December 8, 2009
On a day with a news gatherer-to-news ratio approaching infinity, the most interesting stuff happened late and didn't involve anyone signing anything. Three of the 23 free agents offered arbitration by their clubs accepted by the midnight deadline, scurrying safely off the market and taking the risk that a one-year deal will look better than whatever might be available.
The most notable of these three was Rafael Soriano, who had a strong season for the Braves, spending most of it as their closer. Soriano has been effective when healthy, and he struck out 102 men in 75
The best reason for Soriano to accept, of course, was Juan Cruz. Cruz, comparable in ability and performance record to Soriano, hit the market tied to a first-round pick that crippled demand for his services. Soriano is better than Cruz, but not by so much that the prospect of forfeiting a high draft pick to sign him wouldn't put a crimp in his holiday plans. Once the Braves offered him arbitration, they diminished his potential 2010 earnings to the point where accepting the offer was probably his best move.
This caught the Braves, who spent last week replacing Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, unawares. The team now has a wealth of relievers, with Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito already on hand, and arbitration-eligible Peter Moylan, and now Soriano too. That's maybe $23 million for four relievers on a team that is likely to keep its payroll under $110 million, maybe under $100 million, and is currently missing at least one outfielder and a first baseman. I joked the other day about the team trading Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada, which is how they handled the similarly surprising decision by Greg Maddux to accept arbitration a few years back; the Braves already needed to trade a starting pitcher, but now that need becomes a financial one, and makes it less likely they can make a good baseball deal by trading Derek Lowe. It may also affect their tender decisions-does Kelly Johnson get an offer? Does Ryan Church? Soriano's choice may have wide-ranging repercussions for a team that in its best days was a bit too conservative about money, and is far from those days.
The other two calls were simpler. Rafael Betancourt isn't as good as Soriano and would be competing with a whole bunch of pitchers who look a lot like him. I can think the world of him, but the industry has never seen him as special, and he's likely to do better through arbitration than he ever would have on the market. Similarly, Carl Pavano doesn't look much different from the Braden Looper class of free agents, and goes into the room off a full season of strike-throwing. He won't make great money, but there was no assurance he would have gotten even a major-league deal had he opted for free agency.
Of the six Type-A free agents who declined arbitration, four probably won't see their fortunes change because of it. Chone Figgins may or may not already be a Mariner, and three of the others are John Lackey, Matt Holliday, and Jason Bay. The final two, however, are taking a risk. Mike Gonzalez is the left-handed version of Soriano, fantastic when healthy but only intermittently so. He lacks the high save totals that drive up a salary, and he hits the market off a relatively low-cost season. The parallels to Cruz, who started last winter as seemingly a high-value stealth option and ended it signing a deal, barely, with the Royals, are pretty striking. I'm not sure many good teams-the bottom 15 in the first round-will be willing to give up a first-round pick for the risk he entails, and I'm not sure many bad teams will find it worth their while to spend eight million bucks on a reliever.
Gonzalez has the benefits of being left-handed and coming off a big year. Jose Valverde is a second-tier right-handed closer who had minor injuries that hampered his availability last year, has a bit of a reputation as a head case, and is older (32) than you think he is. His strikeout rate has declined for three straight seasons, and as a fly-ball pitcher, he's something of a risk to go Lidge in any subset of 50 innings. What I'm saying is that I might spend money to sign him, and I might give up a draft pick in the top 75, but I seriously doubt I would do both of those things.
Just eyeballing the market, there simply aren't many teams specifically looking for a closer, and of that group, few who seem likely to pay market rate to sign one. Valverde would be an improvement for the Orioles, Blue Jays, maybe the Rays; the Tigers, Marlins, Nationals, and Cubs could all slot him as closer. Of those teams, though, only four are competing in '10 and of those four, only the Cubs and maybe the Rays are spending money. The Rays are highly unlikely to make this kind of signing. There just aren't many places for Valverde to go. I think he, even more so than Gonzalez, may be the guy standing around on Valentine's Day wondering why no one loves him.
Christina will go into depth on all of the actual transactions from yesterday. Here are my bullet-point thoughts on the limited number of deals that were reached. I'll cover Figgins when it closes:
I'm trying to stay away from doing analysis of things that haven't actually happened yet. The trend towards the serious analysis of rumors as if the events have happened strikes me as the writing of fiction. I won't do it, especially in an environment where so many more things that aren't happening are being reported than ever before. I love the Hot Stove League, but it's possible, even probable, that we've reached the saturation point for bad information reported simply because there's a need to feed the beast. To the extent that I can stay out of that cycle, I will.