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Agreed to terms with LF-R Conor Jackson on a one-year, $3.1 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/14]
Signed 1BL Adam LaRoche to a one-year, $4.5 million contract, with a $7.5 millon mutual option for 2011 ($1.5 million club buyout); designated OF-R Eric Byrnes for assignment. [1/15]

There are a couple of implicit assertions here, one of which we have to take on faith, and the other that I think the evidence supports. First, signing LaRoche means the Snakes really believe that Conor Jackson’s going to be back to something like full strength, and/or that they can contend with Gerardo Parra getting a decent share of playing time in left. I hope that Jackson can come back and fulfill that faith and confidence that he’ll remain a top contributor, but as I noted last August, the previous case of a major pro athlete coming down with Valley Fever, the Phoenix Suns’ Johnny Moore, isn’t really very reassuring on that score.

The second major item is that this means they don’t think Brandon Allen‘s going to be ready. I’m already bit dubious about his upside; if not for an injection of Reno-based slugging, he was having a generally disappointing season after his 2008 breakout, and PECOTA is projecting a .258 EqA for him in 2010, far below what you want from a first baseman. It might seem unjust and position-relative, but to make it and stick at first base, you must mash. Whatever spudly upside Allen might have is going to require more time boiling in the PCL to get him to true mashing-level utility.

So, taking Allen as the major alternative to LaRoche, this is an obvious improvement, even with something as seemingly reliably frustrating and uneven as LaRoche’s performance has been. As I noted last week, LaRoche’s three-year EqA is .289, a mark that’s barely distinguishable from those of Carlos Delgado or Russell Branyan, and better than Johnny Damon (if you wanted to argue for leaving Jackson at first base), and LaRoche is younger than all of them, and without the question marks that afflict the free agencies of those particular guys. At the price, he’s almost a bargain, but he’s also very much an average performer at the position (last year’s average first-base EqA was .293). However, Phoenix had its particular attactions: possible contention plus a lovely hitting environment, exactly the kind of combination a relatively young veteran mid-career would want to help him enjoy his current commitment while achieving his next contract.

Now, put that together with the hope that Jackson can contribute as the near-regular or everyday left fielder, and you wind up with a generally improved lineup. There’s still plenty of wishcasting involved with projecting the Snakes to contend: Chris B. Young and Kelly Johnson have to get their careers back on track, Stephen Drew has to finally have that two-steps-forward season without taking one back, Brandon Webb needs to be healthy, and Edwin Jackson needs to have consecutive good seasons for the first time ever. These things could happen, but the Snakes will need most or all of them if they’re going to slither with the big dogs in the division.

Which takes us to the sorry lot of Eric Byrnes, now that he’s back below the point when he was initially arbitration-eligible and a middling fourth outfield type bouncing from Oakland to Planet Coors to the Orioles to washing up as low-end add-on with the D’backs. While he was never going to live up to the ludicrously over-generous deal that Josh Byrnes gave him in August, 2007 in a fit of irrational exuberance, now that he might be relatively freely available, it isn’t inconceivable that the same “terrible” Eric Byrnes who was and will forever be an expensive disaster as an everyday player in Phoenix could be a useful minimum-wage pickup as a fourth outfielder in any one of several other big-league markets. Assuming Byrnes isn’t completely done, anyone wondering about whether or not they want to employ Xavier Nady or Reed Johnson as a platoon bit could look at Byrnes as a cheap alternative: Byrnes has a .284/.345/.511 career clip against lefties, while Nady’s at .301/.383/.471, and Johnson’s at .313/.378/.463. Where Johnson’s make-believe fast, Byrnes is a genuinely better baserunner, and no, none of them can really play center all that well, so they’re not ideal fourth outfielders, and Nady’s going to cost more and be expected to play more, especially on a second-division team. These aren’t perfect-world solutions, but how many Gary Roenickes are there, anyway? Not that you want to be making this call, because ideally you’ve got three good starting outfielders, but when guys like Jason Michaels are on 40-man rosters, there’s clearly a market, and I could see Byrnes winding up being useful, and it isn’t going to cost a club anything to find out.

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Signed 4C-L Eric Hinske to a one-year, $1 million base contract; designated OF-L Brandon Jones for assignment. [1/12]
Agreed to terms with OF-S Melky Cabrera on a one-year, $3.1 million deal, avoiding arbitration. [1/14]

With that, the Braves “complete” their picture at first base and the outfield corners, with Hinske joining Troy Glaus, Cabrera, and Matt Diaz as the established answers for the three positions. That doesn’t sound so great, and it isn’t, but that’s in isolation of their having Jason Heyward on the horizon with a shot at reducing the veterans’ three potential positions by one if he becomes the everyday right fielder at some point in the spring or in-season. That scenario would mean that the Braves have quality reserves at other positions beyond first or right or left: Cabrera can back up Nate McLouth in center when he isn’t sharing left field with Diaz, for example, while Hinske and Glaus provide the additional benefit of probably being able to fill in for Chipper Jones at third base if they aren’t splitting time at first. Add in Omar Infante‘s availability at second, short, third, and center, and it makes for a flexible roster with 11 position players in regular rotation, 12 if we count Heyward:

Catchers (2): Brian McCann, David Ross
Middle (4): Yunel Escobar, Martin Prado, Nate McLouth, Omar Infante
Corners (5/6): Chipper Jones, Jason Heyward, Troy Glaus, Eric Hinske, Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz

Possible Orders vs. RHPs?

