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Rays get Ryan Hanigan, Heath Bell.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Catcher Ryan Hanigan and reliever Heath Bell are eager to try to help the Tampa Bay Rays get back to the playoffs.
Hanigan was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds and Bell from the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade Tuesday.
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• Stats & Info: Bullpens in focus
The deal was announced after Hanigan agreed to a $10.75 million, three-year contract that runs through 2016 and includes a club option for 2017.
Tampa Bay sent minor league pitcher Justin Choate and a player to be named to the Diamondbacks. Arizona dealt left-hander David Holmberg to Cincinnati.
Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman called a Hanigan "a tremendously talented defensive catcher" who can also help the Rays offensively.
"He takes a lot of pride in what he does behind the plate and we also like what he can do in the batter's box, especially against left-handed pitching," Friedman said. "He's a guy we've had our eye on for a while. and so when we had the opportunity to acquire him, we were aggressive to do so."
Hanigan, 33, is expected to become Tampa Bay's primary catcher, even though he and Friedman said they won't head into spring training with a preconceived notion. The trade was completed a day after free agent catcher Jose Molina was re-signed to a $4.5 million, two-year contract.
"We'll figure out matchups, we'll figure out what makes the most sense on any given night, but we feel like he makes our team better," Friedman said. "Whether that's 70 games, 80 games, 90 games, 100 games, I don't know yet. We'll figure that out as the season gets underway."
Bell will be a candidate to become the Rays' closer -- a job held the past two seasons by Fernando Rodney, who is a free agent.
For the Diamondbacks, giving up the hard-throwing right-hander was a cost-saving move. The deal saves the team $5.5 million of Bell's $9 million salary -- and Miami is paying the other $3.5 million as part of the three-team trade in October last year. Arizona general manager Kevin Towers gains flexibility in trying bolster depth and plug holes.
"We've still got some bench pieces we need to put together, We still have interest in bringing back Eric Chavez," Towers said, adding that the Diamondbacks also remain in the market for a starting pitcher and perhaps a corner outfielder with power.
He's also excited about the prospects headed for Arizona from Tampa Bay, particularly the player to be named.
"Someone we value a lot as a prospect," Towers said. "That's not to take anything away from Mr. Choate, but I would say that probably is the key player in the deal."
Hanigan is a .262 career hitter who spent the past seven seasons with the Reds. He batted .198 with two homers and 21 RBIs in 75 games in 2013, when he spent two stints on the disabled list -- one because of a strained left oblique muscle and the other a sprained left wrist.
Friedman is confident the catcher is healthy and "will return to the really good player he's always been."
Hanigan is looking forward to getting to know the pitching staff and play for manager Joe Maddon, who's led the Rays to the playoffs four of the past six seasons.
"The numbers speak for themselves in terms of the competitiveness of the team year after year. It's a great thing they have going," Hanigan said.
"Everybody I've talked to has great things to say about Joe and the organization, the atmosphere they create to compete," Hanigan added. "I'm just looking forward to helping the team out. They've got a lot of young arms. They've got a lot of good pitching. I'm excited to get to know these guys."
Bell, 36, has 168 saves in 10 seasons with the New York Mets, San Diego, Miami and the Diamondbacks. He led the majors with 132 saves for the Padres from 2009-11 and his 166 saves over the past five seasons are third the majors after Jonathan Papelbon's 173 and Mariano Rivera's 170.
Bell was 5-2 with a 4.11 ERA with 15 saves in 69 appearances for the Diamondbacks last season. He will have an opportuinity to win the closer's job in Tampa Bay, although Friedman stressed the Rays didn't necessarily acquire him with that in mind.
"I think I have a shot of winning that job, the ninth-inning job, but I see my role as being to come in to spirng training and show them what I can do," Bell said.
"They always say I don't run from run from anybody, I don't back down from anybody. I go right after everybody," the reliever added. "I kind of feel like I just want to help the team out the best way I can."
The Reds traded a catcher they no longer needed for a left-handed pitching prospect.
Devin Mesoraco, their first-round draft pick in 2007, emerged as an everyday catcher last season when Hanigan was hurt. Mesoraco played in a career-high 103 games, batting .238 with nine homers and 42 RBIs. Hanigan was on the disabled list twice and batted only .198 with two homers and 21 RBIs in 75 games.
Hanigan caught both of Homer Bailey's no-hitters in the last two seasons. The 33-year-old became expendable when the Reds decided after the season that they would make Mesoraco the starter. They signed catcher Brayan Pena to a two-year deal for $2,275,000, giving them a backup for Mesoraco.
"Devin Mesoraco will have the opportunity to become a front-line catcher for us," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "Holmberg provides us with the quality pitching depth that every team needs."
The 22-year-old lefty was a Southern League All-Star last season. He went 5-8 with a 2.75 ERA for Double-A Mobile, striking out 116 in 157 1-3 innings. He made his big league debut for Arizona against San Diego on Aug. 27.
Holmberg was drafted by the White Sox in the second round in 2009 and was traded to Arizona with right-hander Daniel Hudson in the deal for right-hander Edwin Jackson on July 30, 2010.
Tigers Add Joe Nathan To Uncertain Bullpen.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Since Monday night, the Tigers have gone to considerable lengths to remake a pitching staff that ranked among the game’s best in 2013. On Monday, it was the confounding trade that sent Doug Fister to Washington for some stocking stuffers; on Tuesday, reports surfaced that they’d signed closer Joe Nathan to a two-year deal, after reportedly being rebuffed by Brian Wilson.
Dave went over the Fister deal already, so we won’t rehash it here, except to point out that it’s quite likely that Drew Smyly will shift from the bullpen to the rotation to replace Fister. At the moment, that means the Detroit bullpen, a source of so much concern last year, has added Nathan via free agency and Ian Krol in the Fister trade, while subtracting Smyly and free agents Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras. They now have a closer, but do they have a better bullpen?
Remember, last year’s Detroit bullpen took a lot of heat, but that that was mostly because they had such a hard time nailing down the ninth inning. Bruce Rondon couldn’t handle the early opportunity he was given, and the return of Jose Valverde was a short-lived mess. Benoit eventually took over and did a solid job in the ninth, though that pushed everyone else behind him up a spot.
But despite the games in the ninth, this wasn’t a bad bullpen. Overall, the Tiger bullpen was more or less middle of the road by FIP and xFIP, with an expectedly lower rank in ERA due partially to the infield defense issues that have been discussed repeatedly. They did gain a benefit from being asked to throw the fewest innings in baseball thanks to the outstanding Detroit rotation, but were otherwise a decent, if unexciting group.
