Lost in Transactions 1/19-1/25/09: Garden variety signings

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Jeff Kent (Icon/SMI)

The Baltimore Orioles got their starting catcher (at least until uberprospect Matt Wieters hits the bigs) and there were several other small moves that comprised this past week of baseball transactions. The minor league and one-year contracts are starting to trickle in, but they are of the garden variety. More interesting to me is which (and when) of the bigger names in free agency will cave and take a one-year deal at low dollars just to make sure he has a job for the season. Maybe we’ll cover that player next week?

NOTE: Unless significant, I will not be posting contract/arbitration decisions as they are already bound to the team for the 2009 season.

1/19/08

Baltimore Orioles acquired RHP David Pauley from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for RHP Randor Bierd.

I like this acquisition for the Orioles. Pauley has a fringe-average fastball but was able to post a 3.55 ERA in 25 starts for Pawtucket. He gave up 147 hits in 147 innings, walked 41 and whiffed 103. With his sinker, he could make a solid back of the rotation starter. He’s prone to the home run ball, so the probably Orioles aren’t a perfect match for his skill set (as opposed to, say, the San Diego Padres).

1/20/08

Detroit Tigers agreed to terms with pitcher Juan Rincon on a minor league contract.

He used to be pretty good with the Minnesota Twins. He’s not anymore. Still, worth a flyer.

1/21/08

Baltimore Orioles signed RF Nick Markakis to a six-year contract.

As I wrote last week when the O’s acquired Felix Pie, the club now has one of the more dynamic outfields in baseball. Markakis is the most accomplished of all three and is fast becoming the face of Orioles baseball.

Entering his age-25 season, the possibility exists that Markakis will eventually hit 30 taters, but for now he will have to settle for being in the low 20s. His walk rate spiked last year to 14.3 (8.1 in 2006, 8.7 in 2007) so he’s adjusting more and more to major league pitching. His isolated power held steady at .185, same as 2007, so he still has room for growth there.

An encouraging sign in his progression is the increase of his line drive percentage, which rose to 21.1 percent a year after checking in at 17.7. Line drives are the balls hit with the most authority, so any trend upwards is considered a good thing. He also drastically improved his defense, posting a 3.6 UZR a year after going -0.7. All told, he was worth $24.3 million in true value last year. He has yet to make an All Star Game, but expect that to change, if not in 2009.

Los Angeles Dodgers signed C Brad Ausmus to a one-year contract.

Los Angeles Angels signed P Matt Palmer and 2B Luis Figueroa to minor league contracts.

Boston Red Sox acquired pitcher Fabian Williamson from the Seattle Mariners for pitcher David Aardsma.

R.J. Anderson covered this acquisition over at Fangraphs and brings up some examples that Aardsma could be following, most notably the ascension of Grant Balfour and Matt Thornton to above-average relief pitchers. Aardsma’s issue has always been command but was able to harness most of it and be a valuable piece out of the Red Sox bullpen before going down midseason with an injury after trying to pitch through it. His statistics after the injury were not pretty. Still, check out this K/9 correlation:

Pat Hickey explains what Red Sox fans should expect from Williamson:

Williamson is a finesse pitcher who locates an 85-90 mph well on both sides of the plate. As a lefty, he possesses natural deception and could be a solid situational guy out of the Boston bullpen in three or four years. He also commands a curveball and change-up with good control, both of which rate as average with the potential to become above-average. He struck out Appalachian League hitters to the tune of 11.45 K/9. At 6’2″, 175 lbs., Fabian should continue to grow into his frame by adding muscle that could improve his fastball to bode better as he advances through the Sox minor leagues. With the combination of a present below-average fastball and that kind of strikeout rate, he shows advanced pitchability for his age.

Texas Rangers signed shortstop Omar Vizquel and catcher Adam Melhuse to minor league contracts.

Words can’t do justice to how bad Omar Vizquel was as a hitter last year. A .550 OPS in 300 plate appearances? Ouch.

