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Reportedly agreed to sign RHP Matt Albers to a one-year, $2.45 million contract with a $3 million club option for 2015. [12/16]

Matt Albers is the poor man’s Jim Johnson, a comp that would work even better if the A’s could pass for rich. Albers, like Johnson, is a durable, 30-year-old right-handed reliever who throws a hard sinker over 65 percent of the time, gets groundballs, and has a 16.0 percent career strikeout rate. The difference between the Astros’ new setup man and Oakland’s incoming closer is one walk per nine innings, 122 saves, and as much as $8 million in salary, which make Albers the better deal, dollars-per-win-wise.

Albers, who reportedly passed up a two-year deal in order to return to his hometown, suits the Astros’ defensive strategy. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Houston used 496 infield shifts last season, the fifth-most in the majors and two more than the Pirates, whose pitchers planned their approach with positioning in mind. Pirates pitching led the big leagues in groundball rate by a wide margin, but the Astros’ ranked only 19th. As Travis Sawchick put it earlier this year, “shifts are only as effective as the number of groundballs hit into them,” so by getting fewer grounders than the median team, the Astros failed to fully leverage their positioning when constructing their staff.* In reacquiring Chad Qualls and Albers this offseason, they’ve added two of the top four relievers in 2013 grounder rate (min. 60 IP), which should make for some synergy.

*Astros pitchers didn’t have great results when they did get grounders last season, but it’s hard to separate the infield gloves from the fact that so many balls were hit hard.

The presence of a pair of serviceable relievers should also make the Astros easier to watch. Houston’s low-budget bullpen was by far the worst in baseball last season, and the team tied the Diamondbacks with 29 blown saves. Russell Carleton’s research suggests that bad bullpens haven’t historically sabotaged young starters’ development, as some have speculated, but they’re still no fun for fans. Albers’ addition isn’t exciting, but it’s another small, cost-efficient step toward respectability and a less depressing spectator experience. —Ben Lindbergh

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Signed RHP Gavin Floyd to a one-year deal worth $4 million. [12/16]

How often does a team win 96 games, take their division by 10 games, and enter the following January as underdogs? Fair or not, the Braves are headed down that road.

Sound and fury in the division and silence in Atlanta are the main factors working against the Braves. While the other teams have signed a brand name or two already, Frank Wren's biggest addition entering the week was Mat Gamel—a former top prospect without a regular-season plate appearance since May 2012. Pair that disparity with the losses of Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, who combined for almost 4.5 WARP last season, and there's every reason to believe the Braves have lost ground in the division. The two bits of good news for the Braves are 1) they were good to begin with, and 2) they won't lose anyone else worth missing—unless, that is, Luis Ayala is better at making friends than demonstrated.

Of course, it shouldn't surprise anyone if the 2014 Braves share many similarities with the 2013 version—including an odd underrated feeling. Last August, Zachary Levine wondered why the Braves were disregarded as pennant favorites. The reason, he concluded, was the lack of an elite starting pitcher. Rather than employing a full-court press to sign a faux ace, like Matt Garza or Ervin Santana, the Braves are staying within their framework. Sexy? Hardly. Effective? Probably.

Ben Lindbergh's research found an ace matters more to regular-season success than postseason glory. If the Braves are doing fine in the regular season, then why do they need an ace anyway? After all, the Red Sox didn't have an ace like David Price, Justin Verlander, or Adam Wainwright—their best starter, Jon Lester, ranked 27th among pitchers in WARP—yet they defeated the teams that did en route to a World Series victory. What matters more for the Braves than adding an ace is, likely, adding depth.

Come Opening Day, Atlanta's rotation should consist of five homegrown starters. No one is questioning Mike Minor or Julio Teheran anymore, but the three other prospective pitchers remain under investigation. Kris Medlen is two seasons removed from elbow surgery; however, his size means he must confirm his durability annually. Brandon Beachy has two elbow operations under his belt, leaving him as the biggest wild card in the group. Then there's Alex Wood, whose unorthodox mechanics have scouts pigeonholing him as a future reliever. Given the unreliability within the group, Wren's decision to add another proven arm makes sense.

Yet, even relatively, Floyd is far from a sure thing. When Wren told Jerry Crasnick the Braves think they can "go into the season with our rotation as it is and have a very solid group," he wasn't lying. Floyd underwent Tommy John surgery last May and should miss at least the first month. When he does return, no one should expect top-of-the-rotation caliber pitching.

Floyd is a big, physical right-hander with a four-pitch arsenal—including a heavy fastball, big curveball, and cutter—a stabby arm action, and an appetite for groundballs. Unfortunately, inconsistency has plagued him throughout his career, and elbow woes have cost him significant time over the past two seasons. At his best, he has the body to eat innings and the arm to produce better results. Floyd is, in a sense, a throwback signing, reminiscent of when the Braves would lasso a veteran starter—like a Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, or Jaret Wright—get the most from him, then let him pursue a lucrative deal elsewhere.

The chances Floyd follows that blueprint are limited, and he's more likely to be decent than great. Still, Atlanta will probably need him at some point, which justifies the deal. R.J. Anderson


Gavin Floyd will be coming back off elbow surgery in 2014 and will join a somewhat crowded Braves rotation. Whenever Floyd does return healthy, however, he likely pushes Alex Wood out of the rotation. In terms of his healthy production a simple peek at Gavin Floyd’s 2012 game logs gives you a pretty clear picture of what kind of arm and mind the Braves are getting here. Floyd owners know all too well of his oscillations game to game. A move to the National League will help his value some but he’s still about an SP4 in most leagues. —Mauricio Rubio Jr.

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Reportedly agreed to sign LHP J.P. Howell to a two-year, $11.25 million contract with an option for 2016. [12/16]

Time to add another testimonial to Dr. James Andrews’ Birmingham brochure. Three years removed from his 2010 labrum surgery, Howell was even more effective in Los Angeles than he’d been in Tampa Bay, posting career lows in ERA and FIP and throwing harder than he had before the operation. Whether out of experience or caution, the southpaw has become a different pitcher, relying more on his sinker and less on his breaking/off-speed stuff.

But what he’s lost in strikeouts, he’s made up in groundball rate, ranking in the top 15 among 60-inning relievers last season. Howell held lefties to a .164/.225/.227 line, and while he issued a few too many walks to opposite-handed hitters, righties managed only one home run in 125 plate appearances. Batted-ball luck made him look somewhat better than he was, but now we’re nitpicking.

Howell hasn’t missed a day due to injury since 2011, so the Dodgers felt comfortable guaranteeing two years, a relatively low risk to take in a market where Boone Logan landed three. If Howell makes 120 appearances over the next two seasons, the mutual option tacked on to the end turns into a player option. But if he’s healthy enough to trigger that clause, the Dodgers will be happy to pay him. —Ben Lindbergh

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The Braves are still sore and bruised from the Uggla/Upton Heavyweight bouts. They seem to do better when they have a great homegrown bullpen that only requires their starters to get to the 7th allowing only 2-3 runs. The continuance of young pitchers to fill that pen is the key.