Hot Stove Roundup: Twins make deft move in signing Willingham
Expect Michael Cuddyer to fill a utility role in Colorado like he did with the Twins
The D-backs brought in Jason Kubel, but he isn't a clear upgrade to Gerardo Parra
The addition of Mark Melancon could have Daniel Bard moving to Boston's rotation
The big transaction news of the last week was the five-player trade that landed the Reds Mat Latos, Jimmy Rollins re-signing with the Phillies for three years, and the Rangers winning the right to negotiate with Japanese ace Yu Darvish. However, Joe Lemire nailed the first two in his column on Saturday, and the Darvish news won't have any real impact unless (or until) the Rangers actually ink the right-hander, something which might not happen until mid-January. Still, there were a few other noteworthy moves from the past week, including the coming and going of three Twins outfielders, a trade between the Red Sox and Astros, and a handful of smaller signings by teams looking to flesh out their bench and bullpen.
Rockies sign UT Michael Cuddyer ($31.5M/3 yrs)
In introducing Cuddyer on Tuesday, Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said that the longtime Twin would be the Rockies' right fielder for the coming season, meaning he would push Carlos Gonzalez to left and Seth Smith to the bench. However, a large part of Cuddyer's value is his ability to move around the diamond. In the past two seasons alone, Cuddyer has made 10 or more starts at first, second and third base while also seeing time in center and even pitching a scoreless inning against the Rangers. With the Rockies sporting big holes at third and second and employing a 38-year-old first baseman who has averaged just 119 games over the last four years in Todd Helton, it seems fair to expect Cuddyer to continue to venture away from right field as needed, as was his role with the Twins. Doing so will create at-bats for the left-handed Smith, who is roughly Cuddyer's equal at the plate on the whole and a weapon against right-handed pitching.
Cuddyer's versatility doesn't mean he's a good fielder. In fact, he's pretty lousy no matter where you put him. Smith is no better in right, but he is three and a half years younger than Cuddyer, who will be 33 in late March, and under team control for the next three years, the length of Cuddyer's contract. Meanwhile, Cuddyer has been inconsistent at the plate since his breakout season in 2006. On the whole, Cuddyer has hit .275/.347/.459 over the last six seasons, which is above average, but isn't meaningfully better than Smith's career line, even after correcting for Coors Field. The ideal role for Cuddyer would be as the short-side of lefty/righty platoon with Smith who could fill in elsewhere on his off-days as needed. That's not a $30 million player.
Diamondbacks sign LF Jason Kubel ($15M/2 yrs)
Another former Twin, Kubel presents a similar problem for the Diamondbacks in that he isn't a clear upgrade over their incumbent left fielder, Gerardo Parra. Cuddyer and Smith are an easy comparison to make because they are similarly skilled. Parra and Kubel, however, are very different players. Kubel can hit but not field (nearly half of his career games have come as a designated hitter), while Parra is one of the best defensive players in baseball, but his bat remains a question mark. Then again, the 24-year-old Parra outhit the 29-year-old Kubel this past season, so maybe the comparison is easier to make than it seems.
Blame Kubel's injuries for his underwhelming 2011 if you want, but it wasn't that out of line with his established level of play. If you leave out his big season at the age of 27, a hitter's natural peak age, Kubel has hit .266/.331/.446 in four of the last five seasons combined, a rate of production undermined by his play in the field. Parra, meanwhile, is at an age at which he's still improving at the plate. In '11 he cut his strikeout rate, improved his walk rate, boosted his power and went 15 for 16 on the bases. The Kubel signing suggests that the Diamondbacks don't trust Parra to build on or even sustain those improvements, but he's young enough to do so and the difference in the field would keep him on a par with Kubel even if he didn't. Kubel gives the Diamondbacks depth, but $7 million a year is a lot to spend on a fourth outfielder.
Twins sign LF Josh Willingham ($21M/3 yrs, plus incentives)
By offering Cuddyer and Kubel arbitration, then signing Willingham and forcing both to find employment elsewhere, the Twins landed not only the best hitter of the bunch, but will rake in two supplemental-round compensation draft picks in the process (both the Twins' and the Rockies' first-round picks are protected, so the non-supplemental compensation picks for Willingham and Cuddyer will come out of the second round). That's a pretty neat trick. Willingham isn't a stud. He'll be 33 in February, has averaged just 121 games per season over the last three years due to a variety of injuries, and his strikeout and walk rates both went in the wrong direction last year. Still, he's a nice corner outfielder for a second-division team looking to save some face. He has power, typically posts an on-base percentage more than 100 points higher than his batting average and holds his own in the field. He's also filling a need, rather than intruding on a player of comparable or superior value, and costs $10 million less than Cuddyer, making this yet another nice low profile addition by second-term general manager Terry Ryan.