That doesn’t look so terrible, and the utility of having an outfielder batting eighth and the double-switch possibilities involved make for some useful in-game tactical hazards. OK, so flexibility is good, especially with today’s shorter benches, but is this really a contending lineup? There’s no obvious “bad” player in it, since everybody involved does a reasonable job of getting on base and has some power. Defense might be a concern when Hinske’s in an outfield corner, but that’s hardly crippling, nor is it likely to happen all that frequently enough to make a major impact. Such a collection probably leaves guys like Brooks Conrad, Joe Thurston, and Mitch Jones, and maybe Gregor Blanco or Diory Hernandez, fighting for that last spot on the bench, two spots if Heyward’s judged to be unready.

Is it good enough to contend with? Here again, I might be more of an optimist about Glaus’ value than most, because if healthy he can be roughly average as an offensive producer at first base. The fact that Glaus’ health is such an unknown contributes to the decision to add a high-end bench bat like Hinske’s, but the total outlay is such that it makes you wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off working something out with LaRoche. However, when you consider how left-leaning the lineup is (with Cabrera and Jones switch-hitting), adding a right-handed batter like Glaus might be the right fit for them, if seen through the rosiest of lenses.

What were their other alternatives? Keeping in mind that they were addressing their needs in the outfield corners and first base, and given Heyward’s impending arrival, there were only so many possibilities in play. Getting in on Matt Holliday or Jason Bay obviously wasn’t in the cards, and a multi-year commitment in the outfield might not have made much sense anyway, given that they’ve got McLouth locked in and Heyward on the way. Should they have chased after first-base options beyond the so very familiar LaRoche, say, Russell Branyan or Carlos Delgado instead of Glaus? Maybe, but however much I enjoy watching Branyan, he’s a bit of an acquired taste while also being something less than a sure thing, while Delgado’s health seems even less certain still. They might have expanded their infield corner horizons by seeing if Jones would agree to a move to first base, but even then, the Mariners‘ early strike with Chone Figgins kept the list of truly tasty options at the hot corner short; maybe they could have made a better offer to Adrian Beltre than the Red Sox, and maybe not.

I guess if we skip back to the argument that they were being cheap when they dealt away Javier Vazquez, I guess one way to intepret this winter’s activities is that they’re practicing self-abuse to make up for the mistakes of their big-ticket commitments to Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami-not exactly “going cheap”-and after making the elective decision to re-up with Tim Hudson on a multi-year deal, again, not exactly an example of penuriousness as much as an example of obvious preference. Considering we’re talking about Vazquez, no sure thing himself, I find this proposition less problematic than, say, the decision to deal away Cliff Lee when there’s a bit of contention to be done. On the other hand, it’s also the fruit of the same decision tree that sprouted the suggestion that Takashi Saito‘s a key add-on, which could prove to be an expensive mid-market mistake. Perhaps the Braves have been pound- and penny-foolish, but this wasn’t a market chock-a-block with great answers at first base or outstanding short-term gambles in an outfield corner. While the criticisms of Atlanta’s offseason are legion, and in several instances reasonable, it’s also important to keep an eye on the possible, instead of wishing for things that probably weren’t.

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Agreed to terms with RHP Nick Masset on a two-year, $2.58 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/17]

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Agreed to terms with LHP Jorge De La Rosa on a one-year, $5.6 million contract, with RHP Taylor Buchholz on a one-year, $1.055 million contract, and with 2B-R Clint Barmes on a one-year, $3.4 million contract, avoiding arbitration with all three. [1/14]

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Signed RHP Josh Johnson to a four-year, $39 million contract extension, avoiding arbitration. [1/14]

Was it the union’s noisy a-grieving itself over the subject of how the Marlins avoid arbitration? The grudging acknowledgment of a particular problem by the Seligs? Or the Lorians just making a sensible commitment to a top talent, as they already had with Hanley Ramirez? I’d argue that elements of all three would seem to be in play, because three’s a big difference between making multi-year commitments to players like HanRam and Johnson on the one hand, and sensibly avoiding arbitration with cannon fodder like Kevin Gregg or Joe Nelson, or disappointments like Jeremy Hermida or Scott Olsen or Mike Jacobs. If it took some agitprop from the union or a cranky call from the commish, setting aside the advice of those better angels (of Anaheim), that’s well and good. If there’s a difference between cheap and sensibly cheap, the Marlins were certainly tip-toeing on the line between the two.

