Thursday January 19th, 2012

In the past week, the headlines have been dominated by Yu Darvish's Wednesday signing deadline and subsequent deal with the Rangers and the Yankees' Friday night rotation reinforcements, while the transaction wire was dominated by arbitration settlements leading up to Tuesday's deadline for teams and players to exchange of salary figures. Here's what else has been going on:

Roughly 125 arbitration-eligible players have settled with their teams via one-year contracts. I can't even begin to dent that list, nor is there much to say about the majority of them, but there are three worth noting:

Phillies settle with SP Cole Hamels for $15M

Noted only because it is the largest salary for a one-year contract for an arbitration-eligible pitcher ever (not counting Roger Clemens settling for $18 million with the Astros in 2005 after accepting arbitration instead of becoming a free agent) and second among hitters and pitchers only to the $15.5 million Prince Fielder settled for last year. It's also a sign that Hamels will test the free agent waters after the coming season, though the Phillies will work hard to avoid that scenario.

Brewers settle with RP Francisco Rodriguez for $8M

Consider just how steeply Rodriguez's stock has fallen over the last two seasons. In 2010 Rodriguez looked like a future Hall of Fame closer and had a $17.5 million option for 2012 that would have vested with 55 games finished in 2011, a total he surpassed every year from 2005 to 2009, or 100 finished between 2010 and 2011. Then, in August of that season, he was arrested for assaulting his father-in-law, suffering a season-ending ligament tear in his right thumb in the process. Midway through last year he was traded to Milwaukee where he found himself setting up Jon Axford. His option failed to vest and was declined, and Rodriguez chose to accept arbitration from the Brewers rather than test a free agent market flooded with closers. Rodriguez has now settled for less than half of that original option price and will open his age-30 season as a set-up man.

Blue Jays settle with 2B Kelly Johnson for $6.375M

Johnson and David Ortiz, who has yet to come to terms with the Red Sox, are the other two free agents who accepted arbitration from their 2011 teams. Only two other free agent second basemen -- Aaron Hill and Mark Ellis -- have signed contracts this winter with the expectation of starting in 2012. Both Hill, whom Johnson was traded for in August, and Ellis signed two-year deals worth more in total dollars, but Johnson will make more in 2012 than either of them, which looks like a win for him.

Nationals extend SP Gio Gonzalez ($42M / 5 years + 2 options)

The Nationals are clearly in love with Gio Gonzalez. They gave up three significant prospects and an additional major league-ready starting pitcher for him in late December, and now they have signed him to the largest contract ever given to a pitcher who was eligible for arbitration for the first time.

To be fair, that last is a somewhat misleading fact. A better pitcher would have negotiated a shorter deal and made more money on the next one. That's what Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver all did in recent years, and it's what Tim Lincecum will do now that his two-year, $23 million deal with the Giants has expired, making him eligible for arbitration heading into his walk year. Clayton Kershaw will likely do it as well, unless the Dodgers want to break Gonzalez's record in the coming weeks.

Gonzalez was arbitration eligible for the first time this winter as a Super 2 player, meaning he had four team-controlled years remaining. This contract thus buys out those four plus his first year after what would have been his free agency with $12 million options for 2017 and 2018, what would have been his second and third years after free agency, the second of which vests automatically with 180 innings pitched in 2017. If both options are exercised, the contract will be worth $65.5 million over seven years and will take Gonzalez through his age-32 season.

The risks on both sides are obvious. If Gonzalez stays healthy and continues to mature as a front-end left-handed starting pitcher, he'll be worth a lot more than the $9.4 million average annual value of the full contract and could well have just signed away a big payday following his age-29 season. If he gets hurt, struggles away from Oakland's pitcher-friendly ballpark (where he posted a 2.63 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over the last two seasons compared to 3.78 and 1.43 on the road), or continues to struggle with walks and takes a career path somewhere between those of Oliver Perez and A.J. Burnett, the Nationals will have wasted a great deal of resources on a pitcher they wildly overrated. Somewhere in the middle and things come close to breaking even, which also means that this contract will have been largely pointless as Gonzalez wouldn't have earned much more on a yearly basis anyway.

I wasn't a huge fan of the Gonzalez trade from the Nationals perspective, and think they've been overly aggressive here with a pitcher who still has a lot to prove in terms of his walk rate and pitching outside of Oakland.

