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Live! From Baseball’s Winter Meetings

Jimmy Rollins

Grantland’s Jonah Keri is spending the week in Dallas reporting on baseball’s Winter Meetings and e-mailing us updates throughout the week.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Thurs, Dec 8, 2011 at 9:29 AM
Subject: Home Stretch

With the Rule 5 draft and a few hours of free agent and trade negotiations all that remain in the Winter Meetings, here’s the latest:

• Jimmy Rollins is reportedly close to re-signing with the Phillies. Assuming the Phils don’t turn around and do something dumb like trade Cole Hamels for prospects, then trade prospects for Gio Gonzalez (another lefty starter who’s also nowhere near Hamels’ level), Philly will have gone through the off-season with few changes beyond letting Roy Oswalt walk and signing Jonathan Papelbon. Even in an improved NL East, this is still a loaded team that should be considered the favorites to repeat as division champs.

• The Marlins may well be the biggest challengers to the Phillies’ crown, especially if they can follow their signing of Mark Buehrle (and Jose Reyes, and Heath Bell), by locking up lefty starter C.J. Wilson. Reports have the Marlins and Angels as the two most likely destinations for the potentially-soon-to-be-former Ranger, with a decision expected soon. (Though Ken Rosenthal’s latest report says Wilson is leaning toward playing for his hometown team in Orange County.) It’d be interesting to see Wilson go from the Rangers to the Angels a year after Mike Napoli went from the Angels to the Rangers and put up such a huge season that his exodus alone may have swung the balance of power in the AL West.

S• peaking of the Angels, they’ve reportedly offered Albert Pujols a 10-year, $210 million contract. That’s $10 million less than the Cardinals’ offer and possibly less than what the Marlins put forth too. Still, having another bidder in the mix could give Pujols the leverage for one final negotiating push, even if he does ultimately return to St. Louis.

• Speaking of the Rangers, Japanese league starter Yu Darvish is expected to be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters, possibly as soon as today. The Rangers are said to have the most interest in the right-hander, who could be a perfect fit if Wilson does indeed leave. The Red Sox, who also need starting pitching help and haven’t spent much money this offseason, could also be a logical destination. Between posting fee and Darvish’s eventual contract, it could cost nine figures to sign the half-Japanese, half-Iranian sensation.

• The Astros sought someone with a strong scouting and player development background as they searched for a new GM. They got their man by nabbing Cardinals VP of scouting and player development Jeff Luhnow. The first couple years on the job won’t be pretty, with the Astros waiting for a handful of big contracts to expire (or for other teams to scoop them up). But by 2014, the Astros will have few major major-league payroll commitment, their slowly-but-surely-improving farm system will have two more years of likely top five picks in the bank, and the team can start ramping up toward contending. As with any new general manager situation, everything rides with the owner: Give the new guy time to execute his plan, and you could reap the benefits. Meddle or get antsy, and you might have to start all over again in a few years.

• Baseball teams must offer arbitration to their pending free agents to set themselves up to reap compensation picks. The risk is that a player who stands to make more than you want to pay him will accept arbitration. But teams will often reach handshake agreement with these players, to ensure they’re not left holding a payroll grenade. Apparently K-Rod didn’t get the memo, because he just accepted arbitration from the Brewers, and now stands to make $13 million as a set-up man in 2012. It’s not as ugly as the three-year, $35 million deal the Yankees willingly and knowingly gifted to Rafael Soriano. But it’s still pretty damn bad. Especially for a team that might be about to lose Prince Fielder, and might be a year away from losing Zack Greinke too.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Wed, Dec 7, 2011 at 5:28 PM
Subject: Buehrle to the Marlins, Pujols … not?

Multiple teams had discussed three-year contracts for Mark Buehrle, the thought being that a fourth year would seal the deal. The Winter Meetings’ big deal-sealers, the Marlins, just made that happen, inking the former White Sox lefty for four years, $58 million.

A four-year deal for any starting pitcher can be risky, even more for a 32-year-old. But Buehrle might be the most consistent pitcher in the game: 11 straight seasons of 200 or more innings, five straight years of 3.4 to 4.6 WAR, 1.9 to 2.1 walks per 9 innings in the past six years. Never one to rely on big velocity or strikeout rates (4.3 to 5.8 K’s per 9 innings over the past six years), Buehrle could succeed with command and durability into his late 30s and no one would be surprised. He leaves the American League for the lower-offense NL, in a new Marlins ballpark likely to be friendlier to pitchers than homer-happy U.S. Cellular Field. For a Marlins team that needed reliable bulk innings, Buehrle’s a great fit, his status as the staff’s only lefty a nice added bonus.

