Wednesday November 30th, 2011

Hot Stove Roundup is a weekly column during the offseason that will offer quick takes on a selection of mid- and low-level transactions. This being the first edition of this offseason, we have a lot to cover, so let's get to it.

Rangers sign closer Joe Nathan ($14.5M/2yrs + $9M option)

The hidden upside of this deal is that it allows the Rangers to move Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation without being second guessed for not having a "proven closer" to replace him. If Feliz fulfills his potential as a starter, the team will come out ahead in the end even though they overpaid for Nathan, who just turned 37 and has saved just 14 games since 2009 due to March 2010 Tommy John surgery.

Nathan struggled upon his return early this past season and missed a month due to forearm inflammation, but after returning in late June he posted a 3.38 ERA and struck out 28 men in 29 1/3 innings against just five walks. He also had a 0.89 WHIP, 5.60 K/BB and converted all 11 of his save opportunities after taking the job back from Matt Capps in mid-July. He did benefit from a .218 opponent's average on balls in play after his return from the DL, but with his velocity and control having returned and his slider still missing a ton of bats, there's reason to believe that he can again be one of the best closers in baseball. Yes, the Rangers could have simply promoted Mike Adams into the role, but with Feliz and Alexi Ogando both set to be in the rotation in April, they needed another high-leverage bullpen arm anyway. For a contending team that's not pinching pennies, the savings in the rotation make this gamble worthwhile.

Royals re-sign SP Bruce Chen ($9M/2yrs + incentives) and sign RP Jonathon Broxton ($4M/1yr + incentives)

A bone spur in Broxton's pitching elbow ended his 2011 season in early May and eventually led to September surgery. He's supposed to be ready for spring training, and if so, the Royals expect him to open the season as a set-up man for closer Joakim Soria. Broxton's signing follows the news that the Royals are going to give Aaron Crow a chance to make the starting rotation after unexpectedly moving the 2009 first-round pick to the bullpen and putting him on the Opening Day roster last year, after which he became the team's lone All-Star. Despite Crow's potential return to starting (the Royals already have five starters in Chen, newly-acquired Jonathan Sanchez, Luke Hochevar, Felipe Paulino and fellow sophomore Danny Duffy), Kansas City's bullpen was still flush with talented young arms before the addition of Broxton, making his addition a bit of a head-scratcher. It's possible, however, that the Royals are overloading in the hope of cashing in Broxton or one of their incumbent relievers in a mid-season trade.

As for Chen, this is the first multi-year deal of the 34-year-old lefty's 13-going-on-14-year career which has seen him pass through 11 organizations. He threw 100 innings in consecutive major league seasons for the first time in 2010 and 2011, but didn't qualify for the ERA title in either season, missing nearly two months of last season due to a latissimus dorsi strain behind his pitching shoulder. He's no better than league-average and doesn't eat innings, but most of the organization's top rotation prospects failed to progress as expected this past season, motivating his return as a stop-gap.

Indians re-sign CF Grady Sizemore ($5M/1yr + incentives) and acquire Derek Lowe from the Braves for LHP Chris Jones

The Indians declined Sizemore's $9 million option for 2012, then signed him to this new deal, which could be worth $9.5 million if he reaches all of the incentives (which begin at 450 plate appearances and top out at 650 PA and the Comeback Player of the Year award). Over the past two seasons, the former All-Star has appeared in just 104 games and hit .220/.280/.379 due in large part to his having had five surgeries in the last three years: two for sports hernias, one on his throwing elbow and surgery on both knees, including microfracture surgery on the left one last October and arthroscopic surgery on his right one just last month. The Indians are saying that they expect him to be their primary centerfielder, which is a condemnation of their alternatives at the position. The signing in general seems to be motivated as much by a fear of their former franchise player making a comeback elsewhere than by an honest belief that he can do so in Cleveland.

With a rotation of Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and sophomores Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor backed up by top prospects Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino, the Braves had no need for Lowe, which is why Atlanta practically paid Cleveland to take him. The Braves will cover two-thirds of Lowe's $15 million salary for 2012, the final year of his four-year contract, and receive only 23-year-old lefty reliever Jones, who has yet to pitch above A-ball, in return. It's not clear that the Indians have much use for Lowe, either. He'll be 39 in June, has posted an 86 ERA+ in three seasons since leaving the Dodgers, and hasn't pitched in the DH league since 2004, when he had a 5.42 ERA for the Red Sox. He's not going to turn the Indians from pretenders into contenders.

