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May 20, 2010

Transaction Action

Senior Circuitry

by Christina Kahrl

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ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Purchased RHP Saul Rivera from the Indians; released RHP Bobby Howry. [5/17]
Designated RHP Blaine Boyer for assignment; recalled RHP Billy Buckner from Reno (Triple-A). [5/18]
Optioned OF-R Cole Gillespie to Reno; recalled OF-L Gerardo Parra from Reno. [5/19]
Signed RHP Luis Ayala to a minor-league contract. [5/20]

Desperation comes in many flavors, but the full panoply's going to come into play as the D'backs search desperately for arms of every sort to help them man their already hopeless bullpen. One has to hope they have a nose for such things, but Snakes being snakes, they may find they're just using the wrong organ. It should have been a warning sign that the Tribe was willing to discard Rivera—if Manny Acta, the only manager who's ever gotten good work out of the stubby right-hander's slow offerings, was willing to let him go, you take that as an act of charity—or the Indians willingly surrendering a lemon. Slotting Buckner into the rotation adds Cesar Valdez to the relief mix—yet another hittable right-hander, as if Arizona doesn't have enough of those. Ayala hasn't been the same pitcher since blowing out his elbow in the first World Baseball Classic, but he was available, and at this point, that's something for a team this desperate to latch onto.

Buckner steps into the starting staff having shown a new wrinkle in his otherwise nibbly grounder-generating repertoire: coming inside. For the Aces, he'd allowed another 17 walks in 43 1/3 IP, or 3.5 BB/9, while getting twice as many ground-ball outs than flies, and striking out 27. But one thing that really spiked was his clip of hitting batters, as he'd pelted a half-dozen in the PCL, or 3.3 percent of his opposing batsmen. It may not sound like much, but that's after hitting less than one percent of all opposing hitters in both his brief major-league and his entire previous minor-league career. So when he came up and pegged a pair of Marlins in his season debut on Tuesday, it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise. Whether or not this new, more violent version of Buckner enjoys any better success will have to be seen, given that he's an otherwise dodgy aspirant for a back-end rotation slot. But here again, get as desperate as Arizona is, and it's worth checking him out, especially as long as the rotation's getting results the reverse of their initial expectation, that they at least had a good twosome in Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson. With the fiendishly clever master plan going this badly so far, you might wonder if the new brain trust had its headquarters in an undisclosed Iceland volcano hideout instead of Phoenix.

To contribute some additional noise to the clattering shuffle of organizational deckchairs, they flip-flopped between Gillespie and Parra. You should expect that's less about Gillespie's performance than frustration with Conor Jackson's since the latter's activation from the DL. It's also an overreaction to Parra's nice 10-day spin with Reno; surprising nobody, a contact hitter who got a week's worth of games in the best hitter's park in the PCL had a nice run, hitting .417/.462/.611. He also started in all three outfield slots for the Aces, and managed to provide a modest update to his speed-guy rep by swiping three bases. That said, the question remains whether or not he can beat a tweener's rap, and if he'll just be left-handed and slappy and still part of the problem.


ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Outrighted RHP James Parr to Gwinnett (Triple-A). [5/19]
CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Returned RHP Esmailin Caridad to the 15-day DL (strained elbow); recalled RHP Jeff Stevens from Iowa (Triple-A). [5/19]

Caridad apparently wasn't really right after reactivation, managing to throw just 39 pitches to nine batters across four outings, and getting a total of four outs in more than a week and a half on the roster. Whether there's something serious amiss remains to be seen, but there doesn't seem to be cause for optimism. However, it's also worth remembering that Caridad was an organizational soldier who had a nice stretch; he did not rank among their best prospects, and in the abstract, he's replaceable enough. Unfortunately, this isn't the abstract, and there's a real season on, one in which the Cubs' pen is doing bad things and getting bad results out of everyone beyond Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall. It's no wonder the rumored return of Bobby Howry isn't a subject of derision—after all, could he be worse than John Grabow or Jeff Samardzija?