There are some positive indicators for Vizquel, however. His BABIP was a paltry .242 (average is .300) and his line drive percentage actually rose to 20.8 from 18.3 in 2007 when he posted a .621 OPS. He was still an above-average defensive shortstop and likely can hang around a couple more years as a utility infielder if he wants to. He’ll push Elvis Andrus for a starting job in Texas’ infield. My money is on Omar winning the job so Andrus can get some at-bats in Triple-A, something he has yet to do. In my opinion, it’s a bit surprising that the Rangers pushed Young off short. They could have gotten by with him for one additional year and taken a flyer on someone like Joe Crede or Ty Wigginton to man third base.

However, the double play combination of Young and Ian Kinsler was horrific defensively (despite Young’s gold glove), so it is understandable that the club would want to move to improve their defense for the pitchers. (I wrote today over at Fire Brand about Jon Lester and made note of how significantly the defense helped him. You cannot underscore the effectiveness of defense behind a pitcher.) Take for example Carlos Silva. As I quote:

Take Carlos Silva into account. With a fine defense behind him in the 2007 Minnesota Twins, he posted a 4.19 ERA and 4.67 xFIP. In Seattle in 2008, we all know how atrocious he was: a 6.46 ERA. Ah, but his xFIP? 4.74. Significant difference, as it is widely held that the Mariners hold one of the worst defenses in baseball, especially in the infield where Silva makes his living.

That would explain in part, as well, why the Baltimore Orioles (another team with a struggling pitching staff) has chosen to go with Cesar Izturis as their shortstop. You’re seeing the pendulum swing back to good-field, no-hit shortstops after a generation of hitting shortstops.

San Diego Padres agreed to terms on a one-year contract with C Henry Blanco.

The Padres have essentially punted this season, but the addition of Blanco gives them what could be a valuable trading chip down the line. He has been one of the better backstops in the league the last several years with his defense and his ability to make enough contact to continue to have a job as a catcher. If another team’s backup catcher (or even primary) catcher goes down, Blanco will definitely be near the top of the list for possible replacements. For a rebuilding team in San Diego, they can nab another prospect for no loss.

1/22/08

Baltimore Orioles signed C Gregg Zaun to a one-year contract. Designated INF Oscar Salazar for assignment.

Zaun’s had a long career and in another day and age, could have been one of the better starting catchers in his era had he just gotten lucky. He has a career .344 OBP and had his best year in 2006 for the Toronto Blue Jays. The Orioles nabbed themselves a great catcher, at least for the price and situation.

Zaun will start the season as the starter as the Orioles push off Matt Wieter‘s free agency year by one additional year. Wieters will then receive the call in May or June and integrate himself behind the plate with Zaun as a mentor. All told, Zaun should catch around 70-80 games on the year, which will give him a solid resume when teams consider bidding on him when his deal is up next year. If he can have a good offensive year, he may be able to land a job as a starter next year. Indeed, despite losing his job, he still contributed 1.2 wins to the Toronto ballclub last season.

Los Angeles Dodgers announced the retirement of second baseman Jeff Kent.

Say what you want about his personality, but Kent goes down in history as one of the best second basemen to play the game. Kent struggled to find a niche with the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, and Cleveland Indians before arriving in San Francisco as a 29-year-old and going on to contribute 11 seasons of excellent offense from the second base position. He won the NL MVP in 2000, hitting .334/.424/.596 with 33 home runs and 125 RBIs. He was never known as a defensive whiz at second but demonstrated enough ability to play the position that he never had to move off it.

Atlanta Braves signed C Alvin Colina, 3B Brooks Conrad, P Emiliano Fruto, P Juan Perez to minor league contracts.

New York Mets signed infielder Alex Cora to a one-year contract.

