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Sunday 23rd Apr 2017

Heading into the 2010 off-season one of the most likely expected outcomes was a trade by the Rays of one of their veteran starts to clear a spot for Jeremy Hellickson. The Cubs, in need of depth, ended up being the suitor and ultimately landed Matt Garza, Fernando Perez, and Zachary Rosscup for Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld.

As stated, the Tampa Bay MLB roster impact is simply the sliding in of Hellickson into Garza’s rotation spot while Chris Archer will head to Double-A or Triple-A, Lee will head to A+ ball, and Guyer will head to Double-A or Triple-A. Sam Fuld and Robinson Chirinos will both most likely head to Triple-A, but will compete for a back-up outfield and catcher spots respectively too.

Over in Chicago, Garza will likely slot as the number two starter behind Ryan Dempster with Carlos Silva possibly out of a job/shifting to a mop-up or long-relief role. Perez will head to Triple-A or compete for a back-up outfield spot while Rosscup will move to full-season A or A+ ball.

Garza, 27, does not quite look like the ace he was once projected to be, but he certainly has the skills and talent to be at least a solid #3 starter. He relies heavily on his plus fastball, throwing it more than 70% of the time, and using his slider, curve, and change less than 30% of the time. It is actually impressive that he gets as many strikeouts as he does given his pitch selection percentages which in turn tells you just how good that fastball indeed is and how well he commands it. The caveats surrounding Garza are his batting average on balls in play which has consistently been well below .300 for three straight seasons as well as fly-ball tendencies. Thus far he has managed to keep his HR/FB at reasonable rates over his career. Due in part to an excellent Tampa Bay pen, Garza has also managed a relatively high LOB% in the mid 70’s, helping to keep his ERA under 4.00.  After all, his career ERA sits at 3.97. While no longer having to face designated hitters will certainly help Garza, it still does not take much imagination to foresee his ERA moving above 4.00. Given his age, there is still some room left for improvement and a possible K/9 bounce-back, but given the variability in his skill set and the caveats I outlined above, I would have difficulty chasing him if the bidding got into the upper teens.

As for the Cubs’ other acquisitions, Fernando Perez is a nearly 28-year old journeyman switch hitter who strikes out far too often for someone of his limited power skills. He plays decent defense and has above average speed, but profiles as a fifth outfielder at best. Rosscup is not a heralded prospect either. He is a 22-year left-handed starter and a former 28th round draft pick. He’s a crafty lefty who dominated the NY-Penn League (as he should as a former college pitcher) who showed excellent command, walking less than 2 batters per nine innings while striking out over 8 per nine. He will get his first taste of full-season ball this season. Given his age, he should perhaps be skipped over A-ball to A+ ball, but he does at this time necessarily project as a major league player.

Doing my best to resist puns, Chris Archer perhaps the prize of the deal for the Rays. The 22-year old right-hander has a deadly fastball/slider combination and does a good job of keeping the ball on the ground. His changeup earns mixed reviews, but has some potential to be a solid third MLB pitch. Worst case scenario would have Archer as a possible closer candidate on the strength of his primary two weapons. The main area of concern with respect to Archer has been the consistency of his control and his command. While he posted a 3.2 BB/9 in A+ ball earlier in the season it soared to 5+ in Double-A and it has often been at that level or above multiple times in his minor league career. There’s potential here, but there is still a good deal of rawness too.

Sam Fuld’s inclusion in this deal makes the Fernando Perez part of it feel like the Cubs and Rays were just flip-flopping Triple-A roster filler. While the Cubs may have gotten the younger player, the Rays got the better one. Fuld is 29-years old and has been up and down with the Cubs since 2007. He’s known for his solid contact-making and plate discipline skills  as well as above average speed skills in the minors. In 2010 he walked 15% of the time while making contact about 90% of the time. Fuld, however, lacks power, and can be overpowered by MLB pitchers. Still, this is a skill set that would be interesting to see get a chance as a back-up outfielder.

Hak-Ju Lee only just turned twenty and is a few years away from the Majors. Right now his game is based around his speed as a potential 30 steals or more per season player and defense. Those two elements along should allow him to make the majors as a utility player. He is also already showing some selectivity, walking over 10% of the time in low-A ball and makes fair, but not great, contact. At 6’2” he is projectable and could add more power, but it remains to be seen. If he does not, he will have to improve a bit on his strikeout rates which are in the higher teens. I wouldn’t go as far as to recommend him as a taxi-squad/minor league draft player this year, but he is certainly someone to watch.

Brandon Guyer intrigues me. Yes he will turn 25 in just a few weeks, but he has good across the board tools and has a good contact-making, speed, and power combination. His weakness is in the on-base department because of his solid contact-making (86.5% of the in 2010)/aggressive approach. He has 20 HR/30+ steal potential, but there is no current opportunity available to him. He will head to Triple-A in 2011, but could challenge for a back-up job and if there are injuries, could at least see time as a right-handed half of a platoon.

Finally, Robinson Chirinos, is another journeyman player, but also another one with a good history of high-quality plate discipline skills. In 2010 he walked and struck out 13% of the time while showing mid-teens home run per season power with 15 at Double-A and adding 3 more in Triple-A. He came to catching late, but as a former shortstop, he moves well and has soft hands behind the plate and has acclimated to the position fairly well actually. Given John Jaso’s struggles against lefties, Chirinos could almost be a mirror image platoon partner for him in the long run.

It is impossible to declare a winner at this time. It really could go either way. The impact on the Rays side may not be felt for awhile as Archer and Lee, the two principle pieces on their end, are still both quite raw. So they could either be potential main-stays or be complete flops. Guyer, Chirinos, and Fuld could all play bit parts in Tampa Bay this year and as much as I am rooting for all three to get a shot to see what they do, it is unlikely to happen unless there are injuries or some unexpected ineffectiveness from their starters, and in the long run they could all end up back-ups or minor league roster filler. As for Garza and the Cubs, this is not a short-term move as Garza will not be eligible for free agency for a few more seasons. He has, as discussed, room for growth as well as plenty of potential to regress as his BABIP in particular suggests he should. Time will tell.

World Series hero Edgar Renteria signed a one-year deal with the Reds this week and will replace Orlando Cabrera as their primary shortstop. The move is a bit of an odd one as the Reds, having gone through a season with a post-prime, declining shortstop, have opted to bring in another one who like Renteria, spent a good amount of time on the disabled list in 2010, and one despite being  a bit younger, is not quite as good as him defensively. Offensively the signs of decline are all over the place with Renteria – a 3-year trend of increasing strikeouts, a noticeable dip in power with each of the past two seasons at the sub .100 isolated power mark and a just above 4% HR/FB mark that sadly cannot be blamed on park conditions as his performance in these areas was actually worse than at home in 2010 and have been for two straight seasons in terms of his HR/FB ratio Renteria may be able to muster enough contact-making skills to hit in the .270’s, but is not likely to crack the 10 HR mark again even with the move to favorable park conditions, removing him from even the middle tiers of shortstops now.

Adam LaRoche signed a two-year deal with the Nationals to be their first basemen. The multi-year contract tells you how much faith the organization has in Chris Marrero who is now likely on the trading block as a result of this move. Outwardly, LaRoche looks like a pinnacle of consistency with three straight seasons of 25 home runs. However, while accomplishing it this season, he showed the worst plate discipline of his career with his highest strikeout rate ever (5% higher than 2009) and lowest walk rate since 2005. AS a result of his free-swinging ways, he hit just .260 and that had to be supported by a .330 BABIP. On the positive side, LaRoche displayed little to no platoon split and park conditions had little impact on his season as his home/away splits are quite similar as well. And finally, he also produced the lowest line-drive rate of his career which can account for some of the batting average drop-off. So the question remains – was the 30% strikeout, a rate he was at all season long without much variation, a new norm for him, or simply a fluke when contrasted against his career norms? My sense – most likely it is a fluke and that given his career; it is likely that he will regress to his means, which would be an improvement actually.

Adrian Beltre parlayed his great 2010 campaign into a 6-year deal with the Rangers. The Rangers in turn significantly upgrade their defense at third going from the sub-par Young to perhaps the best defensive third basemen in baseball. Young, meanwhile, is slated to play DH, but it also would not be surprising to see him get a trial in left field should the Rangers tire of their current centerfield options and opt to shift Josh Hamilton back there. Getting back to Beltre, 2009’s campaign can be written off, at least certainly in the power department, due to the injuries. The rest I am not completely convinced and despite producing the best contact rate of his career and a 19% line-drive rate, I am not convinced he is a legitimate .300 hitter. 2010 was only the second time in his career he produced a batting average on balls in play above .325 and .331 in 2010 was his highest mark. Beltre has been a good contact hitter throughout his career, but never a selective one, and has been produced a very variable line-drive rate and overall for his career he has a .294 BABIP. While I believe he is a lock, health permitting, for another 25 to 30 home run season, I would not be at all surprised to see him drop back into the .270’s in terms of batting average.

Tomorrow, my thoughts on the Matt Garza deal.

Now that the holiday season has passed, as expected, the hot stove league action has picked up again. What we have been seeing lately are a series of sensible, relatively lost cost, low-commitment moves by teams. The players below will not be challenging to acquire. There will be quite a bit of hesitation when the bidding gets too high (above $1 in some cases) names come up or they are likely to slip in a draft too. But almost all of them have something in common – they have the skill or have shown the skill in the past that could easily earn them a profit.

Starting with the hitters, the Orioles would not concede to the multi-year contract demands of Adam LaRoche, and instead opted to give Derrek Lee a simple one-year deal. This is a not an upside move and a clear stop-gap for either the farm system to produce some talent (unlikely) or to weigh in on some more attractive free agents down the road. At 35, Lee definitely showed some weaknesses last season posting his highest strikeout rate since 2003 and the lowest isolated power and HR/FB percentage of his entire career, not to mention his lowest batting average against right-handers of his career. The latter should not be too shocking, considering the decline in contact skills though. He is still a patient hitter and lower back problems likely contributed to the power loss, so there is a chance he could rebound, but one has to weigh that against his age and the tendency of back injuries to recur, especially when you consider the twisting motion that batters are required to endure. Generally speaking I think the Orioles will get a return on this low-cost investment based on what Lee was able to accomplish in 2010 despite the down-year. After all, I am talking about him like he died and yet he did earn $18 in NL only 5x5 leagues, according to Mastersball.com’s numbers. I might set that as my ceiling for 2011 and I would not be surprised to see him go for less at all.

The other hitting note of recent consequence was the Rangers designation of Max Ramirez for assignment. Ramirez has been long-known as an offensively minded catcher best suited to playing DH or perhaps first base. He didn’t hit particularly well during his call-up to the Rangers this season, but then again he only played in 28 games and received just 85 plate appearances. It would be interesting to see Ramirez get opportunity to play regularly with a club that would consider overlooking his defense or could find another place to play. He has legitimate 20+, if not 30+ home run per season power and throughout his career has been an exceedingly patient hitter. His short-comings, however, are 1) he is right-handed 2) his strikeout rates have been erratic over his career so his ceiling, if he cannot reign the strikeouts in, could be as a wrong-side of the platoon hitter, and 3) he is now well past prospect age at 26. Over larger samples, in the minors, he has shown an ability to produce sub 25% strikeout rates, but he may not get the chance. Watch to see if anyone claims him off waivers.