With the news earlier today that the Cardinals upped their offer to $220 million for Albert Pujols, and rumors suggesting the Fish wouldn’t sign both Pujols and a premium starter, a return engagement to St. Louis now seems likely for The Machine. That would make the pitching-loaded Cardinals the favorites to win the NL Central.

As for the Marlins, even without Pujols, a lineup headed by Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton, and Logan Morrison should be solidly above average, the rotation could be strong if Josh Johnson can make 30 starts (Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco combined for 7.3 WAR last season), and Heath Bell being overpaid will have no bearing on his ability to help the bullpen. If Jeffrey Loria and company fly home with no other moves, they’ve still done what they set out to do: assemble a team good enough to make a playoff run as they open their new ballpark.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Wed, Dec 7, 2011 at 12:32 PM
Subject: Jose Reyes Dog and Pony Show

Walked out of the media workroom to get an overpriced yogurt parfait and ran into Jose Reyes and his entourage. Clooney, Pitt, and Obama combined don’t have that many people walking behind them.

As for the introductory press conference, Reyes reframed a question about his Swiss cheese hamstrings, noting that he plays the game hard. He had no comment about the preposterously enormous “M” on his cap.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Wed, Dec 7, 2011 at 11:19 AM
Subject: This is why you don’t break the bank for a closer

Sergio Santos (13.1 strikeouts per 9 innings in 2011) for a soft-tossing, potential no. 3 starter in Double-A. Frank Francisco (9.9 strikeouts per 9 innings for his career) for two years, $12 million. And now the latest closer snag, Huston Street (3.09 career FIP) to the Padres for a player to be named later. As anyone with half a brain could have predicted, an abundance of good relief pitchers has created a market for bargain deals, and smart teams are now taking advantage.

You can’t quite draw a straight line from the Phillies’ signing Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract to now struggling to find cash to land a quality shortstop or give Cole Hamels a contract extension. Ditto for the Marlins, now potential underdogs for Albert Pujols with the Cardinals tendering a $220 million offer that the Fish might not beat. A smaller three-year or four-year contract can’t be easily calibrated against a five- or six- or 10-year deal for a lot more money.

But you can’t pretend one doesn’t have some impact on the other, either. Everything being equal, Papelbon and Heath Bell certainly make the Phils and Marlins better in 2012 than those teams would have been without them. But year after year we see teams failing to grasp the concept of opportunity cost, and this year has been no exception. Relief pitchers are wildly unpredictable, with a minor injury, a small drop in velocity or plain old bad luck capable of turning a once-dominant pitcher into an albatross. These are the dangers you face when paying a 60-inning pitcher the way you would a 200-inning starter or a good everyday player.

With the two big overpays out of the way, the Jays, Mets, and Padres swooped in and got pitchers who could be nearly as good, maybe even better than Papelbon or Bell, for a lot less. The shame here is that two teams that almost surely won’t make the playoffs, and another that’s a long shot, were the ones who reaped the rewards. Teams with more money to spend and a better shot at the playoffs would do well to follow their lead in the future.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Wed, Dec 7, 2011 at 10:29 AM
Subject: MLB’s Got Codes in Different Area Codes

Major League Baseball has ruled that I can’t wear a miniskirt to interview Justin Upton in Phoenix, or a midriff-baring tank top to discuss pitch sequencing with Dave Eiland in Kansas City. A nation mourns.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Wed, Dec 7, 2011 at 10:13 AM
Subject: Albert Pujols and the Collector

The Cardinals have upped their offer on Albert Pujols to $220 million. Your move, Marlins.

If the Fish want to consider a rational model for valuing players, baseball researcher deluxe Tom Tango’s model values Pujols as a six-win player in 2012 by Wins Above Replacement, assuming a 10-year, $220 million contract. The model assumes the cost of each win on the open market to cost $5 million, with that cost going up 5 percent a year and a 31-year-old player’s value dropping by 5 percent a year. In simpler terms, Pujols would need to be worth $30 million in Year 1 of the deal, then remain a significant bargain over his $24.4 million salary for a few more years before becoming a significant overpay as he enters his late 30s and into his 40s.

Is this a realistic goal? The trends should worry you a bit. According to FanGraphs, Pujols has gone from being worth 9.1 wins in 2008 to 9 in 2009, 7.5 in 2010, and 5.1 in 2011. Of course, trends aren’t ironclad, and baseball players are not predictable, stat-generating robots. Pujols suffered from nagging injuries last season, missed 15 games, and got a bit unlucky with a .277 batting average on balls in play (career .311); he may well bounce back impressively in 2012.

