American League

National League

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Signed CF-B Gary Matthews Jr. to a five-year, $50 million contract. [11/22]

This might be the better of the two insane contracts given out to center fielders in the Los Angeles market last week, but it’s still worth noting-as Marc Normandin did earlier this month-that Matthews was pretty hit-lucky on balls in play last year, and Anaheim is particularly hard on lefty power. He’ll fill the bill defensively (at least for the time being), but this move seems a lot like the overly expensive decision to sign Orlando Cabrera for $32 million for four years. With both Matthews and Garret Anderson making eight figures for the next few years, and with both being counted on to fulfill important offensive roles that they aren’t really all that likely to, the Angels are going to have to hope that Casey Kotchman or Kendry Morales break through, and that Howie Kendrick doesn’t have any hiccups as he takes over at second.

As a GM, Bill Stoneman does a lot of things well, but against the (perhaps obvious) wisdom of getting Vladimir Guerrero, you’ve got the big-money deals for Anderson, Erstad, Cabrera, and Bartolo Colon, and you’ve got the money thrown at guys like Hector Carrasco and Justin Speier, and the prospects (in Alexi Casilla and Alberto Callaspo) shipped out before last season to land relievers who weren’t all that useful in 2006 (at the very least). To be fair, the pair of contracts with Kelvim Escobar have turned out well so far, trading Jose Guillen to the Nats continues to reap rewards, and the deals with John Lackey and Chone Figgins seem sensible enough. Overall, that’s a pretty spotty track record. Stoneman may have recognized the need to add something major to help his lineup, but his past should have inspired greater caution when it comes to breaking out the elephant gun to go big-game hunting, because instead of bringing in a noteworthy heffalump, it looks like he emptied both barrels to bring in a nice, healthy tapir, something worthwhile on his own terms, but somebody still well short of the full snout in center.

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Signed RHP Danys Baez to a three-year, $19 million contract. [11/27]

That’s a good chunk of change to lay out on a guy, and while Baez hasn’t been terrible, last year his combined WXRL between the Dodgers and Braves would have put him just barely among the top 280 relievers in MLB. However, he did finish 11th in 2005 and 24th in 2004, and that’s what brought him the big money this go-round. Well, that, plus the Orioles‘ plaintive cries that Baltimore isn’t seen as an attractive destination for free agents, and that they have to overpay to get players to come to town. Baez certainly makes a better pickup than Jamie Walker, and with the expectation that they’re going to sign both Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson shortly, Chris Ray will be going from top dog to token youngster in relatively short order. The question is whether all of the expense (and the usual citations of Leo Mazzone) will add up to an effective bullpen, and harboring high expectations of free agent relievers has a way of being disappointed. Jay Gibbons can’t play first base, DH, and left field simultaneously, so this team still needs to shop for a solution or two, and an expensive bullpen stands to handicap that effort in addition to not offering many substantive guarantees for improvement.

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Signed 1B/OF-L Ross Gload to a one-year contract, avoiding arbitration. [11/28]

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Sold 2B-R Donnie Murphy to the A’s. [11/28]

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Signed RHP pitcher Mike Mussina to a two-year, $23 million contract. [11/27]

This was a huge cost savings for the Yankees, and I’m not quite sure what Mussina’s agent thought he was achieving here. His client stood to make $17 million if the Yankees had simply picked up his 2007 option instead of paying it off for $1.5 million, and however much he would have lost in taxes on that, I can’t imagine the security of having 2008 under contract makes up for it. Mussina just had his best year in his last three-he had leverage that could have done more for him than just this. He really should have been more aggressive in exploring his options, but he didn’t. A nice move by Brian Cashman and company.

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Bought 2B-R Donnie Murphy from the Royals. [11/28]

Murphy possesses the significant virtue of not being D’Angelo Jimenez. Or Willie Randolph. Or Glen Hubbard. Or Rob Picciolo. Or Mike Andrews. In one of the more odd quirks of A’s fandom, the enduring legend of Dick Green‘s greatness at the keystone is sort of the East Bay’s variant on Wrigleyville’s age-old “successors since Santo” at the hot corner. Sure, there were brief periods of happiness-Tony Phillips, Brent Gates‘ rookie season, Mark Ellis‘ finer moments-but some people will probably end up remembering Jimenez far more readily. If history put Jimenez on the spot, you might consider Murphy the spot remover on the 40-man.

