Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Baltimore Orioles

You think you’re safe to take a week vacation in the middle of November because what happens in the middle of November? Only a humongous swap of two very good players and a slew of free agent signings. There is no off season, this much is true.

Landing Brian McCann

The biggest signing of the weekend was, of course, the Yankees netting Brian McCann for five years and $85 million. The Yankees are not finished shopping but inking the former Braves backstop gets their offseason off to a rousing start.

Like the Jhonny Peralta signing discussed below, bringing in McCann does more than add a few WAR to the Yankees ledger. It addresses an enormous black hole in their lineup, replacing a string of replacement level catching scrubs with near-star behind the plate. A veteran player who figures to blend in nicely with the Yankees brand of ruthless professionalism.

The yearly values are very high and perhaps the number of miles on McCann’s odometer is worrisome, but with potential landing spots at first base and designated hitter (which McCann says welcomes) gives the Bronx Bombers options as his time spent behind the plate dwindles.

The Yankees opted not to wait around and see how the market developed, instead plunging headlong into acquiring the one player they targeted from the start. They have the money and they address their most dire need. Better yet, they can still sign other free agents having already forsaken their first round pick.

Hard to dislike this deal, in all honesty. Brian McCann’s reputation took a bit of a beating among fans this year but there is a good chance his exploits actually endeared him to potential future employers, especially those as steeped in the game’s lore and traditions as the Yanks. Too good to be true? Here’s hoping!

Misreading Speedy Petey

The Cardinals and Angels engineered a logical swap, as Los Angeles sent defensive wunderkind outfielder Peter Bourjos to St. Louis in exchange for third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas. The Angels also tossed in a middling prospect in Randal Grichuk, aka the Guy Picked In Front of Mike Trout.

Perhaps logical isn’t the best word to use in this instance. Maybe “inevitable” fits better. David Freese was all but assuredly on his way out of St. Louis, as the 30-year old third baseman nears free agency with better internal options pushing him out the door. It seemed for a while that the Yankees would be a great landing spot for Freese but once the Angels were implicated it was all but inevitable. The Angels have their own rangy center fielder to plug in (you may have heard of him) and the emergence of Kole Calhoun (and/or J.B. Shuck) takes away a fourth outfielder spot for the fleet-footed Bourjos.

The trade looks great for the Cardinals, who dump an expensive player closer to his decline phase and address multiple roster shortcomings (speed and defense) in the process. The Angels deal from a position of strength to address a weakness of their own, though they didn’t do so in a very convincing manner.

In the world of professional basketball, there is a role known as “three and D”, used to describe a wing player who is a lockdown defender and can also shoot three-pointers at a reasonable rate. Rarely can a player with only one of the two specific skills get by in the league, but being able to do both keeps many guys employed.

There are few examples of a players who are almost exclusively defenders in baseball, mostly shortstops and catchers. Beyond those two highly-specified roles, a player must do more than just catch the ball to earn their keep. Many glove-first players in baseball today also have another skill in demand, such as home run power. Think of Carlos Gomez (before his 2013 breakout), J.J. Hardy, Alexis Ramirez or even Billy Hamilton – they can play defense and bring one other skill to the table.

In the retelling of the Peter Bourjos/David Freese trade, Bourjos is presented as a roughly league-average hitter and one of the finest outfielders in the business. It is true, Bourjos can really go get it (though small sample defensive metrics turned on him in 2013) but his offense still seems like a question mark. Other than his 2011 “break out” season, Bourjos has played in only fits and starts due to injury. Without repeated exposure to big league pitching for months at a time, it feels a little presumptuous to assume he can continue producing close to league average.

For all his speed, Bourjos doesn’t really steal bases, which would be nice for a player slotted into the comfortable 8th spot in an NL lineup. The quality of his base running is not in doubt but how often will he flex that muscle when the pitcher hits behind him? Bourjos hit just six home runs over 400-odd PAs spread over the last two years thanks to a variety of injuries. Let’s slow down on declaring this a slam dunk for the Cardinals for the time being (while acknowledging improving their outfield defense was a priority they can click off the 2013 Winter Checklist.)

Rather than snapping up Bourjos, would the praise chorus sound differently had St. Louis acquired Craig Gentry from the Rangers instead? An older player (with identical service time, heading into arbitration for the first time with an expected reward very close to Bourjos) who is, in fact, a fine base stealer. A player without any power to speak of but a better demonstrated ability to get on base, Gentry might not demand the same price tag (Freese) for nearly the same production.

Except trades don’t work like that. The Angels and Cardinals came together because of two specific needs and two specific assets. The Cardinals infield won’t miss a beat and their outfield has a better outfield if you believe all the good things about Peter Bourjos while ignoring the bad (or potential bad). The Angels roll the dice with a player who might not be as bad as his most recent season suggests, filling a demanding hole when the free agent market offered few palatable alternatives.

