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Sunday 23rd Apr 2017

Jonathan Papelbon, arguably the best closer on the market, signed with the Phillies to a four-year deal for $50 million dollars. The deal included a vesting option for a 6th for an additional $13 million dollars if Papelbon either finishes 55 games in 2015 or finishes a combined 100 between 2014 and 2015. Provided Papelbon remains healthy and an effective closer, this is a good strategy on the part of his agent. It will either force the Phillies’ hand a year sooner than the Mets needed to in a similar situation with Francisco Rodriguez (they were able to hold onto Rodriguez in his closer’s role until mid-way through his walk-year) and/or simply make it more likely that the option will indeed be vested as it could be quite difficult to remove Papelbon from a closer’s role for a substantial portion of 2 seasons if he is indeed still effective.

But will this clause be moot? How much does Papelbon really have left? The Phillies new stopper will be 31-years of age to start 2012 and has been rather lightly used, never working more than 69.1 innings in-season and fewer than 80 when you consider his post-season appearances. Papelbon’s skills are still excellent, producing his second highest strikeout rate of his career and his second lowest BB/9 of his career in 2011. His pitch selection and velocity also remain consistent. The one chink in the armor has been a disturbing trend of two consecutive seasons with a sub-70% left-on base rate. Considering how often Papelbon has entered games with no runners on base, this Is not particularly encouraging for a closer. A successful closer, because they enter the game without inheriting any runners most days typically have left-on-base rates around the 80% mark. Papelbon has produced high LOB% in the past and it is a number prone to a high degree of variance, so I would not be too concerned, but would also keep an eye on it too.

On the Red Sox side of things they are now without an established closer, but will not be making waves in the free agent bullpen market. Instead, Daniel Bard will get first crack at the job. The 26-year old has been solid over his three-seasons in the Majors and has actually become a more complete pitcher over that time reducing his walk rates in each successive season while still striking out more than a batter per innings while generating groundballs at high rates including 53% of the time in 2011. Despite all this I am not convinced he is the long-term solution. A fastball/slider pitcher, he is without a good weapon against lefties. Last year he posted a 12.0 K/9 against righties and a 6.6 against lefties. While the latter number is solid, it is a far cry from closer-level dominance.  To contrast, Papelbon as a former starter does have the weapons including his split-fastball and produced strikeout rates in exceess of 10 per nine innings in 2011. So, in other words, if you are keeping Bard and expecting great things, get an insurance policy. Bobby Jenks is coming back from an injury-plagued year and may by default be the top setup man, but there is no guarantee he is or will remain healthy. From there you have a list of candidates like Matt Albers, Franklin Morales, Michael Bowden, etc. In other words a group of pitchers without an established pattern for sustained success at the MLB level. Keep an eye on this situation. While the Red Sox may not throw money at a big-name closer, a lesser-named closer or multiple veteran setup men could be brought into town that could be factors in the closing situation.

Pirates Sign a Stop-Gap

In much smaller news, Rod Barajas was signed to a one-year deal by the Pirates. This is in theory a stop-gap maneuver for the Pirates with #1 overall draft pick Tony Sanchez possibly being promoted to Triple-A to start the season. Why “in theory"? Well the 22-year old Sanchez showed good plate discipline and contact-making skills in Double-A and receives the ball well, but hit a very unimpressive .241 .340 .318. I do not expect Sanchez to ever be much of a power threat, but he was at least expected to be an above average receiver with the ability to get on-base, hit low-single digits per season power, and hit for average. He is not a fast runner, so by hitting for average I mean .280s. To even be that now the young Buc has a lot to prove.

Barajas, meanwhile, brings what he always: bring: power and streakiness.  The 36-year old has a career .238 .284 .430 line pretty much says it all. The right-hander has an aggressive all or nothing approach, but unlike many power hitters, he swings at everything rather than being truly selective. The power still makes him worth a $1 or two on draft day as a #2 catcher, but be sure to have plenty of other help in the batting average department and do not expect him to keep the starting job all season long or for that matter to remain with one team all season long either. What the move does mean, however, is that Michael McKenry, who deserves another extended look, will now likely not receive one, and will have to battle for the back-up job.

Thanks as always to the most excellent information available over at Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

The Giants’ outfield, particularly centerfield, has been in a state of flux in recent seasons. Aaron Rowand was signed to a long-term contract, but has failed to produce, spending significant time on the disabled list, and was regulated to a back-up role in 2011. Andres Torres supplanted Rowand after a torrid 2010 campaign. Then Torres spent time on the disabled list and ended up posting a .212 .312 .330 line. In other words, the Giants were once again ready to find yet another solution in centerfield and they opted for 2011 breakout player Melky Cabrera.

Cabrera, prior to 2011, was considered a wrong side of the platoon split player. He is a career .280 hitter against lefties and a .263 hitter against righties. This latter stat was rather boosted up by his .304 against righties this year in the most plate appearances Cabrera has ever garnered against them. The question, of course, is this new level of play for real? Well, Cabrera has always been quite a good contact hitter, doing so 88% of the time over his career. What the former Yankee farm-hand had not done before 2011 was hit with as much authority – posting his highest isolated power of his career and his second highest HR/FB of his career. Cabrera also displayed some of the best speed of his career, producing his second highest speed score and a career high in stolen bases too.

From a where the ball is hit perspective, Melky did not really change his game, hitting line drives about 19% of the time, continued to hit ground balls into the high 40% of the time, and only hit fly balls in the low-thirty percent range and in fact only 0.4% higher than last season. This last bit is a red flag to me. Homerun hitters tend to have fly-ball rates in at least the upper-thirty percent range, if not in the 40%+ range. I would not be surprised at all by a significant regression. Couple that with a move from a fairly homerun friendly park to one of the least homerun friendly parks in a division with several of the least homerun friendly parks, and one should be concerned.

The other red flag, for me, is the rapid rise in batting average on balls in play coupled with where Melky hits the ball. The righty had only once previously posted a BABIP above .300. This was back in 2006 and it was barely above that mark. This season it stood at .332 which stands in stark contrast to the context of the rest of his career.

My gut instinct says stay away, but on the other hand, one also has to remember that Cabrera first entered his peak years in 2011, first turning 27 in August. It is within the scope of possibilities that he has attained a new level of play. So my advice, generally, is still to be cautious with the Giants’ new centerfielder in 2012, but that does not mean you should treat him like he is a injury-prone post-prime player on the downside of his career. Keep your expectations modest instead.

The Royals Side of Things
Now when you consider this trade in the context of who was dealt, it makes quite a bit of sense. Yes Cabrera is coming off a great year, but he carries quite a bit of risk with him. Well, Jonathan Sanchez has a good arm and stuff, but he has always been wild and carries quite a bit of risk too. When you then consider that the Royals have a prospect in Lorenzo Cain that they want to try in centerfield and that the Giants have Barry Zito under long-term contract and Eric Surkamp available for starting spots, it makes the deal make even more sense.

