Archive for Hot Stove 2011

Revisiting Last Year’s Free-Agent Signings

Before all our attention is focused on the post-season, I thought I’s take a quick look back at free agent signings from the past year and how those deals worked out in 2012. The focus here is just on what teams got for their money. In other words: Did the players meet or exceed the expected value of the contracts they signed?

I focused on major league signings only, so the analysis does not include myriad minor league deals — many of which resulted in players accumulating playing time in the majors this year.

To get a sense of the how the deals turned out, I compared players’ expected values — which are based on their positions and the annual average value (AAV) of their contracts — to their actual values. I uses Matt Swartz’s research on the differences in dollars per Wins Above Replacement (WAR) by position, rather than assume an average dollar-per-WAR, as is typically done.

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Jason Bourgeois Fits as a Royal

On Tuesday, the Kansas City Royals acquired Jason Bourgeois and Humberto Quintero from the Houston Astros in exchange for minor league reliever Kevin Chapman and a player to be named later (whom Jeff Luhnow told Brian McTaggart will be a key component of the deal). The acquisition of Quintero serves a clear purpose for the Royals, who are short on catching depth with Salvador Perez out up to three months with a knee injury. Royalty and the bourgeoisie have been a fantastic fit throughout history; does this continue with Jason Bourgeois and the Royals?

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Andy Pettitte Returns to New York

In the surprise move of the spring to date, Andy Pettitte is returning to the Yankees for another season. As Jack Curry of YES first reported, Pettitte has signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees that could potentially pay $2.5 million this season. Although Pettitte likely won’t be ready to start the season with the Yankees — he’ll need extended spring training or a minor league stint to get his arm strength built up — he should add another quality arm in Joe Girardi‘s starting rotation.

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Reds Lock Up Marshall

Sean Marshall is not going to be a rental for the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds, who own Marshall’s last arbitration year at $3.1 million for 2012, pulled the trigger on a three-year extension that will pay the 29-year-old left-hander $16.5 million over the next three seasons.

As unpredictable as relievers can be, Sean Marshall has been one of baseball’s best bets over the last two seasons. Over the past two seasons with the Cubs, Marshall has thrown 150.2 innings with a 60 ERA- and 169 strikeouts to just 42 walks. He might be under the radar because he isn’t racking up the saves, but make no mistakes: Marshall has been in the elite as the Cubs setup man. Check out his ranks over the past two seasons among relievers with at least 100 IP:

2.45 ERA: 20th
60 ERA-: 15th
2.07 FIP: 1st
51 FIP-: 1st
4.02 K/BB: 15th
0.24 HR/9: 3rd
5.0 WAR: 1st

Marshall had success keeping runners off the bases and runs off the board despite the poor defenses routinely set behind him in Chicago. His fielding independent numbers speak for themselves, but the question remains, particularly with a move to Cincinnati: can he continue to keep the ball in the yard? Prior to 2010, Marshall had never posted a HR/9 below 1.0; since, he has allowed all of four home runs in 150 innings.

Not every pitcher is equally affected by the transition from starter to reliever (or vice-versa). In the case of Marshall, it may have saved his career. Marshall allowed 45 home runs in 311 innings as the Cubs first tried him as a starter. Even as Chicago continued to experiment with him in both roles, Marshall emerged as a far superior relief pitcher. Although he struggled in 2008, allowing four home runs in 26.2 innings, he would calm down in 2009, allowing just three in 39 frames (0.69 HR/9) before bursting onto the scene as a full-time reliever in 2010 and posting the 0.24 HR/9 over two seasons as noted above.

Particularly as a left-handed pitcher in front of Great American Ballpark’s incredibly short porch (having sat in the front row in left field, it’s even shorter than it appears on TV), it is likely too much to expect that he allows just one or two home runs per season as a Red. As such, he won’t be the single best relief pitcher in the league with Cincinnati, but that’s not what the Reds are paying for. He has the ability to be a very effective setup man who can move into the closing role should Ryan Madson depart after the season, and at a cost of just $5 million per season, the Reds are getting a fine deal on that skill set.


Yadier Molina’s Potential Payday and Catcher Aging

It has been a tumultuous off-season for the World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals, as they lost their face of the franchise first baseman, their iconic manager, and a couple of key front office members. However, life goes on, and it is time for the Cards to focus on the players they do have on their roster. One of those players is catcher Yadier Molina, who, after having his team option picked up, is in the last year of his current contract. From a PR perspective, letting Molina walk – and essentially losing their top two homegrown players in consecutive off-seasons – would be a disaster, but does re-signing the 29-year-old backstop to a lucrative deal make sense for the Cardinals?