All the same, I remain unsold on the suggestion that ditching filler ballplayers like Gregg or Jacobs doesn’t make sense. If you don’t want to pay above-market rates via arbitration for a Gregg or a Jacobs-and note that, here again, neither seems likely to make as much as “free” agents as he did through arbitration last winter-there shouldn’t be some industry-wide compunction forcing you to do so. Paying above-market prices for middle-class talents isn’t honorable or fair or noble, and by attaching value judgments about motivation beyond money is sort of silly. As propositions go, these things are either affordable for you or less so; having the freedom to choose not to shouldn’t be seen as unprincipled or evil. Keeping Kevin Gregg or Joe Nelson wasn’t certain to produce a 90-win ballclub, and while the ignominy of employing Emilio Bonifacio makes the relative virtue of keeping even a doubtful regular like Jacobs seem like the sort of misstep that might have cost the Fish a shot at the NL Wild Card, remember that the club’s genuine, inexplicable, indefensible belief that Emilio Bonifacio had value worthy of everyday play seems as much a monumental baseball misjudgment as a reflection of any payroll problem. However much money it takes to buy you out of belief in Bonifacio, there’s still the problem of thinking Bonifacio could play.

Teams purportedly trying harder and spending more were achieving less than the Marlins have the last two seasons. Yes, Atlanta, I mean you, for finishing behind the Fish in 2009 and 2008, but we could add the Reds and the D’backs to the doing-less-with-more list. For myself, I’m delighted that they’re keeping Johnson, because I guess I enjoy Marlins baseball as an abstract exercise that answers questions not everyone dares ask: How far can you go with a stars-and-scrubs roster? How much mileage can you get out of free talent? That they’re doing better than bigger-budgeted competitors should only make the exercise that much more maddening. Excise the odd Bonifacio and whatever other roster lampreys are taking the shine off their scales, and maybe the Marlins make a real mess of things and make it to the postseason. We’re already seeing the industry economize with its expenses on baseball’s middle-class talents, but with a Fishy October, could it get even worse?

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Outrighted OF-R Jason Bourgeois to Round Rock (Triple-A). [1/15]
Signed RHP Shane Loux to a minor-league contract; agreed to terms with INF-R Jeff Keppinger ($1.15 million) and RHP Chris Sampson ($815,000), avoiding arbitration. [1/16]

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Agreed to terms with RHP Chad Billingsley on a one-year, $3.85 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/14]
Agreed to terms with CF-R Matt Kemp on a two-year, $10.95 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/14]

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Signed OF-R Norris Hopper to a minor-league deal. [1/14]

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Agreed to terms with RHP John Maine on a one-year, $3.3 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/16]

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Signed OF-L Ryan Church to a one-year, $1.5 million (base) contract. [1/13]
Signed RHP D.J. Carrasco to a minor-league contract. [1/16]

As mid-market pickups, I like both add-ons perfectly well, especially since both should be upgrades on what the Pirates already have. Sure, it’s a low-expectations exercise; still modest improvement is improvement.

However overhyped Church’s upside may still be in some quarters, his past performance suggests .270-something adequacy in terms of EqA as a starter in either outfield corner. With left field stocked with Lastings Milledge, that should put his prospects in right; there, he’ll essentially be fighting first baseman Jeff Clement for a lineup slot, with Garrett Jones playing the position of whichever one of the two loses, and with both standing to gain if Jones turns into a pumpkin. This should also mean that Brandon Moss and Steve Pearce are on the verge of being crowded out of the picture, but in the Pirates’ mushrooming morass of fungibles, I’d suggest Neal Huntington’s now well into a new market inefficiency: entirely disposable ballplayers. We’re a society that values unmessy ends and easy disposability, and increasingly recycling as well, so perhaps this makes Huntington a model citizen. Certainly, I wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that the Nuttings are interested in more green when it comes to their ballclub.

As for the other instance of the useful-yet-disposable talents added, Carrasco’s coming over from a good stretch with the White Sox in low-leverage middle-inning mop-up work, an applicable skill for a Pirates staff sure to endure its share of quick hooks and lost causes. Carrasco’s proven to be a durable utility pitcher who, on the basis of last year’s performance out of the White Sox pen (4.25 FRA) might be a cut above already Pirated alternatives like Chris Jakubauskas (4.90 relief-only FRA) or Jeff Karstens (6.42). However, like Jakubauskas, he’s had problems handling left-handed batters, which suggests a certain redundancy; Jakubauskas is the one of the three on the 40-man, so he could be pitching for his job and his roster spot, although the Pirates have enough disposables on their 40-man that that isn’t an automatic consideration.

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Designated RHP Merkin Valdez for assignment. [1/14]
Agreed to terms with RHP Brandon Medders on a one-year, $820,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/16]