Our final hitter, for this piece, is Jeremy Hermida who signed a minor league deal with the Reds on Tuesday. A failed former top prospect, Hermida will be 27 prior to opening day, has a history of getting injured, and his power has been in decline for four straight seasons. If he is healthy, the power could return, but there is no more mystery surrounding him. He is not the once promising potential 20-20 guy as the speed is gone. He has a career batting average of .232 against lefties and the way he will have to stick in the majors is as a platoon player. Cincinnati is a good place for him to reassert that power, but this is a team with multiple options that are ahead of him on the depth charts and winning a spot on the roster is far from guaranteed.

Loogy-Time

The past week has seen a decent investment in the left-handed relief specialist market with Pedro Feliciano heading across town to the Yankees, Arthur Rhodes moving to Texas, and Hideki Okajima returning to Boston. Their roles are certain, the chances for saves for any of these pitchers will be far from consistent and will likely only happen if their closer is struggling or unavailable and a tough lefty is at the plate for the final out. Feliciano draws quite a few eyes for the number of games he has pitched over the past four years as he had had a four-year rising trend going from 78 games to 92 games in 2010. His total inning pitched total, however, is far less alarming with his highest total coming in 2007 at 64 innings. In other words, pretty reasonable totals. The unknown toll on his arm comes from how often he has been warming up over the course of those four seasons. That aside, he has kept his K/9 above 8.0 for each of this seasons. He will never be noted for good control, considering that he struggles to throw strikes against righties (His K/BB against righties last year was actually an atrocious 1.0).

Rhodes, 41, has had a far lighter workload and in fact has just 1154 innings pitched over an almost 20 year career. The book on him is the same it has been for some time – he gives up plenty of fly-balls and is prone to high home run rates, should not face righties, but dominates lefties completely – 26:1 K/BB ratio against lefties in 23 innings. I would not be surprised to be writing something similar about Arthur Rhodes in another five years’ time and wonder if he will try to pitch until he is 50 and make a run at Jesse Orosco’s record. Besides, he is still 400 games behind Jesse Orosco on the all-times games pitched list. 402 more games to go.

Hideki Okajima, 35, is not trending in the right direction. 2010 was the third straight season of strikeout rate decline and his BB/9 was the highest of his MLB career at 3.9. A .354 BABIP on top of that ruined his ERA. It was also not encouraging to see him post a lower K/9 against lefties than against righties. In actuality, although he has been mostly used as a specialist, his splits are not that of a specialist. Only his first two seasons did he have a K/9 against lefties that was substantially higher than his K/9 against righties while his BB/9 has actually been more stable against righties than lefties over his MLB career. The one area where being utilized as a left-handed specialist may be wise is his home runs allowed to right-handed hitters over the past two seasons. I would not expect to see him in the saves mix at all.

In non-loogy news, the Orioles were already in negotiations with him, but the recent arrest of Alfredo Simon, may have increased the Orioles urgency with respect to the 2-year deal just given to Kevin Gregg. Technically Gregg will have to compete with Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez for the closer’s job, but his history and his durability, especially with respect to the lack thereof in that area of his two prime competitors stands in his favor. Gregg is not a closer for the faint of hearts given his inconsistent control and only an 81% career save-conversion rate. He still has posted a K/9 around 9.0 the last two years and generally keeps the ball in the park, though 2009 he did allow a 15+% HR/FB rate. Gregg also has some interesting career splits where he has superior command against righties with a career 3.2 BB/9, but only a 6.9 K/9. Against lefties, due to his cut-fastball, he has a career 10.0 K/9 and a 4.4 BB/9. So it is easy to see how he runs into issues and how that volatility in those splits makes him a pitcher that one should never been full value on, as his closer’s role, if he even wins it, could always be in jeopardy.

Reclamation Projects

The Mets, meanwhile, signed a right-handed reliever of their own in Taylor Buchholz to a one-year deal. After failing as a starting pitching prospect with the Astros, the Rockies converted him to relief and in 2008 he posted a 7.6 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 along with a 2.17 ERA (though heavily aided by .234 batting average on balls in play). Since then he has spent a lot of time on the disabled list as he recovered from Tommy John Surgery. At his peak he had a good low-nineties fastball/curveball combination. His very good control has yet to resurface, however, following the surgery. That will be the determining factor for how long he sticks, if at all, with the Mets.

Buchholz was not the only reclamation project the Mets signed as they also added former Brewer Chris Capuano to compete for a rotation or bullpen spot. In 66 innings last year, Capuano posted some solid numbers sporting a 7.4 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9, splitting time between the pen and middle-relief. The good BB/9 numbers are quite encouraging for a pitcher who has twice undergone the knife for Tommy John surgery, but do not get too excited just yet. First consider the fact that he has not pitched over 150 innings since 2007. If he continues to stay healthy, however, Citi Field could be a good fit for a pitcher with a history of giving up home runs at nearly 12% of the time per fly-ball allowed. Consider him as a $1 end-game option in NL only formats.

The Rangers added a reclamation project of their own, purchasing the services of Brandon Webb. Webb underwent arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder back in August of 2009 and has pitched in one game since then. At the time of the surgery the good news was that no damage to his labrum was reported and that it was felt that he should be able to recover from the injury.  He did, at least, pass his physical with the Rangers in order to even sign this contract. That said, when healthy we know what Brandon Webb is capable of – strikeouts, excellent control, and dominant ground-ball rates. So it makes sense that the Rangers would pursue him considering the friendliness of their ballpark to home runs. That said, reports of Webb’s velocity still have him in the eighties and that is a rather huge red flag. Watch him throughout this spring and see watch the velocity reports and bid accordingly. I almost see him as more of a potential keeper target for 2012 given the likely low-bidding than a potential help for 2011.

 

 

As typical of the last few weeks of December, the transaction market has slowed down. Looking over the last several years, the last time there was any excitement was 2006 when Barry Zito, Jeff Suppan and Kei Igawa signed multi-year deals and John Danks was dealt for Brandon McCarthy. In retrospect, perhaps 2006 gave teams reason to approach the holiday season with more caution. Anyway, the point is, things are quiet, but not that quiet and indeed some moves that will have an impact on the 2011 season were accomplished.

The Brewers have been busy, making some key depth improvements by signing Takashi Saito, Sean Green and Craig Counsell all to one-year deals.

The Padres, as expected, made a stop-gap move by signing Brad Hawpe to man first base while Anthony Rizzo gets some needed experience in the upper-levels of the minors. Looking at Hawpe's raw numbers and playing time, one can see why Hawpe has to settle for a one-year deal. He suffered through both a quad and a rib cage injury which robbed him of playing time, and quite possibly his power too and ultimately led to his release and time spent in limbo-land, the minors, and as a bench player for the Rays late in the season. One does not have to dig to deep to note that Hawpe's underlying numbers are quite similar to his career marks - walking over 12% of the time while striking out more than a quarter, with fly-ball rates in line with his career norms. His line drive rate was slightly lower than normal and his lowest since 2005, though still just under a very solid 20%. The real change in his game was a decrease in raw power with a 7% slide in his HR/FB to a mediocre just over 10% and his first sub-.200 isolated power mark since 2005. Therefore the question with Hawpe is he at just 31 years of age washed up or did the injuries he suffered in May and June (the latter of which lasted through July) really to blame? That question, which really cannot be answered until the season starts, renders him an end-game pick in NL only leagues. And then, even if he is 100% and his power has indeed returned it may end up not being that apparent considering he is moving to a park that is far from favorable to left-handed power hitters not named Adrian Gonzalez. At this point, I would probably be comfortable with a $4 to $6 bid as a last outfielder given limited options.

In one of two recent trades, the Astros traded right-handed reliever Matt Lindstrom to the Rockies for minor leaguers Wes Musick and Jonathan Aristil. For once Lindstrom may not be at the top of the pecking order for save opportunities should the team's closer, in this case Huston Street, go down with injury. Though he saved 23 games last season, Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle are both actually coming off stronger seasons and may have an inside edge over him unless his time as a "closer" gives him a leg up. Lindstrom posted a solid 7.3 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 along with a 49% ground-ball rate - his most attractive quality to the Rockies. He no longer relies on his fastball as he once often did and throws his slider more often now. He is best suited to a right-handed specialist role - his career K/9 against lefties sits at just over 6 and his BB/9 close to 4. That's enough to handle them on occasion, but not the skill set that can truly hold down the closer's role for over the long term.

As for the minor leaguers involved, Musick will turn 24 on Thursday and has no experience above A-ball. He's your crafty college left-hander who knows how to pitch, throw strikes (1.9 BB/9), and changes speeds well. He posted an 8.0 K/9 in A-ball, but it is likely not to translate all that well to the upper levels. At best, he profiles as a back end of the rotation starter or as a left-handed specialist reliever. Aristil, 24, is a right-handed reliever who made it as far as Triple-A this season. He has history of control and command issues who may get a cup of coffee in the Majors, but does not appear to have the stuff or the skill to stick.

In our second deal, the Mets dealt Michael Antonini to the Dodgers for Chin-lung Hu. Hu will be given a shot to claim a roster spot in spring training and will be in the mix for the starting job at second base. If based solely on defensive skills, he would win it easily. At the plate, Hu makes very consistent contact, but is not the most selective of hitters either. He has single-digits power and is known for keeping the ball on the ground at a high percentage (54% of the time over his career), but does have above average speed and was 9 for 10 in his stolen base attempts between the minors and majors last season. All that said, Hu is a bit overmatched at the MLB level and can be overpowered, particularly by right-handers who he has a career sub .200 batting average against. Should he get substantial playing time it is likely the result of an injury replacement. Antonini is a middling prospect in a similar mold to Musick, though he does have a better and more extensive track record and has marinated his K/9 above 6.0 as high as Triple-A.  I see his ceiling as a spot-starter, triple-roster filler, or as a left-hand specialist reliever type.

Octavio Dotel's deal with Toronto is now official immediately making him the front runner for the closer's gig. Though he is now 37 years of age and his velocity is not quite what it once was, he is still pretty much the same pitcher he has always been - a hard throwing righty with a plus slider who allows a lot of fly balls. He has not posted a sub 10.0 K/9 since 2006 and has actually been fairly healthy in recent seasons, pitching in at least 62 games since 2008. His age and previous injury history should make him a relative bargain, though there still are closer's skills here. Just do not be surprised if his ERA is over 4.00 given a long history of issues with allowing the long-ball.

There are a few unofficial signings out there, notably Brandon Webb with Texas, and as has always been the custom in the Diamond Exchange, I'll break those moves down when they are indeed official, in case those talks hit a last second snag.

Before I get into this latest edition of the Diamond Exchange, I want to take a moment to welcome aboard our KFFL readers. The Diamond Exchange, for almost a decade, has been my regular column. I focus on the latest key transactions, taking a more detailed approach than standard news feeds. I look at the ins and outs of roster impacts at both the Major and minor league level and analyze the involved players from both a scouting and statistical approach to give a good sense of their future performance and their fantasy impact. This column will appear on KFFL on Wednesdays, but you can catch it regularly at Mastersball.com too.

