Happy Labor Day! Regularly Scheduled Articles Will Resume on Tuesday, September 2.
June 28, 2010
Blast, or Blasted?
Outrighted C-R Clint Sammons to Gwinnett (Triple-A). [6/23]
Activated MI-R Diory Hernandez from the 60-day DL, and optioned him to Gwinnett. [6/24]
Activated 3B-R Aramis Ramirez from the 15-day DL; designated 1B/3B-L Chad Tracy for assignment. [6/25]
Suspended RHP Carlos Zambrano; optioned RHP Jeff Stevens to Iowa (Triple-A); purchased the contract of RHP Brian Schlitter from Iowa. [6/26]
The latest travail in Big Z's tale of overreaction, demotion, suspension, banishment, and drama can seem understated if you have any experience of the way things used to be. Fireworks in the dugout or jawing between teammates in view of television's roving eye wasn't always the stuff of major controversy, but the relative absence of such incidents in the present inflates the story value of the few that actually occur. Indeed, it was interesting the extent to which some commentators responded positively, suggesting that Zambrano's "tantrum" was at least an admirable display of emotion.
The confrontation in the dugout was pretty mild as these things go-Zambrano comes back to the dugout after a bad inning and rages fruitlessly, with most everyone staying out of his way. Then Derrek Lee says something, and Zambrano, looking for a target, doubles back on the first baseman. Lou Piniella, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and bench coach Alan Trammell (and eventually Geovany Soto) interpose themselves between the two men, Z stomps away, and circling, almost as an afterthought, flips the watercooler onto the floor of the dugout en route to the locker room, followed by Piniella and Rothschild. If this was a volcanic eruption, it was more like the latest instance of Zambrano's Mt. Erebus-level constant burbling than the civilization-destroying power of Thera.*
Still, if you're the one who happens to live in the shadow of a volcano, you can understand how you might wish to moderate its baneful effects. Why tolerate the seemingly inevitable kabooms? To some extent, tolerance can be tied to performance, and Zambrano's gradual decline has been a fact of life since 2004, when he became the staff's true ace. Consider the broad strokes of his track record:
That's a guy who was once an ace, but who has become less effective and less durable over time. Theories abound-his conditioning, his fascination with hitting, velocity that has waxed and waned without a lot of reliable explanation as far as why. Jerking him into the pen didn't help, but add it all up-injuries, inconsistency in his role and in his performance, loss of stuff or status over time-and you understand how any player, let alone one as transparently emotional as Zambrano, would get frustrated. If performance buys tolerance, Zambrano might find his lot at present especially frustrating, but in the meantime he's suspended, the team's playing a man down, and his rotation slot is back in the hands of Gorzo the Magnificent.
Assuming that Ted Lilly gets moved in the next month, maybe that re-opens a slot for Zambrano, but perhaps not. Whether or not you consider this response an administrative overreaction akin to the season-ending suspension of Milton Bradley last season, as decisions go it's of a piece with that one. I'd suggest that these sorts of meltdowns are symptomatic of a team-wide frustration, as a veteran ballclub sees the happiness of 2007 and 2008 recede further into the background, and as the cycle of expectations not being met repeats itself, leaving nothing but the recriminations. The bid for the brass ring by this team's core of talent is already subject to meltdowns, but it remains to be seen how effectively Jim Hendry will melt it down himself into the ingots needed to either renew that bid, or settle for a longer-term rebuilding.
Meanwhile, over at third base, Ramirez's return to action must involve a return to effectiveness for this to really represent good news, otherwise the Cubs are back to wondering what pod person showed up and took over A-Ram's life, and why he can't hit anything like the original. It would be easy to state "his BABIP will get better," but a sub-.200 BABIP isn't the cause of his problems, it's a symptom of a player who's tried to physically adapt to playing at less than 100 percent. Between a triceps injury early in the seasonand a bum thumb for a couple of weeks before he landed on the DL, Ramirez has been dealing with major malfunctions; the thumb problem is something you'll often find Will Carroll citing as something that affects bat control and power, and with Ramirez's strikeout rate and initial tendency this season to hit far too many weak flies, a bad BABIP's just going to crop up in the wake of these more fundamental issuses. Popping a homer in the Cell isn't exactly confirmation that he's back, but a couple of extra-base hits and two walks were obviously steps in the right direction for a player who hasn't been hitting for the same power, walking at the same clip, hitting balls with any authority, you name it.
