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The Buccos Bullpen Shuffle

The Pirates completed a trade on Wednesday that sent Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to the Red Sox for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel and Ivan De Jesus. The deal increases organizational depth for the Pirates and gives them a solid reliever in Melancon. The deal also effectively makes Jason Grilli the new Pirates closer. Grilli, who was recently re-signed to a very affordable two-year, $6.75 million contract was probably the better bet to close in Pittsburgh even with Hanrahan present.

The subsequent trade of Hanrahan only enhances the value of the contract he signed. Grilli certainly would have been paid more money had he entered free agency as a closer or a reliever seeking closing opportunities. Given his numbers over the last two seasons, it wouldn’t have been crazy to suggest him as a legitimate closer candidate somewhere. Instead, even with strong interest from about half of the league, Grilli stayed in Pittsburgh on a team-friendly contract fit for a 7th or 8th inning reliever.

While Holt, Sands, De Jesus and Pimentel all play a role in this deal, the trade really benefits the Pirates by increasing the cost-effectiveness of their bullpen and allowing them to reallocate their savings to other areas of need. The Pirates essentially replaced their closer with a better and cheaper alternative, brought back another cheap reliever whose peripherals closely match that traded closer and signed a starter with the savings.

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Ross Signing Causes Another Outfield Logjam

The Diamondbacks signed Jason Kubel last offseason and created an outfield logjam with Chris Young, Justin Upton and Gerardo Parra.

While the consensus had the team attempting to trade Parra following Kubel’s signing, the Diamondbacks stood pat and attempted to use everyone effectively. Top prospect Adam Eaton then knocked down the door to the majors at the end of the season, put up solid numbers across 103 major league plate appearances, and appeared to be the odds-on favorite for the starting centerfield gig.

Chris Young was dealt to the Athletics to make room for Eaton but the Diamondbacks were right back at square one. They had four starting outfielders for three spots and clear needs elsewhere that could get fixed through a trade. Regardless, it seemed like they stopped looking at free agent outfielders and were focused on subtracting from the group, whether it was a mega-deal involving Upton or a smaller deal for one of Kubel or Parra.

Kevin Towers and Co., defied these expectations over the weekend by signing Cody Ross to a three-year, $26 million contract. The move instantly put Kubel and Parra back on the trading block as there is simply no way the Diamondbacks enter the season with even more of a starting outfield surplus than last year. However, signing Ross was a questionable decision because he and Kubel have been similarly valuable players over the last couple of seasons. They essentially already had another form of Ross on the roster and it’s unclear if the team will be able to extract full value in a subsequent Kubel trade now that it very clearly has to move one of its outfielders.

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Value and Perception in the Corner OF Market

Value is an all-encompassing term comprised of performance relative to the position, league and readily available alternatives, as well as the price paid to acquire that production. It’s also fueled by the utility of the player to the team in how he is used. A team can maximize value by using a player according to his strengths while masking his faults. However, if a team perceives a player incorrectly, it runs the risk of minimizing his value.

This idea of maximizing strengths most often surfaces in the form of platoons. A lefty-crusher who struggles against righties won’t face same-handed pitchers much in a straight platoon. The idea of perceiving a player incorrectly and minimizing his value occurs when teams incorrectly view a platoon player as an everyday starter.

Which brings us to the free agent market, which still includes Cody Ross, Scott Hairston and Juan Rivera, three players best utilized as the lefty-crushing component of a platoon sandwich. Only Ross is viewed by many teams as an everyday starter — valid to an extent — and is seeking a contract commensurate with that view.

While he could certainly start for several teams, his value is largely connected to his production against lefties, who only throw about 25% of the innings in a season. He is a better overall player than Hairston and Rivera, averaging ~2 WAR over the last four seasons, yet he is 32 years old and is reportedly seeking a deal in the 3/$24 vicinity.

Given these factors, teams might find it more cost-effective to sign Hairston or Rivera for a strict platoon role. Assuming they are platooned with players that hit righties well, an interested team could eke out even more production.

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Bourn Remains Atop the Centerfield Market

It’s rare to see so much offseason activity related to a premium position like centerfield, especially this early in the offseason. The market was always considered deep, but it has been surprising to see an equal number of trades as free agent signings. With two upper echelon free agents remaining and a few intriguing trade targets conceivably on the block this centerfield carousel has been a terrifically fun offseason storyline.

