with a mutual $17.5 million option for 2015 ($2 million buyout if team declines, none if Markakis opts out), and avoiding arbitration for the forseeable future. [1/21]
Signed C-S Gregg Zaun to a one-year, $1.5 million contract; designated INF-R Oscar Salazar for assignment. [1/22]

The Markakis deal is obviously a huge two-way endorsement, of the player for his organization, and for the organization to its current best player. (How long Markakis holds the crown ahead of Matt Wieters will be one of the more interesting academic questions for the Orioles over the next few seasons.) To riff off of the game Kevin played yesterday with Adam Jones' famous comparables and their fabulous fates-not to mention cheat a bit and give you a chance to "name those comparables," the first three guys most similar to Markakis as he heads into his age-25 season are one who'd been an All-Star at 24 and was destined to become one of the most infamous free-agency mistakes of the '80s, one of the most famous pre-30 early-career fadeouts of all time, and one whose name will forever live in Wrigley infamy. Between them, these three made just one more All-Star Game appearance, and just one of them played an important role on a division-winning team.

All of which sounds rather ominous, but it also says something about Markakis' unusual combination of skills, and doesn't perhaps do a perfect job of capturing something that's harder to single out, Markakis' athleticism and basic value in all phases of the game. That might be better reflected by the fourth name among his top comps: Keith Hernandez. While it's a lot of money and any cause for collapse will prove a big hindrance to subsequent Oriole budgets given the contract's heavily back-loaded structure, I guess the optimist in me sees that one thing and latches onto it as relevant, because like Hernandez, Markakis is an exceptional defender, an OBP machine, and if something less than a perfect power source at one of the four corner positions-where power's supposed to be the calling card-a player who does indeed do enough things so well that he can be a key component of a winning team. Add in that whatever modest shortcoming he has in the power department stands to be covered by playing in the same lineup Wieters will be starting in as a catcher over the full length of the deal, and it makes for a solid bet, no matter how scary the bogeys at the top of Markakis' comp list.

As for the low-end moves, getting Pauley for Bierd seems like a reasonable challenge trade-oriented favor, where the Orioles get a candidate for the back end of the rotation who's as ready as he's ever going to be, while the Red Sox get a live arm who doesn't have to be carried on the 40-man. Pauley is essentially a Jarvis-level clone, a Quad-A strike-thrower without dominating stuff, but the Orioles are the kind of team who might very well need that sort of warm body to help round out the rotation. He comes with a few wrinkles that handicap almost any bid on a job if it comes down to little things and if Dave Trembley decides to get picky-Pauley's off-speed stuff doesn't really work that well against lefties, and he's slow to the plate and not very good at holding runners. That might make him an especially lousy battery-mate for the weak-armed Zaun, but here again, this isn't supposed to be a championship-caliber club, just a better one than last year's edition. In a rotation where the only locked-in starters are Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara, Pauley's a nifty enough pickup as someone who might give you 20-30 starts and not get clobbered with the sort of alarming regularity too many of last season's starters did.

Zaun sort of helps on that score as a token placeholder for Wieters, but ideally he'll wind up the veteran caddy for the kid. Beyond whatever local fondness comes from having Rick Dempsey's nephew back in the organization, Zaun's value as the once-notional "Practically Perfect Backup Catcher" is pretty well shot, if it was really that much of a going concern to start off with. As an offense-first, OBP-oriented catcher, Zaun's value when he was rolling was more as a starter than as a reserve, which the Jays had the good sense to exploit long after several teams blew it. Now that he's a defensively dubious receiver heading into his age-38 season with only some league-average OBP to chip in, he's an offense-oriented reserve without a lot of offensive value. That's not useless, but it shouldn't represent more than a very low speed bump for Wieters.

BOSTON RED SOX
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Signed C-S Josh Bard to a one-year, $1.7 million (base) non-guaranteed contract, with a $3 million club option for 2010. [1/2]
Signed OF-R Rocco Baldelli to a one-year, $500,000 (base) contract; designated RHP Charlie Zink for assignment (and subsequently outrighted him to Pawtucket). [1/8]
Signed RHP Brad Penny to a one-year, $5 million contract; designated RHPs Virgil Vasquez and Dewon Day for assignment (and lost both on waiver claims, to the Padres and Rays, respectively). [1/9]
Signed RHP Takashi Saito to a one-year, $1.5 million (base) contract, with a club option for 2010. [1/10]
Signed RHP John Smoltz to a one-year, $5.5 million contract; designated RHP David Pauley for assignment. [1/13]
Signed OF/1B-L Mark Kotsay to a one-year, $1.5 million contract; designated RHP David Aardsma for assignment. [1/15]
Signed 1B/3B-R Kevin Youkilis to a four-year, $40.125 million contract, with a $13 million club option for 2013 (or $1 million buyout). [1/16]
Acquired RHP Randor Bierd from the Orioles for RHP David Pauley. [1/19]
Acquired LHP Fabian Williamson from the Mariners for RHP David Aardsma; signed RHP Jonathan Papelbon to a one-year, $6.25 million contract, avoiding arbitration; signed LHP Javier Lopez to a one-year, $1.35 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/22]