Which is where Stevens comes in, and as someone with a chance for sticking around that transcends waiting out the clock on getting Howry back in Wrigleyville but on the D'backs' dime beyond the minimum salary. We'll see if he's truly slinging a better slider or not, but it's hard to argue with the hard-throwing Stevens' results: 21 strikeouts in 17 1/3 IP (29 percent of all hitters) against 10 walks, with just three extra-base hits and five runs allowed on 11 hits. The question's less one of his becoming a star as being functional and useful, because if he demonstrates both qualities, he'll have done enough to stick around.


MIAMI MARLINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Chris Leroux on the 15-day DL (strained elbow), retroactive to 5/18; recalled RHP Tim Wood from New Orleans (Triple-A). [5/19]
HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed 2B-S Kazuo Matsui on waivers; purchased the contract of MI-R Oswaldo Navarro from Round Rock (Triple-A). [5/20]

My disdain for the initial decision to sign Matsui is a matter of record; now that the money's been burned, it's just as well that they discard him and peruse their options. Whether or not Navarro's one of them is what passes for excitement on this roster, but that's noteworthy. The team's obviously becoming disenchanted with Tommy Manzella at shortstop while already being stuck with choices between Geoff Blum, Jeff Keppinger and Pedro Feliz, who can be the team's honorary third Jeff at third base.

Navarro's slick-fielding rep is several years old, so it'll have to be seen if he lives up to it at second or short. At times he got credited with patience at the plate, but his career walk rate's just over eight percent, and his career ISO is .085. He hasn't stolen bases effectively since 2004, when he was 19. That said, in his first season liberated from a Mariners' organization that didn't seem to have any use for him, he'd gotten off to a good start with Round Rock, hitting a translated .275/.370/.463 and a .286 TAv. He had hit for some power upon a time in the minors, powering 29 doubles and nine homers as a 20-year-old in the Midwest League. But then, after that year, he'd gotten bounced around the upper levels of the Mariners' system, moving from Tacoma, the Show, and Double-A without a lot of consistency as far as charting a course for him over the next four seasons. Now the Venezuelan is just 25 and back in the majors. Maybe it's just a matter of changed scenery and an opportunity in an organization that's desperate as opposed to decidedly indifferent.


LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RF-L Andre Ethier on the 15-day DL (fractured pinky), retroactive to 5/15; recalled OF-L Xavier Paul from Albuquerque (Triple-A). [5/18]

The Dodgers are now well into that self-pitying stage of wondering when they'll ever have their complete lineup in action—no sooner had they gotten his Mannyness back from the DL and neared the return of Rafael Furcal, than they lose Ethier from anywhere between two and six weeks. To make matters all the more galling, they'd enjoyed a nice little 5-1 run with Ethier and Ramirez reunited in the outfield. And having already seen much too much of what Garret Anderson and Reed Johnson can't do, their alternatives really work out to playing Paul in right field and leaving the ancient tandem to do the few things they can: spot-starting Johnson against all lefties, and perhaps letting Anderson rot until such point that they decide that Paul's going to take his place permanently. Given the positive experience they're already having with letting John Ely win a job in the rotation, it certainly wouldn't hurt to place some faith in the kids than whichever geezer's on Joe Torre's hot list of late.


MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed OF-L Jim Edmonds on the 15-day DL (strained oblique), retroactive to 5/16; recalled RHP Marco Estrada from Nashville (Triple-A). [5/18]

Losing Edmonds almost immediately after losing their other center fielder, Carlos Gomez. But wait, you say, they have a fine reserve outfielder who can play center, Jody Gerut. Surely they'll be able to ride out absences of any length from Edmonds and/or Gomez, right? Well, sadly the Geruts were busy making big future plans last September—see what happens when you leave bench players sitting still for too long?—and there's a little Gerut on the way, so he has to go away and attend the proceedings. So now they're down to Adam Stern to start in center.

But that's not their only problem in terms of having a ghost payroll of absent ballplayers and increasingly circumscribed options. Consider the bullpen now that Manny Parra's in the rotation in Doug Davis' place. Easy enough, they plug in Estrada for long relief work, and they're full up, right? Well, sort of, but they've got Jeff Suppan employed yet understandably avoided, and Trevor Hoffman has been planted onto that same “Not Functioning/Do Not Use” shelf, so the club's also short-handed in the pen, with “just” six guys they're not understandably frightened of if you count a journeyman like Estrada as a newly-minted old reliable.

