Reds sign closer Ryan Madson ($8.5M / 1 year)
This is a huge step down from the $44 million, four-year deal that the Phillies reportedly offered Madson earlier this offseason, though it's unclear just how much veracity there was to that rumor. For the Reds, this is a sweatheart deal given what they see as a win-now opportunity in the weakened NL Central. Right-handed closer Madson joins lefties Sean Marshall, Aroldis Chapman and Bill Bray to give the Reds a dominant end-game that should help compensate for their still questionable rotation by letting Dusty Baker go to his pen early and often to protect the leads his offense, reinforced by rookies Zach Cozart and Devin Mesoraco, should provide. He also gives the Reds the flexibility to move Chapman into the rotation if they so desire.
This contract makes the $50 million the Phillies committed to Jonathan Papelbon look all the more ridiculous, but I still believe the Phillies will get their money's worth from that deal. The Phillies also get the 14th overall pick in the 2012 draft (not the Reds' pick, but an additional pick inserted ahead of the Reds', which will now be the 15th overall) and a supplemental round pick, which is a nice upgrade from the 31st overall pick, which they lost to Boston as compensation for Papelbon.
Marlins acquire SP Carlos Zambrano from Cubs for SP Chris Volstad, re-sign 3B Greg Dobbs ($3M / 2 years)
Big Z and Ozzie Guillen in the same dugout? This should be entertaining. The temperamental Zambrano effectively quit on the Cubs in mid-August of last season. After giving up five home runs to the Braves in 4 1/3 innings and getting the hook, Zambrano cleaned out his locker and left the ballpark, claiming he was retiring. The Cubs responded by suspending him for 30 days, and he never did throw another pitch for Chicago. It's unsurprising, then, that the Cubs are paying most of Zambrano's salary for the coming season, (all but $2.55 million of the $18 million he's owed), as that was the only way they were going to get anything in return for his services.
The six-foot-eight Volstad is nothing special, but he took a step forward last year with improvements in his groundball, strikeout and walk rates and is still just 25. One could argue that the 30-year-old Zambrano is no better at this point given the wildness of both of his pitches and emotions, the mileage on his arm (only five active pitchers threw more innings through their age-26 season), the back problems that returned last July and the sharp drop in his strikeout rate last year, but it will be interesting to see what impact the trade and his new manager will have on his approach to the coming season. Worth noting: In exchange for waiving his no-trade clause and 2013 option (which wasn't going to vest anyway), Zambrano had a Comeback Player of the Year award bonus inserted in his contract.
Veteran third baseman Dobbs was overextended as an every-day player last year, but with Hanley Ramirez having been pushed to the hot corner, he returns in the more suitable role of lefty pinch-hitter. He has hit .259/.316/.430 in 316 career pinch-hit appearances, which doesn't look like enough to have motivated a two-year deal until you realize that NL pinch-hitters hit .214/.291/.313 as a group in 2011.
Cubs acquire 1B Anthony Rizzo and RHP Zach Cates from Padres for RHP Andrew Cashner and OF Kyung-Min Na, sign SP Paul Maholm ($4.25M / 1 year + option)
When the Padres acquired Yonder Alonso from the Reds in the Mat Latos deal last month it seemed to signal the team's dissatisfaction with Rizzo as their first baseman of the future. Enter Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, the first of whom drafted Rizzo while with the Red Sox in 2007 and the latter of whom traded for Rizzo once before, getting him from Epstein in the Adrian Gonzalez trade as the Padres general manager one year ago. The 22-year-old Rizzo now becomes the centerpiece of the Cubs' rebuilding (though centerfielder Brett Jackson remains their best prospect). Early word is the Cubs will have Rizzo start the coming season in Triple-A to work on his swing (he was awful in 153 plate appearances for the Padres last year), with 29-year-old Brian LaHair serving as a placeholder at first base for the major league team. However, Rizzo, a career .296/.366/.514 hitter in the minors who hit .331/.404/.652 in 413 plate appearances for Triple-A Tuscon last year, could be back up by mid-season and still projects as a classic big-bat first baseman who will benefit from the move from Petco Park to Wrigley Field and could anchor the Cubs' lineup for the rest of the decade.
The key player going the other way in the deal is 25-year-old righty Andrew Cashner, who was the 19th overall pick in the 2008 draft. A college closer with nasty stuff, Cashner started in the minors, but has found himself back in the bullpen in the majors and missed nearly all of the 2011 season due to a rotator cuff strain. What direction his career takes from here is anybody's guess. Na is a small, 20-year-old Korean centerfielder with absolutely no power (no home runs and a .284 slugging percentage in 519 plate appearances in the low minors) who lacks the elite-level speed or ability to make contact at the plate to compensate.
As for Cates, the 22-year-old righty is a recent convert to pitching who has a mid-90s fastball, plus changeup, groundball tendencies and a mid-rotation upside but is very raw for a pitcher his age given that he's really only been a full-time pitcher for two years, one of those spent with Northeast Texas Community College.
