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December 20 transaction analysis

The Orioles made a series of minor transactions yesterday. First, they signed left-handed reliever Steve Kline to a two-year, $5.5 million contract and purchased back infielder Chris Gómez from the Philadelphia Phillies. Then they re-signed Jay Gibbons to a one-year, $2.6 million deal to avoid arbitration, brought back Bruce Chen for another season at $550,000, and tendered offers to their other arbitration-eligibles, Jerry Hairston, Jorge Julio, Rodrigo López, Luis Matos, John Parrish, and B.J. Ryan. Yesterday (Dec. 20) was the last day for teams to offer arbitration to their players with between three and six years of major-league service; otherwise those players become free agents.

Unto us a reliever is given

Although he didn't come cheap, Kline looks like a good pickup for the O's. At 32 years old, he should have plenty of gas left in his arm to last the next two years. He essentially will replace the departed Buddy Groom in the bullpen as a lefty matchup reliever for the middle and late innings. His acquisition strengthens the Orioles' relief corps and gives manager Lee Mazzilli more maneuverability in late-game situations.

Kline, who pitched for Jim Beattie's Montreal Expos from 1997-2000 before joining the St. Louis Cardinals from 2001-2004, has enough assets to make his presence on the roster worthwhile. He has always been tough on left-handed batters, holding them to a .215 batting average over his eight-year career and .209 over the last three seasons. He's held his own against right-handed batters, too, as they have hit .265 against him lifetime and .254 from 2002-2004. Kline deals from a sinker-slider repertoire that results in lots of grounders (1.87 G/F ratio career) while yielding few gopher balls (0.76 HR/9 career) or other extra-base hits (career .371 SLG and .125 IsoP allowed). He doesn't walk an excessive number of batters (3.8 BB/9 career) but has struck out his share (7.0 K/9). He has been durable in the past, leading the National League in appearances three straight years from 1999 to 2001. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the Cardinals refused to offer Kline arbitration, so the Orioles lost no draft picks for signing him. (As a Type A free agent, he would have cost the Orioles a second-rounder in 2005 if St. Louis had offered him arbitration.)

However, Kline comes with a few caveats. One is that he is coming off two recent injuries: a torn groin (ouch) that kept him out for about three weeks late in the regular season, and a torn tendon in the index finger of his throwing hand suffered in Game 2 of the NLCS that kept him out of the World Series. These ailments were relatively minor, though, and unlikely to recur, according to Will Carroll, who gave Kline's health a green light on BaseballProspectus.com.

Another warning sign is Kline's low strikeout rate over the past three years (5.6 K/9), which suggests that his pitches have lost some of the nastiness they had early in his career. If a situation calls for a strikeout—say, if the tying run is in scoring position—and a right-handed batter is due up, then Kline is not an ideal man to douse the flame because he allows batters to make contact with regularity. Rather, Kline should be used in situations that suit his strengths, which are neutralizing lefties, inducing double-play balls, and preventing the big blow. For example, he would be an excellent choice to enter a game with the bases empty or a runner on first and left-handed batters coming up.

Kline is not the savior Orioles fans have been seeking this offseason, but he makes a good stocking stuffer in the early free-agent shopping season. (If you'll indulge some linguistic analysis, Kline's surname comes from klein, German for "small" or "little," which seems appropriate to describe his probable role on the team.) Despite some slippage in his stuff, he has remained effective and should be a reliable member of the 'pen for the next two years barring a total loss of command à la Mike DeJean.

Gómez boomeranged

The Phillies offered Gómez back to the Orioles when infielder Plácido Polanco accepted Philadelphia's arbitration offer to return to the team, making Gómez redundant. This move essentially undoes the boneheaded error Baltimore made last week when it exposed Gómez to the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft. The blunder ultimately cost the team $12,500 (the price paid to re-acquire him from the Phils). Whoever made the decision to announce Gómez's signing before the Rule 5 draft should have $12,500 subtracted from his salary, or at least have his Christmas bonus withheld.

Gómez is a fair backup infielder, versatile with the glove and having enough on-base ability to be of use offensively. Moreover, he was genuinely looking forward to playing for the Orioles and was disappointed when Philadelphia plucked him away last week. After the days of Confederate money, it's nice to know that a player actually wants to come to Charm City. Now if Gómez could spread some of that enthusiasm to former Blue Jays teammate and current free agent Carlos Delgado, he could really make a difference.