Sanchez is not expected to be the Royals’ ace, but to fill out the middle of their rotation. This will be an opportunity for him to emerge from the back-end of the Giants’ rotation and to possibly receive the most starts and innings pitched of his career. Sanchez missed substantial time due to injury in 2012, but on the good news side of things, it was due to a biceps and an ankle injury and fortunately neither an elbow nor a shoulder injury, so tentatively the health prognosis for 2012 looks good. However, after just over 100 innings pitched in 2011, one has to be concerned as to how well he will hold up over the course of an entire season, given a likely significant workload increase.

On the positive side of things, Sanchez still strikes out over a batter per inning (9.1 K/9),but  the lefty has produced less velocity on his fastball each of the past three years, dropping below 90 mph in 2011 for the first time (barely 89.9). As typical of most strikeout artists, Sanchez is indeed a fly-ball pitcher with a career 41% fly-ball rate. He has done a good job of keeping the ball in the park generally converting fewer than 10% of fly-balls converted into home runs, but one has to wonder if this will be maintained given his venture outside the friendly confines, but amusingly career away splits reveal a lower HR/FB (8.5%) than at home (10.5%), so this might not be an issue at all.

The area of concern will always be Sanchez’s control and command. A near 6.0 BB/9 is not something that can be repeated if he is to remain in the rotation long-term. Fortunately, career norms are about a point lower and it is possible that the injuries were mostly to blame for the sharp decline. The Royals and Sanchez owners must now hope that this BB/9 decline is not a precursor to a more serious long-term injury situation.

Sanchez will turn 29 last this month and is around his peak right now. He has it in him to be a solid middle of the rotation starter capable of posting a sub 4.00 ERA, but given his control issues, the move to a less friendly pitching environment, and to having to face a designated hitter on a regular basis, one has to expect an ERA above 4.00, if not well above 4.00 for 2012.

Sanchez was not the only player the Royals acquired. Also received was left-hander Ryan Verdugo. Verdugo will turn 25 shortly after opening day and has no experience above Double-A ball. He made 25 starts this past season while striking out more than a batter per inning, but also walking over 4 batters per nine innings pitched. Up until 2011 he was utilized primarily in relief and that is his likely long-term role if he indeed ever makes the Majors.

Overall this deal was actually rather refreshing. It was a deal that involved players likely to have similar 2012 salaries and who each carry decent reward and risk potential. One team needed an outfielder, one team needed a veteran starter. An actual baseball deal is a nice change of pace in this early off-season.

The postseason has been done just a few days and teams have not wasted any time moving on to prepare for 2012. We already have seen a flurry of options declined and picked up as well as our first trade.

The Derek Lowe trade made sense for both involved parties. The Braves end up paying about two-thirds of the right-hander's contract, but when you consider that even without Derek Lowe, they have more MLB ready starters than rotation spots and that those pitchers combined are making quite a bit less than Lowe (possibly even with Tommy Hanson arbitration eligible for the first time),  a move had to be made. For now, the Braves will likely go with a rotation of Tim Hudson, Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor with Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran on the outside looking in. Fantasy players, however, have to remember that Kris Medlen will be coming back from Tommy John surgery and could fight for a spot too. In other words, the Braves may not yet be done moving starting pitching this offseason.

On the Indians side of the equation, they are acquiring a veteran innings-eater. Tommy John surgery for both Hector Rondon early last year and Carlos Carrasco late this year and the lack of higher-level arms in their organization made the Indians buyers. But why Lowe and can he come back from a sub-par season at age 38? His 5.05 ERA last year is certainly discouraging, but his peripheral numbers actually remain rather in line with his career norms, producing a 6.5 K/9 and low 3’s BB/9. The ground-baller continues to earn the moniker quite well with a 59% ground-ball rate. Instead, a 66% left-on base rate, a .329 batting average on balls in play are the real culprits behind his late-season disaster. Lowe continues to be durable, making no fewer than 32 starts per season since 2002. So for $5 million, his durability and skills still make him a worthwhile commodity. But because of his age and that ugly ERA and a move to the American League, he will very likely go for under $5, if not $1 in most AL-only leagues next year. Not a bad end-game move in my opinion.

Sizemore Moves On
The Lowe deal was not the only notable move the Indians made this past week. After several injury-plagued seasons, they declined Grady Sizemore’s option and will let him explore free agency  which does not necessarily preclude a return to the Indians at an albeit lower price point. Sizemore is now 29 years old and has not played a full season since 2009. When he has played, his plate discipline of the past has been nowhere to be seen, rarely walking and striking out far more often than before. On the postivie side, his power did return somewhat in 2011 as he posted a .198 isolated power and a near 13% HR/FB rate. What has not been apparent has been his speed. Post knee surgery, his stolen base skills have disappeared as he went from 38 steals in 2009 to zero last season. Right now, it is both a mystery and a gamble as to how Grady Sizemore will perform in the future. Whether he is worth that gamble or not is a league context sensitive question. Unless he shows something in spring training, it will be hard to justify chasing him at over $10 and possibly tough at over $5 too.

Quick Hits
The Cubs are bringing back Aramis Ramirez for one more year. This is a wise move given a lack of organizational depth at this position. The 33-year old is still very much to be feared. His power/contact skills continue to make him a perennial .300+ threat. His 2010 batting average performance looks fluky given an out of career-context low amount of line drives and extremely high amount of ground-balls. 2011 represented a return to career norms.

The Twins, in a minor move, claimed Matt Maloney off waivers from the Reds. Maloney was unable to crack the Reds’ rotation despite his minor league success and his translation of his key skills to the Majors over his cups of coffee with the team. Maloney is a lefty known for his well above average control and command. He produced a sub 2.0 BB/9 in Triple-A this past year. He is far from a hard thrower and uses his fastball to set up his plus change and breaking pitches. His major weakness: fly-balls. A soft-tosser who gives up as many fly-balls as he does could be in trouble in the Majors. He will need to translate his strikeout skills to the Majors to be more effective. He is somewhere between Triple-A roster filler and a sleeper-candidate as a fifth starter.

The Pirates' catching situation for 2012 got interesting too. Both Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder had their options declined. That leaves mid-season acquisition Mike McKenry and Jason Jaramillo as the veterans on the roster. Tony Sanchez is still at least a year away. In Double-A he managed just a .241/.340/.318 line, but did show good contact and overall plate discipline skills. His other hitting skills unfortunately have not emerged as of yet and it is now very reasonable to be skeptical of his ability to eventually be an impact player, let alone an everyday player.

Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, C.C. Sabathia, etc. – These guys get more than enough ink dedicated to their upcoming free agent parties. So time to focus on those not receiving that type of attention!

Michael Cuddyer
The Twins may hope to retain the services of Cuddyer, but he could end up one of the more sought after free agents given his combination of positional flexibility and power from the right-hand side of the plate.  This could easily price him out of Minnesota.

The truth, however, regarding his defense  is that given a variety of metrics, he is merely adequate at best in the field and below average at most positions in general including his original position of third base. First base i probably be his best defensive destination, but that is of course the position where lefties are preferred.

At the plate, he is a fairly consistent hitter who walks regularly around 8 to 9-percent of the time while making contact around 85% of the time, allowing him to be a regular in the .270+ batting average and .340ish OBP range. To hit .284 this past season Cuddyer had to put up his highest batting average on balls in play since 2007, so a regression in this area is to be expected.