Red Sox acquire RP Mark Melancon for IF Jed Lowrie and SP Kyle Weiland, sign IF Nick Punto ($3M/2 yrs, plus incentives)
The acquisition of Astros closer Melancon suggests that the Red Sox are serious about moving Daniel Bard into the starting rotation. That sounds like a mistake to me. Bard last started a game in 2007, his first professional season, posting a 7.08 ERA in 22 starts between the Sally and High-A California Leagues that year. Maybe his high-90s heat, sharp slider and change can turn a lineup over, but he has never faced a batter twice in one game in the majors, and he's not a minor-league starter who detoured through the bullpen like Neftali Feliz. It still seems more likely that Melancon will wind up setting up Bard in the pen after the team signs a couple of legitimate starters.
Melancon was a legitimate relief prospect in the Yankees' system before being flipped to Houston for Lance Berkman, and he should excel in a setup role while alternating strikeouts and ground balls. Lowrie wasn't able to stay healthy in Boston, is now arbitration eligible and will be 28 in April. He'll start at shortstop for Houston until his next disabled list stay. Weiland is a 25-year-old righty starter who was lit up as an emergency rotation patch during the Sox's collapse. His stuff and minor league numbers are solid, but unspectacular, and he'll likely open 2012 in Triple A as rotation depth for the Astros. Punto replaces Lowrie as the utility infielder in Boston, where he'll be an improvement in the field, a downgrade at the plate and be called a winner because he is teammates with Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, etc.
Rockies sign 3B Casey Blake ($2M/1yr, plus incentives)
I identified Blake as the top free-agent third baseman available and the Rockies as his best fit on Monday with a note of caution about his September neck surgery. The Rockies agreed with the fit, but see him as more of a utility man than a full-time third baseman given the 38-year-old's fragility. Still, if he proves he's healthy, he should get the bulk of the starts at third, which has the added bonus of keeping Cuddyer off the hot corner.
Royals sign SS Yuniesky Betancourt ($2M/1yr, plus incentives)
The Royals have brought back sabermetric whipping boy Betancourt as a utility infielder, which could be seen as a sign of progress for a team that gave him 151 starts at shortstop just two years ago, or a sign of stagnation given that Betancourt is a terrible hitter and fielder who has never played an inning at third base in the States and has played just one minor league game at second since 2005.
Orioles sign CF Endy Chavez ($1.5M/1yr)
Chavez, who will be 34 in February, is an excellent fielder who can play anywhere in the outfield, but his respectable batting line in 2011 was a lot of empty batting average over just 274 plate appearances, which is to say, a fluke. He'll be the Orioles' fourth outfielder.
Giants re-sign C Eli Whiteside ($600,000/1yr), and RP Guillermo Mota ($1M/1yr)
Whiteside was non-tendered last week only to be re-signed this week to a major-league deal giving him a $175,000 raise over his 2011 salary. Whiteside, 32, is a career .218/.274/.339 hitter in the majors who never got into a game in the 2010 postseason, but is returning for his fourth season as the Giants' backup catcher. Mota, now 38, is back for his third season as an unspectacular middle relief option in the Giants' pen. Just 11 of his 52 appearances in 2011 saw him enter the game when the Giants had the lead, and only two of those came after the seventh inning.
Mariners sign RP George Sherrill ($1.1M/1yr, plus incentives)
Cardinals sign RP J.C. Romero ($750,000/1yr, plus incentives)
LOOGY stands for Lefty One Out Guy, indicating a left-handed specialist primarily used to retire one key left-handed batter in a game. Over the last two seasons, Sherrill, who will be 35 in April, has averaged less than two outs per appearance, while holding lefties to a .225/.280/.311 line in 166 plate appearances. Romero, who turned 35 in June, has averaged barely more than two outs per appearance over the last four years while holding lefties to a .183/.285/.248 line in 286 plate appearances. Sherrill has proved more durable and, as a former closer, is more viable against right-handed batters. Romero is marginally better at his assigned task.
Curiously, the Cardinals passed on Romero this past season after he was released by the Phillies in June. Romero instead passed through the Nationals' and Yankees' systems before re-emerging in the majors with the Rockies, with whom he was hit hard over the season's final six weeks. Of course, it was righties who did most of the damage.