O's to Jay: A-OK

Gibbons's return was uncertain until yesterday's deal was announced. He is coming off a highly disappointing, injury-ridden season that raised questions about his ability to build on the progress he showed in 2002 and 2003. But the latest reports from Arizona are that he is fully recovered; according to Gibbons, “I think I am in the best shape of my life...I feel awesome.” On top of that, he had postseason laser eye surgery to sharpen his vision to 20/10, which should only help him at bat and in the field.

In the larger picture, this signing gives the Orioles security in the outfield and at first base should they fail to fill one of those positions via free agency or trade. The dollar amount of Gibbons's 2005 contract (in addition to the guaranteed money, he can make $300K in performance incentives) makes sense if he can remain injury-free and return to or improve on the form he showed in 2001-2003, when he posted OPS's in the .800 range. But injuries have been a recurring story throughout Gibbons's career, so staying healthy will be the critical challenge for him to overcome next year.

Gibbons is a talented player, but he has his limits. He is an adequate right fielder when healthy, but his lack of speed can be exposed in large stadiums, so first base and DH are probably better positions for him. He has also struggled a bit against lefties in his career (.718 OPS vs. LHP, compared to .781 OPS vs. RHP). Because of this, the Orioles would do well to find an inexpensive right-handed batter that can platoon with Gibbons, maximizing the team's production from whichever position he plays. (If that position is first base or DH, Javy López could fill that role, provided that the Orioles acquire another decent-hitting catcher.)

Chen gets another chance

The Orioles apparently saw enough in left-hander Chen to bring him back at an affordable one-year rate. As mentioned here back in August, Chen has the stuff to make batters swing and miss; he needs to find a way (as Mazzilli would say) to keep the ball in the park and reduce the number of walks he surrenders. In the right situations, he can be successful, but his inconsistent track record raises a lot of doubts. Maybe Ray Miller can make a pitcher out of him yet, though. Going into the spring, Chen slots as a back-of-the-rotation starter or long reliever.

Make 'em an offer they can't refuse

Of the six players offered arbitration, López and Ryan figure to have the most prominent roles on the 2005 Orioles. Coming off seasons as the team's top starter and reliever, respectively, they likely will receive sizeable raises. Hairston and Matos, on the other hand, were hampered by injuries last year, so they probably will not merit big pay increases. They apparently will compete for the starting center field job, with the loser being benched or traded.

Julio and Parrish had passable 2004 seasons in relief for the O's, although both gave up far too many walks to be really useful. Julio in particular has an interesting arbitration case because of his gaudy save totals; he has 83 saves over the last three seasons, yet he ended last season as a middle reliever and may not be the full-time closer next year. Both Julio and Parrish need to keep improving to stay on the team because the Orioles have a glut of rotation candidates, and the losers in the battle for the rotation will also be in competition for relief roles.

With the players who were not offered arbitration yesterday added to the mix of free agents, the market is now at a full stage of maturity. As a result, the bidding wars promise to heat up over the next month. More free-agent coverage is upcoming.

Comments (4)

Tom M:

Nice analysis. Where do you think Dave Newhan fits into the O's plans? I know he started off hot and faded toward the end, but his final stats (.311/.361/.453) weren't bad. Plus, I just loved his hustle. Second, isn't using Hairston as a center fielder a misuse of his talents? His 2B range factors are consistently above league average and actually better than Roberts's. It seems to me he would be good trade bait. Last, is there a reason Raffy can't play 1B? I've read where O's management thought it tired him out toward the end of the season, but I can't help but believe some of his playing time at DH was driven by contract incentives. If they don't sign another first baseman, he seems to be the O's best shot defensively.
Anyway, keep up the good work.


Some thoughts on Newhan, Hairston, and Palmeiro (I may revisit these players in later articles):

Newhan was a godsend last year after the injury bug hit Gibbons and Melvin Mora. He certainly exceeded my expectations—I initially dismissed him as another nondescript utility infielder along the lines of Jeff Huson, and I'm happy to say that I was wrong. But at 31 years old, Newhan doesn't have a lot of upside to fulfill, and I suspect that 2004 may go down as his best season.

Newhan has a few shortcomings that have limited his advancement as a player. Like Gibbons, he has had trouble staying healthy in the past. Also, his infield defense is a little rough, and his throwing arm is weak. That explains the Orioles' interest in Gómez, who brings less to the table offensively but is a slicker defender than Newhan.