Finally, although Tracy showed better range around the hot corner in his brief spin splitting time with Jeff Baker during Ramirez's absence, his status as the marked man was no surprise. Start off with the seven-man pen (or eight, depending how you number Zambrano's case of supernumerary roster limbo), and the fact that he doesn't provide help at nearly as many positions as Baker or Mike Fontenot didn't help him any. That's without getting into the quintet of outfielders seeking employment in one way or another. So, Tracy is bouncing around, and we'll see if he bounces free this time. Without an extended track record of success as a part-time player, he'd be better off landing somewhere really desperate for help at first or third. However, the added fact that he hasn't shown a lot of pop away from Phoenix in the majors, especially since his knee problems began, limits the interest as well as the measure of faith any club would have to have in him to give him a shot.
* I know, there's plenty of argument on the subject over whether or not the Thera eruption wrecked Minoan civilization or merely weakened it to the point of ready vulnerability come the Mycenaeans; add in the speculation over whether or not this event is the original source of Atlantis legendry, and we get even further from the concrete. But since this is a clubhouse chemistry-related topic, and opinions of the subject range from asserting its importance to flat statements that it's total bull, I figure relating Zambrano's eruption to a geological event that has been blamed for something as serious as destroying a civilization to merely engendering a rich vein of legends and myth works well enough.
Signed OF-S Gary Matthews Jr. to a minor-league contract. [6/24]
Optioned RHP Sam LeCure to Louisville (Triple-A); recalled LHP Bill Bray from Louisville. [6/27]
Interesting times for the Reds' rotation, because by shipping out LeCure right now this instant after his first genuinely bad start, they would need a DL-related move to return him in time for the fifth slot's reappearance this Thursday against the Cubs. You might wonder if Edinson Volquez is going to come up in time for that turn, but it might initially seem unlikely that the Reds would accelerate his announced timetable for a July 7 return despite good work in his first three minor-league starts. Interestingly, Volquez's next spin in Louisville after looking especially good last Wednesday could have come tonight (i.e., on four days' rest), but the Bats' initially announced starter for tonight's game is minor-league journeyman Jesus Delgado, making his first start of the season. If Volquez doesn't make tomorrow night's start in Durham, you can start wondering about whether the timetable has been advanced by a week, but in the meantime, perhaps a pen start led off by the infrequently used Micah Owings would do.
Meanwhile, they finally have Bray back in action after more than a season away. One of only two players left playing for either party from the infamously unproductive 2006 Kearns/F-Lop deal between the Reds and Nats, Bray's recovery from arm problems let him beat fellow trade participant Daryl Thompson back to the Show with the Reds. The organization avoided handing Bray any additional service time on the 60-day DL while he was rehabbing his way back from last year's TJS. It's a little thing, but one that could help keep him from achieving arbitration eligibility next winter, and given that Bray is a lefty who cooks with gas worth holding onto, that's just as well. Such machinations aside, Bray could provide a second-half boost to a bullpen that can really only boast one reliable contributor, Arthur Rhodes. Beyond Rhodes, Francisco Cordero has not yet handed back his closer's cape, so he's not in any danger, but the rest of the pen is a work in progress. Jordan Smith has done good stuff since his own recall, Nick Masset has protected the leads he's been given lately, and Logan Ondrusek is slowly working his way into higher leverage situations. But Daniel Ray Herrera has hardly earned his keep as the pen's second lefty, and even with the obvious utility of carrying an extra lefty against the Phillies, Bray could become the latest in-season patch to a pen that has already enjoyed improvement through change.