That said, you might reasonably wonder if Murphy represents any better use of the spot-he had a pretty miserable year in Wichita, hitting .249/.300/.437, and grounding into 16 double-plays in less than full-time work is pretty grisly. However, he had wrist problems and a sprained thumb to deal with, costing him a month’s worth of playing time, and he did poke a career-high 14 homers. Unfortunately, the injuries have been a bit of a theme in his career, as he was also dinged up in 2005 (a broken finger, an ankle), and second base is a position where, like catcher, little injuries seem to add up. Murphy’s only going to be 24, and he’s worth taking a flyer on, but after a free agent signing or two, the A’s may have to see about slipping him through waivers after the Rule 5 draft and outrighting him to Sacramento.

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Gifted UT-R Willie Bloomquist with a one-year extension. [11/27]

… and thereby also avoiding any possibility of the embarrassment of having to answer an uncomfortable question from an arbitrator, like “what are you thinking?” To some small extent, you can consider Willie Bloomquist as collateral roster damage and a beneficiary of a world in which twelve-man pitching staffs are de rigueur. After all, Bloomquist is nothing if not supple in his flexibility, providing Mike Hargrove with a true switch ready to be plugged into any role.

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Re-signed C-B Gregg Zaun to a two-year, $7.25 million contract, with a vesting option for 2009. [11/28]

Signed SS-R Royce Clayton to a one-year contract. [11/29]

Definitely a mixed bag. Behind the plate, this was a nice save from what would have been a mistake. Whatever the prattle about Zaun being a “perfect backup catcher,” that’s in a world with counted Angels on pinheads and only 16 major league teams. Among all MLB catchers with more than 300 PA, Zaun ranked ninth in Equivalent Average, and he finished 18th in VORP among major league catchers. Zaun’s bat is more than enough to make him a starter, and J.P. Ricciardi was wise enough to understand that. He was particularly sensible in making this particular choice over making a Rod Barajas-sized multi-year mishap for similar money for a starting role. In contrast, Barajas would make a nice complement to Zaun, serving as the catch-and-throw guy with sporadic home run power to give a manager a reserve with a few skills that aren’t among Zaun’s best. Unfortunately, Barajas himself is expecting more than that, both in terms of a role and the money that goes with the expectation that he’s a starter, all fueled by that career year he had in 2005. Instead, the Jays are fine if they just settle for Jason Phillips as the first candidate as Zaun’s backup, and then wait on Curtis Thigpen‘s eventual arrival in The Show. Happily for the Jays, because of the new CBA, they won’t have to add Thigpen to the 40-man until after 2007, so if they elect to promote him before then, it will be either out of need, or because he’s ready.

Unfortunately, dire-need-based signings don’t all wind up quite so happily. Finally accepting that the lineup desperately needed a shortstop who can field better than Aaron Hill and hit better than John McDonald, the Jays signed Clayton. The veteran is definitely good for the former, but the latter… well, probably, and that tells you how slack his bat has gotten. Clayton’s the definitive temporary shortstop, playing for six teams in the last five years, and nobody-not since Kenny Williams before 2001, at any rate-has suggested that Clayton was a key piece of any particular puzzle. Instead, he’s sort of the free agency era’s answer to Rabbit Maranville, going from one one-year contract to the next, and skipping town once somebody good finally turns up. He can still run a bit, and he’s a pretty decent bunter, but that’s basically all he’s got left on the offensive side of the ledger.

The only real benefit here is that this should give the Jays a pretty tasty double-play combo in the field. Hill’s much more comfortable on the pivot on the bag than he is trying to flip the deuce coming across it, and his limited range becomes less of a problem at second. If Clayton’s got one more season left in him with the leather, it’s an adequate filler kind of pickup, but by having to resort to this, the Jays don’t have much reason to be happier than McDonald or Russ Adams should be now that they’ve been shunted into utility roles. The only pitcher who has real reason to be happy about this is Roy Halladay; the other starters aren’t really groundball pitchers, so they probably won’t benefit to anything like the same extent the staff ace will.