Yankees re-sign SP Freddy Garcia (reportedly $4M+/1yr + incentives)

When the Yankees signed Garcia to a minor league deal prior to this past season I thought this soft-tossing righty fly-ball pitcher would be a disaster in homer-happy Yankee Stadium. Instead, Garcia actually made 10 consecutive starts mid-season without allowing a home run (going 6-2 with a 2.53 ERA over that stretch). However, just four of those starts came at home, and in his other 16 starts on the season, 10 of which came at home, including one in the Division Series, he went 6-7 with a 4.45 ERA and 17 home runs allowed (1.8 HR/9IP), which is more like what the Yankees should expect from him in the coming season. He gives them rotation depth at what for the Yankees is pocket change, but not much more, and he still hasn't qualified for an ERA title since 2006.

Diamondbacks re-sign 2B Aaron Hill ($11M/2yrs), UT Willie Bloomquist ($3.8M/2yrs), SS John McDonald ($3M/2yrs)

Pirates sign SS Clint Barmes ($10.5M/2yrs)

Dodgers sign 2B Mark Ellis ($8.75M/2yrs + $5.75M option and incentives)

Twins sign SS Jamey Carroll ($6.5M/2yrs + $2M option and incentives)

This gaggle of middle-infield signings, all problematic in one way or another, are indicative of how thin those positions have become league-wide. Hill, Barmes, Ellis and Carroll will start. Bloomquist and McDonald will backup Hill and Stephen Drew, who will return from a broken ankle to reclaim the Diamondbacks' shortstop job from Bloomquist.

Hill, who turns 30 in March, broke out after being acquired by Arizona in late August, hitting .310/.393/.486 in 165 plate appearances including the postseason, but his .225/.286/.375 line over the last two seasons combined (which includes his regular-season performance with the Diamondbacks) speaks a lot louder.

Barmes, 33 in March, is an excellent defensive shortstop but a lousy hitter (.240/.309/.370 the last two seasons). He's an upgrade, even if only incrementally, on both sides of the ball over Ronny Cedeño, whose $3 million option was declined. Barmes could help lift the boats of the groundballers on the Pirates' pitching staff, but that doesn't warrant a multi-year deal.

Ellis is an outstanding defender who can swipe a few bags and has shown good patience at the plate in the past (though not last year), but has stayed healthy enough to play in more than 125 games just twice in the last eight seasons and will be 35 in June.

Carroll will be 38 in February and is a sub-par fielder at shortstop. He will take his walks (.362 on-base percentage the last four years), and stole 22 bases in 26 tries in his two years as a Dodger (85 percent success rate), but has no power, consistently posting slugging percentages lower than his OBP and last homering in August 2009, though that could make him a good fit in Target Field, where modest power goes to die.

Dodgers sign OF Juan Rivera ($4.5M/1yr + $4M option)

Rivera is a terrible defensive outfielder who has hit .255/.316/.395 over the past two seasons. Jerry Sands is a 24-year-old who out-hit that line in his first 227 major league plate appearances last year, has hit .286/.376/.576 in the minors, and will make one-tenth as much in 2012. If Rivera takes any playing time away from Sands in the coming season it will make a bad signing worse.

Twins sign C/OF Ryan Doumit ($3M/1yr)

Doumit is a terrible defensive catcher, but he can hit (.280/.337/.454 over the last five seasons), and has experience in rightfield and at first base. That makes him a particularly good fit for a Twins team that needs help in the outfield corners and doesn't know how often Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are going to be able to play their customary positions behind the plate and at first base.

Phillies acquire UT Ty Wigginton from Rockies for PTBNL or cash

The Rockies will pay half of Wigginton's $4 million salary for the coming season, which tells you how much they valued him. Wigginton, now 34, has hit a consistent .254/.313/.411 over the last three seasons, but can keep the Phillies from dropping all the way to replacement level at first base, third base or leftfield while Ryan Howard rehabs his Achilles, Domonic Brown tries to find himself at the major league level and 36-year-old Placido Polanco attempts to fend off the effects of age.

