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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

National League

BOSTON RED SOX
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Signed OF-R Cody Ross to a one-year deal worth $3 million. [1/23]

From postseason hero to platoon outfielder in 15 months. Shed tears if you must, but know that it’s a role he would have gladly taken as recently as 2007. Back then, Ross was in organization number four and still seeking his first major league season with 400-plus plate appearances. In the time since, Ross has earned more than 2,000 trips to the big league plate, more than $12 million in earnings, and the aforementioned World Series ring.

Calling Ross a fourth outfielder seems fair, as he could play center on occasion to break up an otherwise all-lefty outfield. Most of the time, it seems that Ross and Ryan Sweeney will lock hands as dance partners, with Sweeney tangoing with righties and Ross doing the cha-cha with lefties. While Ross had a bit of a down season against lefties in 2011, platoon splits tend to be riddled with random variance, and plus the combination of enduring lower body injuries and playing in San Francisco may have taken their toll.

Should Carl Crawford’s wrist surgery sideline him entering the season, then Ross might be a starter on opening day for arguably the best team in the American League. See, no tears necessary.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Signed 2B-R Jeff Keppinger to a one-year deal. [1/25]

Keppinger, like former teammate Cody Ross, heads to the American League East with eyes on carrying the short stick in a lefty-righty platoon. The odds-on favorite to carry the long stick is Matt Joyce, although the Rays have worked with Joyce on playing first base this winter, so it is possible that you will occasionally see Keppinger and Joyce in the same lineup at the expense of Carlos Pena.

What does Keppinger bring to a team with contention hopes? Start with the .305/.339/.467 multi-year line against lefties, the ability to play multiple infield defensive positions (albeit not well), and end with his deft bat control. Only Juan Pierre has struck out less often than Keppinger since 2009 amongst batters with 1,000-plus plate appearances. Given that the Rays have added more strikeouts to their lineup this offseason, Keppinger adds a touch of diversity.

Keppinger is different from the utility infielders the Rays employed last season too. Neither Reid Brignac nor Elliot Johnson hit much, although both were serviceable fielders. If the Rays can find another right-handed bat, expect Johnson and Brignac to be squeezed off the roster, and it would not be too surprising if one or both are gone from the organization by opening day—Johnson because he lacks options and can elect free agency if the Rays attempt to outright him again, and Brignac because the Rays’ are flush with upper-level shortstops, and he appears to be the worst of the bunch.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Signed LHP Jeff Francis to a minor league deal. [1/25]

Francis is a success story regardless of what happens with the Reds, as he fought his way back from labrum surgery and is now 51 appearances into his post-surgery career. Some of the results—namely his strikeout-to-walk ratio and groundball rate—are praiseworthy, but his inability to limit hits have left him as a subpar starting pitcher. Cincinnati would figure to be the first above-average defensive unit behind Francis since his injury, but it’s no given that he’ll even get a chance to pitch for the Reds. Because this is a minor league deal and Francis fits the requirements, it is worth noting that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement states:

III-a-3. Article XX(B) free agents signing minor league contracts who are not added to the Opening Day roster or unconditionally released 5 days prior to Opening Day shall receive an additional $100,000 retention bonus and the right to opt out on June 1.

If this is the best offer Francis could get now, it isn’t likely that spring training will alter his stock too much one way or the other. Pitching in the minors works as a prolonged audition, but in effect, Francis will be waiting in the wings in case the Reds suffer an injury or a bout of ineffectiveness. The Reds are going to compete, and having a proven major league innings sponge just a phone call away is comforting, even if a phone call after the first two months could lead Francis to another team.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Signed C-R Chris Snyder to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $350,000 with incentives and a mutual option for the 2013 season worth $4 million. [1/20]

Jason Castro will miss at least the beginning of spring training, which would have left Humberto Quintero as the Astros’ default starter at catcher. Such a fate is undesirable, and so Houston is going to roll the dice on Chris Snyder’s back. Snyder, if you remember, underwent surgery last June on his lower back and missed the rest of the season because of it.

Being hurt is something of a constant state for Snyder, who has hit .216/.333/.372 since 2009 in a shade under 700 plate appearances. That isn’t a stunning line until you consider Quintero’s .237/.266/.330 offering over the same period in a similar amount of trips. Castro, Quintero, and Snyder: that’s it as far as catchers on the 40-man roster go. Beyond those three, the Astros have extended a camp initiation to Carlos Corporan. And beyond that? Well, you just hope the Astros can get through the season with some combination of those four completing their battery.

Betting on a catcher with back issues to recover is a risk, albeit one with low stakes given the money and competitive nature involved. Maybe Snyder can develop into a trade chip or even just a serviceable reserve and mentor to Castro. Otherwise, there is no harm in trying—well, maybe for Snyder.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed RHP Brad Lidge to a one-year deal worth $1 million. [1/26]

Did anyone, anyone at all, realize that Lidge’s earned run average over the past two seasons sits at 2.49? Probably not, and for good reason: Lidge missed most of the 2011 season with a shoulder strain. Upon return, Lidge brought his usual strikeout rates (albeit with an extra helping of walks) but lacked his trademark velocity. Instead, his average fastball sat below 90 miles per hour, which sent his slider usage through the roof.

Those 19 innings in 2011 are not enough to ensure that Lidge’s new approach will work, but the Nationals are in a position to experiment. Washington is not counting on Lidge to close—that would be Drew Storen—nor be the everyday set-up man—say hello to Tyler Clippard—but if he can help out Henry Rodriguez and Sean Burnett in the sixth and seventh innings, then why not? If he fails, the Nationals lose just a million dollars. The upside is worth it, as the Nationals could boast two of the three most interesting pitchers in baseball.