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Yankees Add Lefty Power In Ibanez

If the Yankees’ stable of position players was missing one thing, it was a left-handed power bat to come off the bench. Today, the Yankees signed Raul Ibanez to a one-year deal, ostensibly to fill that hole. Ibanez, however, has rapidly felt the effects of aging of late. Can he provide enough of a punch off the bench to help the Yankees in 2012?

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Yankees, Pirates Finally Trade A.J. Burnett

It’s about time.

Although it’s only been a little more than a week since the A.J. Burnett coverage started, it feels like it has just gone on and on. Especially in this dead time of baseball news — Brett Tomko signed with the Reds? Ooh! — the movement of any significant player can draw the full attention of baseball obsessives. Thankfully, the Yankees and Pirates finally pulled the trigger Friday. The Yankees will eat a little over half of Burnett’s remaining contract, and in return the Pirates will receive two prospects: right-handed reliever Diego Moreno and outfielder and Name of the Year candidate Exicardo Coyones.

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Braves Bet on Regression to the Mean

With Spring Training approaching the Atlanta Braves claim to have put their historic 2011 collapse behind them. Unlike their brethren in collapse — the Boston Red Sox — the Braves made very few changes to the team or baseball organization in the wake of the collapse. Significant off-season transactions were limited to the firing of rookie hitting coach Larry Parrish, trading Derek Lowe to the Indians in a salary dump, and allowing shortstop Alex Gonzalez to leave as a free-agent and replacing him with Jack Wilson (and Tyler Pastornicky, as noted below).

The lack of moves by the Braves stands in contrast to the rest of the N.L. East where all of the other teams made major moves. The Marlins, Phillies, and Nationals all added major pieces through the free-agent market, while the Mets cut payroll and allowed Jose Reyes to move to the Marlins. While claiming to have an open mind about adding players later in the Spring, Braves GM Frank Wren seems to be betting that the Braves will be competitive without a major addition, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley:

If everyone bounces back, then we’ve got a good ballclub that doesn’t have a major need.

In essence, Wren is betting on regression to the mean. Hoping that players who struggled last year will revert to their normal performance level. In 2011 the Braves were generally quite good at preventing run, as there 605 runs allowed was second in the N.L. behind the Phillies. Scoring runs was the problem for the Braves, as they finished 10th in the N.L. with 641 runs scored. At what positions can the Braves expect increased offensive production this year?

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Yoenis Cespedes, Elite Talent and $/WAR

Even before the theatrical release of Moneyball, Billy Beane‘s actions as Athletics general manager were beginning to come under the microscope more often. This is just what happens to a general manager when his team doesn’t win, and Beane’s hasn’t reached the playoffs (nor sported a winning record) since the 2006 season. Now, the microscope falls upon his latest move: the signing of Cuban wunderkind Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal, even with a full outfield of Seth Smith, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill and Jonny Gomes in tow. Although there are plenty of risks with the signing of a player like Cespedes, marginalizing players like Smith (much less Gomes or Cowgill) is not high on the list. Not when the Athletics so desperately need elite talent.

The post-2006 Athletics have been defined by a severe lack of elite talent, particularly on the position player side. Only nine position players have even reached 4.0 WAR overall since 2007, and only one player has posted a 5 WAR season in that stretch:

We talk a lot about winning on a budget here at FanGraphs — the concept of “$/WAR” is a big one, and especially when we talk about the Oakland Athletics, a team that has a restrictive budget due to a bad stadium and a less-than-ideal revenue stream. The A’s — and the Rays and other small-market teams — need to have a low $/WAR to win, not because $/WAR is the end-all be-all of baseball franchises but because there’s a strict upper limit on the “$” part of the expression.

The “WAR” part — which, ideally, means real wins — has to come from somewhere, and that’s where the need for elite talent comes from. Even in their down years, the Athletics have done a fine job of producing good, affordable pitching — Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Dan Haren, and Brett Anderson are (or were) all solid pitchers when healthy. They’ve also done an admirable job of getting something out of cheap players like Mark Ellis and Ryan Sweeney and Cliff Pennington. Without the elite talent to buttress the team, though, the A’s have just been adding a bunch of spare parts into 70-win teams.

Seth Smith would be a fine piece on many teams. A team can make the playoffs with him as the seventh or eighth best position player if they have an Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, or Matt Kemp type (or two) around as well. He’s a good bargain. The Athletics didn’t have to give up much to get him.

