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The Buccos Bullpen Shuffle

The Pirates completed a trade on Wednesday that sent Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to the Red Sox for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel and Ivan De Jesus. The deal increases organizational depth for the Pirates and gives them a solid reliever in Melancon. The deal also effectively makes Jason Grilli the new Pirates closer. Grilli, who was recently re-signed to a very affordable two-year, $6.75 million contract was probably the better bet to close in Pittsburgh even with Hanrahan present.

The subsequent trade of Hanrahan only enhances the value of the contract he signed. Grilli certainly would have been paid more money had he entered free agency as a closer or a reliever seeking closing opportunities. Given his numbers over the last two seasons, it wouldn’t have been crazy to suggest him as a legitimate closer candidate somewhere. Instead, even with strong interest from about half of the league, Grilli stayed in Pittsburgh on a team-friendly contract fit for a 7th or 8th inning reliever.

While Holt, Sands, De Jesus and Pimentel all play a role in this deal, the trade really benefits the Pirates by increasing the cost-effectiveness of their bullpen and allowing them to reallocate their savings to other areas of need. The Pirates essentially replaced their closer with a better and cheaper alternative, brought back another cheap reliever whose peripherals closely match that traded closer and signed a starter with the savings.

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Ross Signing Causes Another Outfield Logjam

The Diamondbacks signed Jason Kubel last offseason and created an outfield logjam with Chris Young, Justin Upton and Gerardo Parra.

While the consensus had the team attempting to trade Parra following Kubel’s signing, the Diamondbacks stood pat and attempted to use everyone effectively. Top prospect Adam Eaton then knocked down the door to the majors at the end of the season, put up solid numbers across 103 major league plate appearances, and appeared to be the odds-on favorite for the starting centerfield gig.

Chris Young was dealt to the Athletics to make room for Eaton but the Diamondbacks were right back at square one. They had four starting outfielders for three spots and clear needs elsewhere that could get fixed through a trade. Regardless, it seemed like they stopped looking at free agent outfielders and were focused on subtracting from the group, whether it was a mega-deal involving Upton or a smaller deal for one of Kubel or Parra.

Kevin Towers and Co., defied these expectations over the weekend by signing Cody Ross to a three-year, $26 million contract. The move instantly put Kubel and Parra back on the trading block as there is simply no way the Diamondbacks enter the season with even more of a starting outfield surplus than last year. However, signing Ross was a questionable decision because he and Kubel have been similarly valuable players over the last couple of seasons. They essentially already had another form of Ross on the roster and it’s unclear if the team will be able to extract full value in a subsequent Kubel trade now that it very clearly has to move one of its outfielders.

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Value and Perception in the Corner OF Market

Value is an all-encompassing term comprised of performance relative to the position, league and readily available alternatives, as well as the price paid to acquire that production. It’s also fueled by the utility of the player to the team in how he is used. A team can maximize value by using a player according to his strengths while masking his faults. However, if a team perceives a player incorrectly, it runs the risk of minimizing his value.

This idea of maximizing strengths most often surfaces in the form of platoons. A lefty-crusher who struggles against righties won’t face same-handed pitchers much in a straight platoon. The idea of perceiving a player incorrectly and minimizing his value occurs when teams incorrectly view a platoon player as an everyday starter.

Which brings us to the free agent market, which still includes Cody Ross, Scott Hairston and Juan Rivera, three players best utilized as the lefty-crushing component of a platoon sandwich. Only Ross is viewed by many teams as an everyday starter — valid to an extent — and is seeking a contract commensurate with that view.

While he could certainly start for several teams, his value is largely connected to his production against lefties, who only throw about 25% of the innings in a season. He is a better overall player than Hairston and Rivera, averaging ~2 WAR over the last four seasons, yet he is 32 years old and is reportedly seeking a deal in the 3/$24 vicinity.

Given these factors, teams might find it more cost-effective to sign Hairston or Rivera for a strict platoon role. Assuming they are platooned with players that hit righties well, an interested team could eke out even more production.

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Bourn Remains Atop the Centerfield Market

It’s rare to see so much offseason activity related to a premium position like centerfield, especially this early in the offseason. The market was always considered deep, but it has been surprising to see an equal number of trades as free agent signings. With two upper echelon free agents remaining and a few intriguing trade targets conceivably on the block this centerfield carousel has been a terrifically fun offseason storyline.

