January 24, 2017
Signed RHP Santiago Casilla to a two-year, $11 million contract. [1/13]
There are plenty of reasons to want to stay in the Bay Area: you can check out City Lights books, grab a Pliny the Elder, even watch the Warriors blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The fact that Casilla has spent his whole pro career attached to either of the two local franchises could be a coincidence, but it could also be a sign that the right-hander has his priorities in order. After seven seasons and three rings, the former Jairo Garcia now returns to the team that pushed him to the majors in the first place 15 years ago. Though he’s no longer a closer—and perhaps never should have been the best reliever in any bullpen—he’ll add a little muscle, respectability, and experience to the surprisingly expensive A’s bullpen.
When breaking down Casilla’s career in San Francisco—enormously successful on the whole—there are two things that stick out. The first is the wide discrepancy between his ERA and the DRA/FIP numbers that more accurately predict future performance. In all but one of the past seven seasons (2016, naturally), Casilla’s ERA was about a run or more lower than his FIP. This is probably in part due to the ground ball-heavy nature of his peripherals—as you might know, ground-ball pitchers are undervalued by FIP—and probably in part due to Buster Posey. My Posey assumption comes from the almost-as-stark difference between his ERA and his Deserved Run Average, which accounts for loads of contextual factors such as Casilla’s ballpark (favorable), team defense (favorable), and perhaps most of all, his framing wizard regular receiver: Posey.
The second sticking point is his 2016 meltdowns and overall questionable clutch performance. To wit: Casilla recorded 30 shutdowns (appearances in which a reliever changes his team’s win expectancy by five percent or more) and 15 meltdowns (which are the opposite). The shutdowns are good, but the meltdowns were problematic; think of meltdowns as the sabermetric equivalent to a blown save. Those 15 meltdowns tied for fourth-most in baseball, putting him in the same company as Erasmo Ramirez and Ryan Pressly. He’s had a weird aging curve, giving up grounders for more strikeouts over the past two seasons, but he’s remained a solid WARP compiler.
There’s a good chance he’ll be an effective, experienced setup dude in Oakland over the life of this contract (unless the A's are paying money up front to move him in the future). It was the cost of this move that inspired me to mosey on over to the A's Cots Contracts page and check this out: the team is paying approximately $23 million to fill out the bullpen with Casilla, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, John Axford, and Liam Hendriks. This isn’t the most alluring bullpen in MLB history, but it’s fairly respectable. However, it is shocking that the Athletics—a team famous for executing the equivalent of boiler room pump-and-dump schemes, only with closers—would funnel more than a quarter of the payroll into ‘pen arms.
I think there’s something to be said for a rebuilding team putting together a good bullpen to deal those arms for prospect parts at the deadline. But the A's are bad and already had a respectable bullpen without Casilla, so why commit more resources here when Andrew Triggs and Jake Smolinski are likely to have major roles on this team? Maybe there’s a long game, where the A’s will happily send Casilla outside his Bay Area comfort zone at the trade deadline, allowing for the acquisition of desperately-needed young talent? If so, they’ll have to hope that the consistent former Giant doesn’t age too rapidly, and that his talents don’t fade when he’s out of sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. —Bryan Grosnick
Signed RHP Dustin McGowan to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. [1/7]
The Dreaded Laramie of baseball franchises has made a concerted effort to ink relievers this offseason, pursuing talents like Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. When Plan A didn’t take, the team sought out a couple of former Red Sox high-leverage arms in Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa that should bolster the ‘pen. Somewhere in the middle, there’s McGowan: a rather vanilla middle relief arm who cements the team’s relief unit as one of the most menacing top to bottom in the league.
You might remember McGowan from his years in Toronto, in which he battled injuries and made several attempts to prove himself as a quality starter. Despite his valiant efforts, he converted to relief, which initially appeared to be a disaster after shoddy seasons in Toronto and Philadelphia. But 2016 saw a rebound once McGowan relocated to Florida, with a 2.82 ERA despite control issues that led to a walk per every two innings. It’s his 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings and 55 percent ground-ball rate that make one say “hmm, this could be a nice little value."
Here’s the interesting part: it’s possible that McGowan is the worst pitcher in the Marlins’ bullpen, which is praising with faint damnation. He’s good. Every pitcher in the Miami ‘pen is. If only they had enough quality starters to carry the rest of the load, or some quality depth in the field, this might actually be a team worth looking out for. As it stands now, at least they might be able to eventually trade some of these dudes to improve their terrible farm system. —Bryan Grosnick
Signed RHP Neftali Feliz to a one-year, $5.3 million contract [1/19]
Since the Brewers are ostensibly in the development stages of their rebuilding process (their advanced farm system is stacked with prospects that simply need to play and their last remaining trade asset of note is maybe Ryan Braun), one might expect the club to take fliers on low-cost, reserve-controlled players who have one stellar area of the game that may override shortcomings with just the right combination of luck, strategy, and repetition. While the youngsters earn their sea legs, why not dig deep into the waiver wire to find more value?
With an open 40-man roster spot, the Brewers opted instead a veteran reclamation asset, Neftali Feliz. Feliz gained notoriety while closing for the Rangers during their hunt for a World Series. During those three famous years, Feliz converted 90 percent of his save and hold opportunities, although a Deserved Run Average (DRA) shift from 2.76 to 3.51 and 5.21 predicted the struggles of the next five years. Milwaukee is rewarding Feliz for a return to form in Pittsburgh, where the righty produced a 3.76 DRA and converted 94 percent of his saves and holds.