Tot it all up, and these are the sorts of thing that leave you wondering if things just aren't going to work out so well for the Brewers. As much horror as their might be over the Cubs' plight, the Brewers' may be worse. I'd pegged them for a fourth-place finish before the season, figuring that the roster's increasing segregation between too few stars and a few too many scrubs in each of the team's units—rotation, lineup, and bullpen—would kick them into the second division. It might “just” be mid-May, but to see them slip behind the Pirates in the standings makes it seem that much more certain the brief jousts between the Cubs and Brewers to rule the roost are already lost to history.


NEW YORK METS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Jon Niese on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring), retroactive to 5/17; purchased the contract of RHP R.A. Dickey from Buffalo (Triple-A). [5/17]

Another bad break for Niese, no laughing matter considering he lost last season's shot at sticking to injury. However, it's worth noting that he'd managed just two quality starts in eight. While he was managing 7.2 K/9, that number's bloated by his hittability; he was managing to strike out 16.8 percent of opposing hitters, which sounds nice, but it's more clearly below average, because senior circuit starting pitchers are whiffing batters at an 18.0 percent clip this season. His .450 SNWP was valuable only because it was better than what the club has been getting from Oliver Perez (.426) and John Maine (.391).

So, in their desperation, the Mets got to be the latest ballclub to resurrect Dickey, dropping him into Perez's slot while also planning to spot Hisanori Takahashi in Niese's next turn. And leaving Maine alone for now; he'd managed a three-start run of quality spins before getting knocked around by the Fish on the 15th, so we'll see how he does tonight. There's also much talk about sending Jenrry Mejia back down to Buffalo to get stretched out and presumably brought back later on. What, if anything, there is to expect as far as Perez's return to moderate utility seems doubtful, and that's before getting into his skipper's ability to help chart that course. Jerry Manuel has been known to keep his doghouse stocked for reasons bad and good—just ask Keith Foulke, before he was traded away for Billy Koch.

In the meantime, Dickey had been doing well in Buffalo, flinging flutterballs effectively enough to manage a 37/8 ratio of strikeouts to walks in 60 2/3 IP, allowing 3.1 R/9 on 55 hits and three homers. Deposited into the rotation for last night's start, he did well enough against a Nats lineup with less than 30 total plate appearances against him on his career, allowing nine baserunners and two runs across six innings. Depending on who you believe, the man himself or the interpreted results, Dickey was throwing knuckleballs either 85 percent of the time or perhaps 10, and the Nats were either not making good contact on it, or not swinging at all. Which produces another reason to ponder the nature of truth. Naturally, every input deserves some element of second-guessing—Dickey has an obvious motive in creating the impression he throws the knuckler more often than he does, to help get hitters guessing, or some other reason. Or he's just being straightforward on the subject, and the PITCHf/x game data's just wrong, thanks to the magicks of algorithms equally flustered by the flutterball.

As far as further statistical evidence of his getting knuckle-y, it's worth noting his rate of passed balls and wild pitches generated. The averages in the majors in 2008 and 2009 and just below 0.4 wild pitches plus passed balls per nine innings. He'd managed seven balls-gone-wild plays with the Bisons—four wild pitches, three passed balls—in 60 2/3 IP, or just over one per nine. With the Twins last year, he was a participant in eight in 64 1/3 IP (four and four), or 1.1 wild-ball plays per nine. And with the Mariners the year before that, his tally was 20 (11 WPs, nine PBs), or a WB score of 1.6 per nine. Basically, the sort of mayhem that sounds like a knuckleballer in action.

The more basic question is whether or not Dickey's going to be able to stick around for long, or if he's just another name to add to the list of holdout practitioners of a dying art. Charlie Haeger's wipeout with the Dodgers earlier this season was hardly cause for much hope, but as Doc Jazayerli will gladly point out, since he won't even reach 30 until the 2014 season, we've probably got years of Haegermeister shots of varying lengths to look forward to. Charlie Zink seems to manage a good season every four years or so, inspiring hope from flutterball fans; he just turned 30, and is taking his most recent beatings in Rochester.

