The Sizzlin’ Stove: Dissecting Brian McCann’s Signing and a Slew of Other Recent MLB Deals
A flurry of moves over the past few days has the hot stove firing earlier than usual this offseason. With the Prince Fielder–Ian Kinsler blockbuster swap already thoroughly examined, let’s explore what these other trades and signings mean for the teams, the players, and the rest of the winter.
New York Yankees
What they’ve done: The Yankees signed catcher Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million contract with a vesting option that could take the deal to six years and $100 million.
What it means: McCann gives the Yankees’ offense a big boost. A few years ago, the Bombers fielded a lineup stuffed with power hitters and big on-base threats, the kind of attack that would wear down opposing pitchers and bash teams into submission, making up for New York’s sometimes shaky run prevention. That formula unraveled in 2013, with major injuries knocking multiple boppers out of the lineup, reducing the Yankees’ offense to no. 28 in baseball on a park-adjusted basis. Chris Stewart, the team’s primary receiver, hit an abysmal .211/.293/.272. Since 2006, McCann’s first full season, only four catchers have delivered more offensive value. Strip out Victor Martinez and Mike Napoli, who no longer catch, and McCann trails only Joe Mauer and Buster Posey; and once the 2014 season starts, Mauer won’t be catching, either.
McCann’s power numbers might actually improve now that he’s a Yankee. Check out ESPN Home Run Tracker’s Turner Field/Yankee Stadium overlay:
— Tristan H. Cockcroft (@SultanofStat) November 24, 2013
Now, check out this McCann spray chart:
With the help of Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch, McCann, a pull hitter, could see a bunch of those doubles to right and right-center — not to mention the loud outs he has hit to those parts of the ballpark — turn into home runs.
Defensively, McCann brings a generally positive skill set. Thanks to baseball analysts’ newfound ability to focus on and quantify pitch framing, we can see that McCann rated as the 12th-best catcher in the majors last year in that department. While that’s a downgrade from Stewart’s pitch-framing mastery, McCann should be a massive upgrade at blocking pitches; Stewart allowed a sky-high 12 passed balls and 32 wild pitches in 2013 while starting just 98 games behind the plate and making 108 total appearances at catcher. And while McCann brings below-average caught-stealing numbers, controlling the running game isn’t nearly as big of a deal now as it was in the ’80s, so that shouldn’t be a major issue. And, of course, pitchers are often more responsible than catchers for whether a baserunner steals.
Now, as great of a fit as McCann appears to be for the Yankees, $85 million (or $100 million) looks like a lot of money. McCann turns 30 in February. The rigors of catching are typically tougher to handle than the grind at any other position, derailing careers earlier than expected or at the very least prompting position changes; Mauer is only 10 months older than McCann, and Mauer is moving to first base in 2014 because of head injuries and other ailments. On the other hand, McCann appears young enough to remain at or near his prime for at least the next couple of years. Right now he is, jarringly, the Yankees’ youngest starting position player under team control for 2014.
Pinpointing McCann’s likely output for the next couple of years is tricky, since he’s coming off an injury-plagued campaign, which followed the worst offensive season of his career. If we were doing a 50th-percentile projection for McCann at Turner Field next year, we’d probably peg him as something close to a three-win player. McCann, a pull-conscious lefty who has cracked 20 or more homers in seven of the past eight years, could very well top that three-win mark while playing in the AL’s most favorable park for hitters with that profile. The cost of a win on the open market sits around $6 million, or maybe slightly higher. That makes $17 million per year a reasonable number for a three-win (or possibly better) player.
Sticking with the money: Many have fretted over the Yankees’ ability (or more accurately, their desire) to spend more than $189 million on payroll next season; Jayson Stark’s breakdown of the 2014 luxury tax threshold and the huge financial savings the Yankees stand to reap if they can duck under that number is the relevant read here. Per Cot’s, New York’s payroll sits at $115 million for just eight players after the McCann deal. Arbitration raises for Brett Gardner, David Robertson, Ivan Nova, and others will eat up a good chunk of the team’s available wiggle room.