These are all mathematical considerations, though. Other than exploiting baseball’s compensation pick system by signing multiple big-ticket free agents and thus surrendering a mere fourth-round pick for Pujols if he signs, the Marlins don’t seem to be bidding with age curves and marginal win models in mind. Jeffrey Loria is a collector. He once signed a young Vladimir Guerrero to a contract extension even though the Expos were broke, because he understood what a masterpiece looks like. Such is the case with Pujols, the successor to Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez as best player in the game, and still among the game’s superelite. Loria swung a deal for a grand, new stadium, he’s one player away from completing the LeBron-Wade-Bosh trifecta that many media members think applies to Pujols-Reyes-Bell (I don’t buy it, but whatever), and that player could end his career as one of the 10 best hitters ever to play the game.

It’s a strange thing to see a baseball owner who’d run such low payrolls year after year that the league had to cajole him into spending more now and then turn around and act as if money is no object. But that might be where we are. It’s not about money being an object. It’s about Albert Pujols, objet d’art.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Tues, Dec 6, 2011 at 6:21 PM
Subject: The Waiting Game

The Jays nabbed a new closer, the Rockies chipped away at their pitching needs, and multiple teams intensified trade talks. But the frenzy over Albert Pujols had cooled by nightfall here in Dallas, with the Marlins and Cardinals the only realistic suitors left.

A Pujols signing could set off a chain reaction affecting multiple teams. If he lands in Miami, the Marlins will trade a bat for a starter, while trying to build out the rest of a roster that’ll look like your basic Stars and Scrubs roto team. The Cardinals would suddenly have a ton of disposable income on their hands if Pujols bolts; Mark Buehrle rumors don’t make much sense, though, given the Cardinals’ starting pitching depth and the lineup holes that would need filling if Pujols and Furcal don’t return (though Allen Craig could also jump in the lineup). The market for Prince Fielder could become clearer, as would the trade market, with Gaby Sanchez becoming a possibility for the Cubs and Rays.

If Pujols returns to St. Louis, the Marlins might use the taxpayer money they’ve pocketed to sign Buehrle or C.J. Wilson, addressing the team’s biggest need. The Cards are shopping Kyle Lohse to clear payroll room with Pujols’ asking price spiking, so Lohse could become a decent mid-rotation option for a pitching-needy club. If Buehrle or Wilson goes to Miami, that might ignite the trade market for John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Gio Gonzalez, and the eight major league-ready starting pitchers on the Rays’ roster.

One player, a thousand scenarios. Any time now, Albert. Any time.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Tues, Dec 6, 2011 at 2:36 PM
Subject: The Crush

Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins contingent just emerged from a closed-door meeting, only to be followed by a horde of agitated parties shouting questions. Which means either Albert Pujols Hysteria has reached its zenith, or the jilted Expos fan diaspora has gathered for one final, apocalyptic showdown.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Tues, Dec 6, 2011 at 1:05 PM
Subject: Jays Get Better

Everyone’s favorite 2012 sleeper just got a little better today, with news that the Jays acquired closer Sergio Santos from the White Sox for right-handed pitching prospect Nestor Molina.

A former shortstop, Santos has parlayed his live arm into a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a newfound status as one of the best relievers in baseball. In his second big-league season with the ChiSox, Santos fanned 13.1 batters per 9 innings, posting an excellent 2.87 FIP. He’ll make a very affordable $8.25 million over the next three years (plus three club options) and give the Jays a very good, tier-two short reliever. GM Alex Anthopoulos should continue to chase a big bat for first base, a second-base upgrade, and starting pitching help while an impressive group of prospects move closer to potential 2013 rotation slots. But he’s filled one hole with a very good, very cheap player here.

As for the White Sox, Kenny Williams shows once again that he’s not afraid to make a deal, and also reinforces the belief that the team is rebuilding. If Molina can build on his Nintendo-like 148/16 strikeout-to-walk rate from last season in high-A and Double-A (in 130 innings), that rebuilding process could start to look a lot more promising. Still, it’s a bit curious to see Santos as the first player dealt by the White Sox rather than veterans like John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Carlos Quentin, with just a single pitcher coming back in return.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Tues, Dec 6, 2011 at 12:23 PM
Subject: On The Rox

A 73-win team just made a move everyone hates, and might soon make another. Color me intrigued.