Whether due to an outfield logjam, an unwillingness to dole out extremely lucrative deals or simply an opportunity to improve at a premium position, a number of teams have been very active with centerfielders. The swift nature of many of these transactions was somewhat unexpected as, with so many talented players available, it stood to reason that the surplus would allow teams to wait and effectively force down asking prices. Instead, seven centerfielders have already found new homes, and at least one of them was never really considered a legitimate trade target.

Through the various signings and trades, Michael Bourn is still on the market. Though he is the best overall player available at the position, his case is an interesting one, as his number of potential suitors has dwindled and legitimate alternatives remain. While a big contract hasn’t been ruled out, it’s starting to look like he won’t get near what he expected, even though he’ll likely provide more value at the position than anyone else.

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Traded Marlins Affected By More Than Tax Rates

The Marlins and Blue Jays agreed to a blockbuster trade earlier this week that sent Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to Toronto. There are clear tax ramifications for everyone involved in the trade, and as an accountant who works in this field and consults with players and agents, I find it very interesting on a number levels.

However, what makes it more interesting than the average trade isn’t simply the tax rates of the countries, states and cities involved. Nor is it the effective state and city tax rates each team will experience — based on where they play spring training, the rates of their home states and cities, the rates of all other jurisdictions in which they will play and the amount of time spent in these jurisdictions. Per the effective rates, the difference between Florida and Ontario is reduced, but still substantial, since Florida has no state tax.

As I’ve explained here before, the specific state and city tax rates matter to an extent, but because of how the jock tax works, the effective rate is more telling. It’s for this reason that the AL West may soon become a big area of interest among free agents: it now features three teams without state or local taxes in the Astros, Rangers and Mariners. The Astros also spend spring training in the non-taxed state of Florida.

Even with the state and provincial tax ramifications, what piqued my interest the most with this deal is how Canada disallows certain allowable deductions in the United States.

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Don’t Forget About Denard Span

The trade and free agent markets are flush with competent centerfielders this offseason. While Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn are the marquee free agents, the second, third and even fourth tiers of conceivably available centerfielders features players capable of starting for many teams.

B.J. Upton is the most frequently mentioned player after Hamilton and Bourn. Angel Pagan — perhaps the most underrated player in the game — has also garnered plenty of attention in recent weeks. Before getting traded to Oakland, Chris Young was gaining recognition as a potential trade target, and his arrival could put Coco Crisp back on the market. The Angels’ Peter Bourjos plays the position better than mostly everyone in baseball, but he’s blocked by perhaps the best player in the game. Shane Victorino presents an interesting case — as one of the best all-around players at the position — but one who is getting older and coming off of one of his worst seasons.

Denard Span isn’t discussed as much as a potential trade target, but he combines some of the best attributes of everyone mentioned above: He fields the position terrifically, he’s a very good baserunner, he has a high career walk rate and a wRC+ 5% better than the league. He’s also signed to a team-friendly contract.

There’s certainly risk in acquiring him — his health has been questionable during the last two seasons — and the Twins will surely look to bring back a significant haul. But he’s also an underrated player, and he represents the type of cost-effective option teams wary of the Hamilton’s, Bourn’s and Upton’s should seriously pursue.

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The Changing Managerial Landscape

The Marlins and Red Sox each made managerial splashes last offseason, bringing in controversial skippers in an attempt to change team culture. The Red Sox, fresh off of their historic 2011 collapse, replaced Terry Francona with Bobby Valentine, a supposed strategic genius who isn’t exactly known for warm and fuzzy relationships. The Marlins, meanwhile, traded two somewhat substantial prospects to pry Ozzie Guillen away from the White Sox.

Both Valentine and Guillen were fired after one season, as the Red Sox and Marlins underperformed and each manager seemed to cause more drama than contribute to team victories.

Yet, despite seeing through Guillen how risky it is to actually give up non-monetary value to acquire a manager, and seeing through Valentine how even those with strong resumes can struggle in the position, the Red Sox just filled their managerial void by ostensibly trading Mike Aviles for John Farrell.

