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June 3, 2010
The Old West
Optioned CF-S Dexter Fowler to Colorado Springs (Triple-A); purchased the contract of MI-S Jonathan Herrera from Colorado Springs. [5/31]
Activated LHP Franklin Morales from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Esmil Rogers to Colorado Springs. [6/2]
If the immediate loser here was Fowler, the eventual loser could be Melvin Mora. The Rockies tried to expand Mora's utility by spotting him at second base, but direct experience seems to indicate that coding's currently deprecated. They're still backwards compatible where the former Orioles' hot corner hero is concerned, but for how much longer, when all he covers is third base on Ian Stewart's occasional day off? That's not a bad thing in itself, especially if Stewart's going to keep struggling against lefties, of course.
However, consider what that means for the Rockies' bench if Mora's a single-position reserve on a club that already has two of those, the non-starting catcher and Jason Giambi. That seems a bit inflexible in an age where short benches and multi-positionality are seen as necessary circumstances. Ryan Spilborghs can handle all three outfield slots conveniently enough, and spotting him for any of the lefty-batting starters works (although he's essentially platooning with Seth Smith).
Herrera's addition is about providing the club with a middle infielder who can truly play the two positions. Trying Mora at second worked on a roster that already has Clint Barmes essentially serving as their primary backup at shortstop... but that was if Mora could play second. Now that it seems as if he can't (or, more properly, warning labels suggest that he shouldn't), Herrera becomes a preferred addition as a reserve. Herrera can't hit, although 20 walks in 199 PAs is consistent with his recent track record as a poor man's Punto, a good glove man able to draw the occasional base on balls or drop a bunt, so he's a bit of a luxury in his own way.
So, what happens when Eric Young Jr. or Fowler are ready to come back? Somebody's going to have to go, of course, and Herrera's just one obvious target, especially if the Rockies decide they'd like to mix Young in at second base. Fowler promptly set about avenging himself upon the PCL, with five hits, four walks, and three extra-base hits in his first two games (ever) as a Sky Sock. Different defensive metrics say different things about Fowler's play in center, so it isn't like he's obviously bad or good, but his absence obviously involves an opportunity for Carlos Gonzalez to claim center for himself for keeps. Since Seth Smith's under club control for years to come, and Brad Hawpe's subject to a 2011 club option, it isn't like the Rockies have any immediate need to reach an answer about Fowler's future.
As is, the club should make time before coming to an especially tough decision as far as Todd Helton's playing time. Long the face of the franchise, Helton is struggling badly enough to invite questions over whether moving Hawpe to first base to create space in the outfield for Fowler is something that should leave the realm of theory and become a fact in the second half. That's less pressing as long as Fowler wasn't holding up his end, but with Helton plating a miserable 9.6 percent of his baserunners and posting an equally feeble .076 ISO, the time is coming when the Rockies will have to ask themselves if Helton really belongs in their starting nine.
As for getting Morales back in the bullpen, his arrival deepens an already interesting quandary for Jim Tracy. Manny Corpas is doing fine as the closer of the moment, so it's possible but unlikely that Morales will get to move straight back into getting save opportunities. This isn't the only case of tweaking roles on the staff in-season: Rafael Betancourt has been supplanted for dedicated late-game set-up duties by Joe Beimel and, surprisingly enough, the newly rubber-armed Matt Belisle. Switching from the right-handed Betancourt setting up the lefty Morales to the left-handed Beimel in front of the right-handed Corpas is interesting enough in its own right, but more basically reflects a willingness to ride the hot hand while having a tremendous amount of depth to select from.
The name that's really surprising in all of that is Belisle, because of his 2.28 FRA and (for now, staff-leading) 1.272 WXRL, and racing Tyler Clippard for the major-league lead in relief innings. In spring training, the journeyman noted he was finally over forearm issues. On May 17 in Wrigley, I was frankly stunned to see Tracy leave Belisle out on the mound in his third inning on his third consecutive game pitched (with no rest days in between) with nobody even warming up in extra innings. He wound up taking the loss, which you can take as an endorsement from his skipper or managerial indifference, but it didn't break him. If anything, Belisle's become even more trusted for it. His fastball's touching the mid-90s and sitting in the low 90s, not especially different from his past work. It's probably the best stretch he's had over his big-league career, unless you're especially fond of his work in the Reds' rotation in April of 2007 (three quality starts and three wins in five turns, including a complete-game win over the Pirates). As Belisle comes up on his 30th birthday over the weekend, we can take this as a nice reminder that useful relievers can come from all sorts of unlikely sources.
