Rays, Red Sox Take Different Paths to Similar Value

Every team in the American League East came into the offseason with unsettled situations behind the plate. The Orioles have been trying to figure out whether nor not to deal Matt Wieters. The Yankees made a huge addition by adding Brian McCann. The Blue Jays just made their own improvement by replacing J.P. Arencibia with Dioner Navarro. That left the Red Sox and Rays, each of whom already had a nifty backstop, but a nifty backstop incapable of handling the bulk of the workload. That is, after the Rays re-signed Jose Molina, anyway. Tuesday, the teams have made their additions, with the Sox picking up A.J. Pierzynski and the Rays dealing for Ryan Hanigan. Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s still looking for a home, but he’ll at least be going to a different division.

Initially, this was going to be a straight-up comparison of Pierzynski and Hanigan, since they have few things in common, but one important thing shared. Then reality made things more complicated, with Hanigan being part of a three-team trade, and with Hanigan agreeing to a three-year contract. No longer is this just about 2014. But despite the complicating circumstances, I do still think it’s worth examining why Boston and Tampa Bay did what they did, and how the moves are pretty alike.

The Pierzynski acquisition is simple. It’s a one-year free-agent contract worth a little over $8 million. There was no draft-pick compensation to consider. Pierzynski will now team up with David Ross, as the Sox haven’t much felt like extending a big multi-year commitment to Saltalamacchia. Hanigan, meanwhile, is going to Tampa Bay along with Heath Bell and a bit of money. They’re giving up a low-level prospect and a player to be named later, and Hanigan has been signed to a three-year deal worth $10.75 million. He’ll team up with Jose Molina while Jose Lobaton considers a forthcoming plot twist. The Sox have things figured out for 2014. The Rays might have things figured out beyond that.

The Heath Bell part is both interesting and not. In theory, he’s part of the price the Rays are paying, since the Diamondbacks just wanted to shed their portion of his salary. The Rays are said to be taking on $5.5 million. Bell’s coming off a year in which he allowed too many dingers, and he’s turned 36. He’s also coming off his best xFIP since his Padres days, so there’s a chance that the Rays could squeeze some value out of him yet, not unlike what they did with Fernando Rodney. But Bell isn’t the key here. This is about the two very different and very similar catchers.

Pierzynski’s old and steady. He can play a lot, and he just had the same season he did in 2001. He combines singles and pop with no walks, and he’s not exactly a defensive specialist, with only adequate throwing, mediocre blocking skills, and mediocre receiving skills. At the plate, he’s routinely among the league leaders in swing rate. Pierzynski remains the same guy he’s always been, and given what we know about catchers, he probably projects to be worth somewhere between 1-2 wins.

Hanigan is older than you might think, albeit still younger than Pierzynski, and he’s less steady. Three years in a row now, he’s gotten less productive with the bat, and last season was a complete and utter catastrophe. He generally combines singles and walks with no pop, but last year the singles went missing. He’s more of a disciplined, contact sort, and he adds value by being strong in the field. He blocks, he throws, and he frames, giving him some of that hidden value that Tampa Bay clearly appreciates. As recently as two years ago, Hanigan seemed pretty underrated. Now he’s coming off a few months of agony, and given what we know about catchers, he probably projects to be worth somewhere between 1-2 wins. It depends on his playing time, and on what you do with the framing numbers.

By their respective skillsets, Hanigan and Pierzynski couldn’t be much less alike. Even the manners of acquisition are different, with Hanigan getting traded and Pierzynski getting signed. But, ultimately, they should be of somewhat similar overall value in the season to come. Hanigan might even get an edge if you strongly weight the framing data. On Pierzynski’s side, you get that passion and intensity that can endear a guy to teammates. So why did these two teams make these two moves?

Sox fans know their team has an analytical front office, and a lot of them wanted to trade for Hanigan once the Reds signed Brayan Pena. Hanigan would’ve made plenty of sense to them, but the same goes for Pierzynski, if in a less interesting way. The team was able to stick to its plan of short-term commitments to non-essential pieces. One-year contracts are low-risk deals, and the Sox paid Pierzynski more for dependability. He’s never once been a lousy player. He’s fine with small error bars, and the Sox want to be able to know they know what they’re getting. Teams pay a little premium for reliable players, and the Sox can afford it.

While the Rays always poke around for possible bargains. Hanigan might be just as good as Pierzynski, for a fraction of the price. He might be even better, given how he receives. But one can’t look past his offensive decline, or his miserable 2013. The Rays are gambling that Hanigan can bounce back, and given the three-year commitment, they like his chances of returning at least to adequacy. Compared to Pierzynski, Hanigan is more volatile, more unpredictable. He’s not reliable, and the upside is that, if he hits better going forward, the Rays have a good deal for three years. If he continues to struggle, it’s three years of Chris Stewart. But over the course, Hanigan won’t average even $4 million a season, so you can see why the Rays would be especially willing to try.

It’s a possible discount because of Hanigan’s unpredictability and because of his track record of limited playing time. The Red Sox prefer the known entity. That’s fine. The Rays have to go for more unknown entities, and this is another move where it looks like they might get a steal, if your glasses are sufficiently rosy.

It was strange to me when the Rays gave John Jaso away following a bad year at the plate. Now they’ve acquired a guy with a similar offensive profile following a bad year at the plate, and while Jaso has the superior bat, Hanigan has the superior defensive skills by a mile. This is an obvious buy-low that should at least help out the pitching staff, and Hanigan also carries a career .359 OBP. He’s got 33 years and an absence of pop, but there’s a reason the Rays wanted Hanigan in the first place.

And there’s a reason the Red Sox went with Pierzynski. Being a fan of pitch-framing research, I can’t overlook that edge that Hanigan has over Pierzynski, but Hanigan’s numbers strangely got worse in 2013 and I don’t know what that means going forward. I also don’t know how much of that is about the catchers themselves, and there is value in getting a guy who’s historically pretty stable. Hanigan, in 2014, could be good, or lousy. Pierzynski seems likely to be just fine, like he’s always been, which means that’s one less potential worry for a front office with a lot of work to do. These strike me as two simultaneously very similar and very different moves by two simultaneously very similar and very different organizations. And neither move looks like one to complain about.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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