Josh Hamilton is a long way from finding a new home, but Josh Roenicke has one. Michael Bourn is still feeling out the market, but Mike Aviles has been traded twice in a fortnight. The offseason is underway, and although neither MLB free agency nor trading season will gain significant traction until the other side of Thanksgiving, there has already been movement. Here are some thoughts on the early moves in a winter that promises big changes.

Bartolo Colon signs one-year, $3-million deal with Oakland Athletics

This caught a lot of people off their guard, but it probably shouldn’t have. Baseball teams, with no notable exceptions, care very little about allegations, or even proof, of performance-enhancing drug use. Colon will start the season on the restricted list after testing positive for synthetic testosterone late in the 2012 campaign, but he’s a good pitcher (91:20 strikeout-to-unintentional walk rate in 2012), and if Oakland hadn’t signed him, someone else would have.

Seeing Colon get a new deal, even as he closes in on 40, and even without the chops of more than a fourth starter, is a good reminder of something you may as well prepare for now: Melky Cabrera is going to get a two or three-year deal somewhere. He won’t even begin 2013 on the restricted list, thanks to the Giants’ deep drive into October.

It’s clear now, to clear-eyed observers, that the Giants’ decision not to bring Cabrera back for the NLCS or World Series (after he was banned 50 games for a positive test for testosterone in early August) was not about PED use. That was clear, actually, back when Guillermo Mota made their playoff roster despite missing most of the season with his second (!) such suspension, but this reiterates the point.

A case could have been made that the special circumstance of Cabrera’s violation led the Giants to leave him at home, and that it would hurt Cabrera in free agency. He fabricated a product and advertised it on a fake website in order to try to escape suspension. That case could still be made, but it just doesn’t add up. Jeff Kent lied about a broken wrist once upon a time, to essentially the same executive suite.

No, the Giants weren’t passing moral judgment on Cabrera by voluntarily weakening themselves in October. They just didn’t feel they were, in fact, weakening themselves. As a student of the game’s numbers and its history, I can tell you that Cabrera is a better hitter and ballplayer than Gregor Blanco. However, having a limited understanding of the physical mechanics of the game (I played organized ball for the last time at age eight), I can’t tell you what percentage of Cabrera’s skills would be lost for some or all of the postseason because of the lack of live-game action between the first week of August and the third week in September (when Cabrera would have been able to get in some work in the fall instructional league if the Giants had seen fit to send him there). Blanco hit .235/.339/.412 in the playoffs, with plus-plus defense on some key plays. Cabrera probably wasn’t a genuinely better option, given the limited framework for getting back to peak form after the down time.

Anyway, baseball teams clearly don’t hold cheaters in moral contempt, is what I’m saying. They make decisions based on a desire to optimize their chances of winning. With Brett Anderson’s health so far from certain, and given that they’re very unlikely to retain Brandon McCarthy, the A’s needed a competent starting pitcher who wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. Bartolo Colon fit.

Toronto Blue Jays trade Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes to the Cleveland Indians for Esmil Rogers

It’s funny. Forty years ago, no way would Toronto have made this trade. Aviles is a utile utility man, a good enough glove to play shortstop when necessary and a powerful enough bat to provide a jolt at second or third base, or in a pinch-hitting role. The pinch-hitting thing matters much less in the post-1973 AL, of course, but then, Aviles can allow a fragile or aging infielder to DH for a day a week, or take the duty himself in times of trouble.

Meanwhile, Esmil Rogers’ new role as a one-inning reliever was reserved for the weak of arm or character back then. Once a struggling starter in Colorado, Rogers made a transition to the bullpen in 2012, and fanned 25 percent of the batters he faced after being dealt to Cleveland. He only issued 10 unintentional walks as an Indian.