Of course, that’s not the same thing as a “good” group either, and only two of those relievers threw even 50 innings last year. That would be Smyly (76 IP, 2.31 FIP) and Benoit (67 IP, 2.87 FIP) and now, unless Benoit resigns, both are gone. Throw in Darin Downs, who threw 35.1 innings of 3.53 FIP ball before being lost to the Astros on waivers last month, and three of the five Detroit relievers with the most innings thrown are out of the picture.
That left Al Alburquerque (and his 6.24 BB/9), Phil Coke, coming off a career-worst season that included time spent in Triple-A, and Rondon, who missed most of September with a sore elbow, as the primary returning relievers, and so you can see how this might be troublesome.
This process of fixing this bullpen starts with Nathan, who is coming off what looked to be on the surface one of the best years of his career last year. That 1.39 ERA sure is shiny, and even if a 2.26 FIP doesn’t quite back it up, it’s hard to complain about a 2.26 FIP. It’s also difficult to argue with with 73 strikeouts in 64.2 innings, and if you buy into “ninth inning experience,” well, Nathan has plenty of that.
But he’s also 39 years old, and the list of relievers to finish 50 games in a season at that age is pretty short, especially when you consider that of the 10 times its been done, four were from the incomparable Mariano Rivera. Other than Rivera, it’s been done just twice this century (once apiece by Todd Jones and Trevor Hoffman), and while that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it’s not as though the odds are tilted in his favor.
He’s also coming off a career-low .228 BABIP, a never-going-to-happen-again 0.28 HR/9 and 3.0% HR/FB, and a career-high 23.3% line drive percentage. Plus, he’s dealing with a fastball velocity that fell a mile-and-a-half from 2012, one that caused him to rely on his slider more than ever:
ou look at all those warning signs and you think to yourself, well, those are all red flags that should make you terrified about a 39-year-old pitcher. But even with some amount of expected regression, Nathan should be better than most of the pitchers Detroit threw out in 2013, and he’s been so good for so long that it’s difficult to see him completely falling off the table.
So despite the risk, 2/$20m (as has been reported), sounds about right, and is in fact exactly what FG readers predicted. It’s probably not the most efficient use of cash to pay for an old reliever who is at least partially valued on “saves,” but nor is it an egregious overpay for a team that badly needed help. Considering that that Wilson apparently didn’t want to come to Detroit and that guys like Fernando Rodney and Edward Mujica aren’t without risk of their own, it’s not like the team was overflowing with options anyway.
The other new Tiger, Krol, is a much less interesting player, a 22-year lefty who made his debut for the Nationals after having been acquired from Oakland in the Michael Morse / John Jaso trade last year. There’s value in reaching the bigs at 22 and holding lefties to a .273 OBP in an admittedly small sample size, but there’s some concern that LOOGY is his ultimate ceiling, since he’d dealt with platoon splits in the minors as well.
But back to the original question: is this better? This was the expected top six of the Detroit bullpen two days ago…
…and this is what it may be now (’14 projections via Steamer, of course):
It’s more expensive, to be sure, and Nathan is likely the best pitcher in either iteration, though some of the upgrade is lost because he’s just replacing Smyly, the second-best pitcher here. Either way, this is a bullpen that still needs one more good arm, whether that’s bringing back Benoit or adding someone else.
Yet really, this unavoidably comes back to the bewildering Fister trade. Sure, Detroit is one of the few situations where adding “a proven closer” like Nathan makes some amount of sense. But the Tigers had more than the ninth inning to fill, and a bullpen anchored by both Nathan and Smyly would have looked a whole lot better than what they had or could have, especially if you believe that Smyly is at least a mild step down from Fister in the rotation. Yes, A-ball pitcher Robbie Ray looks like an intriguing prospect, though as so many others have said, Fister should have been worth more. Nathan’s a worthwhile add, but the fallout of the Fister deal is impacting the bullpen, and not in a positive way.
Rays, Red Sox Take Different Paths to Similar Value.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Every team in the American League East came into the offseason with unsettled situations behind the plate. The Orioles have been trying to figure out whether nor not to deal Matt Wieters. The Yankees made a huge addition by adding Brian McCann. The Blue Jays just made their own improvement by replacing J.P. Arencibia with Dioner Navarro. That left the Red Sox and Rays, each of whom already had a nifty backstop, but a nifty backstop incapable of handling the bulk of the workload. That is, after the Rays re-signed Jose Molina, anyway. Tuesday, the teams have made their additions, with the Sox picking up A.J. Pierzynski and the Rays dealing for Ryan Hanigan. Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s still looking for a home, but he’ll at least be going to a different division.
Initially, this was going to be a straight-up comparison of Pierzynski and Hanigan, since they have few things in common, but one important thing shared. Then reality made things more complicated, with Hanigan being part of a three-team trade, and with Hanigan agreeing to a three-year contract. No longer is this just about 2014. But despite the complicating circumstances, I do still think it’s worth examining why Boston and Tampa Bay did what they did, and how the moves are pretty alike.
The Pierzynski acquisition is simple. It’s a one-year free-agent contract worth a little over $8 million. There was no draft-pick compensation to consider. Pierzynski will now team up with David Ross, as the Sox haven’t much felt like extending a big multi-year commitment to Saltalamacchia. Hanigan, meanwhile, is going to Tampa Bay along with Heath Bell and a bit of money. They’re giving up a low-level prospect and a player to be named later, and Hanigan has been signed to a three-year deal worth $10.75 million. He’ll team up with Jose Molina while Jose Lobaton considers a forthcoming plot twist. The Sox have things figured out for 2014. The Rays might have things figured out beyond that.
The Heath Bell part is both interesting and not. In theory, he’s part of the price the Rays are paying, since the Diamondbacks just wanted to shed their portion of his salary. The Rays are said to be taking on $5.5 million. Bell’s coming off a year in which he allowed too many dingers, and he’s turned 36. He’s also coming off his best xFIP since his Padres days, so there’s a chance that the Rays could squeeze some value out of him yet, not unlike what they did with Fernando Rodney. But Bell isn’t the key here. This is about the two very different and very similar catchers.
Pierzynski’s old and steady. He can play a lot, and he just had the same season he did in 2001. He combines singles and pop with no walks, and he’s not exactly a defensive specialist, with only adequate throwing, mediocre blocking skills, and mediocre receiving skills. At the plate, he’s routinely among the league leaders in swing rate. Pierzynski remains the same guy he’s always been, and given what we know about catchers, he probably projects to be worth somewhere between 1-2 wins.
Hanigan is older than you might think, albeit still younger than Pierzynski, and he’s less steady. Three years in a row now, he’s gotten less productive with the bat, and last season was a complete and utter catastrophe. He generally combines singles and walks with no pop, but last year the singles went missing. He’s more of a disciplined, contact sort, and he adds value by being strong in the field. He blocks, he throws, and he frames, giving him some of that hidden value that Tampa Bay clearly appreciates. As recently as two years ago, Hanigan seemed pretty underrated. Now he’s coming off a few months of agony, and given what we know about catchers, he probably projects to be worth somewhere between 1-2 wins. It depends on his playing time, and on what you do with the framing numbers.
