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May 4, 2010
Not Least, the AL East
Optioned RHP Kam Mickolio to Norfolk (Triple-A); recalled RHP Alfredo Simon from Norfolk. [4/27]
Outrighted LHP Wilfrido Perez to Bowie (Double-A). [4/30]
Optioned RHP Jim Johnson to Norfolk; recalled RHP Brad Bergesen from Norfolk. [5/1]
Bergesen's return to the fifth slot was rewarded with nothing very different from his previous spins: another day, another beating. Happily, it coincided with Dice-K's combustive return to action, so it didn't get in the way of an Orioles sweep of the Red Sox over the weekend.
Nevertheless, Bergesen's victory provided another reason to wonder why Chris Tillman's in Norfolk, or Jake Arrieta for that matter. It's not performance dictating this, certainly, unless you take it as a matter of loyalty to the memory of Bergesen's brief bit of goodness last season, but even then, SIERA suggested a big-time spike in his ERA was due, and PECOTA similarly projected a major step in the wrong direction, consistent with Bergesen's minor-league track record. Of course, it's also not a matter of scouting—Tillman and Arrieta are both darlings of evaluators for good reason, while Bergesen's expected future as a back-end starter on a second-division ballclub wasn't really any different from those generated by projection tools. So why live down to that expectation while the ballclub struggles? Because it's Bergesen's turn? At some point, it'll come around to a matter of willful self-improvement.
Meanwhile, there's the shakeup of the bullpen to mull over, as the latest surprise was the decision to punish Johnson with an assignment to the outer rim of the Chesapeake to make way for Bergesen. While this was expected since Johnson was optionable and struggling (he repaid the favor by blowing a mid-game lead before shipping out), while someone like Matt Albers was not (on both counts), it's a strange choice. For the moment, it means the team's keeping its lefty/righty tandem of utility pitchers, veteran Mark Hendrickson and young Jason Berken respectively, this in a pen that also has a pair of southpaws, hard-throwing Alberto Castillo and long-service LOOGY Will Ohman. It's a combination that has put Albers and Cla Meredith in high-leverage situations; Meredith's doing fine, Albers, not so much:
Of course, there is the fact that bumping Johnson for his Farnsworth-y level of horror gives the hard-throwing Simon a week or two in the closer's role. Back from TJS, he's throwing in the mid-90s, but it's an interesting decision since one of the more evaluative complaints about Simon is that he might not be the sort of guy who thrives in the role. This feeds into the whole “players are not Strat cards” meme, except from the other side of the argument—Simon has what some would call closer-worthy stuff, to the point that five years ago Baseball America was comparing him to a young Armando Benitez. But then as now, there's the concern that his fastball's a bit on the straight side, and what will be interesting to see is whether he's learned how to use it to better effect inside, all the better to help set up his mediocre assortment of off-speed stuff and keep hitters from sitting dead red.
It's important to separate out the inevitable suggestions about intestinal fortitude and “giving in” to hitters from simple execution—if Simon does a better job of setting up his fastball, he could be the latest example of how closers are as much made as born. In his first three times out, he's earned two saves and pitching a scoreless ninth against the Red Sox in a tie game, so I'd say he's executing quite nicely.
This should prove interesting in the days to come, because if Simon earns his keep, there's there inevitable question of who moves where and to what roles once Koji Uehara comes off the DL later this week, and then Mike Gonzalez towards the end of the month. Uehara boxing out Berken might seem like an easy enough switch, since Berken's optionable, and it would be one former starter replacing another, but Berken's been useful where, say, Hendrickson has not, and as noted, this pen already has a pair of lefties in it. Of course, there's also no guarantee that the Japanese import's locked in on the long-relief role, since he has experience closing on the other side of the big water. And once Gonzalez returns, you have to start wondering about who the O's would pick to move out of his way if everyone's healthy. Certainly, any choice between Castillo and Hendrickson is a matter of picking one well-traveled thirtysomething journeyman over another, Hendrickson having drifted from one team's mop-up chores to another, Castillo for the seven seasons he had to put in beating the bushes in the independent leagues to get this far. As with Berken, Castillo's optionability figures to be part of the picture if he doesn't make it a non-factor with his performance.
Optioned RHP Scott Atchison to Pawtucket (Triple-A); recalled LHP Fabio Castro from Pawtucket. [4/27]
Optioned LHP Fabio Castro to Pawtucket; purchased the contract of LHP Alan Embree; designated INF-R Kevin Frandsen for assignment (and lost him to a subsequent waiver claim by the Angels). [4/28]
Designated LHP Alan Embree for assignment; activated RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka from the 15-day DL. [5/1]
Since Castro and Embree did little more than suit up before being bumped, for all the activity, it really boils down to Tim Wakefield losing his job in the rotation and Atchison losing his job on the big-league team, at the cost of losing Frandsen to a waiver claim. If you're either Castro or Embree, you might wonder what the point was, since Scott Schoeneweis is hardly earning his keep as the second lefty (7.62 FRA, -4.1 ARP, -0.2 WXRL), and Hideki Okajima's struggling even more badly as the primary southpaw (8.68 FRA, -3.9 ARP, -0.4 WXRL).
