A few things to know, that you already knew: (1) FanGraphs isn’t very busy on the weekends. (2) Much of the content on FanGraphs is planned and scheduled ahead of time. (3) We’re coming off a holiday weekend during which an awful lot of people got away to do some traveling or relaxing. (4) Baseball, this past weekend, was as active as ever. Put it all together and, here on FanGraphs, one could argue baseball has lately been under-covered. Things have happened that didn’t get words to them.
Things like trades on or before August 31, which is an important deadline for purposes having to do with postseason roster eligibility. Last Friday and Saturday, there were five trades swung in major-league baseball, none of which were written up on the site. This is an attempt to make up for that, by addressing them all at once. “Better late than never,” is an expression that applies, to a point. Below, find all five moves, each with its own subjectively appropriate classification. Five moves for five contenders. What have they done to themselves?
GOOD MOVE (ALREADY IN)
Barring some kind of anti-miracle, which would be a regular miracle for somebody else, the Pirates are going to advance beyond the 2013 regular season. They’re in the lead in the National League Central, and the two Central teams behind them are in the lead in the wild-card standings. The Pirates should play at least one game in October, which for them is an achievement of historical significance. But just because the Pirates are in good position to advance doesn’t mean they couldn’t stand to upgrade, and they made themselves a little better by adding Morneau. In this way, they’ve improved their chances of winning the division and avoiding the one-game playoff. There is, obviously, an enormous difference between the two kinds of postseason berths.
The Pirates are in little jeopardy of missing completely, but there’s a significant difference between one guaranteed game and at least three guaranteed games, and you can think of the Division Series as the second round. If the Pirates win the Central, they’re granted a first-round bye, putting them in a better spot to make it to the World Series. The Pirates, then, are in a high-leverage position in the standings. That, in turn, makes little deals into bigger deals. Name value aside, Morneau is a little deal, but now the Pirates have a better answer to what’s been a season-long question.
Morneau is joining a first-base platoon with Gaby Sanchez, replacing Garrett Jones. Morneau hits righties a little better than Garrett Jones, and this also frees up Jones to serve as depth somewhere else, be it in the lineup or on the bench. So Morneau improves the lineup, the depth, and the defense, and though the improvements are small, the Pirates aren’t losing a lot, and they certainly aren’t losing what they can’t afford to lose. Presley is a useful but low-upside outfielder. Welker is a Triple-A reliever who might be all right. A month of Morneau will cost a couple million dollars.
The Twins save money, get a couple pieces, and avoid a potentially awkward situation with Morneau after the year. The Pirates add a bat that recently went on something of a dinger binge. Morneau says he made a mechanical adjustment that helped him in August, and the Pirates are believers. Odds are, Morneau is more like his overall numbers, and odds are, we can’t predict four weeks of September, but odds are, Morneau is just a little better at his new job than Jones, and nothing’s more important than the odds. I mean, the games are more important than the odds, but the odds are all that matter when you’re making a roster decision.
GOOD MOVE (NOT ALREADY IN)
Unlike the Pirates, the Orioles aren’t leading their division. Unlike the Pirates, the Orioles aren’t looking good to go to the playoffs, even as a wild card. They’re a few games back of the second wild-card slot, and you don’t want to make a big, risky move just so you can maybe play one extra game. In Morse, the Orioles got a guy with a strongly negative WAR. But I still like the move from their perspective, and there’s an important idea, here.
It was important for the Orioles to improve, because they still have a chance and that chance is worth pursuing. As with the Pirates, the Orioles are at a high-leverage position in the win curve, so to speak. I need to figure out a better way to write that. And though Morse isn’t, objectively, a good all-around baseball player, what he is is a power-hitting righty DH. What the Orioles have really needed is some kind of respectable DH.
Morse wouldn’t be much of an improvement for many teams, but this is why it’s critical to consider the specific team doing the adding. Maybe the Orioles could get similar production out of Wilson Betemit or Danny Valencia, but Morse has been a big threat in the recent past, and the Orioles didn’t have to surrender much to roll the dice. They’ll pay the rest of Morse’s salary, and they gave up a potential fourth outfielder. It’s fine for the Mariners, because they were out of uses for Morse, and they save some money. But if Morse is anything like healthy, he makes the Orioles look that much more threatening, and on hot streaks he can appear unpitchable.
Just like with Morneau, Morse should improve both the Orioles’ lineup and depth. It’s a small improvement at a small cost, and if it doesn’t work, well, the Orioles were on the outside looking in, anyway. If it does work, the Orioles don’t have that many games to gain. They’re close enough that Morse could be a classic difference-maker.
LESS GOOD MOVE (NOT ALREADY IN)
Like the Orioles, the Indians are chasing after the wild card, with their division hopes all but dashed. Like the Orioles, the Indians are behind in the race, and they don’t have a whole lot of extra money to spend. The Indians, though, liked the idea of improving, and their answer to Baltimore’s Morse addition was a Kubel addition, with the catch being that Jason Kubel has been bad.
For whatever it’s worth, the rest of the way ZiPS projects Kubel for a 91 wRC+. Morse, 116. In theory, Kubel can slide right in as a lefty-hitting DH. Jason Giambi has occupied that role for the Indians and he hasn’t hit, a year after failing to hit in Colorado. But Kubel has struggled, meaning the Indians are banking on a bounceback, and Terry Francona isn’t yet quite sure how he’s going to fold Kubel in. He’s been able to hit righties in the past, but so has Giambi, and it’s not like Kubel offers much in the way of actual defensive versatility. The numbers make this out to be a whole lot of nothing.
Used optimally, Kubel could help, if he heats up. Again, the Indians didn’t give up much, so it’s not like they can really “lose” this exchange. But Kubel comes with considerably less upside than Morse, and these two teams are in direct competition. In this paragraph I pretend to be able to tell the future, where by “the future” I’m referring to one month of regular-season baseball. Maybe Kubel out-hits Morse the rest of the way, and maybe that puts Cleveland in the one-game playoff. I’ve been wrong before. One time I asked for blue cheese instead of chevre.
INTERESTING MOVE THAT ULTIMATELY PROBABLY WON’T MATTER MUCH
John Axford isn’t any easier to hit than he was when he was good. He doesn’t throw any softer than he did when he was good. He’s only a couple years removed from being a really effective right-handed closer, and the stuff is there for him to be effective again, if he’s able to harness his stuff and get in the zone more often. If Axford can resume getting ahead, he can resume putting batters on the defensive, and the Cardinals have a reputation for being able to rescue the troubled. For a guy like Axford, St. Louis seems like the perfect landing spot, and given his remaining years of team control, one could say this is a high-upside gamble.
And Axford could work well with the Cardinals’ coaching staff and Yadier Molina. But, there’s a month left. Axford would have to show tremendous improvement in a month, because he’s getting paid $5 million, and he’s eligible for his second year of arbitration. He seems like a pretty probable non-tender candidate, unless he immediately turns things around, and while maybe he’d turn around and re-sign with the Cardinals for less, that’s not something to count on. And he probably would’ve been non-tendered by the Brewers anyway. Instead, they get a different reliever with good velocity and issues with the strike zone.
If anyone can figure out John Axford, it’s St. Louis. But they don’t have a lot of time, and sometimes once-good players just can’t be saved. Even if they’re given the highest-quality help. It isn’t worth paying that much for good relievers, and at present, John Axford isn’t a good reliever.
ALSO, THIS HAPPENED
Watch your back, Xander Bogaerts.
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