By their respective skillsets, Hanigan and Pierzynski couldn’t be much less alike. Even the manners of acquisition are different, with Hanigan getting traded and Pierzynski getting signed. But, ultimately, they should be of somewhat similar overall value in the season to come. Hanigan might even get an edge if you strongly weight the framing data. On Pierzynski’s side, you get that passion and intensity that can endear a guy to teammates. So why did these two teams make these two moves?
Sox fans know their team has an analytical front office, and a lot of them wanted to trade for Hanigan once the Reds signed Brayan Pena. Hanigan would’ve made plenty of sense to them, but the same goes for Pierzynski, if in a less interesting way. The team was able to stick to its plan of short-term commitments to non-essential pieces. One-year contracts are low-risk deals, and the Sox paid Pierzynski more for dependability. He’s never once been a lousy player. He’s fine with small error bars, and the Sox want to be able to know they know what they’re getting. Teams pay a little premium for reliable players, and the Sox can afford it.
While the Rays always poke around for possible bargains. Hanigan might be just as good as Pierzynski, for a fraction of the price. He might be even better, given how he receives. But one can’t look past his offensive decline, or his miserable 2013. The Rays are gambling that Hanigan can bounce back, and given the three-year commitment, they like his chances of returning at least to adequacy. Compared to Pierzynski, Hanigan is more volatile, more unpredictable. He’s not reliable, and the upside is that, if he hits better going forward, the Rays have a good deal for three years. If he continues to struggle, it’s three years of Chris Stewart. But over the course, Hanigan won’t average even $4 million a season, so you can see why the Rays would be especially willing to try.
It’s a possible discount because of Hanigan’s unpredictability and because of his track record of limited playing time. The Red Sox prefer the known entity. That’s fine. The Rays have to go for more unknown entities, and this is another move where it looks like they might get a steal, if your glasses are sufficiently rosy.
It was strange to me when the Rays gave John Jaso away following a bad year at the plate. Now they’ve acquired a guy with a similar offensive profile following a bad year at the plate, and while Jaso has the superior bat, Hanigan has the superior defensive skills by a mile. This is an obvious buy-low that should at least help out the pitching staff, and Hanigan also carries a career .359 OBP. He’s got 33 years and an absence of pop, but there’s a reason the Rays wanted Hanigan in the first place.
And there’s a reason the Red Sox went with Pierzynski. Being a fan of pitch-framing research, I can’t overlook that edge that Hanigan has over Pierzynski, but Hanigan’s numbers strangely got worse in 2013 and I don’t know what that means going forward. I also don’t know how much of that is about the catchers themselves, and there is value in getting a guy who’s historically pretty stable. Hanigan, in 2014, could be good, or lousy. Pierzynski seems likely to be just fine, like he’s always been, which means that’s one less potential worry for a front office with a lot of work to do. These strike me as two simultaneously very similar and very different moves by two simultaneously very similar and very different organizations. And neither move looks like one to complain about.
A’s Trade Interesting Bat for Fantastic Glove.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
This off-season is nuts. Every day, there are interesting moves, including some pretty fun trades that just go beyond the normal prospects-for-rent-a-veteran template that we’re all accustomed to. Today, there have been a bunch of moves, but perhaps none is more interesting from a pure baseball perspective than a swap of non-household names between the Rangers and A’s.
The move shapes up like this: the A’s trade outfield prospect Michael Choice and infield prospect Chris Bostick to the Rangers for outfielder Craig Gentry and reliever Josh Lindblom. Bostick and Lindblom are secondary pieces of some potential value, but this deal is mostly about Choice and Gentry. And the differing skillsets from those two players makes this a pretty fun challenge trade.
Choice is a 24-year-old corner outfielder whose value is going to be primarily tied to his bat. A former first round pick, Choice has hit fairly well in his minor league career, but hasn’t yet displayed the kind of power that one might expect from a corner outfielder built a linebacker. Despite playing in the PCL, Choice posted just a .143 ISO in 600 plate appearances last year, which followed a .136 ISO in 400 plate appearances in Double-A in 2012. Power certainly can develop later, and Choice looks like he should hit for power, but his recent minor league performances cast some doubt on how soon that power might translate into the big leagues.
That said, Steamer is relatively optimistic about Choice, projecting him as a slightly above average (106 wRC+) hitter in 2014. While he’s not a defensive wiz, he’s athletic enough to hold his own in a corner spot, and there’s value in a guy who can provide league average offense and not embarrass himself with the glove in right or left field. And this is just his 2014 projection; with some improvement and more development, Choice might turn into a pretty effective everyday player down the line.
So, the A’s are trading some away a cheap source of potential offense, which is not exactly what you expect from a team that has historically hoarded young cost controlled talent. In several years, Choice may be a regular on their division rival, and trading a young player with some potential to a team in your division is usually not something most GMs are eager to do. However, the A’s are surrendering Choice’s future for the chance to make their 2014 team even better, and Craig Gentry has a chance to push their team forward in the short term.
This might be a weird thing to say about a 30 year old who has spent his career as a reserve, but even as a non-everyday player, Gentry can make a real impact, because of the crazy value he creates with his legs. During his time in Texas, Gentry was frequently used as a pinch runner and defensive replacement, so while he doesn’t always start games, he often finishes them. And because of those partial games, he’s managed to create some serious value even as a non-starter.
In his career, Gentry has had 317 opportunities to steal a base, according to Baseball-Reference’s data. He’s attempted a steal on 66 of those 317 chances, or 21% of the time he’s had the chance to run, and has been successful on 56 of those 66 attempts, an 85% success rate. For reference, those rates are virtually equal to what Jacoby Ellsbury has posted in his career. As a baserunner, Gentry has roughly been Ellsbury’s equal, even despite losing any element of surprise after being inserted as a pinch runner.
Over a full season’s worth of playing time, this kind of baserunning can be worth nearly a full win, as Ellsbury has averaged +8 runs from baserunning per 600 plate appearances in his career. Of course, Gentry won’t get 600 plate appearances unless something goes terribly wrong in Oakland, but even as a 300 plate appearance guy with regular pinch running and defensive replacement innings, he shouldn’t have much of a problem creating half a win just with his value on the bases.
And then there’s the defense. Over the last three years, here is the UZR/150 leaderboard for players with at least 1,000 innings in center field.