Giants extend 3B Pablo Sandoval ($17.15M / 3 years + incentives) and SP Ryan Vogelsong ($8.3M / 2 years + $6.5M option and incentives)

Sandoval's contract doesn't buy out any of the 25-year-old switch-hitter's free agency years, which has to be a bit of a disappointment for them, but it does give the Giants cost certainty with a young player who is emerging as one of the best third basemen in the game (only Evan Longoria had a better 2011 season according to Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, and not by much). The Giants did well to leverage the uncertainly lingering from Sandoval's down 2010 season, a likely fluke, to keep his top annual salary at $8.25 million in 2014, and were likely wise not to sign a longer deal given his well-known conditioning issues.

I'm far less enthusiastic about the contract given to 34-year-old reclamation project Vogelsong, who had so utterly failed to establish himself over the previous decade that he was still in his team-controlled years (and arbitration eligible) after his breakout age-33 season. It's not that the Giants are taking a big chance on Vogelsong. If he simply has one full season as a league-average starter over the next two, he'll earn most of that $8.3 million, and it's certainly nice to see a 12-year journeyman get that payday. It's just that I didn't see much reason to give a multi-year deal to a player in his mid-30s who has absolutely no track record to back up what was a good, if slightly overrated, and very likely fluky season in which he went 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA.

Two of December's most surprising non-tenders found homes with contenders in the same week for roughly the same price.

Diamondbacks re-sign SP Joe Saunders ($6M / 1 year)

The Diamondbacks non-tendered Saunders when they acquired Trevor Cahill from the A's, but, as I wrote at the time, I thought the loss of Saunders largely undermined the addition of Cahill:

[I]t's not clear that Cahill will be a significant step up from Saunders in 2012. Cahill's big 2010 season (18-8, 2.97 ERA) was largely the result of opponent's .237 average on balls in play, and in three major league seasons, his ERAs outside of pitching-friendly Oakland Coliseum have been 5.10, 3.86 and 5.23, respectively. Cahill could benefit from moving to the weaker league, but he's also entering a hitter's park. Saunders posted a 3.85 ERA in two seasons with the Diamondbacks, including a 3.97 career mark at Chase Field. I see both as league-average pitchers with low strikeout rates. Cahill is certainly young enough that he could improve, whereas Saunders likely won't.

A buyers' market for starting pitching, which finds Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt among those still looking for work, has saved the Diamondbacks from themselves by delivering Saunders back to Arizona at a price it was willing to pay (roughly a $2.5 million discount over what he was expected to earn in his third year of arbitration per the projections made by MLB Trade Rumors' Matt Swartz). With Saunders back in the fold, the Diamondbacks' 2012 rotation is comprised of five league-average-or-better arms, and with Cahill, Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and sophomore Josh Collementer all under team control through at least 2015 and top prospects Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs rapidly approaching, it looks to be a strength for years to come.

Rays sign OF/1B Luke Scott ($6M / 1 year + $6M option and incentives)

Scott hit .272/.357/.512 from 2006 to 2010 while averaging more than 20 home runs per year, but a torn labrum in his right shoulder effectively ended his 2011 season in early July (he played in one game in late July and went 0-for-3 as the Orioles' designated hitter). Non-tendered in December, the 33-year-old takes a pay cut to join the Rays, dropping from the $6.4 million he earned last year, though there are plate-appearance-based bonuses in the deal that could increase its value. Tampa Bay could use Scott at first base or DH depending on how completely his shoulder has recovered. He has made just 37 starts at first base in his career, but those have all come in the last three years, and he has acquitted himself well at the position. He'd be a big downgrade from Casey Kotchman in the field, to be sure, but if he's healthy, he's a better bet than Kotchman at the plate.

A's acquire OF Seth Smith for SP Josh Outman and SP Guillermo Moscoso, sign SP Bartolo Colon ($2M / 1 year)

Go figure this one. Smith can't hit lefties (career .202/.269/.319) and, like many Rockies hitters, struggles away from Coors Field. He did hit well on the road in 2011, but he still lost 60 points of isolated power outside of Denver. Going to Oakland, where his best position would be designated hitter, seems like a death sentence for his bat. Even Matt Holliday had trouble making that transition. Trading Moscoso, a 28-year-old righty sophomore coming off a season propped up by a .222 opponent's batting average on balls in play, and Outman, a 27-year-old lefty less than 60 innings removed from Tommy John rehab, would seem to be a way to clear rotation room for the superior young pitchers acquired in the Cahill and Gonzalez trades, but then why Colon? As insurance, I suppose, and the price is right for that, but Colon, who will be 39 in May, went 3-7 with a 4.81 ERA last year for the Yankees after returning from a mid-year hamstring pull. Using him as insurance is like using a vegetable strainer to catch a leak.

