Sanchez Highlights a Wild Week on the Hot Stove

Anibal SanchezThe wildest day of this Hot Stove season featured the winter’s biggest contract for a position player, an affordable two-year deal for a veteran starting pitcher, and a fierce, two-team battle for an underrated starter.

A few hours after the Angels’ 11th-hour rush ended with a $125 million deal for Josh Hamilton, the buzz turned to a Cubs-Tigers tug-of-war for Anibal Sanchez. Multiple early reports had Sanchez headed to Chicago for five years and $75 million. But while Hamilton reportedly reneged on a promise to give the Rangers a chance to match any competing offer, Sanchez had no such reluctance, approaching the Tigers to see if they’d match the Cubs’ proposal and keep him in Detroit … and they did, signing the best remaining pitcher on the free-agent market to a five-year, $80 million contract.

It’s a fascinating clash of suitors, given the Cubs are in rebuilding mode and the Tigers just went to the World Series. But it makes sense in either case. Rebuilding doesn’t have to mean being dreadful, and a rotation of Matt Garza, Anibal Sanchez, Jeff Samardzija, Scott Feldman, and a healthy Scott Baker could make the Cubs at least respectable (despite a paper-thin lineup), while management waits for the team’s corps of young major leaguers and prospects to blossom. Meanwhile, Detroit’s pitching alone makes them a fine pick to repeat as AL pennant winners. The rotation of Justin Verlander, Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello (with Drew Smyly waiting in the wings) is matched only by the Nationals in dominance and depth.

That Sanchez is a very good pitcher certainly helps make both teams’ cases to sign him. Let’s go back to the comparison I made a few days ago, when the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke.

2010-2012
Pitcher A: 8.7 K/9 IP, 2.3 BB/9 IP, 0.8 HR/9 IP, .309 BABIP, 3.83 ERA, 3.16 FIP
Pitcher B: 8.1 K/9 IP, 2.8 BB/9 IP, 0.8 HR/9 IP, .308 BABIP, 3.70 ERA, 3.40 FIP

Pitcher A is Grienke. Pitcher B is Anibal Sanchez. Greinke threw more innings during that span, and a higher percentage of them in the superior-offense environment of the American League. He also has a longer track record of success and a Cy Young in 2009. But when you’ve got 500-plus innings of such comparable numbers, it’s not crazy to list them side by side. Given Greinke’s $147 million contract would just about double Sanchez’s deal assuming the current offer holds, Pitcher B starts to look like a bargain. Also makes you wonder why the Royals found it necessary to trade the best hitting prospect in baseball (and three more promising young players) to get James Shields and Wade Davis.

Sanchez isn’t a sure thing. Before 2010, he was a perpetual injury risk. The injury chain started with Tommy John surgery a decade ago. As the excellent essay by Brian Cartwright and Jeff Zimmerman in the 2013 Hardball Times Baseball Annual tells us, pitchers recover quicker and at a much higher success rate now than they did when the surgery was invented by Dr. Frank Jobe 38 years ago. But Sanchez’s injuries persisted, including the far more dreaded shoulder labrum surgery in 2008. There’s enough evidence to suggest that Sanchez is capable of staying healthy for multiple seasons at a time. But nothing’s a sure thing, and a five-year deal for any pitcher carries some risk.

Sanchez has been a four-win pitcher over the past three seasons, and turns 29 in February. The going rate for contracts on the open market is about $5.5 million per win, and figures to rise quickly with league-wide revenue exploding and salaries likely to follow. So you’re essentially asking Sanchez to average about three Wins Above Replacement over those five seasons — maybe a little less. That’s far from a sure thing. But in a market where you have to break the bank or give up premium talent for comparable track records, you make the deal every time. Whether you’re the reloading Cubs or the going-for-it-all Tigers.


A few other thoughts following a wild day of signings and fallout:

• The Hamilton signing raises about a thousand questions, starting with this one: What will the Angels’ lineup look like in 2013? Like many managers, Mike Scioscia likes to use high-batting-average hitters in the no. 2 spot, the so-called guy who can handle a bat. Over the past three seasons, no Angels hitter has handled that role more often than Howie Kendrick. But while Kendrick’s a career .292 hitter, he also rarely walks, and has only moderate power. He doesn’t even fit the mold of a high-contact hitter, having seen a surge in strikeouts as his career’s gone on, with 234 of them over the past two seasons. There’s been talk of Erick Aybar filling the two-hole next season. That’s Erick Aybar, career .278/.320/.386 hitter, with 32 homers in 2,930 career plate appearances.

