Monday, December 28, 2015

Potential Free Agent Bargains Part 2: The Villanuevas

Carlos Villanueva, Billy Hurst/AP
This is Part 2 of a three-part series looking for free agent bargains in the 2015-2016 offseason. In Part 1, which was featured on MLBTR's Baseball Blogs Weigh In piece on Sundays, we looked at minor league free agents who could produce for major league teams, such as Yangervis Solarte did with the Yankees/Padres in 2014. Carlos Villanueva, himself a free agent, was an undervalued commodity in last year's offseason, not signing until February 4th and only for a minor league, incentive-based deal. He went on to post a 2.95 ERA, 3.74 FIP, and a 8.1 K/9 in 61 relief innings for the St. Louis Cardinals, a versatile and important cog in their bullpen that was solid into the playoffs. In this piece, we will look at other players like Villanueva, undervalued assets who, under the proper circumstances, could become contributing pieces to contending teams.


Ryan Webb, RHP (video)

Coming through the A's and Padres farm system, Webb was a hard-throwing righty who sat 95 mph with his fastball to go with a power slider. As he was traded to the Marlins back in 2011 in the Cameron Maybin deal, he dropped the big fastball, opting for a sinker/slider combo instead that has helped him generate big ground ball rates over the course of his career. The big right-hander (6'6'') has been as consistent as relief pitchers get, with a career FIP that has never topped 3.77 in a single season except his rookie year. Webb sits at 92 mph with his heavy sinker and mixes in a slider to get swings and misses and a changeup to neutralize lefties. He doesn't walk too many as evidenced by his 2.1 BB/9 last season, but he won't strike out too many either, with his 5.5 K/9 in 2015. What he does do is limit batted ball damage, get ground balls (59.2% in 2015) and keep the ball in the park (career 0.5 HR/9). He might not be a flashy flamethrower at the back end of a bullpen, but he should come very cheap and provide quality innings in middle relief.

Cesar Ramos, LHP (video)

Hidden behind the likes of hard-throwing lefties Antonio Bastardo and Oliver Perez, Ramos could be one of the best value pickups to help out a bullpen this season. Like Webb, Ramos isn't exactly a flame-thrower (averages 89.8 mph on his fastball), but he can get ground balls (1.64 GB/FB ratio) and get outs effectively (2.75 ERA/3.07 FIP). It is hard to understand why the Angels would non-tender him at an estimated price of $1.7 million, as he produced solid numbers as a bullpen piece for them last season. It may be because he lacks the traditional velocity, extreme ground ball rates, or ability to annihilate same-sided opponents that most teams want in their back of the bullpen relievers, but Ramos can effectively get righties and lefties out, fill the strike zone (2.6 BB/9), keep the ball in the park (0.3 HR/9), as well as pick up some K's (7.4 K/9), making him a pitcher where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Ramos does not do one thing especially well, but he can do a little bit of everything, making him an attractive option, especially as a lefty to round out a bullpen.

Domonic Brown, OF
Dom Brown, at 28, still has so much upside, as much potential as he did when both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him the #4 prospect in all of baseball. He is just two years removed from hitting .272/.324/.494 with 27 home runs, as shown in the video above, in a very strong 2013 campaign. Many believed that that was Brown's breakout season and would lead to even more greatness to come, but since then he has fell off a cliff. He OPS'd just .634 the past two seasons, spending the first half of 2015 on the disabled list and rehabbing in the minors. He came back in June and struggled initially, but a hot July, where he hit .293/.303/.427 with 3 HRs gave fans hope that Brown had finally rediscovered his potential, but he hit just .177 the rest of the way. As we dig into some of the more advanced numbers, it seems that Brown's plate discipline has remained generally the same the last three years, with his Contact% hovering around 80%. Batted ball numbers remain about the same as well, with grounders and flies holding generally steady, but the main difference between 2013 and '14/'15 was his hard hit rate and line drive%. In 2013, Brown had a 22.8% line-drive rate and a 33.5% hard-hit rate, compared to 15.7% and 25.5% in 2015, leading to a spike in HR/FB% in his big year, a 19.3% well above his career average of 12.1%. However, all three of these ratios fluctuate greatly from year to year, and it is hard to judge a player based on them. It is possible that if Brown were put on the right team playing the right matchups (career .230 hitter against lefties) that he could see a rebound in these ratios and rediscover past form as he is about to hit his physical prime at age 28. It wouldn't be unrealistic to see him provide solid offensive production against righties in a strict platoon and hit around .250/.315/.425 with 10 or so home runs, good production for possibly just a minor league contract. The downside of having him is he provides negative defensive value (oh god) and is not a great baserunner, but teams desperate for some outfield pop could take a flyer on his sweet swing and easy power and come away with something big.
Fun fact: the home runs he hit off this year came of 4 top-of-rotation arms: Zack Greinke, Jacob DeGromShelby Miller, and James Shields. His fifth came of Braves righty Williams Perez.

Justin Ruggiano, OF (video)
Ruggiano, who just signed with Texas for $1.65 million, is one of the best bargain signings of the offseason. He absolutely destroys left-handed pitching, with a 134 wRC+ and .272/.336/.520 slash line, which will fit in nicely in a platoon with the likes of left handed outfielders Josh Hamilton and Shin-Soo Choo, neither of whom were very good against lefties last year. Ruggiano can hold his own against righties as well, and although below average, a career 93 wRC+ against same sided pitching could be left in the lineup without cringing, although it would not be the ideal scenario for him to be in. He has a bit of speed too, stealing 5 bags last year in just 57 games, and stole 15 in his season as a full time player in Miami back in 2013. He can handle all 3 outfield positions reasonably well with a decent arm, and is a very valuable and cheap option for Texas to have on the bench and impact multiple aspects of the game. An interesting stat to note with the addition of the new StatCast info from this season: the average MLB hitter generates 0.43 mph of velocity on each pitch, but Ruggiano is way over with 5.4 mph generated, above Trout, Donaldson, Cespedes, Bautista, Cruz...

George Kottaras, C (video
The lone player on this list who did not play in the majors in 2015, Kottaras can be had for a minor league deal. He is a career 100 wRC+ hitter in the big leagues, above average production for a catcher, and the journeyman possesses one of the best plate discipline/power combos out of all backstops in pro ball. His career 14.1% walk rate deserves looks at for a shot to be a backup/platoon option somewhere, and it was an insane 20.8% in AAA Charlotte this season, where he hit .247/.403/.505 with 7 homers in just 31 games. He is a good defensive catcher as well, with a career 5.0 Def score on Fangraphs, a good pitch-blocker but a bit below average with his arm and pitch-framing. His main drawback is his penchant for striking out, as his career 23.7% k-rate shows, and in his last full season in the bigs, he K'd at a 33.3% clip. As a part time player at an offensively weak position like catcher though, striking out too much doesn't seem like too big a price to pay for a cheap option that hits left-handed who can provide some power, patience, and defense to a lineup, and catching-dire teams like the Mariners or Phillies could give Kottaras a shot at redemption in the MLB.

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