But the Athletics desperately need a star. The easiest way (at least mathematically) to get that $/WAR down is by increasing the “WAR” part, and it takes elite talent to make the kind of dent the A’s need to get back to respectability. Here’s where Yoenis Cespedes comes in. There’s uncertainty, there’s risk, but there’s also extreme potential. Kevin Goldstein called him the 20th-best prospect in the game today, and he has the tools to become an elite outfielder. The A’s had to take a risk on Cespedes — he’s the only free agent talent of his kind they can afford to bring into the organization.

The A’s still need more beyond Cespedes to compete with teams like the Rangers and Angels. He may turn out to bust, or he may turn out to be average. But the Athletics rarely get a chance to infuse their organization with talent unless it’s through the draft or unless they have to give away talent of their own. This time, they jumped, and if that means Seth Smith is relegated to the bench and the outfield is crowded for a few years, so be it.


Brad Penny Leaves Solid Legacy In America

Brad Penny’s career in American professional baseball may not be officially over quite yet, but it has been put on hold. The 33-year-old right-hander will instead pitch for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (as passed along by Patrick Newman) during the 2012 campaign, and his contract contains an option for 2013 as well.

Penny’s performance in 2011 — a 5.30 ERA and a 5.02 FIP thanks to a staggeringly low 3.7 strikeout rate — made him look like a 43-year-old rather than a 33-year-old. It isn’t long ago that Penny was starting an All-Star Game — 2006, opposite Kenny Rogers of all matchups — and although maybe his selection as an All-Star starter was an odd one, Penny deserves some recognition for his performance from 2001 through 2007.

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Platooning Cameron and Ankiel: A Capital Idea

The Washington Nationals have been making headlines lately with big such as trading for Gio Gonzalez and getting a one-year deal with Edwin Jackson. They were even rumored to be in on the Prince Fielder sweepstakes. Some of the Nationals’ other moves understandably have garnered less attention, such as minor-league deals for veteran outfielders Mike Cameron and (more recently) Rick Ankiel. While these are low-risk deals that may turn out to be bench insurance, given some ambiguities about the Nationals’ outfield situation, Cameron and Ankiel could form a nice stopgap platoon in center field that would allow Washington to protect other, more significant investments.

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Overspending on the Cuban Market

The Chicago Cubs have long been connected to Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes this winter, but last week, they came to terms with another Cuban free agent, 19-year-old left-hander Gerardo Concepcion.

Concepcion flew under the radar for the majority of the offseason. The focus has been on the higher ceiling Cubans, which left much of the baseball community slackjawed at the $7M price tag the Cubs had to pony up to land the southpaw. Teams simply do not spend that much money on a prospect that is largely considered to be nothing more than a back-end starter … tops.

That is, unless one factors in the fact that international spending will now be capped, starting this upcoming July. Rick Hahn, Assistant General Manager of the Chicago White Sox, predicted a week ago that teams would be “extraordinarily aggressive on Cespedes, Soler and Concepcion” due to the upcoming limitations. He turned out to be right on the money.

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Owings Seeks Asylum In Petco

Micah Owings has been an interesting character over the years, garnering plenty of attention for his bat — .349 wOBA with nine homers in 217 career plate appearances — while leaving much to be deserved when on the mound. The two-way right-hander is closing in on 500 career innings (479.1 to be exact) with a 4.91 ERA to go along with his 4.95 FIP and 4.93 xFIP, so there’s no funny business here. He’s giving up runs as often as expected. Owings signed a one-year deal worth $1 million with the Padres recently, courtesy of the tireless Ken Rosenthal.

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Indians Bring In Casey Kotchman

It’s no secret that the Indians have been disappointed in Matt LaPorta‘s production and development, and today they took a step towards replacing him at first base. Jon Heyman reports that Cleveland will sign Casey Kotchman to what I presume is a one- or two-year contract.

Update: Paul Hoynes says it’s a one-year deal worth $3 million plus incentives.

Kotchman has been the butt of many jokes over the last few seasons, which tends to happen when you’re first baseman that musters just a .304 wOBA and an 84 wRC+ with a measly .125 ISO in nearly 1,500 plate appearances across a three-year stretch like Kotchman did from 2008-2010. He did give the Rays 563 quality plate appearances last season — .351 wOBA and a 125 wRC+ — after coming up in April to replace the suddenly retired Manny Ramirez. That’s the Kotchman the Tribe hope they agreed to sign this afternoon.

