Saturday, December 8, 2012

MLB Winter Meeting Wrap-Up - New Signings, Fact or Fiction?

The MLB winter meetings have adjourned, and even though OF Josh Hamilton and SP Zack Greinke--the two best free agents on the market--still remain unsigned, several key players made themselves some solid scratch joining new teams. 

Of course, we had our usual mixed bags of bone-head deals and virtuoso acquisitions. Some new contracts screamed "Fiction!", while other ones roared "Fact". That being said, let's take a look at the best and worst signings--MAMBINO certified--of the MLB Winter Meetings.

Seattle Mariners get:  OF Jason Bay
Jason Bay gets: 1 year, $1 million (plus $2 million in incentives), another chance at relevancy

It's no secret; Jason Bay could very well be finished as an everyday baseball player. After a monster year and a half in Boston where he hit 47 home runs with 46 additional extra-base hits and a 7th place MVP finish in 2009, Bay signed a 4-year, $66 million dollar contract with the pre-Mayan Disaster Mets. In the next three seasons, the Canadian outfielder had only 26 jakks and 47 extra-base hits, missing almost 200 games due to various injuries. The Mets, hurting for offensive talent in the worst way, thought they'd gain more by simply buying Bay out of his last contract year, and allowing younger, albeit more inexperienced and lower ceiling players to get reps instead. Essentially, the Mets paid Bay to go away, which is what I'll say while I'm eating hay on this fine day.

After being hit with injury after injury, including a post-concussion symptoms and oblique issues, the now former Met reminded people more of MAMBINO whipping boy Endy Chavez than Jason Bay. However, he's only 34 years old, has a keen batting eye and knows that this will be his last major league contract if he doesn't produce. For the risk that the offense-strapped Mariners took, which is extremely low, this could end up paying huge dividends. From a sheer risk/reward ratio, this was a fantastic signing for Seattle.

Anaheim Angels get: SP Joe Blanton
Joe Blanton gets: 2 years, $15 million, laughter of Phillies and Dodgers fans everywhere

Let's be straight here; Joe Blanton isn't terrible. He's just wildly, incredibly, steadfastly mediocre. He's thrown at least 175 innings every year of his career but one, but has averaged 200 innings on the whole. Blanton won't wow you in any fashion: he's strikes out a solid but unspectacular 6 per 9 innings and generally limits his walks to 2 per 9 innings. As was pointed out to me my ardent Halos fan and my Silver Screen and Roll colleague Ben, Blanton's advance metrics point to the fact that his ERA wasn't nearly as bad as his Dodgers' mark of 4.99--he simply was unlucky. However, when you look at his numbers the past three seasons--4.82, 5.01, 4.71 ERAs, 9.8, 11.3, 10.6 hits per innings--it's past luck at this point. He's just not that great of a pitcher.

However, what's key is that he'll keep his team in the game, as long as the offense can support him. He's a "quality starter" in the strictest sense of the word, as in he'll average 5 innings and give up three earned runs--which is more or less what his career ERA dictates. With an Angels offense that should routinely back him up with four or five runs a game, Blanton's performances will look much better than when he was hurling for the staggeringly offensively inept Dodgers late last season.

The problem with this signing was the money--the best thing you can say about Blanton is that he's steady. Other than that, you're never going to walk away from the park thinking "Damn, Joe threw a gem tonight!" $7 million annually might be the new MLB price for steadiness, which I suppose the Halos need going into 2013 with Tommy Hanson and CJ Wilson's inconsistencies and injury history. Perhaps this signing isn't as much "Fiction" as it is underwhelming...just like Blanton. I would have thought less years and less dollars.

Tampa Bay Rays get: 1B James Loney
James Loney gets: 1 year, $2 million

In the grand tradition of Casey Kotchman, the Black Casey Kotchman--a.k.a. James Loney--has made his way down to Tampa, and with him brings a steady history of  mediocrity and the frustration of his team's fans. Now 28, Loney was once a stud prospect for the Dodgers, who's sweet left handed swing, imposing stature and slick fielding at first had him earmarked for an Eric Karros type of career. However, as the seasons wore on, more and more on-lookers realized that the power wouldn't be nearly as prolific as Karros's, who ranks first in Los Angeles Dodgers franchise homers (remarkably). They downgraded Loney's expectations to that of former Diamondback Mark Grace, who never hit for much power, but was a scalding gap hitter who drove in 100 runs on the regular. However, more seasons passed, and every year Loney's slugging percentage--as well as his batting average- fell and fell, to the point where even Mark Grace comparisons were too lofty.

In the end, Loney turned out to be a replacement-level baseball player worthy of spot starts against right-handed pitchers and a late-game defensive substitute. For Dodgers fans, watching his beautiful left-handed swing was more frustrating than anything; the problem is, that Loney just didn't know how to adjust to the mound.

For Tampa, this is a risky signing, but then again, what type of established, Major League-ready first baseman were they going to get with less than $5 million dollars? I suppose Loney can't regress too much more, but then again, he's disappointed me every single season. Get ready for some heckling, Tampa fans...if you're out there.

Tampa Bay Rays get: SS Yunel Escobar
Miami Marlins get: IF Ben Dietrich (Double-A)

Consider this: Tampa Bay shortstops combined to hit a .723 OPS last season...but that's including 197 plate appearances from All-Star Ben Zobrist who destroyed at the plate with a .949 OPS. Without the Zo-Rilla, we're looking at a .500 OPS from Rays shortstops. Simply moving to Escobar, who had a relatively paltry .644 OPS in 2012, is an upgrade.