Whether due to an outfield logjam, an unwillingness to dole out extremely lucrative deals or simply an opportunity to improve at a premium position, a number of teams have been very active with centerfielders. The swift nature of many of these transactions was somewhat unexpected as, with so many talented players available, it stood to reason that the surplus would allow teams to wait and effectively force down asking prices. Instead, seven centerfielders have already found new homes, and at least one of them was never really considered a legitimate trade target.

Through the various signings and trades, Michael Bourn is still on the market. Though he is the best overall player available at the position, his case is an interesting one, as his number of potential suitors has dwindled and legitimate alternatives remain. While a big contract hasn’t been ruled out, it’s starting to look like he won’t get near what he expected, even though he’ll likely provide more value at the position than anyone else.

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Traded Marlins Affected By More Than Tax Rates

The Marlins and Blue Jays agreed to a blockbuster trade earlier this week that sent Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to Toronto. There are clear tax ramifications for everyone involved in the trade, and as an accountant who works in this field and consults with players and agents, I find it very interesting on a number levels.

However, what makes it more interesting than the average trade isn’t simply the tax rates of the countries, states and cities involved. Nor is it the effective state and city tax rates each team will experience — based on where they play spring training, the rates of their home states and cities, the rates of all other jurisdictions in which they will play and the amount of time spent in these jurisdictions. Per the effective rates, the difference between Florida and Ontario is reduced, but still substantial, since Florida has no state tax.

As I’ve explained here before, the specific state and city tax rates matter to an extent, but because of how the jock tax works, the effective rate is more telling. It’s for this reason that the AL West may soon become a big area of interest among free agents: it now features three teams without state or local taxes in the Astros, Rangers and Mariners. The Astros also spend spring training in the non-taxed state of Florida.

Even with the state and provincial tax ramifications, what piqued my interest the most with this deal is how Canada disallows certain allowable deductions in the United States.

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Don’t Forget About Denard Span

The trade and free agent markets are flush with competent centerfielders this offseason. While Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn are the marquee free agents, the second, third and even fourth tiers of conceivably available centerfielders features players capable of starting for many teams.

B.J. Upton is the most frequently mentioned player after Hamilton and Bourn. Angel Pagan — perhaps the most underrated player in the game — has also garnered plenty of attention in recent weeks. Before getting traded to Oakland, Chris Young was gaining recognition as a potential trade target, and his arrival could put Coco Crisp back on the market. The Angels’ Peter Bourjos plays the position better than mostly everyone in baseball, but he’s blocked by perhaps the best player in the game. Shane Victorino presents an interesting case — as one of the best all-around players at the position — but one who is getting older and coming off of one of his worst seasons.

Denard Span isn’t discussed as much as a potential trade target, but he combines some of the best attributes of everyone mentioned above: He fields the position terrifically, he’s a very good baserunner, he has a high career walk rate and a wRC+ 5% better than the league. He’s also signed to a team-friendly contract.

There’s certainly risk in acquiring him — his health has been questionable during the last two seasons — and the Twins will surely look to bring back a significant haul. But he’s also an underrated player, and he represents the type of cost-effective option teams wary of the Hamilton’s, Bourn’s and Upton’s should seriously pursue.

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The Changing Managerial Landscape

The Marlins and Red Sox each made managerial splashes last offseason, bringing in controversial skippers in an attempt to change team culture. The Red Sox, fresh off of their historic 2011 collapse, replaced Terry Francona with Bobby Valentine, a supposed strategic genius who isn’t exactly known for warm and fuzzy relationships. The Marlins, meanwhile, traded two somewhat substantial prospects to pry Ozzie Guillen away from the White Sox.

Both Valentine and Guillen were fired after one season, as the Red Sox and Marlins underperformed and each manager seemed to cause more drama than contribute to team victories.

Yet, despite seeing through Guillen how risky it is to actually give up non-monetary value to acquire a manager, and seeing through Valentine how even those with strong resumes can struggle in the position, the Red Sox just filled their managerial void by ostensibly trading Mike Aviles for John Farrell.