And now, let’s get into it!

With the Greinke deal behind us, we are starting to enter the phase of lesser, but yet still consequential signings, though perhaps sometimes mindboggling signings and skills that ignore a fundamental tenant of baseball – getting on base. Well, one in particular stands out from the past few days and that was the signing of Bill Hall by the Astros with the idea that he could serve as their everyday second basemen, moving Jeff Keppinger, and rightly so, to a utility role. Yes, the nearly 31-year Hall old has power. He has always had power.  That has never been the issue. He has generally had pretty decent tools in fact. He even still has pretty good speed and was successful in 9 of ten stolen base attempts last year. The issue is we are talking about giving regular playing time to a player with a career .310 OBP and a negative ultimate zone rating at every position he has ever played. He strikes out about a third of the time on a regular basis and is a streak-hitter. So to sign a player with the idea of starting him when he cannot be relied upon on defense and that there will be wide periods of time you won’t want him anywhere near your lineup is basically a self-fulfilling prophecy that will see Hall lose a starting gig. Also, there will be regression. As I noted before, Hall has always had pop in his bat, but given the context of his career, his 17.4% HR/FB rate looks like an outlier when compared to the rest of it. Only once before has he ever produced a HR/FB rate at that level or above and that was nearly 5 seasons ago. Do not under any circumstances pay for last year’s power performance. Instead, keep your expectations at around the 2007 and 2008 levels and you should not be disappointed.

Next we are brought to a trio of low-risk outfield signings. All three players were once thought of as potential stars, though one as a pitcher. Two continue our theme of disregard for on-base skills, but still have some tools; our other still has his OBP skills, but has lost his power.

Austin Kearns revived his career a little with the Indians to the point that the teams in contention were interested in him as a right-handed bat off the bench. He ended up on the Yankees late in the year via such a trade. Now he is back with the team that traded him for another go-around. The Indians would probably prefer he does not play as much as he did in 2010. I fact they would probably love to trade him late in the season again for cash or a middling prospect. What they would really prefer is that he plays a lot less, spot starting against tough left-handers and giving their starters a rest here and there. They would also prefer that Michael Brantley or perhaps even another young player like Nick Weglarz ultimately claim the left field job. They also hope that Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo stay healthy all season rather than have to play him semi-regularly. In other words, they would be very happy indeed if Kearns received less than 250, if not 200 plate appearances. All that said, Kearns is actually still in his prime at 30-years of age. He is a patient hitter, but one who strikes out consistently more than a quarter of the time, rendering him a consistent .250 to .260 hitter, though one with a career .353 OBP and no substantial platoon split versus righties or lefties meaning he has more utility than just as a right-handed hitter off the bench. The key factor keeping him in a bench role has been the disappearing act of his power. At his peak his isolated power was over .200. Since 2007, it has been below .150 and was at .132 last year and there does not seem to be any sign that the 20+ home run power once expected of him will ever return especially given fly-ball rates that now rest in the lower 30% range. At this point he is now a $1 or end-game player for AL-only league play.

Our second outfielder is Corey Patterson who signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays on Wednesday. At 30, he has established a pattern of being used as a stop-gap/short-term starter. It makes plenty of sense – he still has power/speed tools and plays above average defense, including in centerfield, but his streakiness and career .296 OBP clearly make him an undesirable option to keep in the lineup for an extended period. In Toronto, unless other signings or trades are made, he looks like an almost sure bet to make the club and could have an opportunity, though not necessarily a great idea on part of the Blue Jays to be the left-handed side of a platoon with Rajai Davis in left. In the unlikely event that lasts all season, he could receive upwards of 400 at-bats. That said, Patterson is not a good platoon player. Yes he fairs better against righties, but career .259 .300 .417 player does not stand out and say “give this guy some at-bats”. So, the Blue Jays, if the decide on such a platoon, would be ill-advised to do so for an extended period. Using Patterson and Davis as back-ups would be a much smarter move. All that said, Patterson still deserves a look as a last outfielder on AL only roster. If he plays – he steals. His career stolen base percentage stands at a very solid 79% meaning he will have the green light when his OBP skills allow him to get on first base.

Finally we come to Rick Ankiel who signed a one-year deal with the Nationals. It is hard to believe he, like Patterson, is actually older than Austin Kearns. Unlike Patterson, the 31-year old lefty does have platoon splits that make him useable on a part-time basis. Last season he hit just .164 against lefties and over his career he is just a .240 hitter against them with a 30% strikeout rate, .287 OBP and .404 SLG. In other words he is not really useable against them. Against righties, while not particularly great, he is a .254 hitter with a .327 OBP, but with a .468 SLG, and .214 isolated power. Last year he converted over 16% of his fly-balls against them into home runs while only hitting fly-balls 33% of the time – a fairly low figure. Prior to his injury-plagued 2010 campaign, he was an extreme fly-ball hitter doing so well over 40% of the time, producing similar home run per fly-ball percentages. Right now he is a potential platoon partner with Mike Morse in either right or left field. Given good health, his 2007/2008 skills are very much still there. He did not need to post extraordinary batting averages on balls in play to hit into the .260’s then and he still does not. He just needs to avoid the lefties. If he can beat out Roger Bernadina (and the Nationals do not continue to spend and sign another outfielder), he is not a bad speculative play in the end-game.

In more interesting news, Rich Harden has returned to Oakland. Insert injury caveat here. Any analysis of him begins and ends with it. The most innings he has thrown in a single season stands at 189.1 and that occurred in 2004. Since then he has eclipsed 100 innings in just three other seasons and has yet to even return to the 150 inning level. At least, however, over most of that time Harden produced strikeout and control skills – he still has a 9+ career K/9 – that made him worth spending a few bucks on in your auction or a decent late-round gamble in a draft. Well 2010 changed that as his strikeout rates dropped to a career low 7.3 and his walk rates to a career high of 6.1. His velocity on all of his pitches was down 2 to 3 mph across the board to boot. And guess what. It could have been worse. He actually managed a .284 batting average on balls in play, suppressing an ERA that could easily have been over 6.00. Harden did pass his physical despite shoulder and knee injuries suffered last season. His role is undetermined, but he will be in contention for the fifth spot with fellow oft-injured starter Brandon McCarthy. It is also possible, in a effort to perhaps preserve his health going forward, that he could be moved to a bullpen role, though I do not see how he could be used on back to back days given his history. For 2011, he is a last around or $1 gamble in AL only leagues unless he has a fantastic spring training.

The Brewers became quite the interesting NL Central threat today with the acquisition of Zach Greinke. Greinke slots in as their number one starter pushing back Yovanni Gallardo, a legitimate #1 starter in his own right to the #2 slot, and solid #2 caliber starter Shaun Marcum back to three while still having veteran left-hander Randy Wolf in as the number four man. This is a front three that will match up well against just about any playoff team and could win the Brewers a short series here or there if they indeed make the post-season.

On the offensive side of things they have dealt away both their starting shortstop and their starting centerfielder in Alicedes Escobar and Lorenzo Cain respectively. That means that Yuniesky Betancourt, also acquired in this deal, will get first crack at the shortstop gig while Carlos Gomez will get yet another chance to start too. In other words, a clear downgrade offensively, especially from an on-base skills standpoint.

The Royals, meanwhile, have a rotation of Hochevar, Davies, Mazzaro, Sean O’Sullivan, perhaps Gil Meche if he is healthy. The Royals do have several young starters (Mike Montgomery, Aaron Crow, Chris Dwyer, and Danny Duffy) who spent time in Double-A last season who could be promoted to Triple-A, but it is more likely they could remain in Double-A and would then not be factors until later in the season or even more likely, 2012 In other words, the Royals will probably try to sign some more inning eater types and have a rotation comprised of #4 and #5 at best starter types in 2011.

The Royals lineup, at least, will now include Escobar and Cain at short and in centerfield and allow Melky Cabrera to either platoon with Jeff Francouer in right or better yet, perhaps be used as a back-up altogether. Perhaps the best player acquired in the deal, starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi will advance to A+ ball, but also could be pushed to Double-A too. And Finally, Jeremy Jeffress made it to the Majors last year, but only after just 11 games of Double-A experience. It is likely he will return to the minors this season too.

Now that we've gotten the roster implications of the deal out of the way, let's sink our teeth into the meat of the discussion with some player analysis and 2011 expectations.

There really is not much that Zack Greinke does not do well. He is a four-pitch pitcher with multiple plus pitches and averages just under 94 mph on his fastball and he does all of this with excellent command and control of his pitches. Over the last four seasons he has not allowed a BB/9 above 2.7 and has averaged around 2.1 over the past two. His strikeout rates have fluctuated up and down over that same time period, but there are no warning signs of a possible fade here as he maintained his 7.4 K/9 over the course of the entire season. What it may be attributable too is perhaps, though it looks like an outlier at the moment and time will tell, as a tendency to try and get more ground ball outs as he posted his highest ground-ball rate of his career at 46% of the time Where Greinke really ran into trouble last year was his LOB% percentage. It has been in the mid to upper seventies in each of the three previous seasons, but he managed just a 65% in 2010 and his ERA went soaring as a result. A simple regression to his career norms will greatly improve this mark and moving to Milwaukee where he will not have to face DH’s regularly anymore, will supplement it. And keep in mind, that he is still in his early prime having only just turned 27 after the season ended and that his best years could easily yet be in front of him and the Brewers do not have to worry about talking contract extension until sometime in 2012, at which time they could move him as well and perhaps get an even better deal in return.

As I mentioned, the Brewers also acquired Yuniesky Betancourt as part of the Greinke package to replace Alicedes Escobar. Betancourt will be 29 to start the season and his contract goes through the end of 2011 with an option for 2012. Betancourt has OK pop in his bat for a shortstop and makes very consistent contact, doing so over 90% of the time in 2890 career at-bats. Perhaps he should consider not swining at everything, however as he has a career .296 OBP and has not hit above .260 since 2008. He rarely walks and prior to 2010, he did not eclipse the 10 HR mark and is a 2 to 4 stolen base player per season. The problem seems to lie in Betancourt’s swing – he is a fly-ball hitter who seems to think he has more power than he does, possessing a career 40% fly-ball rate and is consistently above the 10% mark in terms of making infield fly balls. In other words, if he was a bit more selective or at least leveled his swing, he might be at least able to hit for average. I suspect the Brewers will not be picking up his option and could ultimately change their shortstop before the season even ends.

So what did the Royals get?

Starting with immediate MLB impact first, Lorenzo Cain does not have much pop, but he does have 30 or more steals per season potential and is a hitter who has shown himself to be quite patient at the plate during his days in the minors and is a legitimate potential leadoff candidate for the Royals. Where he comes up short is in the strikeout department, doing so around a fifth of the time each season of his professional career. A greater focus on using his excellent speed and keeping the ball on the ground would serve him well. While I like a lot about him, I do not see a .300+ batting average being at all sustainable given a .370 BABIP and his high strikeout rates. I can see him more as a .270 to .280’s hitter at the MLB level – in other words, still a pretty good real and fantasy player, just not a great one.