Recalled LHP Scott Elbert from Albuquerque (Triple-A); designated INF-R Nick Green for assignment. [5/28]
Optioned LHP Scott Elbert and OF-L Xavier Paul to Albuquerque; recalled RHP Travis Schlichting from Albuquerque; activated RF-L Andre Ethier from the 15-day DL. [5/31]
Nothing really earth-shattering for now. Elbert's brief spin as the seventh reliever-designate died a quick death in Coors Field when, non-shockingly, he was wild, walking three en route to plating both of Hiroki Kuroda's bequeathed baserunners as well as one of his own. He basically drew the assignment as an extra lefty to be in the bullpen for a series against the Rockies, who have a lot of lefties in their lineup. When the club came home to face the Snakes, they switched to a right-handed person, Schlichting.
As a conversion project from a failed start-up as a third baseman, Schlichting's made fine progress with a sinker/slider mix that ought to put him in position to stick as a designated work-killer. For the Isotopes, he was generating twice as many ground-ball outs as caught flies while working in middle relief, hurling 31
To some extent, Schlichting's inheriting the role that Rule 5 pick Carlos Monasterios was initially tabbed to fill: long relief, generate ground-ball outs, be right-handed. But with Monasterios getting by in the rotation for the time being, this is another instance where the Dodgers are turning out to be better off supplementing the "name" pitchers on the staff with the fruits of the organization's scouting, and winding up with younger talent instead of scaring up a few too many "Torries," geezers, and assorted Ortizes.
As for sorting out the bench, it will be interesting to see if Green draws any interest or simply slips back to Albuquerque, since there are teams that could use help in the middle infield, and yesterday's toast of Fenway might be tomorrow's Mariner. Demoting Xavier Paul's just another way to note that the Dodgers are keeping Garret Anderson for now, and leaving Paul to play daily down in Albuquerque because they won't cut the old man two months into what may be his last season. As such, it's another reminder that a 25-man roster isn't made up of the 25 best players in an organization, or even the best 25 out of 27 or 30.
Placed SS-R Everth Cabrera on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring), retroactive to 5/24; optioned RHP Adam Russell to Portland (Triple-A); activated RHP Sean Gallagher from the 15-day DL; recalled INF-S Lance Zawadzki from Portland. [5/28]
Placed C-R Yorvit Torrealba on the Restricted List; recalled C-R Dusty Ryan from Portland. [5/31]
Activated OF-R Scott Hairston from the 15-day DL; optioned OF-S Luis Durango to Portland. [6/2]
With that, we can add Cabrera to the swelling ranks of the immediately reinjured, but as cause for the re-employment of the firm of Hairston and Hairston in the lineup now that Scott's back from the DL, it's interesting to see how the first-place Padres reign supreme on the Hit List while getting by with so many position players we might generally refer to as filler.
The outfield combination with Kyle Blanks still out of action is hardly one we'd associate with superiority. Oscar Salazar and Chris Denorfia are alternating in left, with Denorfia cadging starts thanks to dropping a few more singles than anybody else. Kid Gwynn still isn't doing a whole lot and the most-regular center fielder. Over in right field, Will Venable's OBP against right-handers just slipped below the Guillen line (.300) and his slugging below .400.* Matt Stairs has been spotted a couple of times in left, but hasn't been much help. Adrian Gonzalez isn't tearing the league limb from limb. Yet they're 10th in the league in team-level True Average. How are they getting it done on offense?
It isn't just the environment; TAv allows for that. So they're scrabbling for bases extra-effectively, right? Well, sure, they're doing great as far as stealing bases, ranking second in the NL in steals, but they're not running that well, since they're getting caught a quarter of the time. Taking a look at their performance as far as baserunning runs, and they're merely 14th in how many runs they're netting with steals. However, a big part of the problem isn't how much they're getting thrown out as much as they're being caught leaning, because they lead the league in times being picked off (13) and getting picked off on stolen-base attempts (six). They're doing great as far as pushing defenses on grounders and taking bases on hits, ranking second and fourth, respectively, and they're slightly above average in their rate of extra bases taken at 40 percent (where the NL average is 39 percent). They're close to the bottom in outs on the bases with just 16 made, with only the Braves and the Astros making fewer; that data comes from the always indispensable Baseball-Reference.com, and doesn't include pickoffs or times caught stealing. Put all of that together, and you can say they're helping themselves as far as their baserunning, but we're not talking the '85 Cardinals.
What about their situational hitting? Here again, they're not among the best. Looking at the team tallies, and you've got their catchers and the occasionally present Everth Cabrera leading the team in OBI%, but most of the lineup is below average. The AL's plating people at a 13.9 percent clip, the NL at 13.8 percent, and the Padres are at 13.6 percent and 11th in their league, so they're below average here.
They're not walking all that much either, although here they're better than some. They're just slightly above average, ranking seventh in the league by drawing unintentional walks in 8.4 percent of their plate appearances.
One of my untested assumptions is that it can be easier to fix an offense than a pitching staff or a defense, and it's easy to single out that outfield as a big part of the problem. A healthy Blanks should rebound, but we can say much the same of Venable's performance against right-handers. The farm system's got nothing in terms of ready assistance to provide by way of alternatives if pasted-in replacements like Salazar or Denorfia don't come through. The most likely candidate, Aaron Cunningham, is struggling to do anything up at Portland, so while you could put him in the picture as a power source in the abstract, he isn't living up to expectations.
