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Winter Meetings Roundup

Indians sign Kerry Wood to a 2-year contract worth $20 million, with a vesting option for a third year. Strangely enough, I like this deal mainly because the Indians don’t need Kerry Wood. Without him, their bullpen is still pretty solid – Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, Masa Kobayashi and Joe Smith are a good group. Therefore, should Wood get hurt, the Indians bullpen won’t be crippled. However, if Wood is healthy, their bullpen could be fantastic – in 2008 Wood posted a 3.26 ERA, but that was coupled with an impressive 84/18 K/BB ratio in 66 innings, good for a 2.32 FIP.  While he is certainly fragile, the Indians are only committing two guaranteed years to Wood and should be able to cover his absence well, should he get hurt. And if Wood can remain healthy, he can be the anchor of what should be an above-average Indians bullpen.

Tigers trade Matt Joyce to the Rays for Edwin Jackson. Score another one for the Tampa front office. Joyce has quietly performed at every level in his professional career, including the majors in 2008. He hit .252/.339/.492 with the Tigers, including a .268/.354/.512 line away from Comerica Park. He also displayed impressive plate discipline: he took pitches that were balls 76% of the time (league average is 68%), and he swung often at strikes. Furthermore, his BABIP was a measly .293 – lower than his career minor league BABIP, and lower than we might expect his BABIP to be in the future. Joyce is also an above-average defender in a corner outfield spot – he managed to be +5 in left field in only 409 innings this year. While Joyce may struggle against left-handed pitchers, he’s not a complete sinkhole against them, and can probably be platooned against tougher lefties. However, he should rake against righties, and play excellent defense as well.

The Tigers, meanwhile, receive a young starter with great stuff. But that’s about it. Any purported “improvement” in Edwin Jackson from 2007 to 2008 is mostly a fabrication: yes, he won more games and his ERA was lower, but he still wasn’t a very good pitcher. Jackson’s FIP in 2008 was 4.88, and his tRA* was 5.51 (which translates to a 5.11 ERA). He’s not without value – he does have very good stuff, and even if he doesn’t improve, there’s some value in a guy that can give you 180-200 innings with an ERA around 5. Furthermore, he should be helped somewhat by getting out of the AL East and by playing half of his games in Comerica Park.

Joyce is under control for a longer time than Jackson (who is already arbitration eligible), and is probably the more valuable player. The fact that the Rays have such incredible pitching depth makes this deal a huge winner for Tampa: they add a productive, young, cheap player who fills one of their few holes, and they essentially upgrade their rotation at the same time by replacing Edwin Jackson with David Price. The Tigers probably get better too, even assuming Jackson regresses next season, but this seems like a mis-use of their resources: Joyce would have been quite good as the Tigers everyday left fielder, and he perhaps could have commanded a little more than Jackson in trade.

Mets sign Francisco Rodriguez to a three year contract worth $37 million. Despite his gaudy save totals, 2008 was probably K-Rod’s worst season. He was still an above-average reliever, but he wasn’t the same dominating force that he had been in previous years. His velocity was down, his strikeouts were down, and his walks remained scary-high. Furthermore, he is probably somewhat of an injury risk. All of that being said, the Mets three year deal with him is a pretty good deal for them. They are at the point where every additional win is very important, and they have a large enough payroll that they can afford to “overpay” someone like Rodriguez. Although he’s almost certainly overrated, he’s also now the best reliever on a team that had serious bullpen issues in the past. Although he is going to be making a lot of money per season, the three year deal somewhat mitigates the performance and injury risk inherent with K-Rod. This deal might not make sense for some smaller market teams, but it’s a solid deal for the Mets.

