Profitable Opportunities | Rob Leibowitz
Now that the holiday season has passed, as expected, the hot stove league action has picked up again. What we have been seeing lately are a series of sensible, relatively lost cost, low-commitment moves by teams. The players below will not be challenging to acquire. There will be quite a bit of hesitation when the bidding gets too high (above $1 in some cases), names come up or they are likely to slip in a draft too. But almost all of them have something in common - they have the skill or have shown the skill in the past that could easily earn them a profit.
Starting with the hitters, the Orioles would not concede to the multi-year contract demands of Adam LaRoche, and instead opted to give Derrek Lee a simple one-year deal. This is a not an upside move and a clear stop-gap for either the farm system to produce some talent (unlikely) or to weigh in on some more attractive free agents down the road. At 35, Lee definitely showed some weaknesses last season posting his highest strikeout rate since 2003 and the lowest isolated power and HR/FB percentage of his entire career, not to mention his lowest batting average against right-handers of his career. The latter should not be too shocking, considering the decline in contact skills though. He is still a patient hitter and lower back problems likely contributed to the power loss, so there is a chance he could rebound, but one has to weigh that against his age and the tendency of back injuries to recur, especially when you consider the twisting motion that batters are required to endure. Generally speaking I think the Orioles will get a return on this low-cost investment based on what Lee was able to accomplish in 2010 despite the down-year. After all, I am talking about him like he died and yet he did earn $18 in NL only 5x5 leagues, according to Mastersball.com's numbers. I might set that as my ceiling for 2011 and I would not be surprised to see him go for less at all.
The other hitting note of recent consequence was the Rangers designation of Max Ramirez for assignment. Ramirez has been long-known as an offensively minded catcher best suited to playing DH or perhaps first base. He didn't hit particularly well during his call-up to the Rangers this season, but then again he only played in 28 games and received just 85 plate appearances. It would be interesting to see Ramirez get an opportunity to play regularly with a club that would consider overlooking his defense or could find another place to play him. He has legitimate 20+, if not 30+ home run per season power and throughout his career has been an exceedingly patient hitter. His short-comings, however, are 1) he is right-handed, 2) his strikeout rates have been erratic over his career so his ceiling, if he cannot rein the strikeouts in, could be as a wrong-side of the platoon hitter, and 3) he is now well past prospect age at 26. Over larger samples, in the minors, he has shown an ability to produce sub 25% strikeout rates, but he may not get the chance. Watch to see if anyone claims him off waivers.
Gregg should take the O's reins
Our final hitter, for this piece, is Jeremy Hermida who signed a minor league deal with the Reds on Tuesday. A failed former top prospect, Hermida will be 27 prior to opening day, has a history of getting injured, and his power has been in decline for four straight seasons. If he is healthy, the power could return, but there is no more mystery surrounding him. He is not the once promising potential 20-20 guy as the speed is gone. He has a career batting average of .232 against lefties and the way he will have to stick in the majors is as a platoon player. Cincinnati is a good place for him to reassert that power, but this is a team with multiple options that are ahead of him on the depth charts and winning a spot on the roster is far from guaranteed.
The past week has seen a decent investment in the left-handed relief specialist market with Pedro Feliciano heading across town to the Yankees, Arthur Rhodes moving to Texas, and Hideki Okajima returning to Boston. Their roles are certain, the chances for saves for any of these pitchers will be far from consistent and will likely only happen if their closer is struggling or unavailable and a tough lefty is at the plate for the final out. Feliciano draws quite a few eyes for the number of games he has pitched over the past four years as he had had a four-year rising trend going from 78 games to 92 games in 2010. His inning pitched total, however, is far less alarming with his highest total coming in 2007 at 64 innings. In other words, pretty reasonable totals. The unknown toll on his arm comes from how often he has been warming up over the course of those four seasons. That aside, he has kept his K/9 above 8.0 for each of this seasons. He will never be noted for good control, considering that he struggles to throw strikes against righties (His K/BB against righties last year was actually an atrocious 1.0).
