The past week’s theme has been pretty much focused, with the exception of the resurgent Bruce Chen, on players coming off sub-par seasons.
For example, John Jaso took over the catcher’s gig for Tampa Bay in 2010, translating his excellent plate discipline to the Majors, most notably providing a .372 OBP while making contact more often than he struck out. Fast forwarding to 2011, the left-handed hitting catcher failed to crack a .224 .298 .354 line. Yes, he still drew walks, but his strikeout and walk rates almost flip-flopped while his batting average on balls in play fell from a .282 (fairly typical for a slow-running catcher) to .244. The fact is Jaso is a strict platoon catcher, failing to hit over .200 against lefties in each of his two big league seasons. In 2011, however, there was little to no fluctuation in where he put the ball in play and in fact, against righties he still made contact over 90% of the time while walking more often than he struck out, he just failed to hit the ball where they ain’t. Now Jaso will head to Seattle where he will serve as a backup and possible platoon partner. He has the skills for a rebound of sorts, but his lack of speed and power preclude him from being more than a single-digits value AL-only catching option.
Josh Lueke, acquired by the Rays, is a MLB-ready middle reliever who in fact pitched 32+ innings for the Mariners last season, posting an 8.0 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9. He has a low to mid-nineties fastball, curve, and a split-finger fastball and has the potential to be more than just a right-handed specialist.
Meanwhile, the Rays catching situation has been turned upside down with the departures of both Jaso and Kelly Shoppach. They have brought in defense only receiver Jose Molina on a one-year deal and also retained Robinson Chirinos. I was high on Chirinos going into last season as an almost right-handed hitting clone of John Jaso to form an interesting OBP-machine platoon. Instead, Chirinos battled injuries and suddenly struggled to make contact in both the Majors and the Minors. The Rays other option is Jose Lobaton. The 27-year-old has gap-power, knows how to work the count, and despite limited MLB experience, he is the one option of the three that can hit left-handed. Keep an eye on him as he could potentially end up the primary portion of a platoon.
Royals Address Their Pitching
As mentioned, the Royals retained Bruce Chen. The 34-year old lefty received a two-year contract after a 25-start season that saw him walk fewer than three batters per nine innings and produce a sub-4.00 ERA. Do not expect more of the same. A .278 batting average on balls in play coupled with an 8.6% HR/FB rate, a 75% strand rate and mediocre abilities to miss bats marks him as a 4+ ERA-type innings eater. While I believe the soft-tosser can retain his peripheral skills, there is more room for regression here than for upside.
The Royals bullpen, other than Joakim Soria, has not had much success over recent years. In a surprising move, they were able to lure Jonathan Broxton away from a chance to potentially close for other teams to a setup role. Broxton spent much of 2011 disabled or ineffective. As it turns out, he required surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. While it tends to cost pitchers time, over the long-term this is a surgery that most pitchers come back from fully, and the Royals should have cause for optimism. His awful near 1:1 K/BB and 6.4 BB/9 last season will likely give much pause, but I would recommend taking a shot if he falls to the late single-digits. The Royals are currently denying that they will move Soria to the rotation, but the possibility of it is greater with Broxton in the fold if he proves he is 100%.
It looked like Grady Sizemore’s days in Cleveland were over, but instead the Indians have decided to give their former star another shot. The 29-year-old is a wild card. He has not played a full season since 2009 and his ability to stay healthy remains questionable. His ability to make contact and his plate discipline skills have also fallen apart as he struck out nearly 30% of the time last year as opposed to making contact around 80% of the time or better during his heydays. He did at least show some power last year, producing an isolated power near .200, but his speed game looks to be a thing of the past and it will be interesting to see if he is now better off in a corner outfield spot rather than in center. He is still young enough to enjoy a full rebound, and those willing to take a risk could be well rewarded, but it is also hard to justify a bid out of the single digits given his recent track record. Watch him this upcoming spring. Purchasing him will be a league context issue. If others are bullish on a recovery, bid him up. If everyone ducks and covers and he falls under $10, rolling the dice may not be a bad thing.