As you can see in the graph below, there has been no significant change in the first baseman’s batted ball profile over the last few seasons…

There’s nothing outrageous there that would support his .333 BABIP last season compared to the .277 mark he put up from 2004-2010. I don’t want to take the easy way out and call it good luck, but it is something to be mindful of going forward. It’s possible that many of those ground balls that skirted through the turf infield in Tropicana Field will be slowed down enough by natural grass that fielders will be able to make a play on them, which would do a number on his BABIP and production. For what it’s worth, Kotchman had a .250 BABIP on ground balls last year compared to the .237 league average and his .194 career mark. He also had an eye procedure last winter, which is definitely worth mentioning.

Kotchman is a very strong gloveman at first base, so he will improve Cleveland’s defense. He’ll also make their lineup even more left-handed than it already is, with switch-hitters Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera representing the team’s only everyday threats from the right side. That can be problematic for a team trying to make a run at a division title, and I can’t help but think Derrek Lee might have been a better fit. Assuming the money isn’t outrageous — and there’s no reason to think it will be — the Indians have upgraded their defense and potentially their offense if the 28-year-old made real improvement last season.


Mariners Give Guillen One Last Go

Among Wednesday’s moves, the Seattle Mariners announced the signing of Carlos Guillen to a minor league contract. After a very successful career with the Tigers, Guillen returns to the team he broke into the majors with all the way back in 1998.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t appear Guillen has anything left in the tank.

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The Amazing Instability of Edwin Jackson

Edwin Jackson is not happy with the way his market is playing out. News came out Tuesday, via Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun, that Jackson has multiple three-year offers but would instead prefer a one-year deal. As Dave Cameron noted earlier, this plan could easily backfire. Still, the fact that Jackson — a pitcher with three consecutive 3.5 WAR seasons and a 92 ERA- during that span — feels the need to employ this strategy speaks volumes about his perception in the marketplace.

This is just more instability in a career rife with it. Jackson’s trade history is always the first thing that comes up in any discussion of his talents, and it’s difficult to overstate just how extensive that history is. Steve Slowinski produced the following visualization after the sixth — and last — time Jackson was traded prior to reaching free agency:

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Phils Sign Qualls To Unnecessary Deal

The Phillies signed reliever Chad Qualls to a one year deal worth $1.15 million on Tuesday. The move is likely their last of the offseason as the major league roster is close to filled and the team is right up against the luxury tax threshold. While one year deals almost always benefit the team, and while $1.15 million isn’t exactly a king’s ransom, the deal doesn’t make much sense for the Phillies, who have a number of relief pitching prospects knocking on the door.

For a team that reportedly does not want to pay any luxury tax, signing Qualls for three times what one of Michael Schwimer, Justin De Fratus or Phillippe Aumont would make is an odd course of action.

Every half-a-million dollars is of material significance to the Phillies at this juncture, and the potential trade-offs here are the stunted development of prospects and reduced payroll flexibility down the road to bolster the roster if the need arises.

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Phillies Procure Pierre

The Phillies signed Juan Pierre today to a Minor League deal. While the Phillies were wise to take on no risk with the deal, signing Pierre simultaneously makes little sense for the Philes as well as puts another obstacle in the path of Domonic Brown.

In announcing the deal, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. said that Pierre could serve a valuable speed role for the Phils, who didn’t have much speed on their bench last season. What this generally means is that Pierre would serve as a pinch runner. Unfortunately, Pierre, who has long been one of the least efficient basestealers in the game, is ill-equipped to be a late-game weapon.

Last season, Pierre was caught stealing more than any player in the game, and that wasn’t a fluke — over the past three years, Pierre has been caught stealing nine more times than any other player in the game. And while some of that is a function of the fact that he runs so frequently — only Michael Bourn attempted more steals over the same three-year period — it’s not all of it. Of the 160 players who have attempted at least 25 steals over the past three seasons, Pierre’s 72.7% success rate ranks 95th.

That’s not to say that Pierre isn’t a good base runner. While he may be a bit overaggressive in trying to steal bases, he is that way for a reason — he’s fast. Pierre has a positive BsR in every season for which it has been measured, and over the past three seasons, his 14.4 BsR is third-best in the game. That’s all well and good, but it’s also likely a quality that either has little value or is redundant on the current Phillies roster, take your pick. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino certainly don’t need to be pinch run for. Laynce Nix isn’t a burner, but he has generated neutral or positive BsR scores throughout his career.