Outrighted RHP Juan Rincon to Colorado Springs (Triple-A). [6/23]
Designated LHP James Houser for assignment; re-purchased the contract of RHP Jose Veras from New Orleans (Triple-A). [6/25]
Placed SS-R Tommy Manzella on the 15-day DL (fractured finger); recalled MI-R Oswaldo Navarro from Round Rock (Triple-A). [6/23]
Placed RHP Felipe Paulino on the 15-day DL (shoulder tendinitis), retroactive to 6/21; purchased the contract of RHP Josh Banks from Round Rock. [6/24]
Activated RHP Bud Norris from the 15-day DL; designated RHP Josh Banks for assignment. [6/28]
As for the shortstop situation, the way Manzella's season was going, had he remained healthy he was at risk of entering the lists of truly hopeless middle-infield options, joining Neifi Perez, Tony Pena Jr., and Angel Salazar on a list of regular shortstops so terrible that not even the notorious Johnnie LeMaster rates among them. Unfortunately for the Astros, not even having a shortstop bad enough to be an honorary Royal means they've hit bottom, but could Navarro really be any worse? Matters for Navarro haven't changed much since his last call-up a month ago-once he was shipped back to Round Rock, he simply continued to walk and hit for a little power while alternating between second and short. He may not be that much better than Manzella, but it would difficult for him to be decisively worse. As for Manzella, if the 27-year-old rookie wasn't ready now, odds are he never will be; certainly there's nothing to be gained by counting him as their set starter at short for 2011. If anything, getting to take a mulit-week spin with Navarro might at least tell them there's no choice but to go shopping. It's a long time until Jiovanni Mier will be even close to ready.
Meanwhile, over in the rotation, there is the convenience of swapping in Norris for Paulino, which may not leave them that much poorer for it. Norris might be improved by his work on fastball location to help better set up his slider, which might return him towards something more like last season's effectiveness. Paulino's reportedly temporary absence should only leave Scuffy Moehler in the rotation for the time being, with the expectation being that he'll miss right around the minimum before returning to action. Moehler's managed just two quality starts in six as their designated sixth man, but that's more than they got from Banks' spot start over the weekend.
Paulino might have been needlessly overtaxed by a run of three straight eight-inning starts that involved pitch counts of 113 to 120 and 31 or more batters faced. It's important to stress might; just because he got hammered his next time out, and then struggled to get through six innings and 30 batters his last time out before breaking down, that is not evidence or causation, and because he's in his age-26 season, you might figure he's safely beyond any injury nexus. However, in his case a little bit of institutional memory might have come in handy-after all, Paulino lost most of 2008 to a series of arm injuries, and he managed just over 130 IP between the majors and minors last season. His averaging more than 109 pitches and 27 batters per turn was certainly going to put him much higher than that over a full season-if he'd held up, and he didn't. Hopefully, there's nothing involved that rest and rehab won't repair, given that he's one of the few bright lights left in the Astros' firmament to light up a gloomy present.
Activated SS-S Rafael Furcal from the Bereavement Leave List; optioned MI-R Chin-lung Hu to Albuquerque (Triple-A); signed RHP Jesus Colome to a minor-league contract and assigned him to Albuquerque. [6/23]
Optioned RHP Travis Schlichting to Albquerque; activated RHP Charlie Haeger from the 15-day DL. [6/24]
Designated RHP Charlie Haeger for assignment; recalled RHP Jon Link from Albuquerque. [6/25]
Activated RHP Chad Billingsley from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Jon Link to Albuquerque. [6/28]
Furcal's five-game absence made up the heart of the Dodgers' recent six-game losing streak, but you couldn't ascribe that sort of bad week to his absence alone, much as the Dodgers take a hit with Jamey Carroll manning short on defense in his place. There was also the competitive disadvantage that comes with their having to resort to Garret Anderson (or Reed Johnson) as the guy who gets at-bats when they get to move Manny Ramirez to DH during interleague play. Then there's having to see John Ely take his lumps in the Gap against a rejuvenated Reds lineup. There's throwing Rule 5 pick Carlos Monasterios against the Red Sox. There's the bad months Casey Blake and Andre Ethier are having. There's losing Chad Billingsley for two spins through the rotation. And perhaps most basically where the losing streak was concerned, it was a matter of dealing with all of that while having to play the Red Sox in Boston. While the Sox have their share of problems, they're one of baseball's best from the stronger league.
