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Friday, December 4, 2009
Offseason Notebook: Braves' new 'pen

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

There's something to this Atlanta-Boston connection.

To wit: The Braves used to hail from Boston. The two teams swapped first basemen (Casey Kotchman and Adam LaRoche) at the July 31 trade deadline. Longtime Atlanta Braves star John Smoltz decided to first attempt his 2009 comeback, where else, but in Boston. And just this week, the Braves found their successors to their late-inning, lefty/righty closer combo of Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez by signing two relievers who finished last season, where else, but in Boston.

Those relievers: left-hander Billy Wagner, inked Wednesday to a one-year, $7 million contract with a vesting option for 2011 at $6.75 million, and right-hander Takashi Saito, signed a day later for one year at $3 million. They come at roughly the same price as the men they'll likely replace -- both of whom were offered arbitration, keep in mind -- but that hardly means they'll immediately step into the same late-inning arrangement as the former two.

The closer's job almost assuredly is Wagner's. Here's why: He's far and away the team's most experienced option, he's paid like a closer and he cost the team two compensatory draft picks as a type-A free agent; you don't really do that if you're not convinced he's your man. With the exception of the obvious -- that Wagner gets hurt -- the only scenario in which his job security is likely threatened is if Soriano accepts arbitration (although he'll likely now try for a closer's gig elsewhere).

In other words, if you're a fantasy owner scouting for Braves saves, Wagner is the guy to get. He hasn't had an ERA higher than 2.73 or a WHIP north of 1.13 since 2000, and he has converted 88.8 percent of his save chances since 2001 (note that he has had more than 300 chances). More importantly, while Tommy John surgery cost him nearly two months of the 2008 season and all but the final six weeks of 2009, Wagner's velocity upon his return this past season was roughly the same as it was in 2007 and '08 with the New York Mets (between 94 and 95 mph on his fastball). As is often the case with Tommy John surgery returnees, for whom they say, "First you regain velocity, then command," Wagner struck out 14.9 hitters per nine innings in 15 late-season appearances, his highest number of the decade … but also walked 4.6, again his highest number of the decade.

In other words, Wagner might not be far removed from the 35-save, 2.50 ERA, 1.10 WHIP elite closer he was a few short seasons ago, especially back in the pitching-oriented National League. It's his level of health risk that's greater than it was in the past; he's now 38 years old, and a year and a half removed from major elbow surgery. The chances of him making 60-plus appearances are poorer than they once were, meaning Wagner shouldn't be ranked among the game's elite -- certainly not a top-10 closer, but probably top-20 -- and he should be handcuffed.

His handcuff? It's Saito, clearly, not that the Braves should be hoping Saito is pressed into ninth-inning duty. The right-hander is even older than Wagner (he'll turn 40 in February), and while he had an impressive 2.43 ERA in the American League, his WHIP rose for the second straight year (to a career-high 1.35), he walked more than four batters per inning and he used his slider less often. Saito's command might be failing him -- albeit slowly -- so he's a handcuff option, simple as that.

Placido Polanco
Placido Polanco, a career .334 hitter in 87 games at Citizens Bank Park, will take over third-base duties for the Phillies in 2010.
Phillies sign Placido Polanco: Curious move, being that Polanco hasn't played third base since 2005, hasn't started more than 21 games in a season there since 2002 and has only one season of more than 93 starts at the hot corner. But if there's any player who can make the transition seamlessly, it's a two-time Gold Glove winner at second base who has experience playing in the Citizens Bank Park infield. Still, Polanco is 34 years old and signed a three-year, $18 million deal including a $5.5 million mutual option for 2013, meaning critics who say there's significant risk the deeper the Philadelphia Phillies get into the deal aren't off base.

For 2010 (and perhaps another year), though, Polanco should be fine. He batted .285 in 2009, which was his lowest number since 1999, but should slide nicely into Shane Victorino's old spot in the order between Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. With a contact hitter with some of the best bat-handling skills in the game hitting behind him, Rollins might take more chances and get back to the 40-steal plateau. Polanco should be a 100-run candidate, although his other numbers might not be much different than they were in 2009. Victorino, meanwhile, might suffer in terms of runs scored and perhaps stolen bases, potentially hitting seventh instead of second. Expect closer to 85-90 runs and not much more than 2009's 25 steals.

