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January 29, 2013

Transaction Analysis

All the Young Moves

by Ben Lindbergh

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American League
National League

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Signed OF-L Ryan Sweeney to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. [1/28]

This is why Ryan Sweeney is so strange: he’s a big guy, and we tend (not illogically) to associate big guys with the ability to hit for power. But Sweeney, big as he is, has none.

Here is a complete list of players who were as tall as Sweeney (6’4”), weighed as much as Sweeney (225 lbs), received as much playing time as Sweeney (1900 PA), and had as low a career Isolated Power (.098):

Larry McLean

That’s it: Ryan Sweeney, and Larry McLean. McLean was very large, especially for his day—it’s hard to blame the bartender who shot and killed him for getting a little antsy when McLean allegedly climbed over a bar to attack him—but he was mostly a catcher, and he played from 1901-1915, an era when you could get a nickname like “Home Run” Baker with a career ISO of .135. You have to drop the PA threshold to 880 to add a third player to this group, but that third player is Andy Benes, a pitcher. You have to lower it into the 300s before you find any other position players who were both that large and that powerless (Jim Maler, Ryan Minor). It’s not shocking that those two didn’t last long.

So you have to hand it to Sweeney for carving out a career despite a game that doesn’t go with his body type. Unlike a lot of powerless players, he lacks special baserunning abilities and plays a premium defensive position only occasionally, spending most of his time in right field. So what does he do? He plays right field well, and he hits right-handers semi-acceptably, considering he can also spell someone in center. If strictly protected from lefties—against whom he’s hit .225/.298/.281—he can manage something a little above a league-average OBP. It’s a skillset that doesn’t figure to last long past age 27, but with Ryan Kalish out for spring training (and maybe beyond) with surgery on his right shoulder—not the one that cost him most of last season—Sweeney still has an opening.

If he doesn’t make the major-league roster out of camp, Sweeney can elect to become a free agent and try to sign with someone other than the Sox. Until then, while teammate Dustin Pedroia keeps proving that some very small players can hit for power, Sweeney will provide the counterpoint, proving that some very big players—or at least one—can’t.

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Signed OF/1B-R Juan Rivera to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. [1/28]

This spring’s least exciting position battle just got a little less interesting. Rivera will compete with Russ Canzler and Matt Diaz for the coveted position of part-time platoon partner of Ichiro Suzuki and either Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson, depending on which one isn’t in center. Rivera is just as uninspiring as the other options: he’s 33, a subpar fielder and baserunner, and hasn’t been at or above replacement level since 2010. He hits lefties, but his .287 multi-year TAv against them isn’t so much better than the typical right-handed hitter’s that it excuses his other shortcomings. I feel for the beat writers who’ll have to cover this competition.

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Signed 2B-L Kelly Johnson to a one-year contract. [1/28]

Johnson will turn 31 shortly after reporting for spring training, and given his struggles over the last two seasons, save for a brief post-trade stint with Toronto in 2011, it’s possible that he’s already going the way of all (or most) over-30 second basemen. He still draws walks, but he’s missed more pitches and struck out more often over the past two seasons, and in 2012 his power output fell as his groundball rate rose. Still, even Johnson’s reduced power wasn’t insignificant, and he’s not so far removed from his fine 2010 that one can’t dream of a bounceback, especially for a player who’s bounced back from bad seasons before. We know from recent seasons that the Rays don’t shy away from high K rates and low batting averages if they come with ancillary skills, so offensively he fits.

According to Ken Rosenthal, Johnson might play some outfield, which he hasn’t done since his rookie season. If he does, he’ll displace Sam Fuld, who also hits lefty and isn’t much use with the stick. Mostly, though, Johnson will spend time at second, moving Ben Zobrist to right field. (Now we know with even more certainty that we won’t see Wil Myers until midseason at the earliest.) Johnson has slightly smaller-than-average splits and enough versatility to allow Joe Maddon to continue the mixing and matching with multi-position players that has allowed him to eke out the occasional extra win for Tampa Bay since taking over the team.

