November 15, 2016
Cobb County for Old Men
Signed RHP Jesse Chavez to a one-year, $5.75 million contract. [11/11]
Chavez had a good thing going in Oakland: he’d start the season off as a pretty effective starting pitcher before fading hard in the second half. But no matter what, the well-traveled right-hander never managed to put together a full season as a starter after years of bopping back and forth between the rotation and the ‘pen. In 2016, the Blue Jays acquired him and stuck him back in the bullpen, where he was much the same pitcher he always was as a reliever: strikeouts and dingers aplenty, combining to make him something like a replacement-level reliever.
A move to the Dodgers midseason changed nothing but the location of the story. Enter the other Los Angeles franchise, who could certainly use a reliable starter to pair with the talented-but-uncertain trio of Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, and Matt Shoemaker. That’s not Chavez. Initial reports indicate that the Angels will return Chavez to the rotation, which is probably a good idea; even though he’s not a substantially different pitcher when pitching every fifth day, the additional innings provided and his usual early-season success make him a much better option there than in the ‘pen.
Unfortunately, Chavez is certainly not a reliable cog capable of holding down a regular spot in the rotation, nor is he a high-end bullpen piece. But perhaps that’s a feature for the Angels, who one might expect will still be looking for another, more traditional starter for their rotation. In that case, I’d imagine Chavez will flit between the rotation and the bullpen as needed, providing innings of indeterminate quality. —Bryan Grosnick
Signed DH-S Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million contract. [11/11]
I was generally happy with my Top 50 Free Agents list, posted here at Baseball Prospectus. From those two articles, there are two relevant pieces of opinion to be shared: the first is that it seemed as if nearly every team in the American League needed a designated hitter; the second is that Kendrys Morales didn’t make my list. At all. Not making the list when guys like R.A. Dickey and Jhoulys Chacin did–especially given my risk tolerance when comparing consistent position players over pitchers–may seem like a mistake in hindsight.
I’m here to tell you that while I may be wrong, I’m still not too disappointed in my decision despite Morales inking a deal for three years and between 50 and 100 times the amount of money I’ve earned in my lifetime. Morales is a pretty good hitter over his career (.280 career True Average), but over the last three seasons he’s posted marks of .239 (2014), .294 (2015), and .270 (2016). That’s the story of three very different players when you pair those marks with Morales’ DH-only role. The 2014 player is a guy who gets non-tendered, the 2015 player is a legitimate offensive threat worth eight figures per season, and the 2016 player is, well, pretty easily replaceable.
In 2016, Morales ranked 113th in True Average among players with 400 or more plate appearances. That’s fine, but it also puts him in the bottom 50th percentile among those players. When PECOTA pushes out its projections for 2017, we’ll find out just what the best bet is for Morales’ future performance, but I’d look at perhaps something close to or slightly lower than his 2016 production. After all, he’s entering his age-34 season, and this year looked like something of a straight offensive decline. To me at least, this deal looks something very much like the ill-fated Billy Butler contract signed a couple of years ago, all the way down to the Royals connection.
The Blue Jays may be figuring that Morales is a cheaper alternative to their exiting designated hitter–see you later, Edwin Encarnacion–and that’s certainly true. But if Morales continues his downward swing, he may quickly move from a guy worth $11 million per season to a guy worth a minor-league deal and invite to spring training. The downside risk here is real, though I’d love to see him succeed. —Bryan Grosnick
Signed RHP R.A. Dickey to a one-year, $8 million contract. [11/11]
Signed RHP Bartolo Colon to a one-year, $12.5 million contract. [11/11]
The joke going around is that the Braves misunderstood the spirit of Veterans Day: instead of using the occasion to thank soldiers who served in the U.S. armed forces, they signed baseball's oldest, most “veteran”-est starting pitchers in Dickey and Colon. It makes sense–the Braves ranked 28th in starting pitcher DRA last year with a mark of 5.01. Something obviously had to give and word from the front office was that the team would look to supplement the young and disappointing starters.
Perhaps the question is this: why might two over-40 starters with a DRA higher than the team average help? Because they’re reliable. Each of these two hurlers brings a Cy Young award to the table, but each is miles removed from that level of performance, if not decades removed from it. Colon may have stunned the baseball world with his senses-shattering home run last season, but beyond that and his legal troubles, he was just something of a workaday fifth starter.
He relies almost entirely on his fastball, which he locates with the precision of a master jade carver, walking few hitters (1.5 per nine last season) and rarely bothering with a breaking pitch. Dickey, now baseball’s grand old man of the knuckleball, finally saw his innings fall below 200 in another unimpressive season at the back end of the Toronto rotation, but his 5.53 DRA belied another season where his ERA (4.46) told a less tragic story.
Neither Dickey nor Colon should be expected to perform any magic tricks beyond the ones they’re already pulling: staying upright and putting the ball over the plate. They’re survivors and rubber-armed innings-eaters, tasked with holding down the fort until something better comes along. From one perspective, they may not be the types of back-of-the-rotation starters you want from a team because they’re below average and lack upside. But they’ll also prevent the team from having to put forth ultra-risky starters when they bust (at least for a season) like Aaron Blair. Williams Perez, and Tyrell Jenkins did.
With 85 years of combined life experience, it seems very unlikely that either will magically find a way to outdo their 2016 performance in perhaps their last seasons in MLB. They’re stabilizers, though, and if there’s an off chance that they can share some of their accumulated wisdom with the young guns coming up with the team, hey, more power to them.