Phillies sign Raul Ibanez to a three year contract worth $30 million. This, on the other hand, is not a very good deal. Ibanez is 35, and while he can still rake, he’s an absolutely awful outfielder. Ibanez has quietly put up excellent offensive numbers in Seattle for several years in a row, including a .293/.358/.479 line last year. However, he has ranked 33rd of all left fielders in plus/minus ratings for two consecutive years, and there’s no reason to think the 36-year-old is going to get any better in the future. His offensive numbers could improve (or at least stagnate), thanks to the switch from Safeco to Citizens Bank Park and from the AL to the NL, but at some point even his offense is going to start regressing. Pat Burrell was terrible defensively as well (he ranked 34th of all left fielders in both 2007 and 2008), but Ibanez isn’t an upgrade, and may actually be worse if his defense declines any further. While his offensive numbers may be solid, he may be worse than Burrell in that regard as well. The Phillies are likely to be disappointed, and this deal has the potential to go south awfully quickly.

Yankees sign AJ Burnett to a five year contract worth $82 million. I like this move, a lot. Burnett may be an injury risk and a head case, but I think both of those faults are somewhat overstated. Over the last four years, he has made 32, 21, 25, and 34 starts, respectively. If he duplicates those totals over the next four years, the Yankees will be happy, and Burnett will be valuable. When healthy, Burnett is very good, having posted tRA+s of 131, 122, 115 and 124 over the same four years. Essentially, Burnett is around 20-30% better than league average, and if he can pitch 180 innings per season, he will be tremendously valuable. Furthermore, the Yankees have enough pitching depth and enough money so as not to be severely hindered if Burnett does get hurt. The Yankees can handle injuries and can handle paying someone more than they’re worth – what they can’t handle is mediocre performance, and Burnett is unlikely to be mediocre.

Yankees sign CC Sabathia to a seven year contract worth $161 million. I feel about this move much the same way that I do about the Burnett move. Sure, CC is fairly likely to get hurt at some point over the next seven years, but what pitcher isn’t? Furthermore, CC has shown the ability to be incredibly durable, and incredibly effective, an incredibly rare combination. The big lefty should be quite valuable for the foreseeable future, and, like with the Burnett deal, the Yankees will be able to handle it if CC gets hurt. They just need him to be effective while he’s healthy, and he’s a very good bet to do that. This deal wouldn’t make sense for a lot of clubs, but it works for the Yanks.

Royals sign Kyle Farnsworth to a two year contract worth $9.25 million. There really isn’t much to say about this. It’s not a franchise-crippling move, but it’s further indication that the Royals front office doesn’t really have a plan. Farnsworth may essentially be a replacement for Ramon Ramirez, but why the heck do the Royals need him? He’s probably not going to be much better than a lot of freely available relievers, and it’s not like the Royals are in a position where “consistency” (especially when it’s consistently mediocre) is of additional value to them. Why waste the money? Why not bring in three freely available relievers, with the understanding that at least one is likely to be as good as Farnsy, not to mention cheaper? The Royals may be around .500 this year, but they aren’t really building effectively for the long-term.

Dodgers sign Casey Blake to a three year contract worth $17 million. This one may take the cake for Worst Deal of the Offseason (so far). Blake is going to be 36 next season, and is a very poor third baseman. He struggled when he came to the Dodgers, hitting .251/.313/.460 with them. He’s a career .264/.337/.447 hitter, and there’s no reason to think he’ll be able to avoid the decline that players typically incur after their 35th birthday. Blake’s defense is already below-average, and if his offense drops below his career line, he’s going to be hurting the team overall. And the Dodgers are now committed to him not only for the 2009 season, but also 2010 and 2011 as well.

Orioles sign Cesar Izturis to a two year contract worth $6 million. A solid move by Baltimore. Izturis embodies the idea of a “no-hit, all field” shortstop – except unlike so many others, Izturis is indeed an excellent fielder. In 2008, he ranked fourth among all major league shortstops by getting to 19 plays more than average. He’s not much of a hitter – his career line is .260/.299/.331 – but he’s a solid stopgap that will provide excellent defensive value at a relatively low cost. Furthermore, he’s not blocking any younger players from receiving playing time. Izturis probably isn’t good enough to be an everyday player on a championship caliber team, but he’s a good addition for the rebuilding Orioles.