Add in that the Sox went out of their way to bring Atchison back across the pond, and you've got another bullpen mashup in Boston, where a reliable restlessness over who to use in the last couple of slots or carry on the 40-man account for an outsized amount of activity. We all expect that Okajima and Ram-Ram will bounce back to the give the Sox a quality quartet; since Manny Delcarmen's done well in a middle-relief role, but doesn't seem likely to see that turned into a shot at set-up work, that's certainly what the Sox are banking on.
Meanwhile, it's up to Dice-K to live up to standard set by Wakefield for last-wheel adequacy at the very least. More than that's expected, of course, but even though Wake took a pair of beatings in his four turns, he also delivered a pair of quality starts. The bullpen's didn't help Wakefield much, blowing a couple of his games, and Tax Day in Minnesota went badly in part because of betrayal from that much-vaunted overhauled defense, but for all that, he wasn't especially unlucky, at least not compared to teammate Jon Lester, let alone Zack Greinke.
Placed CF-L Curtis Granderson on the 15-day DL (strained groin); recalled RHP Mark Melancon from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Triple-A). [5/2]
Yesterday, Will ran down the reasons why you can hope that Granderson comes back sooner rather than later in the worst-case scenarios, and misses less than a month. The reasoning seems sound, but in the meantime, the Bombers are confronted with losing Granderson for a fifth of the season, no laughing matter.
I'm not sure it'll make that much of a big difference, actually. For all of the worrying about the missing pop of Mark Teixeira (.237 TAv) and Nick Johnson (.239 TAv), it's worth noting that we're talking about baseball's best offense despite that, and despite Granderson's tepid start (.258 TAv) as well. As surely as we don't expect Robinson Cano to rank among the top two or three players in the league all year, you weren't expecting mere utility from Granderson, and we don't expect the Yankees' first baseman and DH to just contribute walks (and defense, in Tex's case). The struggles of Johnson and Teixeira might get thrown into bold relief because of Granderson's absence, but I'd take them as causes for confidence about what's to come, rather than despair during their center fielder's absence.
Then there's the matter of how important Granderson is within this lineup. Basically, with their three outfielders already making up the bottom third of the order, you've got the modest impact of replacing Granderson, generally batting seventh, with Randy Winn and Marcus Thames in the slots least likely to get four or more plate appearances. It's hard to work up much sympathy over how this will take Nick Swisher out of his lot as baseball's best eighth-slot hitter because he'll now have to bat seventh a good amount of the time, replacing Granderson. Boo. Hoo.
Then there's the equally modest impact on defense. Brett Gardner's moving over to center, which depending on your metric of choice might cost then a run or two as a matter of their relative range; Clay's Fielding Runs and Sean Smith's Total Zone like Gardner a lot less than Plus/Minus, but it isn't like we're talking about a resumption of the bad old days of "(Claudell) Washington Slept Here," let alone the downslope of Bernie Williams seasons. Gardner's arm should be an upgrade on Granderson's, so over a span of weeks I would consider this a relatively minor switch in terms of its impact on the staff. Of course, Thames can't field all that well, but that's generally only going to be a factor on days the opponents spot a southpaw, and of course Winn makes a nice defensive replacement. Here again, the impact will be negligible.
Now, it's easy to get wrung out about this because it's Curtis Granderson!!!, and I'm sure that once he comes back, at some point this season he'll be that guy. In the meantime they'll miss him, certainly, and it doesn't help that the Yankees are hitting a rough part of the schedule in the weeks to come, with a pair of series against the Red Sox and Twins, plus the Tigers and Rays. For the time being, it's a matter of testing whether the money spent on Winn was wasted. Whether he succeeds or fails will tell Brian Cashman whether or not he might want to shop for a better fourth outfielder by the time the deadline rolls around, but given that the Yankees have been willing to shore up their bench in July and August in recent seasons, not even that represents that much of a dilemma.
If there's a real problem, it's what this reflects as far as the Yankees' limited depth in position-playing talent. Because of their lack of real alternatives at Scranton, they could perhaps afford to lose one outfield regular, and they just did. That done, they hauled up a 13th pitcher and are going with a three-man bench. I might normally rail against such things, but Joe Girardi was barely using Winn before, so the identity of the 25th Yankee is even less significant for them than it is with most ballclubs. It's if/when they're forced to call on Greg Golson or Chad Huffman (both on the 40-man) that they'd really start to have to wonder about doing something.