1. Craig Gentry, +30.4
2. A.J. Pollock, +24.2
3. Lorenzo Cain, +23.2
4. Carlos Gomez, +21.0
5. Peter Bourjos, +14.0
Defensive statistics are not perfect, and require significant regression when building a future projection, but Gentry hasn’t just been a good defender, he’s been exceptional. Regress a +30 UZR/150 even by 2/3rds and you’re still left with an elite defensive player. Yeah, we only have 1,500 innings worth of data for Gentry in center field, but those 1,500 innings suggest that he’s one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. Which is what we’d expect from an absurdly fast player who has already established his running skills on the base paths.
Even if we just call Gentry a +10 defender in center field over a full season going forward, we’re now basically saying he’s a +1.5 to +2.0 WAR player (per 600 plate appearances) before he ever steps to the plate. And unlike some other speed-and-defense specialists, he’s not a nothing as a hitter.
He has no power, but his career line is still .280/.355/.366, good for a 96 wRC+, making him roughly a league average hitter. Yes, as a right-handed hitter who has served as a part of a platoon, he has gotten the advantage of facing his fair share of lefties, so you’d have to lower the expectations a bit if he was pushed into more regular playing time, but the adjustment isn’t as large as you might think. For his career, Gentry’s split of facing RHPs and LHPs is 50/50, while the average right-handed hitter is usually around 58/42 or so. Move 8% of his plate appearances from the vs LHP column to the versus RHP column and you lower his wRC+ from 96 to 94.
In many ways, Gentry is very similar to Peter Bourjos, as a slightly below average hitter who adds a lot of value in the field and on the bases. Gentry’s a little older and might see more age-related decline sooner, and he probably won’t profile as a full time player in Oakland, but even as a super sub, expecting +2 to +3 WAR is entirely reasonable. And he provides a really nice insurance policy in case of injury to any of the A’s regular starters.
For the $1 million or so that he’ll get in arbitration, Gentry’s going to provide a lot of value for the 2014 A’s, and they’ll retain his rights for 2015 and 2016 as well. It is certainly possible that he could move into the starting CF role for those years, depending on what the team does with Coco Crisp after his contract expires. The A’s have acquired three years of a guy who should be able to provide real value in center field, either as an often used reserve or a starter when the need arises.
Giving up Choice’s long term value for Gentry’s shorter term productivity shows how far the A’s have moved into win-now mode. They’re not building for the future; they’re trying desperately to take advantage of their chance to win while they have a team that can compete for the AL West title. Gentry pushes the A’s 2014 hopes forward, while Choice gives the Rangers some longer term value to try and offset the downgrade of losing Gentry.
It’s a fun trade without an obvious winner or loser. It’s a present for future trade, but also an offense for defense trade. Toss in the intra-division aspect of this, and we might not see a more fun trade all winter. The A’s are certainly being aggressive in maximizing their 2014 value, and are no longer operating as a team primarily concerned about retaining young talent to maintain long term competition. Moving a prospect like Choice for a piece like Gentry shows that the A’s are pushing their chips in now. If used liberally, Gentry may very well justify the cost.
The Case of the Proven Closer and the Moneyball A’s.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Most rumors, of course, are nonsense, or at least things that won’t come true. We all know this to be the case, but a lot of the time, it’s difficult to tell from the outside what’s part of the signal and what’s part of the noise. Then there are the rumors that are just immediately, obviously ridiculous. This is the way I choose to feel about the chatter that the A’s have strong interest in Nelson Cruz — Cruz looks like the opposite of a free-agent bargain, he’s going to cost a draft pick, and the A’s have a full outfield. There’s no part of my rational mind that would link Nelson Cruz to Billy Beane‘s ballclub. Not one bit of it seems logical, so the rumor’s dismissed.
I had a similar reaction when I first saw word that the A’s were interested in trading for Jim Johnson. Johnson, like Cruz, has his uses, but he’s a Proven Closer due to make eight figures next season. Closers tend to be the most overpaid players on the market, so I didn’t see Beane falling for this, in reality. Then Beane actually traded for Johnson, giving the Orioles Jemile Weeks and a little bit else. The A’s deliberately acquired an eight-figure Proven Closer, and now the more I think about how it happened, the more I see how it makes some sense after all.
It’s easy to explain from the Orioles’ perspective. Weeks, probably, won’t turn into anything for them, given his statistical decline and increasing age. And Johnson, for years, has been a pretty good late-inning reliever. But the Orioles aren’t a team that can afford to spend $11 million on a closer, not when there are other holes around the roster of a potential contender. This is a salary dump for the purpose of gaining flexibility, and while the Orioles are said to be looking for a closer replacement, that guy shouldn’t cost as much as Johnson will. There’ll be other money to put in other places. The Orioles will spread that $11 million around, in the hopes of being the better team for it. It’s that simple.
The A’s, like the Orioles, operate beneath a tight budget ceiling, so in that sense they shouldn’t want to afford this either. In isolation, the A’s shouldn’t be the team paying $11 million to closer Jim Johnson. But to me, this comes down to two things. One is the principle that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract. And the other is that, while the Orioles have some needs to address, the A’s seem complete. After signing Scott Kazmir, all the A’s had left to do was address the bullpen.
When people complain about an overpayment, it’s because they think there were better ways to allocate the salary. I’m not going to pretend like the A’s roster is perfect, but when you look at it, it’s hard to find places where they could attempt an uncomplicated upgrade. The outfield is full, adequate, and fairly deep. The infield has too many players. There are multiple candidates to DH. The starting rotation is full and good and young, and the A’s are even in position now to shed Brett Anderson. The bullpen, also, is talented, even after losing Grant Balfour. All that wasn’t there was a clear closer candidate.
The A’s could try to do better at any and every position, but they’re already in good shape and attempted upgrades mean bidding wars. The A’s, of all teams, should understand the limited significance of actually having a designated veteran closer, but a good late-inning reliever is valuable no matter the role, and given that the A’s had the money left over to spend, they’re spending it. They’re spending it on an improvement, and they’re spending it easily, without having to get involved in any sweepstakes.
Johnson is well-known for his relatively unremarkable strikeout rates, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t effective. This is what he’s done the last four years, while generating a ton of grounders:
For reference, that’s a little bit worse than Joe Nathan, but Johnson’s almost a decade younger, and Nathan is signing with the Tigers for multiple years. The A’s get to make the shortest of commitments on a guy who keeps the ball in the ballpark. In 2014, Johnson might even be the better reliever. The age is important.
What Johnson isn’t is obviously and demonstrably better than Balfour. But Balfour’s also older, and seeking multiple years as a free agent. Tellingly, the A’s declined to extend to Balfour a $14.1-million qualifying offer, and that was a month ago, so their limit for this kind of thing is somewhere between Johnson’s projected salary and the value of the QO. But over a month, things have also changed. The A’s got their Nick Punto, and they got their Scott Kazmir. And they don’t have to bid against anyone for Johnson’s services. They don’t even have to negotiate with Johnson on a multi-year deal. They can just pay him for the season and see what happens.