Taken altogether, with Carroll in the lineup at short the club's record is 18-15, even with this recent losing streak, against 22-20 with Furcal in the lineup. I wouldn't rush to scapegoat Carroll (any more than I'd make a point of starting him instead of Furcal, looking at those records), especially not with so many other things amiss, although that's not to say getting Furcal back isn't a good thing. In the broad strokes, they have Billingsley back, they have Furcal back, and Jonathan Broxton isn't going to get beaten by Chad Huffman and Colin Curtis all the live long day. At least you hope not.
Optioned LHP Raul Valdes to Buffalo (Triple-A); recalled C-L Josh Thole from Buffalo. [6/24]
As with Thole's original call-up this season, this isn't really an honest opportunity as much as a chance to ride pine and provide insurance because of Rod Barajas' sore back. This time around, however, he did get actual playing time, catching Mike Pelfrey's 10th win on Friday. Thole overcame an awful April to produce OPS marks in the 900s the last two months, elevating his overall numbers to .267/.353/.430; a .170 ISO against right-handed pitching suggests he's slowly tearing down that "no power" label in his age-23 season. Happily for the Mets, their situation isn't exactly dire, even as Barajas' homerless June draws to a close-Barajas and Henry Blanco are both usable receivers with some righty sock. The question is whether their relative redundancy will make way for Thole in-season before roster expansion, and how that would transpire, given that neither Barajas or Blanco is having a bad year.
Is it in the Mets to make a move to make Thole the latest rookie woven into their bid for contention? That would be interesting, certainly, and Thole's hitting since April makes the case in a way that can make the Mets ponder their preferences. Unfortunately, there's some suggestion of work that remains to be done: Thole has only thrown out 18 percent of stolen-base attempts, and only the Yankees' presumably DH-bound Jesus Montero has committed more passed balls in the International League. Thole can blame just two of his on the odium of having to run down R.A. Dickey's fluttering knuckler before the latter's promotion, but on the other hand, if Thole can handle the knuckleball, that's another argument towards his eventual retention, at least as long as Dickey's cranking quality starts every time out.
But is this an elective decision Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel would make? We'll have to see. Because there's no DL-level injury, this isn't like the Luis Castillo situation. Swapping in Thole would mean either carrying three catchers (not something most teams try in the age of seven relievers) or making a deal that wouldn't necessarily yield much in return. Although the Mets may or may not be slow-walking Castillo's return from the DL out of a preference for Ruben Tejada-as well as their predictably, politely announced concern on behalf of Castillo's well-being-until Barajas or Blanco out-and-out breaks down, it's not the same scenario. And because Barajas and Blanco are hitting, this isn't like a decision to dispatch Mike Jacobs and get Ike Davis in action ahead of schedule. Thole may be ready, but the need is not yet obvious, even if the upside might be more than what they're getting, and even if the alternative is waiting out further Barajas-like sub-.300 OBPs and how that might hamper the club's bid for contention in the meantime.
If Minaya and Manuel did make a move on this score, it would certainly be an admirable commitment to talent and upside. Unfortunately, exposure to risk when you can instead just leave the veterans in place makes for an easy bit of operational CYA activity: if the Mets lose runs to playing Barajas or Blanco, they can duck and cover by pointing out the modest benefits of the veterans in place, as well as citing Barajas' hot start as a defense for inaction. It's not very fun or exciting, but it's defensible organizational behavior. Where this gets interesting is that there's an obvious reliance on data-Barajas and Blanco have decent numbers to protect their playing time with, where Jacobs did not-to defend inaction, and to fob off what might be a more scouty evaluation that Thole could be as ready as he needs to be right now.
Placed RHP Chad Durbin on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); repurchased the contract of RHP Nelson Figueroa from Lehigh Valley (Triple-A). [6/24]
While Durbin's expected to miss anywhere from the minimum to three weeks, it isn't like they can afford to take the hits to a pen already stuck with trying to see if Brad Lidge is going to be right again. Jose Contreras has had a rough month, Danys Baez has been reliably awful, and of late J.C. Romero has been even wilder than his usual standard. There's hope that Ryan Madson will be back within the next two weeks, but in the meantime, Charlie Manuel's short of quality options he can count on.
