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June 2, 2010

Transaction Action

Double Dealing

by Christina Kahrl

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DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Designated LHP Dontrelle Willis for assignment; recalled RHP Max Scherzer from Toledo (Triple-A). [5/30]
Traded LHP Dontrelle Willis and cash to the D'backs for RHP Billy Buckner, and optioned him to Toledo. [6/1]

Sort of like they did with Nate Robertson at the end of March, it's nice that the Tigers did something dignified in terms of at least dealing instead of outright ditching Willis. Not that I'd invest much hope that even more aggressive Buckner will do much more than help the Mudhens: true to his new, more violent incarnation, he beaned a pair of players for Arizona, not that it helped him pitch any more effectively. The Tigers will still be paying almost all of Willis' salary, saving only the pro-rated cost of paying somebody else the minimum—if it makes you feel any better, you can pretend that the money saved is paying Brennan Boesch or Austin Jackson for the remainder of the year.

More fundamentally, just credit the Tigers for throwing in their particular towel on the subject of what Dontrelle Willis might still be capable of. There wasn't much point to extending the exercise, and where some other teams allow themselves to be saddled with their own mistakes, seemingly to the bitter end, the Kitties have a shot at a division title to concern themselves with.

Not unlike the Marlins' demotion of Ricky Nolasco in 2008, demoting Scherzer seems to have worked the necessary magic. Scherzer came back after working on his mechanics (and embarrassing International League batsmen) in two turns, raising his arm slot and his velocity. In his first turn back, his heat that was clocked up towards 99 while sitting in the mid 90s en route to mowing down 14 of 24 A's batters at home plate. If he's fixed, they're back in business as far as the original proposition that they've found their third man beyond Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello. Add in Jeremy Bonderman's so-far successful comeback, and that still sounds like a good rotation.

Whether or not Armando Galarraga sticks as the skippable fifth man remains to be seen, especially as long as he's helpless against left-handed batters, but finding viable fifth-starter candidates isn't exactly difficult. Eddie Bonine might be the most obvious alternative already knocking around on the big-league roster. Down on the farm power lefty Andy Oliver, one of their top pre-season prospects, has been getting stronger down in Double-A as the season progresses, but that would be an extreme rush job on 2009 second-rounder. Organizational soldier L.J. Gagnier earned a promotion to Toledo recently after also dominating at Erie, but Kevin Goldstein notes that he's a finesse righty ("87-91 with movement, slider, curve") who works high in the zone, which seems like it will be a problem against more advanced competition. Or they can go shopping, of course, although ideally they'll aim higher than just finding a fifth guy.


TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Activated LHP Brian Tallet from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Josh Roenicke to Las Vegas (Triple-A); traded LHP Dana Eveland to the Pirates for RHP Ronald Uviedo. [6/1]

Credit Alex Anthopolous for making something out of very little, having acquired Eveland after the A's designated him for assignment, using him when they weren't quite sure how their rotation was going to wind up, and then getting three good starts in his first six. Then the Jays their own introduction to Eveland's capacity for the erratic, as he combusted in his final three turns by putting 31 of 62 batters aboard and seeing 19 score in just 9 1/3 IP. Rather that keep flipping that coin, the Jays dispensed with the experience, and have picked up a decent arm for their troubles. Uviedo's a strike-throwing stringbean from Venezuela, throwing heat into the 90s and mixing in an effective changeup; the 23-year-old was doing good work for Altoona, striking out 28 in 22 1/3 IP, but walking an uncharacteristically high 12 batters. Basically, Uviedo represents a nice return on investment on the winter's grabby acquisition strategy to fill up the 40-man.

Meanwhile, the rotation's in good shape now that Tallet's back in action, with Jesse Litsch not that far behind. Who gets bumped for Litsch should prove especially interesting, because numbers don't automatically add up to depth if you're concerned about the workloads of those involved. They could use this as an opportunity to make fewer demands on some of their starters, with Ricky Romero and Shaun Marcum among the league leaders in innings pitched, but will they? I'm skeptical, in part because it's not something I expect Cito Gaston to sign on for, not when those two are seemingly thriving.

Would they "rest" Brett Cecil after his initial success since his recall, either by tandem'ing him up with Brandon Morrow or Tallet, the pair from which one will be bumped to make way for Litsch? Again, I'm skeptical, and it isn't like sending Cecil back to Las Vegas would do more than waste his time while not sparing him innings. Morrow remains maddening yet talented; hauling him out of the rotation would just be a repeat of his Seattle experience, which didn't exactly help him get his career straightened out. Tallet's a utility pitcher and something of a disposable commodity; he's handy, but not someone I'd fidget over his workload as much as he can be used to bridge the middle innings or spot-start for any of the kids. Litsch, like Marcum, is coming back from surgery, so you can hope they'll be careful, but here again, we'll see what he can do.


ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded RHP Billy Buckner to the Tigers for LHP Dontrelle Willis. [6/1]

The Snakes might be dead on their feet, marooned (though they might call it "Sedona red") in last place now that they're 13 games under .500 and 11½ games out of first place, so you might respond with a derisive snort over any sort of dealing. And one involving picking up Willis with months left on his contract? What's the point?