He’s not likely to make a successful move back to the rotation; a lot of his success came from junking his change-up and gaining two or three miles per hour on each of his other three pitches. Once a guy who sat 94 with his fastball, Rogers averaged 96 MPH in his first full season of relief, and his slider (had been 85-86) starting biting at the ankles of 90 MPH. Still, this role Rogers can very capably fill–power reliever missing bats in the seventh and eighth innings–now has huge value in baseball. Just ask recent playoff teams. The 2012 Giants weathered a tough year for Tim Lincecum by deploying some high-powered arms in relief to keep themselves in games–then by turning Lincecum into one of those arms in October. The 2011 Cardinals and Rangers had bullpens four or five deep with above-average strikeout-centric hurlers. This is how good rosters are built in 2012.

On the other hand, the role prescribed for Aviles above is much diminished today. The preponderance of relief arms, and really the decline in the number of innings any given pitcher is expected to contribute in a season, has left few spaces at the ends of rosters for positional players with limitations on their game both offensively and defensively. Forget 1973. Even in 1993, I might rather have had Mike Aviles than Esmil Rogers. In 2013, though, Rogers is probably the more valuable property. Yan Gomes is not a zero, but in terms of short-term value added, give me Toronto’s side of this trade.

Of course, the Tribe may have had motivations other than short- or even long-term value added for acquiring Aviles. For their sake, I hope so. The Indians are a franchise run by smart people, but one that has been (for the moment) derailed by one or two bad trades; a bevy of injuries; and some bad luck. All of these problems have been compounded by their relatively small means. It’s time for Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti to tear this team down a bit, and rebuild.

That will mean trading Shin-Soo Choo, but it will also mean dealing Asdrubal Cabrera. Rebuilding teams need to turn present talent into greater future talent, and Cabrera offers Cleveland a chance to do just that. He’s a shortstop of more or less average defensive acumen; has roughly 20-homer power; and controls the strike zone well enough to be a substantially above-average hitter overall. He’s signed through 2014 for $16.5 million, setting a bar for value that he should have no trouble clearing. He will turn 27 this month, so there’s precious little to suggest he’s about to head over a cliff.

With Aviles in the fold and the classically gifted Francisco Lindor on his way up the organizational ladder, the Indians now have a clear path to trading Cabrera this winter and accelerating what should be a retooling. Hiring Terry Francona seemed to suggest Cleveland wanted to make another push right away, but perhaps they now realize that that course is tough to defend. That’s the most important takeaway of this deal. From the Blue Jays’ perspective, by the way, this also seals a victory in the deal that sent John Farrell to the Boston Red Sox, and it somewhat lessens the odds that Yunel Escobar is on his way somewhere else this winter.

Ervin Santana Traded to the Kansas City Royals for Brandon Sisk

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had a long, strange week, of which this deal was just a small part. I have a long, lengthy post about the Dan Haren non-trade on the site, so please check it out. For now, from the Angels’ side, I’ll just say that Sisk (a 27-year-old lefty reliever yet to debut in the bog leagues) will pitch and get strikeouts out of their bullpen for at least part of the season, but won’t change the landscape out there. His acquisition, coupled with the fact that the Angels were angling for Carlos Marmol in the Haren negotiations, shows a renewed commitment to a wholly neglected element of last year’s team. It just doesn’t necessarily mean that this commitment is well-focused or likely to work.

On the more intriguing side, the Royals get baseball’s least consistent starting pitcher. Santana had 30 starts in 2012. Seven were disasters; eight were close to average, but worse; eight were slightly above average; and seven were dominant. That might sound okay, but as it turns out, if you have that many disasters, you need a better distribution of other outcomes to even be an average hurler. Santana did get somewhat unlucky: nearly 15 percent of all balls in the air against him left the park last year, half again the league average, and somewhat fluky. On the other hand, when balls batters hit stayed in the park, they batted just .242, the lowest mark against Santana in his eight-year career and a difficult figure to sustain.

All told, the outcomes of Santana’s work last year aren’t going to provide a reliable guide to his work going forward. His fastball velocity fell a bit last season, and in fact, has trended downward for the past few years, but that doesn’t really explain his problems. He topped out in terms of average speed four years ago, at over 94 miles per hour. He still hits that occasionally, and averaged between 91 and 92 MPH last year. Virtually all pitchers start losing velocity early in their careers and never stop. They find ways to work around the tick that falls off their fastball. Besides, we’re still talking about small differences in Santana’s case. If he starts throwing 88, we can revisit this, but it just does not seem to be then primary problem for him right now.