The Braves still won’t be good this season, but they’ll be a touch more fun. —Bryan Grosnick
It’s tempting to say that, despite his power and impressive recent minor-league numbers, Ruf has no real value. That’s not fair, but what is fair to say is this: Ruf had no value to the Phillies. The sleeping giant of the NL East is not going to wake up and rejoin the playoff hunt in 2017, and even for 2018 and 2019, the outlook is unclear. Ruf is under team control through 2020, but he’s eligible for arbitration this winter, and he’ll turn 31 years old next summer. He’s not a part of any team’s future. He’s unlikely to remain useful even as a platoon bat in left field beyond the next two seasons.
Ruf helps solve one weakness the Dodgers might have diagnosed as a significant one during the 2016 season: lineup imbalance, leaning heavily toward left-handed batters. He’s not a full-fledged solution, but he offers insurance against further injury problems to Scott Van Slyke; the unlikely, but possible, departure of Justin Turner via free agency; and the hole a potential Yasiel Puig trade would leave in the outfield.
Actuarially, despite his dreadful 2016 (in the majors, in a small sample; don’t be overly swayed by the surface-level stats) and despite never having been as good a player as Kendrick in the first place, Ruf might be the better short-term bet. He’s younger, and will cost perhaps 20 percent of what Kendrick will in 2017. If nothing else, it’s easier to leave Ruf on the bench every day than it would be to do the same with Kendrick, a more established veteran who expects to play regularly.
Sweeney is a Bob Howsam-esque grab by Andrew Friedman and company. Howsam was famous for getting throw-in players to round out trades, and some of those throw-in players turned out to be more than they seemed. This Dodgers front office has done a similar thing in some of their moves since taking over the team, and Sweeney (while hardly likely to blossom into a regular player) is youngish, can play a number of positions, and is a moderately competent switch-hitter. For a team forever leveraging its financial advantages to maximize flexibility and depth, Sweeney makes sense. —Matthew Trueblood
Acquired LF/2B-R Howie Kendrick from Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for 1B/OF-R Darin Ruf and 2B-S Darnell Sweeney. [11/11]
The hardest things in life are the big changes. Adopting your first child. Preparing to buy a home. Consistently giving the Phillies credit for smart personnel moves. This weekend, the Phillies bought low on Kendrick, acquiring him to play his new position of left field after just the second season of the last 10(!) where he posted fewer than 2.0 WARP. In doing so they certainly acquire a player who appears to be on the downslope of his career, but also a versatile contributor who can allow the Phillies to improve their on-field product while giving their young players chances to break through.
With initial comments stating that Kendrick is going to be an outfielder, we should start to look at him–and his projected performance–in that role first. It’s hard to get a real solid gauge of his defensive proficiency in that corner, given that he’s only played 855 innings at the position. (Many of those innings were also as part of a Dodgers defensive system where his positioning was dictated by the team’s braintrust.) Given what little I’ve seen of Kendrick in the field and his advancing age, I’d estimate average or slightly below-average defensive performance in left. So that’s the most uncertain part of his game.
Much less uncertain is his bat, where his ability to make contact and underrated baserunning have made him a solid performer over his career. This year was a bit of a different animal, as his career BABIP of .337 took a nosedive to .301. Given how heavily Kendrick relies on his batting average and good contact to help drive both his on-base skills and his slugging, this is mission critical for him to return to his previous level of performance. Kendrick also suffered from bad bookends: his start and finish to the season were both rough, and hurt his overall numbers. In the end, he came out of 2016 with a .255 True Average, which is simply not good enough to run him out on the field every day, so the Phillies will be counting on some type of return to form.
What makes this a good deal for the Phillies isn’t just that they acquired a solid veteran to supplement an MLB roster that’s thinner than a heroin deal, it’s what they gave up in return and how they can leverage this asset. They had no real place for Ruf and certainly didn’t need Sweeney, even if he managed to find his way to the major leagues. Sure, Ruf was certainly a cheaper alternative to Kendrick in left field, but Kendrick is likely a far superior defender–which speaks volumes about Ruf, not Kendrick–and both players are past the age where they can trade on potential rather than immediate performance.
But Kendrick allows the team to be versatile, and respond to short-term swings in team performance and make room for young talent. While the team intends to use Kendrick in left, if Nick Williams or another young player emerges, they can simply move Kendrick in front of Tommy Joseph (either at first or after moving Maikel Franco off third). Kendrick can also back up Cesar Hernandez up the middle, or make him expendable at the deadline in a deal for other talent. Choosing Kendrick over Ruf is choosing possibility over rigidity.
I’ve heard some people talk about how the Phillies are “closer than you think” to contention, but I don’t think that is precisely the case. After all, despite the team being loaded with under-25 talent, the roster is shallow in terms of consistent MLB performance and lacks impact performance–not talent, but performance–behind Odubel Herrera. (Nope. Can’t believe I wrote that either.) I think they’re still two years away from being two years away. That means Kendrick is unlikely to be part of the next good Phillies team, but his addition might just bring this squad closer to average.
There’s an argument to be made that his performance will make the team more versatile and better in the short term, and that could well give those young players around him a better chance to develop. There’s a mild financial cost to that–something close to $15 million–but for a team like the Phillies, that’s worth it. —Bryan Grosnick
Bryan Grosnick is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @bgrosnick