The Mets have made three moves in the last two weeks. They traded pitcher Michael Antonini for Dodgers farmhand Chin-Lung Hu. Then yesterday word came down that they had signed free agent starter Chris Capuano and free agent right-handed reliever Taylor Buchholz. I want to briefly take a look at all three moves and hopefully reconstruct what the Mets thought process was for each.
Hu for Antonini
I am stunned by some of the negative reaction to this deal, including that of Jon Heyman from SI.com . Well, I’m not really stunned. While no one is better sourced, Heyman has cleverly positioned himself as a foil of the sabermetric community as a means of driving web traffic to his articles. Success yet again Jon! All of this is to say that I think we should expect him to be critical of every move Sandy Alderson makes (unless it is overpaying a Scott Boras client).
To the merits, you’d think the Mets just traded Scott Kazmir for Kaz Matsui. In reality, I think the Mets got an absolute steal. First, what we gave up. Here are Antonini’s stats for 2009 and 2010 (pitching at Double and Triple-A both seasons):
2009 (age 24): 6.78 SO/9 (you want a minor league starter to be at 9 SO/9), 7-6, 5.74 ERA; 2.7 BB/9
2010 (age 25): 7.01 SO/9, 8-12, 4.49 ERA; 1.65 BB/9.
Yes, Antonini showed some small improvement from 2009-10, but he’s still not ready to be a big league starter. He also doesn’t do particularly well against lefty hitters, which suggests he won’t be a good specialist. And, at 26, it’s unlikely he’ll suddenly find himself. Thus, I don’t find it “puzzling” that the Mets gave up Antonini.
But, more importantly, I think we got something very valuable in return. Yes, overall, Hu has not proven he can hit enough to be an every-day player at the big-league level. But, against left-handed pitchers, he can rake. Last year, he hit lefties to a .435/.452/.594 tune. And, as is widely known, he’s an excellent defender at short and second. Or, to put the above another way, he’s the perfect platoon partner/late-inning defensive replacement for Daniel Murphy.
I also like Hu for another reason. He plays short. The Mets have stubbornly refused to put a backup shortstop on the roster for the bulk of Jose Reyes’ tenure as a Met (remember his memorable, “I don’t play bench” statement back in ’06?). As a result, in 2005 Reyes played in 161 games, in 2006-153, 2007-160, 2008-159, and then, I don’t need to tell you, only 36 in 2009 and 133 in 2010 (while playing almost every day when he was healthy). Players like Reyes, who rely on their legs and play a physically demanding position, need days off. I’d love to look at Reyes’ healthy years and compare how he performs after playing, say, 30 straight games, with a 30-day period where he had one day of rest, but there are none!! And please, spare me the “he gets paid to play every day” comments. I want Reyes at his best, and a day off here and there is clearly to his benefit. Hu allows the Mets to rest Reyes (maybe every other Pelfrey start?) and sacrifice some offense for improved defense.
Signing Chris Capuano
This is a classic low-risk, medium-reward move. Capuano didn’t pitch at all in ’08 and ’09. But, there’s pretty good reason to believe he’s now healthy. His fastball and slider velocity in 2010 was actually above his pre-injury level (87.4-86.9, 78.4-77.1). And when healthy, Capuano can be a pretty good starting pitcher. In ’05 and ’06, his peripheral numbers (7.23/7.08 SO/9, 3.74/1.91 BB/9, .291/.308 BABIP) suggest that his ERA’s right around 4 were appropriate.
Further, Capuano stands to benefit from his move to Citi Field in two meaningful ways. First, he’s always had a fairly high fly-ball to home run ratio — 11.8% for his career. That should drop as a Met. Second, his numbers have been inflated somewhat by pitching in front of a truly awful Brewers defense (which has manifested itself in Capuano having two seasons with infield hit percentages above 10%). Capuano actually generates a fair number of ground balls (around 40% of all batted balls), and should benefit from a solid Mets infield defense.
Is he Cliff Lee? No. But if healthy, I could see an ERA around 3.75 over 175 innings.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one, other than the last time Buchholz was healthy, he was an effective reliever. In 2007, he had a fairly high 4.23 ERA. But that was due mainly to a high (.318 BABIP) and a poor performance as a starter. In the ‘pen, he pitched to a 2.70 ERA. In 2008, his last year of full health, Buchholz was a full-time reliever and was dominant; striking out 7.6 per 9 innings and allowing only 0.68 HR/9 with an ERA of only 2.17. That season, however, was somewhat due to luck as Buchholz had an unsustainably low .225 BABIP. However, his SIERA was only 3.66, which still indicates he had some value. And, according to Baseball Prospectus, his WXRL (my preferred metric for measuring relievers) was 2.538, good for 30th among all big-league relievers.
In sum, are any of these moves game changers? Probably not. But they are a sign that our new front office knows how to build a real team. Each of these guys, when healthy, can be quality major leaguers who contribute. That means we may not have to watch the Jeremi Gonzalez’s of the world start games. Or maybe Jose Reyes will have one fewer trip to the DL. These are the kinds of transactions that, when coupled with a talented core, make the difference over a 162-game season. Had Omar had the foresight to make these kinds of deals in 2007 and 2008, we’d have a couple of more playoff births to have enjoyed, and maybe even a world series to be remembered.