Outwardly his skills have kept him an everyday role as he does not have significant platoon splits, at least in the batting average department as a career .261 hitter against righties and .291 hitter against lefties. However, his overall line is a .264 .327 4.35 against righties and .291 .379 .493 overall against lefties.  While he will enter 2012 as a regular on some team, a more limited role and a platoon partner might be a better option for teams considering him.

While Cuddyer is a proven mid-teens or better homerun per season hitter, it is unwise to think of him as a true power hitter. To date he has just 3 seasons of 20 homeruns or more under his belt and one (2009) when he hit over 30 home runs. This season now stands out as a fluke when you consider where Cuddyer hits the ball. Over the past two seasons Cuddyer has put the ball on the ground 50% and 49% of the time respectively and he has hit ground balls over his career 47% of the time and fly-balls just 35% of the time. His 2009 season produced his highest HR/FB total of his career at 15.5% when over his career this mark has sat at 11.4% of the time. He has not eclipsed his career mark since his 2009 season.

Cuddyer will be 33 on opening day and 2009 was likely his career season. Going forward one should expect more of the same - .270’s batting average with homerun marks in the 15 to 20 range.

Kelly Johnson
The courting of Kelly Johnson could be a fascinating process to watch.  A solid defender at second, Johnson has had quite the up and down career. In his minor league days he was considered a top prospect of the Braves and his combination of power/speed and on-base skills were quite admired. In 2007 he translated those skills to the Majors quite fully. He was less patient at the plate in 2008, but his numbers were generally close to his 2007 performance. Then in 2009, he made better contact, and walked more, but his power and his offense evaporated, batting .224 with a .303 OBP. The reason for that struggle was easily found in his batting average on balls in play to a decline of .247 from .340 and a slight drop-off in his line drives. A rebound was predicted, especially in hitter-friendly Arizona. The rebound came as Johnson found his patience again, but he also found his power and with his strikeout rates climbed to over 20% for the first time in his career. While some slight decline was expected, especially in the power department, it looked clearly like 2009 was a simple outlier. However, in 2011, it appears Johnson fell in love with his power stroke even more and struck out over a quarter of the time and managed a .222 .304 .413 line.

Given the ups and downs, there may be some wary buyers. However, there is cause for optimism starting once again with a .270 BABIP, especially when hit line drives over 20% of the time and where he put the ball in play remained relatively static.

Looking at Johnson’s platoon splits, he was terrible against lefties and righties alike hitting under .225 against both last year. When effective, however, he can hit both, though generally he has been a reverse platoon split hitter for most of his career with a .287/.249 split against lefties and righties, despite being a left-handed hitter. His off-season of 2009 takes much of the blame for that split as well as he hit just .188 against righties that year with a .208 BABIP while hitting over .270 against them in most other years.

I suspect Johnson’s inconsistencies will hold back his real MLB contract price and could cost him a year or two off a long-term contract and could hold down his bidding price as well. While another disappointment is possible, but keep in mind that Johnson, despite the low batting average, still earned $19 in NL only leagues this year. A few more hits and he is a $20 player.  If you build your team to withstand a batting average  hit, I would consider opening my wallet for him.

 

So the Vlad has finally landed. As has been much rumored over the past few weeks, Vladimir Guerrero is now the primary DH for the Baltimore Orioles. Earlier he may have tried to leverage his way to other teams, but those options disappeared as a result of trades and other signings.

As a result of the acquisition, the plan seems to be to bat him in the cleanup spot most everyday with Luke Scott shifting to left field, though Scott could end up platooning with the likes of Nolan Reimold or Felix Pie. Usually, when as many veterans are brought in as Baltimore has this season, there is some agonizing that youngsters aren’t getting a chance to play. But, other than Reimold  who struggled to come back from injury last season, there really isn’t much there in the upper levels of their minors to be blocked (platoon player Josh Bell being perhaps the best of the near MLB ready). So why not stimulate the fan base and give them a team that might put up a bit of a fight and perhaps even surprise its way into the post-seaon?

As a speculative Orioles lineup:

That’s a lineup Bunk Moreland could get behind, and one that should, if healthy, give the Orioles a few more luck wins ( Kevin Millwood may wish he was still in Baltimore).

As for Guerrero himself, we have an almost 36-year old (coming later this week) who still has his customary combo of contact-hitting skills (90% of the time in 2010) and power which still make for a legitimate .300 25+ home run threat. While he is post peak, his 2009 power numbers look rather a lot like an outlier at the moment with his ISO  back near .200 and his HR/FB close to 15%, under, but not dramatically under his career mark of close to 17%. The skills are still here, so a one-year contract is a reasonable move for the Orioles, whereby the team can assess direction into the season, providing the ability to bring the DH back for another year. Or, Baltimore can make a long-term move (I still believe the Orioles will be big players in the Prince Fielder sweepstakes in the 2012 off-season).

Not the Only Orioles Maneuver of the Day

In addition to the Vlad signing, the Orioles also made official the signing of former Oakland A, Justin Duchscherer. Duchscherer signed a heavily incentive-based deal that kicks in if the right-hander 30 or more starts. As of right now, "Duch" will be in the Orioles rotation with Chris Tillman quite possibly being the odd-man, out and Zach Britton’s ascent to the majors may be delayed. The million ($4.5 million actually) dollar question is how many starts will Duchscherer actually make? The 33-year old has thrown just 28 innings over the past two MLB seasons and the most innings he has ever pitched in a complete season has been 141.2 over 22 2008 starts. He has twice gone under the knife for surgery to repair his hip: first the right in 2007 and then the left last year. So, while Ducchscherer has passed physicals, and the hurler says he feels the healthiest he has felt in five years, Duch's durability will always be a question mark. From a skills stand point, Duchscherer does a good job of throwing strikes and keeping the ball on the ground, utilizing his plus changeup/cutter combination along with spotting a mid-eighties fastball (sic: he is a control pitcher, not a flame thrower).

Ok, you caught me. The acquisition of Justin Maxwell is far from a blockbuster. In fact, the deal was made because Justin Maxwell is out of options. The presence of Bernadina, a fellow-right-handed bat, and the acquisition of Jayson Werth, another right-handed bat precluded the need for the outfielder. Plus, the addition of Rick Ankiel and the presence of Mike Morse pretty much made Maxwell’s place on the roster unnecessary. But rather than try to waive him and risk Maxwell being claimed by another squad, the Nats were able to hook up with the Yankees and deal. That said, Maxwell will still need to make the Yankees 25-man roster and if he fails or New York  sends him down at any point, Maxwell will still need to passed through waivers.

So, why would other teams be interested in Mr. Maxwell, you ask? Well, the dude has tools. Serious tools. He has legitimate 20-20-plus  potential and has the defensive skills to handle center, though Maxwell's arm is better suited for left field.  He  is also fairly patient at the plate, walking more than 10% of the time on a regular basis. Still selectivity is an issue as Maxwell has a long-swing, and right-handers crush him, forcing a 33% strike out rate. The Yankees, actually, have a decidedly left-handed hitting outfield and a lack of right-handed outfield options on their bench, so Maxwell could indeed make the club with a strong showing this spring.