Sometimes, it's important to remember that some art forms, while increasingly rare, endure, just on smaller stages. Take the music video—while it started out as an entertaining exercise in short-form film-making that could appeal to sensibilities both serious and less so, only to degenerate into brainless band-in-action setpieces, you'll still find amazing instances of remarkable stuff being done—just for the benefit of smaller audiences. (Warning, if lampooning fast-food monoliths with stuff involving simulations of sex and drug use doesn't sound like your brand of fun, you really probably don't want to click on that last link..)

I bring up video because I can't help but wonder if its present-day ubiquity may be a part of the problem for knuckleballers at the major-league level. Beyond any qualitative considerations of the practitioners of the fluttering arts, the element of surprise certainly isn't the same these days. While Dickey's got the transient advantage of taking his latest shot in a new (and easier) league than he did in '08 or '09, I'm more than a bit dubious about his lasting more than a few spins. The question from here is what alternatives the Mets really have to taking this wild, slow ride to seeing another knuckleballer get mashed, and sadly, there really aren't many.


PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Activated SS-S Jimmy Rollins from the 15-day DL; designated INF-R Wilson Valdez for assignment. [5/17]

While Valdez might wonder what he has to do to get the same sort of street cred that Juan Castro has for reasons known only to Castro. Alternating between the two, Charlie Manuel got a 7-4 record out of Valdez's starts at short, against 10-8 while starting Castro. Add in the fact that their most likely rivals for the division title, the Braves and the Mets, are both a mess, and the absence of Rollins hardly hurt them in terms of the big picture. Whatever the modest respective merits of Valdez and Castro, Valdez's very fungibility was an asset adequately employed during Rollins' absence. Now, because of that, the Phillies not only get Rollins back, they get the roster spot back too. Not that they don't have other slots they could turn over—Brian Bocock?—but eventually Ryan Madson's going to come back from the 60-day DL.


PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed LHP Jack Taschner on the 15-day DL (hamstring), retroactive to 5/18; activated RHP Brendan Donnelly from the 15-day DL. [5/20]
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Activated INF-S Felipe Lopez from the 15-day DL; optioned INF-R Tyler Greene to Memphis (Triple-A). [5/17]
WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Designated RHP Brian Bruney for assignment; purchased the contract of RHP Drew Storen fro Syracuse (Triple-A). [5/17]

Bruney's fate should be taken as a collective warning to all of the time-servers on the roster: these may be "just" the Nationals, but performance matters, and talent is on the way, talent that goes beyond just Stephen Strasburg's inevitably boxing out a rotation regular to be named later. Take the Strasburg situation: it won't be Luis Atilano if he keeps delivering, so Craig Stammen and maybe even John Lannan might have to start thinking in terms of what they'll need to do to keep their jobs, as opposed to merely being tasked with them. Ian Desmond's pushing his way into the infield was another example, and Roger Bernadina's making his case as well. The Nats aren't going to sit still. Credit Mike Rizzo, credit Jim Riggleman, or just generally credit an organization busily addressing problems as they arrive and fixing them as they can. The Marlins may have company when it comes to being unpleasant spoilers all season long.

So, enter Storen, something of a known quantity, a pre-season four-star prospect earning his place after blowing through both Double- and Triple-A. There's no arguing with the results or the ability from last summer's first-rounder out of Stanford: 15 strikeouts against just three walks in 16 2/3 IP, heat that gets into the mid 90s, quality off-speed offerings, and college polish. I worry less about reliever's repetitions than those at any other position; an accelerated timetable up to a role where he may not see the same batters for weeks at a time depends as much on scouting as performance evaluation. Adding him to a pen that has Matt Capps healthy and logging saves, Tyler Clippard vulturing wins with an especially sharp beak, and an employable pair of lefty options in Sean Burnett and Doug Slaten, and suddenly you've got a relief corps that's no joke to go up against.

As part of a relentlessly self-improving Nats team, it fits right into what's becoming an operating philosophy. Who needs to wait on Strasburg? This team's fun to follow right now.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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