Jeremy Jeffress, 23, received a much-needed conversion to a relief role this year. He has an overpowering fastball that averages over 95 mph,  a curveball that is a plus pitch too, and keeps the ball on the ground, but has never been able to consistently find the strike zone or develop a feel for his changeup to be an even average pitch, and has difficulty consistently locating his fastball and curve as well. There is top setup man or perhaps even closer potential here, but there is also a lot of work needed to be done, not to mention that Jeffress has some make-up issues and past off-the-field issues too. Though he has only limited Double-A experience, he did receive a cup of coffee with the Brewers late last season. It is possible, that due to the new role, that he could be advanced to Triple-A this upcoming season. I don’t see any reason to be targeting him in your upcoming minor league drafts at this time.

Alicedes Escobar translated his Triple-A numbers to the Majors perfectly. In fact, he made even more consistent contact at around 87% of the time.  Those skills, however, produced a .234 batting average rather than a .304 batting average. What happened? Well, Escobar has a decent amount in common with the shortstop he was dealt for – he hits a too many fly-balls and infield flies for someone with such limited power. While he still has well above-average speed as evidenced by his ten triples, but because he so rarely was getting on base, he only attempted 14 stolen base attempts and wasn’t all that successful to boot at just 71% of the time. On the positive side, he hit line drives over 20% of the time, but still managed just a .264 batting average on balls in play. This could be function his line drives just lacking the power of other hitters or more likely, just having a year in which he hit quite a few right at defenders. Escobar could, who only just turned 24, has enough skill and talent to improve, but to make him truly worthwhile for fantasy purposes, he will need to get on-base more often and even more importantly, he will need to get the green light from his manager whenever he does manage to get on base. He does, at least for the Royals’ pitchers sakes – is a superior defensive shortstop to Betancourt and that will be one of the big reasons he will remain in the lineup, even if he struggles at the plate. If I had to make a projection right now, I would keep my expectations at around the .260 3 HR 20 steal level for 2011.

Jake Odorizzi is the least advanced of the players acquired by the Royals. The 20-year old has been impressive since being selected in the first round of the 2008 draft. In 2010 he pitched in his first full-season league, managed a 10.0 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. He has a good foundation in that he gets praise for his good mechanics, throws strikes, has a projectable frame, and though his secondary pitches are still in development, may eventually be plus pitches. Given his age and experience, he is far from a MLB lock, but there is a lot to like at this early developmental stage. I would not, however, be rushing to add him to my 2011 minor league draft lists, if I play in a keeper league when you consider he will only be at A+ ball and could be on a one-level at a time path to the majors.

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The Padres completely revamped their middle infield today with the long-awaited Jason Bartlett trade coming to fruition while signing Orlando Hudson to be his double-play partner for the next two seasons in a move designed to upgrade the team’s defense. Several years ago this would have been true, but both have slipped quite a bit, when you consider modern defensive metrics like UZR. So the benefit any groundball pitchers receive on staff may not be as much as the Padres are hoping to see. Regardless, this duo will be in the lineup every day, health permitting, even if they have slipped defensively.

Offensively, you do not need me to tell you that 2009 was a fluke for Bartlett. Just looking at his completely out of career context .364 batting average on balls in play, major increase in fly-balls and on HR/FB rate, it is clear. His 2010 numbers were much more in line with the rest of his career – an average walk rate and a 3% HR/FB. However, in some areas the 31-year olds’ numbers are below what one would expect of him – given a .299 BABIP compared to his .22 mark and the fact that he has consistently hit around 20% of his balls as line drives over his career.  Despite a slight decline in his strikeout rates, I believe a slight bounce back in the batting average area is likely. Whether he bounces back in steals or not could be much more a function of his new manager than anything else as he retains, despite a decline in total steals, still above average speed skills. As it so happens, Bud Black tied for the National League lead in stolen base attempts with 174 in 2010, so Bartlett may indeed get the green light more often in 2011.

As for Hudson, the switch-hitter continues to be durable with another 600+ plate-appearance season. He also continues to walk between 8 and 10%. One note of concern has been a slight drop-off in his strikeout rates the last two seasons towards the lower 83% to 84% range. His isolated power has also dropped off each of the past four seasons too. At 33, he is obviously showing signs of decline. The area I can see possible slight improvement in batting average as he hit just .268 despite a 20% line-drive rate. So perhaps a nudge upwards to the .270’s or .280’s may occur. Pay for a .270 7 HR 75 R 45 RBI 8 SB season and you’ll probably be satisfied.

Now the Rays didn’t just give up Bartlett for free. They actually acquired Brandon Gomes, Adam Russell, Cesar Ramos, and Cole Figueroa, though they will be sending the Padres a player to be named too. This is the third time in his career that Adam Russell has been traded. The reason – a great arm. The 27-year old right-handed reliever averages close to 95 MPH on his fastball and has a career 9.0 K/9 in 54 innings. He also has a career 4.3 BB/9. What he does well, also, is keep the ball on the ground at 45% of the time for his career. There is some talent here, and the Rays have a history of reclaiming pitchers with good arms and turning around their careers (Grant Balfour), but time is running is short given his age. Brandon Gomes is a 26-year old minor league reliever who has dominated A+ and AA-ball posting no less than 11.6 K/9 in each of his past three seasons. He has no experience at Triple-A despite his age and success at the lower levels and will be promoted to Triple-A to see if he can keep it up. If so, then advancement to the Majors could come quite quickly. He profiles as a middle reliever in the long run. Continuing our theme of, Cesar Ramos is yet another pitcher the Rays acquired in the deal and is not a high end prospect. He is a left-hander who has mostly been used as a starter over his minor league career, but given mediocre control and mediocre secondary pitches his best role is as a specialist reliever. Like Gomes, expect him to start 2011 in Triple-A. Finally, we come to Cole Figueroa the only non-pitcher the Rays acquired in the deal and also the youngest player they acquired in it too.  He is a 23-year old middle-infielder with excellent plate discipline. In A+ ball he walked 14% of the time while making contact 89% and stealing 26 bases. That aside, he appears to have quite a bit in common with David Eckstein. He lacks the range for shortstop, limiting him to second base in the long run. His foot speed is not actually as good as Eckstein’s was in his prime and in fact, he steals bases the way he does on skill alone and does not project to hit for power or steal many bags at the MLB level. He will advance to Double-A this season, but profiles as a utility player if he can continue to show the plate discipline and produce results.

With J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson both gone, the Twins did not sit still. They filled their middle-infield void by signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a three-year deal on Friday. The 26-year old 2B/SS lead the Japanese Pacific League in hitting last year, batting .346 while hitting 11 home runs and stealing 22 bases. He has a good history in Japan of making contact and draws his share of walks. The .364, however, appears to be over his head given little overall change in the other aspects of his game, so a regression in that area is to be expected. His low to mid-teens power numbers may also not translate very well and he could be more of a mid to high-single-digits home run hitter in the states. For a rookie season, I would put my projection somewhere around the .280 8 HR 25 steal range, which would be far from bad. On a positional note, the Twins have not decided where to play him. They will, however, use him and give Alexi Casilla another shot – they just have to decide who they feel more comfortable with where.

Xavier Nady was a starter up until requiring Tommy John Surgery in 2009(the second time he has had this surgery in his career) and when he tried to sign with a team in 2010, the suitors did not line up and he was forced to take a part-time gig with the Cubs where his walk rate plummeted and he struck out over 26% of the time, the latter well above his career norms. He is now 32 and has not played consistently since 2008, though he did hit 25 home runs back then while striking out just 18% of the time. Nady fits the bill as a potential low-cost upgrade for the Diamondbacks in left field and also as a fall-back/platoon partner option for Brandon Allen at first base. He could be a nice sub-$5 speculative draft-day play in NL only leagues.

Jeremy Accardo signed a one-year deal with the Orioles on Friday. The former closer has not been the same since getting injured in mid-2009 so it is a wonder that the Orioles have given him a MLB-level deal when he was only able to post a 5.1 K/9 at the Triple-A level and that his fastball has dropped over 2 mph, though still 92, since his peak.

The Tigers have brought Magglio Ordonez back for another season to be their primary right fielder.  He remains an extremely disciplined hitter who makes contact nearly 90% of the time and is nearly a lock to hit .300 as long as he is healthy. In recent years his ground-ball rates, however, have gone up, and his fly-ball rates have dropped to the low and sub-thirties rendering him less and less of a power threat. What is interesting is that his HR/FB rates are still fairly strong at over 13% of the time and if not for the ankle injury 20 home runs was a possibility. What this means is – he still has 20 HR pop. At 36, one cannot count on a repeat, but  I would still happily  pay for a .300+ 10 to 15 or so HR full-season appily with the knowledge that the 36-year old might have one last hurrah and could crack the 20-HR level given his still remaining skills.

Dan Wheeler signed a one-year deal with a team/vesting option for a second year  by the Red Sox on Saturday. This is the second significant addition, though Bobby Jenks’ signing is not yet official, the Red Sox have made to their bullpen. A right-handed specialist, Wheeler is the rare right-hander who averages less than IP per appearance. Utilized that way, however, is quite effective and has a consistent track record of good strikeout and control numbers and has managed to keep his batting average on balls on play to miniscule levels for three straights seasons as a tribute to the way he has been handled. When he does face lefties , his K/9 drops 2 to 3 points to the 6’s and his BB/9 rises to the 3’s, rendering him a mediocre reliever and one with a fairly consistently high HR/FB against them over the course of his career. As long as the Red Sox note the way the Devil Rays and others have handled him, he should continue to be effective and a may even have some value in AL only leagues. He had to accept a contract, perhaps lower than he would have liked given a Type-A free agent status that could end up costing the Red Sox a #1 overall pick. The vesting option takes place after 65 games and it will be interesting to see if the second year of the contract is heavily back-loaded once the details come out.

Phil Humber was claimed off waivers from the Royals by the A’s. The former #3 overall pick has washed out with several clubs now and no longer has the fastball or the power curve he had when he was drafted. The A’s will probably try to push him through waivers and have him start in Triple-A.

Lance Zawadzki had been claimed off waivers earlier this off-season from the Padres by the Royals and has been designated for assignment once again. He profiles as a utility/Tripe-A roster filler type.

Henry Blanco will back-up Miguel Montero in Arizona. The 39-year old’s defensive skills are still highly regarded, but as a career .227 hitter, he will not be a factor for fantasy play.

 

Relievers are starting to get signed at pretty high-speed rate. Matt Guerrier was one of them, signing a three-year deal with the Dodgers. The 32-year old has never been known for being overpowering or striking out batters, but for just being quietly effective.  He works with a four-pitch repertoire, primarily his fastball and slider. The signing is curious as Guerrier is clearly post peak with his K/9 at the lower point of his career amidst a three-year downwards trend. He is also coming off of two ridiculously low batting average on ball in play seasons with a .222 in 2009 and a .236 in 2010. It is shocking that he has accomplished such a feat despite his lack of swing and miss skills. 2010 has a lot to with his posting his lowest line-drive rate against of his career, 3% below his career norms. Last season he had the aforementioned low BABIP and a closer-like 85% left-on-base rate. This is simply not sustainable and the Dodgers may ultimately end up regretting this contract. His role for 2011 is not going to change significantly from his past. He is best utilized as a seventh inning type and considering his history of inconsistent control against lefties, he is also best utilized as a right-handed specialist.