Admitting defeat in any quest to glean more data than 2012 provides, then, let’s take a wider angle on Ervin Santana. To summarize, he’s right-handed; throws almost exclusively a fastball and a slider, but mixes in a change-up to some lefty hitters; has proved himself very durable; struggles with his command, but doesn’t strike out an above-average percentage of opposing hitters; and is neutral in terms of batted-ball tendencies. If that doesn’t sound great, well, Santana isn’t, but it’s good to note that he’s also not awful. He pitches to weak contact, and gets a fair bit of it. He throws fairly hard, but doesn’t need to do so in order to succeed if his slider is working.

Baseball-Reference offers a list of every player’s 10 most comparable pitchers historically at the same age, based on a system invented by Bill James. The comps for Santana include some guys (like Livan Hernandez and Dennis Martinez) that went on to extraordinarily long careers distinguished by their reinvention of themselves, but mostly, it’s names like Scott Erickson (top of the list), Brett Myers and Kevin Millwood. Pitchers who begin their career slightly erratic but electric tend to grow into very hittable innings-eaters. If you’re asking me to bet on Ervin Santana’s pitching line for 2013, I’m leaving, but if you’re asking me just to guess at it, I’ll guess a slightly below-average ERA, fewer homers but also fewer strikeouts, and over 200 innings pitched. Even at $12 million, that’s not a terrible investment for Kansas City. This may be the start of a half-decade during which Ervin Santana never wears the same uniform two years in a row.

Look at that, broke down one whole deal without a digression into something about a Cabrera.

Chicago White Sox Sign Jake Peavy, Exercise Option on Gavin Floyd

The White Sox are maybe the best team in baseball at frustrating all efforts to figure out what the Hell it is they interns to do next. Last winter, they announced a plan to rebuild, then traded one of their most team-friendly contracts in closer Sergio Santos, then dealt slugging outfielder Carlos Quentin, then signed John Danks for five years. Then they won 85 games.

The farm system there remains a weakness, so some expected new GM Rick Hahn to make an offer to Peavy sufficient to ensure the Sox would get a compensatory draft pick if and when he signed elsewhere. Clearly, though, observing the aging and untradeable core of the team (Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, A.J. Pierzynski), Hahn and his staff decided there was no point in giving up on the current team.

Peavy did have a very good season, and the contract to which he agreed ($29.5 million over two years) suits an arm with his talent well. I would have had pause over it, simply because Peavy has such a long and daunting (that’s not always the same thing, but it is with Peavy) injury history, but the deal is sound.

Licking up Floyd’s option makes less sense to me. Doing so was a vote of confidence in the team’s chances over the short term, but it didn’t substantially improve the team in the near term. Even if the Sox wanted Floyd back specifically, they had other avenues to doing so. The option they exercised pays Floyd $9.5 million in 2013. In my opinion, that’s more than he would have made on the few market this winter. Zack Greinke is not alone out there. Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, Dan Haren, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, Kyle Lohse, Scott Feldman, Ryan Dempster, Scott Baker, Erik Bedard, Shaun Marcum and Jeremy Guthrie all are available, and the abundant supply should soften demand.

Floyd walked 8.7 percent of the batters he faced in 2012, his worst seasonal figure in a White Sox uniform. He also hit 14 batters. Maybe this all works out and the Sox win 90 in 2013, but I can’t make the fringe of eight figures make sense for a pitcher who has never been more than average, and whose command backslid in 2012.

Miscellaneous Option and Qualifying Offer Decisions

First, an explanation: Under the new rules of free agency, teams with good players headed to market have a dilemma. In order to get a draft pick if your guy signs elsewhere, you have to offer him a one-year deal worth the average of the 125 highest salaries in baseball for last year. This month, it was $13.3 million. If you don’t make this offer, you can’t get stuck with that deal and that player, but you also can’t get the pick. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Second, a disclaimer: I’m a lot more liberal in my willingness to slap one of those qualifying offers on players than teams seem to be. I don’t believe there are many bad one-year deals, even at $13.3 million, so if the question is even being asked, I say, the answer is probably yes.