Batting order doesn’t matter that much, assuming you’re not doing something insane like batting your best hitter 9th. But when you’ve got Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton on the same team, with a strong supporting cast of hitters, why leave any runs on the table. Read this terrific piece by Beyond the Boxscore’s Sky Kalkman (based on the excellent work of Tom Tango, Mitchel Litchman, and Andy Dolphin in The Book). In it, the author reminds us that lineups, at their core, are about distributing plate appearances. Estimates vary, but roughly speaking, every one-spot drop in the batting order can mean about 18 fewer times at bat over the course of the season. Moreover, each lineup spot can in fact be optimized by using players with the right skill sets. Trout’s huge on-base skills and breathtaking speed play beautifully in the leadoff spot, and a power bat makes sense at cleanup. But rather than waste precious at-bats in the two-hole on a slap hitter or someone who drops down out-wasting sacrifice bunts, why not put a real there there? Meanwhile, the notion of an All-Star hitter in the third spot is wildly overrated; even with a stud like Trout batting leadoff and a strong no. 2 hitter, the no. 3 guy’s still going to come up a fair bit with two outs and nobody on. At the very least, he’s less likely come up with men on base than the cleanup hitter.

So what would an ideal Angels order look like? At the very least, here’s a thought for the top five:

CF Trout
LF Hamilton
RF Trumbo
1B Pujols
DH Morales

… with the Aybar types toward the bottom of the order.

The Angels have a chance to trot out the best offense in baseball. It’d be great to see their manager squeeze every ounce of productivity out of this hugely talented crew.

• You’ll notice that Peter Bourjos isn’t in that lineup. The addition of Hamilton means a starting-caliber player is now ticketed for the bench. Based on last season’s playing time distribution, that’s probably Bourjos. Which would be, in a word, insane. For one thing, benching Bourjos would mean taking the glove off arguably baseball’s best defensive outfielder. And while Bourjos owns a career .301 on-base percentage, he’s also shown flashes of extra-base power. In fact, as FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron reminds us, Bourjos’s career offensive numbers are very comparable to Michael Bourn’s in terms of total value (even if the individual components of their offense differ significantly). That’s Michael Bourn, the player now deemed the most valuable asset left on the free-agent market, someone who’s reportedly asking for more than the $15 million a year B.J. Upton nabbed from the Braves.

With that in mind, you have to figure a trade is coming. Buster Olney reported that the Angels plan to keep Trumbo, despite their surplus of available outfielders. That leaves Bourjos or Morales as the most likely trade candidates (if it’s Morales who goes, Trumbo would likely DH, while Bourjos would likely play center, pushing Trout to left). We cited the Cubs, Rays, and Phillies as possible trade candidates for Bourjos. The DH-less Rays would also make sense for Morales, and Tampa Bay still has six or seven pitchers who could conceivably start on a contending team in 2013, creating a potential match with the starter-needy Angels. Let’s add the Braves to that mix. Even with the acquisition of Upton, the Braves are known to be seeking another outfielder, with the intent of moving Martin Prado from left field to third base. They, too, remain pitching-rich, even after dealing a starter, in their case Tommy Hanson to these same Angels.

If the Angels could fortify their shaky rotation with a follow-up trade, the Hamilton deal would look even stronger than it already does for the team’s 2013 pennant hopes.

• All the Plans B, C, and D that the Rangers had in mind if Hamilton were to leave will now need to come to fruition. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Rangers sign two out of four from the Bourn/Nick Swisher/Adam LaRoche/Cody Ross cohort, maybe add A.J. Pierzynski to form a platoon with Geovanny Soto. On the pitching side, one persistent rumor would see the Mets ship defending Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to Texas for some combination of young talent, with the names of Mike Olt (who doesn’t fill an obvious need and could possibly be flipped in another deal) and Leonys Martin frequently mentioned.

But if you’re looking for a dark horse in the Dickey sweepstakes — assuming the Mets don’t simply give him $30 million over the next three years and call it a day — don’t sleep on the Jays. Even after the megadeal with the burn-the-house-down Marlins, the Jays still offer some intriguing prospect depth. Moreover, the AL East suddenly looks wide open. The Yankees are aging, A-Rodless, and sticking to one-year deals for older veterans this offseason rather than aggressively pursuing elite, younger talent; the Red Sox have made several reinforcements this offseason, but still lack the star power they had when they bagged two World Series in four years; the Rays might’ve landed a potential offensive star in Wil Myers, but they still have lineup holes, and even a pitching-deep team will miss James Shields in the short term; and the Orioles have mostly sat on their hands this offseason. Even after bringing in Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes, the Jays still have the look of an 80-something-win team. Whether that’s 85 wins or 89, neither number would guarantee a playoff spot, even with the added wild card. But teams projected to win about that many games are also the most logical fits for a big move, given what a few more wins could mean. Dickey was roughly a 5-win pitcher in 2012. There’s no way you can guarantee a repeat. But anything close, especially compared to the replacement-level performances the Jays got out of multiple starters last year, could lead to playoff baseball in Toronto for the first time in 20 years.