Farrell, the former Red Sox coach who landed the Blue Jays managerial spot a few years back, was made available because the Jays weren’t convinced that he was worth a contract extension. Some in Toronto questioned his ability to handle a clubhouse, and while injuries have ravaged his teams, they haven’t shown much improvement.

Trades for managers are rare, and something of a novelty, but the current managerial landscape is changing. In what feels like a new climate, trading prospects for Ozzie Guillen — a proven manager in the sense that he won a World Series — was questionable on the Marlins part, though it was evident what they were trying to accomplish. It’s much tougher to understand the logic behind trading a solid defensive shortstop for Farrell.

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Young’s Time In Arizona Likely Coming to an End

The Arizona Diamondbacks had a disappointing 2012 season and the front office has identified key areas in which the team must improve. The outfield isn’t one of these areas, as the Diamondbacks now boast five players who could all stake a claim for a starting role, whether in Arizona or on another team.

They could conceivably make things work if everyone was retained, but that seems like a sub-optimal use of valuable resources. With platoons — both traditional and non-traditional — and injury risk, carrying four or five competent outfielders is often necessary. However, trading one or two of these players could solve issues elsewhere on the diamond. The team would still boast a solid outfield while improving in other key areas. But determining who to trade isn’t as straightforward, as non-performance factors must be taken into consideration.

The Diamondbacks currently have Justin Upton, Chris Young, Adam Eaton, Jason Kubel and Gerardo Parra under contract. Upton is the most talented of the group as well as the most expensive. Eaton is a top prospect under team control that played well in a small sample of September plate appearances. Kubel is a strong hitter who can’t run or field who is signed to a team-friendly contract. Parra is an average hitter under team control with excellent fielding marks. Young is a terrific defensive centerfielder capable of 20/20 production under team-friendly contractual terms.

The team is likely to retain Upton and play him in right field. The team also seems intent on playing Eaton in center field, which means that Young seems like the odd man out. He could shift to left field, but part of what makes him valuable would get eliminated in the process. Given his age, fielding skills, offensive pop and contract status, as well as the free agent market developing at the position, Young would instantly become a very attractive trade target if he were made available. Dealing him makes the most sense for the Diamondbacks, as he has become expendable with Eaton’s presence on the roster, and could extract the most value in return.

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Kimbrel’s Season For the Ages

Craig Kimbrel is putting the finishing touches on one of the best reliever seasons in history. He has struck out 113 of his 226 batters faced this season, producing a 50% strikeout rate that nobody with 30+ innings in a season has matched or exceeded.

In fact, nobody has ever thrown 30+ innings with a 45% strikeout rate either. Kimbrel isn’t merely en route to establishing a new record. He is about to blow right by the existing record, which was set in 2003 by Eric Gagne. Gagne struck out 44.7% of the opposition in his Cy Young campaign. Only two other relievers have even topped 44% throughout history: Aroldis Chapman’s 44.4% rate this season, and Kenley Jansen’s 44.0% rate last year. While relievers face such a small sample of batters, and another strikeout or two could materially affect the strikeout rates in question, Kimbrel still has a commanding lead. He has simply been unhittable this season and may have established the new benchmark for evaluating relief pitching performance in this era.

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James Loney’s Prime Decline

If the Red Sox have been one of the most disappointing teams in baseball this year, then waiver trade import James Loney has been one of its most disappointing and frustrating players. The 28-year-old first baseman entered his contract year with high hopes. He tallied 2.4 WAR last year in the best season of his career, and while his numbers weren’t all that impressive when placed in the context of first basemen and not the overall league, Loney had shown signs of improving on both sides of the ball.

His production has completely cratered this season, and with free agency on the horizon it’s becoming tough to tell who will have interest in, and who will guarantee millions of dollars over at least a couple of seasons to, a light-hitting first baseman playing at the replacement level.

Loney has become the posterchild for both incorporating the appropriate context into statistical evaluations and understanding the true value of the alliterative small sample size seasonal splits. The once-touted prospect simply hasn’t delivered at the major league level, and his confounding floundering this season has set him up for a very interested free agent case study. Loney simply isn’t a good major league player relative to his position and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for teams to justify giving him a shot as anything other than a one-year stopgap if even a mediocre prospect is waiting in the wings.

