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Phillies Find Back-End Bargain In John Lannan

Kyle Kendrick is generally underrated in the realm of back-end starters, but the Phillies still came into the offseason seeking rotation depth behind Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. That need grew even greater two weeks ago when the team used Vance Worley to acquire Ben Revere. With veteran back-end arms aplenty on the free agent market, Philadelphia managed to find a bargain in former National (and rival) John Lannan.

Lannan, as Phillies fans surely remember, started his big league career by breaking Chase Utley’s hand with a pitch back in 2007. The bad blood has lingered for years, and the Fightin’s have done a damn good job of exacting revenge over the years — Lannan has pitched to a 5.53 ERA (~5.80 FIP) against the Philadelphia compared to a 3.80 ERA (~4.30 FIP) against everyone else. The 28-year-old southpaw has responded by hitting more than twice as many Phillies (11) than players on any other team. Think of it as a light version of Pedro Martinez vs. the Yankees.

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One Drew Was Not Enough: Red Sox Ink Stephen

The Red Sox have been one of the baseball’s most active teams on the free agent market this winter, inking David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, and maybe Mike Napoli (depending on a recent hold-up with his physical) as they look to pick up the pieces following a last place finish in 2012. Their August blockbuster with the Dodgers freed up hundred of millions of dollars in payroll space, and so far that money has been put back into the team in the form of sensible, short-ish term contracts. The pitching staff still needs work, but up until the today the only position they had not addressed was shortstop.

The internal options were not all that appealing. Ivan DeJesus Jr. hasn’t played much shortstop in recent years and Pedro Ciriaco managed an 85 wRC+ (2.9 BB%) in 272 big league plate appearances this year. Prospect Jose Iglesias is a wizard with the glove, but he owns a .251/.302/.287 career batting line. In Triple-A. In almost 800 plate appearances. There’s a minimum acceptable level of offense at the big league level, and it’s not very likely the 22-year-old Iglesias can provide it right now. Defensive skill only goes so far.

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Rays Scrape The Barrel, Come Up With James Loney

Two seasons ago Casey Kotchman, a career .259/.326/.392 (91 wRC+) hitter in over 2,300 plate appearances coming into the year, posted a stellar .306/.378/.422 (127 wRC+) line in 563 plate appearances for the Rays. This past season Jeff Keppinger, a career .281/.332/.388 (92 wRC+) hitter in nearly 2,300 plate appearances coming into the year, posted a stellar .325/.367/.439 (128 wRC+) line in 418 plate appearances for the Rays. Tampa bay is now going to try to work their magic on James Loney.

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Rangers Looking To Lock-Up Matt Harrison

The Rangers are in the unique position of being both a “win now” and “win later” team. Their current roster with Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Joe Nathan, and others is good enough to win in 2013, but they’re also set up for the future with guys like Jurickson Profar, Martin Perez, and Mike Olt. They also have a handful of players who bridge both the “win now” and “win later” groups, including Yu Darvish, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, and left-hander Matt Harrison.

Harrison, 27, has been the team’s best pitcher over the last two years, so it wasn’t a surprise when Jeff Wilson of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last week that the two sides are in “preliminary negotiations” about a contract extension. Harrison is arbitration-eligible for the second time this winter, but more importantly he is on pace to become a free agent after the 2014 season. He will have just turned 29 when that rolls around, and if he continues to pitch like he has these last two seasons, he’ll be in line for a huge free agent contract.

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The Royals, Billy Butler, and Young Pitching

The Royals have been one of baseball’s most active teams so far this offseason, first swinging a trade for Ervin Santana before re-signing Jeremy Guthrie. GM Dayton Moore has made no secret of his desire to improve a starting rotation that finished 26th in ERA (5.01), 25th in FIP (4.59), and 28th in innings (890.0) this season, and reports indicate that he’s willing to deal one of his young position players for a young, high-end arm. Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and even Eric Hosmer have been floated as trade candidates, ditto Billy Butler.

Butler, 26, is a .300/.362/.468 (121 wRC+) career hitter in over 3,500 big league plate appearances. He enjoyed the best season of his career in 2012, hitting .313/.373/.510 (140 wRC+) with a career-high 29 homers and 3.2 WAR. That earned him his first All-Star Game nod and Silver Slugger. Butler’s biggest negative as a hitter is his propensity to hit the ball on the ground (career 47.2%), which has limited his power output (career .168 ISO) and makes him the mother of all double play candidates — he’s bounced into a twin-killing in 18% of his career opportunities, well-above the 11% MLB average.