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Acquired LHPs Doug Davis and Dana Eveland and CF-L David Krynzel from the Brewers for RHPs Claudio Vargas and Greg Aquino and C-B Johnny Estrada. [11/25]

To some extent, I guess I see this deal as a double-challenge trade, setting aside Aquino for Krynzel as an exchange of equally disappointing spare parts. Davis is only under contractual control for 2007, so the Snakes only have that one year for which they can be certain that he’s theirs; that’s balanced against Estrada’s two years that separated him from free agency. Against that, you have Eveland’s prospect status balanced against Vargas’ utility. So you have to ask if one year of a mid-rotation starter is worth two years from a solid catcher on the one hand, and whether Eveland’s upside is worth the difference, and whether Eveland is going to pan out better than Vargas has so far.

My first response to this deal was that Arizona had done pretty well for itself, but the more I look, the less certain of that I get. I like Eveland a lot, and my expectation is that he’ll deliver on the promise he’s shown in Huntsville in 2005 and in Nashville this year, and that he’ll get past his Ben Hendrickson-style yips. He’s a 23-year-old power lefty arm, dealing both heat in the 90s and plus breaking stuff with reliable command, and those aren’t easily dug up when you go mining for pitching prospects. Unfortunately, he’s also more than a little flabby, and health is a skill for pitchers just as much as it is for position players; if he doesn’t take his conditioning seriously, it won’t make it any easier for him to realize his promise. If the Snakes can get him serious about it, he could eventually become the lefty complement to Brandon Webb in the rotation that gets the rest of the division quaking in its collective cleats. In the meantime, there’s Doug Davis.

I’ve been a booster of Davis for a while, but I guess I’m not quite so sure he’s going to thrive in Phoenix. After making at least 34 starts in each of the last three years, he certainly gives them a workhorse trio at the front of the rotation (joining Webb and Livan Hernandez). He’s coming off of his worst year of those three, though, and he’s a lefty without dominating stuff coming to a park that’s even more generous to right-handed power than Miller Park. His unintentional walks per nine have gone from 3.3 to 3.6 to 4.5 from 2004-06, and during that same time he gave up 3.6 runs per nine in Milwaukee against 5.1 on the road. So, he’s coming out of the park that helped him, his control’s slipping, there’s no injury that’s being used to explain his drop-off in 2006, and he’s going into one of the game’s best hitter’s parks. Durability is an important quality, to be sure, and Davis will hopefully provide that, but if he posts another ERA a half-run higher than league-average in ’07, the Snakes should be satisfied.

Overall, it makes for a potentially solid rotation. Webb’s among the league’s best starters, and Davis and Hernandez should be good for their turns. After that, the prospective upside is in what they might get out of Eveland, Juan Cruz, and either Edgar or Enrique Gonzalez. That’s four guys who do have worthwhile potential, with Dustin Nippert in reserve. I like all of that, and there’s a very real possibility that by letting Cruz and the kids fight it out for the last two slots, they’ll wind up with enough viable candidates to not merely fill those two, but replace Davis if they elect to let him walk after 2007. So, there are win-now and win-later possibilities here, which they’ll also reap from breaking in Miguel Montero behind the plate in a job-sharing arrangement with Chris Snyder. But there is risk involved, in that Eveland needs to shape up, and Davis needs to be reliable and ideally bounce back from a down 2006, but you can understand the plan’s virtues.

Finally, to sum up what Krynzel offers, he could wind up an effective fourth outfielder, offering the club a nifty center field glove, a quick pair of legs, and a sometimes-useful lefty bat. As a reserve behind a starting trio of Chris Young, Eric Byrnes, and Carlos Quentin, that could work out nicely enough, but it’s more likely he’ll spend most of the year in Tucson waiting for Jeff DaVanon to stop holding down that particular job.

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Signed C-R Chad Moeller to a one-year contract. [11/27]

Almost certainly a waste of a 40-man roster spot, and not even necessarily a worthwhile choice for a third catcher, let alone a primary reserve. Moeller hit just enough in a typical career pattern (at ages 27 and 28) in the bandbox formerly named BOB to get taken far too seriously. Wayne Krivsky knows him from his days as a Twins farmhand, and at best, you might consider this the sort of move that inspires Krivsky to shop Javier Valentin, but in the wake of his having already dealt Jason LaRue, I very much doubt it. So, a bad move, in a minor key-the Reds would have been better off finding another way to use the roster spot, and would have been better off offering Moeller into signing a spring training NRI deal. If he didn’t take that, it isn’t like that many other teams were going to make this particular mistake.

