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TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Signed RHP Marco Estrada to a one-year, $13 million contract extension. [9/20]

Every bird needs to soar; every jay must land and rest before the next thrilling flight. The same is true with the Blue Jays, who spent the last two seasons bowing out of contention only during the ALCS. But where this team may once have been great, the future is murky, and they’re likely to end the year at the bottom of the ultra-competitive AL East. Jose Bautista looks done, and Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin can no longer be relied upon to play full seasons. There are probably no immediate difference-makers on the horizon, as ultra-prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. is likely still a year or more away. So, perhaps the Jays are doomed to fly low for the next year or two, but even still teams need reliable starting pitchers. Thus, Estrada.

When looking at the entirety of his season, you can either mark his 2017 as good (look at K/9 and innings pitched) or acceptable (DRA or ERA or ground-ball rate). Most critically, only a handful of other pitchers exceeded Estrada’s dingers allowed—he relinquished 30 into the hands of bleacher-dwelling fans—and he simply did not have the control or the ability to limit contact on balls in play to make that number seem acceptable. After just turning 34, he’s likely at a point where the expectation should be in line with his recent performance; there’s no more room for hope that he’ll transform himself into something more than a reliable back-of-the-rotation hand.

Don’t get me wrong, where there’s life, there’s hope. The Blue Jays could rise in 2017 because in the American League, any team has a fighting chance. (Heck, even the Twins rose from worst to first second in a calendar year.) With Josh Donaldson, Marcus Stroman, and Justin Smoak—who I guess is a slugger now, will wonders never cease?—in the mix, a serviceable, reliable starting pitcher who can make 30 starts may just be the difference between Wild Card life and Wild Card death. At $13 million, Estrada’s brand of adequacy doesn’t come cheap. But with the state of pitching in the AL, any starter with his bona fides is worth his weight in gold. The Jays should be thrilled that this bird didn’t fly south to warmer climes.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Signed C-R Kurt Suzuki to a one-year, $3.5 million contract extension. [9/23]

Every team wishes it had a catcher with the offensive ability of Gary Sanchez, who's smashed 33 homers, posted a dynamite .283/.348/.544 line, and generally made every other catcher in the game look offensively inferior. Every team wants a catcher who hits like Sanchez, and the Braves have kind of had one this season, most improbably, in the oft-derided Suzuki.

Before the season, I thought so little of the Braves adding Suzuki as a complement to Tyler Flowers that I literally wrote this sentence in a Transaction Analysis: “This is a stupid deal.” On process, I mostly stand by that statement; as one of the worst defensive catchers in the game, Suzuki needed to provide an unprecedented amount of offensive production in order to offset his icky framing stats. We can give the Braves credit for perhaps seeing something they could work with in his offensive profile, but it's safe to say that his increase in power to a staggering .529 slugging percentage was not part of the expected deal.

The Braves’ new park is hitter-friendly, but I’d be more inclined to label the sudden increase in strength as an effect of the game’s newly-bouncy baseballs. Instead of being one of the game’s worst defenders (career -93.3 FRAA) with a bat that’s barely able to carry his total value over replacement level, Suzuki became a legit bat-first backstop who makes a lot of contact and parks one into the seats every four games. Given the strengths of Atlanta's other backstop—the power-and-framing Flowers—Suzuki actually was something of a seamless fit for a team that created the most Wins Above Average from the catching position of any team in the major leagues. Stupid? Certainly not.

