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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Declined to tender a contract to C-R Tyler Flowers. [12/2]
Signed C-S Dioner Navarro to a one-year deal, terms not disclosed. [12/3]

And you thought there were no quality catchers available!

The White Sox’s plan for this winter has been fairly inscrutable from the start, but this move clears up a few things. For instance, it’s not that we can’t discern the team’s plan; it’s that they don’t have any coherent plan. For another, when the White Sox make a strange move, it might not be about saving money, but cluelessness.

Look, Tyler Flowers is no superstar. His power evaporated in 2015. He doesn’t get on base. If he’s an average big-league catcher at the plate, it’s narrowly so. He’s not hapless as a hitter, though, and his offensive weaknesses are balanced out by very good defensive skills. He throws well, and he frames even better. He’s been worth 1.9 and 2.0 WARP the last two seasons, respectively, despite getting just 100 starts behind the plate in 2015.

MLB Trade Rumors projected Flowers to make $3.5 million this winter, via arbitration. That feels light, and a few of their projections this year feel similarly out of joint, but even if Flowers was to get $4.5 million, he’d be a tremendous bargain, and as the Sox demonstrated immediately after cutting bait with Flowers, there just aren’t comparable catchers available at that price point right now.

Navarro was so good in the first year of his two-year tenure with the Blue Jays that Toronto went out and replaced him last winter, by signing Russell Martin as their everyday catcher. Navarro is a better hitter than Flowers, to be sure, but the gap in their defensive skills dwarfs the separation between them at bat. Navarro is a catcher the way I’m a point guard—the spirit is willing (eager, even), but the body is hilariously insufficient to the task.

Still, this is the White Sox’s plan, now. They’re going to use Navarro as the short side of a catching platoon, starting against left-handed pitchers (whom left-handed starting catcher Alex Avila can’t hit). Presumably, as long as health allows it, Navarro will also be the full-time starter when (not if) Avila is hurt. As far as that thinking goes, it’s smart, taking advantage of Navarro’s switch-hitting while keeping everyone lined up to maximize their potential value. The problem is that, no matter how you line up these two aging backstops, they’re each less valuable than Flowers, and given both Flowers’ projected salary and Avila’s $2.5 million guarantee, there’s not much chance the Sox save any money in this tradeoff. They’re just voluntarily worse, largely because they decided to drastically prioritize offense over defense at the most important defensive position on the diamond.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Declined to tender a contract to RHP Al Alburquerque.

Alburquerque’s DRA and cFIP got markedly worse in 2015, but at 4.04 and 100, respectively, they still describe a league-average pitcher. Look at Alburquerque’s career chronologically, and you’ll see trend lines pointing in the wrong direction. Look at it as a body of work, though, and 2015 looks like a relatively small bump in the road. Alburquerque didn’t lose velocity on anything, and induced swings and misses at about the same rate, save for a very rough April in which he had a 9.00 ERA and walked seven, against five strikeouts. Start on May 1st, and Alburquerque posted a 23 percent strikeout rate, the second-lowest walk rate of his career, and allowed just one home run in 54 innings pitched. All of which is to say: non-tendering Alburquerque was a strange choice for a team in need of bullpen help, and there’s a good chance that he’ll help someone else in 2016.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Declined to tender a contract to 1B/DH-R Chris Carter.

The best players who get (justifiably) non-tendered get non-tendered because their skill sets are exactly the ones that the arbitration system overvalues, and Carter is just such a player. Before passing through the black veil, Kevin Goldstein made no secret of his (relative) love for Carter, and after he joined Houston’s front office three-plus years ago, Carter was one of the first acquisitions the team made. In three years there, he hit 90 home runs and racked up 3.6 WARP. The latter number isn’t terribly impressive, but Carter more than justified his acquisition cost. Unfortunately, 2015 was the worst of his three seasons with the club, and the arbitration system would have pushed his salary up despite that. Add that to the fact that the Astros find themselves with a glut of first-base and DH options, and this is the logical outcome. Carter is useful, and will find another shot at substantial playing time somewhere.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Declined to tender a contract to RHP Greg Holland.

There was no chance the Royals were going to pay eight figures to hold onto Holland for a year. He’s not going to pitch in 2016, and he’d be a free agent thereafter anyway. This is news only because, presumably, some team will look to scoop Holland up on a two-year deal this winter, and whoever does so will have made a notable investment in their bullpen for the long term.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Acquired C-S Hank Conger from Astros in exchange for cash considerations.

“So this is my life now,” Rays fans must think. It’s not that adding Hank Conger is a bad idea. It’s a fine idea. Conger’s a good framer, and he hit enough to be valuable in 2015. It’s just that, well, here’s another good framer, one who can be acquired for very little because his former team is looking for someone with growth potential, someone more well rounded, or (in this case) someone who can throw out more than 2.3 percent of opposing base-stealers.

Every winter, the Rays add a catcher whom we all know to be a good framer, but one who either has proved himself inept at the plate or is far past his prime. These are all low-ceiling guys who appear to have a low floor, thanks to those framing stats, but who discover unimagined depths by being worse than useless offensively. We’re on a roll, here, and not in the right direction. Conger came unusually cheap, even by Tampa offseason catcher acquisition standards, and he might turn out to be a great fit. He’s also younger than guys like Ryan Hanigan and Rene Rivera were, so the odds are a bit more in his favor than they were in theirs.

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GoTribe06
12/04
Really nice analysis of the Navarro signing. Most of my viewings of Flowers were early in the season (not much reason to watch the Sox late in the year), and he looked a mess at the plate. He finished with a very strong August, but you wonder if they had made up their minds by that point that they were not going to risk a similar start to 2016.

Obviously that doesn't excuse cutting a guy loose if you can't create a better situation for yourself.
pnoles
12/04
Very well-articulated on the White Sox catching situation. It's poor thinking, through and through.
cmaczkow
12/04
"For instance, it’s not that we can’t discern the team’s plan; it’s that they don’t have any coherent plan. For another, when the White Sox make a strange move, it might not be about saving money, but cluelessness."

I had a high-school English teacher who always told us that if we as students didn't think a "classic" book had any value, it might actually be because we as readers were missing something.

I always find statements like the one I quoted to be more than a little bit arrogant and off-putting. It's not that I disagree with the conclusion, so much as I think that if your analysis essentially ends with "This is a stupid move", you need to go further.

For example: If the White Sox use different defensive metrics, perhaps they aren't seeing the huge loss on that side of the ball, making the offensive difference lead to a net gain. Perhaps they feel they can coach up Navarro's defense to make it more palatable. I don't know, but the point is, NONE of us do, so I'd rather read educated speculation on WHY they made a move you think is foolish, rather than just assuming we as outsiders know better than a team does about whether a move is good or not.
Ogremace
12/06
I think he did a fine job of postulating the Sox' reasons. But even though we don't have access to their internal metrics and scouting reports, we know that Navarro was available for basically nothing. So, yeah, we could assume they have a special sauce that will make Navarro good, but it's not really a useful assumption.