Former Pirates lefty Maholm missed the last six weeks of the 2011 season with a shoulder strain and takes a pay cut to join the Cubs. The 29-year-old is a pitch-to-contact groundballer who has seen his groundball rate erode over his seven major league seasons. As a result, he's just a junkballing lefty with an 87-mile-per-hour fastball who will turn 30 in June and seems unlikely to reach the level of a league-average innings eater given the Cubs' lousy defense and hitter-friendly ballpark. He'll likely battle fellow lefty Travis Wood, newly arrived from the Reds in the Sean Marshall trade, and righty Casey Coleman for the fifth spot in the Cubs rotation. If he loses that battle, he does have some potential as a matchup lefty in the bullpen having held southpaws to a .216/.285/.309 line over his career.
Angels extend 2B Howie Kendrick ($33.5M / 4 years)
The Angels gave Kendrick this extension following what was easily his best major league season (.285/.338/.464 with a career-best 18 home runs). Given that Kendrick's big year came at age 27, and that he still ranked just fifth among AL second basemen in in Baseball-Reference's WAR, I find it difficult to be terribly enthusiastic about the deal. Even more problematic, Kendrick's big 2011 was largely the product of a hot start. Kendrick hit .322/.388/.520 through May 19, then pulled a hamstring. He returned on June 4 and hit just .267/.313/.436 the rest of the way, which isn't far off his career rates coming into last season (.295/.327/.425). Productive middle infielders are indeed hard to find (the average major league second baseman hit .260/.320/.389 in 2011), and the Angels have proven that they can absorb bad contracts far larger than this one, but making a four-year commitment to Kendrick based on seven weeks of hot hitting seems like bad business.
Orioles sign LHP Wei-Yin Chen ($11.3M / 3 years + $4.75M option)
The Taiwanese native Chen comes over from the Chunichi Dragons in the Japanese Central League via a free-agency clause in his contract, which is how the Orioles were able to land the 26-year-old without going through the posting process. Chen is a slight, six-foot lefty with a three-quarter delivery and outstanding control. He is primarily a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball in the low 90s and complimenting it with a slider that Orioles general manager Dan Duquette has called "a hard, slurve-like breaking ball." That might sound like a relief profile, but Chen was one of the top starters in Nippon Professional Baseball. An adductor muscle injury in his left hip and right oblique strain cost him velocity and strikeouts last year, but he compensated by being even stingier than usual with his walks, passing just 1.7 men per nine innings. Still, there's some concern about the fact that his strikeout rate has declined in each of the last three seasons before nose-diving to 5.1 K/9 last year. He's the second lefty starter Duquette has signed out of NBP this winter, joining 31-year-old soft-tosser Tsuyoshi Wada, who signed a two-year deal with a 2014 option in mid-December.
Mariners sign RHP Hisashi Iwakuma ($1.5M / 1 year + incentives)
Iwakuma arrives in Seattle as a free agent a year after failing to work out a contract with the division-rival A's, who won his rights via the posting system in November 2010. The righty will be 31 in April and missed two months with a shoulder injury last season, seeing his velocity dip as a result, thus the incentive-laden deal he signed with the Mariners, which could triple in value if he makes 30 starts and throws 200 innings. The small guaranteed salary means the Mariners aren't committed to putting Iwakuma in their rotation, though that's certainly where they hope he'll wind up. Iwakuma had a variety of injury issues from 2005 to 2007 (shoulder, back, oblique, arthroscopic elbow surgery), but rebounded for a monster 2008 season that earned him the league MVP award. He makes up for his middling fastball with an excellent splitter, a solid slider, outstanding control and the ability to induce ground balls.
Mets sign SS Ronny Cedeño ($1.2M / 1 year) and re-sign OF Scott Hairston ($1.1M / 1 year)
I identified Cedeño, a superlative fielder who can't hit a lick (career: .246/.286/.353, 68 OPS+), as the best remaining free agent shortstop three weeks ago, which is evidence of just how thin things were at the position. In Queens, Cedeño, who will be 29 this season, will pair with 22-year-old Ruben Tejada, who is an average defender with even less power, but can hit for average and draw some walks. That's a huge step down from Jose Reyes, but the Mets will spend less than $2 million on both players in 2012. There are numerous other teams spending more for less. Hairston, 32 in May, is a right-handed fourth-outfielder/pinch-hitter with some pop who has hit .274/.328/.486 against lefties in his career but just .177/.275/.333 in 161 career pinch-hit appearances.
Rays sign RP Fernando Rodney ($2M /1 year)
Dodgers re-sign RP Mike MacDougal ($1M /1 year + option)
Rodney and MacDougal were lucky to land major league deals. They are both right-handed groundballers and former closers who will turn 35 in March and have no place pitching high-leverage innings for contending teams. Over the last five seasons, Rodney has compiled a 4.42 ERA (98 ERA+), a 1.50 WHIP and walked 5.2 men per nine innings. Over the last three seasons, he has struck out an unexceptional 7.2 men per nine innings, giving him a 1.35 K/BB over those seasons. That he saved 37 games for the Tigers three years ago just proves how little value that statistic has.
MacDougal, meanwhile, has compiled a 1.59 WHIP and walked 5.4 men per nine innings while barely striking out more at 6.6 K/9 (1.24 K/BB) over the last six seasons. From 2007 to 2010, he posted a 5.24 ERA (85 ERA+), but last year, his first with the Dodgers, his ERA was 2.05. That was a fluke.