In return, the Nationals acquired Adam Olbrychowski who will play for Double-A Harrisburg this season. He is a 24-year old reliever with little experience above A+ ball.  A former fifth round pick,Olbrychowski does a good job of keeping the ball on the ground and posted a combined 7.5 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9. He would probably never have had much of a chance with the Yankees, but could make it in middle relief with the Nationals.

AL Central Maneuverings

In two pieces of AL Central news today, the Royals signed veteran third basemen Pedro Feliz to a minor league contract and the White Sox signed Lastings Milledge to a  minor-league deal as well.

I don’t see a potential roster spot at the moment for Feliz. If he makes the club, it would be as a back-up or platoon player at best. The soon to be 37-year old has lost his power and is now merely an unselective contact hitter with a career .250-.288-.410 line. Up until 2010, Feliz did at least rate as above average defensive third basemen and could make the roster on that merit. His spot, however, may based more on the performance and decisions surrounding other players rather than him. All Feliz can really do is go out there and have a good spring to try and help his cause.

Lastings Milledge is a bit more interesting. He will turn 26 just after the start of the season, so we can still hold out some hope that Milledge might figure things out and reverse some ugly trends.  Last season he became more of a ground-ball hitter, sacrificing power. Milledge is still not much of an on-base threat and only stole five bases over eight chances – though that may be a function of how the Pirates handled the running game the past few seasons than how he faired when he stole 24 bags with the Nationals in 2008. Right now, Milledge’s playing time looks limited however, as he is behind the Pierre, Rios, and Quentin trio, potential playing time is out there, especially against tough lefties. For now, Milledge is barely on the draft list in AL only play; however, he is more just someone to watch on your free agent market.

The Blue Jays didn't have Mike Napoli for long as they dealt the catcher/first basemen to the Rangers for Frank Francisco. I covered Napoli’s offensive game here the other day, but with the Rangers his playing time looks to possibly have improved as they will play him fairly regularly at catcher, but at first base and at DH too, despite having weak platoon splits against righties – so I would keep my batting average expectations more around the .230’s and .240’s. For the Jays, this at least temporarily clears up some playing time questions as Lind, Encarnacion, Rivera, and Snider no-longer appear to be in potential time-share/platoon situations.

Frank Francisco, meanwhile, gives the Jays yet another veteran arm to add to their open closer-competition. Despite pitching only 52.1 innings, Francisco was quite impressive posting a 10+ K/9 and a BB/9 around 3.0 while throwing 93 mph with a good slider, and split-finger fastball. With Francisco, they now have four veterans who have served as closers in the past and what looked like a scary situation heading into the off-season should now give fantasy owners a bit more confidence to select not only Blue Jays relievers, but Blue Jays starters too given more confidence in the pen’s ability to not let inherited runners score.

As far as the assignment of saves goes - based on last season the save situation may not be all that frustrating beyond opening day. While Frasor was the closer to begin with, he lost the job within a week and they handed it to Kevin Gregg. Once he had it, he did not let go. A similar situation could occur this year too, though I’d try to get all three of Francisco, Dotel, and Rauch if I purchased one of them. Right now, the favorite looks like Francisco as he has the best combination of stuff and control of the trio.

In other notes, the Padres signed Jorge Cantu to their roster. The 29-year old will play in a super-sub capacity backing up at first, third, and maybe even second base. The inclination would be to have the right-hand hitting Cantu platoon with Brad Hawpe, but Cantu actually batted in the .230’s against lefties last year while performing better against righties. Over his career, he actually does not have a significant platoon split at all and is a .270’s hitter against both lefties and righties as a result of his solid contact-making skills (over 82 to 83 percent of the time against lefties and righties alike). At 29-years-of-age, Cantu is still actually in his prime. It has just basically been well-established that he is a sub-par defender at every position but first base, who, because of his contact and power skills, is quite capable of a .270+ 15 to 20 HR season. But because of his lack of plate discipline and on-base skill, it is difficult for MLB teams to justify playing him regularly given a career .320 OBP. That said, if Hawpe struggles early in the season or can't adapt to first base, the Padres could have little choice but to give Cantu  quite a few at-bats until Anthony Rizzo is ready.

The excitement of the Rays’ signings and the especially the Angels and Blue Jays trade, some less exciting, but still notable major league and minor league signings did take place in recent days.

The Hairston Brothers

The Hairston brothers will not be both playing for the same team this year, but they will at least be playing in the same division, and managed to sign on the same day. Jerry will take over Willie Harris’ spot on the Nationals (who moved to the Mets) and Scott will join the Mets as back-up outfielder. Both Hairston’s have another thing in common – a tendency to hit a lot of fly-balls despite not having true-home run hitter’s power. Yes, Scott has always had more raw power than Jerry, but not enough to dictate he or his brother should be hitting fly-balls 50% of the time for Scott or over 40% of the time for Jerry. This has always been a frustrating aspect of Jerry’s game – a good contact hitter with an OK batting eye and above average speed, yet because of his fly-ball tendencies; his batting average always is below what it could be if he put it on the ground more often. So we end up with a player who hits in the .250’s but with some pop and speed and multiple-position qualification that makes him of fill-in interest in NL only leagues.

The Mets signed Scott to be an outfielder, but it’s interesting they didn’t pursue his brother instead or as well as Jerry would have actually instantly been the best defensive second basemen the Mets had on the club. Scott came up as a second basemen and failed there, but then when you think about it almost every player the Mets are auditioning for the second base role is below-average defensively, so they wouldn’t have much to lose by giving him a look there, but I digress.

Anyway, Scott Hairston has indeed proved to be a competent defensive outfielder over the years and a good hitter, with pop, against lefties, though 2010 was pretty much an unmitigated disaster across the board. He hit just .210 last year and while 221 plate appearances of a .198 against righties is the root cause, he didn’t help his cause by managing to hit only .233 in his limited exposure to lefties. Over his career, the 30-year old has hit .278 .331 .498 against lefties while making contact 83% of the time, so there is something here if used judiciously. At 30, he’s a bit too young to have completely lost his bat speed. It is possible he could also get some at-bats at first base when a tough lefty is facing the Mets if Nick Evans fails to make the big league club.

Penny Signs with Detroit

Perhaps the most notable signing of these recent signings was Detroit’s. They brought in Brad Penny to fill out their rotation who as of now will probably be their fourth or fifth starter. Penny will turn 33 in late May and pitched in just 9 games in 2010. While he still shows above-average ability to throw strikes (sub 2.0 BB/9 last year and 2.7 BB/9 over 30 starts in 2009) his strikeout skills have certainly faded and he has failed to post a 6.0+ K/9 since 2006. However, it is not necessarily a big red flag, but instead a change in style. Penny still averaged over 94 mph on his fastball, but he throws it quite a bit less, and is now more of a three-pitch pitcher with his curve, and split-finger which he started using quite heavily last season at almost 30% of the time. The red flag with respect to Penny’s health is the fact that he was on the disabled list from late May through the end of a the season with a shoulder strain and was on the 60-day DL in 2008 with shoulder inflammation. It is therefore hard to recommend him much beyond a $1 speculative play at the moment in AL only formats.

