Jake Peavy is still a San Diego Padre. CC Sabathia has yet to sign. Ditto for Man Ram and Mark Teixeira and every other big name free agent.
While this year’s crop of free agents wait for Sabathia to set the market and the current economic climate has impacted the decision-making process in all 30 organizations, though, there have been several under-the-radar transactions over the past two weeks worth discussing.
*The San Francisco Giants have been among the most active organizations to this point. While Brian Sabean has been responsible for his fair share of mistakes—the Barry Zito deal makes me ashamed to share the same alma mater—he has surprisingly made two acceptable decisions this offseason already.
Sabean signed one of the best relievers available, Jeremy Affeldt, at a relatively low cost. Affeldt, seemingly looking for financial security, decided to sign right away, given the apparent surplus of quality high-impact relief arms whose values are inflated due to their save totals. He agreed to a two-year deal, worth $8-million. Unlike the Zito debacle, this agreement is great for the Giants for two reasons: its length and undervalued price.
Affeldt quietly put together an impressive campaign for the Cincinnati Reds in 2008. The 29-year-old left-hander posted a 3.33 ERA in 74 appearances, mostly pitching in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. His peripherals were even more impressive, as he produced rates of 9.19 K/9, 2.87 B/9 and 3.1 K/BB in 78.1 innings pitched. He provides a potential capable replacement to incumbent closer Brian Wilson, but will likely add even more value pitching in high-leverage situations in the seventh and eighth innings. In addition, Affeldt, as a Type B free agent, will not cost San Francisco a draft pick.
The Giants also committed $18.5-mil to shortstop Edgar Renteria, essentially ending the days of Omar Vizquel taking up innings at the position in the Bay area. Renteria did not receive an arbitration offer from the Detroit Tigers following a dismal return to the American League. He posted a weak line of .270/.317/.382 as his OPS dropped from .860 to .699 in a two-year span. His arm strength and range also continued to decline, leaving the Tigers with little return on their investment as Jair Jurrjens emerged as a capable major league starter for the Atlanta Braves.
For these reasons, many analysts were skeptical of the signing at first. Looking closer, it seems like a smart choice. Considering the market for shortstops and the short length, the cost is not all that substantial. Renteria, who was out of shape for most of ’08, is also likely to rebound a bit offensively. He is moving into a hitters’ park and back into the National League, where he has been a five-time All-Star. The defensive drop off has been pretty significant—the advanced metrics are definitely not his friend—but he should settle into a middle-of-the-pack overall player at the position, providing a short-term upgrade over any other internal options without setting the franchise back in the future.
Sabean and the organization appear to finally putting the necessary resources into rebuilding while adding some talent to supplement the Tim Lincecum/Matt Cain combo to improve the major league product on the field in the short term. He could quickly steer off the right track, however, if he decides to throw big dollars at Sabathia. As good as the dominant left-hander is, the Giants would be foolish to again throw a record deal at a single pitcher. While it would surely end up better than their first encounter—how could it not?—that would leave the club with nearly a quarter-billion tied up into two players. Also, Sabathia is inching near 300 bills. While he will likely be dominant in the first few years, there is no track record for how a pitcher of his size will age into his thirties. The New York Yankees can make that mistake, the Giants cannot. Again, at least.
Plus, in year one without Barry Bonds, San Francisco struggled mightily to score runs. In fact, the Giants ranked 29th out of 30 teams with only 640 runs scored, thanks to an anemic .703 team OPS that was 31 points below league average. While Sabathia, a sweet-swinging lefty who loves to hit and is interested in the team, would perhaps be more of an offensive threat than a few Giant regulars, they would be better off investing their available cash into a few impact-type bats who could help cure the offensive woes.
The Giants also added Bobby Howry on a one-year contract.
*Javier Vazquez is headed to Atlanta as the primary piece in a semi-Blockbuster trade between the Braves and Chicago White Sox. Vazquez has frustrated analysts in the past, because he consistently produces excellent peripherals that never translate into ultimate success. He posted solid rates of 8.64 K/9, 2.64 BB/9 and 3.61 K/B in his final stint in the Windy City, but lost 16 games and finished with a 4.67 ERA in 208.1 innings pitched. He is still a capable middle-of-the-rotation arm who is durable and has three above-average pitches. Accounting for a shift to the weaker league and age (31), he adds an immediate upgrade to the Atlanta starting rotation and increases their chances of regaining their prominence in the National League East. The Braves also received Boone Logan, a fairly replaceable left-hander with underwhelming stuff.
After Ozzie Guillen called Vazquez out for not delivering in important games, it was not surprising that the trade machine, Kenny Williams, sent him packing. In return, Williams and Chicago acquired four minor leaguers: Tyler Flowers, Jon Gilmore, Brent Lillibridge and Santos Rodriguez.