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Signed LF-R Carlos Lee to a six-year, $100 million contract, and RHP Woody Williams to a two-year, $12.5 million contract. [11/24]

So, no repeat of the Preston Wilson exercise, as the Astros go straight from futzing around with ballpark-inflated heroes and jump straight to buying one of the best bats on the market. While I admire the ambition, and while it’s easy to see Lee making frequent deposits in the Crawford Boxes, this isn’t without risk. Lee’s been signed after a season in which he really hit a wee bit better than expected within his particular range of expectations, hitting .300/.355/.540 against PECOTA’s projected .286/.348/.519. That’s good for him, of course, but his most-comparable players going into the year included a bunch of guys infamous for bulkiness and limited subsequent horizons. He’s already becoming increasingly immobile in left, which might make for an interesting problem sooner rather than later should he have to move to first and push Lance Berkman back out into the outfield. That’s quite doable, of course, and Berkman’s flexible and Lee’s a former third baseman, so it might work out quite nicely by the third year of the deal or so. However, I wouldn’t worry about his track record in Fruit Beverage Ballpark (.234/.294/.468)-he’s probably not going to have to worry about facing Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte there, and he’ll now count Roy Oswalt as a teammate.

Certainly, twinning up a top-shelf right-handed slugger with Lance Berkman is good stuff, and making one outfield slot a no-brainer leaves Phil Garner with the exercise of picking a center fielder and right fielder from among Luke Scott, Willy Taveras, Chris Burke, and Jason Lane. The big loser is probably Mike Lamb, in that if Scott’s in right, Berkman’s probably at first base. Happily, Lamb can still provide spot work at third, Burke can do likewise at second, so in a sense, the last man on the bench just has to be able to play some shortstop, good news for Eric Bruntlett, I suppose, and not quite so much for Brooks Conrad (and perhaps Lane).

I really can’t get worked up about Williams. We’re talking about a 40-year-old junkballing flyball pitcher coming to a pretty hostile environment for the type, and a park that’s unforgiving where mistakes are concerned. In a nice season for the Pads, he was still only that team’s fourth starter, and he allowed 4.9 runs per nine when he wasn’t taking advantage of PETCO’s expansive outfield. I know they can’t count on all of the kids to pan out behind Oswalt in the rotation, but Williams is going to provide a lot of disappointment if he’s expected to be this rotation’s veteran No. 2.

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Signed CF-L Juan Pierre to a five-year, $44 million contract. [11/22]

Signed LHP Randy Wolf to a one-year, $7.5 million contract, with different options for 2008. [11/28]

There are bad ideas, there are Sylvester Stallone-in-a-musical bad ideas, and then, in a class beyond all others, there are the stupendously bad ideas, the ones you don’t get to do over, the ones you should just have the good sense to avoid in the first place. You know, like land wars in Asia, or signing Juan Pierre for 44 million smackers. Offensively, he’s not really an ideal leadoff hitter, walking in 5% of his plate appearances. Although his power “spiked” to generate a career-high 32 doubles and a career high-matching 13 triples, his Isolated Power was a still-weak .096 (also a career high). So what do you have? A guy who can get the ball in play and steal bases at a break-even clip for a leadoff man, both skills he needs those 600-700 plate appearances-and 500 outs-to show off to full effect, and for your troubles, you might get a below-average .330 OBP out of your leadoff man. Offensively, that’s a group of skills you can find elsewhere, and for significantly less money. Sure, it’s “only” money, but if you’re going to make a serious investment of resources, why not instead see what it would take to get Freddy Guzman from the Rangers or Tony Gwynn Jr. from the Brewers? It would probably take less in prospects, and the money saved could have been invested in something more worthwhile and even more expensive, like a better starting pitcher than someone like Randy Wolf.

