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June 17, 2010

Transaction Analysis

AL Quadrille

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
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Activated 3B-R Brandon Wood from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Rafael Rodriguez to Salt Lake (Triple-A). [6/15]
Placed INF-S Maicer Izturis on the 15-day DL (strained elbow); recalled RHP Sean O'Sullivan from Salt Lake. [6/16]
Activated C-R Jeff Mathis from the 15-day DL; designated 1B/OF-L Mike Ryan for assignment. [6/17]

One of the reliable hallmarks of lineup and roster management of the Angels over what we might call the Scioscia Era (with hat tips to Bill Stoneman and Tony Reagins, of course) has been a pointed exploitation of any possible efficiencies. They generally don't leave roster spots slack, they routinely re-fill the pen as needed, and they utilize their players' positional flexibility as much as possible. And while the Angels are yet again beating their expected record—something now seemingly so reliable it factored into a decision to pick them to finish first—that flexibility and adaptability is being tested.

Consider their infield situation. With Izturis back on the DL and Erick Aybar's knee keeping him out of action, they've elected to move Wood back to his original position while also cutting short a rehab stint that seemed likely to go the full 20 days. Wood wasn't hitting much better in Utah than he had in the majors (.196/.241/.255), but the choice for who they might play at short with Izturis on the DL and Aybar out left them picking between Wood or Kevin Frandsen. That choice is what they'll be down to at third base once (or if) Aybar returns to action, and you can understand the decision to prefer Wood to the journeyman, at least in the ideal. But Wood is struggling to sustain much faith in him, so we'll see how this plays out, especially with Frandsen lining enough singles to look useful for the time being.

Happily, they will have Frandsen that available for their shortstop and third-base issues because of Mathis' return from the DL, which should press Mike Napoli more regularly into the playing time at first base after Frandsen was briefly added to Mike Scioscia's options menu. In the wake of losing Kendry Morales for the year, Napoli was getting a simple majority of the playing time there (seven starts), with Robb Quinlan (five), Ryan (four), and Frandsen getting turns in the lineup as well. Quinlan and Ryan have both played their way out of their opportunities; if not for Izturis' injury, Quinlan would be heading back to Utah as well.

Now that Mathis is back, I wouldn't be surprised to see Napoli's time at first become that much more regular; Napoli's limitations as a catcher have always provided wind beneath the wings of Mathis' career. As Paolo Conte might note if he ever took up the topic of the tools of ignorance,

illusa da Napoli
e poi sgridata a Minneapoli*

... except that we don't have to go so far as the Land of Lakes to find jeers for the receiving skills of the backstop from the land of the Lakers. Now that the choice is between Mathis or someone like Quinlan in the lineup, that's going to favor Napoli at first and Mathis doing his catch-and-throw thing while perhaps living off the fumes of last season's LCS glory.

If the Angels continue to contend with Mathis in the lineup and with Napoli adding his low-average slugliness, they could well forgo shopping at anything but a buyer's price where the likes of Derrek Lee, Adam LaRoche, or Russell Branyan are concerned for this season's first-base problem in Morales' absence. The question is whether they'd potentially cost themselves an opportunity to advance by settling for that—is this team good enough to repeat last year's upset of the Red Sox and take a post-season series from one of the monsters of the East? I don't really think so, not as constituted, and adding a LaRoche or a Lee or that sort of first baseman wouldn't really advance the cause that much. Going for rentals of better 2010 performers bound for free agency, guys like Adam Dunn or Paul Konerko, depend as much or more on their employers' fortunes than any package the Angels might offer.

So what to do, if you decide that something must be done? Making a play at Prince Fielder to get this year's answer at first would have the additional benefit of bringing them a slugger under club control through 2011 and open up an opportunity to nail down a multi-year deal early, but that might be too rich for their blood, even with the contracts of Hideki Matsui, Scot Shields, and Justin Speier coming off the books, and perhaps Brian Fuentes as well if his 2011 option doesn't vest. Were they to add Fielder, though, they could always bump Kendry Morales to DH next season, or have the pair alternate between the two slots. Admittedly, the resultant lineup wouldn't be very Scioscian, but the nice thing about the Angels is that they have been willing to make a deal to improve a contender with a big move in-season, pulling the trigger to add Scott Kazmir last season, and Mark Teixeira in 2008. Given how little they had to give up to rent Teixeira (the disposable Casey Kotchman plus minor-league reliever Stephen Marek), or the modest package it took to get Cliff Lee from the Tribe last season, it makes sense for the Angels to stay open to whatever opportunities could be created with big-name talent.