Flowers is the one player with the chance to make Frank Wren and the Braves regret their decision. He is a potential impact bat with solid on-base skills and plus power potential. He posted a .919 OPS with 17 home runs at High-A ball in 2008, and then turned in an impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League. If he can remain at the catcher position—which is unlikely, according to most reports—he projects to be an above average hitter at a premium position. With Brian McCann locked up long term—and the lack of DH—many within the Atlanta organization were concerned about finding a proper spot on the field for him. In the A.L., he could D.H. and play first base if the defense behind the dish falls through as he jumps to the higher levels. However, this hurts his ultimate value since his bat does not play quite as well at either position.
Let us be honest about Lillibridge. Players of his skill set are a dime a dozen. He projects as a useful utility player at best, given his poor strike zone awareness (rates of 25.4 K%, 8.5 BB%, .630 OPS in 90 games at Triple-A Richmond in ’08) and lack of any plus tools. He is a hard worker with an excellent attitude, but those traits will only take him so far.
Gilmore is raw with below-average speed and limited tools. He struggled mightily after making the jump from Rookie Ball this summer, as he produced a .398 OPS (no, that is not a typo) in 102 at-bats. With limited power potential and concerning plate zone judgment, it is unlikely that he will ever amount to anything in the majors. A limited defender at third base, he will most likely not end up hitting for the power that he will need to remain at a corner infield position.
Gilmore can thank Perfect Game USA, the leading scouting agency for prep players which happens to be right in his backyard, for all of the hype surrounding him as an amateur player.
Rodriguez has a mid-90s fastball and the chance to establish himself as a big-time prospect. He has a lot of work to go on the command front and lacks any secondary pitches presently, but he misses bats with his explosive heater. He produced a 13.97 K/9 rate, with 44 strikeouts in 29.0 innings pitched at Rookie Ball this summer. If he can improves his mechanics, look for him to emerge as one of the top reliever prospects in the organization.
*Another big-name shortstop, Khalil Greene, is also switching teams. The Padres are looking to shed payroll anyway possible, and it is not surprising that they decided to cut ties with their overrated infielder. He was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for relief prospect Mark Worrell and a player to be named later last week.
Greene had a disastrous—and, boy, do I mean disastrous—campaign this past season. He batted only .213/.260/.339, with a 100-to-22 K/BB ratio while his defensive output also regressed to league average levels. To make matters worse, his self-inflicted injury led to one of the strangest union suits in history. He took out his frustrations for his offensive struggles—a likely response for a major league hitter with a sub-.600 OPS—by bashing his left hand against a storage chest in the Padres’ clubhouse on July 30. The unfortunate incident ended up breaking his hand, costing him the final two months.
Greene, to his credit, was forced to play the majority of his games in cavernous Petco Park, which suppressed his offensive output. He has a much higher career OPS on the road, in fact, and he should benefit from moving into Busch Stadium. Also, he is only a year removed from his 27-homer, 97-RBI performance in 2007.
Greene, however, has been a chronic free swinger since he was selected in the first round of the 2002 draft out of Clemson University. His career .304 OBP leaves a lot to be desired, and his declining walk totals and rising out-of-zone swing levels are concerning. As sexy as his counting stats were in ’07, they were attached to a .291 on-base percentage.
Adjusting for park factors, Greene is a decent offensive performer at his position, with excellent power, but everybody benefits if he eases up on the aggression. Whether or not he can show enough self restraint to prevent him from swinging at everything in his new surroundings will ultimately dictate what kind of return St. Louis will receive in this deal.
Greene is often applauded for his defense. Unfortunately, the data suggests that he is declining on this front as well. While it would be hard not to be an upgrade over Cezar Izturis offensively, he does not seem to be a real solution at the position for St. Louis. He is relatively cheap, at $6.5-million. Barring a power spike and the emergence of a sudden magical ability to lay off the first pitch and offerings out of the strike zone, though, it is unlikely that he will ever live up to the reputation on a performance front ever again.
San Diego dealt him a year too late, it seems, with his value at its low. If the Padres could have tricked a GM into buying into his counting stats at the end of ’07, they would have received more in return for the once-prized infielder.
*According to reports, Chicago is planning on moving Alexei Ramirez to shortstop full time in 2009. Ramirez, the runner-up for A.L. Rookie of the Year, graded out as league average in most defensive metrics at second base. This has caused some analysts to wonder how effective he will be at the more demanding middle infield position. A great athlete, shortstop is his natural position. This means that Orlando Cabrera will not be coming back.
*Rafael Furcal reportedly rejected the Oakland Athletics’ four-year, $36-million offer. Furcal would have been an excellent fit in Oakland, which recently added Matt Holliday. His name is now being linked to the Cleveland Indians.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.