Continuing our theme, the Rays signed Joel Peralta to a one-year contract. Peralta will be 35 on opening day, but is coming off of a season that saw him post a 9.0 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9, fitting the bill of low-cost options to the Rays’ bullpen. Peralta has shown good control and strikeout skills throughout his career, but has not spent a full season in the Majors since 2007. Granted, after producing a .219 BABIP, his ERA will climb, but one cannot deny his skills and that his fastball, slider, splitter combo makes him an effective strikeout pitcher against lefties and righties alike. Where has struggled has been – inconsistent control against lefties, and more notably – with fly balls. He has a career 1.8 HR/9 against lefties and a 1.1 against righties. If used effectively as a right-handed specialist, he is still capable of putting solid numbers and could even be a fantasy option in AL only leagues, though he is unlikely to earn a single save.

In the biggest news of the day, the A’s acquired Josh Willingham from the Nationals in exchange for Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez. After having just landed Hideki Matsui to DH, the A’s have acquired yet another player whose best position is also DH. In fact, Matsui, Willingham, and Conor Jackson are all ideally suited to DHing as is Chris Carter who will now likely spend a good chunk of 2011 in Triple-A.

Willingham will man either LF or RF with the idea being David DeJesus and/or Coco Crisp will try to help cover up his defensive short-comings. Conor Jackson’s role is further reduced by this signing and it is a wonder now that they did not simply non-tender him. Willingham is a typical A’s player complete with high walk rates, a career .367 OBP, and 20+ per season home run power. Health willing, Willingham has a very stable skill set, though his walk rate is on a three-year upwards trend. Another .260 20-HR season is well within his capabilities, though he will have some more opportunities for RBIs and runs given the move to a superior top to bottom lineup.

The Nationals, meanwhile, will get out from under Willingham’s upcoming arbitration raise and acquire two players who could both contribute in 2011. Temporarily, as a result of this move, the Nationals are now without a left fielder and will have to seek one. For now, Mike Morse, Justin Maxwell, and Roger Bernadina are potential winners if no one else is acquired.

As for the two players they acquired – Hector Rodriguez was up with the A’s a few times last year. He is a soon to be 24-year old right-handed reliever with an impressive arm averaging nearly 99 mph on his fastball. He also has an impressive slider and a workable changeup and managed a 10.7 K/9 in 29 innings of work. Command and control can be elusive for him and he would likely do better if stopped trying to blow the ball past MLB batters. Still, he posted a reasonable 4.2 BB/9 in the Majors and showed improvement in the minors, posting a 3.8 BB/9. He could make the team as a setup man and could have a future better than that given his stuff. Corey Brown, meanwhile, is a fascinating, but disappointing player. He is a former supplemental first round pick with above average tools across the board and was dominating Double-A, albeit as a 24-year old, with 10 home runs, a good walk rate, steal 19 bags, and hitting .320. Then he was promoted to Triple-A and he failed to crack .200 and his plate discipline fell apart. There is 20-20 or better potential here, but Brown needs to show more consistency with his plate discipline and would benefit from cutting down on his strikeout rates. He could end up being a very effective platoon player in the long run if he can’t make it as a starter. He is likely to start 2011 in Triple-A, but is very much worth watching if the Nationals fail to make any other signings or veteran acquisitions for their outfield the rest of this off-season.

Russell Martin signing a one-year deal with the Yankees can be translated as “Jesus Montero is returning to the minors to start 2011”. Considering there were multiple bidders and the Yankees ended up paying $4 M to land him, he is likely recovered from his hip injury. (Update: he does, however, have a torn menisucs which will require surgery, but will be ready to return prior to the catcher and pitcher report date in mid-Feburary). Martin, who will be 28 to start the 2011 season, is technically in the middle of his prime years, but his recent history looks like he is already past prime with his power vanishing over the past few seasons to the point where only a high single-digits home run mark can be expected. He still has superior plate discipline and consistently hits line drives, but also hits ground-balls over 50% of the time and his speed, while still above average for a catcher, is not what it once was. The result is going to be a sub .300 BABIP and a disappointing batting average despite what his plate discipline skills suggest. If he is indeed healthy, he could see plenty of playing time, but will be more worthwhile to sim-league and OBP leaguers than traditional roto-players. A lot depends on whether Montero can show an improvement at catcher (doubtful, though they may simply promote him for his bat if Martin struggles).

Edwin Encarnacion, after a brief sojourn in Oakland, has returned to the Blue Jays after being non-tendered. Actually, it is likely he never visited Oakland while he was technically a member of their roster. That aside, he will not be returning as a third basemen but will instead be their first baseman. Jose Bautista will now man third base most days and Adam Lind will be the primary DH while the Blue Jays use Rajai Davis, Vernon Wells, and Travis Snider in the outfield. (I would be far from surprised to see them add another outfielder so that Davis can be used a fourth outfielder). On the positive side of things, Encarnacion hit 21 home runs in only 367 plate appearances while making contact 82% of the time. The home runs do not look fluky to me – he has consistently been a fly-ball hitter and 2010 was the second time he posted around a 50% fly-ball rate. He is only first going to turn 28 in January too, and so could be finally starting to really tap into the power skills projected of him. Given these skills and a .235 BABIP, a return to the .270+ batting average level is quite possible – the only issue with a full batting average rebound is that he is not a particularly good line-drive hitter and his career BABIP stands at .280. His stroke may simply not be suited for batting average. Instead, he creates a lot of fly-ball outs including infield fly ball outs (16% of the time in 201).  Perhaps the demotion to the minors by the Blue Jays last season will serve as a much-needed wake-up call, but I would keep my expectations at around a .250 25 HR season for him.

Eric Patterson was acquired by the Padres as a player to be named in the Adrian Gonzalez deal. The 2B/OF has above average speed and unlike his older brother, has a history of drawing walks. The problem is that he strikes out a bit too often for someone with limited power potential. If he makes the team, it will be in a utility role.

Chien-Ming Wang missed all of last season due to injury, but has agreed to a one-year deal with the Nationals and will be given a shot to win a spot in the rotation. If his shoulder is fully recovered, Wang is easy to profile. He is an extreme ground-ball pitcher. When his BB/9 has been above the low 2’s, he struggles, when it is close to 2.0 or less, he has success. A 5.0 K/9 is about the best than can be expected from him. Watch the scouting reports this spring as he could be a nice inning eater, possibly low-or perhaps even sub 4.00 ERA type in NL only league play.

A few other deals are close to being finalized (Wood, Jenks, Ordonez, Tsuyoshi Nishioka), but as is my custom, I’ll wait until it's official before I offer up my analysis.

 

Now that all the surprise surrounding Cliff Lee’s ultimate destination has been played out, the question remains – what to expect for 2011 and the near future. Well, in my estimation, it is quite rosy indeed if there is some regression in key skills areas. Lee’s control is phenomenal, posting a sub 1.0 BB/9.  This was by far the lowest walk per nine he has ever posted, so it is more than likely that he will allow more base runners in 2011 via the walk then he did in 2010, but he has been at the sub 2.0 BB/9 level for 3 straight seasons and below the 1.5 mark for two of them. On the missing bats side of things, Lee also posted the highest strikeout rate of his career at 7.8 per nine innings whereas a 6.9 is his career mark and right in between his 2008 and 2009 marks. This may be an outlier, but it is also notable that he relied on his cut fastball much more often in 2010 than in the past and reduced his reliance on his changeup quite a bit too. The sample size is small to make a jump to any conclusions, but the change in pitch selection could upgrade his K/9 rates the new few years. My sense is pay for a 7.0 K/9 and anything else is gravy. Lastly, it is notable that despite Lee’s excellent skills, his end of season ERA does not reflect the ERA of his skills – his ERA should have been much lower. Instead, his LOB% slipped mightily after his trade to Texas from the mid-seventies to 62% and his ERA jumped. So, generally speaking his ERA should come down in 2011. The only concern I have remaining are his HR/FB rates. He has for the last three seasons kept his HR/FB under 6.5%, but has also pitched in pitcher friendly parks in Seattle and Cleveland. During his tenure with the Rangers and Phillies (home run friendly parks) over that period his HR/FB were 8.0% or higher. This is still a very good mark, but it could push his ERA away from the mid two’s to the upper two’s, if not back over 3.00 again.

The Matt Diaz signing, Garrett Jones to the outfield, and Ryan Doumit trade rumors rightly led to the conclusion that the Pirates would seek a veteran first baseman. And that quest has ended with Lyle Overbay and a one-year deal. Overbay, nearly 34, will platoon with either Steve Pearce or Doumit. There are some disturbing trends to be found here – Overbay’s strikeout rates have risen in each of the past four seasons while his batting average has declined, unsurprisingly, each of the last three. Fortunately, he has at least maintained solid walk rates and has shown more power – his HR/FB rates at just under 13% for the last two years and his overall fly-ball rates have been rising each of the past four seasons too. The real issue, particularly last season, was a decline in line-drive rates to just over 16% of the time while his BABIP fell to .285, largely due in part to uncharacteristically struggling against right-handed pitching when he is a .279 career hitter against them and ended up 3 points below his career mark. What does this all mean going forward? Well, first off, given his career history I the batting average should rebound, particularly if the Pirates opt for a strict platoon. That will mean - fewer at-bats and fewer everything on the counting-stat side of things. I would go into 2011 with my expectations set to his 2009 playing time and performance. Also keep in mind that with a one-year contract, he could easily be dealt mid-season to a contending team desiring a left-handed bat off the bench or temporary first base replacement. His signing, after-all, is just a Band-Aid maneuver.

Gerald Laird signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals signaling a likely end to his chances at ever getting an opportunity to be given a chance as an opening day starter. Yadier Molina has averaged over 500 plate appearances a season the last two years. In other words, Molina’s back-ups received just over 100 at-bats for each of the last two seasons. Perhaps, Laird, as a player with starting experience, is being signed to reduce some of that heavy workload from Molina. That may be true, but regardless, Laird is quite likely to receive the least playing time of any full season of his career in 2011. The last two seasons Laird has had a lot of trouble hitting line drives at sub 15% both years. He has also posted weak HR/FB marks and consistent over 40% fly-ball rates. It is possible Comerica is somewhat to blame, but it looks like Laird needs to refine his swing given his recent struggles.

Mariano Rivera is returning to the Yankees on a 2-year deal – quite possibly his last contract. But at 41, he still is an effective closer walking fewer than 2 batters per nine innings each of the past five years, keeping the ball on the ground over 50% of the time, and still posting a 6.8 K/9. While it is difficult to write Rivera off, that last figure is the lowest K/9 he has produced since 2006. He does have several instances over the course of his career of rebounding from sudden drops in his strikeout rates, but given his age and the drop in his velocity over the years, a full rebound to a 9+ K/9 does not seem likely.