Of course, when a player does something he’s never done before, it’s wise to expect regression back to his former performance. At the same time, Suzuki flashed a new skill and enough value to change the calculation about what an appropriate paycheck looks like. If you’re going to be a poor receiver at the game’s most important defensive position—something that has shown no signs of changing—you better at least be able to hit. This year, Suzuki absolutely hit, showing he can provide serious power to go along with his contact-oriented approach. While it’s silly to expect that another season like this is in the offing, it’s even sillier not to sign a player who delivered so much value to a reasonable one-year extension. This one certainly is not a stupid deal. There’s more upside than I thought here, and it’s time to re-examine those prior beliefs about this vet.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Signed C-S Tucker Barnhart to a four-year, $16 million contract extension. [9/22]

Sometimes it happens so slowly that you barely notice. A minor event happens once, twice, and by the time you notice you’re doing it, it has become a habit. Barnhart is the baseball equivalent of how I’ll tap the door after I lock it, how I check my blind spots, how I set my table. Just now I notice that he’s been there all along.

OK, so maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. After all, he’s only managed about two-and-a-half years of service time since coming up with the Reds. But it’s Cincinnati, a mostly forgotten team that hasn’t exactly lit up the NL Central in neon lights, so grant me a little poetic license. Rather quietly, Barnhart has established himself as the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ of catchers: set it and forget it! There’s nothing exceptional in the profile or in the numbers that draws your eye, save for his rocket arm.

Nevertheless, after years of hanging on the periphery of the Reds’ catching depth chart, he’s recently emerged as a perfectly useful backstop. His offense has increased potency as his playing time has ramped up, though it’s based on a propensity to reach base rather than any particular proficiency at putting balls out of the park. His defense on the whole is more average than exceptional; despite his ability to chuck it—and he really can, his arm is worth a colossal 4.8 runs so far this season—his framing skills are below average.

But even a deep flaw or two like bad presentation or a lack of power is okay when you can hit a bit and shut down the running game. And it’s more than okay when your team can get an average catcher for the low, low price of $4 million per season over four years. Yes, Barnhart was only about to hit arbitration, a place where catchers with middling counting stats don’t exactly get rich. But what they bought here was cost certainty, and an extra year of sufficiency behind the plate.

Perhaps something could shift and he could discover a little extra power—then all of a sudden he’s an extremely valuable asset at a low price. But if he doesn’t, and if he stays healthy, Barnhart is something many teams long for: a backstop who’s good enough to don the tools of ignorance twice every three games and provide solid value. If you’re going to have a habit, make it a good one.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Signed LHP Clayton Richard to a two-year, $6 million contract extension. [9/20]

There’s almost a point where any starting pitcher contract becomes a good deal; after all, it’s a necessity to fill up the more than 1,350 innings required of an MLB franchise each season. We make a big deal about “replacement level” or the idea that there’s freely-available talent in the minor leagues that will give a certain level of sub-adequate performance for a league-minimum contract, but quite frequently teams find themselves scrambling to add healthy arms at all levels of pro ball over the course of a summer. Innings, particularly from starters, are valuable on some level even beyond the performance provided therein. Thus, Richard gets a new contract from the Padres.

Despite some discouraging numbers—the 5.75 DRA and -0.4 WARP for the season jump out first—Richard’s conversion back to starting could actually be considered something of a success. Moving from the bullpen to the rotation is hard, and it usually leads to a decrease in performance and an uninspiring innings stack. On both of those counts, Richard did okay; he leads the Padres with 192 1/3 innings, tied personal favorite Jhoulys Chacin with 31 starts to this point, and didn’t see an extraordinary drop in production leaving the ‘pen. Sure, his DRA swelled by about half a run and his ERA rose over a run, but his overall performance value didn’t change much from 2016 despite 125 extra innings.

He’s misaligned with his team in one way as a ground-ball lefty in front of the Padres’ uninspiring infield defense, and he’s no threat to win a Cy Young award (or even a Cy Old award, as he’s going into his age-34 season). In another, he’s a fit for a team that desperately needs some kind of stability as they keep searching for their next mid-rotation starter amid the fringy prospects and scrap-heap pickups. Beyond that, he’s a longtime Padre (despite his recent detour in Chicago), something that seems a bit of an oxymoron given the team’s recent penchant for roster turnover. Richard is slightly more than his DRA or his ERA, and that means he’s slightly more than a non-roster invitee in San Diego.

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