Brewers sign OF Norichika Aoki (2 years + club option and incentives, $2.5M bid)

The Brewers haven't released the financial terms of their deal with Aoki, but the $2.5 million bid and reported inclusion of incentives suggest a low base salary. Aoki is a tiny (5-foot-9) outfielder who was a three-time batting champion and six-time gold glove-winning centerfielder for the Yukalt Swallows of Japan's Central League, but is coming off a down year in which his modest power vanished, he stole just eight bases and his batting average dropped below .300 for the first time in his seven full seasons with the team. Now 30, the seven-time All-Star projects more as an extra outfielder in Milwaukee, though he could get significant exposure early in the year if Ryan Braun's suspension for the season's first 50 games is upheld.

Reds sign OF Ryan Ludwick ($2.5M / 1 year)

A failed prospect with the Rangers and Indians, Ludwick salvaged his career with the Cardinals in 2007 and was an All-Star in 2008, but since leaving St. Louis via a deadline deal in 2010, he has hit just .229/.308/.353. Yes, most of that came with the Padres, but even Petco isn't that much of a pitcher's park. The 33-year-old will be in a far friendlier home ballpark as the Reds' fourth outfielder, but he's not a good fit for a job share with Chris Heisey in leftfield as both are right-handed hitters with reverse platoon splits. He's lucky to have a major league deal.

Astros sign OF Jack Cust ($600,000 / 1 year, non-guaranteed + $1M option)

The Astros already have a designated hitter in Carlos Lee, who is entering the final year of his contract, and won't have an everyday DH slot until 2013. I imagine Houston sees the 33-year-old Cust as a Matt Stairs type pinch-hitter who could be retained as a full-time DH in 2013 (when Houston moves to the American League) via that option if he excels in the Stairs role this year.

Braves sign IF Jack Wilson ($1M / 1 year + incentives)

The 34-year-old Wilson will back up 22-year-old rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, who was acquired from the Blue Jays in the July 2010 trade that sent Yunel Escobar to Toronto. Wilson has hit just .256/.292/.335 over the last four seasons and has been injured in every one of them, but he's still a fine fielder when healthy.

Cubs re-sign RP Kerry Wood ($3M / 1 year + $3M option)

Wood supposedly came close to a deal with another team, but it's not like he drove a hard bargain with the Cubs, who paid him just $1.5 million last year after he turned down $5 million salaries from two other teams. I would have listed Wood as the best righty set-up man available in mid-December if his return to the Cubs seemed less than inevitable.

Twins sign RP Joel Zumaya ($850,000 / 1 year + incentives)

The team that led the majors in days lost to the disabled list has signed Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit, Jason Marquis and now Zumaya. Good luck with that, Twins. Zumaya fractured his elbow throwing a pitch against Minnesota on June 28, 2010, and has thrown just one spring training inning since, missing all of last year after having the screw in his elbow replaced. The Twins gave this guy a guaranteed major league contract.

Rockies sign SP Jamie Moyer (minor league deal with invitation to spring training)

Moyer turned 49 in November, missed all of the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery, posted a 4.90 ERA (85 ERA+) in his last two healthy seasons, and is 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in his only two regular season starts at Coors Field. Still, it's hard not to root for his comeback. Satchel Paige, Jack Quinn and Hoyt Wilhelm are the only men ever to throw a major league pitch at the age of 49 or beyond. Moyer's deal, announced Tuesday night, is pending a physical.

SS Orlando Cabrera

IF Craig Counsell

Cabrera, a two-time Gold Glove award winner at shortstop, will likely be best remembered for replacing Nomar Garciaparra on the curse-busting 2004 Red Sox, though he played more games with seven other teams. Cabrera played his final season at the age of 36 and retires with 2,055 career hits and a .272/.317/.390 batting line. He played for five teams in the last three years and was little more than a replacement-level player over that span.

A light-hitting infielder with solid on-base skills, Counsell was on base each of the last two times the World Series ended in a walk-off hit. As a rookie with the Marlins in 1997, Counsell scored the winning run of Game 7 in the bottom of the 11th inning. Four years later, he was hit by a pitch in the plate appearance immediately preceding Luis Gonzalez's Series-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning of 2001's Game 7. Now 41, Consell hit .178/.280/.223 last year and went 0-for-45 during one midseason stretch, tying a major league record for futility by a position player. He joins the Brewers' front office and probably wishes he had done so a year ago.

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