Welcome back, hardball fans. This edition of The Roster Report features a few minor moves made by non-contenders hoping to move into respectability. With most (but not all) of the big names in this year’s free agent class already under contract, the most recent roster moves are those when teams are trying to fill holes or add depth. Of course, Edwin Jackson is an exception, but we’ll get to him in a moment.
The Cleveland Indians sign 1B Casey Kotchman to a one-year, $3MM contract.
Fresh off the heels of bringing in one former Rays first baseman in Russ Canzler, the Cleveland Indians are doubling down by signing Casey Kotchman to a one-year deal. Kotchman exceeded expectations in 2011, posting his first season since 2007 as an above-average hitter. In addition to posting a wOBA of .351 and 10 HR, the left-handed-hitting Kotchman provided strong defense at first. At a position dominated by elite power bats and gaudy HR totals, Kotchman is an outlier; he provides solid contact, fielding and OBP skills, but little pop even during his good offensive seasons. But aside from 2005, 2007, and 2011, he hasn’t had many good offensive seasons over his career.
The Tribe now has four players of questionable quality at first going into the season. Carlos Santana got a lot of time at first last season, but one could expect that he’ll be moved into a heavier load at catcher, where his bat makes him an elite talent. Russ Canzler and Matt LaPorta, both right-handed hitters, are Triple-A proven, but not exactly sure things. Canzler has never been a premium hitting prospect, and though he’s the reigning International League MVP, he may not have the upside of Matt LaPorta. LaPorta, best known as the prime return in the C.C. Sabathia trade, has but up unreal numbers in the minors, but has yet to get going as a hitter at the major league level. In parts of three seasons with the Indians, LaPorta has never put together an above average hitting season (90 wRC+ for his career), and has been a below-replacement value at -0.9 fWAR in 2010, and -0.8 fWAR in 2011. Yet he still has potential to be a solid power-hitter, so one could expect the Indians to go with a Kotchman-LaPorta platoon at first to start the season.
Infield defense is sure to be a priority with the Tribe’s collection of worm-burners on the hill, so Kotchman could match up against righties or when Derek Lowe and Justin Masterson take the mound. LaPorta would fit in on days when the Indians face a lefty, or when Ubaldo Jimenez pitches. And since LaPorta also can play the outfield (just not very well), this platoon would still provide the team with some roster flexibility in case of injury or long games. Chances are, the Indians will hold open auditions at first during Spring Training, and if one player shows exceptional skill, then they’ll see the lion’s share of time at first to start the season.
From a fantasy standpoint, Kotchman has a little value in AL-only leagues and as a replacement, but only if he’s a regular at first. Kotchman’s value is almost entirely tied to his batting average (.306 last year, but .268 over his career), and if that slips, he’s useless no matter the park, the lineup slot, or the opponent. Obviously, Canzler or LaPorta could have some fantasy value if they strike on a full-time job and break out, but Kotchman’s presence and the competition he brings causes both of their values to drop in fantasy as well. None of these three players are good fantasy buys.
The Washington Nationals sign SP Edwin Jackson to a one-year contract, worth $11MM.
The next-to-last big-time free agent has finally found a home, as the Nationals were the last team standing in the Edwin Jackson sweepstakes. Though before the season many expected E-Jax to lock in a long-term deal, the pitching market proved saturated and the Scott Boras client took a short-term deal. He’ll re-enter free agency in the offseason. Not only did Jackson put up his best statistical season in 2011 (3.55 FIP, 3.73 xFIP, 4.01 SIERA), but he also helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series as a late-season acquisition. Jackson joins young aces Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, as well as newcomer Gio Gonzalez in an intriguing Nationals rotation. John Lannan appears to be the odd man out, and he’ll find himself on another team or toiling in long relief as a result. Jackson can probably expect to put up numbers close to, or better than his 2011 numbers, due to the Nats playing in a pitcher’s park in the weaker league. This will make Scott Boras very happy when free agency rolls around again next year.
I see this move as a savvy acquisition by the Nationals, who obviously think that they’re ready to compete in 2012. While they may be a year or two (or an offensive piece or two) from really competing in the NL East, this is still a good deal. If everything breaks right, the Nats can ride the foursome of Strasburg-Zimmermann-Jackson-Gonzalez to the playoffs and there, anything goes. But here’s where I blow your mind.
Edwin Jackson will NOT finish 2012 as a National. He’ll head to his eighth major league team, most likely the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees.
If the Nationals are out of contention near the trade deadline, or close, they have a perfectly good trade asset in Jackson and his expiring contract. Any contender can look at Jackson’s solid peripherals, or the fact that he helped the Cardinals lock up a World Series ring last year, and swap a couple of C+ or B- prospects for Jackson at the deadline. A team like the Red Sox would get the benefit of Jackson at the end of the season, without having to pay the full sticker price that the Nats paid this week. It’s a move that will work for every team involved, provided Jackson stays both healthy and productive.
