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|BOSTON RED SOX
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In Hanigan, Boston gets a solid backup to Christian Vazquez, and the move dismisses needless queries about what would become of Middlebrooks with Pablo Sandoval ticketed for third base. Hanigan is a great pitch-framer, a decent athlete around the plate and a very good controller of the strike zone, at bat. He doesn’t strike out much, and he does draw walks. Nothing good happens when he makes contact, but contact itself is good. That keeps a scrap of offensive value intact. Under contract at a cheap rate, Hanigan is easy certainty at a spot where Boston had a need. He won’t threaten the job or block the development of Vazquez, nor of star catching prospect Blake Swihart. —Matthew Trueblood
Varvaro isn't your typical reliever. In addition to being a waiver-claim success story, he's become an oddity for his reverse splits. Last season alone, he held left-handed hitters to a lower True Average than quality left-handed relievers like Tony Watson and Javier Lopez. Varvaro does it with a fastball-curveball-changeup combination, and at this point it seems silly to doubt his ability to get outs without the platoon advantage. The Red Sox figure to have a lefty or two in their bullpen anyway—probably Drake Britton and/or Tommy Layne—but Varvaro gives John Farrell some added, if unusual flexibility. The Braves presumably hope Kurcz—a small feller with a good fastball-slider combination and command woes—can contribute to the big-league time sometime in 2015, likely in middle relief. —R.J. Anderson
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It’s all about staying away from the doctor’s office for Hahn. When healthy, all he’s done is perform, making his way to the major leagues after just 163 minor-league innings. Hahn features a low-90s sinking fastball that hitters have trouble squaring. Due to some deception and his long limbs at 6-foot-5, batters often make weak contact against this pitch that plays in the plus range. In addition to the fastball, Hahn throws a low-70s curveball, which he can manipulate and command. The pitch misses bats at a nice rate, but likely ends up as a solid-average major-league offering. The changeup is inconsistent and a seldom-used pitch in Hahn’s bag of tricks, which he’ll have to hone in order to be a starter. While he’s had some preliminary success in San Diego at the back of the rotation, to start 30-plus times a year, fastball/curveball isn’t a viable arsenal. At any rate, Hahn has major-league quality stuff that may play up a tick in the bullpen, likely the seventh or eighth inning. —Jordan Gorosh
Alvarez tore up the Texas League with both organizations, compiling a 1.25 ERA with 61 strikeouts in only 43 1/3 innings pitched between San Antonio (San Diego) and Arkansas (Los Angeles). He owns a power fastball that sits 95-97 mph and touches even higher and a wipeout slider that easily plays above average and flashes plus-plus potential. He was shutdown for a while in May due to an elbow tenderness, but that seems to be past him now. With two above-average pitches and success in Double-A, Alvarez could break camp with the A’s and work his way into a late-innings assignment. —Chris Rodriguez
|SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Acquired C-R Derek Norris, RHP Seth Streich and International Bonus Slot 117 in exchange for RHPs Jesse Hahn and R.J. Alvarez [12/19]
Acquired 3B-R Will Middlebrooks in exchange for C-R Ryan Hanigan [12/19]
Back when Up And In was a thing, Kevin Goldstein liked to use it as a platform to gush about Derek Norris. He called him a future star. He broke his own rule about making prospect comparisons to call Norris a “Mickey Tettleton who can actually catch.” When Billy Beane made Norris a part of his haul for Gio Gonzalez, it felt like a match made in heaven.
Progress has come in fits and starts for Norris, though. After a hot start to the 2014 season, he batted .245/.314/.324 in the second half. Though he rates as above average in framing statistics, the rest of the defensive picture has been a nightmare, one punctuated by the vivid and painful image of seven Royals stealing bases during the Wild Card game that the A’s gave away. There’s no reason to dismiss the things he still does well, and could do even better, but the last three months of this campaign gave Beane enough reason to doubt that star potential.
A.J. Preller is a gambler, though, and as gambles go, a soon-to-be 26-year-old Norris is still a good one. Norris hit starters as well as he hit relievers, and power pitchers even better than he hit finesse pitchers; those are rare skills in today’s game. He’ll have some utility as a platoon first baseman and as a bat off the bench on his off days, just as he did in Oakland. His second-closest PECOTA comp, prior to 2014, was Mike Napoli. Recall Napoli’s patience, his power, the questions about his defense behind the plate and his unstoppable bludgeoning of left-handed pitching, and you have a composite sketch of what Norris might hope to be.
Norris played 127 games in 2014, 29 more than he played in 2013, and during that miserable second half he played through pain in his hip, shoulder and lower back, helping the A’s limp to the finish line without John Jaso or Stephen Vogt. His .289 and .286 true averages the past two seasons probably paint a fairer picture of his true offensive talent than that most recent (ugly) half-season. Accept that premise, and Norris is a major upside play. After all, catchers peak late, and Norris is not only young, but under team control through 2018.