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The Chase Utley-Third Base Experiment

This has been a very disappointing season for the Philadelphia Phillies. After posting a poor 37-50 record prior to the all-star break, the team has turned things around to the tune of a 39-24 mark. However, the turnaround has mostly come too late, as they still have to make up four games with 12 left to play just to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League’s second wild card berth. Despite barely even hovering around the .500 mark until recently, the non-contention has enabled the team to evaluate potential pieces of next year’s team at the major league level.

The Phillies installed Domonic Brown in right field on an everyday basis and shifted John Mayberry to center field after the trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. They took a cautious approach with Vance Worley, shut him down when his elbow proved too bothersome, and replaced him with youngster Tyler Cloyd. The improbably hot-hitting Kevin Frandsen has handled the majority of playing time down at the hot corner in Placido Polanco’s absense. The Phillies have also called upon a slew of relief pitchers, either homegrown or previously acquired via trade, in the hopes that they don’t have to spend any more money in that particular area.

But the Phillies also have another player they plan on evaluating for next season, and he is already a star at the major league level. Chase Utley recently approached the front office with the idea of playing third base next season. It wasn’t a demand, or even a detailed conversation fleshed out logistically with the front office and managerial staff, but Utley suggested that, if it helps the team given the poor free agent class at the position, he could give it a shot. Ruben Amaro, Jr., added that Utley could even see time at the position this season if the Phillies are officially eliminated from the playoff race over the next two weeks.

The Phillies could definitely use some help at third base, but shifting Utley isn’t a cut-and-dried solution, and this positional swap isn’t necessarily going to solve the team’s issues.

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Is Rasmus Worth An Extension?

The Blue Jays acquisition of Colby Rasmus last season was considered a steal by many. Though the team surrendered five players in companion deals with the White Sox and Cardinals, Alex Anthopolous brought in a young, cost-controlled centerfielder for three relievers, a starter that was never really meant for them in the first place, and Mark Teahen’s contract. Rasmus was worth the risk as a change-of-scenery candidate, as he had proven himself productive in spite of well-publicized spats with his manager.

However, since joining the Jays last summer, Rasmus has failed to live up to the production standards he set with the Cardinals, and he has realistically been one of the least productive players in that span. Over the last two calendar years, Rasmus has the 13th-lowest wOBA, 14th-lowest wRC+, and 18th-lowest WAR out of the 115 qualified players.

Which is why the Blue Jays supposed focus on negotiating a contract extension isn’t immediately regarded as a given, an obvious move for a team taking important steps towards winning baseball’s toughest division. The Jays have been fiscally responsible in the Anthopolous era and have locked up a number of core players recently. Richard Griffin is reporting that Rasmus is on deck in this regard, and it seems that many within the organization value his contributions. It’s just tough to determine what those contributions are, as Rasmus hasn’t hit well, hasn’t fielded well, and with four years of service time under his belt at the end of this season, he isn’t likely to come cheap anymore.

Keeping Rasmus around for another couple of seasons is a decision with some merit, for sure, but the Jays need to be careful here. Rasmus hasn’t shown any true sign of turning the corner or improving his productivity, and he simply isn’t the same player that topped 4 WAR with the 2010 Cardinals.

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What’s the Deal With Ubaldo?

Ubaldo Jimenez was once a terrific young starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies. He had tremendous raw talent and pitching acumen to boot. If harnessed, he figured to miss bats, keep the ball on the ground and limit walks while remaining on the effectively wild side. He could dial it up to 96 mph — average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph in 2007 — and threw a top-notch, looping curveball that was tough to pick up with his herky-jerky windup. He was, potentially, the prototypical pitcher capable of succeeding at Coors Field.

After posting WAR totals of 4.3, 5.9 and 6.4 from 2008-10, he took a step back last season. His strikeout, walk and groundball numbers were very similar to the prior three years, but he served up more home runs and was less effective at stranding runners. Last season was a case of strong ERA estimators that belied better performance than his actual earned run average. As such, he seemed like a prime regression candidate this season. Through 28 starts and 161.1 innings this year, however, Jimenez has just 0.4 WAR. After averaging 5.5 WAR from 2008-10, Jimenez isn’t currently on pace to finish with even one win above replacement over a full season.

