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How MLB Winners Can Still Be Built After January 1

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How MLB Winners Can Still Be Built After January 1
Jason Miller/Getty Images
It's players like Scott Kazmir who can make the bargain bin shopping season of January worth the trouble.

Come January, MLB's offseason becomes less about serious shopping and more about teams rounding out their rosters. If you're not into that sort of thing, it can be a real slog.

Do not, however, underestimate the smaller moves that will be made this month. Down the line, some of them could have a big impact.

Now, sure, OK. Free agents like Prince Fielder and Matt Holliday have signed in past Januaries. Big trades have also been made, including last year's Justin Upton blockbuster. In my book, though, that teams with the means should still pursue moves like these kind of goes without saying.

It's moves where the talent isn't as much on the surface that we're here to talk about. A lot of these moves are made every January, and they tend fall into individual categories that we shall discuss right...

...Now.

 

Second-Chance Young Guys

Any player who has a recent track record of success, and who is close enough to the age of 30, is going to do well on the open market and is certainly unlikely to still be hunting for a job in January.

Some of the younger guys who are still looking for work come January are those whose track records of success are there, but unfortunately are not recent. The market can determine that whatever talent was there just isn't there anymore.

And it can be wrong.

Take, for example, two past January finds of the Tampa Bay Rays: Casey Kotchman in 2011 and Jeff Keppinger in 2012. If we simplify things using FanGraphs WAR, here's what the Rays were looking at when they were weighing the two of them:

Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger
Player Through Age Rough Span Rough Span WAR Good Span Good Span WAR
Kotchman 27 2010 -1.5 2007-2009 4.7
Keppinger 31 2011 0.3 2010 1.7

FanGraphs

The Rays approached Kotchman and Keppinger when they were both coming off subpar seasons. But given their past performances, the Rays had every right to ask: Maybe it was just one bad year?

They ended up putting their money where their mouth was, and the result was:

  • Kotchman in 2011: 2.4 WAR
  • Keppinger in 2012: 2.8 WAR

Both players' turnarounds were largely the products of BABIP rebounds. Kotchman's BABIP went from .229 in 2010 to .335 in 2011. Keppinger's went from .280 in 2011 to .332 in 2012. No doubt the Rays were anticipating as much when they decided to sign both players.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Adrian Beltre immediately returned to being his old self upon escaping from Seattle.

Kotchman and Keppinger aren't the only January success stories that fit into the mold of young (or young-ish) players living up to past success. Other examples are Juan Uribe in 2009, Adrian Beltre in 2010 and Ryan Sweeney and Ryan Raburn last year. All were picked up after tough stretches, but all were still in their prime years and were able to rebound.

And while I couldn't find as many of them, there have been some success stories with pitchers, too. 

Consider Brett Myers, who lived up to his track record in much the same way as the aforementioned hitters did. After he completed a rebound season with the Houston Astros in 2010 following a January deal, his progression looked like this:

Brett Myers' Progression
2009 Age 2005-2008 WAR 2009 WAR 2010 Age 2010 WAR
28 9.5 -0.6 29 3.8

FanGraphs

Myers' 2009 season wasn't just a disaster statistically, as he was limited to only 18 appearances because of right hip surgery and, eventually, a right shoulder strain. He also looked broken, but he was still young enough for there to be some upside. Sure enough, there was.

With young pitchers who might be in for a rebound, it's not always a matter of looking at their track records. As Oakland Athletics director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi recently told me, Brandon McCarthy's comeback in 2011 was partially a result of the organization liking what they saw from him in winter ball.

It was the same thing with the Cleveland Indians and Scott Kazmir last January. As MLBTradeRumors.com noted when the former star lefty was signed, Kazmir had been throwing in the 90-94 mph range in the Puerto Rican winter league. Quite the improvement over the 86-87 range he had been sitting at in 2011.

The Indians took a gamble that Kazmir's improved stuff would play as well in the majors as it did in Puerto Rico, and it did—to the tune of a 2.5 WAR. 