Rhodes, 41, has had a far lighter workload and in fact has just 1154 innings pitched over an almost 20 year career. The book on him is the same it has been for some time - he gives up plenty of fly-balls and is prone to high home run rates, should not face righties, but dominates lefties completely - 26:1 K/BB ratio against lefties in 23 innings. I would not be surprised to be writing something similar about Rhodes in another five years' time and wonder if he will try to pitch until he is 50 and make a run at Jesse Orosco's record. Besides, he is still 400 games behind Orosco on the all-times games pitched list. 402 more games to go.
Okajima, 35, is not trending in the right direction. 2010 was the third straight season of strikeout rate decline and his BB/9 was the highest of his MLB career at 3.9. A .354 BABIP on top of that ruined his ERA. It was also not encouraging to see him post a lower K/9 against lefties than against righties. In actuality, although he has been mostly used as a specialist, his splits are not that of a specialist. Only his first two seasons did he have a K/9 against lefties that was substantially higher than his K/9 against righties while his BB/9 has actually been more stable against righties than lefties over his MLB career. The one area where being utilized as a left-handed specialist may be wise is his home runs allowed to right-handed hitters over the past two seasons. I would not expect to see him in the saves mix at all.
In non-LOOGY news, the Orioles were already in negotiations with him, but the recent arrest of Alfredo Simon may have increased the Orioles urgency with respect to the 2-year deal just given to Kevin Gregg. Technically Gregg will have to compete with Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez for the closer's job, but his history and his durability, especially with respect to the lack thereof in that area of his two prime competitors stands in his favor. Gregg is not a closer for the faint of hearts given his inconsistent control and only an 81% career save-conversion rate. He still has posted a K/9 around 9.0 the last two years and generally keeps the ball in the park, though 2009 he did allow a 15+% HR/FB rate. Gregg also has some interesting career splits where he has superior command against righties with a career 3.2 BB/9, but only a 6.9 K/9. Against lefties, due to his cut-fastball, he has a career 10.0 K/9 and a 4.4 BB/9. So it is easy to see how he runs into issues and how that volatility in those splits makes him a pitcher that one should never bid full value on, as his closer's role, if he even wins it, could always be in jeopardy.
The Mets, meanwhile, signed a right-handed reliever of their own in Taylor Buchholz to a one-year deal. After failing as a starting pitching prospect with the Astros, the Rockies converted him to relief and in 2008 he posted a 7.6 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 along with a 2.17 ERA (though heavily aided by .234 batting average on balls in play). Since then he has spent a lot of time on the disabled list as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. At his peak he had a good low-90s fastball/curveball combination. His very good control has yet to resurface, however, following the surgery. That will be the determining factor for how long he sticks, if at all, with the Mets.
Buchholz was not the only reclamation project the Mets signed as they also added former Brewer Chris Capuano to compete for a rotation or bullpen spot. In 66 innings last year, Capuano posted some solid numbers sporting a 7.4 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9, splitting time between the pen and middle-relief. The good BB/9 numbers are quite encouraging for a pitcher who has twice undergone the knife for Tommy John surgery, but do not get too excited just yet. First consider the fact that he has not pitched over 150 innings since 2007. If he continues to stay healthy, however, Citi Field could be a good fit for a pitcher with a history of giving up home runs at nearly 12% of the time per fly-ball allowed. Consider him as a $1 end-game option in NL only formats.
The Rangers added a reclamation project of their own, purchasing the services of Brandon Webb. Webb underwent arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder back in August of 2009 and has pitched in one game since then. At the time of the surgery the good news was that no damage to his labrum was reported and that it was felt that he should be able to recover from the injury. He did, at least, pass his physical with the Rangers in order to even sign this contract. That said, when healthy we know what Webb is capable of - strikeouts, excellent control, and dominant ground-ball rates. So it makes sense that the Rangers would pursue him considering the friendliness of their ballpark to home runs. That said, reports of Webb's velocity still have him in the 80s and that is a rather huge red flag. Watch him throughout this spring and see watch the velocity reports and bid accordingly. I almost see him as more of a potential keeper target for 2012 given the likely low-bidding than a potential help for 2011.