The Rockies reached a deal with the Twins today, acquiring right-handed starter Kevin Slowey from the Twins for a player to be named later. If you did nothing other than eyeball Slowey’s strikeout-to-walk rate — often a great indicator of a pitcher’s value, or hidden value — you’d think Colorado was getting a steal. Here’s a list of the top strikeout-to-walk rates for all starting pitchers in the past 20 years (minimum 500 innings pitched):

Curt Schilling 4.73
Kevin Slowey 4.70
Bret Saberhagen 4.49
Pedro Martinez 4.30
Greg Maddux 4.29

That’s two future first-ballot Hall of Famers, another with a strong chance to get in, and one of the best starting pitchers never to make the Hall. And Kevin Freaking Slowey.

So what gives? Well, Slowey’s a right-handed starting pitcher with an average fastball around 89 mph. He needs to spot his soft stuff perfectly for 100 pitches every fifth day, or risk getting crushed. He also owns the third-highest fly ball rate of any starting pitcher in the past three years. The result: Hordes of giddy fans in the bleachers, waiting for the next souvenir from above. Check out that list of top strikeout-to-walk pitchers again with home run rate and FIP-compared-to-league-average added, and you can see how far behind Slowey is.

And now he’s going to Coors Field. Yikes.

Ah, but here’s a theory going around the lobby among the statsy crowd here in Dallas: When you’re a pitcher like Kevin Slowey with killer command but so-so stuff, you’re going to throw X number of meatballs no matter what, and those meatballs will sail out of any ballpark. Give him 30 starts in Denver and maybe he gives up 40 solo homers. But if he also walks 30, that’s a lot of solo homers waiting to happen, and maybe a bunch of 7-5 Rockies wins.

It’s a kooky theory, one that would be further tested if the Rockies also trade closer Huston Street for talented but homer-prone Reds righty Edinson Volquez. With two stars in the middle of the lineup, an emerging ace in Jhoulys Chacin, perpetually weak NL West competition around them, and a recent track record for playoff runs no one expects, ya never know.

Just bring your glove.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Tues, Dec 6, 2011 at 9:22 AM
Subject: Pujols Panic

A 10-year contract. That’s the offer the Marlins reportedly presented to Albert Pujols.

Let that sink in.

Has the idea of Pujols possibly playing in this uniform sunk in yet?

If you’re a Cardinals fan, has your stomach sunk?

Some quick thoughts with the lobby still mostly empty here in Dallas …

• The Marlins, a team that has vowed to grow its payroll to $100 million this year (from $57 million), would owe $90 million for six players, if Pujols is indeed paid $25 million a year starting in 2012. Could GM Michael Hill follow the Marlins tradition of doing more with less, and fill 19 other roster spots with quality players, with an average salary just above league minimum?

• A lineup with Pujols, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton, and Logan Morrison would rake. But would the Marlins have enough pitching to hang with the loaded Phillies and talented Braves? Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco are very viable mid-rotation starters, but staff ace Josh Johnson made all of nine starts last year, and their depth is nonexistent. If Pujols were to sign in Miami, incumbent first baseman Gaby Sanchez is a goner. He’s a league-average player at the position who comes cheap, so that has value to several teams. But you’re still likely getting a no. 4 starter (at best) for him.

• And the biggest question … can (and will) the Cardinals match? Their high offer to date was reportedly nine years, $198 million. There have been whispers of post-career considerations, including possible equity in the team, plus all the Musial-esque pageantry and statue building you’d expect. But would the Cardinals stop short of handing out another A-Rod-in-Texas deal for an older, inferior player, with no stock market bubble to backstop the spending?

Lots more questions, many of them cynical, come to mind. But let’s see how this plays out first. The Winter Meetings just got a helluva jolt, though, whatever happens from here.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Tues, Dec 6, 2011 at 2:01 AM
Subject: Clarity

No major signings on Day 1 of the Winter Meetings, but we did gain some clarity.

The Brewers are likely out on Prince Fielder, according to Buster Olney. This could be a bluff, which might enable the Brewers to swoop in if Fielder’s price drops significantly due to a lack of bidders. Then again, freeing up that kind of spending power could allow Milwaukee to pursue Jimmy Rollins, among others.

The buzz going around that Mark Buehrle has garnered more interest than C.J. Wilson makes sense, given reports that C.J. Wilson has a six-year offer on the table, while Buehrle has multiple three-year offers out there for about $12-$13 million a year, but not a single four-year deal, per Ken Rosenthal. Look at Buehrle’s career line: 11 straight seasons of 200 or more innings, with pinpoint control each and every season. Yes, he’s 32 years old, and you generally don’t want to invest huge sums and many years on a thirtysomething pitcher. But other than a minor pullback in his strikeout rate (never a key part of his game), there’s absolutely nothing in Buehrle’s track record to suggest he’ll lose it anytime soon. With a relief pitcher like Jonathan Papelbon fetching $50 million and a one-dimensional slugger like Fielder potentially raking in $200 million, $39 million for Buehrle would be grand larceny.