Signings like these amount to little more than a team being willing to throw something at the wall to see if it sticks. It should be granted that not everything will. But as long as success stories keep popping up here and there, you can rest assured that teams are going to keep trying.

And because there's not an endless supply of young players to go around every winter, it's a good thing the same trick works with older players. 

 

Second-Chance Old Guys

If the above lesson boils down to not underestimating guys who look like they've fizzled out, this lesson boils down to not underestimating guys who look over-the-hill.

Consider Aubrey Huff, who was a January find by the San Francisco Giants in 2010, and Ryan Ludwick, who was a January find by the Cincinnati Reds in 2012. Both were heading into their age-33 seasons, and both were fresh off disastrous seasons:

Huff, however, was only one year removed from a 3.7 WAR in 2008. For Ludwick, 2010 was the fourth straight year he'd been worth at least 1.5 WAR. For both, their bad years were very sudden downfalls.

Here's what ended up happening:

  • Huff in 2010: 5.9 WAR
  • Ludwick in 2012: 2.6 WAR

Ludwick benefited from a HR/FB rebound (7.5 to 18.4), which was aided by playing home games at Great American Ball Park rather than Petco Park and PNC Park.

Huff also benefited from HR/FB rebound (9.1 to 14.4). To boot, he made like the Kotchman and Keppinger and enjoyed a big BABIP rebound (.260 to .303). 

Huff wasn't the only veteran player who had a bounce-back year in 2010 after being a January pickup. Vladimir Guerrero and Jim Edmonds did as well. Looking back even further, the A's darn near got an MVP season out of Frank Thomas after signing him in January of 2006.

As for veteran pitchers who enjoyed rebirths following January signings, you can look to Bartolo Colon's comeback in 2011 after a year off in 2010. Kevin Millwood enjoyed a solid comeback of his own in 2012. Both had been good pitchers, and they became good pitchers again.

But when it comes to veteran pitching, maybe the best January find in recent memory was Fernando Rodney in 2012. His progression went like this:

Fernando Rodney's Progression
2011 Age 2011 WAR 2008-2010 WAR 2012 Age 2012 WAR
34 -0.4 0.7 35 2.3

FanGraphs

Now, Rodney certainly did overachieve in 2012, with the most notable question mark being a gigantic decrease in walks despite a 44.6 Zone% that was roughly average.

But as returns to form go, Rodney's wasn't totally out of left field. He hadn't been terrific in the three years prior to 2011, but he hadn't been a total disaster either. And since his 2011 disaster wasn't a matter of his stuff—Rodney was one of the league's 20 hardest-throwing relievers—the Rays had some solid excuses to make him a buy-low candidate.

Whether we're talking young guys or old guys, there are always going to be a few players like the ones we've discussed available every January. That can be chalked up to free agency still being a "What have you done for me lately?" business. Second-chance candidates can slip through the cracks and can ultimately reward any team willing to gamble on their track records.

If teams are willing, they can also gamble on specific parts of players' track records in hopes of...

 

Exploiting Exploitable Skill Sets

If a guy is struggling in one role, why not put him in a role that fits him better and see what happens?

With hitters, this question is most often answered in the form of platoons. And while platoon players don't fly under the radar quite as well as they used to, some recent January additions stand out. 

Namely: Andruw Jones in 2011 and Jonny Gomes in 2012.

Here's how Jones' platoon splits looked in 2010 as a member of the White Sox:

Andruw Jones' 2010 Platoon Splits
Split PA wRC+
vs. RHP 226 108
vs. LHP 102 149

FanGraphs

And here's how Gomes' platoon splits looked as a member of the Reds in 2011:

Jonny Gomes' 2011 Platoon Splits
Split PA wRC+
vs. RHP 264 81
vs. LHP 108 141

FanGraphs

If only the plate-appearance totals were reversed, right?

