Let there be news – Volume 3

Let There Be News is a recap of the most interesting stories from the previous week.

The baseball news feed was busy last week, and some interesting stories missed the cut here. The Angels signed Howie Kendrick to a four-year contract extension, buying out three free agent seasons at the prime of his career.

Ironically, the Yankees made news for two players who won’t be playing for them in 2012. The Yankees failed to reach a deal with Hiroyuki Nakajima. Nakajima, who was posted by the Seibu Lions, will remain in Japan for the 2012 season.

In bittersweet news for Yanks fans, Jorge Posada announced his intention to retire last week. Mike Axisa has a nice open thread over at River Ave Blues discussing Posada’s career. Expect the customary career-in-review pieces to come out after Posada officially retires.

If only some of those stories broke last week…

No. 4: The A’s re-sign Coco Crisp

The A’s decision to re-sign Crisp, was met primarily with raised eyebrows from the baseball blogosphere. The A’s are the team that traded two of their best starting pitchers—both of whom were cheap and will remain cheap for several seasons—and their closer for prospects. Teams in the midst of fire sales aren’t supposed to sign free agents to roughly market-value contracts.

The assumption was that the trades were at least partially motivated to cut payroll, but the Crisp signing brings a reminder that the A’s were in no danger of running into the red with Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey still in the fold. Indeed, signing Crisp may help the A’s avoid a public scolding for assembling a payroll below $40 million. Instead, the trio of pitchers were probably dealt because they were valuable at a time when the team had no hope of competing.

Trading Cahill, Gonzalez, and Bailey also serves to motivate the Office of the Commissioner to find a solution to the San Jose territory dispute. The sooner MLB can transition the A’s from competitive farm club to serious major league competitor, the better.

From an on-field perspective, Crisp is a nice addition for the A’s. The team lacked suitable options for center field; both Colin Cowgill and Josh Reddick—acquired in those recent trades—are a stretch in the central pasture. Crisp’s presence should provide a modest defensive boon to a team that has a spacious home outfield and lots of inexperienced pitching.

As Fangraphs’ Matt Klaassen discusses, he should provide consistent, modest production at the top of the lineup. That’s nothing to sniff about for a team that features as many unknowns as the A’s.

No. 3: The Mariners sign Hisashi Iwakuma

A year ago, Iwakuma was hoping to earn seven figures annually. The Rakuten Golden Eagles posted Iwakuma with one year of club control remaining. The A’s submitted a hefty $19.1 million bid, but negotiations quickly fell apart when it became apparent that the A’s and Iwakuma had very different compensation plans in mind.

What the baseball gods giveth, the baseball gods can taketh away. Iwakuma is just the latest example of the baseball gods’ fickle nature. After failing to reach a deal with the A’s, he returned to Japan for his final season prior to true free agency. He looked forward to receiving a market value contract to play in the MLB in 2012.

Instead, Iwakuma’s season was dogged by a shoulder injury that limited his innings pitched and reduced his velocity. His skill set relies on command and control with a top fastball that sits under 90 MPH, so the injury further reduced stuff that scouts already looked at as fringy.

The injuries quashed his bargaining position, which opened the door for the Seattle Mariners to go bargain hunting. The club made it clear to Iwakuma that they wanted to sign him during a visit to Seattle. The Mariners were able to parlay the goodwill from the visit into a friendly one-year, $1.5 million contract with incentives that could bump the deal up to $4.9 million.

The contract makes sense for both parties. The Mariners limit their risk and could gain considerable value from the deal if Iwakuma remains healthy and plays to his ceiling. Iwakuma obviously will be looking to post a rebound season at his new Seattle home. If he hits the upper limits of his incentives (30 starts, 200 innings pitched), he can re-enter free agency seeking that multi-year, seven-figure deal.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

No. 2: The Cubs acquire Anthony Rizzo

That the Cubs were interested in Rizzo was a matter of public knowledge, but the move still qualified as a surprise.

Sometimes the circumstances that lead to a trade are convoluted (see story No. 1). Sometimes, they’re very straightforward. This one falls in the latter bucket.

The background on this one is simple. The Cubs lack high-upside prospects at most positions and are eagerly snapping up anyone who smells like a prospect. When the San Diego Padres acquired Yonder Alonso as part of the Mat Latos trade, speculation that Rizzo would be shopped quickly followed.

Now, imagine Cubs President Theo Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and Senior Vice President Jason McLeod sitting in a room. In 2007, Epstein, as GM of the Boston Red Sox, drafted Rizzo in the sixth round and later dealt him to the Padres as part of the Adrian Gonzalez trade. Hoyer, the former Padres GM, acquired Rizzo as part of that Gonzalez trade. McLeod presided over the Padres farm system prior to joining Hoyer in the move to Chicago.

All three executives have first-hand knowledge of Rizzo’s strengths and weaknesses (hint: keep this in mind). How long do you think they waited before calling Padres GM Josh Brynes about Rizzo? Did they show their hand immediately or try to slow play things?

Rizzo had mixed success in 2011, which likely contributed to the trade. As a 21-year-old in the Pacific Coast League, he posted a robust .433 wOBA in 413 plate appearances. Alas, a 153-plate appearance cup of coffee with the Padres resulted in an ugly .248 wOBA. Further, it exposed supposed issues with his swing that could limit his success against major league pitching.