Points taken, but there's a lot to like about this deal. First off, they're not paying Willis a cent more than they would have paid Buckner, and Buckner probably has no upside higher than the oxymoronic title of "established fifth starter." Willis might not be any better, but when you count Rodrigo Lopez as a find and have to breathlessly report updates on Kris Benson's recuperation, you're not just at the bottom of the barrel, you're under it and digging towards fabulous improbability.

Second, wherever you are in the standings, retreading is never out of fashion. Admittedly, Willis' issues transcend simple hangups like wilting against the tougher league, and bringing a struggling starter to Phoenix to pitch in Banky Bank Bandbox isn't a gentle proposition, but maybe the guy's really going to respond well to getting to hit regularly. With Willis, we're obviously off the map as far as what's easy and predictable, but if there are morale-related factors like getting to hit or getting to team up with a familiar face in Edwin Jackson or just enjoying a change of scenery and returning to the league he succeeded in, it's worth taking a peek, especially when you aren't out any cash to investigate.

Third, as frustrating as Willis was for the Tigers, in point of fact his .483 SNWP would rank second on the Snakes, behind only Ian Kennedy. Part of the problem as far as the starting staff is concerned at this point is determining whether Edwin Jackson or Dan Haren has done a better job of supplanting Meteor Crater for creating the biggest high-velocity hole in Arizona. Let's look at everyone's work so far, between Willis and the assorted Snakes, to get a sense of what they've wrought in terms of winnable ballgames. For this, I'm using the three-run definition for quality starts (not earned runs), and also recording blown quality starts (BQS, for quality starts through the first six innings that subsequently become non-quality starts), as well as disaster starts (DS, and Jim Baker's invention, I believe), for turns where the starter allow more runs than IP:

Starter
GS
QS
BQS
DS
SNWP
Haren 12 6 2 3 .454
Kennedy 11 6 1 1 .576
Jackson 11 4 2 2 .415
Lopez 11 4 1 1 .441
Buckner 3 - - 2 .237
Benson 3 2 - 1 .460
Valdez 2 - - 1 .374
Willis 8 3 - 1 .483

So, that's special. That's a lot of BQS in the early going, but that's a symptom of the twin evils of the game's worst bullpen and the understandable increasing fear of turning to it. What gets lost in this exercise is a few little things, like Rodrigo Lopez' three non-disaster bad days (his runs allowed and IP tally was equal), but take that into account and you understand why he's right around where you'd expect a bad fifth starter to be in terms of SNWP. Unfortunately, he's not the club's fifth column—that's Valdez and Buckner and Benson, producing disasterpieces in half of the eight turns they've been given.

So yes, Willis is an improvement on all of that, even if he just remains flaky. He's been all over the place in terms of velocity, occasionally touching 93-94 with his fastball, but more usually down in the high 80s. Wildness from the outset of his starts has usually set him up to see the top of the order again in the third, where he's gotten hammered; that might be less of a problem against the weaker lineups of the National League, but he's still going to have to help himself with better command. The news isn't good there: he's struggling to get strikes over against right-handers, walking 16 percent of them so far, and he goes to pieces with runners on base, allowing a .454 OBP. I don't know if that suggests he should just ditch throwing from the stretch altogether, but taking a page from Nolan Ryan's book and not worrying about his baserunners might not be such a bad idea. Breaking him in at home against the Rockies, who lose a good chunk of their lineup's power against lefties, seems like a sensible play.

In the end, we're left with the unknowable morale question. Will moving to his former league, even if he's heading to a last-place ballclub, snap Willis out of his funk? "Hellephino" might not sound like much of an answer, but if the Snakes can take another club's white elephant and bring him back to some semblance of the outward joy with which he pitched, I figure baseball—not just in Arizona—will be the better for it.


PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired LHP Dana Eveland from the Blue Jays for RHP Ronald Uviedo. [6/1]
Activated LHP Jack Taschner from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Steven Jackson to Indianapolis (Triple-A). [6/2]

I can't blame anybody for being intrigued by Eveland's brand of sometime success, but I wonder if this really was a deal the Bucs should have bothered to strike. Although he's sort of an organizational arm, Uviedo's a righty who throws in the 90s, and those don't grow on trees; he had landed in the bullpen, so expectations were probably dialed down from an already modest standard, but giving up talent when you're already a non-contender seems tough.

Keep in mind, Eveland's been bobbing along from organization to organization for a while now, dogged by concerns over his conditioning as well as his performance. Maybe the Bucs see something they can straighten out to add an undiscovered element of consistency; more probably, they're just tired of fielding the worst rotation in baseball, so why not punt an organizational relief arm? It certainly beats taking beatings with the likes of the even more fungible Brian Burres, whom Eveland seems likely to replace in the rotation. Even so, I'd put the upside of Eveland on the same plane as what to expect from Jeff Karstens: a competent contributor if things go well, but not exactly a great bet to be more than yet another fourth man in an organization that seems to go after that type and wind up with less. The Pirates could use all the competence they can get, but pending some major discovery about how to turn Eveland around, this is more about finding a slightly better brand of placeholder than an actual improvement.



For updates on any and all kinds of transaction action, follow Christina on Twitter.

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

Related Content:  A's,  The Who,  Dontrelle Willis,  The Call-up

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