The M’s Have Been Rather Busy of Late
Baseball’s GMs, analysts and assorted job-seekers meet next week for the Winter Meetings in Nashville, but Jerry Dipoto decided to take care of some business before heading out to meet with his counterparts. In recent days, the M’s traded their recently acquired 1B for a backup catcher, signed a RF, signed a RP, and went dumpster-diving for a waiver-wire 1B. Coupled with the recent trades of Brad Miller and Tom Wilhelmsen, and the M’s have made substantial changes to their roster. Let’s take a look at some of the recent moves and what they say (and don’t say) about the M’s plan for 2016 and beyond.
1: Look, Mark Trumbo was not going to play here. Dipoto traded him from Anaheim as Angels GM, and he’s traded him again with Seattle. As someone who’s publicly talked about the need to both “get more athletic” and reduce strikeouts, Dipoto pretty clearly doesn’t see Mark Trumbo as his type of player. What’s changed in the two years between Trumbo trades is what the rest of the league thinks of him. After 2013, Dipoto netted pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. Skaggs was highly-thought of, and Santiago’s been a reasonably effective back-of-the-rotation starter for four years now, turning in 300 IP with a solid RA (and a terrible FIP, though his career ERA is a full run lower than his career FIP).
This time, the return for Trumbo was…substantially less. In exchange for Trumbo + a reliever, the Baltimore Orioles will send backup catcher Steve Clevenger, a long-time minor league backstop who was drafted as a 2B and switched to catching in the low minors. Given that background, it’s probably not a shock that Clevenger’s defense is not his calling-card. In his career, he’s thrown out 11 of 80 basestealers, a success rate under 14%. Given that he’s only caught less than 700 big league innings at catcher, or less than half a year’s worth, there’s not a lot to say about his pitch framing. However, what CAN be said is that it doesn’t look disastrous; in his career, Clevenger’s saved a handful of runs through framing, most of them coming back in 2012 with the Cubs. It’s not a lot to go on, but he certainly wouldn’t be the first catcher to excel at framing while rating poorly at controlling the running game or blocking pitches.*
Offensively, Clevenger has been terrible, but he’s been terrible in very different ways than the incumbents in the C spot for the M’s. Unlike Mike Zunino, who really can spend some time in AAA now, Clevenger’s a contact hitter. In the minors, he paired a solid walk rate with well-below-average K rates, and that made up for a near total lack of power. In the big leagues, Clevenger’s patience wasn’t necessarily a virtue, as his low swing rates put him in bad counts and his lack of pop meant he saw too many strikes to walk enough to be passable. In Baltimore, though, he seems to have made an adjustment, as his swing rate climbed from below average to well-above average. Normally, this would be a bad thing, but Clevenger seems to have been convinced that the old strategy wasn’t working. His walk rate’s fallen, but so has his K rate. He doesn’t swing and miss, so taking away a bunch of called-strikes seems like it’s worth a try. As Clevenger still isn’t 30 (despite being drafted back in 2006), it’s not crazy to see him using this new approach to good effect in a park where his lack of power isn’t a huge problem. Let’s be clear: Clevenger is an out-of-options career backup who might not be able to throw out Mark Trumbo stealing, even in a pitch out. He may very well fail and become waiver-wire fodder in several months, but if he does fail, he’ll fail *differently* than his predecessors here. The fact that he bats lefty makes it easier to platoon him and put him in a good position to succeed as well.
The first reaction to this trade on the part of many M’s fans was horror that a starting 1B and a guy the M’s had given up some serious talent for months earlier was a no-hit catcher. That’s understandable, given Trumbo’s power and his status as an ex-All Star, like ex-All Star Kevin Correia or ex-All Star Roger Pavlik. Trumbo himself isn’t yet 30 either, and is in his final year of arbitration, so this isn’t a case of a player stuck with an anchor of a contract. Ultimately, Dipoto wasn’t able to convince teams that Trumbo’s solid final month meant a whole lot, and that’s understandable: Trumbo’s inconsistency is a big reason why he was in danger of getting non-tendered at today’s deadline. A player who might very well be non-tendered, and thus a free agent, is not a player who can command a lot in the trade market. That the estimate of Trumbo’s arb award was under $10m underscores his value. Trumbo at 1 year/~$9m wasn’t enough of an enticement to net Steve Clevenger straight up – the M’s actually had to sweeten the pot (they sent reliever CJ Riefenhauser to Baltimore as well). Why?
Part of it is that Trumbo’s OF defense has pretty much officially closed the door on playing anything other than 1B or DH. That severely restricts the teams who could figure out how to play him. The M’s actually DO have an opening at 1B, but Trumbo’s platoon splits make him hard to start against right-handers, and given the M’s obligations to their stars, $9m for a platoon DH/1B just doesn’t sound like a great way to spend money. But deciding that is one thing – the M’s actually needed a plan to utilize that payroll savings for something they actually needed…
2: …enter Nori Aoki, the M’s new RF. Aoki will be 34 next year, and will cost somewhere in the $3-$5m range. The deal isn’t official (Aoki still needs to pass a physical, and after suffering some bad post-concussion symptoms after being beaned by Jake Arrieta, the physical is probably pretty important), but it sounds like it’s for one year with an option for 2017. Aoki is an elite contact hitter, with K rates under 10% in every year he’s played in MLB – almost unheard of in today’s whiff-prone game. His walk rate isn’t elite, probably because he has very little power, but his pure hit tool allows him to post very good on-base-percentage numbers. With a batting average that’s bounced around between .285 and .288 (!) in his four years, his OBP has reliably settled in around .350 every year as well. Considering Mark Trumbo will make more, can’t play OF, and is projected to get on base at a .309 clip, the M’s seem to have done well here.
