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The Strike Zone

Hot Stove Roundup: Holiday break edition

Jesse Crain, AstrosJesse Crain made the All-Star team last year but didn't pitch after June 29 because of injury. (Genevieve Ross/AP)

The Hot Stove cooled off significantly over the holidays, but there were still a few moves of note over the last two weeks. Here are some quick thoughts on six free agent signings, one trade and one high-profile comeback attempt that were announced in the two weeks since the Rangers signed Shin-Soo Choo for $130 million on Dec. 21.

Astros sign RHP Jesse Crain to a one-year deal 

How much the Astros will pay Crain is still unknown, but he is coming off a three-year contract that paid him $4.5 million in each of the last two years as well as his first All-Star selection, so it stands to reason he will be getting a raise. The length of the deal can likely be attributed to the fact that his 2013 season came to an end before the All-Star Game due to an arm injury. Crain, 32, had surgery on his right biceps in early October and has yet to resume throwing, and it seems quite likely that the start to his 2014 season could be delayed. However, if he does recover fully and quickly, he could emerge as the Astros' closer, and could be a significant trade chip at the deadline, as closer Jose Veras, whom the team traded to Detroit this past July, was last year.

Over the last four seasons, Crain posted a 2.39 ERA (177 ERA+) for the White Sox and Twins while striking out 9.8 men per nine innings. Historically, bases on balls have been a problem for him, but before his injury in 2013, he was walking just 2.7 men per nine innings, a significant improvement over his rate of 4.0 BB/9 over the previous five seasons.

White Sox sign LHP Scott Downs for $4 million with a vesting option for 2015

Downs will be 38 in March and has seen his walk rate inflate in each of the last three seasons. Still, over the last seven years he has posted a 2.33 ERA (178 ERA+) and remains one of the better lefthanded set-up men in the game. During the life of his just-completed three-year, $15 million contract, he held lefties to a .209/.272/.261 line. While he's more of a match-up lefty than he was in his prime with the Blue Jays, he still held righties to a modest .263/.331/.375 line over the same span.

Downs supplants Donald Veal as the top lefty in Chicago's bullpen, and if he stays healthy in 2014, his 2015 club option will vest for $4.25 million bringing the total value of his contract to $8 million (the missing $250,000 is his buyout if the option doesn't vest and the White Sox decline it).

Angels sign LF/DH Raul Ibañez to a one-year deal worth $2.75 million plus incentives

Ibañez will turn 42 in June and has a .300 on-base percentage over the last three seasons, but I still like this signing in conjunction with the three-team trade that sent Mark Trumbo to the Diamondbacks in exchange for young lefty starters Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. Over those last three seasons, Ibañez has hit .243/.300/.451 and averaged 28 home runs per 162 games. Over the same span, Trumbo hit .251/.300/.473 and averaged 35 home runs per 162 games. Ibañez is clearly a downgrade from Trumbo, but only a slight one, and the potential for Skaggs and Santiago to improve the back of the rotation more than makes up the difference.

Ibañez is a career .349/.407/.522 hitter in Angel Stadium and the guarantee on his contract is tiny for a player projected to be Los Angeles' full-time designated hitter. There are $2.25 million worth of incentives built in to Ibañez's contract, but that only puts his maximum salary at $5 million.

Twins sign C Kurt Suzuki to a one-year deal worth $2.75 million plus incentives

Coming off a four-year, $16.25 million contract, the 30-year-old Suzuki is taking a significant pay cut (he made $6.45 million in 2013). He'll serve as a backup/insurance to rookie catcher Josmil Pinto, who is expected to replace Joe Mauer behind the plate in the wake of Mauer's move to first base. Pinto, who will be 25 in March, hit .303/.382/.482 from High A to Triple A over the last two seasons and impressed with a .342/.398/.566 line in 83 plate appearances in his major league debut in September. Suzuki, meanwhile, hit a mere .234/.282/.332 while splitting each of the last two seasons between the A's and Nationals. That line looks a lot like what rookie Chris Herrmann provided Minnesota as Mauer's backup in 2013 for the cost of the league minimum.

Dodgers sign RHP Chris Perez to a one-year deal worth $2.3 million plus incentives

Perez saved 123 games for the Indians over the last four years, making two All-Star teams as a result. Despite that track record, he'll be no higher than third among righthanders on the Dodgers' bullpen depth chart in 2014, slotting in behind closer Kenley Jansen and primary set-up man Brian Wilson, another former closer. Perez had a rocky 2014, losing a month to a rotator cuff injury in the first half and posting a 7.52 ERA over the final two months while allowing seven home runs in 20 1/3 innings (more than one every three frames). Thus the set-up role and incentive-based contract. Those incentives are significant, as they could add as much as $8 million to his salary, but he would have to ascend to the closer's job to max them out.

Dodgers sign RHP Jamey Wright to a one-year deal worth $1.8 million

Wright returns to the Dodgers, for whom he made 66 appearances in 2012, after a strong showing with Tampa Bay in 2013. He is now 39 and has found late-career success as a groundballing middle reliever for teams with pitcher-friendly ballparks. Over the last three seasons with the Mariners, Dodgers and Rays, he has posted a 3.38 ERA (115 ERA+) with roughly league-average peripherals and a very low home run rate. He should continue in that vein for Los Angeles.

One interesting side-effect of the Perez and Wright signings is the degree to which they marginalize Brandon League, who was signed to a $22.5 million, three-year deal last October with the expectation that he would be the Dodgers' closer. Heading into the second-year of that deal, League may have to battle Chris Withrow for a roster spot as Jansen, Wilson, Perez, Wright and lefties J.P. Howell (re-signed for $11.25 million over two years) and Paco Rodriguez give the Dodgers a strong six-man bullpen. That leaves just one more spot for a fifth righty.

Pirates acquire 1B Chris McGuinness from Rangers for RHP Miles Mikolas

Having failed to upgrade from Gaby Sanchez at first base, the Pirates at least added some depth with this minor deal for non-prospect McGuinness. A former 13th-round pick by the Red Sox in 2009, McGuiness will be 26 in April and has hit .257/.372/.437 in his minor league career. He made his major league debut for the Rangers in June and made nine starts at first base, but after hitting just .176 he was sent down that same month and wasn't called up in September.

The 25-year-old Mikolas, meanwhile, is a groundballer who posted a 3.44 ERA in 27 relief appearances for the Padres in 2012 and 2013 but with lousy peripherals. The Pirates acquired him with outfielder Jaff Decker for non-roster outfielder Alex Dickerson in late November.

Angels sign LHP Mark Mulder to minor league deal

Mulder was a 20-game winner and Cy Young runner-up in 2001 and an All-Star in 2003 and '04 as part of Oakland's Big Three during their Moneyball days, but not long after he was traded to the Cardinals prior to the 2005 season, shoulder problems brought his career to a premature end. Mulder last threw a major league pitch in 2008 at the age of 30. He's now 36 and claims to have found new life in his arm by emulating the delivery of aforementioned Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez.

The Angels are buying it, at least in the form of a minor league contract. Still, it's worth remembering that in his last three major league seasons, Mulder posted a 7.73 ERA in just 106 total innings, and that he hasn't been an effective major league pitcher over a full season since 2005.

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