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Released RHP Edwin Moreno. [2/20]

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Released UT-L Freddy Bynum. [2/21]

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Signed 1BL Russell Branyan to a one-year, $2 million base contract, with a mutual $5 million option for 2011. [2/19]

Not unlike the decision to sign Johnny Damon in Detroit, signing Branyan in Cleveland is less about a major change as much as a marginal improvement to the lineup, while providing the virtue of expanded depth. PECOTA‘s expectation for Branyan isn’t very expansive (.232/.345/.444), but that’s also because it’s striking a median between the possibility that he last season wasn’t all that fluky for him (hence a 31 percent score to improve), balanced against the possibility that he goes Charboneau on us, with a 19 percent collapse rate, and 21 percent as far as attrition. Which is another, more complicated way of saying that the spread of possibilities for Branyan is a little wider than most players, which we sort of expected given a career that’s bounced around hapless flailing and TTO glory. Because of the risk involved-whether or not Branyan proves he’s fully recovered from last year’s back injury, or whether he’ll exasperate Manny Acta with his protracted slumps-the money seems like an entirely reasonable outlay, especially since it helps the Tribe’s dark-horse bid to keep up with the top trio in the Central. There might also be a comfort level involved: Branyan has come back to the team that originally drafted and developed him, and he’s no longer being shadowed by the man who at times seemed to be his personal bĂȘte noir, former Triple-A skipper and bench coach Jeff Datz. (Datz is now Dave Trembley’s bench coach in Baltimore.)

The real question about the measure of improvement Branyan may or may not provide depends on a number of surrounding variables. Will he block Matt LaPorta at first base, or will the offense get a boost with LaPorta getting playing time in left field at Michael Brantley‘s expense? (And can the defense afford that potential hit?) Or, for the more depth-minded proposition, will Branyan wind up DHing a good amount if Travis Hafner gets hurt or merely continues his slow-mo career implosion? The worst-case scenario is that LaPorta loses a lot of playing time, because Branyan isn’t necessarily an improvement, and LaPorta’s development as a prospect is a big part of whatever better future the Indians are supposed to have. It seems reasonable to anticipate that playing time gets shared out in a way that gets Brantley, Branyan, and LaPorta plenty of work, in part because Brantley could be the primary backup to Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo, while Branyan and LaPorta can pick up starts at DH. Three players with two full-time jobs and part-time applications in three other lineup slots should yield enough playing time to keep all three fresh, although it might crowd up Trevor Crowe and Chris Gimenez-hardly devastating setbacks in terms of the club’s potential active-roster depth.

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Signed LF-L Johnny Damon to a one-year, $8 million contract. [2/22]

So, Damon has finally landed in Detroit, signing a one-year, $8-million deal that should plant him in left field in the Motor City. And with that, the tight three-way race in the American League Central picture has radically changed, right? The Tigers had to have added a win or two, right? Unfortunately, there’s the problem in a nutshell: a win or two isn’t a decisive amount of difference in what’s still going to remain a tight race, and that’s all that Damon adds.

Why so little difference? The basic issue is one of expectations: the Johnny Damon we’ve seen, aging gracefully in pinstripes, isn’t the player that Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland are guaranteed to get now that they’ve signed him. PECOTA was projecting him to hit at .272/.356/.424, a big drop off from last season, which takes a lot of the sap out of what his bat is supposed to add. There are several reasons why PECOTA is not wild about the Caveman, suggesting instead that he’ll net the Tigers an eight-run improvement, or less than a full win’s worth of difference on the sabermetric exchange rate of 10 runs equals one win.

First, there’s the problem of Damon heading into his age-36 season. He’s coming off of a pair of excellent years with the Yankees, the two best of his career at the plate-which doesn’t make for a great bet that he’ll just keep on cranking at that level like he was Peter Pan in double knits. PECOTA is a tough evaluator of late-career performance, and Damon, good as he is, isn’t among the game’s absolute best ballplayers. He could beat the odds and continue to age extremely well, but PECOTA is a projection tool, not a perpetual optimist.