In Detroit, Scott Sizemore likely takes over as the starting second baseman. A .308 hitter with 17 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 130 games between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo, Sizemore suffered a fractured left ankle during the Arizona Fall League but is expected to be ready for spring training. He'll have to earn the job but shouldn't have much trouble doing so without being a liability in any of the key rotisserie categories. A 15/15 season with a .280 batting average is possible.

Roy Halladay trade talks heat up: As a prelude to the winter meetings, which begin Monday -- and for all of the event's big moves, we'll have the fantasy spins, naturally -- let's talk a little Roy Halladay, because he heads into the event as the highest-profile name on the trade block. The Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels remain the four most-rumored destinations for the workhorse right-hander, and if you're a Halladay keeper-league owner, you have to be pleased with any of those possibilities (assuming you're not in an AL-only league and Halladay ends up a Dodger).

Halladay averaged a major league-best (easily so, at that) 7.47 innings per start, and had a 2.79 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 2009, yet won only 17 games. Naturally, pitching at that performance level for the Red Sox or Yankees, he'd be a virtual lock for 20 wins, something few pitchers can claim these days. Only twice did Halladay get a "cheap win" (non-quality start victory), and one of those was a complete game in which he allowed only four runs. By comparison, he had seven "tough losses" (quality-start loss), and his team averaged 4.66 runs in his starts. The Red Sox as a team, incidentally, averaged 5.38 runs per game in 2009, the Yankees 5.65 and the Angels 5.45. As for the Dodgers, by now even intermediate-experienced fantasy owners know how much more pitching-oriented the NL is. In 2009 alone, NL pitchers had a composite ERA a third of a run lower than their AL counterparts. Halladay might have a shot at an ERA crown in L.A.

Kelly Shoppach traded to Tampa Bay: An odd move by the Tampa Bay Rays, who already had Dioner Navarro under contract and now face arbitration hearings with both, who earned $1.95 and $2.1 million respectively in 2009. But it's one fantasy owners are going to like, primarily because of what it does to the Cleveland Indians' catching situation: clears a path for top prospect Carlos Santana.

Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana was featured at the 2009 Futures All-Star game, as part of the World team.

The Double-A Eastern League's MVP this season, Santana batted .290 with 30 doubles, 23 home runs, 97 RBIs and 90 walks (contributing to a .413 on-base percentage) in 130 games for Akron, and should make his big-league debut sometime in 2010. Reports that Santana's winter-ball season was recently cut short mention it was a precautionary measure as he had been battling the flu, but those same reports hint that the top catching prospect in all of baseball will begin the season in Triple-A ball. Lou Marson is expected to replace Shoppach as the Indians' Opening Day catcher, with Wyatt Toregas or a free agent set to back him up, but Marson, a .274 hitter who slugged just .386 in his minor league career, is probably more suited for a reserve role long term. As things stand, Santana should get the full-time job as soon as he proves himself ready, be it in spring training or halfway through the season, which sounds a lot like Matt Wieters' path to the majors in 2009. For now, Santana should probably be drafted at the earned value Wieters had this past season, not at the buzz-generated top-10 level the Orioles phenom had in the preseason; a starting job is simply less secure. Wieters did finish 15th on the Player Rater among catchers, though; it's not unthinkable Santana could do that if he comes out swinging in the preseason.

As for Shoppach, there's uncertainty behind the plate in Tampa Bay, too, as he and the incumbent Navarro are somewhat redundant. Neither hits right-handers as effectively as left-handers, neither is a plus defender and neither is especially adept at gunning down opposing baserunners. One might be non-tendered at the Dec. 12 deadline -- probably Navarro as the more expensive and more experienced (490 career games to Shoppach's 310) -- if not traded before then. If it's Shoppach who stays, while his power is legit, fantasy owners won't be pleased with his poor batting average, which would be sagged by his .221 mark (plus .327 on-base percentage and .425 slugging percentage) versus righties the past two seasons.