There's not a lot to say about the position-player talent that's been brought in. Retaining Kotsay gives you more positional flexibility than Sean Casey, certainly, and mashing him together with Baldelli gives you a decent platoon patch on the bench to help address any extra playing time that crops up in the outfield or at DH, but both have checkered pasts as far as their ability to remain in working order, and neither one seems like a solid bet to rely on for anything more than temporary absences from Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, or David Ortiz. This creates the otherwise unlikely possibility that, among the winter's reinforcements, the guy who hit .202/.279/.270 is the real prize, but getting Bard at that price on the proposition that his injury-plagued '08 merits a mulligan could pay an outsized benefit for the ballclub. As terrible as Bard's reputation may be as a deterrent of the running game, here again I think we can cut him some slack; it isn't like he'll have to catch the notoriously baserunner-indifferent Chris Young now that he's escaped San Diego. If, on the other hand, he's cooked, Boston's not really out much in the way of cash or the opportunity cost (as measured in time and roster space) of taking a chance on him; nobody's racing to give Jason Varitek the money he desires (nor should they), and the previously planned platoon possibility of turning the catching chores over to George Kottaras and Dusty Brown still beats a lot of team's receiving options.

There is of course the matter of Youkilis' extension, which is handsome, sure, and has led to some complaints that he and Dustin Pedroia have been liberally overcompensated in reward for their best-ever seasons. Pedroia's considerably younger, so the argument is sillier in his case, but in Youkilis' case, it's especially interesting, because we're talking about someone moving out of the classic peak range of his age-25 through age-29 seasons, and heading into his 30s with two more arbitration-eligible seasons under team control. The amount of money spent suggests the Sox might have done better to have just taken their loss at the table this year (barring a settlement), make a case next year, and wish Youkilis well as a 32-year-old corner infielder with a solid OBP and a decent amount of contact, but without a ton of power. Essentially, what we're talking about is an exchange, where the team managed to forgo those expenses and set the cost of employing Youkilis at a lower mark the next two seasons ($6 million this year, and $9.125 million next), and then have him move up to $12 million in 2011 and 2012-years when Jason Bay, Mike Lowell, and David Ortiz may all be off the books, and seasons in which Youkilis might be the everyday third baseman, especially if Lars Anderson comes into his own by then. Put in that context-what his future role may be, and what his future share of the lineup's payroll may be-it's not a bad contract. The Sox arguably take a financial hit in the second half of the deal, but it's at a time they can afford it more easily than they might a big loss at the arbitrator's table right now.

As for the pitchers picked up, overlapping risk seems to be the order of the day. Between Saito in the pen and Penny in the rotation, there's plenty of reason to wonder whether either will be valuable, but how they do in their respective roles (setting up Papelbon or rounding out the rotation), it's easy to envision how Smoltz replaces either one once he's ready to return to action later in the season. While Penny's purportedly the healthiest of the lot, he's also the one whose peripherals probably inspire the most doubt nonetheless; he passed his physical, but we'll get to see if last year's flagging strikeout rate was a symptom of his shoulder woes, or a reflection of ground he's simply losing and was already losing in 2007. Not fooling people at the plate becomes more of a problem pitching in front of worse defensive clubs, but the Red Sox should be solid enough to give him some assistance. Given that his initial slotting is with Tim Wakefield at the bottom end of the rotation, if Penny simple endures, he ought to be useful, and there's still the possibility that if he's healthy and able to adapt to a switch to the DH league, he can help the club sustain the loss of one of the rotation's big three.

Similarly, Saito could make the Red Sox bullpen devastating if his elbow's up for the assignment, but the mutual bet of his availability-dependent, incentive-laden contract reflects how much that's less than a sure thing. Since Smoltz won't be available until sometime in June in all but the most optimistic forecasts, the Sox will have more than a third of the season to sort out how much Saito and Penny have been able to help. If Penny has risen to the occasion, it wouldn't be shocking to see Wakefield slip back into the bullpen for Smoltz if the latter and the team decide that's where the old man belongs; similarly, if the pen has needs because Saito's flopped, it isn't like Smoltz hasn't been able to answer that particular bell either, although it might be a bit uncomfortable to take a relatively glory-free set-up role for a pitcher with an already odd assembly of very different phases as Hall of Fame cases go.