On the plus side, the Yankees are growing more optimistic about their ability to re-sign highly effective no. 2 starter Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal, which would give them a solid top three of CC Sabathia, Kuroda, and Nova, with David Phelps a reasonable choice as the fourth or fifth starter. That could still leave enough money to acquire one more quality starter, re-sign Robinson Cano (assuming his price comes down as expected from the $30 million–plus he’s asking for now), and fill out the rest of the roster with viable low-cost options. If Alex Rodriguez’s 211-game suspension (or any suspension of 162 games or more) is upheld, that would give the Yankees another $26 million with which to play.
Signing McCann also gives the Yanks some options if they want to shop quality catching prospect Gary Sanchez for help at other positions. And, of course, the deal keeps McCann away from some likely playoff rivals, including the Rangers (who were definitely after him) and the Red Sox (who might’ve been after him).
All told, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better free-agent match this winter than McCann ending up in pinstripes.
St. Louis Cardinals
What they’ve done: The Cardinals traded David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk. The Cards also signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year deal worth about $52 million.
What it means: The Cardinals’ two biggest weaknesses last season were their Grand Canyon–size hole at shortstop and center fielder Jon Jay’s inability to do anything useful other than hit right-handed pitching. Two weeks before the winter meetings even start, the Cards have now gone a long way toward solving both of those problems, and they’ve done so without giving up any of their dynamic young pitching or draft picks.
In Bourjos, the Cards get one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, if not the best. Advanced metrics have Bourjos’s glove netting at least one win, and potentially close to two wins, over a full season. Not that the Cardinals can bet on Bourjos playing a full season. In 2013, Bourjos spent two lengthy stints on the disabled list with a wrist injury that ultimately required surgery. He also missed more than a month earlier in 2013 with a hamstring injury. There was another wrist injury in late 2012, another hamstring injury in 2011, and multiple wrist injuries in 2009 while he was in the minors. Perpetually bad wrists don’t bode well for Bourjos’s offense, which hasn’t been particularly great so far: He has hit just .251/.306/.398 for his career. He has shown no significant righty-lefty split, but he has displayed subpar pitch-recognition skills, giving him problems against certain pitches like the slider.
The Cardinals are getting Bourjos almost entirely for his Gold Glove–caliber defense at a premium position (and, to a lesser extent, his speed and baserunning skills), while hoping he can be respectable at the plate, with the possibility for improvement as he enters his age-27 season. Heading into his first round of arbitration and offering three years of team control, Bourjos gives the Cardinals a cheap option as either the everyday center fielder or a semi-regular who could platoon with Jay and play late-inning defense.
Meanwhile, shipping Freese to the Angels allows Matt Carpenter to move to third base and opens up second base for Kolten Wong, a series of moves that should give the Cards’ miserable defense a big lift next season.
And while the Cardinals’ offense wouldn’t seem to need much help after leading the NL by a mile in runs scored in 2013, John Mozeliak and the front office surely realized that the team’s near-historic performance with runners in scoring position wasn’t sustainable going forward, and that there was no valor in sending Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso up to the plate to die, again and again, for 162 games. Peralta offers a clear offensive upgrade over the team’s 2013 incumbents. He’s coming off one of his best seasons, hitting .303/.358/.457 in 2013, and he has posted a still solid .278/.334/.438 line over the past three seasons.
Still, it’s not hard to rattle off multiple reasons to be skeptical about Peralta, especially for that many years and that much money. Entering his age-32 season, he’s likely already past his prime. He doesn’t walk a ton, making his on-base ability largely dependent on his batting average; a flukish .374 batting average on balls in play did the trick in 2013, but Peralta was a lousy hitter a year earlier when a BABIP 99 points lower left him with a .239/.305/.384 line. Advanced metrics have liked his defense over the past few years, but he’s one of the heftier middle infielders in the league and he’s advancing toward his mid-thirties, meaning positioning and voodoo might be able to cover for his questionable range for only so long. He’s also coming off a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use, so it’s not unfair to ask how a drug-free Peralta will hit in the future, especially given how rare and valuable his double-digit-homer and 30-plus-double power is for a shortstop.