The Rays would be smart to bring in a left-handed catcher who could serve as a platoon partner and defensive replacement, which might help explain why Gregg Zaun is being offered arbitration. The problem: Besides Zaun, only Paul Bako and Josh Bard, both of whom have sub-.700 career OPS versus righties, are left-handed among free-agent catchers, and Ryan Doumit, a weak defender, is the most realistic available on the trade market. As a 100-plus game catcher, which seems the most likely scenario today, Shoppach might hit you 20 homers … but bat around .240.

Athletics acquire Jake Fox: Unable to find a permanent spot for him in their lineup, the Chicago Cubs dealt Fox, one of the more exciting young rookie hitters of 2009, along with Aaron Miles and $1 million to the Oakland Athletics on Thursday in exchange for right-handed relievers Jeff Gray and Eduardo Morlan and infielder/outfielder Matt Spencer, whom the Chicago Tribune called a "more athletic version of Fox." Fox is the most notable player in the deal; he's a perfect fit for an AL team thanks to the addition of the designated hitter, though maybe not a great one for the Athletics, who already have natural DH Jack Cust. Fox might see time at third base, at first base or DH to spell lefties Daric Barton and/or Cust, or at the corner outfield spots. Expect more than the 216 at-bats he received in Chicago last year, but the guy can flat-out hit if given a chance. He had .900-plus OPS in both 2007 and 2008 in the minors and hit 28 home runs with 97 RBIs in 127 games between Triple-A Iowa and the Cubs last season. The main drawback for sleeper-seekers: Fox, who appeared in only three games behind the plate in 2009, might not see enough to qualify there in 2010, either, not with Kurt Suzuki as the Athletics' catcher.

Marco Scutaro joins Red Sox: The Boston Herald reports Scutaro agreed to a two-year deal with an option for 2012 late Thursday night, filling a spot the Red Sox have had difficulty filling for several seasons. Although his landing on a contending team might serve to inflate his draft-day price tag, Scutaro might be destined to disappoint, coming off a career year and moving from a top-of-the-order role to an almost certain spot in the lower third for the Red Sox. He really does only three things especially well: He takes walks, he makes contact and he's a quality defender at multiple infield positions. The walks, though, are the only things that tend to translate into fantasy success and they're not going to do so as much if he's a No. 9 hitter as they would if he were a No. 1 or 2, because of the impact on his runs scored. Scutaro will be a long shot to repeat 2009's 100 runs, and since he's a .265 career hitter, he probably shouldn't be expected to repeat his career-best .282 mark, either.

Other minor moves: A lot of bench roles have been handed out in advance of the winter meetings, most notably the Chicago White Sox signing former Texas Rangers Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel. Neither has a straight path to a starting job -- Vizquel shouldn't -- and in Jones' case, while he could have some daily matchups appeal on days he faces a left-hander, the statistics actually don't back it up. He's a .214/.341/.406 hitter versus lefties the past three seasons, making it clear that for all his power, he'll be a significant batting-average risk any day. … The Toronto Blue Jays moved to replace the departing Scutaro, signing quality defender Alex Gonzalez, a former Red Sox and not the one that played with the team earlier this decade, to play shortstop. Gonzalez doesn't quite have the range he once did, meaning his addition might not have any noticeable impact on the pitching staff, and in fantasy he's a major liability due to his batting average (.245 career). He might be able to rival 2007's 16 home runs given everyday at-bats, but won't be much more than an AL-only middle infield option. … The Mets and Phillies addressed their backup catching situations, as the Phillies signed ex-Met Brian Schneider and the Mets ex-Phillie Chris Coste and Henry Blanco. Carlos Ruiz remains the Phillies' starting catcher, leaving Schneider in more of the Paul Bako role from 2009, though with perhaps more at-bats than Bako's 116 in 107 days on the big-league roster. Blanco seems more likely to begin the year as the Mets' backup, with them rumored in the market for a starter; perhaps Bengie Molina, or might they go after one of the Rays' backstops? As light-hitting as they are, fantasy owners shouldn't want Schneider, Blanco or Coste, even if any is pressed into starting duty midseason due to injuries.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.