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Signed RHP Chad Durbin to a one-year, $1.1 million contract. [1/28]
Signed “SS”/2B-R Yuniesky Betancourt to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. [1/28]

Durbin is an eminently replaceable right-hander coming off a superficially successful season for the Braves that multiple win-value stats agreed was worth precisely -0.4 wins. His 2012 peripherals were among his worst as a reliever, but a low BABIP helped him maintain an attractive ERA—almost two and a half ticks lower than his 2011 mark, despite a nearly identical FIP. After being reunited with the Phillies, he’ll make his low-leverage outings for a different NL East team. Durbin is 35 years old and has a four-plus career ERA out of the pen with a sub-two strikeout-to-walk ratio and a so-so groundball rate for a sinkerballer. He’s fairly durable by bullpen standards, but there’s no upside here.

After trading for Michael Young and signing Delmon Young, Ruben Amaro continued to troll the baseball blogosphere by extending an NRI to famously poor-fielding, impatient infielder Yuniesky Betancourt, who was released by the Royals last August. The mockery is probably way out of proportion to the impact of the move, since it’s a minor-league signing and unlikely to come back to bite the Phillies. Yuni is an insurance policy, but he’s the kind of claim you hope you never have to collect.

Still, there’s at least a little cause for concern, since Betancourt has wormed his way into larger roles than originally intended before. Considering the state of Chase Utley’s knees and the age of Jimmy Rollins, there’s a chance that he could see significant playing time for the Phillies at some point this season. If it happens, we’ll get to take in the spectacular sight of a defensive alignment featuring Yuni, the Youngs, and Ryan Howard. It might be the last sight some Phillies pitchers ever see.

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Signed RHP Freddy Garcia to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. [1/28]

You could say San Diego has a type: this winter, the Padres have been linked to Shaun Marcum, Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, Luke Hochevar, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Dan Haren, and they’ve signed Jason Marquis and now Garcia. Granted, not every pitcher the Padres have reportedly considered fits the soft-tossing, fly-balling, contact-inducing mold—they’ve also been in on Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello (though Porcello at least has the contact-inducing part down)—but for the most part, the Padres pursue pitchers who let opponents put the ball in play.

And why not? The Padres may be moving in the fences at Petco, but they can’t move out the marine layer. And even if they could, opposing hitters would still have the park’s out-making infield to contend with. The natural protection the Padres get from Petco allows them to target a type of pitcher whose skillset is less palatable at other parks, which in turn allows them to cobble together a decent staff from spare parts. Put many of the Padres' pitchers in a hitter’s park, and they’d be as vulnerable as snails removed from their shells. But, perhaps sensing this (or being sold on it by San Diego), they’ve gravitated toward what might be the only big-league habitat where they can still survive. The low-payroll Padres are only too happy to have them.

In the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus 2013, I wrote that Freddy Garcia’s “days as a useful arm are about at an end, barring a move to a more forgiving fly-ball park.” Well, here’s the fly-ball park he ordered. Garcia spent last season shuttling between the bullpen, where he was somewhat effective in low-leverage work, and the rotation, where he mostly struggled as a fill-in for injured arms. The 36-year-old was a bad fit for Yankee Stadium, where he gave up 1.6 home runs per nine innings (courtesy of a career-high HR/FB rate), though he was hardly any stingier on the road. His fastball tends to top out in the high-80s, and he gets by with an assortment of several other pitches, most of which are the standard slop but one of which is a strangely unpredictable splitter.

What Garcia doesn’t do often is walk guys, and with the heavy air, distant outfield fences, and friendly infield in his favor, he’s not a bad bet for a Harang-esque revival, assuming he distinguishes himself enough in spring training to earn a fifth-starter spot. His days in the majors are still numbered, but the number probably just got a little bit bigger.

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Signed Ronny Cedeno to a one-year, $1.15 million contract. [1/28]

This will be Ronny Cedeno’s fourth straight season with a salary between $1.15 million and $1.85 million, so we have a pretty good sense of how the market values his services. The 29-year-old is a lousy hitter—.226 career TAv, with a career-best .257 last season—but he can play all over the infield without hurting a team too much. With Rafael Furcal’s elbow making his health status uncertain for Opening Day, Rafael Furcal’s back making his health status uncertain for every day after that, and Pete Kozma and Ryan Jackson the only short-term alternatives, Cedeno made sense for St. Louis. If Furcal does suffer an extended absence, though, having an extra futility guy on hand won’t make his absence much easier.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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