If they decide to not go for higher stakes, the Angels could always settle for their overlapping in-house fixes, relying again on Napoli's positional flexibility as the summer wears on, and as they get to see Mathis' limitations as a hitter come home to roost (again). Hank Conger is hitting right-handers well (.315/.378/.488) for Salt Lake without it being the product of a friendly home park. Where defense has been a concern in the past, you can at least say that he hasn't been assigned responsibility for a passed ball while also throwing out 30 percent of stolen-base attempts. He could be a better-than-Napoli solution behind the plate as well as a better-than-Mathis option at it. Or they might decide to turn to the Kingmanesque stylings of Conger's teammate, the Music Man: Mark Trumbo's hitting .304/.353/.609 in June, and .283/.327/.544 overall. That doesn't completely obscure how much of that is altitude inflation—outside of Utah, Trumbo is hitting just .254/.266/.500 in the rest of the PCL.

* Apologies for employing the language of Dante badly in a poor cause indifferently served by the attempt; a descendant of a Napoletano couldn't resist.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Optioned RHP Brad Bergesen to Norfolk (Triple-A); activated RHP Alfredo Simon from the 15-day DL. [6/14]

Like a number of other teams, the Orioles have enough days off in the schedule for the balance of the month that carrying a losing candidate for the fifth slot was an unnecessary luxury, and one they elected to not afford. As is, the schedule has helped press Chris Tillman, the current reigning fifth man, back into the bullpen after a pair of disaster starts in his first four turns, and there's now needless controversy being brewed up over whether or not they might bring Bergesen back to take Tillman's place the next time they need a fifth wheel. Simon's return to action probably can't have come a moment too soon for the journeyman, because David Hernandez, one of the other arms bumped from the rotation picture, has started knicking the rare save opportunities. With a pair of hard-throwing relievers on hand, the hope is that the Orioles won't find a way to screw up one of the few nice problems to have, but given that they won't have that many ninth-inning leads in the first place, relegating anybody to the exclusive responsibility of nailing those down rates as a form of non-employment the likes of which perhaps even the Maytag repairman might envy.

BOSTON RED SOX
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Placed OF-L Jeremy Hermida on the 15-day DL (fractured ribs), retroactive to 6/10; reactivated RHP Jonathan Papelbon from the Bereavement Leave List; recalled RHP Scott Atchison from Pawtucket (Triple-A); designated RHP Joe Nelson for assignment. [6/11]
Placed RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka on the 15-day DL (strained forearm), retroactive to 6/8; optioned OF-L Josh Reddick to Pawtucket; recalled LHP Dustin Richardson from Pawtucket; purchased the contract of OF-S Daniel Nava from Pawtucket. [6/12]

Coming up short of personnel isn't supposed to happen to one of the game's big spenders, but despite their major off-season commitments in the outfield and in the rotation to secure enough depth—on paper—to protect themselves, they've been reduced to circumstances more familiar to most of the competition, calling up kids or journeymen simply to have enough healthy bodies available to play. And all while carrying the increasingly useless Mike Lowell like so much luggage, however many suitors the Sox are purportedly fending off for his services—maybe the phone's ringing, maybe not, and maybe this is a new definition of fantasy baseball, perhaps involving Hervé Villechaize.

First, there's how to keep the rotation stocked. Instead of being able to number Tim Wakefield as a bargain and an insurance policy, he's fourth on the team in starts because of the overlapping breakdowns of Josh Beckett and Dice-K. Matsuzaka's latest injury forced the team to resort to a pen start last weekend, led off by Atchison and won thanks to the offense's nine-run can of whoop-ass opened up on Kentucky Joe.

That was just to tide them over in an emergency, but taking Matsuzaka's place on Friday will be organizational soldier Felix Doubront, six years into his service to the organization yet only 22 years old.* The young Venezuelan had to repeat at Portland this season, but pitched his way up to the PawSox after striking out 38 in 43 IP for the Sea Dogs while walking 17 and allowing 2.7 R/9. In Triple-A, he was better still, striking out 16 in 16 2/3 IP against five walks. He'll be coming up while coming off of the minor-league DL, having had to recover from a shin injury. He's generating more grounders than he did at the start of his career, and relying on velocity that now reliably reaches the low 90s with good movement (and sometimes touching 94) when he isn't fooling folks with a good changeup, while still working on his other breaking stuff.

