Saturday, January 5, 2013

Every Move Counts

Generally in the Baseball offseason, the slowest time for transactions happens over the holidays, Christmas and New Years. General Managers and their staffs want to spend time with their family and friends, as do the players, agents, and their respective loved ones. So, the hot stove cools, and the fans (and pundits) are left with little to talk about. On the other hand, the entire industry does not come to a halt. Free agents still negotiate deals, trades are proposed, and players move from team to team. Here are some of the latest free agent signings.

Cody Ross
Diamondbacks sign OF Cody Ross to a 3-year $26 million contract: 
Where did this come from? Jason Kubel, Justin Upton, Gerrardo Para, Adam Eaton, and A.J. Pollock. This is the list of outfielders the Diamondbacks had at their disposal before signing outfielder Cody Ross to a 3-year contract. This, all after trading center fielder Chris Young to the Oakland Athletics. Basically, the Diamondbacks have stock piled the largest arsenal of outfielders we've ever seen. They have rookies, veterans, lefties, righties, power-hitters, speedsters, great defenders, and poor defenders. Missing an outfielder? If so, call Kevin Towers because anyone who doesn't play in the infield now resides in the desert. The reasons behind the Dbacks' decision to sign Cody Ross remain speculative at best. It puts the team in a position to keep all of these players, trade one, or trade more than one. The Diamondbacks play in hitter friendly Chase Field, which means they need a solid defensive outfield to take away opposing teams' hits, and great hitters to take advantage of the offensively-friendly confines.

Cody Ross is an interesting pickup. He's a right-handed hitting corner outfielder whose career has been above average, but nothing to call your mother about. In the last 3 seasons his numbers have followed his batting average on balls put in play. BABIP is a statistic that centers around a mean of .300, with exceptions for hitters that make their living purely on making contact with the ball.
BABIP Slash Line wOBA fWAR
2010 0.324 .269/.322/.413 0.322 2.3
2011 0.279 .240/.325/.405 0.321 1.0
2012 0.317 .267/.326/.481 0.345 2.4
When Ross' luck is better, his overall performance seems to improve, but when he hits balls in play at fielders, his production falters. Ross also has fairly distinctive righty/lefty splits. In his career, Ross's wRC+ against lefties is 141, well above the league average, but a meek 92 against righties. While Ross's offensive production falls in every category when looking at his splits vs. righties, his slugging percentage scuffles the most. In his career, Ross slugs .415 against right-handed pitchers, but a fantastic .575 against lefties. This split shows that Ross will play when a lefty takes the mound against the snakes. So, given his splits, it would seem that Ross would be a perfect fit for a platoon, but you may be wondering why a team would want to pay a player more than $8 million AAV to platoon with another player when a similar platoon option like Scott Hairston remains a free agent. Hairston comes at a cheaper cost, and there is no need to lock him up for multiple years, but the Diamondbacks probably preferred Ross to Hairston due to their difference in defensive ability. Cody hasn't been a star defender, but he's put up positive defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating numbers since in his career. He plays the corner spots much better than the defensively demanding center field, and he played much better in the smaller Fenway Park outfield than the expansive outfield in San Francisco. Ross is only getting older, which means slower, but given his splits, the Diamondbacks won't be counting on Ross for defensive perfection in every game. PECOTA expects Ross to be worth about 5.7 WARP for the duration of his contract in Arizona, but given his new home field, we might see more offensive production. Overall, this signing seemed crazy on the outset, but looks more and more genius as I delve deeper.
My Grade: B+ (As I said before, the Diamondbacks seemed stupid in making this deal, but when analyzing it, Ross looks like a fit in Arizona. The team could make serious upgrades at other positions by trading an outfielder. Most think Jason Kubel is the perfect candidate, but don't count out the team moving Justin Upton in a blockbuster deal.)