The reality now is that the A’s have a good new reliever for a year. They didn’t have to give up any long-term talent, and they didn’t have to make any commitments beyond 2014. This is why people say what they say about one-year contracts. Of course some go better than others, but there’s so little risk, and if the money’s there you might as well use it provided you use it to get a little bit better. The A’s look more or less finished to me, pending the Anderson move.
It’s not that it’s a transaction I love. There could be better ways for them to spend that money. Maybe they would’ve been better off holding a lot of it for midseason, should the team need to upgrade. At the end of the day, $11 million is a lot for a non-elite reliever. But this isn’t at all like the Nelson Cruz rumors. Johnson should help right away, and beyond that there’s no commitment. The A’s didn’t lose anything of value but money that would’ve otherwise been difficult to spend. And there’s something to be said for trading for a player you know you’ll have to pay, as opposed to bidding for one. With Johnson, there’s no suspense, no need for Plan B. It’s peace of mind for the winter, and peace of mind for the season. There are worse things.
Nationals Steal Doug Fister From Tigers.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Tigers have six good starting pitchers, if you believe that Drew Smyly should be able to transition back to starting after a successful pitstop in the bullpen. Steamer projects all five of their current starters for at least +3 WAR next year, and it’s not at all crazy to think that Smyly will be a +2 to +3 WAR pitcher as a starter, given his track record and stuff. The desire to move Smyly back into the rotation meant that had someone to go. For the last few months, the rumored trade candidates have been Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer.
Those guys can officially unpack their bags, however, as the Nationals have solved the Tigers pitching problem by relieving them of Doug Fister instead. And they did it at a shockingly low price, considering that Fister is one of the game’s most underrated pitchers. But let’s deal with what they gave up first.
According to Chris Cotillo, the trade is a 3-for-1, with the Nationals sending 22-year-old LHPs Robbie Ray and Ian Krol along with 25-year-old infielder Steve Lombardozzi to the Tigers in exchange for two years of Fister at arbitration prices. Ray is the primary piece of value here, as a young lefty with solid stuff who has already succeeded at Double-A, getting his walks under control for a 60 inning stint in the second half of the season. Combined with a velocity spike that saw him sitting in the low-to-mid 90s, Ray’s stock is up quite a bit from last year, and Baseball America just ranked him as the organization’s 5th best prospect heading into 2014, though his pronounced platoon splits and previous control issues suggest he might end up in the bullpen eventually.
Krol and Lombardozzi are filler pieces essentially. Krol’s a hard throwing youngster who fits best as a lefty specialist, and probably shouldn’t face good right-handers in critical situations at this point in his career. Lombardozzi’s a reserve infielder who isn’t much of a hitter and doesn’t have enough glove to cover shortstop, so while he’s young, the upside is pretty limited. Maybe he grows into his power and develops into an okay second baseman in a few years, but for right now, he’s kind of a replacement level bench guy without a ton of value.
So, in exchange for Fister, the Nationals surrendered a non-elite pitching prospect who has pitched a half season at Double-A and probably won’t rank in anyone’s Top 100 next spring, plus a couple of role players who might or might not end up amounting to anything. And in return, they’re getting two years of a very good starting pitcher at far below market prices. This trade is nothing short of a bonanza for the Nationals.
Seriously, look at where Fister stands relative to the game’s best pitchers over the last three years.
Name IP BB% K% HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Clayton Kershaw 697 6% 26% 0.54 0.260 79% 60 70 78 18.5 22.8
Justin Verlander 707 7% 25% 0.79 0.275 77% 68 74 83 19.1 20.6
Cliff Lee 666 4% 25% 0.89 0.295 79% 72 73 74 16.5 18.0
Jered Weaver 578 6% 20% 0.89 0.252 80% 71 91 100 11.1 17.3
James Shields 705 7% 23% 0.91 0.283 77% 80 88 84 12.9 16.4
Felix Hernandez 670 6% 24% 0.64 0.309 74% 83 74 74 16.6 14.6
Cole Hamels 651 6% 23% 0.88 0.280 76% 82 83 84 13.2 14.5
David Price 622 6% 23% 0.78 0.288 75% 81 81 80 13.4 14.1
Hiroki Kuroda 623 6% 19% 1.00 0.283 78% 81 94 91 9.7 13.8
Chris Sale 477 6% 26% 0.91 0.287 79% 72 76 76 11.1 13.3
Gio Gonzalez 597 10% 24% 0.65 0.280 76% 81 85 91 11.4 12.7
Jordan Zimmermann 570 5% 19% 0.77 0.283 76% 82 88 95 10.2 12.4
Doug Fister 586 5% 18% 0.61 0.300 73% 82 80 86 13.3 12.4
R.A. Dickey 667 7% 20% 1.04 0.273 76% 88 100 97 8.6 12.0
Max Scherzer 597 7% 26% 1.06 0.301 75% 88 81 83 13.6 12.0
Kyle Lohse 598 5% 16% 0.92 0.269 76% 85 99 104 7.5 11.5
Anibal Sanchez 574 7% 24% 0.77 0.309 74% 85 78 83 13.5 11.4
Matt Cain 625 7% 21% 0.76 0.260 74% 88 94 99 9.6 11.2
CC Sabathia 648 6% 22% 0.93 0.306 72% 89 82 82 13.9 11.1
Zack Greinke 561 6% 24% 0.80 0.300 75% 87 81 80 11.3 11.1
Madison Bumgarner 614 6% 23% 0.73 0.285 74% 86 85 86 11.2 10.7
C.J. Wilson 638 9% 21% 0.71 0.290 72% 84 90 94 10.9 10.6
Bartolo Colon 507 4% 16% 0.92 0.295 76% 82 90 96 9.1 10.5
Mat Latos 614 7% 22% 0.81 0.283 74% 90 89 94 10.5 10.3
Jon Lester 610 8% 20% 0.94 0.300 73% 95 91 93 10.9 9.9
Those are the top 25 pitchers in baseball by RA9-WAR from 2011 to 2013. Note that Fister ranks 13th, two spots ahead of Scherzer. He ranks ahead of Zack Greinke, who got $150 million as a free agent last winter, and Anibal Sanchez, who got $85 million. He’s basically in a tie with Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, who have both finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting over the last couple of years.
And that’s runs allowed, which penalizes Fister for having to pitch in front of the Tigers defense. By FIP-based WAR, Fister ranks 9th, right between David Price and Cole Hamels. This is not a case where out new fangled math has identified an undervalued pitcher who only looks good on FanGraphs and looks like crap by traditional metrics. By the things we value the most, Fister has been a top 10 pitcher in MLB over the last three years; by the things that MLB has traditionally valued, he’s been a top 15 pitcher over the same time frame.