Overall, you can be forgiven for thinking that purchasing that veteran trio might make the Red Sox staff look like a Robert Altman movie in action: famous performers in unusually smaller roles than you'd normally expect of them, but sort of like an Altman movie, it might represent the best bang for your buck. Just look at the drop-off from CC Sabathia and everyone else who was involved in this year's free-agent market-would you really want to have offered A.J. Burnett ludicrous sums of cash to be little more reliable than Penny? Do you really want to get in on the proposition that Ben Sheets can give you his second 30-start season in five years right now this very year? Looked at in that light, going with the ensemble cast has the benefit of relatively minor short-term risk and an expense that's only notable cumulatively if the famous and fragile earn their incentives-a gamble that makes the proposition only more attractive, not less. As an adaptation to an admittedly odd market for a club that already had its celebrity slots on the staff stocked with stars, it's a pretty interesting tack. Add in the sterling reputation of the Red Sox's training staff, and it's a bet that Theo Epstein could make with even more confidence than most.

The interesting symptom of throwing so much money at so many speculative properties is how it's helped clear out the old collection of semi-interesting maybes from the back end of the depth chart. Whether you want to talk about Aardsma or Day, Epstein's penchant for snagging the odd guy with a fastball was a matter of taste as far as rounding out the roster, but the almost universal removal of these projects (since Marcus McBeth, Kyle Snyder, and Lincoln Holdzkom have similarly all been excused from the 40-man) reflects that they're as much ballast as talent. Once you find better things, you can either flip them for guys who don't have to be added to the 40-man yet, or simply shed them with little loss. It's a sensible enough holding pattern, and if someone like Bierd or Williamson someday proves as useful as filler as Snyder or Aardsma did, that's not the worst way to treat the last few slots on the 40-man. I'm a little surprised that nobody decided to take a chance on Zink with a waiver claim, even if I've been more than a little suspicious of his real upside, but since he's still in-house, you can credit the Sox for making another reasonable risk and coming out fine.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Agreed to terms with RHP Chien-Ming Wang on a one-year, $5 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [12/22]
Signed 1B-S Mark Teixeira to an eight-year, $180 million contract; designated 1B/OF-R Shelley Duncan for assignment. [1/6]
Re-signed LHP Andy Pettitte to a one-year, $5.5 million (base) contract. [1/26]

There is something decidedly Depression Era about seeing the Yankees buy the best available pitcher and the best available hitter in a particular winter market, but I guess I like the Sabathia deal a whole lot more than what was just shelled out to put a bit of Tex in the Big Apple. It's better than the Burnett deal-what isn't-but it's not too far removed from it, in that it's a huge bit of overpayment to keep a guy who should probably be OK over the lifetime of the deal out of the clutches of any Americal League rival in the here and now. Consider this the impatience tax-the Yankees don't merely want to win right now, they're going to throw as much money as possible at making sure that nobody else gets what they want if they just so happen to live down the lane to the east. Certainly, in terms of present-day value Teixeira gives them the caliber of player they needed. They needed somebody who can slot into the middle of the lineup and provide the sort of premiere power that guys like Nick Swisher or Bobby Abreu or Robinson Cano don't or can't, or probably won't again, as in the case of Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. As a pretty crummy defensive squad, the Yankees also can stand to benefit from Teixeira's more nimble brand of first-base play.

But eight years, through the guy's 36th birthday? Make no doubt about it, he's remarkably consistent and one of the best offensive players in the game right now-right now. Will he be the same guy in his 30s, making $22.5 million per year, or will the fact that, in his prime, he's only among the best non-Pujols first basemen, and not even clearly the second-best, make him as expensive a mistake as Jason Giambi proved to be? That might seem laughable, since Giambi donned pinstripes two years later into his career after signing his seven-year, $120 million contract, but he came to the Bronx with four straight seasons of 150-plus games played and a better performance record then than Teixeira's is now.