Brewers sign LHP Mike Gonzalez to a 1-year $2.25 million contact:
In 2012, the Brewers had one of the worst bullpens in Baseball. Given the Brewers' situation, the main goal this offseason had to be an upgrade in their relief core. The team's offense remains almost untouched, and their starting pitching has some youngsters looking to continue early career success. Recently the team signed lefty Tom Gorzelanny to a multi-year contract, and now Doug Melvin has inked fellow lefty and former Nat Mike Gonzalez to a 1-year contract. The Brewers relievers ranked 10th worst in Major League Baseball in wOBA against lefties last season, and 10th worst in home runs given up against left-handed batters. That, combined with the numerous left-handed hitters with power in the NL Central, made the Brewers go looking for some affordable upgrades in that department. Think about it, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Mike Rizzo, Pedro Alvarez, and Shin-Soo Choo all play in the NL Central. With hitters like that, the Brewers have to have a counter punch out of their bullpen, especially given those hitters' particular ability to hit the ball out of the ball park. Gonzalez has been solid his entire career, throwing from an over-the-top angle, but with a very "arms and legs" delivery. That means that his delivery isn't compact or simple, but instead has lots of moving parts that distract the hitter, in an attempt to keep the ball hidden from the hitters' eyes. Gonzalez has a higher career K%, lower career BB%, and drastically higher ground ball percentage against lefties than righties, making him the perfect lefty specialist coming out of Milwaukee's bullpen. At only $2.25 million, the Brewers found an affordable lefty reliever. What more could they ask for?
My Grade: A (I can't find a downside to this deal. It doesn't make the Brewers contenders, but it's a minor move that will prove important in division play.)

Indians sign RHP Brett Myers to a 1-year $7 million contract:
So, Brett Myers is sort of a weird player. He has twice moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen, and now for a second time will move back to the rotation. Most pitchers would rather start than relieve, and Myers probably turned down some offers to pitch out of the bullpen in order to sign with the Indians. The Tribe looks to be filling rotation spots with cheaper veterans rather than promote prospects. This comes from a lack of MLB ready, or close to MLB ready pitching prospects. The team recently traded for Trevor Bauer, and he will compete for a rotation spot, but most likely, if he doesn't impress, Bauer will begin the season in triple A. Myers is a solid innings eater, a solid #5 or possibly #4 starter who isn't flashy, but gets you through 6 innings of work most of the time. When tagged as a starter, Myers has thrown at least 190 innings in every season but one. That consistency combined with a very sparse injury history, and a low price tag made Myers the perfect target for the Indians. He has a typical four-pitch arsenal of fastball, curveball, slider, changeup, with the curveball acting as his best strikeout pitch. Myers has shifted from the four-seam fastball to a sinker in recent years, causing his ability to induce ground balls to go up in the latter half of his career. Myers has learned some better control recently, lowering his BB% from 2 to 3 percentage points in the last 3 seasons. The Indians aren't looking for anything spectacular from Myers, but they also aren't paying him for more than a 1.0 WARP value. If the Indians fall out of the playoff picture by the trade deadline, look for Myers to be dealt as he isn't owed very much money, and isn't signed past 2013.
My Grade: B (This deal isn't special. If the Indians perform well, Myers looks like a steal at $7 million, but if they falter, he might garner a utility infield prospect.)

Rangers sign RHP Jason Frasor to a 1-year $1.5 million contract:
The Rangers lost two important cogs in their bullpen this offseason. Both Mike Adams, now a Phillie, and Koji Uehara, now in Boston, moved eastward away from balmy Arlington for colder pastures. In addition, Neftali Feliz looks to have made a permanent move to the starting rotation, and Alexei Ogando could find himself a starter in 2013 as well. The Rangers already added righty Joakim Soria earlier this offseason, but this deal is different. Soria pitches well against both righties and lefties, making him valuable enough to sign a multiyear contract for $8 million. Frasor has a lot of difficulties getting lefties out (4.06 career FIP), but fairs better than average against right-handed hitters (3.60 career FIP). At $1.5 million, Frasor could put up similar numbers to his 2012 campaign and still be worth this contract. Look for the Rangers to possibly add one more reliever to sure up their bullpen. Texas starters Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz are both coming back from Tommy John surgeries, with Lewis expected back mid-season and Feliz towards September. These injuries force Alexei Ogando into the rotation and leave a hole in the bullpen, one that Frasor looks to fill.
My Grade: B+ (The Rangers needed a veteran reliever on the cheap, and they seem to have found their man.)