Streich is a nice get for the Padres’ farm system, if he can weather shoulder surgery and stay on his course. He whiffed 116 and walked only 22 in 114 innings this season, in the offense-friendly California League. The extra international bonus slot allotment, an enticement Beane probably couldn’t wait to offer to the hyper-aggressive Preller, probably moved this deal from appealing to irresistible on San Diego’s end.
Preller had just landed Hanigan in the Wil Myers blockbuster, in which he gave up Rene Rivera, which had confused everyone, because he’d also just given up Yasmani Grandal to get Matt Kemp, and until the Norris deal came down the pipe, it looked like the Padres might be setting up a Hanigan-Tim Federowicz timeshare at catcher that would have made everyone squirm. Then, when Preller did land Norris, the consensus shifted. Maybe Federowicz was on his way out, and the Hanigan acquisition had simply been about personal preference. Through it all, as it must, the narrative swung wildly.
Catcher pitch-framing is the cause celebre on Baseball Twitter these days, so that was the first prism for which each recombination was fitted. Grandal and Rivera are good framers; did trading them signal that Preller doesn’t value the skill? Then again, Hanigan is a fine framer, too. Norris is, eh, average.
In truth, framing simply isn’t the right frame (sorry!) in which to set these moves. Making Norris the regular catcher does signify a lack of emphasis on the defensive elements of the position, but not framing in any specific way. Rather, this is all about Preller fielding the best offense he can, and the fact that it’s damn hard to improve one’s offense without making a few tradeoffs. The reconfigured outfield Preller has constructed is a defensive compromise, at best. Find guys who can hit, and ask questions later. That’s the new Padres way.
Will Middlebrooks sort of fits this paradigm, too, at least in that he’s not out there for his glove at third base. He’s also a right-handed hitter with power, as is Norris, and as are Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton. That’s become another major narrative surrounding these additions. Right-handed power is at a premium, everyone says, so Preller is making a power grab.
Maybe that’s true. The Padres had the worst offense in baseball last season, though, and the outfield and third base were the greatest areas of weakness. It seems just as likely that Preller’s focus is on getting out of that hole, maybe even fielding a competitive offense, and that the platoon balance and shape of production matter relatively little to him.
Whatever the reason for adding Middlebrooks, it’s a decent move. Middlebrooks has never really gained control of the strike zone, and really scuffles against offspeed pitches:
However, he has real power, and that makes him a boom-or-bust proposition. Until it’s clear whether boom or bust will win the day, Middlebrooks should share time at third with left-hitting Cory Spangenberg, who reached the majors at the end of 2014 after going to the Padres in the first round in 2011. In fact, that could be a neat little platoon, if the roster crunch will bear it. —Matthew Trueblood
(Note: References to earlier reports that David Ross had agreed to a deal with San Diego have been removed. So it goes.)
At the very least this move opens up a path to clear playing time for Middlebrooks, which was not something he was remotely in line to see in Boston. Under the surface of his ugly 2014 he did take some marginal strides with his approach, both cutting his chase rate and making more contact on his swings in the zone. The strikeout rate is extreme enough that he’s an all-but-guaranteed batting average liability, but the pop is real. Projecting a rebound to 2013’s 17-percent HR/FB rate is probably irresponsible, but so would assuming a repeat of last year’s hideous four-percent rate. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, and if he can get on base enough to hold down every day playing time, an expectation of 20 homers shouldn’t be unreasonable, even with the move to Petco. The Padres’ suddenly-improved lineup context gives further cause for optimism, and at age 26, Middlebrooks now has all the markings of a popular “sleeper” heading into drafts this spring. Cost management will be very important for interested buyers, as the bust potential given Middlebrooks extreme strikeout tendencies remains quite high. Still, as an upside play for (relatively) cheap power, Middlebrooks gets a whole lot more interesting with this deal.
Solarte was more or less lined up to hold down the everyday job at third, and as I wrote in the first round of our Padre team preview, given his versatility he was on track to be one of the more interesting utility options for NL-only leagues. He now likely slots into a more traditional utility role for the Padres, a guy who will be worked into the lineup two to three times a week all over the place. In the very deepest of NL-onlys his versatility will still offer rosterable value, but without a clear path to majority playing time his standing takes a significant hit.
I also wrote in the team preview that I suspected Spangenberg would be due for an extended look at the major-league level next summer given his age, draft stock, and generally sound hit tool. But the addition of Middlebrooks throws another rung onto the top of the depth chart above him and calls that theory into question. He’s all but certain to head back to the minors out of the gate now, and his best-case scenario now requires some struggles and/or injury in order to make it back to San Diego for a prolonged look. He can be ignored for the time being in NL-only drafts. —Wilson Karaman
There aren’t too many ballparks that are a downgrade from Oakland, but San Diego’s unforgiving Petco fits the bill. Left-handed hitters weren’t hurt as much last year, but as a right-hander, Norris’ value takes a bit of a tumble. The Padres new-and-improved lineup could actually help Norris slightly improve his RBI totals, but batting ahead of Alexi Amarista and the pitcher will hurt Norris’s run totals. Norris will also lose a little playing time with the loss of the DH (with the exception of interleague games). This is not a significant fantasy drop for Norris, but more of a slight downgrade. —Mike Gianella