Baseball’s Hot Stove activity tends to come in fits and starts. Roster deadlines, various meetings and the winter holidays punctuate the offseason in such a way that news tends to come, not in drips, but in bursts. So it was on Monday, when five free-agent deals came down the news pipe over the course of roughly six hours.

Tim Hudson Starts Rounding Out of San Francisco Giants Rotation

This was the most popular deal of the day, among those on Baseball Twitter. Hudson draws high esteem from both smart and dumb baseball people. The former group likes his durability and his ground-ball proclivity. The latter likes his won-lost record and his Alabama-goofball charisma. No one dislikes him; nor should they. He seems a great guy.

San Francisco did not get a great deal here, though, paying $23 million for two years of Hudson. It’s still a good move, because the team is much better than it looked last season and Hudson fills a major need if they want to contend in 2014. The value doesn’t seem to be there, is all.

If durability and ground-ball rate are Hudson’s chief virtues, one has to wonder how well he profiles at ages 38 and 39. It’s rare for even good, durable pitchers to hold up and deliver significant innings at his age. Hudson is a fair comp for Andy Pettitte, who pitched into his 40s, but he’s also a fair comp for Roy Oswalt, who’s pitched scarcely over 100 innings in the two-plus years since his 34th birthday. If Hudson can pitch just 140 innings apiece over the two-year term of this deal, he has to actually be good in order to return significant value.

One thing mentioned by a few smart people (Mike Bates and Wendy Thurm, to name two) is the idea that Hudson fits AT&T Park especially well. I fail to see how this is true. The pitcher who draws the greatest advantage from a park like that is the one who gives up a lot of fly balls, and might otherwise be homer-prone. Dan Haren fits especially well in San Francisco. Tim Hudson derives no marginal advantage from it whatsoever.

Carlos Ruiz Defies Aging! (or at least, Ruben Amaro expects him to.)

The Philadelphia Phillies focused on the other half of the battery, locking up the man who has been their catcher for years, anyway. Carlos Ruiz got a three-year, $26-million deal from GM Ruben Amaro, one that scarcely beat out the Red Sox’s two-year offer.

Three years is a worse investment in a 35-year-old catcher than two is in a 38-year-old pitcher. Catchers age terribly. Ruiz had his worst season since 2009 in 2013, one marred not only by a suspension for illegal use of Adderall, but also a hamstring strain and an evaporation of his power. He still controls the strike zone fine, and he’s acceptable as a defensive catcher, but Ruiz showed significant signs of decline last season, and now the Phillies have committed to three more years of the same. Yikes.

Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will go into an eighth straight season, together, as regulars with the Phillies, in 2014. Rollins should vest his 2015 option, which would make it nine years. While the front office has failed to offset its investment in that aging core with development and retention of good young players elsewhere on the diamond, and the team has thus decayed into a likely loser for the next few years, I confess to finding that cool. It’s rare for four position players to stay in a lineup together for as many as five years, anymore. Eight is wild. It’s unprecedented.

In fact, I just ran around the league. The Yankees’ infield has been together since the start of 2009, though of course, that was functionally interrupted last season by the prolonged absences of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira. The Red Sox had seven seasons of Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz, but it sounds like Ellsbury is leaving now. Those are as close as anyone has come to the kind of stability in a positional core that the Phillies have achieved, for better and for worse. From a fan perspective, there’s something neat about the familiarity there. Ruiz was a bad signing, objectively, but if you like watching young men grow old together, this is your kind of team.

Skip Schumaker Becomes Cincinnati Reds’ Best Bench Player

I think teams undervalue free-agent utility men. Clubs tend to prefer homegrown bench talent, which is cheaper, and in which they perceive the upside of growing into a full-time player. Skip Schumaker’s two-year deal with the Reds doesn’t yet have a dollar figure publicly attached to it, but I’m betting it won’t exceed $3 million in annual value, because really, no one’s does. Nick Punto got $3 million from the Oakland Athletics last week. Jerry Hairston got $6 million on a two-year deal two years ago.

The thing about free-agent utility men, though, is that they’ve already proved themselves as big-league players. Most can’t play very slick defense at shortstop. None has very much power. They tend, though, to be guys who can get on base, field okay at second base and at least one other spot and give a disproportionate number of quotes to the local beat writer, taking some pressure off teammates who have more tangible, on-field value. A good utility man, one you believe can hit at the level of a fringe regular, or who has solid on-base skills but no extra-base skills, is probably worth $5-7 million per year.

So I like deals like the one to which Walt Jockety signed Schumaker. Unless it turns out to be for bigger money, the contract ensures that the Reds will have some bench strength, for a change, and helps them address their inability to hit left-handed pitching.

The Dodgers have lost Punto and Schumaker in the past week, and Hairston, Juan Uribe, Michael Young and Mark Ellis are all free agents. Even with Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero in the fold as the possible Opening Day second baseman, the Dodgers likely need to sign at least two infielders.

UPDATE: Schumaker’s contract is worth $5 million in total. That’s about right.

LaTroy Hawkins Ain’t Dead Yet, is Likely Closer for Colorado Rockies

Bullpens are fickle. They’re unpredictable. Relief pitchers don’t compile large enough seasonal samples to give a reliable picture of their skills. They also, generally, pitch at a much higher effort level than starters, increasing risk of injury or fatigue. Almost universally, they have limited pitch repertoires, too.

Therefore, if one must build a bullpen, one is well-advised to do it cheaply. Spending substantial money on relievers is a good way to get burned. LaTroy Hawkins came very cheaply—the Rockies will pay him $2.5 million to be either their primary right-handed set-up man or closer in 2014, and then will have the choice to either keep him for slightly less, or cut bait. Hawkins isn’t great, but he’s good enough, and for that bargain price, he’s a tremendous value. It’s a small deal, but this is how the Rockies should proceed.

Brendan Ryan Agrees to Defend Entire Left Side of New York Yankees Infield

The Yankees agreed to pay $2 million to Brendan Ryan for his services in 2014. That’s not a bad deal, despite Ryan’s terrible bat. For a guy who will alternate between playing third base next to a decrepit shortstop who never had range and playing shortstop alongside a third baseman with serious hip issues, $2 million is a pittance.

Ryan is insurance of every kind for the Yankees. If Derek Jeter can’t get or stay healthy, Ryan can play shortstop. If Robinson Cano departs in free agency, Ryan can play some second, or short (with Jeter at second) if team politics permit it. If Alex Rodriguez is suspended for the whole season, Ryan can play third base. He’s a defensive marvel at any of those spots. While his offense is unacceptable for a full-time player, his glove is such a good complementary asset that he should easily outrun this contract.

The Yankees are making noise about signing either Jhonny Peralta or Stephen Drew, who would give them even more flexibility, and who are offensively competent. Ryan as a pure defensive sub and occasional day-game-after-night-game starter would be perfect.

 

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