Dodgers sign LHP J.P. Howell to a $2.85 million contract:
J.P. Howell
The Rays discovered J.P. Howell, putting him in the bullpen where he thrived. Howell has performed well against lefties, but doesn't lose that much when facing righties. Many thought the Rays would resign Howell, but given his 2011-2012 value, the Rays might have been looking for a cheaper deal than almost $3 million. Only the Rays, and maybe the A's, have to worry about minute amounts of money like signing a reliever to a 1-year $3 million contract. The Dodgers have already added to their bullpen with the signing of Brandon League, albeit an overpay, but lost LHP Randy Choate to the Cardinals. Most likely, this lefty loss led L.A. to go after J.P. Howell. The Dodgers have deep pockets and a desire to win ASAP, so Howell probably wasn't attracting offers for more than $2 million before the Dodgers swooped in and outbid everyone. Howell is a solid pitcher who joins Scott Elbert as the two lefties in the Dodgers' pen. PECOTA and the Bill James projections see Howell outperforming his $2.85 million contract. He'll get a lot of work against lefties, and should prove his worth in pitcher friendly Chavez Ravine.
My Grade: B (If the Dodgers had to outbid other teams to get Howell, then this contract looks a little worse than I originally thought, but since most projections show Howell to outperform his current 2013 pecuniary value, I see this as a solid deal for both sides.)

Lance Berkman
Rangers sign 1B/DH Lance Berkman to a 1-year $10 million contract:
I previously wrote that that the perfect fit for Lance Berkman in 2013 would be in Tampa Bay. I sorely underestimated how much money teams would be willing to pay the soon-to-be 37 year old coming off of knee and calf injuries in 2012. Berkman has been very productive in his career, hitting for a career slash line of .296/.409/.544. Notice his incredibly high on base percentage and slugging percentage. Berkman is a duel threat at the plate, getting on base and hitting for power. The Big Puma has 360 career home runs and hasn't put up a wRC+ lower than 114 since his rookie season of 1999. Berkman was always a staple in Houston as part of the buzzing b's. He is a switch-hitter, who performs demonstratively better from the left side of the plate, but holds his own vs. left-handed pitching knocking southpaws around for a career .342 wOBA. Berkman has only two factors working against him, his age and recent injury history. PECOTA projects Berkman to be worth 3.0 WARP in 2013 and 2.2 WARP in 2014. The Rangers hope Berkman will fill the designated hitter role, smashing balls into the stands in right-field in hitter and home run friendly Texas. If Berkman produces the way PECOTA and Bill James (.279/.389/.485) expect he will, the $10 million price tag will look like a steal. If Berkman fails to hit 20 home runs and only plays in 70 games, it will look like a waste, but of only 1 to 2 million dollars.
My Grade: A- (The Rangers have a very right-handed lineup, so Berkman's power from the left side is a much needed upgrade. Berkman returns to Texas (he played most of his career for the Astros) instead of retiring, and should produce if healthy.)

Okay, you got me, none of these signings are monumental, but don't discount them as negligible. Howell, Frasor, and Gonzalez should all contribute to bullpens without needing to be the keystones, while Ross joins a well-stocked outfield in hitter friendly Arizona. The Rangers and Nolan Ryan apparently sought after Lance Berkman so much that Ryan flew to see Berkman in order to convince him to play in 2013, and do so for the Texas Rangers. Brett Myers is the true mundane signing of the bunch, but even he could prove interesting if traded mid-season. Look for January and February to be busy months on the MLB hot stove with Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, Adam LaRoche, and Shaun Marcum still unsigned and numerous trade-possible players still out there. Oh, and remember, only 37 more days until pitchers & catchers report. 

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