Placed LHP Zach Duke on the 15-day DL (sore elbow), retroactive to 6/17. [6/23]
Designated LHP Dana Eveland for assignment; purchased the contract of LHP Justin Thomas from Indianapolis; recalled RHP Steven Jackson from Indianapolis. [6/24]
Optioned RHP Steven Jackson to Indianapolis; recalled RHP Daniel McCutchen from Indianapolis. [6/26]
Despite Duke's breakdown, it isn't really a case of scratching two starters from the rotation. Jeff Karstens can boast tallest midget status as far as being the best-performing rotation regular, thanks for managing four quality starts in eight while posting a .489 SNWP. Paul Maholm isn't far behind (.476 SNWP), and Ross Ohlendorf has actually managed to throw quality starts in six of his 11 turns, but the one against the White Sox on June 17 was blown by a slow hook from John Russell, the sort of ill fortune that helps explain why he's 0-6 despite throwing just one so-called disaster start (more runs allowed than innings pitched).
After that, it really gets down to a matter of who's healthy. Despite rest and care, Duke's basic hittability combined with his increasingly sore elbow helped generate a .385 SNWP barely "better" than his .363 BABIP. If you allow for the fact that the Bucs sail in one of the leakiest, most frequently holed hulls in the game when it comes to team defense, it's no shock that he'd failed to contribute a quality start in a month, not while getting lit up at that kind of clip. Whether or not he'll ever be able to succeed on this kind of team defies happy expectations-the infield has conversion projects like Neil Walker and Andy LaRoche knocking around at second, and eventual first baseman Pedro Alvarez at third. Making Ryan Doumit a regular catcher was an inspired act of faith in his ability to hit and stay healthy enough to man the position, but it also comes with a defensive cost. Maybe the current outfield alignment with Lastings Milledge in right and Jose Tabata in left will be a source of help, but right now, it's hard to expect a defense-dependent pitcher enjoying much success in front of a collection of players without a ton of shared experience, or even experience at their positions. Duke is only expected to miss two turns, but the chances that he'll come back into an immediately better situation are next to nil.
None of this is especially good news for Daniel McCutchen in his return engagement. Another strike-thrower without overpowering stuff, his third stint in the rotation seems as likely to be punctuated by another demotion as the first two, not least because Duke is expected back soon as is, and Charlie Morton's rehab spin is already nearing a month in duration after four starts. Since a spin on the Triple-A DL, McCutchen had managed four quality starts in six turns for the Indy Indians, allowing just 12 hits and three unintentional walks in his last three across 21 IP, while striking out 14. He followed that with his best big-league start of the season, holding the A's weak lineup to four runs and nine baserunners in six innings-not enough to guarantee him much in the way of job security, not even with the Pirates.
Finally, you have to wonder if Eveland is just personally unpleasant or something, to have been excused so quickly by a club short of pitching help. Consider his limited work as a Pirate: He gave them an adequate spin in the rotation by allowing three runs in five innings, then he gave them two shutout innings in a lost cause pitching on three days' rest after the start, and then he got clobbered in his third inning of work in an already-lost cause pitching on 11 days' rest. That's the sum total of his Pirates experience-two useful contributions, one bit of making a lost game more decisively unvictorious. Brian Burres got a better opportunity, and his hardly went as well. Now, admittedly, not everybody is excited about being a Bucco, and maybe Eveland just didn't much care for his predicament, knowing the resting place of those condemned for Piracy.
Optioned C-R Dusty Ryan to Portland (Triple-A); reactivated C-R Yorvit Torrealba from the Restricted List; activated SS-R Everth Cabrera from the 15-day DL. [6/25]
Multiple metrics suggest that Jerry Hairston Jr. has been playing better shortstop than ever before, so Cabrera's absence hurt the Pads less than might have been expected. Since Hairston remains a cipher at the plate, the hope is that they won't simply get a multiplicity of employable shortstops, but that Cabrera will hit at something more like his rookie clip and help on offense as well. Even if you accept PECOTA's moderate expectation of him this season (.254/.330/.356, for a .256 TAv), that's significantly better than what he's done this season. This year as opposed to last, he's been less patient and hit the ball on the ground less often, and since driving balls to the gaps isn't his game, the problems with his hamstrings have had a significant impact on his offensive value. The Pads are being cautious, having rested him on Saturday and again tonight, and you can hope that his walking in both his first two starts means he's getting back to basics as far as his approach, but until he actually gets rolling, the Pads aren't exactly back at full strength.
