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Players moving and staying put

by Matt Smith

All and sundry will be heading to Nashville next week for the annual MLB Winter Meetings.

The transaction rumour mill will go into overdrive as a large gaggle of baseball reporters spend several days standing in a hotel lobby with little else to do other than writing and talking about potential trades and free agent signings.

Often the real news to rumours ratio is very low, but if this past week is any indication then there may be a fair bit of business completed.

Centrefield takes centre stage

The Atlanta Braves have made the biggest free agent signing of the off-season so far by coming to terms on a five-year/$75.25m (£181k per week) contract with former Tampa Bay Rays centrefielder B.J. Upton.

Upton is a divisive player as he is often seen as possessing the talent to be a great player whilst his performances so far amount to him being merely a good one. That’s always struck me as being an unfair assessment. It’s true that he doesn’t have the consistency that you would ideally like to see, but that leads many to focus on the things he doesn’t do well rather than all of the good things that he does do.

He offers a solid mix of some power, speed and fielding ability (he does make the odd mistake on balls he should catch, but he’s a better fielder than some give him credit for) and that combination alongside his age – 28 years old – gives the Braves a good chance to get a decent return on their investment throughout the duration of his contract. That’s something of a rarity in a market where teams act as if the only way to sign a leading free agent is by accepting that they will have to overpay the player during the last few years of the contract.

The Braves are one of several teams this off-season with a vacancy in centrefield. No sooner had Atlanta taken one of the primary targets off the board then the Washington Nationals made their move by completing a trade with the Minnesota Twins for Denard Span. He will be flanked by Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth in Washington’s outfield next season, with the Netherlands’ Roger Bernadina hopefully (from the European baseball fan’s perspective) staying on the roster as the main fourth outfielder.

The number one centrefield option on the market now is former Brave Michael Bourn. It was rumoured that the Philadelphia Phillies could be the team to grab him, although in the last couple of days they have been more strongly linked with former San Francisco Giant Angel Pagan. We’ll see how interest in those two players develops during the Winter Meetings.

Relievers: mixed reviews

Two teams showed two different approaches to adding players to their bullpen this week.

The Los Angeles Angels made the smart move by signing Ryan Madson to a one-year contract that starts with a base salary of $3.5m and could be worth $7m depending on days on the Angels’ roster and games played. Madson missed all of the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery so there are no guarantees on how he will perform for the Angels in 2013, but the deal represents an excellent low-risk, high reward contract.

Madson’s arm injury was a blow for the Cincinnati Reds as it ruined the smart one-year contract they agreed with the closer over the past off-season.  He didn’t pitch a single inning for the Reds, but at least they had the insurance of taking the blow of an injury for one year and then moving on.  For some reason, they’ve overlooked that benefit this offseason and signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year/ $21m (£84k per week) contract.

There is a large amount of evidence to show that the performances of all but the very elite relief pitchers can vary dramatically from season-to-season, especially when factoring in the ever-present risk of injuries.  Broxton is a good case in point. He had an impressive 2009 season with the Dodgers, but took a step backwards in 2010 and then missed most of the 2011 season through injury. He pitched 58 innings last year split between the Kansas City Royals and the Reds and he did a decent job, although his strikeout rate (7 K’s per 9 innings) was nothing special for a leading reliever and his average fastball is now three miles per hour slower than in his 2009 heyday (94.7 MPH from 97.8).

Put it all together and expecting him to stay on the mound and consistently perform well over the next three years looks a very risky gamble. The move is expected to lead to Cuban flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman moving into the rotation though, so there may be some residual benefit to the deal.

Angels and Braves make a trade

The Angels and Braves didn’t stop rejgging their rosters with their respective free-agent signings and instead completed a trade that sees starting pitcher Tommy Hanson heading to Anaheim for reliever Jordan Walden.

Hanson’s stock has fallen over the past year due to concerns about the state of his shoulder that draw even more attention to his unusual semi-shot-put delivery. The Braves have a host of options for their rotation so decided to move Hanson on, saving themselves $4m in the process and picking up a reliever with a blazing fastball who also has an unorthodox pitching motion. It’s an interesting trade where both teams are taking a bit of a flyer on a risky talent.

Two Yankee pitchers return whilst a catcher leaves

As expected, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera will be donning pinstripes again in 2013. The veteran pitchers both agreed terms with the New York Yankees on one-year contracts and it’s probable – if not completely certain – that these two Yankee legends will be competing in their final season (Pettitte has already retired once, of course).

However, they will not be staring into home plate and taking signs from Russell Martin. The Canadian catcher was a free agent and decided to accept a two-year/$17m contract offer (£102k per week) by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It makes a good story to say the Pirates jumped in and outbid the Yankees, yet New York knew Martin’s limitations and only wanted him back on their terms.

His year-on-year decline from an excellent 2007 campaign is there for all to see and his 2012 season at the plate was very similar to the .218/.300/.392 batting line with 23 home runs that the Pirates received combined from their catchers Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry in 2012.

He’s an upgrade on Barajas and you’ve got to hope it works out well for the Buccos – if ever there was a team deserving of some luck, it’s them – but that’s as optimistic as you can be about the signing.

Meanwhile the Yankees will be on the lookout for a new catcher as their internal options amount to back-ups and prospects not yet ready to take on the Big League role.

Staying ‘Wright’ here in New York

The week wasn’t just about players finding new teams; it was also about a couple of players extending their stay at their current home.

After Evan Longoria signed his extension with the Tampa Bay Rays, David Wright made it a good week to be a third baseman by signing a new contract with the New York Mets, ending weeks of speculation that he may follow Jose Reyes in being the next ‘face of the franchise’ to become a face from the past.

The Mets signed Wright to a seven-year/$122m extension that, when adding on his $16m salary for 2013, means they’re committing $138m to him over the next eight seasons (£207k per week).  After a disappointing 2011 season, Wright bounced back with an excellent 2012 and despite the innate risk in signing anyone for such a length of time, he’s the sort of cornerstone player that makes such commitments more understandable, especially in New York.

Even though the Mets’ owners have had their money struggles of late, the Mets are a big-market team that should not need to completely unload themselves of all financial commitments to rebuild. Knowing that Wright will not be leaving may be as good as the news gets for Mets fans this offseason, but he can be a big part of their team competing once again within the next couple of years.

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