Nevertheless, Newhan has demonstrated on-base ability, speed, and modest power throughout his pro career. He hasn't shown quite enough with the bat to project as a full-time starter at an outfield corner, and his glove keeps him from being a full-time infielder, so he falls in the "tweener" class. Late last season I heard that he was working out with one of the Orioles' coaches to learn to play center field; if he can somehow handle that position, it would really advance his career possibilities. Otherwise, he makes an ideal super-sub, doing what Mora did for the O's in 2000-2003: filling in for starters in the outfield and at second and third (Tejada has shortstop pretty well covered), and also coming off the bench to pinch-hit and pinch-run at crucial moments. It's possible that he's a late bloomer and is about to pull a Mora on us, but I wouldn't bet on it.

On Hairston: I agree that Hairston's talents are best appreciated when he is playing second base, where he has exhibited the kind of ability that wins Gold Gloves. But Roberts is pretty slick with the mitt too; both players, after all, are converted shortstops. So I understand why the O's didn't want to rock the boat by re-opening the second-base competition. (A note on B-Rob: despite his record-setting 50 doubles last year, he slugged just .376, and his on-base percentage was a middling .344, so I wouldn't consider him untouchable.)

One of the reasons the Orioles have not traded Hairston is that he keeps getting injured, casting doubts on his durability. Matos, for that matter, has had similar problems staying off the DL. Perhaps health, not ability, will determine who starts in center field next Opening Day. If both of them remain physically sound, and if Hairston is able to play at least an average center field, the competition could be a close one. Hairston's bat has been more consistent, if less potent, than Matos's, while Matos brings a reliable glove and more power potential. (Matos's stats last year weren't so good, but he was playing with a slightly fractured right shin, so they should not be considered representative of his true ability when healthy.)

Palmeiro's decreased playing time at first base down the stretch last year was motivated in part by his contract situation. His bat faded badly over the summer, and the Orioles didn't feel that he warranted $4.5 million in 2005 (that option would have activated if he had played in 140 games in the field in 2004). Mazzilli and the front office denied that money was the primary factor for sitting Palmeiro, saying that they wanted to use the rest of the season to evaluate Gibbons and José León at first base. (This might be called a "plausible denial.") Meanwhile, Palmeiro responded by producing September thunder from the DH spot.

You're right that Palmeiro, though not what he once was, is still capable of playing a good first base. Clay Davenport's fielding translations rated him the AL's best defensive first baseman in 2004 amidst a weak list of finalists. Palmeiro was an ace at first base back in the '90s, and even today he is probably a better choice with the glove than Gibbons or Javy López.

But it makes sense to let Palmeiro rest more frequently by DHing him more; he did turn 40 this year, and all the stats indicate that he is nearing the end, even though he retains a great batting eye and enough power to be useful. I think that Palmeiro should get 50-75 starts at first base in 2005, with another 75-100 coming at DH. Those estimates are subject to change, of course, if someone gets hurt or if the Orioles acquire a stud first baseman.

I agree with you about Kline and Gibbons. Kline should be used for left handers or to eat up innings while bases are empty. Gibbons makes the O's more versitile, and he also brings a big arm to the outfield. That is one thing they are missing in the outfield, and I didn't understand why you would put Newhan in the outfield if he has a weak arm. Sure, in CF you need speed, but I think you need an arm. I also wish the O's would just put Gibbons at 1st because he had his best offensive year when he was big and slow, and he got the injuries when he tried to get slim and faster. Just a thought.


Quick reactions:

You're right that Newhan's arm may be a potential liability in center, but I can think of other center fielders (Johnny Damon, Bernie Williams) that have made up for that deficiency through other aspects of their game.

Gibbons's arm isn't bad for a converted first baseman, but it's his bat that has the biggest ability to make a difference for the team. The number of runs an outfielder's arm saves for his team is not insignificant, but it is far overshadowed by his batting contributions.

And I think your memory is a bit faulty about Gibbons's physique vis-à-vis his injuries. He had his healthiest season, 2003, when he was at his slimmest, whereas in his bulkier years he has gotten injured. The reason he was so svelte in 2003 is not related to steroids, as best I can tell. In the fall of 2002 he had two wrist surgeries that set back his offseason weight training about a month; he also changed his diet and workout regimen to decrease his bulk and improve his mobility. (Read this story for more details.) The results were decreased power output (.179 isolated power in 2003 after seasons of .244 and .235), but a more balanced offensive game (highest BA and OBP of his career).

Gibbons was slightly beefier in 2004, but he tweaked his back lifting weights in the spring and later suffered a hip injury that he attributed to adjustments he made to accommodate the back problem. If I were Gibbons, I'd stay off the really heavy weights (bench, squat deck) and focus on gaining speed, flexibility, and explosiveness.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 21, 2004 1:08 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Mid-December thoughts, part 2.

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