Optioned RHP Joe Martinez to Fresno (Triple-A); recalled LHP Madison Bumgarner from Fresno; activated MI-S Emmanuel Burriss from the 60-day DL, and optioned him to Fresno; transferred UT-R Mark DeRosa from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [6/26]
As the culmination of what has already been a strange month for Bumgarner, at long last it looks as if concerns over his durability and velocity have been answered. At least well enough to remind people Martinez was only squatting, not renting to own where the fifth slot was concerned, at any rate. Earlier in June, Bumgarner was suspended for an on-field tantrum in which he went after the second-base ump, which contributing to keeping him out of the initial mix when finding a replacement for Todd Wellemeyer was being mooted. Pressed into action against the Red Sox, Bumgarner threw heat clocked into the low 90s, but put himself in a hole by giving up four runs in the first two frames on homers hit by Darnell McDonald and Mike Cameron. After that, he cruised through the next five, allowing a lone baserunner.
So, problem solved, the Giants have their fifth starter, right? Maybe, but for as long as his name's been in bold print, Bumgarner's a whopping 20 years old, and he's already logged 14 turns and thrown 82
Now, Wellemeyer should be back at some point in July. That's a good thing, because the Giants are heading into a schedule where they're out of days off-outside of the All-Star break, the Giants don't have another off day until August 2. They have two more in August before rosters expand in September, but they will not be able to skip the fifth slot and try to moderate Bumgarner's schedule any if he's going to be the guy in the rotation behind the front four. Whether they wish to continue to settle for Wellemeyer or not, they may not be able to count on Bumgarner as the full-season solution all the way down to the wire. What that means for the future, we'll have to see; they may settle for adding a Wellemeyer-like veteran swing guy, but you have to anticipate they don't relish turning to Martinez or the like come the final stretch.
Optioned RHP Fernando Salas to Memphis (Triple-A); recalled RHP Adam Ottavino from Memphis. [6/25]
The Cardinals are still working through how far they can go with their patchwork of solutions in the last two slots in the rotation. Springing Blake Hawksworth on the Royals produced a win over the weekend, but counting on that as a last fix seems dubious. Jeff Suppan's pitching in and out of trouble, but getting pulled out of his ballgames early before he creates any last damage. Ottavino might be a long-relief fallback behind either, but he had to be plugged into Jaime Garcia's worst start of the season on Sunday.
What about the in-house reinforcements, active or less so, are they any closer? Today Brad Penny is supposed to throw from the mound for the first time, which means he's still not doing any rehab appearances, putting his current timetable around the All-Star break. Kyle Lohse isn't any closer than that, although a throwing program for him is supposed to be established today as well. Rich Hill is thrashing about in the Redbirds' bullpen down in Memphis, having wilded his way out of the rotation two months ago. Lance Lynn has hit a bad patch, and minor-league veteran Evan MacLane's not the answer. Basically, it's a matter of marking time until they know whether either Penny or Lohse will provide any help in-season, which leaves them still at least a starter shy of a working rotation before we get into less-happy questions about Garcia's workload or Suppan's utility.
In short, with the summer shopping season upon us, you can expect John Mozeliak to work the phones until he finds a fix. While he may not be able to acquire any of the top talents being shopped given his somewhat short deck of shop-worthy talent, it isn't hard to envision a down-market veteran acquisition like Kevin Millwood or Jake Westbrook. One thing you won't see is an intradivisional fix-the Cubs may have starting pitching to deal, but nobody should really expect the I-55 series to be spiced up by a trade between these bitter rivals-owners may change, but the last trade between these two teams was when the Cubs handed Jeff Fassero to the Cards in August of 2002 (for Jason Karnuth and Jared Blasdell). That was a little thing, so unless the Cards wanted to take on a chunk of Zambrano's salary, it's hard to see Mozeliak making something happen with one of the most obvious "extra starter" situations.