Despite all of that, it’s a move worth making because offense is becoming tougher and tougher to find in today’s game, especially up the middle; because signing Peralta instead of Stephen Drew means the Cards don’t have to give up a high draft pick; because the free-agent market is thin this year; and because St. Louis was rightly more willing to spend its abundant cash than to throw away one of its great young pitchers in an overpay of a trade.
As with the Yankees and McCann, the Cardinals are also upgrading over true replacement-level scrubs. So if Peralta is a two- or three-win player, those are two or three wins the club wouldn’t have with Kozma and Descalso at short. Things could get ugly in 2016, when Peralta is earning $13 million–plus to kick balls around as a crappy third baseman, first baseman, or left fielder nearing the end of his career. But the Cardinals will live with that downside given the upside Peralta provides in 2014, when St. Louis will be poised to make another pennant run.
Los Angeles Angels
What they’ve done: The Angels traded Bourjos and Grichuk to the Cardinals for Freese and Salas. The Angels also signed Joe Smith to a three-year, $15.75 million contract.
What it means: Most in the stat-head community want to hate the Freese-Bourjos trade for the Angels, but I’m having a hard time mustering much vitriol for it. It’s super fun to line up two players by Wins Above Replacement, pick a winner, and then mock the team that seemingly got the lesser WARrior. Bourjos might be a defensive whiz who’s cheaper than Freese and offers one more year of team control, but the Angels were overloaded with young outfielders and had bubkes at third base. That reality, combined with a barren free-agent market and the predictable massive demands if the Angels attempted to acquire a true premium third baseman (assuming one would even be available, which is doubtful) make this deal defensible for the Halos.
What’s really puzzling is the way Freese critics are cherry-picking stats and factors. Yes, Freese is injury prone, but no more so than Bourjos. Freese turned in a .262/.340/.381 effort in 2013; that was considered a big disappointment, but it was 6 percent better than league-average on a park-adjusted bias. Unlike Bourjos’s, Freese’s advanced defensive numbers are all over the place, going from better than average in 2012 to nightmarish in 2013. Freese’s glove doesn’t look nearly as bad when looking at a three-year sample, which we should try to do as much as possible with these metrics. Bourjos might well be a good buy-low player after an injury-riddled season, but Freese is just one year removed from a four-win season, and he’s still just 30 years old. He could rebound nicely given the powers of regression to the mean. It’s not unreasonable to say the Cardinals did well in this trade given all factors involved, while also acknowledging that the Angels addressed a need.
Of course, pitching remains the Angels’ biggest problem. They finished 24th in ERA (4.24) and 23rd in FIP (4.08) last season. By signing Smith and acquiring Salas, the Angels have at least begun repairing a leaky bullpen. While Salas likely projects as a sixth or seventh man out of the pen, Smith has real value. Sidearm pitchers tend to be murder on same-handed hitters while getting murdered by opposite-handed hitters, and that’s just what happened to Smith in the first four years of his career: Right-handed hitters managed a weak .616 OPS against him, while lefties creamed him at a .933 clip.
In the three years since, Smith’s splits have been basically dead even: .591 OPS allowed against righties, .581 vs. lefties. One of the biggest reasons for that shift has been a change in pitch mix. At the start of his career, Smith was exclusively a sinker-slider guy, which, if you remember our treatise on our good friend Francisco Liriano, you’ll know are two pitches that tend to generate big platoon splits. More recently, Smith has started throwing a four-seam fastball that has become a neutralizing pitch against lefties. Smith’s strikeout rate of about 20 percent isn’t particularly impressive for a short reliever, but he figures to carry on his usual 50 percent–ish ground ball rate, which limits hitters’ ability to smack him around with extra-base hits.