Signed UT-S Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $15.5 million contract extension through 2013, with a $7 million club option for 2014 ($2.5 million buyout) and a $7.5 million club option for 2015 ($500,000 buyout). [4/23]
Recalled C-S Jose Lobaton from Durham (Triple-A); optioned RHP Mike Ekstrom to Durham. [4/27]
Optioned C-S Jose Lobaton to Durham; purchased the contract of RHP Joaquin Benoit from Durham. [4/29]
It's easy to like the Zobrist extension: you can look at old-form MORP, and see that he's a bargain if he lives up to his projections. It's equally easy to pretend that those projections aren't dependent on the already unusual career of Zorilla's breakout thanks to a change in his swing mechanics, and simply operate from the mere math of his 2008 breakout and 2009's backing that up, and expect that to persist on into the future. It's also worth noting that his unusual career gets stranger still when you note that he'll be 29 in a few short weeks. Hell, he's older than Carl Crawford. So, he's hardly young despite it seeming perhaps as if he only just arrived, and this deal means that the Rays have committed to him through his age-32 season. Maybe these things matter less, given that Zobrist's story is already extraordinary. Ask whether or not he'll keep his improved power as his tremendous spike in homers per fly ball persists. Do you know? I don't, and it would be remarkable if he did... remarkable, but not impossible. You may as well also asking whether or not the power spike drives his equally newly solid walk rate; will the walk rate drop off if the power does, a multi-systems failure as profound as his broad-based mid-career improvement? It's possible.
Zobrist's slow start certainly underscores the risks, but it's worth remembering that the Rays have Crawford, Pat Burrell, and Carlos Pena all up for free agency after the season. You can guarantee their disinterest in Burrell, and Crawford's seen as a likely defector, but with that much cash coming off the payroll, the Rays will have considerable freedom of action, and equally difficult decisions to make as far as trying to decide who the real B.J. Upton is, or Jason Bartlett for that matter. Desmond Jennings' eventual arrival as a low-cost regular (and, to a lesser extent, Reid Brignac), plus the already cheap deal they've got Evan Longoria locked up with through 2013-16 provides that much more freedom to pick and choose, but it's the sort of situation that could allow them to do something really dramatic, say, simultaneously working something out in a multi-year flavor with Matt Garza while also chasing Prince Fielder.
But just as obviously, picking their ponies for the seasons to come means picking who they can keep and who they might not. Choosing Zobrist as a long-term keeper at these prices, at his age, and right now seems strange, since they already had him under control for years to come. Time might have given them a broader basis as far as what to expect from him going forward. It's hard to imagine Zobrist doing even better than he did last year, or what he might cost going even higher as a result. It's because of the great unknowns about what's to come that this deal "only" goes through the balance of Zobrist's under-control seasons, although the big buyout of the first option year probably locks them in for that additional campaign as well.
All in all, you can take the deal on a couple of levels: an obvious vote of confidence, acquiring cost certainty, retaining a moving part who affords them ongoing flexibility when it comes to making their other choices about who to keep in the outfield or the middle infield. It can be some of the above, but knowing the Rays, it's probably all of the above and more besides.
Finally, as for the lot of Mike Ekstrom as a roster flywheel, I bloviated at too much length on the subject when they made the point of grabbing him. But replacing him with Benoit brings to the fore the Rays' outstanding track record for finding relief assets on the cheap. As I noted in March when they signed Benoit, he could prove to be as big a bargain as J.P. Howell or Grant Balfour, but I probably should have also mentioned Troy Percival. The fact that Benoit already proved that he's back from shoulder surgery well enough to pump gas into the mid-90s almost put him on the club coming out of camp; now, having demonstrated for Durham the ability to pitch on consecutive days while striking out 17 of the 40 batters he faced suggests there are no lingering questions. Once J.P. Howell's back in this bullpen come June, it's easy to see how the Rays' pen could go from pretty good (ranking in the top 10 in ARP, WXRL, and FRA) to dominating.
Optioned RHP Jeremy Accardo from Las Vegas (Triple-A); designated RHP Merkin Valdez for assignment; recalled RHP Josh Roenicke from Las Vegas; purchased the contract of LHP Rommie Lewis from Las Vegas. [4/27]
Outrighted RHP Merkin Valdez to Las Vegas. [4/29]
It was a matter of time before you figured the Jays would shake up their pen some. Accardo's latest bit of hittable disappointment wasn't fun, and Valdez was one of this winter's bits of grabbery that didn't turn out quite so nicely as Dana Eveland. Happily, Valdez slipped through waivers, so they can tinker with him to see if there's anything to him beyond speed-gun feats, and as tweaks go, these are changes for the better. Roenicke's another flamethrower and one of the prizes from the Rolen deal last summer; having him supplant Accardo or Valdez only seemed like a matter of time. Whether or not he succeeds could accelerate any timetable for peddling Kevin Gregg or Jason Frasor, of course, but with Frasor pitching terribly and Gregg's consecutive late-season fades providing a pretty loud warning label as well, the markets for either may take a while to develop.
Turning to the left, Lewis is a nice addition in that he's a big southpaw with a tough delivery for his fellow lefties to pick up on. You might wonder why him instead of Jesse Carlson, of course, but when it comes to picking and choosing between second-rank situational stars, a measure of discretion seems understandable, and 10 years into his career as a pro, it's nice to see Lewis simply make it. Carlson's also struggling, as David Purcey's struggling, so when the Jays decided to pick a second southpaw to back up Scott Downs, they went with the best performer of the bunch from among the 51s. Since it isn't like they're thwarting the Hall of Fame campaigns of either Carlson or Purcey, you can certainly begrudge them this choice.