• Speaking of the Orioles, they recently made their big move, getting a lefty-swinging fan favorite to man left field, a position where they had a big need. The lefty-swinging fan favorite, unfortunately, is Nate McLouth. That the one-year, $2 million re-up for McLouth ranks as Baltimore’s biggest offseason move to date is maddening. I’m not as ardent a believer as many that the O’s are doomed to crash and burn in 2013. Yes, the best one-run record by any team in a century suggests regression ahead. But Baltimore also stands to benefit from full seasons out of Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado, with enough youth elsewhere on the roster to portend other potential breakouts (Matt Wieters? Zach Britton?). Baseball teams are notoriously opaque when it comes to reporting TV revenue. But the MASN regional sports network, is a cash cow. According to the 2009 Kagan Report, which looked at revenue generated by RSNs, MASN generated $128 million in revenue that year, with about 85 percent of that total going to Baltimore. With the rising success of the O’s and Nats spurring improved ratings, it’s conceivable that MASN’s raking in $150 million a year or more now — again, with most of that going to the Orioles. Meanwhile, the O’s ran a modest $81.4 million payroll in 2012, just the 19th-highest figure in the majors.

Winning Hot Stove season guarantees exactly nothing, as the 2012 Angels and Marlins can tell you. It’s also still fairly early in the offseason, and the Orioles may very well have exciting plans beyond my pie-in-the-sky suggestion that they make a run at Hamilton, the best hitter out there and a perfect fit given Baltimore played McLouth and Lew Ford in left last season. It’d be nice to see something happen sometime soon, be it a trade for Dickey, a run at Swisher, or some other tangible upgrade. Every owner is perfectly entitled to rake in handsome profits. But it’d be great to see Peter Angelos loosen the purse strings, even a little. The best way to guard against regression is to improve the talent you have on the roster. Thus far, the O’s have ostensibly sat on their hands.

• Red Sox Beacon blogger Patrick Sullivan passes along the following nightmarish stat on the 2012 Red Sox: The combined Wins Above Replacement of every Red Sox pitcher who made a start last season was minus 2.6 (per Baseball-Reference). WAR isn’t quite an exact science. But roughly speaking, that means Boston’s starters were collectively worse than a group of Triple-A pitchers or veteran journeymen would have been on another team.

There are several reasons why locking up Ryan Dempster for two years at $26.5 million was a sound move — Boston’s complete pitching incompetence in 2012 can’t be understated. WEEI.com’s Alex Speier wrote that the Sox were hot after Anibal Sanchez before the race for his services turned into a battle to see who’d give out a five-year contract. But in Dempster, Boston still gets a very playable alternative. Over the past five years, Dempster ranks 18th among 116 qualified starters in innings pitched, 26th in strikeout rate (8.2 K’s per nine innings), 37th in ERA (3.74), and 39th in FIP (3.78). There’s some concern that the rigors of the AL East and pitching at Fenway Park could hurt the 35-year-old Dempster’s numbers. But we’re still talking about a durable, above-average starter, signed at a rate that implies the Sox don’t need much more than 2 Wins Above Replacement a season — i.e., league-average production, or a tick above, with plenty of innings.

As it is with the Cubs, so it is with the Red Sox: Even when you’re rebuilding or reloading, you don’t want to be terrible, for fear of alienating your fans and eating into revenue streams. Boston isn’t going to be terrible in 2013. For that, you can thank the deals for Dempster, Shane Victorino (maybe a bit of a stretch on a three-year deal, but certainly an upgrade over last season’s outfield production), and assuming the mess supposedly revolving around his medical condition resolves itself, Mike Napoli. But even if the Sox did nothing this offseason, you had to bank on some significant improvement over 2012′s 93-loss nightmare. Dustin Pedroia was hurt and ineffective for long stretches, Jacoby Ellsbury missed a lot more time and was a lot worse, and Jon Lester was often a left-handed piñata on the mound. These are three star players when everything’s going right, and there’s reason to believe all three should rebound well in 2013. There’s room for positive regression from multiple other positions, too. The Sox might not return to glory next season. But you won’t have to hide your eyes in terror either.

Filed Under: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels, MLB Hot Stove, Texas Rangers

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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