The second problem is the change of venue: trading NuYankee for the more uniform, distant fences of Comerica Park in Detroit isn’t going to help him, as he’s going from a venue where he slugged 17 of his 24 homers last season, with a huge difference in his home/road slugging: .533 in the Bronx, against .446 everywhere else. While Damon has hit very well in Comerica over his career, that’s a sample of 189 plate appearances, not substantive enough as evidence that he’s going to slug .500 or better, which, combined with his age, doesn’t encourage PECOTA to see premium-level production for a left fielder.

Which brings us to the third problem. Damon isn’t replacing the Tigers’ worst-hitting outfielder-probably whoever wins their job fight in center field. Instead, he is just slotting into left, where we were already giving the benefit of the doubt towards their best available offensive options, and leaning towards a combination of Ryan Raburn and Carlos Guillen. Now the at-bats from the left-field slot belong primarily to Damon, while DH remains Guillen’s primary position-which isn’t a bad thing, but it automatically minimizes the relative impact of adding Damon. Raburn is coming off a fine 2009 season, and could still play an important part in the Tigers’ year, but shunting him back into a part-time role spotting for Damon and Magglio Ordonez in the outfield corners means that the Tigers have better depth, but not necessarily a significantly improved lineup in terms of this kind of pre-season projection.

The other problem is that the Tigers aren’t improving relative to the rest of the division in isolation. In evaluating teams and changing rosters and expected playing time, the dynamics of BP’s depth charts and projected finishes change with every club’s roster tweaks and projected lineup changes. For example, the Twins‘ projection moved up to 81-81 by slightly adapting their slate of starting pitchers, particularly with the thought that Francisco Liriano could live up to his past promise as a rotation regular. The Twins ranking 81-81 ahead of the White Sox or Tigers at 80-82 weeks before Opening Day just tells us that things are tight, last week, this week, and pending any other major developments. If anything, the really interesting dilemma is that the big three may not be far enough ahead to keep the division title race among themselves. The Indians’ adding Branyan helped bump their projected finish up by a win over the weekend. That’s a marginal gain based on the expectation that Branyan’s going to filch playing time from Matt LaPorta. If it turns out that Branyan gets even more playing time at first while LaPorta moves back out to left field, bumping Michael Brantley, it might net the Tribe enough runs to add a fourth horse to an already-tight three-way race.

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Agreed to terms with SS-S Erick Aybar on a one-year, $2.05 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/18]

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Signed RHP Dustin Moseley to a minor-league contract. [2/16]
Signed RHP Chan Ho Park to a one-year, $1.2 million base contract. [2/22]

As if the the field of competitors fighting to see who gets winnowed to which side of the fifth starter/bullpen divide wasn’t crowded enough, the Bombers have added Park as well? Talk about making sure you go into a season with both boots on. Happily, from his public comments Park seems resigned to his lot as a pen-bound pitcher from among that mix, choosing almost certain contention over a possible bid for the back end of the Cubs‘ rotation. Whatever his ambitions for himself and what he likes to do-start, apparently-his career numbers still argue for his better uses in the pen. Just from the last four years, i.e., the period of his career entirely after his disastrous multi-year run with the Rangers, he’s started 34 games for the Padres, Mets, Dodgers, and Phillies, managing 2.4 SNLVAR and just 13 quality starts (counting those blown after six innings). As a reliever in that same span, he’s generated 3.1 WXRL in 90 games. To break his performance down further:

2006-09   IP    H  UBB  K   R   ER HR   RA9 UBB9  K9
Starter  194.1 207  60 145 119 109 28  5.51  2.8 6.7
Reliever 125   126  38 107  55  48 11  3.96  2.7 7.7

Now, given that the majority of his starts came as a Padre with Petco to his advantage, and in light of Park’s relatively consistent platoon splits that suggest he’s best hidden from the better left-handed hitters, this looks like a pretty straightforward proposition. Park’s potential value as a reliever who can handle multiple innings with swing-and-miss stuff should seem obvious by now; his career clip of striking out 22 percent of opposing batters as a reliever is the sort of thing you like to have in your arsenal. Having him does give you tactical flexibility, especially against lineups that lean heavily right, and if, say, you wanted to end a bad day at the office for Andy Pettitte early, say, before things got out of control. The price, even if he earns out his incentives, is remarkably cheap relative to the kind of value he can add.