Misreading the Market

Everything about Jhonny Peralta is surprising. That the Cardinals gave him four years and $52MM to a player coming off a 50-game suspension is surprising, if you buy into the Right Way trailer that somebody hitched to the Cards years ago. That Jhonny Peralta deserves a four-year deal worth that lofty pricetag is surprising, until you consider the alternatives.

There simply are not many viable shortstops in the game today – not without paying an prospect arm and leg in trade. While $13MM per season for Peralta seems like a lot, it seems like a reasonable risk for the Cardinals. Like the Yankees, they won a whole boatload of games in 2013 with a gaping hole in their lineup. Like the Yankees, the Cardinals have the financial heft to fill the whole by spending money. The Cardinals have so many below-cost options lining their lineup (and rotation, and bullpen) that overpaying to address a highly specific need is not a bad idea in the least.

There is a very real chance, however, that Jhonny Peralta sucks and this deal will look dreadful after the first of four seasons is over. Peralta grades out reasonably well as a defensive shortstop and is all over the map in terms of offensive production. True, two of his last three seasons were very good, posting a .356 wOBA in 2011 and 2013. But above-average seasons is also all Peralta can claim out his last five campaigns.

It might be found money for the Cardinals but there is obviously risk in this deal no matter what. Not many shortstops signed four-year deals as free agents over the last decade or so. Jose Reyes is one, Alex Rodriguez is another if you’re willing to go all the way back. The other? Julio Lugo, signed by the Red Sox after the 2006 season. The BoSox won the World Series the following year with Lugo as their starting SS, though he was barely above replacement level as a full-time shortstop that season.

Like Peralta, Lugo hit free agency after his age 31 season. While their production comes in different forms, they were fairly similar in their output in the four seasons leading up to hitting the market.

The Cardinals will gladly exchange a World Series title for two rough years at the back of this contract with Peralta. If it wasn’t them giving him four years, it was going to be somebody else. This is the greatest challenge of the free agency market for fans scoring from home. Sure, it looks like an overpay. But the willingness of other teams to match (or even exceed) the terms suggest it is quite the opposite.

You simply don’t see many shortstops hit the free agency market with much left in the tank. Rather than wait around to see what became of Stephen Drew and his potential suitors, the Cardinals moved on Peralta and can only be ecstatic with the upgrade over their previous assortment of underwhelming options.

Missing the Point

In the aftermath of Jhonny Peralta’s windfall of riches, one current Major Leaguer took to twitter to voice his outrage over Peralta’s payday coming so soon after serving a suspension for PEDs.

This mini-rant started some interesting discussion as the current crop of players’ culpability in the relative light touch for PED cheats. It comes back to something I observed a recent sports management conference held at a Toronto hotel. The scourge of Athlete Error hung over many of the discussions held by management types, lawyers, and one-note marketers all clinging like barnacles to the mighty hull of the Pro Sports supertanker.

One message was delivered time and time again – guard against the idiot athletes from screwing up your brand. One notorious pro sports lawyer — and the son of a certain former owner — made it painfully clear that performance enhancing drugs are a burden for management, forever cowering in fear of the next moment an athlete steps out of line and ruins their perfectly curated image.

Except that isn’t true at all. This drug use often takes place in permissive environments or where management turns a blind eye as they reap the (assumed) benefits. Ted Berg of USA Today suggests laying punishments at the feet of ownership in addition to penalizing the players. Might that expedite cleaning up the game? Seems likely to me. A great, if completely inconceivable, idea.

Until the day comes when someone ends up watching the detectives, the players will fight among themselves. Countless players cited a “level playing field” when asked about the downturn in offense over the last few years. It’s a concern. Infighting is of little concern to owners until it starts costing them money. Business as usual until then.

Left and Leaving(s)

  • Dan Haren became the latest great bargain, believing to have taken less money to sign with the Dodgers. If health was all that stood between good Haren (at the end of the year) and bad Haren (the first half and most of 2012) then it IS a great signing. But this is a man who failed to obtain a multi-year deal two offseasons in a row. He can be great, one of the best pitchers in baseball over the better part of a decade. But the red flags attached to his medicals should cause us to slow down when praising this is a the best deal of the winter.
  • Cleveland signs David Murphy to a two-year deal. David Murphy went from underrated to overrated pretty much overnight, as he went from “good” to “bad” just as quickly. Provided 2013 is not an accurate reflection of Murphy’s current skills, he can help them compete in the AL Central.
  • Metal detectors at ballparks? You know who this helps? Not a single person, other than the contractors providing the wands and services at the gates. Security theatre at its worst.
  • The Mets signed Chris Young to a one-year deal. Count Young as another player I’d rather have than Peter Bourjos. Three and D!