Hideki Matsui, 36, signed a one-year deal with Oakland and will be their primary DH for 2011. The move will likely return Chris Cater to the minors while putting Conor Jackson’s playing time into question as he is now blocked at DH and 1st base, leaving only a potential battle with Ryan Sweeney as an option. That said, if Carter has a good season in Triple-A and the A’s fall from contention, Matsui could easily get dealt as his primary purpose is “stop-gap.” Thought still patient at the plate, Matsui posted his highest strikeout rate of his career at 20% of the time. Still, he was able to hit 21 home runs and bat .274. The strikeout rate change is the only anomaly here. His line-drive and fly-ball rates remain consistent and his HR/FB, with the exception of 2009 which looks fluky in the revar view mirror, remains around 13%. He should be able to have a solid follow-up to 2010, though one should not expect much more, and possibly less, than he did in 2010.

Brandon McCarthy also signed a one-year deal with the A’s. He has battled a great deal of injury problems, but when healthy has shown signs of being a player who has the potential to produce some value. Now 27, McCarthy has a career 6.1 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 and is moving to a friendlier park – good news for a fly-ball pitcher like him. He is currently slated as a potential fifth starter, but will likely have to compete for the job, has no guarantees he will win it,

Koji Uehara, who will turn 36 just after opening day, returned to the Orioles on a one-year contract. He struggled with a forearm injury early in the season, but returned to be quite dominant producing a 11.3 K/9 and 1.0 BB/9. He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, but over his short MLB career he has done an excellent job of keeping in the park with a 6.8 HR/FB rate. He is not overpowering, but has excellent control of his fastball, change, and split-finger fastball. At the moment he may be the best option the Orioles have to close. Keep a close eye on this situation in the spring.

Randy Choate signed a two-year deal with the Marlins. The left-handed specialist pitches 40 to 45 innings a year and struck out 36 lefties in 35.1 innings while walking 8. Where he has value – hold and sim leagues. Roto-leagues? Not so much.

Jesse Crain signed a three-year deal with the White Sox on Wednesday. He picked a great time to be a free agent after enjoying the best season of his career posting an 8.2 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 with a 3.04 ERA. While he will be at least the White Sox’s top right-handed setup man and could ultimately win the closer’s job, one should be very cautious when considering drafting or purchasing Crain. His 68 innings was the most he has pitched in a single year since 2006. He has a history of shoulder problems and up and down strikeout rates. He is also a fly-ball pitcher moving to a home run friendly park and is coming off a season in which he posted 6.3 HR/FB rate and a .270 BABIP. On the positive side, Crain was the averaging the best mph on his fastball of his career. One change he made last year was a reduction in the number of fastballs he threw and a greatly increased amount of sliders to the point where he was actually throwing his slider 46% of the time and his fastball just 42%. There is some skill and talent as well as a potential opportunity here, but there will be some regression and there is plenty of risk when you consider his history.  Again, bid cautiously.

Matt Stairs signed a minor league deal with the Nationals. Technically the Nationals currently have little to no left-handed hitting first base option, so Stairs is first on the depth charts. He still has power in his bat and a patient, all or nothing approach, but will be 43 to start the season and has not received more than 129 plate appearances since 2008. Expect him to continue to be utilized as a pinch-hitter, if he is able to make the team.

Matt Treanor is returning to the Rangers on a one-year contract. He will be 35 when the season begins and remains a defense-only minded catcher. Unless the Rangers opt to give Max Ramirez another try, it is actually reasonable that Treanor could make the team and receive the most at-bats of his career. Unfortunately, that would only make him more detrimental to your fantasy roster given a career .227 batting average, .287 OBP, and .308 SLG.

J.P. Howell is returning to the Rays, but will be trying to come back from surgery to repair a torn labrum, the toughest injury for a pitcher to come back from. Given that it is less than a year since he underwent surgery and won’t be more than a year until mid-May, it is hard to foresee him having much of an impact on the 2011 season. Pass.

Rob Johnson was designated for assignment by the Mariners. This does not come as a surprise at all given the contract to Miguel Olivo and on the record commitment they have made to Adam Moore. Johnson will likely be forced to sign a minor league contract and could quite possibly spend 2011 in the minors. It would not be shocking if that ended up being in Tacoma.

 

The Rangers and Yankees are anxiously awaiting Cliff Lee's decision, but that doesn't mean the whole baseball world has to wait. Instead, a few teams have made some minor, but notable moves to fill the transaction void this past weekend.

A few weeks ago when the Cardinals acquired Ryan Theriot from the Dodgers it appeared that a Theriot/Brendan Ryan infield was going to make a lot of ground-balling pitchers quite happy. Instead the Cardinals will work with a more offensively oriented platoon of Skip Schumaker and Tyler Greene.

Ryan’s acquisition is a clear part of a trend the Mariner’s front office started last season with a heavy focus improving their team’s defense. Unless the Mariner’s sign a third basemen, it looks likely that Ryan could be their opening second basemen with Figgins over at third. It’s also just as possible that he could be utilized in a back-up role. Prospect, Alex Liddi, will be advancing to Triple-A this season, so Ryan’s acquisition could be a stop-gap maneuver where Ryan is in the lineup for the first few months of the season. And of course, Dustin Ackley will be at Triple-A trying to prove he can play second base. So it just looks like a matter of time before Ryan, if he even gets a chance to start, will be on the bench.

As for Ryan’s offensive skills, he is a player who at 28-years of age, appears to already have peaked. He makes consistent contact and has slightly above average speed and double-digits stolen base skills, but he is not a selective hitter, nor does he have much pop in his bat. That said, his .223 batting average looks fluky given a .254 batting average on balls in play and the highest fly-ball rate of his career . He does best when he is hitting fly-balls less than 30% of the time. At best, Ryan can hit .280 to .290 with 2 to 3 home runs and 10 to 15 steals. He’s an end-game pick if he starts.

In return, the Cardinals received Maikel Cleto. He is a very hard-throwing 21-year old starter who posted a 6.31 ERA in A+ ball. Despite his near triple-digit velocity, he posted a sub 8.0 K/9. Were this Double-A or Triple-A, I would not be concerned, but someone with his quality of arm should be more dominant. The issue here is that is a thrower without much in the way of secondary pitches. A conversion to relief is forthcoming.

The Dodgers found their replacement for Scott Podsednik in Tony Gwynn Jr. this weekend, signing him to a one-year deal. Gwynn, 28, is a rather disciplined hitter like his father and has 20+ stolen base talents, stealing 17 bags in 21 attempts. Like Brendan Ryan, he struggled as a result of putting many more balls in the air than usual (35% when his career mark is under 30%) and a .236 BABIP. His 2010 .204 batting average can easily be replaced with a return to more ground-balls and line-drives as consistent with his career norms. He’s not a bad option in NL only leagues in the end-game. In fact, he should easily make a profit given that he will likely cost only a $1 and could steal 10 or more bases again.

Ryan Rowland-Smith spent much of 2010 struggling on the mound and with back injuries. He now joins the Astros on a one-year deal after having been non-tendered by the Mariners. The extreme fly-ball allowing left-hander posted a 4.0 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 in 2010. He has shown better in the past with 4.9 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 in 2009, but given how few bats he misses, he needs to be in a pitcher’s ballpark in order to succeed. At the moment the Astros have better options available, so Rowland-Smith could end up in a swing/mop-up role, Triple-A, or could even be cut prior to the start of the season. Invest elsewhere.

Scott Downs landed a 3-year gig in Los Angeles where he will battle Fernando Rodney and HIsa Takahashi for the closer’s job. This could quite possibly be Downs’s last contract of his career as he will be 37 when this contract comes to a close. That said, Downs is a very effective reliever coming off the best BB/9 of his career at 2.1 while continuing to drive batted balls into the ground well over 50% of the time. His success last year, was due to a great extent by his .265 batting average on balls in play and a very low sub 14% line-drive rate. While there will be some regression to the mean here, Downs still has enough strikeout, control, success against righties and lefties alike, and the groundball skills to be a top setup man and could be the best man the Angels currently have for the closer’s job.

The winter meetings are over and its been a fairly wild few days most notably for the astonishing contract length of the targeted players. The Red Sox are clear winners here while the activites of other teams have been held up due to the Cliff Lee negotiations. Every year it is all about the dominoes that must fall and that has already happend in the hitter's market, leaving Adrian Beltre as the next in that cascading line. When Lee signs, the pitching floodgates may open up a bit as well, though there is not nearly as much beyond him as there was sitting in the hitter's side of the market.

So as we look to the future, let's analyze what has already occurred and what implications these moves will have on the 2011 season.

The Gonzo Deal

While Padres fans may not be ecstatic about seeing their premiere slugger dealt, it was a perfectly rational move for their management. One can hope that the fan base can be rational about this move and still be excited by their team, but generally speaking "rational" and "fan" are oxymoronic terms.

Gonzalez was in the last year of his contract and the Padres were simply not going to be able to outspend other teams once he hit the open market. So they did the right thing and got some players with good potential in return.

Getting to the roster ramifications of the deal, from the Boston perspective, obviously Gonzalez will be their everyday first basemen and Kevin Youkilis will shift back to his original position of third base. That means, of course, that Adrian Beltre will have to find another berth to lay his anchor.

In San Diego, the Padres have a few options to fill the first base void. First, they have Kyle Blanks who underwent Tommy John surgery this past summer. The 24-year old is a right-handed hitter with prototypical first basemen power (25+ HR/season) with the swing hard if it is in the zone plate discipline set – decent amount of walks, strikes a quarter or more of the time. In other words, he reminds me a bit of Jayson Werth, but over small sample sizes he has struck out more than a third of the time. He will need to translate his minor league contact rates to the Majors to be more than a platoon player. Because of the Tommy John surgery, his return date is uncertain, though he could be back in time for spring training. A return to first base from the outfield, given Tommy John surgery, will be a blessing for him and for Padres’ fans forced to watch the 6’6” 285 pounder running around the outfield. However, the Padres may be unwilling to wait to see if he is healthy and bypass him altogether, seeking a stop-gap option they can use until Anthony Rizzo is ready.

Speaking of Rizzo, he is a 21-year old who spent most of 2010 in Double-A. Given his age and lack of experience above Double-A, it gives plenty of credence to a possible stop-gap maneuver with Rizzo either spending a full season in Triple-A and getting just a September call-up or with good progress, getting a mid-season call-up. That said, Rizzo has legitimate first basemen power as we can see from his 25 homerun season. Like many sluggers, he strikes out around a quarter of the time, but has shown decent, though not overwhelming patience at the plate, walking 9% of the time and managed just a .334 OBP. The real concern is his platoon splits. He hit just .207 .281 .380 against lefties last season. He does, at least, have youth on his age as he did not turn 21 until towards the end of the minor league season and would have been young for Double-A even if he had turned 21 at the beginning of the year.  Given his age, I’m not ready to write him off yet, but I cannot get overly excited about him until he has more success against lefties.  He strikes me as a solid citizen type player, not a star, at the moment.