Marcus Thames Replacement

Andruw Jones is joining the Yankees on a one-year deal. God it’s hard to believe this once 19-year old wunderkind is now a post-prime veteran, but there it is. In the power department, Jones has enjoyed something of a minor comeback the last two seasons in the home run friendly parks of Rangers’ and White Sox. He is now an all or nothing right-handed fly-ball hitting platoon player who walks just under 14% of the time while striking out more than a quarter of the time, but has managed isolated powers around .250 and a HR/FB of over 20% in 2010. Against lefties last season he did hit .256 while walking 15% of the time and striking out just 22% of the time. His batting average on balls in play, however, has been suffering and holding back his batting average against righties and lefties alike due to his approach – either hitting home runs, hitting fly-outs or weak ground outs when he fails to make good contact. Line drives have not been occurring and he doesn’t have the wheels anymore to beat out the grounders. The Yankees do have enough depth to limit his exposure to lefties only if they choose to do so. Regardless, he won’t cost much or will come late, but is also quite capable of making a profit on that investment if you need a fifth outfielder in AL-only play.

Infield Depth for the Cardinals

Ryan Theriot will now need to look over his shoulder as Nick Punto was signed to a one-year deal by the Cardinals. Punto qualifies at both third and shortstop, making him an option at the corner and middle infield too for fantasy leaguers, though of course not really a desirable one considering he hasn’t hit even .240 in three seasons and is a .247 hitter for his career. Putno does everything he is supposed to as a no-power speed-based (albeit declining in that aspect) middle infielder – drawing walks and keeping the ball on the ground. Where he fails is making contact that has constantly held back his batting average despite his good patience at the plate. Where he is still valuable – he is good defender wherever he plays – be it 2B, 3B, SS, or the OF. That could earn him more than a few plate appearances despite his shortcomings.

Set-Up Men

Chad Qualls, after an awful 2010, has come back west and has signed a one-year deal with San Diego. Despite a solid 7.5 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 he produced a 7+ ERA. Yes, that is not a typo. Well it happens when you produce a .399 batting average on balls in play, 12% HR/FB and a 53% left-on-base percentage despite a 55% ground-ball rate and essentially no change in pitch selection or decline in velocity. All this makes Qualls a pretty good bounce-back candidate and even a potential closer candidate again should the Padres decide to trade Heath Bell, as has been bounced about on more than one occasion. His role for now, however may be limited to the 7th and 8th innings.

Aaron Heilman, after not being offered salary arbitration, is returning to the Diamondbacks as  a free agent. Per usual, Heilman is whining about being a starter, but the Diamondbacks do not currently have a spot in their rotation available to him. That means he will once again be pitching in the late innings. While his strikeout rates have fall en off three straight seasons, it may be for the best as his BB/9 has also dropped each of the past three years to a respectable 3.3 along with a still solid 6.9 K/9. He still throws 92 and is a three-pitch pitcher with his slider and a good changeup (the reason he still wants to start) which makes him a non-specialist reliever. This year he will pitch in the 7th and 8th innings with J.J. Putz signed to close.

Are the Rays and Jays suddenly playing fantasy baseball? Well given the defensive aptitude of the two team’s acquisitions today, it gives off a certain aura. Granted, these teams are both looking for more offense and will try to DH these players as much as possible, but even still two of the below players may be relied upon to play the field on a regular basis. With all these DH types finding ports of call, it looks likely that will soon be talking about Vladimir Guerrero finding a home too (most likely Baltimore).

Duo of DHs
First off, the Rays made two splashes signing Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez both to one-year deals with Damon slated for left field and Ramirez for DH-duty. These two signings have a ripping effect on the rest of the roster. It is now even uncertain as to whether Desmond Jennings will have a spot on the opening day roster too. The most likely outcome, however, is that Jennings and Joyce will compete for time in RF while Dan Johnson’s shot at an everyday job likely evaporates with Ben Zobrist heading to first base. Another possibility could have Jennings in the minors with Joyce and Rodriguez on the bench with Zobrist at second and Johnson at first. Or finally, Johnson goes on the bench and Joyce gets a look at first base and could platoon with someone like minor league signee Chris Carter, formerly of the Mets, Red Sox, and Diamondbacks.  The Rays will likely be more forthcoming with their plans once these deals are actually finalized.

Damon was disappointment last year in that returning to a less-power friendly environment; he would concentrate on hitting balls in the gaps and more on his speed game. Although he was durable and showed his customary solid plate discipline, he showed even less power than one would expect with just 8 home runs and was rarely given the green light despite still having well above average speed skills. The move to Tampa Bay may rejuvenate a little bit of his power and may even rejuvenate some of his stolen base skills. Under Jim Leyland, the Tigers were fourth to last (99) in total stolen base attempts while the Rays were second with 219 attempts. It should be noted that Leyland has not been particularly aggressive on the base paths since the 1990’s when he managed the Pirates and the Marlins.  I do not think a .280 10 to 12 HR 20+ steal season is too out of line for Damon, but I wouldn’t recommend paying for that level of performance either when you consider he is 37 afterall.

Manny Ramirez, 38, was also a disappointment and clearly starting to break down physically with some recurrent leg issues. Some of the skills are still very much there though – tremendous plate discipline and consistent line-drive hitter with the ability to hit for average. His power, however, may be in decline as he did post his lowest fly-ball rate since 2002 at just 34.3% compared to his career 39% mark. It may be hard to believe, but I can see a situation where Ramirez is bought at less than $10 and/or makes it to the late rounds of AL only drafts, and could even be on the free agent market in some mixed leagues, depending on their depth.

Jays/Angels Swap
Mike Napoli
trade rumors started to swirl about Friday afternoon with the Rays as the likely landing spot. So while the Angels dealing him comes as no surprise, the ultimate landing spot and what they received in return was as Vernon Wells is now an Angel and Juan Rivera is joining Mr. Napoli in Toronto.

One of the major reasons for the deal, for Toronto, was monetary, as it gives the Jays more financial flexibility going forward with Wells’ heavy contract (he is owed $86 million over the next four years). For the Angels, Wells will slide into centerfield with Torii Hunter playing right. Hank Conger is an instant winner in this situation as he now has a very good chance to win the opening day catching job with Napoli off the roster. It appears the Angels will then shift Bobby Abreu to the DH spot and could sign another outfielder to play left field or use Peter Bourjos there.

In Toronto, things are in quite a state of flux from a positional standpoint.  Both Napoli and Rivera are noted for being below-average defenders. Nevertheless, Rivera will almost certainly man left field while Rajai Davis goes to center. Napoli, meanwhile, will split time among DH, 1B, and catcher, in a super-sub semi-starting role, while Adam Lind will split time at 1B, DH, and LF. Edwin Encarnacion is still on the roster and will see action at 1B and 3B. A lot will depend on the ability of Travis Snider to make the roster and translate his skills to the Majors. If Snider cannot, that could make things more predictable with Jose Bautista returning to the outfield and Encarnacion moving back to third. JP Arencibia still appears to be the primary catcher--and it looks like the Jays will carry three backstops--from a technical standpoint with Jose Molina still under contract (the only good defender of the trio). It is quite the jumble and the Jays have quite a few decisions to make this spring and even if they do, lineup adjustments could be quite frequent, making the predictably of playing time quite hair raising.