No offer from Angels for Torii Hunter or Dan Haren. Haren was a no-brainer, once LA declined his option. Making the offer would have meant offering Haren, in effect, $1.3 million more than his option would have promised. Hunter surprised me a bit, though. Old players with broad skill sets are precisely the guys a team should pounce on for single-year deals, and Hunter would likely have passed up the Angels’ offer for some multiyear pact anyway. It used to be that teams would offer outgoing free agents arbitration on a handshake deal that the player would decline. It may be that the Angels consciously did Hunter a favor, allowing him to seek a deal unencumbered by an opportunity cost other clubs were bound to build into any offers.

Rangers offer Josh Hamilton the money, but not Mike Napoli. I love Napoli, but it’s become clear that more than part-time catching duty is beyond him. His bat is not $13.3-million good at first base or DH. He’s an asset for some team, and of must have hurt Texas to leave that potential draft pick there, but Napoli might well have ended up signing that deal and underperforming it. Not making the offer made sense.

Rafael Soriano opts out with Yankees, Yanks make offer to him. Easy choice on both sides. The Tigers and Angels need big-time bullpen help. Soriano had a great 2012. He’ll make tons of money here, and the Yankees will get a pick by simply affirming their willingness to spend on Soriano what his contract had called for anyway.

-Nationals don’t make offer to Edwin Jackson. I’m very much at a loss here. Jackson is just an average starter, but he’s a durable average starter. He can be the third-best starter in a winning team’s rotation. He just turned 29 in September, and he has good stuff and good command. It’s hard to imagine he will make less than $30 million or so over multiple years, so making a $13.4-million offer and getting a draft pick out of the deal seems easy.

-Giants make no offer to Angel Pagan. Again, this one escapes me. Buster Olney tweeted this weekend that industry insiders expect Pagan to get a four-year deal. I would be surprised by that, but if he can’t make double what that offer would have paid him, I would be shocked. Pagan’s 2012 was not a flash in the pan. He’s been this player (average defender in center, good runner, above-average hitter) for five years. To not offer him $13.3 million over a single season means either that the Giants are completely fixated on re-signing him and think they can do it cheaper, or that they don’t think he’s worth that money in the event that he accepts after surveying the market. I can’t defend the choice in either case.

Waiver claims galore

The end of the season sends many teams into a tizzy, as everyone looks to offload unnecessary players to clear room on their 40-man rosters. You need that space in order to sign free agents; protect prospects from the Rule V draft; and have trade flexibility. Most teams have players come off the 60-day DL sometime this month, which also forces others off the roster. Here are some of the notable players who changed teams as a result of this shuffling.

-Twins claim Josh Roenicke. Not sure what Minnesota is thinking here, although they do need some warm bodies for the bullpen after declining Matt Capps’ 2013 option. Roenicke had a good ERA in Colorado last year, but doesn’t strike out a ton of batters and has little or no command. He won’t be more than a seventh-inning guy unless the winter goes really poorly for Minnesota.

-Orioles claim Alexi Casilla. The Twins also waived Casilla this week, another move that baffles me a bit. He can’t hit, but Casilla can field second base (like a whiz) or shortstop (as needed) and run a bit. He’s an upgrade for the Orioles at second base if Brian Roberts is not healthy, although maybe that says more about Baltimore’s roster than about Casilla.

-Royals claim Chris Volstad. Now begins a three-year cycle for Chris Volstad in which he will be released once or twice; sign a minor-league deal or two; and drift between rotations and bullpens around the league. He is big, gets good downward plane on his fastball sometimes and just feels projectable, but he has been awful for two full seasons, and the Cubs’ choice to waive him is as telling as Kansas City’s choice to grab him. This came before the Santana deal, so Volstad (eligible for arbitration and in line for $3 million or so next year) might yet be non-tendered, but for the Royals (who had the worst rotation in MLB last year) it was probably worth a flier.

This is by no means a comprehensive run-down, but these were the most interesting moves of the week. Each week from now to Christmas will be a crescendo for the league. It should be a blast.

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