Buehrle isn’t the only one, either. Hiroki Kuroda, who’s made 63 starts and posted an excellent 3.54 FIP over the past two seasons, is reportedly seeking just a one-year deal. Chris Capuano made 31 starts with a strikeout-to-walk rate better than 3-to-1 in 2011, and he got just $10 million over two years. Chris Volstad’s xFIP (which strips out aberrant home-run-per-fly-ball rates as well as batted ball luck and park factors) was a tidy 3.64 last season … and he’s a non-tender candidate. We always hear about the scarcity of good pitching, but you can build a pretty darn effective rotation for the baseball equivalent of pennies this offseason.

Oh, and one last bit of clarity: The Rays still have their general manager, as Andrew Friedman has decided to stay in Tampa Bay. So with all the deals being discussed, the Astros will go to day two of the Winter Meetings … with no GM.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Mon, Dec 5, 2011 at 5:27 PM
Subject: The Scene

While we wait for the next round of trade and signing buzz to kick in, a few words about the scene here at the Winter Meetings …

The most common sight here are 21-year-old dudes looking terribly uncomfortable in suits. The meetings double as the baseball industry’s annual convention, which means this is also a giant job fair. Kids are vying for jobs, even if it means becoming the assistant popcorn vendor for Lake Elsinore. All of those young men, along with various people manning booths, and other parties buying or selling services, gather in the main lobby, a large atrium fully decked out for the holidays. This level also includes various radio and TV setups (ESPN SportsCenter/Baseball Tonight, MLB Network, YES Network, etc.), where producers prep for airtime and hosts and analysts flip frantically through their phones, pushing to get the latest scoops from their sources.

The next level up consists of suites, where prospective employers ranging from the popcorn vendor-needy Lake Elsinore Storm to various baseball-related companies interview the dudes-in-suits crowd. One level higher are the team suites. That’s where the deals go down. Theo Epstein was on my flight from Boston to Dallas. While we were talking, someone else headed to the meetings came up to him and said, “Maybe I’ll see you in the lobby.” Epstein told the gentleman he wouldn’t be caught dead in the lobby. For GMs, the M.O. is 14 hours a day holed up in suites with all manner of takeout food, surround by your AGMs, farm director, and other key personnel. The only baseball exec type spotted in the lobby so far was J.P. Ricciardi, who might be the schmooziest guy in the game.

So that’s how the magic happens. GMs locked up for four days, taking clandestine meetings with agents and other GMs while snarfing kung pao chicken. Hordes of bright-eyed, slouchy young men hustling all over, clutching business cards and dreaming of becoming the next Theo. And all us writer schlubs, working whatever sources we have, waiting for something big to happen, then retiring to the bar come nightfall to slam beers and laugh about all of it. And to tell jokes about Cody Ross’ demands for a three-year contract.

From: Jonah Keri
Sent: Mon, Dec 5, 2011 at 12:26 PM
Subject: Intrigue

I’m live here at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, sitting in an armchair outside the media workroom at Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings, because apparently you need to show up at 5 a.m. to stake out a seat. The buzz here surrounds Jose Reyes’ six-year, $106 million contract: Can the Fish reel in Albert Pujols too, then flip incumbent first baseman Gaby Sanchez for a pitcher (Jeff Niemann?) and set themselves up for a playoff run (assuming Josh Johnson’s arm cooperates)?

If you’re looking for a hunch, look for at least one or two significant trades to go down in the next couple of days, possibly before we see the next big free-agent signing. The A’s and White Sox are marketing their veterans; the Rays have 8,000 capable starting pitchers they could swap for bats (despite GM Andrew Friedman’s predictable smoke signals that they don’t want to trade pitching); the Angels have already been active under new GM Jerry DiPoto and could go after relief pitching and/or a bat and even shop Ervin Santana; the Jays have multiple needs and an aggressive GM; a David Wright trade might make sense for the Mets with Reyes gone; and so on.

More to come.

Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Follow him on Twitter at @JonahKeri.

Previously from Jonah Keri:

Breaking Down The Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot
Reyes’ Deal Shows That The Marlins Aren’t All Talk
What They Need: National League
What They Need: American League

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