Farrell, the former Red Sox coach who landed the Blue Jays managerial spot a few years back, was made available because the Jays weren’t convinced that he was worth a contract extension. Some in Toronto questioned his ability to handle a clubhouse, and while injuries have ravaged his teams, they haven’t shown much improvement.

Trades for managers are rare, and something of a novelty, but the current managerial landscape is changing. In what feels like a new climate, trading prospects for Ozzie Guillen — a proven manager in the sense that he won a World Series — was questionable on the Marlins part, though it was evident what they were trying to accomplish. It’s much tougher to understand the logic behind trading a solid defensive shortstop for Farrell.

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Young’s Time In Arizona Likely Coming to an End

The Arizona Diamondbacks had a disappointing 2012 season and the front office has identified key areas in which the team must improve. The outfield isn’t one of these areas, as the Diamondbacks now boast five players who could all stake a claim for a starting role, whether in Arizona or on another team.

They could conceivably make things work if everyone was retained, but that seems like a sub-optimal use of valuable resources. With platoons — both traditional and non-traditional — and injury risk, carrying four or five competent outfielders is often necessary. However, trading one or two of these players could solve issues elsewhere on the diamond. The team would still boast a solid outfield while improving in other key areas. But determining who to trade isn’t as straightforward, as non-performance factors must be taken into consideration.

The Diamondbacks currently have Justin Upton, Chris Young, Adam Eaton, Jason Kubel and Gerardo Parra under contract. Upton is the most talented of the group as well as the most expensive. Eaton is a top prospect under team control that played well in a small sample of September plate appearances. Kubel is a strong hitter who can’t run or field who is signed to a team-friendly contract. Parra is an average hitter under team control with excellent fielding marks. Young is a terrific defensive centerfielder capable of 20/20 production under team-friendly contractual terms.

The team is likely to retain Upton and play him in right field. The team also seems intent on playing Eaton in center field, which means that Young seems like the odd man out. He could shift to left field, but part of what makes him valuable would get eliminated in the process. Given his age, fielding skills, offensive pop and contract status, as well as the free agent market developing at the position, Young would instantly become a very attractive trade target if he were made available. Dealing him makes the most sense for the Diamondbacks, as he has become expendable with Eaton’s presence on the roster, and could extract the most value in return.

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Kimbrel’s Season For the Ages

Craig Kimbrel is putting the finishing touches on one of the best reliever seasons in history. He has struck out 113 of his 226 batters faced this season, producing a 50% strikeout rate that nobody with 30+ innings in a season has matched or exceeded.

In fact, nobody has ever thrown 30+ innings with a 45% strikeout rate either. Kimbrel isn’t merely en route to establishing a new record. He is about to blow right by the existing record, which was set in 2003 by Eric Gagne. Gagne struck out 44.7% of the opposition in his Cy Young campaign. Only two other relievers have even topped 44% throughout history: Aroldis Chapman‘s 44.4% rate this season, and Kenley Jansen’s 44.0% rate last year. While relievers face such a small sample of batters, and another strikeout or two could materially affect the strikeout rates in question, Kimbrel still has a commanding lead. He has simply been unhittable this season and may have established the new benchmark for evaluating relief pitching performance in this era.

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James Loney’s Prime Decline

If the Red Sox have been one of the most disappointing teams in baseball this year, then waiver trade import James Loney has been one of its most disappointing and frustrating players. The 28-year-old first baseman entered his contract year with high hopes. He tallied 2.4 WAR last year in the best season of his career, and while his numbers weren’t all that impressive when placed in the context of first basemen and not the overall league, Loney had shown signs of improving on both sides of the ball.

His production has completely cratered this season, and with free agency on the horizon it’s becoming tough to tell who will have interest in, and who will guarantee millions of dollars over at least a couple of seasons to, a light-hitting first baseman playing at the replacement level.

Loney has become the posterchild for both incorporating the appropriate context into statistical evaluations and understanding the true value of the alliterative small sample size seasonal splits. The once-touted prospect simply hasn’t delivered at the major league level, and his confounding floundering this season has set him up for a very interested free agent case study. Loney simply isn’t a good major league player relative to his position and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for teams to justify giving him a shot as anything other than a one-year stopgap if even a mediocre prospect is waiting in the wings.

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