The upside to Escobar however is far higher than anything Sean Rodriguez and company could have replicated. Two seasons ago as a 28 year-old, Yunel hit .290 for the Blue Jays with 24 doubles and 11 home runs, while playing steady defensive at a rigorous position. He's vacillated between being a sub .650 OPS and an above .800 OPS hitter, but even at his worst, is better than alternative the Rays could have signed for this type of money or brought up from their farm system.

Speaking of which, the price on Escobar is also quite manageable as well; he's making $5 million this year, with $5 million dollar options for the next two seasons. This contract resembles the same type of deals that Tampa GM Andrew Friedman regularly doles out, which, if all goes wrong, would have cost the Rays just one year, $5 million and a prospect that's projected to, at best, be an above-average major leaguer.

Overall, this is a shrewd trade for the Rays. Dietrich is projected as a future second or third baseman, which the Rays will have locked up long-term with Evan Longoria and perhaps Zobrist going forward. I'm expecting them to trade one starter, including James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson or even newly minted AL Cy Young winner David Price before the winter is over, which should return some premium offensive prospects to a Tampa Bay farm system that seems to be bereft of them. They needed a solid defensive player up the middle next year, not to mention one that hit like anyone resembling a major leaguer. 

Boston Red Sox get: OF Shane Victorino
Shane Victorino gets: 3 years, $39 million, and astonishment

The Flyin' Hawaiian has defied expectations his entire career; from his small stature to being Rule 5 drafted by the Phillies to being a key contributor on a World Series winner. However, I don't see how he can defy the prognostications from the sports world that this is could be the most mystifying signing coming out of the winter meetings. 

I can see the Red Sox's reasoning behind the signing: just two years ago, Victorino had a .846 OPS, hit 16 triples and 17 home runs. He rarely strikes out, takes walks and even in 2012, stole 39 bases. His defense has regressed quite a bit from his 2008-2010 heyday when he was one of the best outfielders in the Majors, but he still has solid defensive instincts, which is an absolute must for patrolling right field for the Sox.

However, Victorino is coming off his worst professional season ever. He hit to a .704 OPS, struck out a career high 80 times and performed at an even lower level after a midseason trade to the Dodgers (.644 OPS with 31 strikeouts in 53 games). He's going to be 32 this season, which should indicate that he's going to become past his prime very soon, if last season wasn't the first sign of indefinite regression. Many baseball people thought Victorino was a lock for a one year, make good contract in the vein of Adrian Beltre years ago before he became an MVP candidate for the Texas Rangers. $7 to $9 million was the most probable number, though even 2 years wouldn't be out of the question. However, the Red Sox blew everyone out of the water with a 3 year deal with an average value of $39 million. There's little doubt that the Red Sox were bidding against themselves here, and even if they weren't, committing that much time and money for soon to be 32 year old who's game is largely predicated on speed doesn't sound like a good idea in the least. He's already losing much of the qualities that made him into the "Flyin' Hawaiian" in the first place. What's he doing to be like in 3 years?

Boston Red Sox get: C/1B Mike Napoli
Mike Napoli gets: 3 years, $39 million

Napoli gets essentially the same deal as Victorino after a similarly down 2012, but with a much better future. After a monster 2011 in which the former Angel registered an unreal 1.046 OPS and 30 homers in just 113 games, Napoli hit to a more mortal .812 OPS and 24 homers in 108 games last season.

There was little doubt that he would regress after 2011, so even a .200 point drop in OPS isn't too big of a concern. Napoli has regularly hit for at least .450 slugging every season of his career, which combined with a high on-base percentage (.356 career average) has made him one of the best-hitting catcher in the game. Boston has committed to making their new acquisition a permanent first baseman, which would relegate Napoli's numbers from fantastic for a catcher to merely average for a first baseman. However, one has to suspect that without the rigors of catching even half the season, as he's been doing for past two years in Texas, the right-handers statistics should tick up a bit, even going into his age 31 season. Unlike Victorino, his 2012 was still very good, and should have been paid accordingly.

Power hitters like Napoli tend to age well into their early thirties, and in that way, such hitting should be thusly rewarded.

Washington Nationals get: SP Dan Haren
Dan Haren gets: 1 year, $13 million 

This works for the Nationals on several levels. Washington didn't NEED to make this signing. Going into 2013, the District was looking at a rotation including all-world dominator Stephen Strasburg, as well as the impressive Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler. Without Haren, this might have been the best rotation in the league.  

If Haren's right and healthy, he's a Cy Young candidate pitcher. For one year and $13 million for a franchise flush with cash, the risk is low and the reward high. 

Haren posted a 3.33 ERA from 2007 to 2011, in stints both in Arizona and Anaheim. However, he's coming off a career-worst season in almost every way possible: career worsts (or near worsts) in innings pitched, strikeouts per 9 innings, home runs per 9 innings, WHIP and ERA. Haren had pitched over 200 innings for seven consecutive seasons, and the once impervious workhorse seemed to break down in 2012 and the Angels balked at another season and $15 million for a guy who might never the be same.  

The Nationals certainly took on some risk here, but in the end, if he doesn't produce or is as bad (I should say, slightly below league-average) as he was last season, then he's merely the fifth pitcher in a rotation filled with studs. An excellent signing for the Nationals.

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