Padres sign OF/1B Mark Kotsay ($1.25M/1yr)

Kotsay has hit .262/.320/.377 for five teams over the last six seasons while being thrown out on 13 of 29 stolen base attempts (55 percent success rate), and since being traded to the Red Sox in late August of 2008, he has made just 13 starts in centerfield. Now 35, he's a lefty pinch-hitter who is lucky to have been given a major league contract.

Pirates sign C Rod Barajas ($4M/1yr + $3.5M option)

At the beginning of the month, I wrote in the Pirates portion of my NL Central Hot Stove Preview that, "Rod Barajas could be a quality stop-gap behind the plate while the organization waits to see if prospect Tony Sanchez's bat is going to come back to life this season." Bingo. The 36-year-old Barajas won't take a walk, but he compensates with a solid power stroke, averaging 14 home runs over the last eight seasons to go with a .243/.289/.429 line and is a solid defender who bounced back from an uncharacteristically poor rate of throwing out basestealers in 2010 to be right around league average this past season. Take the league average catcher (.245/.313/.389 in 2011), trade some patience for power, and you have Barajas, as good a solution as any for a team still treading water.

Rays trade C John Jaso to Mariners for RHP Josh Lueke and cash, sign C Jose Molina ($1.8M/1yr + $1.8M option)

Padres acquire C John Baker from Marlins for LHP Wade LeBlanc

Diamondbacks re-sign C Henry Blanco ($1.2M/1yr + $1.24M option)

Tigers sign C Gerald Laird ($1M/1yr + incentives)

Dodgers sign C Matt Treanor ($1M/1yr + $950,000 option)

Laird and Treanor are backups leaving the 2011 pennant winners for new homes in the other league. Laird departs the world champion Cardinals for his former team in Detroit, while Treanor is going from the back-to-back AL champion Rangers to the Dodgers, who haven't won a pennant since 1988. The 40-year-old Blanco, a backup coming off a random home run spike, was one of four replaceable players the Diamondbacks rushed to re-sign (see above) for reasons I fail to grasp.

Jaso (28) and Baker (31 in January) are similar players. Both are poor defensive catchers who are nonetheless compelling for being left-handed bats with on-base skills, though not much power. Baker, who returned from Tommy John surgery in September, will back up Chase Headley in San Diego. Jaso, who was fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, will have to fend off Adam Moore to be Miguel Olivo's backup in Seattle.

As for the pitchers they were dealt for, LeBlanc is a 27-year-old lefty starter with a fantastic changeup and a mid-80s fastball who could win the fifth-starter's job in Miami, though he is unlikely to be much more than that. Lueke is a soon-to-be-27-year-old righty reliever with a live fastball who was the source of some embarrassment for the Mariners in 2010 when he was included in the package received from the Rangers for Cliff Lee. Apparently, the Mariners were unaware of the fact that Lueke had plea-bargained his way out of rape charges in 2008 and served 42 days in jail for the reduced charge of false imprisonment, and there was speculation that the oversight was a key factor in the firing of scouting director Carmen Fusco in the months following the trade. Lueke may have a good arm, but he's not the sort of player who can turn things around in Seattle, so the Mariners were right to dump him on a team that can more easily absorb the bad karma.

As for Jose Molina, he's one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and has thrown out 40 percent of attempting basestealers in his career (against a league average around 25 percent), but he'll be 37 in June and his solid year at the plate this past season was a fluke. The Rays should expect him to regress toward his career rates (.241/.286/.344) particularly after he trades Rogers Centre for Tropicana Field. Barring a subsequent move, Molina will likely split time with 27-year-old rookie Robinson Chirinos, part of the return from the Matt Garza trade with the Cubs last offseason, behind the plate.

Orioles claim RHP Darren O'Day off waivers from Rangers

O'Day missed most of the 2011 season due to surgery to repair a torn left hip labrum and some shoulder inflammation upon his return, but I was surprised to see the Rangers let him go. The righty sidearmer posted a 1.94 ERA in 140 appearances for the Mets and Rangers in 2009 and 2010 and didn't get killed by lefties, holding them to a .234/.284/.328 line in 148 plate appearances. Then again, he was an extreme fly-ball pitcher with a .236 opponent's average on balls in play over those two seasons, making his performance unsustainable in Arlington.

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