While last season’s relative struggles — he had been so effective that 3.5 WAR represented a down year — at least gave hope to improved performance, everything has gone wrong this season. Jimenez has regressed, but not in the direction his 2011 peripherals portended. Instead, he is set to finish this season with the worst numbers of his career across the board. He quickly went from one of the best to one of the worst, and it doesn’t seem that the major causes are easily fixable.

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The Dodgers Have A Good Outfield Problem

Shane Victorino was recently asked if he would return to the Dodgers in a part-time role next season. One of the many pieces the Dodgers added near the trade deadline, the former all-star centerfielder was adamant that he’ll seek regular playing time in his next deal. Given Victorino’s sentiments and the crowded Dodgers outfield, his return likely isn’t in the cards. However, the Dodgers may need someone like him over the next year or two as an insurance policy on Carl Crawford or a stopgap until Yasiel Puig is ready.

When the Dodgers acquired Crawford, along with Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez …and Nick Punto in last week’s megadeal, they put the finishing touches on a very expensive outfield for the foreseeable future.

The move didn’t come without consequences. In addition to the hefty contracts now on the books, the Dodgers created a positional logjam that may prove difficult to solve without eating salary or making subsequent trades.

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Lohse Headed For Free Agency

The Cardinals recently extended Jake Westbrook and converted his 2013 mutual option to a guaranteed salary with a new mutual option for 2014. St. Louis also began to shift its focus towards keeping Adam Wainwright in town beyond next season since he’s rounding into form after elbow surgery. Both starters have pitched very well for the Cardinals this season, and are major reasons for the recent surge that has Mike Matheny’s squad making inroads towards a wild-card berth.

It’s a tad surprising, though, that the team hasn’t engaged in any contract discussions with Kyle Lohse. An impending free agent who has pitched very well in the past two seasons, Lohse figures to draw a great deal of interest on the free-agent market. He likely will hit the market because, according to Jayson Stark, Cardinals executives have told others that they’re going to let the situation play out. Stark translated that to mean “free agency: here he comes.”

The Cardinals already have a crowded and effective starting rotation and Lohse made some sense as the odd man out. Regardless, he’s once again pitching effectively in a contract year, and he’s establishing himself as an innings-eater with good peripherals and solid run-prevention skills. That’s a roundabout way of saying that he’s a very good pitcher. Heading into his mid-30s, Lohse has begun pitching much better than his perception around would appear to indicate.

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Cody Ross, But Cheaper

The Red Sox entered this season with high hopes. Fast-forward 122 games and they’re a disappointing 59-63 with just 4% odds of making the playoffs. The front of the rotation has had issues preventing runs. Several members of the lineup have performed below their established level of production. Plenty of key contributors have spent time on the disabled list, and recent reports suggest players have a mutinous relationship with their manager.

Plenty has gone wrong for the 2012 Red Sox, but one of the bright spots has been Cody Ross. The 31-year-old outfielder, who signed for just one year and $3 million, has a .359 wOBA, 122 wRC+ and 2.4 WAR. His strong production has many wondering about his next contract. Ross has said that he’d like to return to Boston, and all signs point to the team having mutual interest. Ross may have put himself in line for a multi-year deal similar to Josh Willingham’s most recent contract — three years and $21 million — despite being less consistent and not as talented. Willingham has produced in the 3 WAR to 4 WAR range during the past several seasons while Ross has been in the 2 WAR to 3 WAR range.

And then there’s this: the main area in which Ross excels — crushing lefties — can be replicated fairly easily. Interested teams may be able to acquire cheaper Ross-like production by considering a few players with similar skill-sets.

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Chipper’s Going Out (Nearly) On Top

Chipper Jones announced in March that he would retire at the season’s end. He cited various reasons for ending his hall-of-fame career and admitted that he was tired of living the baseball lifestyle. Always one to answer questions honestly in an era of generalities, he said that his decision was firm; no matter what, he was done once the Braves’ season ended.