There is at least one positive sign, which is that Pierre’s defense seems to have snapped back to some extent in 2006. John Dewan’s plus-minus system is particularly high on how he did for the Cubs, ranking him at +26 after two negative seasons. Clay Davenport’s Fielding data puts him back at average after three sub-par seasons, while Dave Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range sees his 2006 as distinctly middle-of-the pack (scroll down to November 20). All in all, I’d suggest that means he doesn’t suck as a flychaser, which you might have been more worried about over the previous couple of seasons. Unfortunately, he still has an arm that wouldn’t fly on a lot of softball teams, and considering that Chavez Ravine is usually the sort of pitcher-friendly place where a baserunner might want to take the extra base now and again, that’s going to hurt the Dodgers time and again.

Although I’ve already telegraphed my disdain, I’m similarly not wild about bringing in Wolf. Tommy John surgeries do not have a 100% success rate, Wolf pitched particularly badly down the stretch coming back from his, and for the kind of money that was thrown at him, I suppose the best news is that at least it was only a one-year deal (with 2008 either vesting after 180 innings or at the club’s discretion, and for $9 million either way). Admittedly, to some extent you could argue that he was rushed back because the Phillies really needed the help during their unexpected wild-card chase, but there was no point at which you could say he was getting stronger or throwing with better command. He wasn’t going to burn people with fastballs all that much in the first place, so we’re still talking about a guy who will have to get his curve over consistently if he’s going to be able to set up his fastball and change well enough to beat people. You can take that as a source of reassurance-a year out from surgery, getting his touch back on the pitch couldn’t be expected to come back overnight-or one of concern-he’d better be able to do it and do it without hurting himself again. For this sort of guaranteed contract, the Dodgers basically have to insist that he be what they’ve paid for, and reality has a sneaky way of not always being just so. I don’t think we’ll see the guy who was something special in 2002 and 2003, and a hittable flyball pitcher just isn’t somebody I’d want to bet this sort of cash on.

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Acquired RHPs Claudio Vargas and Greg Aquino and C-B Johnny Estrada from the Diamondbacks for LHPs Doug Davis and Dana Eveland and CF-L David Krynzel. [11/25]

Re-signed LHP Brian Shouse to a one-year contract. [11/28]

Signed 2B/SS-L Craig Counsell to a two-year, $6 million contract, with a $3.4 million club option for 2009. [11/29]

As noted in the Arizona segment, the trade is effectively a double set of challenges; Aquino’s just an arm with a demonstrated capacity to disappoint. Estrada certainly gives the club a legitimate starting catcher, in that he’s a nimble receiver who does a passable job against the running game. Offensively, I’d expect his power to evaporate now that he’s leaving Phoenix in his rearview mirror, and he’s got very little patience at the plate, so you’re basically getting a guy who will hit for average and smack a few doubles, and who’s not eligible for free agency for two years. If the Brewers get something like his career averages (.280/.327/.407), they should be satisfied. In tandem with Damian Miller, the Brewers will have effective catchers, if not exactly really good ones. I can see how that might be seen as worth a year of Doug Davis, especially if you were worried that Davis was on the cusp of turning into a pumpkin.

Replacing Davis in the rotation is the other element of this particular dare, Claudio Vargas. He’s effectively the guy on the spot to become the club’s fourth starter, behind Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano, and Dave Bush. (No, that doesn’t sound like a contender’s rotation to me either, but this is the NL Central.) Although Vargas couldn’t average six starts per inning, this was his first season with 30 starts as a pro, and he did manage to strike out 6.6 per nine, so you could reasonably wonder if he doesn’t have some capacity for breakout potential. Add in a near-run and a half difference between his home and road ERAs (5.60 at home, 4.12 on the road), and you could even start thinking the guy’s a good stealth candidate for a breakout season now that he’s in friendlier Miller Park instead of the former BOB. He throws hard, and his slider works more often than not. So, why can’t I shake this feeling he might just be the right-handed Glendon Rusch, circa 2002, but without the same track record for durability? The man’s always been very homer-prone, and that hasn’t all been the ballparks he’s pitched in, allowing 13 homers in 87.1 innings just this past season, for instance. You can see what Doug Melvin sees as far as the potential upside, but there’s also the possibility that this is his ceiling, and like Rusch, he might just be a nice utility pitcher as opposed to somebody you can really win with. I like getting him, but in the context of giving up Davis and Eveland, I don’t like it that well. For this deal to really work, the Brewers need Estrada to hit around his career averages, and for Vargas to surprise a few people. It’s possible.