The Mets really needed a solid backup in the infield position, and you can’t really go wrong with Cora. He’s never been known for being a good hitter, but does maintain a career .245/.313 line, which is good enough for a backup. He’s prone to hot streaks, as the Red Sox can attest. Cora has carried the Sox for stretches at a time. This past year, when Cora missed time with injury, he posted 152 at-bats, his fewest since establishing himself as a major leaguer. He’s average to below-average at second in UZR, but is very good at shortstop.

The Mets needed someone like this to back up Jose Reyes and Luis Castillo. With Castillo increasingly becoming a liability both at the plate and in the field, it wouldn’t surprise me if Cora eventually usurped the starting job by the end of the season.

1/23/08


Milwaukee Brewers signed SS Craig Counsell to a one-year contract.

New York Mets signed OF Rob Mackowiak and SP Freddy Garcia to minor league contracts, signed OF Cory Sullivan to a one-year contract.

Garcia made an encouraging return from surgery in 2008, starting three games for the Detroit Tigers. He posted a 4.20 ERA, but struggled to retain his command. He posted a 3.80 BB/9 after consistently being in the low 2s in his career. With more repetitions that number should go down. He was able to maintain his K/9 rate of the mid-7s, where he’s been most of his career (and dipped to the 5s in 2005-6 for the Chicago White Sox, probably a contributing factor to his eventual surgery after imploding for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2007). He is a fine gamble for the Mets and should he make the rotation out of spring training, should deliver fine numbers as a No. 5 starter.

Sullivan logged almost 400 at-bats as a 25- and 26-year old for the Colorado Rockies but lost playing time in 2007 and 2008. His career line in 927 at-bats is .279/.330/.391. In Triple-A for the Rockies, he hit .320/.373/.475 and has 25 career stolen bases to go with nine caught stealing. The issue is that he’s not a very good fielder in center field. He’s fine in the corners but center seems to pose problems for him. With the Mets deep in outfielders that can play the corners, he’s going to have to show an ability to pitch in at center.

1/24/08

Detroit Tigers agreed to terms with pitcher Brandon Lyon on a one-year contract and pitcher Scott Williamson on a minor league contract; designated pitcher Eddie Bonine for assignment.

Ah, Scott Williamson. He was filthy for the Red Sox in 2003 and parts of 2004. Williamson was half of a fearsome combo with Mike Timlin; “Timlin in the eighth, Williamson in the ninth” became a common phrase in 2003. Too bad Grady Little didn’t listen in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS … but let’s not re-open old wounds. He hasn’t been a good major league pitcher since his run with the Sox in 2004, so the odds are against him.

Lyon was a nice pickup for the Tigers. It was obvious they needed to make some changes in the bullpen. Although Lyon isn’t going to be confused with a dominant pitcher, he at the very least is a better option than Fernando Rodney in the ninth. He’s never demonstrated an advanced ability to miss bats, although he did make significant progress towards this in 2008 when he posted a 3.38 K/BB, the best mark in his career by far. His main issue in 2008 was the abundance of hits: 75 in 59.1 innings. This after 70 in 74 innings in 2007. He was a very good reliever for the DBacks in 2006 and 2007 so if he can get back to that, should help the Tigers in their pursuit of making it back to the postseason.

Boston Red Sox announced the retirement of 1B Sean Casey.

I’m a bit surprised that Casey chose to retire after hitting .322/.381/.392 for the Red Sox in a backup role. Every time he came up to the plate, he always seemed to deliver. He could have easily lasted the next five years in the NL as a pinch-hitter. However, two things probably factored in Casey’s decision: the daily grind of being away with his family just to pinch-hit and taking a remarkably reduced role on the Red Sox once the team acquired Mark Kotsay, which more than likely told him it was time to hang it up. We’ll be seeing him on the MLB Network and maybe we can finally hear some amusing anecdotes on exchanges he had at first-base. Widely considered the nicest ballplayer in the game, he will be missed.

1/25/08

Boston Red Sox signed C Carlos Maldonaldo to a minor league contract.

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