Given his youth, you can like his chances of helping most big-league rotations from a back-end slot, even if he doesn't rate as a top prospect, but the Red Sox aren't most big-league teams, he'll be starting against the Dodgers, and we'll see if he's totally good to go coming back from that shin injury that has kept him shelved since June 7th. However well Matsuzaka's recovery from Thursday's bullpen session goes, he won't be eligible to return in time to help the Sox avoid a third swing through the rotation without him, so Doubront could earn a second turn if he pitches well on Friday.

As a matter of roster logistics, that's manageable. Similarly, it might seem as if the morass in the outfield is a horror, but the Sox are working through this as well after losing Jeremy Hermida on another collision between Adrian Beltre and a starting left fielder. So, Hermida's joined Jacoby Ellsbury and Adam on a list of people wondering what they have to do to protect their ribs while just going about their business. Meanwhile, to man left they're sticking with Nava, an indie-league veteran and hitting machine. Even though his career line of .342/.434/.545 in the minors has the benefit of including his terrorizing the Golden Baseball League and getting the benefit of a full season in the Cal League in the hitter's paradise of Lancaster, his .196 ISO with the PawSox this season provides reassurance that his pop isn't all produced by parks and poor pitching.

If all he does is hit, it's sort of like the Chris Coste story all over again, in terms of providing an argument in favor of the utility of the independent leagues for people who “just” hit to prove it, while also providing a reminder that the 40-man roster isn't necessarily the depository for all of your best stuff at any one time, just the stuff you have to carry. Given their dire need for help in the starting lineup, Nava's suited to provide a simple solution, while also creating an additional question of what Mike Lowell's still here for, since this is yet another thing he can't help fix. What's left as far as his purpose in Boston? In case Morlocks come swarming out of the bowels of Fenway and eat Papi and Kevin Youkilis? Given that H.P. Lovecraft was always warning us about chthonic perils and inbred New Englanders, and maybe given the sheer number of people they've lost to strange mishaps already, it's a reasonable concern.

Meanwhile, for outfield options beyond Nava they're still counting on Bill Hall to flit from spot to spot, and for Darnell McDonald to continue to fulfill a role as Mike Cameron's legs. These are not the worst things to have going for you, and given that Terry Francona's a good skipper when it comes to placing his players in their best positions to succeed, this is less of a handicap than you'd think given the relative anonymity of the substitutes for so many more famous ballplayers. Setting aside their left-field solutions and Cameron's struggles, they're getting offense from all of their other lineup slots this month, and they're third in baseball in team True Average. For all of the ex-famous people hurting or hurt or absent, this isn't a team looking for hitting help, but it could be one that really unloads on the league down the stretch if they ever do get everyone back in action.

* It's not quite the same thing as Josias Manzanillo's signing with the Sox as a 16-year-old from Puerto Rico in 1983, and not making his big-league debut until 1991, but it's similar. Waiting for Josias was an exercise of Sox fandom I was initiated into by a college friend in 1986, when he was a wild 18-year-old pitching for Winter Haven on a team that also boasted a young Brady Anderson. This was before Winter Haven earned its reputation as one of the worst-stocked affiliates in baseball, and winning as many as a third of its games was a less-than-sure thing. You might pity the good folks of Winter Haven, but they sensibly avoided witnessing the hometown team's failures; by the time the affiliate was put out of its misery after the 1992 season, reported attendance had dropped towards 200 per game. The city might have been home to Charlie Manuel, Burt Shotton, and Ralph Houk, but it was also the roost to a travesty of organizational mismanagement.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Outrighted 1B-R Brian Dopirak to Las Vegas (Triple-A). [6/16]
Activated MI-R John McDonald from the Bereavement Leave List; optioned OF-L Jeremy Reed to Las Vegas. [6/17]

Between the in-season additions of first Fred Lewis and then DeWayne Wise, Reed was slowly boxed out of any argument that he had some special value to the initially outfielder-short Jays. He wasn't uniquely left-handed or solely tri-positional, and now that they're done with the DH-less segment of their season via interleague play, there isn't a lot left for him to do. That's not to say that the Jays are overstocked with offense: between Adam Lind's punchless performance at DH, Edwin Encarnacion's ongoing stuggles at the plate while manning third, and Travis Snider's continuing inability to swing a bat as he slowly mends on the DL, the irreplaceable lineup widget has been Jose Bautista. Once Snider recovers, it'll be interesting to see which way the Jays lean, because somebody's going to lose at-bats, and at this point it shouldn't be Lewis and probably shouldn't be Bautista. Sitting Lyle Overbay against lefties would be one way of adding playing time to the mix to keep everyone active, but it's going to depend on the others to show something, anything, to merit that bit of confidence.


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

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