As for another depressing market-related sign of the times, Pettitte's deal initially doesn't seem so hot now, not when we were talking about his getting offered $10 million from the Yankees only a few weeks ago, but this deal's structured in a way where he stands to make $6.5 million in bonuses for active days on the roster and innings pitched, and if he avoids the DL, he'd be hard-pressed to wind up making less than $11 million. While I might seem overly optimistic about his ability to contribute, he was remarkably unlucky on BABIP against right-handed hitters last season, and while the Captain's still going to be waving at grounders and liners from his spot on the deck on the left side, I'm hopeful that perhaps Pettitte will enjoy a few better breaks this time around. Of greater concern is his going from 17 quality starts in his first 27 to one in his last six (against the Mariners) as he ran out of gas. If Joltless Joe Girardi's hip to the risks of the old man's tuckering out, though, you can hope this won't be a repeated problem.

He certainly rounds out an all-star rotation, joining Sabathia, Wang, Joba Chamberlain, and Burnett, which could also add up to another way of suggesting that Burnett might be the American League's most expensive fifth starter ever. It's one way to at least temporarily endure the unpredictability of his availability, but it's also not a condemnation of him as much as a compliment of the rest of the crew. Sabathia remains a well-conceived addition, Wang's absence last year was due to a freak injury, Chamberlain's rounding into fine form, and Pettitte should be a decent enough warhorse for one last campaign. Like Teixeira, the real penalties of this winter's hyper-active scramble to add the biggest names available will come with the passage of time.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Signed RHP Joe Nelson to a one-year, $1.3 million contract. [12/30]
Released 1B-L Dan Johnson. [1/5]
Claimed RHP Dewon Day off of waivers from the Red Sox. [1/9]
Signed OF-R Gabe Kapler to a one-year, $1 million (and change) contract. [1/12]
Designated RHP Jae Kuk Ryu for assignment (and lost him on a subsequent waiver claim by the Padres). [1/13] Signed RHP Lance Cormier to a one-year contract; designated RHP Dewon Day for assignment. [1/16]
Outrighted RHP Dewon Day to Durham (Triple-A), but invited him to spring training. [1/22]

While Kapler and Nelson come with seven-figure deals to play secondary, supplementary roles, let's make it clear that the roles are supplementary and that their performance is far from guaranteed. Kapler's performance with the Brewers last season reflected that his core skills-some contact-hitting, power against lefties, playability in all three outfield slots-survived his brief retirement, but he'll turn 34 this summer, and really represents nothing more than a player who can fulfill these same tasks as the caddy for Carl Crawford, Matt Joyce, and Gabe Gross. Since whichever one of those last two wins the right-field job was probably platoon-bound before Kapler's addition, you can pretty much take it for granted that's the plan now. Any expansion of Kapler's role beyond that would be beyond Kapler's reach, but with Fernando Perez to call upon if anything happens to B.J. Upton, and Gross, Joyce, and perhaps also Justin Ruggiano around to turn to in case Crawford gets injured again, there's enough depth for the Rays to play mix and match in their outfield that Kapler won't be asked to do more than he can.

As for Nelson, coming over to an organization that's managed to surprise people by getting extended value from a lot of unlikely relievers, you might get worked up about this, but I guess any outrage over the perceived injustice that he received at the Marlins' hands needs to be re-geared towards a reflection of who and what he is, something the market certainly seemed to reflect. As a 34-year-old low-velocity right-hander with a spotty performance record and a shoulder surgery in his recent past, did people really expect he was going to get a bigger deal than this? I'd see him as a reasonable enough pickup at this price, but it's a reward for his unusually good 2008 performance, he's hardly a reliable commodity, and hit-lucky changeup fiends generally don't get counted on any more heavily than this for good reason. Put in the tougher league's toughest division, he might provide utility, if put in a relatively low-leverage role like he was with the Fish. He could also be eaten alive. For the money, that won't be a crippling setback for the Rays, but I wouldn't get too worked up just yet.

In contrast, I think the decisions to grab Day and Cormier are a little more intriguing. Cormier's something of a surprise, if only because he's on the 40-man. There's not a lot of easily observed reason to believe there's something new and mysterious about him, and it seems strange that the Rays would invest a slot on an extra arm who might only have some small amount of value in a mop-up role as an 11th or 12th guy, but he can generate ground-ball outs, and might provide a form of young veteran insurance against any of the crop of kids being less than ready for jobs in the tail end of the pen or rotation. There's always the odd chance that the organization sees something in Cormier that others haven't been able to tap into. If not, it isn't like losing him on a waiver claim should they need to reclaim his spot on the 40-man roster would be the end of the world. Day's just pure power, which makes him a bit of a contrast given the team seems to be able to find that themselves from the ranks of amateurs, but this looks like a bit of opportunistic grabbing as all teams' 40-mans fill up, and seeing that they managed to slip him through waivers and keep him for themselves, it's a well-timed bit of grabbery at that.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Agreed to terms with RHP Brandon League on a one-year, $640,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/19]


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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