Casey Kelly was the centerpiece of the deal for the Padres. He is even younger than Rizzo, not turning 21 until October, but yet he too was pushed to Double-A. Therefore, it would not be surprising at all to see the Padres return him to that level and try to be as careful as possible with his development in 2011. Despite an ERA of 5.31, Kelly showed plenty of stuff and skills in 2010 with a 7.7 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. A 67% LOB and .366 BABIP were big parts of that nauseating ERA. He is a still projectable right-hander with a fastball that can touch the mid-nineties and two plus secondary pitches as well. Given that he was a two-way player (shortstop), he is still very much learning his craft. He profiles as an upper end of the rotation starter. The usual “if he stays healthy” caveat is what applies here as far as the Padres getting a return on this trade.

Reymond Fuentes will turn 20 just prior to next spring traning. His calling card is his speed and if he makes the majors, he could challenge for some stolen base titles given his high percentage success rates thus far in his career. He is not completely devoid of power like the Padres’ Luis Durango and could hit in the mid to high single digits in home runs in a season eventually too. My major concern is his plate discipline. Yes, he was 19 and playing full-season ball, but a player who is supposed to be a potential leadoff hitter should not be striking out 24% of the time and walking only 6%. There is talent and plenty of time here for him to improve his plate discipline, but one can’t get too excited until he actually shows it. He probably would benefit from another season at his current level of play rather than earn a promotion to A+ ball.

Adrian Gonzalez is exactly what the Red Sox wanted. A player in his mid-prime years with 30+ home run power an excellent plate discipline that they could lock up for the rest of his peak years. The only negative thing you can say is that he is rather slow runner and he posted a BABIP a bit higher than his norm and that a return to sub .290 is likely. What is sick is what Gonzalez has managed to do at a place where left-handed power goes to die as by far the worst place for left-handed home run hitters over from 2008 to 2010 according to the latest Bill James Handbook. Fenway is not a great left-handed hitter’s home run park either, but it does have the Green Monster for Gonzalez to bonk plenty of doubles off. Regardless, I suspect many a pundit will be projecting closer to 40 home runs than 30 this upcoming season and it may be difficult to disagree with them.

Baltimore Looks for Power and Arizona’s Replacement

The Red Sox were not the only AL East team to go hunting for a power hitter as the Orioles picked up Mark Reynolds in exchange for relievers Kam Mickolio and David Hernandez.

Reynolds will push incumbent third baseman Josh Bell back to Triple-A. Bell, who has some severe plate discipline issues, could get a look at first base, but it appears more likely that the Orioles will see another outside the organization or another option than him altogether at this time. The reverse is also possible with a shift of Reynolds to first and Bell sticking at third too.

This looks like only the first of several moves for the Orioles as they still need another corner player (though they have Luke Scott and Nolan Reimold as possible other in-house options), as mentioned, as well as a shortstop. The Orioles are also active in the free agent market for relievers and will replace Hernandez with a veteran while Mickolio hadn’t yet really established himself as a full-time member of the big league pen.

Mickolio and Hernandez will both compete for jobs in the Diamondbacks bullpen, though Hernandez could also end up in a swing role given his previous experience as a starter.

Reynolds is Russell Branyan 2.0 and Rob Deer can now relax a bit as he no longer holds a dubious record. Reynolds is coming off a season that saw him hit .198 (the most plate appearances with a sub .200 batting average in MLB history), yet still managed a .320 OBP and 32 home runs.  When he puts the ball in the play, he puts in the air (54% of the time in 2010) and quite a few goes as infield pop flies to boot. All that said, he posted by far the lowest BABIP of his career at .257 and the ridiculously low line-drive rate 13.3% compared to his career 17.4% mark. At 27, he really still in the beginning of his prime years and a rebound in batting average is likely, but paying for anything much beyond the .230 to .240 range might not be all that wise.

Kam Mickolio has been noted for his size and his plus fastball/slider combination. The 6’9” righty posted a 12.3 K/9 in Triple-A this year along with a 4+ BB/9. He is a possible set-up man or right-handed specialist reliever. David Hernandez, when he was a starter, was considered to have back end of the rotation upside. As a reliever, he is throwing over 93 mph regularly, primarily utilizing that pitch and his good curveball.  In 79.1 innings he posted an 8.2 K/9 and 4.8 BB/9. In the minors, he was noted for having better command and control, so there is room for improvement in this department. At this time, both pitchers are fairly far down the pecking order for saves and Mickolio is far from guaranteed even an opening day roster spot.

To fill the void at third, the Diamondbacks have brought in long-time Orioles third basemen Melvin Mora in to man the position. He will be 39 to start 2011, but he still has pretty much the same skill-set he has always had – still making pretty good contact at 83% of the time in a part-time role with the Rockies in 2010, still walking around 9% and maintaining a solid line-drive stroke and still showing he has low to mid-teens home run potential. There is not really any upside for Mora at this stage in his career, but quite frankly he will be a bargain on draft day and could return a nice profit in NL only leagues.

Brewers/Blue Jays Swap

The Brewers were known to be seeking a veteran starter heading into the Winter Meetings and came away with Shaun Marcum who will slot well as their #2 starter behind Yovanni Gallardo. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were comfortable with their starting pitching depth and opted to move Marcum, who is due for a substantial pay raise for potential long-term lineup improvement in the form of Brett Lawrie.

Marcum had come back from Tommy John Surgery and his 2.0 BB/9 proves he was completely recovered from the elbow injury. He complimented it with a 7.6 K/9 despite averaging just over 87 mph on his fastball. Instead, he just has superior command of his fastball and of changing speeds. He also has a cutter to combat lefties and in fact posted a higher K/9 against them than righties. Considering his best pitch is his change and he has a cutter, this is actually not all that surprising. A move away from the ALE to the NLC looks like a win-win.

Brett Lawrie was perhaps the Brewers most highly regarding hitting prospect. I say hitting prospect because his position remains in question. He is currently listed as a second basemen, but profiles better as an outfielder. At just 20 years of age he batted .285 and showed a quick bat and developing power (36 doubles) along with 8 home runs. He has some work to do with respect to his plate discipline, but considering how well he handled Double-A at such a young age, an 8% walk rate and 21% strikeout rate is far from bad given his talents and potentially 20+ HR power/season. The one thing you can probably ignore his stolen base game – 49 stolen bases over the past two seasons. No scouting report out there lists him as anything beyond average speed and a 70% success rate at Double-A is nothing to get excited about. I would not be surprised by a repeat of Double-A, but it is more likely that he will spend most, if not all, of 2011 in Triple-A with a call-up  in September or sometime in 2012. Right now it is a bit hard to tell whether he will be a potential stud or just an average MLB regular. Time will tell.

Arms for Infielders

As I noted above in the Reynolds deal, the Orioles were looking for a shortstop. And guess what, they got themselves a starter and a utility man with shortstop experience in J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris form the Twins. In return they gave the Twins pitchers James Hoey and Brett Jacobson as well as cash.

Hardy will go into spring training as the Orioles shortstop while Harris will compete for a job as the Orioles primary back-up at second, third, and shortstop. Hardy is still just 28 years old and had his most productive season since his 2007 and 2008 breakout campaigns. He actually showed fairly similar skills to those seasons, walking 7.5% of the time while making regular contact at 84% of the time. However, he hit just .264 and managed only 16 home runs. Hardy’s issues in the batting average department relate to his swing – he has never been much of a line drive hitter. His 16.9% line-drive mark was the highest it had been since 2007. That is the reason he consistently posts sub .300 BABIP’s despite his good contact skills. He just does not regularly make good contact. Combine that with hitting ground-balls nearly 50% of the time and mediocre OBP skills and you are generating quite a few outs. One other area of concern last season was the sharp decline in fly-balls to 34%, the lowest mark of his career. All in all, Hardy’s season was a solid one for a fantasy shortstop and he is young enough to recover his previous form, but there is little sign here that he can do much better than he did in 2010.

Brendan Harris endured the worst season of his career though much of it may have been due to receiving the least consistent playing time of his career. He produced one of the higher strikeout rates of his career, highest ground-ball, and lowest line-drive rate. His FB% has also hovered around the 30% mark for several seasons and is clearly not a good sign of him returning to the 12-home run level he produced for the Rays in 2007. While not much of a shortstop, he does an adequate job at second and third base and has a history of hitting well against lefties. He could fill the role Julio Lugo had last year. Unless there are injuries, however, it is hard to see him obtaining more than 200 at-bats.

Heading into 2008 I was on the Jim Hoey bandwagon, believing in time the closer’s job would be his. Instead, Hoey suffered a shoulder injury which ultimately required surgery to repair. Prior to the injury he had a plus fastball/slider combination and had shown improving control and command. Since he returned in 2009, he has struggled a great deal with his control producing a 6.0 BB/9 in 2009, and this season a 4.9 in Double-A and a 7.2 BB/9 in Triple-A. To his credit, he did strikeout over 10 batters per nine innings pitched. He will turn 28 before the start of spring training and it hard to expect anything at all from him at this point.

Brett Jacobsen is a 24-year old reliever with no experience above A+-ball. He still projects as a possible setup man given a plus fastball and solid curve. He produced an 8.5 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 this season, but it remains to be seen how it will translate to the upper minors. He could be promoted aggressively if he performs well given his age.

Boston Strikes Again

Carl Crawford signed a 7-year contract with the Red Sox. His leaving the Rays was a foregone conclusion with Desmond Jennings ready to step into his shoes. Boston, however, now has a bit of a log-jam with Crawford, Ellsbury, Drew, and Cameron all on the roster. So either the Red Sox will become active in trading one of their outfielders or if they have the room in the budget, they will try to convince J.D. Drew and Cameron that a platoon makes sense. Drew hit just .208 against lefties  and .277 against righties last year while Cameron hit .357 against lefties last season and is a .272 hitter against righties for his career.

Getting back to Crawford we have a 29-year old player with a fairly steady skill and talent set. The one change he did make last season that has me wondering whether it is a fluke or not was the 7% increase in the number of balls he put in the air. What’s interesting is that his power skills stayed the same, still posting around a 10 to 11% HR/FB, he just appeared to try for them more often. Given his career history a trend back down towards the 30% fly-ball rate is more likely. He still makes good contact and his speed game is intact, putting the ball on the ground close to 50% of the time and converting over 10% of those balls on the ground into infield hits. Another .300 15 HR 50+ steal season looks quite likely.

Where’s the Consistency People?

The Mariners made two moves in direct contrast to one and other. First they said – let’s add OBP skills to a team that lacks them by adding Jack Cust to be our DH. Ok, now let’s undo the good we did there by signing perhaps one of the worst players at getting on base in Miguel Olivo to a two-year deal with an option for a third. On the good side, the Mariners do still seem committed to playing Adam Moore, but one has to wonder how long that will last considering the size of the contract they gave Olivo.

Olivo owns a career 28% strikeout rate and 4.1 BB/9. The 32-year old struck out 30% of the time for the Rockies while hitting 14 home runs, but managed just a .315 OBP and owns a career .283 OBP. A .346 BABIP was responsible for his career high .269 batting average as compared to his .246 mark. Olivo remains a better fantasy option than a real option given the number of outs he generates. Adam Moore struggled mightily as well in his rookie debut, but does at least have good minor league that he may yet be able to tap into. At 26, however, time is not on his side.