Vernon Wells, after playing through injuries in 2009, had a nice comeback season, hitting 31 home runs while making contact 86% and generally keeping his plate discipline peripheral numbers well in line with the context of his career. Despite good wheels, pop, and contact-hitting ability, Wells is not a consistent .300 hitter and at first glance it is perplexing. His career batting average on balls in play rests at .288 and has been at sub.280 each of the past two years. The reason is Wells swing – he is either a fly-ball or a ground-ball hitter - both at over 40% of time over the course of his career. He is not at all a line drive hitter, having not hit line drives more than 20% of the time since 2003, and not more than 18% of the time since 2006. Given this, a .270’s 20+ home run sun season in 2011 is a fairly safe bet, but it is difficult to pay for much more than 20 home runs when you consider before 2010, his last 25+ HR season was 2006.

I’ve ragged enough on Mike Napoli’s defense and yes he should be a DH only. That aside, the 29-year old is a pretty straight forward. He is a consistent 20+ HR threat having done so for each of the past three seasons and keep in mind that the first of those he received fewer than 300 plate appearances. Napoli's selectivity and patience have declined for each of the past three seasons, and has gotten worse against right-handed pitching the more he has had to face them, falling to a .208 batting average against last year after batting .250+ the year before and .270 the year before that. Napoli does do quite well against lefties still, batting .305 with 10 home runs a .399 OBP and .567 SLG. If that does not scream “platoon him”, I don’t know what does and a Lind/Napoli platoon at DH could be what happens in 2011.

Rivera came back from injury in 2009 and had a solid campaign, but was not quite the same player and perhaps never really was that player. Prior to the leg injury, Rivera was never that fast, but now he well below average in terms of speed for an outfielder and quite frankly, he may be slow for a first basemen. He too, like Vernon Wells has good contact hitting skills but is also not a line-drive hitter, but nor does he have Wells’ raw power either. To hit .287 in 2009, Rivera made contact almost 90% of the time while posting his best line drive rate (17.6%) since 2006. Given his history, he could potentially have another reason similar to 2009, but I doubt he ever hits 25 home runs again given ground-ball rates in the mid-forty percent range each of the past two seasons. Consider him as a fourth or fifth option in AL only leagues who might hit in the .270’s with 18 home runs. An a positive note, at least because of his contact making skills, he has never had much of a platoon split and has actually hit right-handers better than lefties over the course of his career.

The Gorzelanny Deal

The Nationals continue to be aggressive this off-season acquiring Tom Gorzelanny from the Cubs in exchange for prospects. Gorzelanny’s acquisition means Carlos Silva will get a reprieve and will once again have the inside track to the Cubs’ fifth starter’s job. Gorzelanny will take one of the Nationals’ rotation spots, but is not guaranteed to keep it. Keep in mind that the Nationals do expect Chien-Ming Wang to join the rotation sometime in the mid to late spring. Gorzelanny, now 28, has yet to regain a feel for his once good control posting a 4+ BB/9 in 2010. What he did do was change in approach, mostly scrapping his curve in favor of his slider while continuing to work in the upper eighties with his fastball, along with a low-eighties changeup. Gorzelanny is an extreme fly-ball pitcher, so do note that his 6.8% HR/FB rate is likely to regress and that rise. On the other hand, he also posted a .320 BABIP and he could improve there, off-setting some of the damage from home runs.  Gorzelanny is still in his prime and has shown better skills in the past so there is potential for more. The key is his control.  However, there is also plenty of risk with here too, given that the righty has had injury issues in the past. Part of me says his best role may be in relief. I consider Gorzelanny a worthwhile gamble as a low-single digits NL only end-game option at the moment.

In return for Gorzelanny, the Pirates received minor leaguers Michael Burgess, A.J. Morris, and Graham Hicks. None of these three players are of high note. Burgess has the best pedigree as a former first round pick. A 22-year old, left-handed hitting right-fielder with the defensive chops and arm to handle the position, Burgess has 20+, homer power in his bat. He has an all or nothing approach, walking with some consistency, but also having a penchant for striking close to 30% of the time. This is a concern considering Buirgess has very little experience above A+ ball with just 86 Double-A plate appearances. Long-term he now looks like a platoon right-fielder at best. A.J. Morris is a 24-year old right-handed reliever whose highest level of experience rests at A+ ball. He is a ground-ball pitcher with pretty good control and will likely be pushed up the ladder more aggressively with a new organization. Graham Hicks, 20, is a fringe prospect. He is a tall left-handed starter who may and some velocity, but who needs to refine his command and secondary stuff. Hicks could end up anywhere from minor league roster filler to a fifth starter or left-handed relief specialist.

Veteran Starter Signings

The Mets finalized signing Chris Young to an incentive-laden, one-year deal.  The 31-year old right-handed pitcher, has been oft-injured, and undergone surgery on his shoulder, but is now more than a year-and-a-half removed from surgery to remove bone chips, a procedure that is not at all career threatening or the type of injury that typically has long-term impacts on a pitchers’ performance. However, Young, who may have tried to push too hard in his comeback from the surgery last season, ended up straining his shoulder, and spent most of 2010 on the disabled list as a result. Injury caveats aside, Young from 2005 to 2007 made 30 or more starts in three consecutive seasons and still owns a career 7.8 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9. He has, however, not produced a sub-4.0 BB/9 since 2007.  Young has also seen his velocity fall off quite a bit: to the mid eighties each of the past two years whereas at his peak, he was averaging close to 90. Given Young's injury history relates to his shoulder; keep a close eye on the radar gun this spring. That will be the best sign as to how healthy he really is.

Carl Pavano returned to the Twins for 2 more years after winning 17 games and throwing the most innings he has thrown in a single season (221) since 2004. From a skills standpoint, Pavano is very similar still to the pitcher he was in 2004 with the Marlins – excellent control and command, but not much of a strikeout threat, though that does not matter as much when you have a 3:1 K/BB ratio, walk less than 2 batters per nine innings, and keep the ball on the ground over 50% of the time while allow fly-balls only 30% of the time. The ground-ball and fly-ball marks were both nearly career bests for Pavano (he posted a slightly lower FB-against rate in 2002, but only over 136 innings). Pavano also produced a .286 BABIP and 74% left-on-base rate. The former number combined being with a ground-ball pitcher, who typically have a higher BABIP’s than fly-ball pitchers, pretty much guarantees regression to occur, though to a more typical low to mid 4’s inning eater ERA than a complete collapse that is.

The Royals are biding their time for a promising group of youngsters, and what they are seeking are innings. In the case of their two most recent signings, they are hoping for some innings that might actually keep them in a ball game or two. To that effort, they are bringing back Bruce Chen and bringing in Jeff Francis, each to one-year deals. Both pitchers are former elite-level prospects who have had had some good seasons in their past and glimpses of potential for more.

For Chen, injuries have never been an issue. In fact, he has only been on the disabled list twice in his entire career – both non-arm injuries. Now thirty-three years old, he is coming off of his best season since 2005.  He is also a poster-boy for good K/BB peripherals without the success to back it up. The soft-tossing left-hander has a career 7.0 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 and posted a 6.3 and 3.7 BB/9 last year. He works with a mid-80’s fastball, slider, change, and curve.