Which adds up to an interesting month to come, because if the kids don't come around, is that going to lead to an everyday job for Scott Hairston? Or will the Padres graduate to a point where Jed Hoyer decides to pick up the phone and go shopping? I think it's telling that they did not identify Pat Burrell as a potential solution, even in their hour of need, so we'll see whether and who they'll identify as alternative fixes if they reach that point where reaching for outside help becomes a necessity as opposed to an option.
* So, .400 is a barrier we might label for... who? Glenn Wilson comes to mind (.398 SLG career), but I'm sure there's a better poster child-nominee for the guy who tried and failed most reliably to reach .400.
Optioned RHP Waldis Joaquin to Fresno (Triple-A); recalled C-R Buster Posey from Fresno; signed LF-R Pat Burrell to a one-year contract, and optioned him to Fresno. [5/29]
Placed INF-R Russ Rohlinger on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); recalled INF-R Matt Downs from Fresno. [5/31]
So, here we are, with a new-fangled Giants lineup: Posey at first base, Aubrey Huff planted in left for the time being, and the untouchable Bengie Molina still playing behind the plate. It's a step in some uncertain direction, since Molina's not hitting much at all and certainly doesn't deserve the consideration, but the choice isn't between Molina and Posey, it's between Molina and Nate Schierholtz and/or John Bowker. The Giants are slowly mutating toward a better offensive alignment, and the changes aren't through; they didn't give Burrell a contract as a mere courtesy. The chances that they might lose Mark DeRosa for the season if his bum wrist isn't getting better, and adding Burrell-an outfield-only outfielder instead of a multi-purpose player like DeRosa-makes for an alternative with certain limits that will involve another lineup reshuffle.
In the meantime, Huff's had a nice week in the outfield. If he keeps putting up a .400 OBP against right-handers, you can understand how he represents a better solution than fruitlessly mulling the relative benefits of Schierholtz or Bowker. But if Burrell hits his way back to the majors after some Grizzly gametime, where does Huff go? Maybe right field once the Andres Torres phenomenon peters out, although an outfield with Huff and Burrell in the corners sounds offensive in more ways than one. If Huff heads back to first base, on the other hand...
Which is where we get to the genuine good news as opposed to the eventual maybes: Posey's up, and it should be to stay, if not necessarily at first base for very long. He was throwing out 44 percent of opponents' stolen-base attempts, and he's always gotten good marks as a receiver, so it isn't like he's not going to be a catcher at some point. He'd also mashed the PCL at a .349/.442/.552 clip and a .306 TAv, ranking him among the best regulars in the circuit, if not, in prospect terms, purely the best.* And he's hit since he's arrived. And more likely than not, he'll keep hitting, to the point that any amount of snark at Brian Sabean's expense isn't going to change the fact that performance is the best guarantor of job security.
So if or when Burrell comes up, if or when Huff moves back to first base, Molina's going to become a part-time player. If Posey demonstrates the flexibility to play first base well in the coming weeks, if anything it affords the Giants the handy flexibility of building a cross-positional Huff/Molina platoon, one that would keep Posey from wearing down via everyday play behind the plate, reward them with the benefits of having Molina around as a semi-regular receiver, and let them skip futzing around with the Whitesides or the Schierholtzes. However accidentally it might seem to have come about, it's going to make for a better ballclub.
Given past skippering practice from Bruce Bochy, it shouldn't be taken as that much of a surprise. While Posey's too good to sit, the flexibility of having him around to catch or play first base is very like the sort of tactical menu Bruce Bochy enjoyed while skippering the '98 Padres, when he had Jim Leyritz around to spot at first base for the left-handed Wally Joyner, or behind the plate for Carlos Hernandez when he wanted additional offense. Maybe it's just me, but Huff these days isn't very different from Joyner then, and Hernandez represents something of a poor man's version of Molina. Posey's a happily disproves Marx's suggestion that history repeated is farce. Where Posey changes the equation is that he won't be a bench player, where Leyritz was an oft-used reserve, but if that takes at-bats from Huff against all lefties or from Molina against most right-handers, that's significant improvement for the offense as a whole. If a manager's job is to put his players in a position to succeed, Bochy's options are getting to a point where he'll make them look very good indeed.
As for Burrell's arrival in the organization and the challenge that he might have to play left semi-regularly, this seems like a great landing spot. Considerations for his ability to play every day are less of an issue if he can be spotted for with the Giants' original gaggle of outfielders and Huff, he's coming to the weaker league, and he's in a division where there are a couple of hitter-friendly parks to visit. And where he might have been seen as a savior in so many other venues, here he's just another gray-stubbled face in a veteran crowd. If he has anything left in the tank, there might not have been a better landing spot, and if he doesn't, it's not costing the Giants anything to find out.