Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Around the Central (01.06.10)

News and notes from the Twins interdivision rivals:
Chicago White Sox
Newly acquired JJ Putz, fresh off of a year which was cut short due to bone chips in his pitching elbow, is elated by the makeup of the White Sox bullpen.  ''Obviously, we have a great closer in Bobby Jenks and a great left-handed set-up guy in Matt Thornton,'' Putz said, ''so I'm thinking going into it, I'll be a seventh-, eighth-inning guy with the right-handers and Matt with the left-handers, trying to hand the ball to Bobby as often as we can.''

· ANALYSIS: Putz is correct in assuming that the White Sox could, on paper, have one of the better combinations of set-up men and closer in baseball. But it is certainly a flawed trifecta.  Putz, signed to a one-year, $3M contract, has slowly seen his stuff become increasingly hittable since his ’06 year in which opponents but just 69.7% of his balls in play. Returning from surgery and 33 years old in 2010, the probability that he will return to his dominate ’06 or ’07 form appears unlikely. Bobby Jenks has been enigmatic the past several years, having his strikeout rate drop drastically in ’08 then surrendering 9 home runs in 53 innings, which appears to be a product of using his fastball more often than previous years.  His six blown saves in 35 opportunities opened the door for speculation that Jenks would be out of Chicago in ’10. Meanwhile, Thornton has been about the most reliable form of relief on the South Side. For the past two seasons, Thornton has struck out 164 in 139.2 innings pitched (a 10.6 K/9 ratio) while walking just 39 (a 2.5 BB/9 ratio) as opponents have hit just .207 off of him in 144 games.  If Jenks is unable to satisfactorily put away hitters in 2010, anticipate that Thornton, not Putz, gets the save opportunities.

In an otherwise minor transaction, Chicago claimed Tiger reliever Freddy Dolsi.

· ANALYSIS: Dolsi spent the majority of the ’09 season at AAA Toledo, the Tigers’ top affiliate. In 51.2 innings of relief, the 26-year-old Dolsi struck out 31 and walked 19 while maintaining a 4.74 RA.  MLB.com’s White Sox beat reporter, Scott Merkin, notes that Dolsi is one of a handful of candidates to replaced DJ Carrasco who was non-tendered by the Sox. He’s got a mid-90s fastball and complimenting 85-mph slider. In his brief experience in the majors dating back to 2008, Dolsi has allowed a ton of contact and shown erratic control (career 4.94 BB/9 rate).

The White Sox still don’t have any left-handed power bats. In 2009, Jim Thome gave Chicago 417 plate appearances from the wrong-handed batter’s box and slugged .493. After his departure at the waiver deadline, Guillen was hard-pressed to find the same-sided pop on the bench. AJ Pierzynski and his 13 HR and .425 slugging percentage were as close as it got.

· ANALYSIS:  The Sox have a limited payroll but this really isn’t a problem for Chicago. Considering the amount of players still remaining on the diluted market, it appears that the left-handed DH unemployment rate mimics that of the US economy in general at 10%. Tons of workers, few jobs. This pool of jobless left-handed DH includes but is not limited to: Hank Blalock, Russell Branyan, Carlos Delgado, Eric Hinske, Aubrey Huff, Mike Jacobs, Jim Thome and Jack Cust.

Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes gives his approval for the Tribe’s pursuit of free agent outfielder Jonny Gomes.

· ANALYSIS: Indians’ GM Mark Shapiro made his intentions on acquiring a right-handed power bat known at the GM meeting but since then has been quiet. Cleveland wants to give their new manager, Manny Acta, some lineup flexibility. Gomes outfield defense is atrocious so he is better suited for a designated hitter spot. His 20 home runs in 314 plate appearances demonstrated remarkable power (15.7 AB/HR). Of course, he was playing in a very hitter-friendly at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark which skews his totals. A prevalent fly ball hitter, his 22% HR/FB rate suggests that his totals will come down to reality in 2010 when his HR/FB rate regresses back towards his career average at 15%. This effect would happen much quicker if removed from the offensive generator (1.176 HR/G) in southern Ohio versus the northern Ohio stadium that muted the most home runs (0.670 HR/G).

In the same article, Hoynes outlines the Indians logic in why they signed Travis Hafner to a 4-year, $57 million extension in 2007. According to Hoynes “When Shapiro signed Hafner to a four-year, $57 million extension during the 2007 season, most of the fan reaction was positive. Hafner, 30 at the time, was putting together his fourth straight season in which he drove in at least 100 runs. The Indians, in researching Hafner's performance before signing him to the extension, realized his production would drop toward the end of the deal, but they did not anticipate it falling straight off a cliff so quickly. Injuries played a big role in that, but with the benefit of hindsight it's easy to assume Hafner's career is damaged beyond repair.”


· ANALYSIS: Travis Hafner may be a textbook example why you do not sign a one-dimensional player to far past the age of 30. Prior to signing his contract extension in ’07, his existing one would have lasted through his age-31 season. Instead, based upon his 2004-2006 performance in which he hit .308/.419/.611, outright superstar numbers, the Indians bumped him up a tax bracket and locked him in until his age-36 season.  Could he have maintained a torrid pace like his ’06 numbers for several more years? Sure, but the odds were very much against it. Of course, injuries expedited Hafner’s evitable decline as he has hit just .244/.336/.416 since signing his contract and averaged 308 plate appearances per season.  It’s unfortunately that you can’t unring that bell.

MLB.com’s Indians beat writer, Anthony Castrovince, writes that it is almost a foregone conclusion that Cleveland will be shopping their 33-year-old closer in Kerry Wood by midseason.