We know that three extremely intelligent baseball executives apparently are not worried about Rizzo’s ability to adjust his swing. Usually, when a touted prospect bounces from team to team, it’s a red flag. This isn’t a Brett Wallace situation. Epstein, Hoyer, and McLeod have now gone out of their way to acquire Rizzo twice in their careers.

Andrew Cashner is the other interesting name in the trade, specifically because he can occasionally reach triple digits on the radar gun. The Padres had four first basemen with Alonso, Kyle Blanks, and Jesus Guzman in addition to Rizzo, so they dealt from a position of organizational strength to acquire the fireballer.

Cashner is expected to begin his Padres career in the bullpen and perhaps later move to the rotation if his command and control improve. His median career projection is substantially below Rizzo’s, but keep in mind that he’s MLB-ready now and he has the physical tools to be much more than he is currently.

The clubs also swapped a couple of lower-level prospects in the trade. The Padres acquired outfielder Kyung-Min Na and the Cubs received pitcher Zach Cates. Mark Anderson at Baseball Prospect Nation does an excellent job describing both players.

No. 1: The Marlins acquire Carlos Zambrano

This is one of those situations where a dozen writers will construct a dozen different, but seemingly reasonable, narratives to explain how this trade came to pass. The front runner thus far seems to be the “Fire Cracker Tale.” Let’s take a stab at a slight alternative to that story.

Two months ago, the Marlins were drawing criticism for feigning interest in making a big move. They had already pulled a rabbit out of their new hat by acquiring manager Ozzie Guillen from the Chicago White Sox. Rumor had it they wanted to add one of the best free agents. Even with the move to the new stadium, everyone knew that was ridiculous. The Marlins don’t sign marquee free agents.

As it turns out, they signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. Not satisfied, they reportedly made the best offer to both Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, both of whom opted to join the Los Angeles Angels. Rumor has it that they remain among the top suitors for not-yet-free agent Yeonis Cespedes.

While the Marlins are to be commended for their acquisitions this winter, they still appear to be long shots in the competitive NL East. The reason they pursued Pujols and Wilson so vigorously is because they recognized the need for more talent in order to march stride for stride with the Phillies, Braves, and Nationals.

With a desire to continue adding veteran help and quality free agents now few and far between, the Marlins opted to peruse the trade market. The Marlins lacked the prospects required to trade for Mat Latos or Gio Gonzalez. However, they could shake the “change of scenery” tree. Enter Zambrano.

That narrative feels like a stretch, but it’s hard to follow the linear path from the start of the offseason to “let’s trade for Zambrano.” It may very well have everything to do with Guillen’s personal relationship with Zambrano.

The Marlins appear to make out just fine in the trade. The move was effectively cost neutral, giving the Marlins the opportunity to still make another addition like Cespedes. Zambrano is a veteran with a declining skill set and a modest chance of rebounding. He also has a more than modest chance of blowing up, be that emotionally or physically.

The Marlins are clearly gambling that Guillen can cancel out Zambrano’s rage. The hope is that a mellower Zambrano is a productive and consistent Zambrano.

The Cubs are to be congratulated. They relieved themselves of a major headache and managed to acquire a young pitcher who is roughly as good as Zambrano. Chris Volstad has his warts, including some vicious struggles against left-handed batters and a penchant for allowing the long ball. Yet, for a rebuilding franchise like the Cubs, a low-maintenance innings eater has to be seen as a positive acquisition.

Dishonorable Mention

The Cubs had a nice week from the baseball operations perspective, but news that Starlin Castro was accused of sexual assault throws a damper on things. Hopefully, the story is heavily embellished, because the alternative is tragic.

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Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

“Epstein, Hoyer, and McLeod have now gone out of their way to acquire Rizzo twice in their careers.”

Rather than getting the editors to make a correction, I’ll just quickly note that Hoyer was part of the front office that drafted Rizzo, so this is the third time he’s acquired him.

Thoughts from Fred: 4. Crisp looks like a deadline deal gamble to me.  They hope that he will do well for them and then hope to trade him for specs at the deadline.  So, IMO, it is essentially a $3.5m gamble.  You know the A’s like to play this game, but with the new CBA, they can’t just grab up guys for 1 year and hope to get comp picks. 3. Who? (and I know who he is, just that he isn’t anyone) 2. Rizzo to the Cubs HAS to speak to Prince not coming there.  Perhaps that scenario will… Read more »
Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson
I don’t think Crisp is a deadline gamble for the A’s. They may ultimately trade him, especially if Michael Taylor has a big season in AAA, but the move seems to be based on the components I covered. The big point, which I glossed over a little, is that the A’s were on pace to post a payroll around $30 mil prior to the signing, which would have drawn the ire of the MLBPA and necessitated some fines. Having signed Crisp, payroll should hover around $40 mil and the A’s will be able to point to the signing as a… Read more »

I would have applauded the Nats if they made that deal for Crisp (who actually played for the now-Potomac Nationals, btw). They have the same hole and the remaining market just doesn’t look as sensible this year. He was healthier last year and hits and fields well enough to be a useful CF (though the actual impact of those SBs was rather mediocre)..