The track record for setup men getting multiyear contracts is grim, and the inherent volatility of relief pitcher results means there’s an excellent chance this deal will look silly in at least one of the next three seasons. But when mega-revenue teams like the Angels have a glaring problem, they tend to throw money at it. Such is Mango. In the meantime, expect the Halos to aggressively pursue starting pitching help. With Jason Vargas now out of an already thin rotation, they have to.
Speaking of Vargas:
Kansas City Royals
What they’ve done: The Royals signed Vargas to a four-year, $32 million contract.
What it means: Signing a pitcher like Vargas to a multiyear deal isn’t the kind of move that is going to transform a team; it’s the kind of move a general manager makes when he thinks his ballclub is close to a breakthrough season. That certainly describes Dayton Moore’s attitude in Kansas City. Even before the start of last season, Moore was adamant that the Royals needed to consolidate the talents of their young core into winning baseball. After an 86-win season in which K.C. stayed in the race until late September, there’s no reason to pull back now.
Vargas is a durable option at the back of the rotation, someone who’s a pretty good bet to make 30-plus starts with something close to league-average results. He did spend time on the disabled list in 2013, but averaged 203⅔ innings pitched over the previous three seasons. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy with one of the best changeups in the game: Only Cole Hamels, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Felix Hernandez generated more value from their changeups last season. Think about the stiffs (Roberto Hernandez, Jake Westbrook, et al.) that even some playoff teams carried at the backs of their rotations, and it becomes easy to justify paying $8 million a year for a playable innings-eater like Vargas.
Now, that doesn’t make this a great deal. For one thing, four years is a long commitment to a pitcher with Vargas’s decent but hardly dominant skills. (Dan Haren’s reported one-year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers makes Vargas’s four-year tally look even worse.) Moreover, since a cheapskate billionaire owner controls the Royals’ purse strings, that $8 million per year, while a reasonable price based on current market rates, might eat up a big chunk of Kansas City’s offseason budget. That’s a problem, because while Vargas profiles as a no. 4 or no. 5 starter on a championship-quality team, the Royals might need him to be their no. 2; they’re likely to lose Ervin Santana to free agency, leaving James Shields and not much else in the starting five.
As with many deals this early in the winter, we’ll need to see what the team does next before we can fully evaluate this move.
Tampa Bay Rays
What they’ve done: The Rays re-signed Jose Molina to a two-year, $4.5 million contract.
What it means: Leave it to the Rays to sign a portly catcher who can’t hit and who’s entering his age-39 season to a multiyear deal. And for the deal to actually make sense.
As big and old as Molina is, the Rays aren’t paying him to hit, run, or even be all that good at blocking pitches. They made this move for two reasons.
1. Molina might be the best pitch-receiver in the game. Check out this super-slow-motion highlight of Molina framing a pitch off the plate for a strike:
We linked to Ben Lindbergh’s work on pitch framing earlier, but you should also check out Mike Fast’s excellent research on the subject. Based on the metrics we have at our disposal, there’s evidence to suggest that a master pitch-framer could be worth as much as three wins to his team over a season thanks to that skill alone. Molina’s in no condition to catch anywhere near 162 games, but even catching just the 22nd-most innings in the majors in 2013, he produced more pitch-framing value than all but three other catchers, the equivalent of about two wins.
2. It’s tougher to measure, but there’s at least strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that Molina is a superior game-caller who does an excellent job handling a pitching staff. The Rays do a ton of advanced scouting on every opponent, and they’ll rely heavily on Molina to carry out the game plan that their analytically oriented front office and manager want. One project I’d love to pursue is charting pitcher results after mound visits by a catcher. While I can’t watch every pitch of every game, those within the organization swear by Molina’s ability to calm a pitcher down and get him to throw the right pitch in the right spot when he’s in a jam.
Molina has too many holes in his game to be out there even 125 times per year. But in a time-share, for the price of a veteran backup infielder, when Carlos Ruiz is pulling down $26 million in Philly, the Rays’ offseason budget is tiny, and no other catcher short of Molina’s younger brother is likely to squeeze more value out of a pitching staff … why the hell not?