· ANALYSIS: Not a bad idea. After dominating the NL Central in his first stint as a closer, striking out 84 in 66.1 innings of work and saving 34 games, Wood signed a hefty two-year, $20 million contract to finish out games for the Indians.  The hard-throwing righty transitioned from a team that had the fourth highest total of save opportunities (68) to one that had the league’s second lowest (43). For whatever reason, Wood abandoned his effective slider and was worse for the wear.  He put up strong strikeout numbers but walked far too many and blew six of his 26 save opportunities, fourth highest in the league, and allowed seven home runs. The Indians did not have to pay top dollar for that kind of output. While Cleveland did not expect the team to be as bad as it was, the investment was like putting premium gasoline into a jalopy – it’s not worth the expense.  With $10 million due in 2010 and tight budget, Mark Shapiro will look to unload Wood if he can regain value in the first-half of the season.

In efforts to provide some right-handed options, the Indians signed Shelley Duncan and Austin Kearns to minor league deals with invitations to spring training.

· ANALYSIS: Again, without much maneuverability financially, Shapiro was forced to cull through the bargain bin. He may have found two steals though. After launching 7 home runs in 74 plate appearances with the Yankees in 2007, Duncan appeared to have the making of a serviceable platoon hitter.  Then he came out slow in 2008 and was shipped back to Scranton. He was recalled last September and utilized mainly as a pinch hitter in his 15 plate appearances. With 170 home runs in the minors, Duncan’s got power but he has yet to be given over 100 plate appearances in the majors to prove it. Kearns on the other hand, sped through the Reds system as a highly touted prospect and had a .407 OBP in 435 plate appearances his rookie year in 2002. Since then, his production has never matched the projections and has been on-and-off of the DL.  Unlike Duncan, Kearns plays an above-average right field (career 9.8 UZR/150) so if he can stay healthy, he can provide defense as well as being able to hit lefties. For a dime store price and no strings attached, the Indians acquired two potentially decent pieces.

Detroit Tigers

The Detroit Free Press reported that the Tigers were targeting free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson, a favorite target of Twins fans, but was later refuted as just a rumor by MLB.com’s beat writer, Jason Beck.

· ANALYSIS:  After trading away Curtis Granderson under the premise of freeing up cash for the long-term, going out only to spend the $5.5 million owed to the fan favorite on a free agent second baseman did not quite add up. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski reiterated the club’s desire to use Scott Sizemore as the starting second baseman. Said Dombrowski We expect him to be our second baseman. We have not changed on Sizemore." The 25-year-old Sizemore lacks any major league experience but has hit .296/.383/.441 in nearly 1,700 plate appearances.  Without a doubt, Detroit will miss Polanco’s defense and presence in the lineup but Sizemore appears to be the future of the infield for the Tigers.

Tigers catcher Gerald Laird and his brother, Brandon Laird, who plays in the Yankees system, were arrested in Phoenix after an altercation at US Airways Arena. The two were cited for disorderly conduct for starting a brawl. According to reports, the security at the arena club was trying to arrest a suspect for disorderly conduct when the brothers assaulted the security guards and interfered. The situation was described by on-lookers as a “melee.”

· ANALYSIS:  Gotta love a good melee. Laird had a Gold Glove-caliber season behind the dish, throwing out a league-high 42 base runners and had one of the league’s best caught stealing percentages (42%).  Of course, with a high dosage of fastballs (65%) and baseball’s hardest throwing staff (92.7-mph) gives Laird a distinct advantage.

With Fernando Rodney signing with the Angels and Brandon Lyon with the Astros, the Tigers are inspecting the market for proven replacements. Jason Beck speculates that Detroit is considering Jose Valverde, Kevin Gregg and Octavio Dotel as suitable candidates for the open position.

· ANALYSIS:  Of the three, Valverde represents the best option.  In the past three season in Houston and Arizona, the righty has struck out 217 in 190.1 innings (10.3 K/9) while walking just 70 (3.3 BB/9) and opponents have hit just .210 off of him. At TwinsCentric, we identified him as the best closer option on the market yet interest in Papa Grande has been surprisingly quiet – probably because as a Type A free agent, the signing team would have to forfeit a draft pick.  Detroit may be hesitant to sacrifice a draft pick after the sheer plundering of their farm system to get Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Edgar Renteria. The Pirates and Orioles are two other organizations that are interested in acquiring Gregg or Dotel (who has not closed since 2007).

Kansas City Royals

The Royals signed two left-handed minor league relief pitchers in John Parrish and Nelson Payano.  Neither pitcher threw a pitch stateside in 2009. The 32-year-old Parrish has seen major league work in off-and-on since 2000 with the Orioles and Blue Jays but missed all of 2009 with a torn labrum. Payano, 26-years-old, has bounced from the Atlanta organization to Seattle in 2008 and was signed by the Chunichi Dragons in 2009 but spent a lot of time injured as well.

· ANALYSIS:  Well, instead of investing a ton of money at an overpriced left-handed reliever (cough, Ron Mahay, cough) the Royals are attempting to fill the void at a discounted rate.  So you have to admire the mentality, however, these might not be the right acquisitions. Parrish is a soft-tossing lefty who was barely hitting 88.3-mph in ’08 but couldn’t get anyone to miss on pitches out of the strike zone (which judging from his career 6.0 BB/9 rate, that’s where he’s locating it).  In his six minor league seasons, Payano has struck out 276 in 246 innings but like Parrish, Payano has had his command issues, walking 159 (a 5.8 BB/9 career rate).