Last night was the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to players with enough service time to access the process but not enough for free agency. Over the last couple of seasons, teams have become more willing to cut players loose at this point, learning to assume some risk and avail themselves of market replacements rather than overvalue the player in hand. Last year was likely the peak of this trend, with a market flood of talent; this year saw more offers and fewer good players becoming free agents. Just 41 players hit the market, and only a few of those can be considered notable.

In the wake of signing Orlando Cabrera to a four-year deal, the Angels cut loose fan favorite David Eckstein, whose four-year run playing out of position may not be over yet. Eckstein, who plays shortstop like an out-of-position second baseman, seems likely to end up in St. Louis as Edgar Renteria‘s replacement, completing this particular daisy chain.

The Astros non-tendered Wade Miller, a mildly surprising decision based on his performance. Miller missed the second half with a frayed rotator cuff, however, and has so far opted to not have surgery. If his rehab doesn’t go well and he has to have surgery, he could miss all of 2005, so the Astros decided that they didn’t want to risk paying him at least $2.7MM in 2005–the minimum they could offer under the rules–for perhaps no performance.

(I want to make a belated correction here. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that one reason teams might not offer arbitration to their free agents was because of the 20% cut rule. It turns out that I was wrong about that rule’s application: a team can offer a larger cut in salary to a player who has opted for free agency. Two readers alerted me to this, and I’ve verified that they are correct.)

Miller seems like a strong candidate for a Jon Lieber-style two year deal, with a very low salary in the first year, perhaps one loaded with incentives. He’s been a good pitcher when healthy, so the question is merely availability. Given the money being given to pitchers with extremely thin track records this winter, I think Miller is in much better shape this morning than he was yesterday.

Put more bluntly: I’d rather have Miller than Jaret Wright straight up, or Kris Benson, Carl Pavano or Russ Ortiz at their prices.

The Dodgers’ decision to turn loose Alex Cora caused some discussion internally among BPers, but it wasn’t surprising given Paul DePodesta’s pickups of Jeff Kent and Jose Valentin. Although Cora had his best season–5.1 WARP on .264/.364/.380 batting and a strong defensive season–the year seems fluky to me. The OBP is inflated by 18 HBPs and 10 intentional walks, and he had just nine doubles, with the oddity of more homers, ten, than two-baggers.

With Cora fluctuating wildly from replacement level to adequate (his EqA has moved at least 40 points in each of the last three seasons), and the underlying problems with his ’04 performance, I’m comfortable with the idea that it wasn’t worth going to arbitration with him. There are enough teams looking for middle infield help–the Cardinals, White Sox, Royals and Brewers all come quickly to mind–that Cora should do better than a non-roster invitation to spring training.

Those three were the only significant non-tenders. There are familiar names among the others on the list, but no one whose performance necessarily makes their free-agent status today a surprise. The players whose names were bandied about as possible non-tender candidates, such as Erubiel Durazo, Chad Bradford, D’Angelo Jimenez and Tony Armas Jr., were either offered arbitration or reached agreements with their teams in advance of the deadline.

The big news over the weekend was the A’s sending Mark Mulder the Cardinals, the second time in three days that they’d traded one of their “Big Three” to an NL contender.

At first, I though the A’s made a poor deal, but I think that was largely a reflection of my not liking the trade of Tim Hudson to Atlanta. Once I evaluated the second deal on its merits, though, I not only found myself coming around on it, but beginning to see the transaction as part of a pattern that reflects a reversal by the A’s.

Mulder brought back right-handers Dan Haren and Kiko Calero and catching prospect Daric Barton. Barton has hit in the low minors, but may not be a catcher by the time he reaches Triple-A, much less the majors. He could end up as anything at this point, so consider just the pitchers for now.

I’m not convinced that in 2005, Mark Mulder is going to be better than Dan Haren. Forget money. I think the indicators for the two pitchers are going in opposite directions, and with Mulder’s health an open question, and his brutal second half fresh in memory, it’s not hard for me to see Haren being more productive next year. He had better peripherals than Mulder, albeit in many fewer innings, he has fewer health questions and a strong skill set.

The Cardinals paid the price for the name, and for the label of “#1 starter.” A year ago, I wrote that the A’s should have traded Barry Zito instead of Ted Lilly because the key in trading is to swap a player whose perceived value is greater than their actual value. That’s exactly what they’ve done here; Mulder has win totals and innings and a reputation and a contract, but the gap between that and what he’s actually worth right now is fairly large.

The deal seals the changes for the A’s, who have remade their staff in the manner of recent Angels’ staffs, or that of the ’04 Cardinals. They will rely much less heavily on their rotation, using it largely to get the game to a pen that could feature as many as four hard throwers with strikeout-an-inning stuff in Calero, Juan Cruz, Huston Street and Octavio Dotel. It’s an identity shift along the lines of the one from 2000 to 2002, when they moved from a OBP-driven lineup to one that emphasized defense. The staff could, as a whole, bump its strikeout rate by 10-15% next year, which makes Keith Ginter a more viable option at second base.

More significantly to me is that these deals seem to acknowledge the importance of strikeout rate. The “Big Three”‘s strikeout rates have been in various states of decline for years, and both Hudson and Mulder slipped below average in that department in 2004. The one pitcher of the three that the A’s kept, however, is the one, Zito, whose strikeout rate trended upward in ’04 and whose K rate is above average. If you’re leveraging the gap between perceived and actual value, doing so by exporting pitchers with below-average strikeout rates and ace reputations is a great place to start.

To make these deals really pay off, however, the A’s have to complete the cycle by using the money they’ve saved in the last week–about $11 million–to fill their hole in the outfield. Offering arbitration to Durazo addresses some of their potential lineup problems, but what they really need is one more top-tier hitter to complete the lineup. Carlos Beltran is probably out of their range, but a serious offer to J.D. Drew seems mandatory. They have the money, Drew is a great fit for the lineup, and his approach at the plate fits the A’s.

As good as this deal could be for the A’s, it’s not necessarily a disaster for the Cardinals, who might miss Haren and Calero but who certainly didn’t trade any essential elements. They have, however, assumed all the risk in the deal, as well as the burden of Mulder’s contract. I just don’t think Mulder is a good bet to be both healthy and effective for the next two seasons, and relying on him to be a #1 starter is likely to be disappointing for them.

I’m going to throw one other notion out there. One of the popular criticisms of Billy Beane in the wake of Moneyball was that the A’s success had less to do with his decisionmaking and more to do with the emergence of three good young starting pitchers in a two-year span. Whatever your stance on this–I find the notion reactionary and content-free–Beane has, in the last week, divorced his team’s identity from Hudson, Mulder and Zito. What the A’s do on the field in the next two to three years will likely determine, for many people, whether he truly is a great general manager or just the guy who was standing there when some draft picks panned out.

  • As long as I’m correcting things today, let me add this one. Last week, I referenced Ultimate Zone Rating data for 2004 in evaluating Edgar Renteria. I’ve since been told that my data was flawed. Rather than being average last year, Renteria came in at +12, or one win above average in the field. That’s very good, and given Renteria’s strong ratings in that metric from 2000 through 2003, provides support for the argument that the Red Sox did not overpay for the shortstop.

    My apologies to BP readers for the mistake, and to the many people in the St. Louis area who heard and saw this information passed on.

  • I’m off until after Christmas, and in general, we’ll be running a bit slow here until after the New Year, as holidays and a last push on Baseball Prospectus 2005 pull people away. Best wishes to all our readers for a happy holiday season!

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