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Jacoby Ellsbury’s Three Outcomes

The Red Sox made a historic trade in terms of dollars moved a few months ago, a trade that simultaneously improved their long-term outlook while burning their short-term chances to the ground. Boston lost 26 of 34 games after the deal with the Dodgers and will spend the winter picking up the pieces, trying to find smart ways to invest the $260+ million in savings while getting the team back into contention as soon as possible.

One of GM Ben Cherington’s biggest short-term questions is Jacoby Ellsbury, who followed up his 9.4 WAR season of 2011 with a 1.5 WAR effort in 2012. He missed most of the summer due to injury and when he was on the field, he stunk. Just a .300 wOBA and 83 wRC+ in 323 plate appearances. Without looking it up, I’m guessing the 7.9 WAR drop from one year to the next is one of the largest by a position player in history. But I digress.

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Value Hunting: Potential One-Year Buys

Free agency is, by far, the most inefficient way to build a team. It’s also a necessary evil. No club develops enough players internally to fill out an entire roster — or trade for players to help fill out the roster — so every year, every team goes outside its organization to grab some players out of the free-agent pool. Some teams are big spenders, and some scrape the bottom of the barrel. But they’re all looking for the same thing: value and minimal risk.

Pretty much the only way to achieve the minimal-risk part is with a one-year contract, but that isn’t always a realistic option. For the most part, the guys you can sign to a one-year deal have some kind of flaw. Maybe they’re old or injured or just not productive anymore. Every once in a while a team uncovers a gem on a one-year contract, though, leaving everyone else to wonder how they missed out on that guy. With free agency just a few days old, here is a quartet of players likely available on one-year contracts who could provide a surprisingly strong return.

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Joe Mauer’s Un-Joe Mauer-Like Afternoon

Lost in all the hoopla created by Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera’s run at the Triple Crown, and the various pennant races is the fact that Joe Mauer is having another amazing season. He currently leads all of baseball with a .414 OBP and has what feels like the quietest 141 wRC+ in baseball history. He is seeing more and more time at first base and DH these days (only 70 starts behind the plate this year), but that’s an amazing offensive effort regardless of position. It’s part of the reason why his performance on Wednesday afternoon is so noteworthy.

The 29-year-old Mauer has now played 1,059 games in his big league career, and on only six occasions has he struck out three (or more) times in a single game. Two of those six games came back in 2005, which was essentially his rookie season after the knee injury in 2004. Another came in 2007, another in 2009 (his only career four-strikeout game), and two this year. Ryan Dempster got him three times during interleague play back in July, and yesterday CC Sabathia struck him out in each of his first three at-bats. That’s not all: those three strikeouts came on nine total pitches.

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Christian Garcia: The Nationals’ K-Rod?

Every year around this time fans, broadcasters, and baseball people get into the whole expanded rosters debate. Some don’t like that the final month of the season is played under a different set of rules while others don’t mind the extra players. What always seems to get lost in the shuffle is that very few September call-ups actually have an impact when they’re brought up. Most are relegated to mop-up relief innings or pinch-running duties, minor roles like that, but every once in a while someone will come up and become an instant difference maker.

Perhaps the greatest September call-up in recent memory is Francisco Rodriguez, who went from dominating the minor leagues — 13.0 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 with a 2.27 ERA in 83.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A — to a key setup cog for the World Champion Angels in 2002. K-Rod pitched so well in his 5.2-inning trial (13 strikeouts and one unintentional walk) that the Halos squeezed him onto the playoff roster, where he threw another great 18.2 innings (28 strikeouts and five walks). The Angels struck September call-up gold that season.

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… And Nick Punto

My favorite part of this weekend’s Red Sox-Dodgers blockbuster isn’t the absolutely insane nature of the trade, it’s the “… and Nick Punto” that will forever be attached to it until the end of time. Los Angeles surrendered two high-end pitching prospects and absorbed more than a quarter-billion dollars in salary obligation to acquire a star-caliber first baseman, a potential star-caliber outfielder, and a serviceable (with a chance for lots more) starting pitcher. Oh yeah, and a utility infielder.

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