Minor Happenings

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IFebruary 20, 2010

Russell Branyan finally found a taker, signing with the Indians for around $2 million guaranteed and an additional $1 million in performance incentives.  He was another guy who really overplayed his hand this off-season.  His final 2009 numbers were terrific, but he didn’t play after later August due to a back injury, he’s 34 in 2010, and he’s never had a season in a long major league career anything like his 2009.

That said, it’s not a bad deal for the Tribe.  Branyan has always been an underrated, under-utilized player, and, if he’s healthy in 2010, he should at the very least be a useful platoon player against right-handed pitchers at a reasonable price.

I’m less sanguine about the Nationals’ signing of Chien-Ming Wang for $2 million and a potential $3 million more in performance incentives.  While the price is right and Wang was a very effective pitcher for a couple of seasons for the Yankees, soft throwers who suffer major shoulder injuries traditionally don’t come back all that often.

Baseball history is littered with pitchers whose statistics resemble Wang’s, i.e. guys who don’t strike a lot of people out, but know how to pitch.  They can have a couple of big seasons, but then they tend to get hurt and never really make it back.

It’s interesting how pitchers don’t suffer shoulder injuries like they once did.  Now, the big injury is a blown elbow tendon.  This is almost certainly a result of the fact that major league pitchers as a group throw a lot more sliders and a lot fewer curves than they once did.

The Tommy John surgery technique has become so refined at this point that an awful lot of young pitchers who blow out their elbows can miss a full season or a season and a half, but once they are fully healed, they can pick up their careers almost where they left off.  It seems a lot harder to make that kind of come-back from a blown-out shoulder.

Another big factor in this is how old the pitcher is when he blows out his arm.  If he’s young (no more than 25 or 26 when he blows out his arm), it’s lot easier to come back than if he’s older than 27 when his arm breaks down.  Wang is 30 in 2010, so he’s on the wrong of the date line, for sure.

A couple more arbitration decisions were rendered.  Back-up catcher Jeff Mathis beat the Angels and will receive $1.3 million in 2010 instead of the $700,000 the Angels wanted to pay him.  Relief pitcher Sean Burnett lost, and the Nationals will pay him $775,000 instead of the $925,000 Burnett was seeking.

I’m surprised that Mathis won his arbitration hearing.  He was in his first year of arbitration eligibility, and he looks for all the world like a classic glove-tree catcher.  Mathis had a feeble .596 OPS last season and has a career major league OPS of .597 in a little over 800 plate appearances.  The arbitration panel must have liked the fact that he played in 84 games for the Angels last year.

Another factor is obviously the Angels’ low-ball offer.  Still, given the two proposed salaries, the panel must have concluded that Mathis’ 2009 performance was worth at least a dollar over $1 million.

I don’t see it.  Mathis looks an awful lot like Josh Paul, a back-up catcher who lost his arbitration hearing with the Rays in 2007, after a season in which he played 58 games at catcher and posted a .669 OPS.  Paul sought $940,000 but was awarded $625,000.  Perhaps that was what the Angels were thinking when they made their low-ball $700,000 offer.

This could be a case of winning the battle but losing the war for Mathis.  If he has a 2010 season in line with his career norms so far, there’s a strong likelihood that the Angels will non-tender him next off-season rather than being forced to give him a raise on the $1.3 million he’ll be making next year.

Jose Molina, an established veteran with a career .609 OPS, just signed a deal with the Blue Jays for a guaranteed $400,000 plus an additional $400,000 if he starts the season on the major league roster.   It also looks likely that Rod Barajas will sign a deal with the Mets for right around $1 million.  With established back-up catchers making this kind of money on the open market, there’s no way a team would offer arbitration to Mathis knowing they’d have to pay him more than $1.3 million as a best-case scenario.

In Mathis’ defense, he will be 27 in 2010, which is as good a season as any to have a career year.  Also, he was the 33rd player selected in the 2001 draft and was a good minor league hitter through 2005, when he had a fine season at AAA Salt Lake City at age 22.  However, he hasn’t done anything with the bat at any level since then.

I’m not particularly surprised that Sean Burnett lost his arbitration hearing.  The arbitrators have never been particularly kind to mediocre middle relievers.

However, Burnett was actually quite a bit better than mediocre in 2009.  He appeared in 71 games for the Pirates and Nationals and posted a strong 3.12 ERA.  However, he only pitched 57.2 innings, which I’m sure cost him.  However, that’s a pretty typical total for a full-time left-handed short man.

Here’s another way to look at it:  was Jeff Mathis, with his .596 OPS in 264 plate appearances in a league where the average OPS was .763 and (I will assume) his great defense at catcher, worth $1.3 million; while Sean Burnett who faced 237 batters and held them to a .599 OPS in a league where the average OPS was .739, worth only $775,000?

I don’t have any way to quantify Mathis’ defensive value at catcher, since fangraphs does not provide UZR ratings for that position.  Suffice it to say that the two arbitration decisions aren’t necessarily consistent.

The last player left who is going to arbitration this year is Cubs’ shortstop Ryan Theriot.  He’s asking for $3.4 million, the Cubs are asking for $2.6 million.

I’ll be surprised if Theriot doesn’t win this one in light of money Corey Hart, Cody Ross (winning) and B. J. Upton (losing) received.  Theriot has been the Cubs starting shortstop for three years now, and he’s pretty good.  He has no power, but his .387 on-base percentage in 2008 and .343 OBP last season are excellent for a middle infielder.  Also, fangraphs says he plays slightly above-average defense at short.  How is all that not worth $3.4 million in today’s market?

In a final note, I saw that Josh Barfield signed a minor league deal with Padres without an invitation to Spring Training.  Barfield is one of those guys who stands out as going from a burgeoning star to an absolute flop in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

For those of you who don’t remember, Barfield (the son of legendary right-field arm Jesse Barfield) had a tremendous rookie year as a 2Bman for the Padres in 2006 at age 23.  He played 150 games that year for the Padres and posted a .741 OPS, terrific for a rookie middle infielder.

It didn’t appear to be a fluke either, based on his preceding minor league seasons.  He had a break-out year in the A+ California League at age 20, posting a .919 OPS, and after a mediocre year at AA at age 21, he had a fine .820 OPS in the AAA Pacific Coast League at age 22.

In a move that surprised everyone at the time, the Padres traded Barfield after the 2006 season to Cleveland.  Apparently, the Padres knew something nobody else did, because Barfield has never come close to his 2006 performance.  He quickly played himself out of the major leagues, and even more surprising, he hasn’t been a good AAA player the last two seasons, posting a .660 OPS for Buffalo in 2008 and a .602 OPS for Columbus last year.  This is even more surprising when you consider that he was still only 25 and 26 years old those two seasons.

Here’s an article from the hardball times from November 2007 entitled, “What happened to Josh Barfield?” It makes some good points, but it’s still hard to understand how a young player who looked as promising as Barfield did from 20o3 through 2006 could turn into such a dud in what should have been some of his prime seasons.

Barfield will still be only 27 years old in 2010, but he has looked so bad his last three seasons, it seems doubtful at this point that he’ll ever put it together again enough to make it back to the major leagues.


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