Chen’s issue continues to be fly balls, allowing them nearly 50 percent of the time last year. He owns a career 13 percent HR/FB rate too. Last year’s success was buoyed by an 8.6 percent HR/FB, .286 BABIP and slightly above average 74.6 percent left-on base rate. The result was still a 4.17 ERA and 1.38 WHIP.  Unless he can show better command and control, which he has done on more than one occasion in the past, including a 2.2 BB/9 in the minors last year, it’s a fair bet that he will actually decline this upcoming season. He is a $1 or reserve round pick with upside, but plenty of potential to post a 5.00+ ERA too given the home run issues.

Francis, 30, showed a lot of promise in the early goings in 2004 and then started more than 30 games for three consecutive seasons, though at times showing marked drop-offs in strikeout rates. Eventually his shoulder wore down, requiring shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Over the entirety of his career – even when he was headed towards surgery – he has at least been able to throw strikes. The highest walk rate of his career came in 2005 at 3.4/9, and is coming off the best of his career at a 2.0. He has also been effective over the course of his career, as far as keeping the ball on the ground, and extremely effective, especially when you consider he has pitched the entirety of his career in Colorado, at keeping the ball in the park – career 10.5 percent HR/FB and 1.0 HR/9.

However, as one would expect of someone who has come back from torn labrum surgery, Francis may no longer be much of a strikeout pitcher, though his pitch selection and velocity is actually pretty much unchanged from his earlier days with an upper-80’s fastball, curve, and changeup combination. Still, he has the ability to post at least a mid-to-upper 5’s K/9 and that, combined with his ground-ball skills, a move to a more pitcher friendly park, and a bit more luck (64.5 LOB percent and 3.22 BABIP) could make him worth owning in AL only leagues in 2011. I’d be willing to go $1 to $3 right now in that format and wouldn’t be surprised to see others bid him to $4 to $6, depending on the context of the auction.

From a roster-impact standpoint, Francis could end up being the team’s opening day starter with Chen slotting as high as #2 and as low as #4. Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies will likely claim two of the other slots leaving the number five spot a competition between Vin Mazzaro, Sean O’Sullivan, Robinson Tejeda, and Zach Miner.

In hitting news, Jim Thome re-upped for one year with the Twins. It took awhile for the Twins to give him a chance, but once they did, they got pretty much the same old Thome – all or nothing power-hitting, walk-generating machine. The 40-year old is now a fairly strict platoon player coming off of a .241/.298 OBP/.471 SLG performance against lefties, but walked 22 percent of the time while striking out 26 percent against righties and slugging nearly .700. Quite frankly, while the power is a bit extreme, is not out of contents with his career performance. Used judiciously, Thome is still very capable of another 25+ home run season. He missed a little time here and there to some back issues and a contusion to his thigh, but the Twins would be wise to consider giving him as many opportunities to face right-handed pitching as possible.

That said, reality takes over, and the Twins have plenty of players vying for playing time who are not very good defensive players in Michael Cuddyer and Justin Kubel. Cuddyer has better power and loft against lefties, so he would make a decent platoon partner for Thome. Expect Thome’s playing time to be rather similar to last season. While his bat suggests he should see more playing time against righties, keeping a 40+ plus year old healthy for as much time as possible is the Twins priority and they have enough in-house options to rotate the playing time to do it. Still, despite the possibly erratic playing time, I suspect I will not once again be able to snag him for a $1 cricket-bid at Tout Wars this season.

The Mets, meanwhile, brought in another contender for the starting second-base/utility-infielder/outfielder gig by signing Willie Harris to a minor league contract. The 32-year-old’s game has pretty much stayed the same throughout his career. He is a patient hitter, but has just a career .327 OBP as a result of this misguided idea that the 5’9” player can hit for power. Yes, he has topped the low-teens in home runs on more than one occasion, but all the while he has struck out 20 percent of the time and in recent seasons when he has eclipsed the 10 homerun marks, he has hit more fly ball than desired. In other words, it is not great surprise that despite having above average speed, his career BABIP stands at .281. Harris is not a particularly good fielder at any position, but is passable at third and left field. If he makes the club, it will likely be as a back-up and he may have difficulty topping his 2010 plate-appearance total at that.

The Dodgers added Marcus Thames to their outfield contingent, creating a power-hitting platoon of Jay Gibbons and Thames. Thames is a career .264 hitter against lefties, which is not all that special. However, what you may not know is that against righties Thames is a more patient hitter and strikes out only a quarter of the time rather than nearly a third of the time that he does against right-handed pitching. He is an extreme fly-ball hitter (51 percent of the time over his career) who tries to hit the long-ball and continues to do so fairly well at 15 percent HR/FB last year and at 17 percent of the time over his career. Right now I would keep my expectations at around the 250 at-bat level with 12 to 15 home runs. The less he has to face righties, the higher his batting average will be.

In a move that signals a vote of confidence, the A’s have recently signed two veteran relievers in Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour. Both have been closers in the past and Fuentes, quite successfully at that. Andrew Bailey is still the closer in name, but while his performance was impressive, he is still coming back from elbow surgery. On the good side of things – bone chip surgery is not career threatening, pitchers have come back from quite strongly in the past, so I would not be bailing on him if I owned him. The issue is that it can take some after surgery to get the feel for pitching back and that time is not often a luxury for closers especially when other qualified candidates are available.

Speaking of the qualified candidates, Fuentes signed a two-year deal with an option for a third with the A’s. He still has closer-worthy skills, coming off an 8.8 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9. Despite being an extreme fly-ball allowing pitcher, home runs have never been an issue for him which is a testament to the quality of his offerings.  If used only a loogy, which he need not be considering a career 9+ K/9 and 2.2 K/BB against righties, he is death with an 11+ K/9 and 2.9 BB/9. He does struggle with his control against righties and has watching his strikeout rates dip a little bit, to 7.7, against righties. There is no reason to not expect him to be the A’s #1 fallback option to Bailey.

Grant Balfour has never held down a closer’s job, at least for an extended period anyway, but generally speaking has the stuff to do with a good fastball, slider combo that allowed him to post yet another 9+ K/9 season. He also showed the best control of his career with a 2.8 BB/9. Where Balfour has come up short in the past at times has been his command – where he would overthrow and his fastball would a bit too straight. He no longer throws quite as hard on average as he once did and utilizes his slider to a higher degree. It had gotten to the point in 2008 where he was throwing it over 90 percent of the time and over 80 percent in 2009. Last year he was throwing it 75 percent of the time while working in more sliders and curves. Like Fuentes he is a fly-ball pitcher, but given his ability to miss bats has never had an issue with allowing the home run -  7.1 percent HR/FB for his career. He also has little to no platoon split, striking out 10 batters per nine innings pitched over his career against lefties and righties alike. He actually struggles with his control more against righties than lefties. More important than anything else is the amount of depth this brings to the A’s pen as Fuentes and Balfour join not only Bailey, but Mike Wuertz, Brad Ziegler, Joey Devine, Jeremy Blevins, and Craig Breslow to name a few. While there is always the potential for injury, this pen screams out “inherited-runs scored reducers” and provides some extra incentive to consider Oakland starters.