Aoki’s defense is something of a divisive topic. We’ve seen him take…non-traditional routes to balls in the OF, and while he’s speedy, he doesn’t have, say, Ichiro’s instincts and first step. All of that said, UZR’s seen him as a solid defender in each of the past three years. DRS doesn’t agree, however, as it sees a steep drop off from 2013 to 2014 and 2015, with a solid arm making up for very poor range. The M’s cannot expect to have a gold glover in RF if that’s where Aoki starts, but even if you take the DRS trend line an extend it down (due to age-related decline), Aoki will be worlds better defensively than last year’s combo of Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo.
3: With the other chunk of savings from the Trumbo trade, the M’s acquired reliever Justin de Fratus from Philadelphia. De Fratus was awful last year, posting a 5.51 ERA and a still-bad 4.28 FIP for the rebuilding Phillies, but in 2014, he was effective in 50+ games, with a 4.08 K:BB ratio and a sparkly ERA to match. De Fratus isn’t overpowering, with a fastball in the 92-94 range and a solid slider at 82, but he’s not a ROOGY: he’s been better against *lefties* in his career, and when he’s been bad, right-handers have been his undoing. Why? De Fratus has a change up that he’ll throw lefties, but lefties have been flummoxed by his slider to a surprising degree. They’ve slugged .237 on it in De Fratus (admittedly short) career, while righties are slugging .346.
De Fratus throws a four-seamer and a sinker, and he’s shifted which one he favors a few times. In 2014, he was a sinker/slider guy. Last year, he threw a lot more four-seamers and cut his rate of sinkers by two thirds. I’m not saying that this alone is the reason he struggled, but righties have always hit his four-seamer fairly well. More than a change in his pitch mix, the M’s might want to look at his delivery; De Fratus is far, far more hittable than he should be, and there may be something he could do to get a bit more deception. The M’s DFA’d Edgar Olmos today, so there’s a bit of room in the bullpen, and De Fratus is a good low-risk bet: his one-year deal will set the M’s back all of $750,000.
4: Among the minor moves of the day, the M’s lost prospect Pat Kivlehan to Texas, as he was the PTBNL in the Leonys Martin/Tom Wilhelmsen deal. Also leaving the org is catcher John Hicks, who was signed by Minnesota. Hicks had been DFA’d in November when the M’s signed Chris Iannetta. With a spot on the 40-man open (after Olmos was DFA’d), the M’s signed minor league 1B Andy Wilkins as well. Wilkins got a cup of coffee with the White Sox, the club that drafted him in 2010, but bounced between the Jays and Dodger orgs last year. Wilkins doesn’t strike out a ton, but doesn’t have enough power to play 1B. In the PCL last year, Wilkins slugged .479 for Oklahoma City. He was great in the International League in 2014, but last year’s regression made that look more like an outlier than a sign of development and growth. Wilkins hits lefty, which is nice considering the only other 1B on the 40-man is righty Jesus Montero. Wilkins is not a solution to 1B, and has less of a chance than Montero, which is saying something. But the M’s are clearly weak at the position, so if you’re going to pick through freely-available players, you may as well prioritize 1Bs.
None of these moves radically remake the team, but Dipoto’s style is pretty apparent. In Aoki and Clevenger, the M’s are showing a clear preference for contact skills, and the pick-ups of De Fratus and Martin highlight that Dipoto prefers to buy low with guys with poor recent stats. But beyond that stylistic change, one thing’s pretty apparent: the M’s are categorically not rebuilding. This was never really in doubt, not with Robbie Cano and Felix around, and not with Nelson Cruz coming off the year he had. But the M’s have NOT shown a preference for getting younger, even in these minor moves. Aoki will be 34, Clevenger 30. Leonys Martin is older than Brad Miller and Logan Morrison, who’s more or less the same age as Andy Wilkins. This isn’t good or bad on its own – the M’s seem to want a specific set of skills rather than a specific development path, and that’s fine. Given the age of Cano/Cruz/Felix, this is understandable, even laudable. It does, however, put a premium on fixing the remaining roster holes.
And that’s going to be tough unless the M’s allow the payroll to rise, probably above last year’s $120-123m mark. The M’s haven’t done what we all sort of expected and signed Hisashi Iwakuma, but he’ll cost more than the $7m he made last season. Given the contracts pitchers are getting this off-season – JA Happ’s $12m per year to David Price’s $31m per, it’s easy to see Iwakuma doubling or tripling his annual salary. The M’s have already committed $94-97m to just 9 players (depending on what Aoki gets), and they’ve extended contracts to their arb-eligible players, too. They don’t have a whole lot of room to go shopping, but they’re not sold on just turning the 1B job over to Montero or counting on full years from James Paxton/Nate Karns/Vidal Nuno in the rotation. The M’s have clearly been willing to part with Paxton, and that might help shore up 1B, but then it’s even more critical that the M’s reduce the uncertainty in the rotation.
* Intuitively, this is odd, but when you think about it more, it makes sense. Your body position to frame a low strike is probably different than your body position would be if you wanted to ensure there was no way the ball would get past you. Jose Molina, the godfather of pitch framing, had poor rates of passed balls/wild pitches. Wellington Castillo was not letting the ball by, but he was an awful, awful pitch framer. This isn’t a hard and fast rule or anything; Jonathan Lucroy was great at both, as is Yadier Molina. And some of this may just be selection; Sal Perez doesn’t need to impress teams with his framing – they’re still agog at his 80-grade arm. Francisco Cervelli can’t do that, so he adds value through framing.