The easy comparison here is James Shields. A year ago, the Rays decided that they couldn’t afford the final two arbitration payouts for Shields, and put their strike-throwing change-up specialist on the market. In the three seasons prior to 2013, Shields had thrown 680 innings with a 96/94/81 ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- line, putting up +10 WAR by either FIP or runs allowed based models. He’d been better in the two more recent years, though, putting up an 81/89/79 line in 477 innings. He was a durable innings eater who had been at times among the most dominant right-handed starters in the game.
James Shields landed the Rays a kid named Wil Myers, who was rated as the game’s third best prospect heading into the 2013 season, and ended up winning Rookie of the Year. I was one of many who thought (and still do think) the deal was a massive overpay for the Royals, so the Tigers shouldn’t have expected to land a Myers-style prospect for Fister, but you would think they could have gotten closer than this. Especially because Fister’s track record is even better than Shields’ was, as he’s put up +13 WAR over the last three years compared to Shields’ 10 WAR from 2010-2012. Even if you just go past two years and exclude Fister’s excellent 2011 season, he still grades out as very comparable to Shields’ final two seasons before last winter’s trade.
And yet, the Nationals gave up a good-not-great pitching prospect, a lefty reliever, and a bench guy. Realistically, this is not that different from the return they got by trading away Michael Morse last winter, when they landed A.J. Cole (now rated as their #2 prospect by BA, ahead of Ray), Blake Treinen (a fringy pitching prospect), and Krol, who is changing teams once again. A year ago, the Nationals flipped one year of an injury prone DH for this same kind of package of talent that is now netting them two years of one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
This cost seems light even compared to other players traded with fewer years of team control on the books. Just this summer, the Rangers gave up four prospects of varying quality for Matt Garza, and it wouldn’t be hard to argue that C.J. Edwards is a prospect of similar value to Ray, and that the secondary pieces in that deal are also superior to what the Tigers just got for Fister. And that was for a half season of a worse pitcher, and the mid-season trade meant that the Rangers weren’t able to make Garza a qualifying offer. They paid a similar (or maybe higher) price for two months of Garza and no pick as to what the Nationals just paid for two years of Fister and the potential of a draft pick as compensation if he leaves after 2015.
It’s not like that deal was the crazy outlier here either. The Red Sox gave up Jose Iglesias for the right to pay Jake Peavy about $18 million over 1 1/2 years; Iglesias is probably a better return than the combination of talent Detroit just got for Fister, and Fister will make roughly $18 million over the next two full seasons. And again, Fister has been a lot better than Peavy.
We could keep running down the line all day. Two years of R.A. Dickey at $25 million cost the Blue Jays Travis D’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, both far better prospects than Robbie Ray. Fister isn’t coming off a Cy Young season, but he just threw 209 terrific innings, and then gave the Tigers two very good starts in the playoffs.
Maybe it’s the fact that Fister’s fastball sits at 89, or that he was a non-prospect for most of his days in the minor leagues, but barring an unknown injury that is about to wreck his value, it seems like 29 MLB teams are missing the boat on Doug Fister. If Fister were a free agent, he’d have been the best starter on the market by a good margin. This is a market where $50 million for Ricky Nolasco isn’t outrageous. As a free agent, I’d have expected Fister to land something in the range of what Anibal Sanchez got last winter. His market value is probably somewhere around $80 million for five years.
Instead, the Nationals will own his rights for the next two years at a grand total of less than $20 million, and the cost to acquire him was one decent pitching prospect and some filler. I don’t get it. Worse pitchers regularly cost far more, even with fewer years of team control. Are teams really still degrading pitchers based solely on fastball velocity, even after 800 innings of excellent Major League performance? Is there reason to think that Fister, at age-29, is about to magically stop pitching well?
I get that the Tigers had too many starters. I get that selling low on Porcello or giving up Scherzer while trying to contend might not be great ideas either. Maybe Robbie Ray is going to turn into an ace, and the Tigers will have turned two years of a good pitcher into six years of a good pitcher. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, and if Ray develops into a quality starter, this trade should work out just fine for the Tigers.
But that still looks like a pretty big if, given what we know about the success rates of pitching prospects, especially non-elite pitching prospects with some legitimate question marks. It seems to me that two valuable seasons of one of the game’s best pitchers should be worth more than one decent but unspectacular pitching prospect. It seems to me that MLB teams have been paying much higher prices to acquire quality starting pitching, and that the Nationals just got a total steal.
Maybe the Tigers and the 28 other teams who decided not to make a better bid for Fister know something that I don’t. Maybe he really is about to suck, after four years of being consistently above average, and with no obvious warning signs in sight. Maybe he spent the off-season burning down orphanages in third world countries and we just haven’t heard about it yet.
Short of that, though, this just an outright robbery. In a market where the prices for mediocre pitchers are very high, the Nationals paid a moderate price for a very good pitcher. They might have had a disappointing 2013 season, but with Fister slotted in behind Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimermann, they’re going to be very tough to beat in 2014.
Blue Jays Make Small Addition, Big Upgrade.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
J.P. Arencibia was the kind of bad that finds you. A year ago, the Blue Jays looked like competitor darlings, primarily because of a host of additions. Arencibia was hardly one of the guys to watch, and then before long it became apparent the Blue Jays were hardly one of the teams to watch. It didn’t take long for me to concentrate my viewing elsewhere, but still, I kept hearing about Arencibia’s death spiral. You didn’t have to follow the Blue Jays to be aware of Arencibia’s inability to get on base, and his final line was something borderline legendary. Arencibia hurt me, without my having watched. I weep for those who did.
Now Arencibia’s time in Toronto is just about up. From the free-agent market, the Jays have snagged Dioner Navarro for two years and $8 million. With Josh Thole as the backup, the Jays will now either trade Arencibia or non-tender him, leaving him a free agent. Unsurprisingly, league interest is reportedly limited. Teams won’t fall all over themselves to get a guy whose most recent OBP was lower than Pedro Alvarez‘s most recent batting average. From here, it’s unclear where Arencibia’s career is going to go.
There are two things, I think, that ought to be understood before we go further:
(1) Arencibia, presumably, is not as bad as last year’s 57 wRC+.
(2) Navarro, presumably, is not as good as last year’s 136 wRC+.
Last year, 38 catchers batted at least 250 times. Among them, Navarro was the second-best hitter, while Arencibia was the fourth-worst, a hair worse than Chris Stewart. These are factual things that happened, but they’re also not reflective of the players’ true talents. Navarro hit twice as many homers as doubles, which is the reverse of his career pattern. Arencibia wound up with too few hits on balls in play. The dependable rule of thumb is that all extreme performances must be regressed when considering the future, which is what we’re usually doing.