Jack Cust will be the primary DH, but will probably share time with Milton Bradley there. The real loser may ultimately be Michael Saunders who could end up in Triple-A as a result of this signing. Cust will be 32 prior to the start of the season. His calling cards are his excellent power, high walk rates, and higher still strikeout rates. Despite not being someone who can be relied upon to hit for average, his OBP skills show his true value, posting above average marks even when he is hitting in the .230’s. One note of concern here is a four-year decline in Cust’s HR/FB rates from over 30% to just 15% last season. While a 20+ HR season given the playing time is easily possible for him, the days of 30+ home runs may be beyond him.

More Sluggers

Carlos Pena subscribes to the all or nothing school of play that Jack Cust subscribes too. Despite hitting 28 home runs, he failed to hit .200 (also surpassing Rob Deer on the most plate appearances with a sub .200 batting average) and a 15% walk rate was not enough to make his OBP respectable. However, a .222 BABIP and by far the lowest line-drive rates of his career where the key factors in this. Still, he is not much more than a .240 hitter even when all is going well. Unlike Cust, at least, Pena has maintained a consistent 20%+ HR/FB rate and is therefore a less risky option who should be in store for something of a rebound season.

Paul Konerko continues our theme. The White Sox were determined to bring him back so he could be a lone-two punch with the left-handed hitting Adam Dunn and they got  their man.  Though he will be 35 to start 2011, Konerko still provides a better combination of power and contact hitting skills than many other players with similar power skills. It is reasonable that he can once again eclipse the .280 mark. However, only hit over .300 one other time in his career and this time he did it posting the highest strikeout of his career at over 20% of the time and the highest BABIP of his career at .326. Remember, Konerko is a former catcher and he is not at all fast. He owns a career .285 BABIP and a regression in this area is quite likely.  Also keep in mind that this is the first time he has topped 30 home runs since 2007. Konerko has frustrated many an owner over the past four seasons with his lack of consistency in the home run department. There is certainly enough talent and skill here for another solid season, but it is very difficult to believe that he will top the season he just had ever again.

File Under “Really?”

One really has to wonder if the Royals are making a concerted effort to lose as they signed a pair of middling outfielders today with solid defensive skills in the forms of Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francouer. The two right-handers compiled a .317 and .300 OBP in 2010 respectively.  Both players may end up as the right-handed half of platoons or Cabrera could simply be used in a utility role while Francouer could get a starting nod in right field given the lack of other available options. Francouer could actually be due for a rebound as he did produce the lowest line-drive and BABIP’s of his career, so he could conceivably be a .270 hitter in 2011. Still, he has not shown an inkling of power since 2005 and his HR/FB has remained steady at around 7% the last three seasons.  He still has youth going for him as he will only first turn 27 in January, but there are no signs here in this skill set that he will actually regain his power stroke. He certainly has no intention of refining his approach at the plate.

Melky, meanwhile, is a better contact hitter than Francouer, doing so around 85 to 86% of the time and he does show more patience. The problem in his case really just appears to be middling tools. He just does not have the power or speed that warrants everyday play. He might be more valuable if he focused a little less on making contact and hitting more balls in the air and seeing if he can turn his gap power into home run power.

These two signings clearly say "stop-gap". The problem is the Royals best upcoming hitting prospects are infielders. So, band-aide may be a more appropriate term.

Closing Candidates

J.J. Putz showed the world he was healthy again as he posted a 10.5 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 that resembled his former All-Star level closer skills. Though he was not throwing quite as hard as he was when he was with Seattle, his pitches did inch up a half mph to a full mph across the board. He still has a solid fastball, slider, and splitter combo. He was only slowed this season by a torn meniscus, unrelated to his previous elbow issues. It will be interesting to see what his draft day price will be – some may bid with caution and he could be a potential bargain.

After recently acquiring Scott Linebrink, the Braves added former closer George Sherrill to the mix. The 33-year old signed a bargain deal at $1.2 million after a horrible season that saw him post a 1:1 K/BB ratio. He struggled with back problems last season and let me tell you, as someone who himself was sidelined with back problems for much of 2010, it is hell.  Back injuries can recur so tread with caution. Also keep in mind that Sherrill has been on a three year K/9 trend and his BB/9 numbers have bounced erratically from the low 3’s to the 5’s and 6’s every other year. Somewhere in here there is a pitcher with closer skills, but it is up in the air as to whether or not he will be healthy enough to actually claim such a job. Right now expect him to serve as a left-hand specialist setup man with a chance to beat out Linebrink for the closer’s job. It is also possible that Linebrink and Sherrill could form a situational save committee unless yet another veteran reliever is brought in as a free agent.

Oh So Many Options

Ty Wigginton signed a two-year deal with the Rockies as they continue their efforts to get more veteran righties on the roster. This is a pretty rich deal, however, for someone will be utilized as a super-sub and battling for playing time against the recently acquired Jose Lopez. Apparently the move is designed so that the Rockies will be able to get more righties in their lineup when needed (Stewart hit just .231 against lefties last season and given his strikeout rates, not much improvement there is expected) and also as yet another insurance policy on the declining Todd Helton. Wigginton is moving to a good park to repeat his 20+ home run ways and a move to Colorado could further enhance his value if he drops his strikeout rate to below 20% again so that he can once again reach the .270 to .280 batting average range. That said, Wigginton has never been a patient hitter, owns a career .324 OBP, and is more valuable as a roto-player due to his power and position flexibility. Do not be surprised, however, to see his plate appearances drop back down to the 400-level range given the number of options the Rockies have available to them to play in the infield. It was injuries to Roberts and Scott, the trade of Tejada, and the ineffectiveness of Reimold and Lugo that lead to much of his playing time last season.

Low-Cost Options

The Mets, as expected, were not big players at the winter meetings. Instead they participated in th Rule-5 draft and signed a back-up or platoon catcher in Ronny Paulino and a middle reliever D.J. Carrasco to low-cost/low-risk contracts. A right-handed hitter, Paulino is not the disciplined hitter Thole is, but he has a history of making good contact and having moderate power (though he will be serving the final 8 games of a 50-game PED suspension to start 2011). He is also a career .338 hitter against lefties and it will be in that role that he will see time for the Mets, possibly forcing a platoon situation with Thole who hit just .199 against lefties in limited action while hitting .299 against righties.

Carrasco is not a saves threat. He has a good history of keeping the ball on the ground, solid strikeout rates (7.5 K/9 in 2010), and mediocre control. Due to a decent cutter, he is fairly effective against righties and lefties alike and in fact may be more effective against lefties in general. Expect him to work in the seventh inning.

The Pirates were operating in the same territory from a price standpoint with their signings of Matt Diaz, Kevin Correia, and Scott Olsen.

The Pirates let Lastings Milledge walk as a non-tender free agent and have brought in Matt Diaz with the idea of having him form the right-handed half of a platoon in right field with either Ryan Doumit or Garrett Jones. Doumit has been highly rumored to be on the trade block which means the Pirates will also be in the market for more first base options or outfield options depending on who they wish to move where if Doumit is indeed dealt. Diaz, who will be 33 on opening day, is a career .334 hitter versus left-handed pitchers and a .269 hitter against righties. The latter mark though it is largely due to two seasons where he particularly excelled against them. Over the past three years his high against them was a .255. What he does well is hit line drives, consistently above the 20% mark, but his fly-ball rates are in the low-thirties, precluding him from ever hitting for much power. He is an option for NL only league as a fifth outfielder.

Kevin Correia, 30, is the most promising signing of the group, though certainly nothing special either. He has been on a three-year upwards trend in his strikeout rates while posting decent, but unspectacular control numbers. He does a good job of keeping the ball on the ground (49% of the time last year), but was burnt a great deal by a LOB% of 68%, .310 BABIP, and most especially by a near 15% HR/FB rate, which is fairly out of context with the rest of his career, and quite surprising considering the favorable ballpark he pitching within. What will keep Correia from ever being a consistent sub-4.00 ERA pitcher is that he too often throws in the sweet part of the plate, allowing line-drive rates around 20% or higher. Until he refines his command of his pitches, he will not move beyond the “inning-eater” label.

Scott Olsen has had difficulty staying healthy and has not started more than 30 games since 2008. He has shown some signs of finally improving his control, but at the same time his fastball has lost several mph and has averaged less than 90 mph on his fastball for a few years. In other words, he need to reinvent himself from the power-pitching lefty he was originally hoped to become. He cannot be recommended for fantasy-play at this time.

The Dodgers signed themselves a few role players by bringing back Vicente Padilla to pitch in long relief and to serve as their go-to spot starter. Dioner Navarro will back up Rod Barajas, but does have the capability of taking the job away from him, especially when one considers Barajas is a peak and valley player. Padilla had quite an excellent season actually, posting a very solid 8.0 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. In fact it is a wonder he didn’t generate more interest. Considering how heavily he relies on his fastball (over 72% of the time, even as a starter) a move to the pen could be quite a good one for him considering he already averages over 92 mph on his fastball with his #2 pitch being his curve. Where Padilla runs into trouble is his command, allowing somewhat high HR/FB rates over the course of his year. That may limit his utility in high leverage situation.

Navarros is simply frustrating. Here we have a decently disciplined hitter who makes consistent contact. He is even a career 20.8% line-drive rate hitter. Last year it was below 16%, so that explains his sub .200 batting average as does his .223 BABIP. The issue, to me, appears to be is the crossing of his lack of power combined with high fly-ball rates. Despite a career .108 isoloated power, he has a career 37.7% fly-ball rate and a 13% infield fly-ball rate. In other words, he is generating a heck of a lot of outs with his approach. The skills are here to return to a .280 batting average, but while he knows when to swing, it is as if his swing itself needs a revamp and a realization that he is not a power hitter.

Bullpen Depth

The Phillies signed Dennys Reyes as their replacement for J.C. Romero to handle their left-hand specialist duties. These types of relievers seldom have much value for fantasy players unless you play in a hold-counting league. Reyes’ peripheral numbers are far from appetizing, posting a 5.9 K/9 and 5.0 BB/9 in 2010. But with loogies you always have to look deeper to find their value. He actually struck out 20 lefties in 19 innings of work against them. Yes, he also walked eleven, but his career BB/9 is a 3.7 against lefties and given his history, he should improve. All the awfulness happens against righties. The rule with a pitcher like this – the closer his Games/IP ratio is to 1.0, the more you should stay away from him. If used as he was in 2008 and 2009, then he is a bit more attractive to own for fantasy play.

So that wraps the winter meetings up, but not the off-season. Cliff Lee and Adrian Beltre are the two biggest remaining players likely to get big contracts. But from there it drops off significantly. Most likely, of those remaining, Rafael Soriano will end up with the largest contract. Brandon Webb and Brad Penny will generate interest and a lot of health-status reports as potential upper end of the rotation types coming off injuries. Then there is the DH market where we have Jim Thome, Magglio Ordonez, Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Hideki Matsui, and Nick Johnson. And finally, the relief market where the aforementioned Soriano, Balfour, Wheeler, Frasor, Downs, Gregg, Rauch, Crain, Guerrier, Wood, etc could all command multi-year contracts. In other words, once we get past Lee and Beltre, it will take trades to generate excitement.

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