It seems like a fool’s errand to criticize a $5.3 million contract (maximum $6.8 million with incentives) in the contemporary MLB climate, especially for an organization that is maintaining extremely low payrolls. The Brewers should indeed spend money on baseball players! Yet, it's worth pushing back on the standard logic that Feliz is going to be some smart short-term trade play for a midseason prospect. Judging Feliz’s WARP value (approximately $7.0 million if you’re feeling charitable), and monetizing prospects Overall Future Potential (OFP) based on the historical distribution of on-field production, it’s a stretch to see the righty as worth much more than a fringe 45 OFP prospect once one adjusts for Feliz’s contract.
Even using a crude measurement of saves and hold conversion rate to judge relief value in a pennant race (where every win, and therefore close lead, is crucial), a 94 percent conversion rate might be worth two wins over half of a season. This gives Feliz a better chance at bringing back a 45-to-50 OFP prospect midseason, which might be about as good as the Francisco Rodriguez-for-Nicky Delmonico trade or the Francisco Rodriguez-for-Javier Betancourt trade (at its rosiest appeal). Spending anywhere between $5.3 million and $6.8 million to potentially "create" a 50 OFP prospect seems like a lot of effort compared to the renegade international signing atmosphere of the previous CBA (where Milwaukee failed to spend $5 million combined over the last two J2 deadlines).
Given the somewhat concrete (and still very, very risky) dividends of the international J2 period, it still stands to reason that the Brewers could have either spent less than $5.3 million for a 50 OFP prospect (or, spent $5.3 million several times over to make several OFP gambles). There is the obvious thought that “GMs are trading a lot of prospects for relievers in recent years,” but making a value play on a reliever like Feliz appears suspect in these times of very highly coveted relievers. Even the dependable and similarly valuable (0.8 WARP, 3.63 DRA) Tyler Clippard netted Vincente Campos via trade in 2016. I hesitate to mention the Will Smith for Andrew Susac and Phil Bickford deal.
A more interesting suspicion is that the Brewers' front office wants Feliz to serve alongside their sneaky-reliable veteran Carlos Torres to win as many games as possible in 2017. The ideal of veterans locking down games for a developing team seems valuable in the more interesting (and much less quantifiable) sense of “teaching the youngsters how to win.” Henry Druschel noted that there is a standard deviation of six wins in a baseball season, meaning that there are two takes on the 2016 Brewers: a) their improvement over 2015 can simply be explained by luck and their final win total was well within the deviation from the previous season’s talent level or b) their fiery young squad could fall somewhere within that intriguing 68-80 win range in 2017. Perhaps Feliz is a $6 million gamble to ensure that the high end of that range is materialized on the field. If this is a silly windmill to chase during an era of analytical dominance, it is a better windmill to chase than flipping a reliever for a prospect at the deadline. —Nicholas Zettel
Signed RHP Trevor Cahill to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. [1/16]
It’s probably best to keep this simple. If Cahill is a starter for the Padres, this might be a bad deal. If Cahill is a reliever for the Padres, this might be a very good one. For years I’ve been a booster—I’ve wanted to see him emerge as the dominant ground-ball starter he showed flashes of becoming in Oakland. Between 2010 and 2012, Cahill posted 11.7 WARP, averaging almost four wins per season. But entropy is real, and each season since had been ugly until the Cubs dusted him off the scrap heap and made him a World Series-winning relief arm.
Since his arrival in Chicago, he’s been much the same pitcher he was during his good seasons as a starter, just with plenty more strikeouts. With success in the past, and success in the present, is there any wonder why Cahill—who is still just 29 years old–might want to return to the rotation? Of course not! Ballplayers tend to be supremely confident in their own abilities and Cahill’s halcyon days aren’t that far behind him. But the problem lies in his velocity; if Cahill moves to the rotation and his velocity dips, who’s to say that he’ll be anything better than his bleak 2014 starting season.
Here’s his simple Brooks Baseball velocity chart, where you can see how his fastball and changeup velocity have increased in 2015 and 2016:
This is crucial for Cahill, as his change appears to be the key to his swings and misses. In 2016, the right-hander had a 25 percent whiff rate on his changeup, by far the best of any of his offerings:
It’s tough to estimate for sure whether Cahill the starter would give back the gains he made in moving to the bullpen. Given that velocity tends to decrease by 1-2 miles per hour in the transition, the default assumption should be that he’ll lose a little velo and become less effective. The big question is how much and I’m not nearly Nostradamus enough to answer that.
In San Diego—where sports go to die—the rotation is fronted by Jhoulys Chacin and Christian Friedrich. Despite my abiding love for Chacin, there’s no denying that the best pitchers in this rotation probably top out as no. 4 or no. 5 starters on a good team. As such, the Padres might be the only team in baseball desperate enough to give Cahill another shot in the rotation despite his struggles there and his success in the bullpen. If it doesn’t work out—and Cahill doesn’t suffer another injury—then no harm, no foul, it’s not like the Padres are projected to win very much anyway. But it seems obvious that Cahill’s place is in the bullpen, and I’d much rather see this guy succeed as a seventh-inning reliever than fall apart as a starter. —Bryan Grosnick