As expected, his steadfastness to that decision has been tested, and reporters frequently ask whether he’s changed his mind. Maybe there’s a point to those questions. After all, Jones has a .379 wOBA and 2.9 WAR right now. And he’s on pace for his best season in four years. He projects to finish the season with a .372 wOBA and 4 WAR, and players don’t generally retire after posting numbers like that.

So where does his final season rank among career-concluding seasons throughout history. Is he truly going out on top?

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Another Hypothetical Heath Bell Deal

The Miami Marlins grand experiment hasn’t worked this year, leading to the trades of Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante and Randy Choate before the non-waiver trade deadline. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have had to trade those players, because they would still be fighting for a playoff spot at this point in the season. But it hasn’t been a perfect world for the Marlins, and one of the major imperfections is the performance of high-priced reliever Heath Bell.

Signed to a lucrative three-year deal this offseason, Bell was supposed to help transform the Marlins into legitimate championship contenders. He has, however, been quite bad, losing the confidence of his manager and the closer role itself, and there haven’t been any signs of him turning things around.

The Marlins have already unloaded a number of valuable assets, but have had trouble finding a suitor for Bell. That’s what tends to happen with relievers who make a lot of money despite being shells of their former selves. Bell was already linked to the Red Sox in a rumor that had him and Hanley heading to Boston in exchange for Carl Crawford. The deal never materialized, but it was a very interesting thought experiment, as the salaries getting swapped were similar and the move represented a change-of-scenery challenge for those involved.

According to a recent Ken Rosenthal report, the Marlins were engaged in another change-of-scenery challenge trade involving Bell this week. This time, they spoke to the Mets about trading Bell and catcher John Buck for Jason Bay. No formal deal was proposed and the idea didn’t truly gain traction, but it again represented an interesting idea. Considering that no other team is going to relieve the Marlins of Bell’s salary, or the Mets of Bay’s, this is a deal worth revisiting before the waiver deadline.

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The Plummeting Stock of Lars Anderson

The Indians acquired Lars Anderson from the Red Sox on Tuesday, sending knuckleballing prospect Steven Wright — not to be confused with this guy — to Boston. Anderson was once considered one of the top prospects in the game, but struggled in major league cups of coffee (or shots of espresso given how short his major league stints were in 2011-12) and was never viewed as a viable long-term solution at first base or designated hitter.

From 2008-10, however, he was the talk of the rumor mill. His name popped up in practically every Red Sox trade rumor. Last offseason, the Athletics were interested in him as part of the Andrew Bailey package. In July 2011, the Athletics were close to acquiring him in exchange for Rich Harden.

In 2009, Anderson was frequently discussed as part of a potential prospect package for Roy Halladay. The year before that he was mentioned as a key part of a rumor surrounding then-Padres starter Jake Peavy.

As recently as two years ago, Anderson was viewed as a key part of potential returns on all-stars and award winners. Since then, his stock has fallen to the point that he only netted the Red Sox a risky Double-A knuckleballer.

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White Sox Acquire Liriano For Stretch Run

Kenny Williams reportedly worked his tail off to land Zack Greinke from the Brewers this week. The American League Central is up for grabs and the White Sox and Tigers have gone back and forth for the division lead in recent weeks.

Greinke would have solidified the White Sox hold on the division by giving them another top starter to go along with Chris Sale and Jake Peavy.

Williams was so entrenched in Greinke trade talks that he even searched for a third team to get involved after it became clear that his farm system wouldn’t get the job done. No deal was struck and Greinke was dealt to the Angels. The White Sox weren’t done shopping and turned their attention to a starter they have seen quite a bit over the past several seasons: Francisco Liriano. Williams acquired the 28-year-old on Saturday from the division-rival Minnesota Twins for prospects Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez. The White Sox didn’t deal away all that much, so even if Liriano is nothing more than a two-month rental, the move was well worth it based on what he could provide the rest of the season.

Liriano is a free-agent after the season and has modest salary requirements the rest of the way. He also won’t net the White Sox any compensation picks, given the rules set forth in the new collective bargaining agreement.

But he does upgrade the White Sox rotation, especially in the context of injuries: Gavin Floyd has battled tendinitis and John Danks remains on the disabled list. And if Liriano continues to pitch the way he has after getting put back into the rotation, this could look like even more of a deadline steal.

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