The Yankees made a significant splash in the reliever market signing Rafael Soriano to a three-year deal for $35 million while surrendering their first round pick (#31 overall) to the Rays.  Given the size and scope of the deal (closer-money), the Yankees obviously intend for Soriano to eventually supplant Rivera as the closer, perhaps as soon as 2012.

The move is a clear show of no-confidence in Joba Chamberlain to assume the closer’s job upon Rivera’s retirement. From a pure K/9, BB/9, stuff standpoint Chamberlain displayed closer skills, but upon closer examination in high-leverage situations, he had issues with the long-ball. His struggles last season, strike me mostly as small sample size issues – most of the season he was a fairly dominant ground-ball pitcher who allowed few home runs otherwise. Perhaps he lacks the mental toughness to close, perhaps that ability will resurface, and that he just had rough stretch in July and September that put a black mark on his ERA. At this point it does not like that opportunity will emerge with the Yankees and Chamberlain should be valued as the middle reliever he will be in 2011.

Getting back to Soriano: The goods new here – he did not spend a single day on the DL in 2010. He also has not been out due to an elbow-related issue since 2008. He is now almost 6 years removed from Tommy John and two years from surgery to remove bone spurs and an ulnar nerve transposition. (Thank you Corey Dawkins at baseballinjurytool.com, you rock). So while he now has a clean bill of health, keep in mind that the Rays were able to limit Soriano’s workload given their excellent bullpen of 2010 and limited him to just 64 games and 62.1 innings pitched. As a setup man, the workload will rise, so while he did pitch in 77 games in 2009, and he is likely well rested after a low-intensity 2010,  it will still be interesting to see how he holds up to a more consistent usage pattern.

On the skills side of things, Soriano did experience a drop off in his K/9 12.1 to 8.2, but also at the same improved his control greatly, reducing his BB/9 from 3.2 to 2.0. Much of this is likely in part due to reducing how often he threw his fastball and the development of a cut-fastball to battle lefties, though how well it worked is questionable when you consider Soriano had nearly a 9:1 K/BB against righties and a 2.2 vs. lefties with a strikeout rate under 7.0, the lowest mark of his career. His splits were actually much less dramatic when he was using just his fastball and slider. Go figure.

So while the Yankees were shelling out serious cash to Rafael Soriano, the Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth to a one-year deal with team options for 2012 and 2013. Given the number of departures from the Rays’ pen, Farnsworth could actually end up being the favorite to close on opening day – though I would keep my eyes on Jake McGee as a superior long-term option. Farnsworth will turn 35 shortly after opening day. In 60 games between two teams he produced a very solid 8.6 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9. He still averages close to 95 mph on his fastball, but what has made him a different pitcher over the past two seasons was the development of a cut fastball. This has allowed him to increase his ground-ball rate into the forty-percent range while at the same helped him to reduce his vulnerability to the long-ball, which had plagued for much of his career.

Farnsworth is still far more dominant though against righties with a near 10.0 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 while his K/9 was around 7.0 and his BB/9 just over 3.0. In other words, I am finding him rather comparable to Rafael Soriano above at a fraction of the cost. Farnsworth has rarely been used in the closer role; he might finally be armed with the skills to handle it and certainly will have more opportunity, at least in 2011, than Soriano will, provided of course the Rays do not acquire anyone with more closer credentials between now and opening day.

And finishing up our reliever related news; Jon Rauch signed a one-year deal with the Blue Jays. The Jays have already signed Octavio Dotel and brought back Jason Frasor. In theory the closer’s role is wide-open, but most likely it will go to Dotel. Rauch, however, did a fairly credible job as the Twins’ closer until Matt Capps was brought in at the trade deadline. In 59 games he posted a respectable 7.2 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 and was successfully in 84 percent of save opportunities. So while his skill set suggests that he is better utilized as a setup man, he has at least proven he can handle the job if used in that role. It is a certainly a wise idea to back up any Dotel purchases with him and vice versa.

 

 

Time to catch on some of the recent happenings around the Major Leagues. Today's theme seems to be players with skills, whose playing time this season is indeterminate. These players will be subject to the position battles of spring training.

If you recall, in my last Diamond Exchange, the Rangers had designated Max Ramirez for assignment and I suggested you keep an eye on where he might land. At the time of that writing, knowing that the Red Sox once previously tried to claim him, they would make another attempt. However, the Cubs snagged Ramirez when the Sox tried to pass through waivers. Unfortunately with the Cubs, who just also signed Koyie Hill to a one-year deal, Ramirez does not look like a factor given the presence and resurgence of Geovany Soto. This rollercoaster, however, may be far from over as the Cubs too will need to pass him through waivers and yet another club may try to acquire Ramirez' bat.

The Mariners added to their middle-infield stable, signing Adam Kennedy to a minor league contract. The 34-year old’s skills generally line up well with his career performance except for the sharp drop-off in power, though indeed, his power has been known to fluctuate quite a bit over the course of his career. He still makes good contact, in the mid to upper eighties range and still possesses some speed skills, swiping 14 bags in 16 attempts. A .249 batting average can be linked to an out of career context .274 BABIP, compared to his .301 mark. He was still hitting line drives more than 20% of the time in 2010, so I believe a rebound is possible. The question is playing time. The Mariners value defense and having given Brendan Ryan a two-year contract, they will go with an initial infield of Smoak, Ryan, Figgins, and Wilson to start while hoping Dustin Ackley makes progress in Triple-A and comes to claim the second base job as early as possible. There is a chance he could push into a platoon role with Ryan to start the season and that word serve Kennedy well, being the left-handed player in that equation, but most likely it appears he will end up in a utility role and could perhaps receive his fewest plate appearances of his career since his rookie season.

Fred Lewis signed a one-year deal with the Reds this week, to an increasingly crowded outfield situation. The Reds already have Jay Bruce entrenched in right field and Drew Stubbs in center. Meanwhile, Jonny Gomes, Jeremy Hermida, Chris Heisey, Lewis are all competing for playing time. The likely scenario has Lewis platooning on a frequent basis with Gomes who struggles against righties, hitting for barely a .300 OBP last year against them and has a career .232 .308 OBP line against them. Lewis could also spell the right-handed Stubbs, but Stubbs actually fared better against righties than lefties, so there may actually be some room for growth there. As a result, Heisey, in order to receive consistent playing time will return to Triple-A, despite having nothing left to prove there.  Long term the Reds have quite a few situations to resolve with Heisey ready, and both Yonder Alonso and Todd Frazier nearly so. I would expect the left field situation, at the very least, to remain in flux despite Lewis’s signing. As for Lewis’ offensive skills, they profile well as a centerfielder given moderate power and above-average speed, but he has a long history of striking out too often for someone of his mid-teens power skills. Neither has Lewis been able to translate his patience to the Majors. His 2010 performance really looks like about the best one can expect from him.

Will Ohman signed a two-year deal with the White Sox and will serve in the same capacity he has served in for much of his career:  loogy. He’s well suited to the role with a career 10.0+ K/9 and 4.1 BB/9. While hOhlman has some skills against righties, his K/9 drops off to the 7’s and his control fades significantly, moving close to 5.0. With Matt Thornton the likely closer, Ohman will not be getting vulture saves against tough lefties, unfortunately.

 

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