But despite that, this is a pair of moves that makes plenty of sense. Navarro demonstrated that he’s got some life left. Arencibia has failed to improve anywhere but in his pitch-framing, and that’s the part of his game that’s least understood. Neither catcher is an outstanding defender, and locally Arencibia has been the cause of great frustration. The Jays have run out of patience, and now they get to make one of two kinds of improvements. The most appealing kind of improvement is going from decent to good. The other kind of improvement is going from bad to decent, and that kind of improvement is equally valid.
In theory, Arencibia might just need more time to figure things out. He clearly has power, and he’s been a quality prospect before. Navarro, meanwhile, feels like he’s been around forever, and he did debut in 2004. But Navarro is actually just two years older than Arencibia is, and he’s been a regular starter before with the Rays. He makes more contact than Arencibia, he’s less opposed to walking, and if you can believe it, a year ago, Navarro posted the higher ISO. Squint, and in Navarro you can almost see a potential bargain.
And the contract, I think, might be the real key. Dioner Navarro is by no means a sexy addition, and no one’s going to confuse him with Brian McCann. But he’s going to get $3 million next year, and $5 million the year after that. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Arencibia is projected to earn $2.8 million next year. Navarro is better than Arencibia, yet he won’t be paid more. And he won’t be paid very much at all, for a guy projected to be used as a starter.
No matter where you fall in the ongoing discussion about free-agent market prices for a win, everyone agrees that the cost of a win is much greater than $3 million, and much greater than $5 million. The Jays, then, are paying Navarro to be worth a win, maybe a win and a half, over two seasons. This is a guy who’s supposed to be their starting catcher, and a guy who was just worth 1.7 WAR with the Cubs over a fraction of one season. Navarro isn’t a big splash, by any means, but it’s easy to see him being more valuable over the course than his salary, which isn’t the end goal, but which is helpful. The Jays decided against landing a more high-profile catcher, opting instead for a cheap, value catcher who offers them greater flexibility elsewhere. Even though Navarro won’t lead the team in any offensive categories, he should be adequate for below the market cost of adequacy, allowing the Jays to put money elsewhere, in places where it could be of greater use.
I don’t know what that means, necessarily, in that I don’t know where the Jays are going to go from here, but the whole idea behind contract efficiency is that it increases the effective payroll, allowing for greater talent maximization. The Jays didn’t think they were going to get a real good player for a reasonable cost behind the plate. So they got a cheap, fine player with a little upside, and they’ll look for other upgrades. The temptation will be there to consider Navarro on his own, but really, it’ll be about Navarro and whatever else the Navarro acquisition allows the Jays to accomplish. Everything is connected, and all Navarro needs to do is be worth a couple wins over two years for his team to benefit. It’s not a bad gamble, even considering Navarro isn’t that far removed from being a guy most baseball fans probably forgot about. He doesn’t have to hit much to earn his salary, and he happened to hit much just last season.
In Navarro, you could see a reason for hope for Arencibia. Navarro was a young starting catcher who fell on hard times, and now he’s earned his way back to regular playing time and a multi-year commitment. I don’t know if that’s ultimately going to be Arencibia’s course, but some team is going to be willing to find out. And the Jays will be happy to have that be another team’s concern.
Appreciating Ted Lilly.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Ted Lilly retired the day before Thanksgiving, ending an abortive attempt to come back from a series of injuries to his neck and shoulder. The pain was mysterious, wrote the Los Angeles Times: “One day his neck is feeling fine, then it stiffens up and he can hardly turn his head, let alone pitch.” In order to try to manage the pain, he underwent a procedure where “doctors used a large needle to burn the nerve endings on Lilly’s neck.” Over the offseason, he went to Venezuela to pitch. But he didn’t feel capable of pitching effectively, and hung up his spikes.
Theodore Roosevelt Lilly III (yes, his son’s name is Theodore Roosevelt Lilly IV) had a better career than you remember.
Ted Lilly went 130-113 in 15 seasons. He retires with 26.4 WAR, very similar to Dave Stewart (26.0) and John Tudor (27.1), and Rick Reuschel (28.0). He actually looks even better by RA9-WAR, checking in at 30.4, because he consistently outpitched his components: he had a career .270 BABIP, and so even though he had a 100 xFIP- and 102 FIP-, his career ERA- was a much healthier 95.
But perhaps the most surprising thing is this: he was a power pitcher who no one thought of as a power pitcher. It probably had something to do with his floral name, which doesn’t scream “strikeouts.” He was a six-foot-tall lefty chosen in the 23rd round of the horrible 1996 draft (the Kris Benson-Travis Lee-Braden Looper draft) with a high-80s fastball — but that is misleading, because he was initially drafted in the 13th round in 1995 but did not sign, and when he was in the minor leagues, he dialed his fastball up as high as 92. He’s retiring with a K-rate of 20% and career earnings of more than $80 million. Ted Lilly sneaks up on you like that.
He is literally the only graduate of Yosemite High School to make the majors, and is the best player ever to come out of Fresno City college; the only other alum of particular note is Mark Gardner, a below-average starter who hung around the league for more than a decade. (There’s a pretty big asterisk, though: Tom Seaver enrolled at Fresno City, but then transferred to USC.)
Lilly was a good pitcher when healthy, but he often had trouble staying on the field. The Dodgers released him on August 2, and soon afterwards he appeared to have reached a deal to sign with the Giants, but it was scuttled after a medical exam. He made 11 DL trips over the course of his career, beginning with a labrum tear in 1999 when he was still in the minors. That’s why Lilly only made 331 starts in 15 years; he only made 30 starts seven times in his career, and only pitched 200 innings twice. He was a two-time All-Star.
Lilly’s 30 WAR is a lot more impressive when you consider that he did it in under 2000 innings. Among pitchers with fewer than 2200 innings since 1980, Lilly has the 24th-best RA9-WAR, similar to many other front-of-the rotation starters with injury problems, almost exactly in between Jack McDowell (34.1) and Ben Sheets (27.7). If Lilly had been able to make all of his scheduled starts and thrown another thousand innings, he might have ended up with 42-46 WAR, which would equal the career totals of pitchers like Al Leiter, Chris Carpenter, Brad Radke, and Kevin Millwood. Point is: when he was healthy, Lilly was quite a good pitcher.
Lilly grew up near Yosemite State Park, went to Yosemite High School, and continued to make his home nearby. He was originally drafted by the Dodgers in 1996, but was traded to the Expos as a minor leaguer in the Mark Grudzielanek trade. It was his first of five trades. Two years later, he was included in a trade for Hideki Irabu; two years after that, he was included in the massive three-team trade involving Jeff Weaver, Carlos Pena, and Jeremy Bonderman; the following year, he was traded for Bobby Kielty; and seven years after that, he was traded for Blake DeWitt.