Looking at the infield, the story is much the same. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins aren’t going to get taken out of the lineup for a runner, and while Placido Polanco, Ty Wigginton or Jim Thome aren’t the fleetest of foot, you would need to get Michael Martinez or John Mayberry into the game afterwards if you bring in Pierre to run for them. Catchers are always easy to run for, but managers are also usually loathe to leave themselves without a catcher on the bench. There will be opportunities to pinch hit for the pitcher, but are you really going to pinch hit Pierre? Jim Thome will be the primary pinch hitter du jour against right-handers, and while Pierre has hit better against lefties the past four years, Wigginton is still probably the better option. Again, Thome and Wigginton aren’t the swiftest duo in the Majors, but pinch hitting one of them and then inserting Pierre as a pinch runner if they reach burns two of the team’s four bench players who aren’t the backup catcher in one move. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room, especially for a National League team.

Adding Pierre also makes little sense because the Phillies roster was already pretty chockfull. Assuming that there are 13 slots for position players, the Phillies lineup looks as such:

Catchers: Carlos Ruiz, Brian Schneider
Infielders: Ryan Howard (DL), Michael Martinez, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Jim Thome, Chase Utley, Ty Wigginton
Outfielders: John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, Hunter Pence, Juan Pierre, Shane Victorino

This is where the Phils get a little extra credit for keeping the deal to a Minor League one. If you were counting, you noticed 14 names. In other words, when Howard returns — which could happen as early as May — someone on the above list will need to go. It seems like a good bet that that person would be Pierre.

Of course, the real crime here is that one of the 14 names you didn’t read on the above list was Brown’s. With Raul Ibanez leaving for … something, it was thought that Brown would get a chance to garner substantially more playing time. In his time in the Majors last year, Brown put up league-average offensive numbers. He put up the same wOBA as did Nix, and bested Pierre by 28 points. Perhaps that’s not much to hang your hat on — after all, it was only 210 plate appearances — but you have to start somewhere. Brown posted his best BB% and K% since A ball, the latter of which was likely a concern after his 2010 cup of coffee. He didn’t go all Brett Lawrie on National League pitchers, but he wasn’t atrocious either. He deserved a shot at more Major League playing time, but now if he hopes to get any, he will have to get hot in March. And that still might not be enough.

Perhaps the most telling thing about Pierre’s signing is that the Phillies may only need him for the first six weeks of the season. Given the choice between keeping Brown on the Major League roster and giving him a chance to work his way into regular playing time while Howard is out or signing someone else, the Phils chose to sign someone else. Even if Pierre stays with the Phils for the duration of the season, his value is limited due to the fact that he is not an efficient base stealer, as well as the fact that the Phillies have few players for whom he can pinch run without Charlie Manuel having to burn a second player after the inning ends. Finally, bringing in Pierrer also throws another road block onto Brown’s already cluttered road to regular playing time. Like many of the Phillies’ moves this offseason, signing Pierre probably doesn’t make the Phillies any worse, but it is also unlikely to make them any better.


Tribe Get Potential Bargain In Wheeler

The relief market is a hotbed for unusual activity during the off-season. This winter, the Philadelphia Phillies got the party started with its signing of Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract. Since then, Philadelphia’s former closer, Ryan Madson, signed a one-year deal worth around $8 million with the Cincinnati Reds — and their former, former closer, Brad Lidge, just inked a one-year, $1 million agreement with the Washington Nationals.

In addition to that trio, Matt Capps received a $4.75 million salary to return to the Minnesota Twins, and Fernando Rodney got $2 million from the budget-conscious Tampa Bay Rays. But one of the few relievers who could not find guaranteed millions – or even a guaranteed contract – was Dan Wheeler, who signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians.

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Francisco Cordero, The Blue Jay

Right-hander Francisco Cordero sat on the sideline as every other available closer on the free agent market found employment this winter. On Tuesday afternoon, however, it was reported that the 36-year-old native of the Dominican Republic agreed to a one-year, $4.5M deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.

He is expected to serve as the set-up man for the newly-acquired Sergio Santos, which will be the first year in a non-closer role for Cordero since he set-up for Ugueth Urbina for half of the 2003 season. Dave Cameron adroitly illustrated why Cordero was left on the outside of the closer’s market looking in — mostly due to a troubling decline in the ability to miss bats over the past few years — in this article.

It’s beneficial for the Blue Jays that Cordero will not be relied upon to be the team’s closer, because that declining strikeout rate was not the only red flag raised in 2011. The vast chasm between his 2.45 ERA and 4.02 FIP last season has been well-documented, but the other major concern stems from what appears to be a huge improvement from last year: his walk rate.

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