From a fantasy standpoint, Jackson is a solid fantasy starter, good to slot in the middle of your rotation. He doesn’t muster the big-time strikeouts that someone with his stuff should be stacking, but he’s a lock to put up 180 innings, and his FIP has improved every season since 2007. While his WHIP may hurt you a little, he’s above-average and reliable, and in the pitching market, that’s a tough combination to find. Buy, but don’t think he’ll suddenly put up Justin Verlander numbers.
The Chicago White Sox sign 1B Dan Johnson to a minor league contract.
The exodus of former Rays 1B continues, as Dan Johnson moves to the South Side on a minor league deal. Best known for two of the most important home runs in Rays franchise history, Johnson has done precious little else to establish himself as a big-league regular. Nearly all of his 91 plate appearances for the Rays in 2011 were terrible, and despite a positive baserunning and fielding adjustment, he was worth -0.8 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs. To do that, Johnson had to rack up a ridiculous .119/.187/.202 slash line, and a wOBA of .181.
Dan’s an elite Triple-A player, but rarely gets plate appearances these days at the major-league level. The underlying reason for this is based on his sub-par hitting for the position, even in years when he’s better than he was in 2011. While Dan has flashed a potent combination of pop and plate discipline in the minors, he doesn’t make great contact on balls that stay in the park. The Quad-A label is frustrating, but in Johnson’s case, it’s probably accurate. Keep in mind that this is a guy with over 1500 major league plate appearances. More than likely we’re seeing Dan’s true talent level in his stats, and that makes him just another guy who is replacement-level at first base.
In Chicago, he’s an injury-replacement player in case Paul Konerko or Adam Dunn gets hurt, and he probably doesn’t break Spring Training with the big club. The Sox are already have enough bad-glove / risky-bat guys in Adam Dunn and Dayan Viciedo, so unless one of those guys gets moved or badly injured, Johnson will be the regular first baseman in Triple-A for the Sox. There’s very little way he’d be relevant in any fantasy league, unless something goes very wrong for the Pale Hose.
Then again, if the White Sox need a clutch home run near the end of the season, they know who to call up.
- Todd Coffey just inked a one-year, $1.3MM with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodger bullpen is already headlined by Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra, but Coffey will add depth and experience. Over the last four seasons, Coffey has alternated between being very average on even years, and very effective on odd years. In 2011 he managed a 3.62 ERA and 3.41 FIP, both of which were better than league average. He should be a consistent cog in the Dodger bullpen, and comes at a fair price, but he won’t emerge as a serious holds or saves option in fantasy.
- The Mariners signed UT Carlos Guillen to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Guillen has seen his plate appearances diminish greatly over the past four seasons, and he’s nearing the end of the line for his career. If healthy, Guillen provides pop and good plate discipline, as well as some positional versatility, having played 1B, 2B, 3B, and LF in the past few seasons. But Guillen isn’t healthy very often, and his performance has been in decline with his health. Going back to his original team is a nice story, but don’t expect him to stick on the 25-man roster to start the season. And unless he has a monster Spring Training, he has no fantasy value either.
- The Houston Astros locked in a pitcher capable of giving them 200 innings in 2012 when they signed SP Livan Hernandez to a minor league contract. By signing Livan to a minor league contract, Jeff Luhnow and the Astros have limited their risk, but Hernandez is no longer anything other than average, at best. Last season, Livan managed a 3.96 FIP over 175.1 innings for the Nationals, and that put his FIP just slightly worse than the league average. I imagine that he’ll be the fifth starter to open the season. Hernandez is a great guy to run out there every fifth day, so long as you don’t care whether or not you actually win the game. In that sense, this is a perfect fit for the Astros. (Also, he has little to no fantasy value, as he can’t strike anyone out and may spontaneously combust.)
- Micah Owings, a rare double-threat as both a pitcher and hitter, has found himself in a place that should help his pitching, but hurt his hitting. The San Diego Padres inked Owings to a one-year deal, worth about $1MM. Owings has been both a starter and, more recently, a reliever with both the Diamondbacks and the Reds in his career. In addition, he puts out a career .286/.317/.507 slash line, which makes him look more like an average corner outfielder than a pitcher at the dish. Moving to PetCo park will limit his worst feature as a pitcher, his propensity to give up home runs. At the same time, it will limit his ability to hit the ball out of the park…which given how infrequently he hits, won’t be a big deal. Owings is a curiosity, and a fun player to watch, but he probably has no fantasy relevance.