That last trade brought him back to the Dodgers, allowing him to make his Dodger debut 14 years after they originally drafted him. He took advantage of the proximity to his home to sponsor a golf tournament and pitch in his high school’s annual alumni baseball game in 2012. After that came a live auction, as the local Sierra Star newspaper reported:
Two Dodger fans got into a mini-bidding war for four Dodger game tickets with field passes to watch batting practice and get autographs from Lilly and other Dodger players. The two fans ran the bidding up to $2,500 before the winner was announced. Lilly then offered the same package for $2,500 to the second bidder who said yes.
Lilly came to town with an autographed jersey from his San Luis Obispo neighbor, retired L.A. Kings ice hockey player Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky. The jersey fetched $1,700.
Then came the biggest auction item of the night donated by Oakhurst resident Bob Siebenberg, drummer for the rock legend band Supertramp (with more than 60 million albums sold) — his framed gold album “Paris” — that started a bidding war between Lilly and his good friend Ryan Dempster, starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. Lilly outbid Dempster at $6,800 for the golden LP. But like the Dodger game tickets, Siebenberg steps to the mic and tells Dempster he has a similar gold album he would part with if would match Lilly’s bid. Dempster said yes.
Lilly apparently did not impress the Los Angeles Times as having a particularly memorable personality. “He was what you might call serious,” wrote Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times. “He answered questions in a direct manner that would have made Gen. Patton proud, but he always answered.” That impression is also conveyed by an interview he gave to a nervous interviewer from the Sierra Star, which yielded nuggets like these:
SNO: When you’re no longer playing ball professionally, how do you want to spend your time?
Lilly: Productively. Working hard is my responsibility to my kids.
SNO: One final question. How do you want people to remember you?
Lilly: I’d like to be remembered as someone who cares about other people.
Lilly announced his retirement in similarly laconic fashion, and noted his desire to coach. Whatever he does next, he had a fine career, better than nearly anyone else selected in 1996. And he’s certainly on the all-time list of the greatest players with flowers for names. Pete Rose is likely to maintain top position for the foreseeable future. For decades, 1953 MVP Al Rosen was second. But over the last 15 years, Ted Lilly has given him a run for his money. Not bad for a 23rd-round draft pick.
A’s Add Scott Kazmir, Keep Doing A’s Things.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
This is an overly simplistic generalization, but when signing free agents to contracts smaller than $100 million, you can choose performance or health, but probably not both. Players who play everyday at a high level command massive paychecks, and are pursued by nearly every team with money to spend. When you’re shopping in the lower rent districts, you can sign healthy players with mediocre performances, or broken players with good performances, but there aren’t many good healthy free agents signing short term contracts these days.
The A’s, over the last few years, have very clearly prioritized performance over durability. When they wanted a center fielder back in 2010, they signed Coco Crisp despite the fact that he was coming off shoulder surgery. When they traded away Andrew Bailey in 2011, they targeted Josh Reddick from the Red Sox, who had been an interesting player when he was able to stay on the field. When they needed a shortstop last winter, they turned to the Astros and acquired Jed Lowrie, who had a history of both hitting well and breaking down regularly.
They’ve done it with pitchers too, acquiring guys like Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, and Jarrod Parker at various points over the last few years. Because of their budget constraints, the A’s have to shop from the bargain bin, and they have consistently chosen to buy talented broken players over more reliable mediocrities. When faced with a choice between talent and health, the A’s have chosen talent and hoped that the health would get better.
Today, they’ve done that again, signing Scott Kazmir to a two year contract for a little more than $22 million. And based on both the A’s history and Kazmir’s 2013 season, this looks like a strong bet to be one of the best contracts given to a free agent starter this winter.
You’re already familiar with Kazmir’s story. Good young pitcher flames out at age-25, is out of affiliated baseball by age-27, and then works his way back to the big leagues after a stint in the independent leagues and the return of his velocity following rehab. After signing a minor league contract last winter, Kazmir gave the Indians 160 good innings, posting the best walk rate of his career and his best strikeout rate since 2008. Depending on how much emphasis you want to put on ERA or FIP, he was either a roughly average or well above average starting pitcher in 2013, and managed to make 29 starts, handling a nearly full season load for a contender in a pennant race.
And he actually got better as the season wore on. In the first half of the season, he allowed a .344 wOBA and posted a 3.84 xFIP, but in the second half of the year, he allowed just a .298 wOBA and posted a fantastic 2.79 xFIP. That second half xFIP was fifth best in baseball, behind only guys like Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, A.J. Burnett, and Stephen Strasburg. Rather than breaking down again under his first significant workload in three years, Kazmir got stronger the more he pitched.
However, a .324 BABIP allowed and continuing problems against right-handed batters drove his ERA over 4.00, so Kazmir hit the market viewed more as a pitcher with a long history of health problems than a guy who just demonstrated significant stretches of dominant pitcher. When the crowd forecast Kazmir’s contract, they guessed $17 million over two years, putting in the same range as Bronson Arroyo and Phil Hughes. This, despite the fact that Kazmir posted the 18th best xFIP- of any starter who threw at least 150 innings last year.
There are plenty of reasons to think that Kazmir’s 2014 could be even better than his 2013. His career numbers suggest there’s no reason to expect him to continue running a highly inflated BABIP in the future. Moving to Oakland should help offset some of the home run problems that have been an issue for him in the past. And Kazmir’s velocity actually got better as the year went on, so the most recent version of Kazmir that anyone saw was about as good as he’s ever been.
There are obvious health risks here. The velocity has gone away once, and maybe it will again. Kazmir might have figured out how to fix himself, but that doesn’t mean he won’t break again. He hasn’t thrown 200 innings in a season since before the year the original iPhone was released. The A’s are signing Kazmir on the hope that they’ll get 150 to 180 good innings, and they have to expect that they’ll need someone to fill in for him at some point during the season.
But the performance is pretty clearly worth the health risks. Steamer thinks Kazmir is going to be better, on a per innings basis, than every other free agent pitcher on the market besides A.J. Burnett. It’s forecasting him to pitch at a level that’s worth around +3.5 WAR per 180 innings, so even if he only gives them 120, this still will end up being a pretty decent deal. And if he stays healthy, they might have just signed the free agent with the most upside of any hurler on the market.
Betting on talent over health doesn’t always work, and when it doesn’t, you pay a lot of money to watch a guy rehab. But given the choice, Billy Beane and his staff clearly prefer to pay for broken players who are good when they aren’t broken, and it’s worked out pretty well for them over the last few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kazmir simply turned out to be the latest example of the A’s getting a good player at a reduced price simply because they’re willing to overlook medical problems in search of quality performance.