When the Cubs signed Jason Motte, former St. Louis Cardinals reliever, to a one-year $4.5 million deal, I wasn't pleased. While outliers exist for any case or point, I'm not sold on power pitchers that relied on one-and-a-half pitches at their peak on their comeback ability from Tommy John surgery. It wasn't even the money exclusively. It was also the 40-man roster spot. As the roster was full, someone was going to have to be "thwacked" to let him go.
When a roster move is made, the obvious move isn't always the one made. The team has 'a few' other pitchers that could have been purged. I didn't think that Joseph Ortiz would be the guy released to make room for Motte. He wasn't.
Justin Ruggiano was the one deemed, and was dispatched to Seattle. I noted, here and elsewhere, that with Ruggiano being thwacked, I was more confident than ever in my prediction. My editor called me on my opinion, and in negotiations that took little longer than the trade going from "not a thing" to "being announced as done", we decided on terms.
Over the next three seasons, I expect Ruggiano will have a higher Baseball-Reference WAR than will Motte. The loser will contribute $50 to Cubs Charities.
Why would I gamble on Ruggiano? First, he's a hitter, not a reliever. If, in Seattle, he can stay healthy and get around 300 AB mainly against LHP, he should have at least one good year out of three. I'm guessing maybe in the range of 4-5 WAR over the span. That should be enough to lap the field.
Especially since, 'the field' is a reliever still learning how to parlay one-and-a-half pitches at below peak velocity into a major league role. I have two significant questions about Motte, one being his health. He will want another contract next year, and to earn one, he can't coast this year. He has to pitch well in spring to survive camp. Motte isn't the type to try to 'steal' money, and his incentive clauses hint he thinks he can still get hitters out. I think he is a red flag on more injury problems.
Which gets to the other problem. I don't think Motte will get hitters out. As presently constituted, the Cubs will have one of their more expensive relievers in a role that... well... nobody knows what Motte will do. He wasn't reliable last season. A few good outings. One really bad one. Three or four okay ones, then a clunker. That's tolerable for a reliever in the Cubs 2012 pen in September. However, not so much for a team pegged recently with 85 wins in a recent projection.
His ERA in 2014 was under 3 in late-June, then it ballooned the rest of the season. He had only one outing with as many as two innings, so he can't realistically be a guy to "save the bullpen" very often. He struck out 17 in 25 innings, walking nine. He surrendered over a hit per inning. He can't rely on the strikeout, and he is very hittable. Not necessarily a good recipe for success in a former fireballer.
The hope is two-fold. The second year after the surgery, sometimes the velocity returns. I hope so, but am skeptical. The other hope is that he teaches the younger guys how to be better professionals, and all that stuff. I'd love it if he teaches Pierce Johnson how to use a more effective grip on a pitch. Not only would that make Johmson a better pitcher, it wouldn't count against me in the bet.
One other argument, that I've often used, is trusting the scouts. The other teams knew Motte was available. They looked, and went a different direction. Or wouldn't offer $4.5 million. Or the 40-man spot.
I really hope I'm wrong, and by mid-May, we can't imagine how Motte came so cheaply, as the young Cubs battle bravely with the Cardinals and others in the NL Central. I don't see it happening. I think what was seen last year from Motte is all there is anymore. An unreliable option that can get three outs in a game. Maybe.
Justin Ruggiano won't get any MVP votes, won't make the All-Star game, and might not be preferred by Mariners fans over Dayan Viciedo. Over the next three years, though, Ruggs will be a better player than Motte by bbref's WAR calculation. I fear all it may take is one decent year, and a .5 cumulative over the span. Not a wild hope, but it might be enough.
One thing you've probably noticed over the years of Tim's writing for the front page at BCB is his focus on the 40-man roster. He thinks those spots are precious and shouldn't be doled out without much thought and consideration.
It's quite true that over the years that Theo & Co. have been in charge, there's been a revolving door through the 40-man with players who the brass thought might be good, but turned out to be noncontributory to the future and were shown the door. We're talking guys like Alex Burnett, Miguel Socolovich, Alex Hinshaw, Eduardo Sanchez, Henry Rodriguez, Thomas Neal and even players such as Liam Hendriks and Brett Wallace -- the latter two acquired in the offseason then waived before they ever were fitted for a spring-training uniform.
The 40-man roster is a different animal now that the Cubs appear serious about moving into contention in 2015. It's not a place where the Cubs accumulate pitchers or infielders or outfielders or catchers in the hope that one of them might be a decent major-league player somewhere down the road. It's a place where the team is seriously looking at players that can contribute to winning now.
That's where Jason Motte comes in. He was a key contributor to the Cardinals' World Series team in 2011 and led the National League in saves in 2012 before going under the Tommy John knife in 2013. He returned in one year. 12 months. Even with TJS being done better now than ever, that's very, very quick. We saw something similar with the Cubs and Kyuji Fujikawa returning in a little over a year. He was occasionally decent, mostly mediocre, and was let go. Motte made 29 appearances for the 2014 Cardinals. 19 of them were scoreless. In another eight, he allowed a single run. Only in this game, where the Marlins knocked him around for a four-run eighth, did he allow more than two runs. With such a small resume, one bad outing can make a season look bad.
It's true that Motte's velocity was down and his forte is fastballs, and that's a concern. I'm betting that it'll come back better, one more year removed from TJS.
Further, Motte isn't a Cub to provide a large amount of future value. He's here to provide some veteran leadership (define that any way you want) to a bullpen that is relatively inexperienced. The three years and 19 games of postseason experience he has could be quite valuable if the Cubs somehow manage to put together a miracle season and wind up in the playoffs.
Justin Ruggiano is a fungible asset. You can find outfielders like him just about anywhere. He posted -0.4 bWAR for the Cubs in 2014, and thus was deemed replaceable. It should not go unmentioned that Ruggiano played multiple seasons for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay (parts of 2007, 2008 and 2011 for the big-league squad and 2009 and 2010 in the system), so Maddon knows him well. It appears that Ruggiano's platoon replacement is likely going to be Jonny Gomes, who also played for Maddon, and on his 2008 American League championship team. If Maddon would rather have Gomes than Ruggiano, I trust his judgment.
Finally, I don't think this is a Ruggiano-vs-Motte choice for the 40-man spot that Tim cherishes so much. I suspect one of the Cubs' borderline relievers, perhaps Blake Parker or Brian Schlitter, will be removed from the 40-man to make room for Motte (whose signing has yet to be officially announced by the Cubs), while Gomes takes Ruggiano's spot.
You can argue that Gomes' defense is worse than Ruggiano's, but he also brings significant playoff experience (2010 Reds, 2012 and 2014 Athletics and 2013 Red Sox) to the table and he's just one injury-plagued year removed from a .426 SLG season in Boston where he hit 13 home runs in 312 at-bats.
It appears clear that Maddon's looking for "leadership" guys even if their performance might be sliding a little bit. Again, I trust his judgment.
I'll pay up the $50 if I lose, but I don't think I will. It might be very, very close.
Hope you liked this point/counterpoint discussion. We might do more of these in the future.