Hudson, Cabrera find new homes
Gregg, Garko could also emerge as potential sleepers with new teams
While the Minnesota Twins have hardly seemed troubled this winter by their defensive inadequacies in the outfield, it's clear that their focus on improvement is in the infield. After ranking 17th in terms of fewest errors (31) and 20th in double plays turned (180) in 2009, they added J.J. Hardy, one of the better defensive shortstops in the game, in a November trade.
Late Thursday night, they completed their new double-play duo, signing Orlando Hudson to a one-year, $5 million contract, according to ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney. With Hudson and Hardy now on board, Nick Punto can feel free to shift into a third-base battle with Brendan Harris, or, depending upon the team's plans for Alexi Casilla, provide valuable defense in a reserve role at three infield positions.
Don't underestimate the defensive advantage that'll provide the Twins, as both Hardy and Hudson ranked among the top 10 at their respective positions in 2009 in fielding percentage and range factor, while Hardy also finished ninth among shortstops in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) according to FanGraphs. Hudson ranked 13th of 20 qualified second basemen, by comparison, and his numbers in the category, as well as his range factor, have been in slight decline in recent seasons. Perhaps that's the reason it took him this long to find employment, but in spite of his defensive reputation now exceeding his actual performance, the Twins nevertheless picked themselves up a quality defender at second. That's valuable to pitchers like Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing, who induce high numbers of ground balls, and it might also benefit Carl Pavano, who historically has leaned more ground ball-friendly throughout his career. At the bare minimum, adding Hardy and Hudson might make each of the three -- assuming Duensing cracks the rotation, of course -- a worthwhile matchups consideration in deeper leagues.
As for Hudson himself, landing in Minnesota might give him a chance to bat in the upper third of the order, which could keep him mixed-league worthy, at least as a middle infielder. Perhaps he'll slide right into the No. 2 hole vacated by Orlando Cabrera, where his .348 career on-base percentage (including .363 since 2006) might afford him a legitimate chance at topping his career high of 87 runs.
Consider Hudson's over/under in home runs and stolen bases at this stage of his career in the 10 range, but signing with the Twins might have been one of the most promising destinations for preserving his fantasy value. Just make sure to check one thing before your draft: See where he's being slotted in the lineup come March.
Now a look at some of the other moves of the past week:
Cincinnati Reds sign Orlando Cabrera: Speaking of Mr. Cabrera, he's now joining his fifth team since 2007, and one of the few squads that had a legitimate opening at shortstop. No offense meant to Paul Janish, who ranked first among shortstops with 500-plus innings in fielding percentage (.991) and second in UZR in 2009, but Cabrera's bat provides a significant upgrade. Janish might yet be a factor as a late-inning defensive replacement, as Cabrera led all major leaguers in errors (25) and was the game's second-worst shortstop in UZR in 2009, meaning the veteran's days of 650-plus plate appearances might be over. Cabrera will probably bat in the upper third of the order, perhaps second, where Janish started in 35 of the team's final 48 games, and despite the fact Cabrera's .322 career on-base percentage might make him an awkward fit, he could sneak his way into another 80-run, 15-steal season just due to the role. At age 35, Cabrera probably is no more valuable in fantasy than he was in 2009, but he was the No. 10 shortstop on the 2009 Player Rater, and might yet finish as a solid mixed-league middle infielder.
Washington Nationals sign Adam Kennedy: One of the more surprising stories of 2009, Kennedy parlayed a comeback year with the Oakland Athletics into a one-year, $1.25 million deal including a $2 million option for 2011 with the Nationals, reports ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney. Expect Kennedy to serve as the team's starting second baseman, though the smart play would be for the Nationals to utilize a straight platoon, perhaps with Cristian Guzman or Alberto Gonzalez, who each handle left-handers well, as Kennedy is a .249/.305/.330 (AVG/OBP/SLG) career hitter versus southpaws who hasn't shown any improvement in that regard lately. Kennedy was also a below-average defender for the Athletics, meaning NL-only owners shouldn't expect him to match or exceed 2009's 587 plate appearances. This is a middle-infield type in those formats and one with more value as a matchups play than as an every-week starter; don't pay for last year's stats.
Toronto Blue Jays sign Kevin Gregg: Jason Frasor's prospective owners let out a collective groan, as Gregg is your prototypical "proven closer" and managers always seem to love those in the ninth inning. With Gregg under contract for $2.75 million in 2010, plus either a $4.5 million 2011 option or $8.75 million for 2011-12 combined, he'll provide a legitimate threat to Frasor's job security. The most obvious impact of the deal is that Scott Downs' handcuff appeal is presumably gone, as he might drop back to a primary setup role, leaving Gregg and Frasor to duke it out or perhaps hand the closer's job back and forth all season. Give Gregg the slight edge for now, as he's the one who is 84-for-104 in save chances (80.8 percent) the past three seasons despite a 3.86 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. Frasor might be the more deserving candidate, however, with 3.72/1.22 numbers during that time span (2.50/1.02 in 2009). AL-only owners in particular should handcuff these two if possible, and the eventual winner should be mixed-league worthy, too.
Los Angeles Dodgers sign Reed Johnson: A valuable spot starter versus left-handers (.313/.378/.463 career rates) and capable backup at all three outfield positions, Johnson is a more useful pickup for the Dodgers than you might realize. Most maddening to fantasy owners: He could thieve some starts from Andre Ethier, who was anemic versus lefties in 2009 (.194/.283/.345 rates). But more likely, Johnson will see the bulk of his time in left field, as Manny Ramirez hasn't been the most durable, focused player of the past half-decade. On a team with only one viable outfield reserve, the left-handed Jason Repko, Johnson makes sense, and NL-only owners might be able to pick and choose his daily matchups. In the event of catastrophic injury to Ramirez, Johnson and Repko might share the left-field duties.
Athletics acquire Willy Taveras, then cut him: My first reaction to news that the Athletics had acquired Taveras was, "Why on earth did Billy Beane just trade for a player who is so very much the opposite of a Billy Beane guy?" Turns out it was a straight finagling of dollars, as the Athletics dumped Aaron Miles' deal upon the Reds, the Reds dumped Taveras' contract upon the Athletics, the Athletics picked up a possible infield reserve in Adam Rosales and at day's end, Taveras was out looking for work. Not one of these players is currently a viable fantasy play, except perhaps Rosales as an AL-only daily matchups type if he's a spring standout, or Taveras in the event he lands with a team with a gaping hole in the outfield. One thing the trade does: It keeps Taveras from fooling unsuspecting fantasy owners into believing he's smart, cheap steals in the late rounds. He's going to find it tough to land regular at-bats elsewhere this spring, and was arguably baseball's worst regular player in 2009 (.240/.275/.285 rates). If Taveras does land a gig before your draft, feel free to look at him late in AL- or NL-only leagues. Be prepared, however, for him to be a huge drain on your team's batting average.
Seattle Mariners sign Ryan Garko: Another possible matchups type, Garko is an ideal pickup for a Mariners team that has a light-hitting, defensively minded, left-handed first baseman in Casey Kotchman. Garko has manhandled left-handers in his big league career, with .313/.392/.495 rates, while Kotchman regressed versus that side in 2009 (.250/.312/.313). Expect the Mariners to employ an almost-straight platoon of the two at first base, meaning neither should be more useful than late-round AL-only picks, but both could have matchups appeal especially in daily formats. Kotchman, of course, benefits in terms of playing time as the lefty of the two, not to mention one who might come on often as a defensive replacement.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter (@SultanofStat).