Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Inside Two Teams' Moves: White Sox and Royals

The winter months have turned cold, but with a market expected to favor buyers, some teams have begun the process of re-tooling their rosters for 2010. Two of the Twins' American League Central Division rivals, the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals, recently made moves which affect their lineups for the 2010 season.

The White Sox signed injured reliever J.J. Putz, late of the New York Mets and made a trade for outfielder Juan Pierre, who spent the past three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Each move constitutes a low-risk, high-reward scenario the White Sox hope will pay dividends.

Putz was one of the game's elite closers with the Seattle Mariners in 2006 and 2007, accumulating 76 saves in 85 opportunities over those two seasons. He was nearly un-hittable in 2007, allowing just 37 hits and 11 runs (all earned) over 71.2 innings, posting 40 saves in 42 opportunities, notching an ERA of 1.38, and striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings. Not surprisingly, his over-use caught up to him in 2008 and served as a microcosm of the Mariners' disastrous 2008 season in which they became the first team in MLB history to lose 100 games with a team payroll over $100M. Beset by injuries, Putz saved 15 games and blew eight opportunities. He was limited to 46.1 innings.

Signed as a free agent by the New York Mets prior to the 2009 season, Putz's time in Queens was a nightmare. Expected to bridge the gap to new closer Francisco Rodriguez, Putz instead pitched a total of 29.1 innings, allowed 29 hits, and posted a 5.22 ERA. He underwent surgery in June to remove bone chips in his pitching elbow, and returned with no success. He was finally shut down in August and released a few months later.

The White Sox signed him to a one-year, $3M contract, to serve as a bridge to closer Bobby Jenks. He will complement lefty set-up man Matt Thornton from the right side. The key to this acquisition is health. Putz has gone through two seasons of non-stop injuries and the White Sox are counting on him to provide quality set-up work not seen from Scott Linebrink last season. A $3M contract is rather steep for an injury-plagued pitcher who has struggled mightily for the past two seasons, but shows the White Sox are serious about upgrading their bullpen to keep up with the Twins.

The trade for Pierre, for two minor leaguers, was made to effectively remake the Chicago outfield. Starters Jermaine Dye, Scott Podsednik, and backup DeWayne Wise are out of the mix for 2010, and Pierre will join Carlos Quentin and Alex Rios to form a different alignment. The White Sox also signed Andruw Jones to a free agent deal a few weeks ago. Pierre brings no power to speak of to the table. In ten big league seasons, he has a career slugging percentage of .372. He is a career .301/.348/.372 hitter who seldom walks, but can bring speed to the top of the order. He has led the National League in steals twice and has stolen no fewer than 30 bases in each of his nine full big league seasons.

The Dodgers inexplicably signed Pierre to a five-year, $44M deal prior to the 2007 season. After playing regularly in 2007, Pierre was forced to a backup role after the acquisition of Manny Ramirez in 2008. 

The White Sox will only be on the hook for $8M of the $18.5M owed to Pierre over the final two years of the deal. The move is decent for Chicago in that they acquired a true leadoff hitter rather cheaply. He'll hit for average, never walk, hit for no power, steal some bases, and play solid defense (career +5.5 UZR/150 in the outfield) for a changing White Sox lineup.

Over in Kansas City, the Royals effectively swapped catchers this week. The team non-tendered veteran John Buck (who quickly signed a one-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays) and signed free agent catcher Jason Kendall away from the Milwaukee Brewers. Incredibly, the Royals gave Kendall a two-year, $6M deal. This for a guy who hit .241/.331/.305 for the Brewers last season. This for a guy who hit 10 home runs in 2001 and then has gone on to hit a total of 20 homers since, including a homerless 2005. This for a guy who has managed to hit no higher than .246 in the past three seasons, despite playing no fewer than 134 games. I could go on, but you get the point.

Kendall is a career .290/.369/.383 hitter who has been on a downward plane for the past five seasons. He will be 36 by next year's All-Star break and is, at best, a replacement-level catcher at this point in his career. As Joe Posnanski points out in his blog, the free agent catcher market is thin this winter and the Royals had no obvious move internally staring back at them. Still, why give Kendall a multiple-year deal? It makes no sense. Of course, trading Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs (and then releasing Jacobs a year later) makes no sense. Trading J.P Howell for Joey Gathright makes no sense, either. The Royals are stuck in neutral. Despite all the lip service of the "improving Kansas City Royals," the team has shown no obvious improvement anywhere - Billy Butler, excluded - on the diamond. Alex Gordon has not panned out at third base, the team has no starting pitching behind Zack Greinke, and they have too many 1B/DH types. GM Dayton Moore may prove to be solid, but is building a puzzling track record while his team continues to reside in the division's basement.

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