Signing Counsell was a nifty little move, especially with both J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks not having really earned reputations for durability as everyday middle infielders. If you think $6-9 million sounds steep for a utility infielder, you’re right, but I expect Counsell will get a lot of playing time at short to start off with, and if Weeks doesn’t start improving in all phases of his play at second, he might not be at the keystone by 2009. If Weeks improves, and Hardy gets re-established as a regular, then Counsell’s a pretty attractive bargaining chip, especially in a world that’s still giving Royce Clayton 400 plate appearances annually.

On the other hand, what this move telegraphs is the genuinely disappointing possibility that the Brewers are going to plug Bill Hall into left and leave him there next season. This would be a mistake, in that it’s a waste of an obvious talent-Hall can play shortstop, and he can handle third, and at either position, his bat is an asset most teams should envy. In left, his bat isn’t really that much better than Corey Hart‘s, which should encourage Melvin to either deal Hall for all sorts of goodies, or Hart for something he needs.

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Signed LHP Damaso Marte to a two-year, $4.7 million contract extension with a club option for 2009, avoiding salary arbitration. [11/27]

Cost certainty is never especially sexy, but I think we can say that both the Pirates and Marte have to feel good about how quickly they pulled this together. That said, Marte did not have an especially good year in the Pirate pen. He’ll be 32 next year, so Dave Littlefield should probably be thinking in terms of using this cost certainty and Marte’s association with the 2005 world champs to shop him to contenders looking for lefty relief help.

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Signed 2B-L Adam Kennedy to a three-year, $10 million contract; signed RHP Kip Wells to a one-year, $4 million contract; re-signed C-R Gary Bennett to a one-year contract with a club option for 2008; signed 1B/OF/C-R Eli Marrero to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [11/28]

Kudos to Walt Jocketty for doing very nicely in what probably has to be called the down-market end of the free agent pool. If Wells’ late finish with the Pirates is any indication, he was rounding into shape after recovering from blood clots in his shoulder, only to have his potential contributions to the Rangers derailed by a broken foot. Although the blood clots were quite serious, his elbow and shoulder should both be fine for 2007, and the possible combination of Wells-a pretty bright guy, and still a young vet shy of his 30th birthday-and pitching coach Dave Duncan makes for a significant amount of potential up-side. There’s risk, of course, but happily, that’s been minimized by making this only a one-year deal. If the Cardinals can find another mid-rotation starter to join Wells and Anthony Reyes behind Chris Carpenter, they should have the horses to defend their division title.

Similarly, I like picking up Adam Kennedy. A lot of his value offensively is in his line-drive stroke, and batting averages can move around, but he has a bit of doubles power, and he won’t absolutely refuse to take a walk. His defensive skill-set is similarly understated but useful-Clay Davenport’s Fielding Translations like the sum of his contributions, John Dewan’s plus-minus system rates him favorably over the last few years, and he’s solid on converting double-play opportunities. However, it’s also worth noting that Dave Pinto’s defensive probability metric isn’t quite so high on his work in 2006 (scroll down to November 26), and Dewan’s system also didn’t see it as one of his better years overall. That could be seen as troubling now that Kennedy’s going to be 31, especially since his closest historically comparable players before 2006 included Mickey Morandini ’96 and Jerry Lumpe ’63, or guys who were done by 33 or 34. However, more contemporary comparables include Todd Walker and Marlon Anderson, who are more hopeful as hitters, and to Kennedy’s credit, he’s a better defender at second than either. For the money in play, this was a solid pickup, certainly a better idea than re-upping Ron Belliard, and a more cost-effective idea than getting into the Ray Durham or Julio Lugo sweepstakes.

As for the pair of bit guys, they’re exactly that. Bennett’s not anywhere close to being a good backup catcher, and is particularly ill-equipped to offer Tony La Russa a useful alternative to Yadier Molina from off of the bench. Marrero makes for an interesting enough last man on the bench, between his power and position flexibility, but getting him in a non-roster deal is the right level of commitment.

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