Well, that's precisely what the New York Yankees did with Jones in 2011:

Andruw Jones' 2011 Platoon Splits
Split PA wRC+
vs. RHP 76 95
vs. LHP 146 152

FanGraphs

And what the A's did with Gomes in 2012: 

Jonny Gomes' 2012 Platoon Splits
Split PA wRC+
vs. RHP 137 101
vs. LHP 196 171

FanGraphs

Much better, and both the Yankees and A's benefited. The Yankees got 1.3 WAR out of Jones over only 222 plate appearances, and the A's got 2.0 WAR out of Gomes in only 333 plate appearances. 

Looking for hitters with clearly defined platoon skills is easy. But while something similar can be done with pitchers, it's not as easy to ingeniously insert a pitcher into a specialized role. Pitchers who are cut out for such roles tend to gravitate towards them naturally.

But turning, say, a starter into a reliever? That can be done, and there's a notable instance of it having been done with a January signing.

When the Seattle Mariners picked up Oliver Perez as a free agent in January of 2012, he had made only nine relief appearances in over 200 career outings. It was more of the same for him in the minors in 2011, as he started in 15 of 16 appearances.

Perez, however, had been a good candidate for bullpen duty for years. He'd always used a fastball-slider style that was perfect for relief work. Once his average velocity dropped below 90 mph in 2010, it should have been apparent that relief pitching was the way to save his arm.

So the Mariners made Perez a reliever in 2012, and the result was this in his two years with the team:

Oliver Perez, 2012-2013
G IP FB Velo K% BB% ERA FIP WAR
94 82.2 92.7 27.8 10.2 3.16 3.14 1.3

FanGraphs

Remaking Perez into a lefty reliever worked like a charm. His fastball velocity went up, and he missed more than enough bats and kept more than enough runs off the board to hold down a job.

With known commodities, it's as simple as all of the above. Finding hidden gems in January is a matter of taking a leap of faith on either their past glory or on specific skills that are well-suited to a particular role.

Our last point, however, concerns an entirely different market. One in which the commodities are much more unknown, yet can prove to be just as good.

 

Talent from Abroad

When Aroldis Chapman signed with the Reds in January of 2010, it was big news. When Yu Darvish signed with the Texas Rangers in January of 2012, it was big news. If Masahiro Tanaka agrees to a contract before this January is out, it will be big news.

Such is life these days. The best international players have a way of becoming almost cult heroes in the States, and their signings can attract just as much fanfare as big domestic signings and trades.

And yet, it's still possible for big-impact talent from abroad to slip into MLB under the radar. And, you guessed it, there are some notable instances of it happening in January.

Among the foreign imports who have made their entry into MLB in the month of January are Koji Uehara, Wei-Yin Chen, Norichika Aoki and Hisashi Iwakuma. The former signed in January of 2009, and the latter three signed in January of 2012. All four are now established big leaguers.

After posting a 3.01 ERA and 6.68 K/BB in 10 seasons in Japan, Uehara owns a 2.42 ERA and 8.74 K/BB in five MLB seasons. After posting a 2.59 ERA in five seasons in Japan, Chen owns a solid 4.04 ERA and 104 ERA+ in two seasons in MLB. A lifetime .329 hitter in Japan, Aoki is a .287 hitter in two MLB seasons.

Iwakuma, meanwhile, is one of the most underrated pitchers in MLB. After being wasted in a bullpen role for most of 2012, all he's done in 49 starts is rack up a 2.66 ERA and 1.07 WHIP.

It's not just the new imports that are worth keeping an eye out for, mind you. Teams can also score with players returning from tours overseas.

Take the Rangers and Colby Lewis. After racking up a 2.82 ERA in two seasons in Japan, he pitched to a 3.72 regular-season ERA and 1.71 postseason ERA in 2010. And though his MLB comeback didn't take off like Lewis' did, Ryan Vogelsong is another player who was a January signing following a stint in Japan.

If rounding out a winning team in January is about picking out the best of what's left, the players coming from abroad must not be overlooked. Not all of them are going to be as celebrated as Chapman, Darvish and Tanaka, but talent doesn't need to be celebrated to be worthwhile.

It's a sentiment that can be handily applied to many players picked up in January. If a team has a keen eyeand, this being baseball, more than a little good luckthe celebrating can come later.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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