There’s not a lot about Moseley that changes with his changing organizations from the Angels to the Yankees. Even in the best of circumstances with good ballclubs, he was back-end staff filler, the kind of guy who might get sucked into the odd emergency start or temporary responsibility for a fifth slot; more usually, he can handle middle-inning chores. While it’s always possible that a rash of injuries could create a glory shot-how can we forget Aaron Small‘s briefly bright run?-Moseley will first have to prove he’s recovered from his hip surgery and then provide some value in Scranton before he’ll garner much consideration for a job already likely to be crowded with leftovers over who gets the rotation’s fifth slot. I might prefer Moseley to Sergio Mitre, but not Park, let alone Alfredo Aceves or Chad Gaudin, and really, when you’re making this sort of choice, you’re either Joe Girardi, or someone in the deepest of fantasy leagues.

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Signed OF-L Endy Chavez to a minor-league contract. [2/15]

This figures to be a nice little addition if Chavez comes all the way back from last year’s season-ending knee injury with Seattle. At the very least, Chavez will miss the first month of the regular season, but their other choices for outfield reserves have issues that should keep him in the mix once he demonstrates that health. Consider: David Murphy‘s hitting needs to improve significantly if he’s to wind up as something more than a second-division starter, and he’s not really an option for center field behind Julio Borbon. Craig Gentry‘s talked up as a root-worthy organizational soldier, which he is, but he’s also already 26. Whatever he offers in terms of speed on the bases-he produced an incredible 9.9 EqBRR for Frisco-and with range in center that scouts grade as plus, his bat limits him. He’s a worthwhile fourth outfielder aspirant where that’s his ceiling; his repeat campaign at Double-A last season was merely nice step up in terms of offensive production, from a .246 EqA in ’09 to his .213 in 2008. Gentry’s lot is at least better former fourth outfielder Brandon Boggs‘, and more like Chavez’ was not so very long ago, when he’d been found lacking as a regular for the Expos.

Whatever Gentry’s virtues, however, the Rangers may prefer to have a veteran more experienced in contributing out of a reserve role parked behind Borbon on the bench in the sophomore’s first full season as a major-league center fielder. It’s not a real job fight, not when Chavez is rehabbing while Gentry’s got to fend off Boggs, but it’ll make for an interesting decision come May. Never mind if Gentry’s struggling to adapt to part-time play, because that’s an easy decision; instead, what happens if Borbon isn’t earning his keep at that point? What if Gentry’s gotten off to a good incredible start? Does he play Bob Brower in a latter-day re-enactment of the battle between Brower and Oddibe McDowell in 1987? Well, probably not, McDowell and Brower had more power than Borbon and Gentry, for starters. And besides, Chavez is too old to be the new Cecil Espy.

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Signed C-R Jose Molina to a one-year, $400,000 base contract, with a 2011 club option for $1.2 million; placed RHP Jesse Litsch on the 60-day DL. [2/19]
Placed RHP Dirk Hayhurst on the 60-day DL. [2/21]

With that, the last of the old right-handed catchers who were free agents this winter lands, and he should wind up as John Buck‘s backup. It actually makes sense as a nice little tandem for a club whose expectations are appropriately set to realistic. Buck should be the adequate hitting partner in a job-sharing arrangment-he’s projected for a .250 EqA, to Molina’s .204-while Molina should wind up as the better-throwing complementary player who also has the benefit of a stronger reputation as a receiver. Given that he’s set to make the MLB minimum with a few incentives, the money is negligible. It’s easy to accept that Molina was greatly overrated during his Yankee days (and liberally overcompensated compared to this deal), but that’s the Big Apple’s self-importance for you. That doesn’t contradict the fact that he has his uses as a big-league reserve, and now that he’s inked, he’ll give the Jays a nice alternative to Buck while also sparing them from using someone like Raul Chavez. Later on in-season, if J.P. Arencibia has bounced back from a massively disappointing 2009 season in Las Vegas, the Jays will be free to consider their options, which might involve shopping Buck or Molina. That’s a nice situation in that it gives the Jays some wiggle room to provide a catcher-needy contender a player who fits their needs, and at different price points: a bat in Buck, or a catch-and-throw backup in Molina. Since almost everything involved with the Jays these days is about leveraging the present to achieve a better future, that’s a nice bit of negotiating flexibility in a minor key.

Thanks to Kevin Goldstein for his assistance and insight.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.