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July 5, 2010

Transaction Action

Drama Division Drama

by Christina Kahrl

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BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed DH-L Luke Scott on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); recalled 3B-S Josh Bell from Norfolk (Triple-A). [7/1]

For all of the seeming shuffling as far as the Orioles' lineup concerned, until the overdue decision to ditch Garrett Atkins, there has actually been a good amount of stasis in terms of who has been getting at-bats. Losing Brian Roberts has meant at-bats for Ty Wigginton and Julio Lugo, and getting tired of Nolan Reimold has created an opening for Corey Patterson. But cutting Atkins was just the first of a series of changes, and Bell's promotion, while potentially brief, foreshadows further change.

First, there's losing Scott, freeing up the DH at-bats in a way that the Orioles have initially utilized as a way to take a peek at Bell, and seem likely to rely on as a way to keep Patterson in the playing-time rotation once Felix Pie comes back from the DL tomorrow. Admittedly, losing one of their best batters is far from good news, and is especially ill-timed if you see Scott as a deadline day bargaining chip. Although he's already 32, he's also another two years of arbitration eligibility removed from free agency, and guys who slug .500 don't grow on trees, and certainly aren't hatching from the Orioles' nest in any profusion. In Scott's case, by the time he reaches free agency, his best seasons will be pretty far in the rear-view mirror, probably short-circuiting any shot he had at making serious money; even so, the guy's making $4 million this season without his freedom, so it isn't like he's a serf, and employing him ought to preserve the O's from any especially bad overbids on veteran bats.

Meanwhile, the decision to haul up Bell potentially gives a new complexion to the Orioles' offense, in that they'll finally be adding (or Pie's case, re-adding) offensive help under the age of 30. Not that Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters haven't been assorted flavors of disappointing, but a youth movement in which most of the hitting talent's a bit long in the tooth makes a team a bit short of fulfilling either half of the term—they ain't young, and they ain't getting out of the basement, after all. Unfortunately, while the O's have been flexible in bumping Miguel Tejada to DH, this may be just a temporary taste of big-league action for Bell. If they do keep him up past Pie's reactivation, they may only rotate Bell in at times, as they alternate him, Patterson, and Jake Fox through the at-bats that have opened up with Scott's absence.

You may wonder if Bell's really ready, of course, especially after six strikeouts in 11 PAs. Admittedly, his performance at Norfolk didn't live up to what his biggest believers might have anticipated: .266/.311/.455, for a .245 TAv. However, one of Bell's past problems has continued to plague him, as he has done most of his damage against right-handed pitching (.277/.316/.488), which in isolation is not too bad for a 23-year-old third-base prospect making his Triple-A debut, and a poor BABIP hasn't helped matters much. Unfortunately, it isn't like the lefties get any more hittable in the major leagues, and an unintentional walk rate of just 4.4 percent against right-handers isn't really a positive development either, because last year at Double-A he was walking at more than three times that clip (15.8 percent). However, his walk rate has particularly plummeted since moving to the Orioles organization in the Sherrill trade last summer, since a healthy portion of his 2009 walk tally was accumulated with the Dodgers' Double-A affiliate. If there's an instructional issue involved, it represents an especially unhappy outcome, because the Orioles can't afford to ruin any prospects, either their own or those they acquire in trade. At least his defense hasn't gone backwards, so the O's can still consider him their answer of the future at third base.

Once Pie returns, if they do keep Bell around, how would that work out? Ideally, it would involve a usage pattern where Bell plays against right-handed pitching, while Tejada flips back and forth between DH and the hot corner. You could always hope they might put Tejada at shortstop now and again as a way of expanding their options, especially with a more fly ball-oriented starter like Brian Matusz on the mound, especially since they're already willing to hazard the unglovely Julio Lugo as their alternative to Cesar Izturis at shortstop. The question is whether or not this would really help Bell's development—a guy who doesn't walk and doesn't hit lefties suddenly looks a lot less like a great prospect and a lot more like a guy you have to make a few adjustments for. Even that isn't the end of the world—they can always use Tejada or Wigginton as his caddy, and finding righty bats who can play third isn't exactly mission impossible as far as stocking a bench. But such an outcome would represent a step backwards for Bell, and sorting out what would best serve his ability to arrive and stick in the major leagues while hitting as productively as possible over the life of his pre-free agency service time represents the Orioles' best interest, especially in light of yet another losing campaign.


BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed LHP Rich Hill to a minor-league contract, and optioned him to Pawtucket (Triple-A). [6/30]
Acquired C-R Kevin Cash from the Astros for SS-R Angel Sanchez, and added Cash to the 40-man roster; outrighted INF-L Tug Hulett to Pawtucket. [7/1]
Placed C-S Jason Varitek on the 15-day DL (broken foot); placed RHP Manny Delcarmen on the 15-day DL (strained forearm), retroactive to 7/1; recalled RHP Robert Manuel from Pawtucket; purchased the contract of INF-S Niuman Romero from Pawtucket. [7/2]
Placed RHP Clay Buchholz on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring), retroactive to 6/27; recalled LHP Felix Doubront from Pawtucket. [7/5]

Losing Tek on top of Victor Martinez on top of Dustin Pedroia on top of another rotation starter might sound like the end of the world, but it's important to keep this in the perspective of what's manageable and survivable, because none of this is debilitating. The worst hit is Tek's absence, but that's less a matter of replacing the .500-plus SLG he wasn't going to keep up than it is the that this leaves the team without a start-worthy catcher, not with just Cash and Gustavo Molina to choose from during this last week before the break. But that unhappy accident is the product of having to go more than four deep on an organization's best catching options—down in Pawtucket, Mark Wagner's recovery from a broken hand is running behind schedule, while Dusty Brown's down with his own thumb issue. No organization would be in good shape if you scratched its four best receivers.

Happily, V-Mart should be back after the All-Star break, so it's a matter of getting by in their next three series, against the slumping Rays and Jays and the West-leading Rangers. That's not as easy now, unfortunately, not with Mike Cameron at less than 100 percent, and not with Daniel Nava failing to provide any power in his last 51 PAs (.341 SLG) now that the league has gotten a look at him. To their credit, they're trying to maximize their offensive assets, even going so far as to start Eric Patterson at second base—this in the season where they're supposed to be anything but defensively indifferent—but how far they can go with a shorter deck is something they can't afford to put to the test any further. They need Martinez back after the break, but you could just as easily note that they need Mike Cameron to show up more than half of the time, and eventually against right-handed pitching.

At least the news is equally mixed in the rotation, in that Buchholz might only miss one start before reactivation. Thanks to last week's day off and the coming All-Star break, that fifth-slot start should come tomorrow, with Felix Doubront looking like the likely option. With Josh Beckett presumably making his first rehab start tomorrow as well, there's a small chance that they may not need even need Buchholz back in time for their first fifth-slot start after the break, although that would necessitate an accelerated rehabilitation schedule for Beckett of just two starts, which they may not wish to risk. Even then, we're talking about a worst-case scenario that involves Doubront getting a second turn, and getting both Beckett and Buchholz back shortly after the break won't just fix the problem, it will insure them against the next possible Daisuke Matsuzaka breakdown. They can't afford another injury in the rotation, but as things stand now, they can get by much more easily than they have been able to in the lineup.

Adding Hill after his failure to break through with the Cards is an intriguing addition of possible depth, but it would depend on the Sox fixing a pitcher the Cubs and Orioles gave up on as well. If they can add another cause for crediting the organization's genius for asset management, there's no time like the present. It's worth noting that they're getting value from discards and free talent-level additions like Bill Hall and Darnell McDonald or Nava and Eric Patterson. I wouldn't put minor-league veteran Niuman Romero in that category, but the Venezuelan import has more than 2100 minor-league plate appearances in his age-25 season, and his walk rate in that time is above 10 percent. That's the extent of his offensive contributions, as he's had a strong platoon lean towards being better against lefties, so his switch-hitting is only moderately useful, and he might be just a utilityman who, like so many others, is best played at second base. He shouldn't see many at-bats—at least barring another injury, which with this team might only take another day or two.

In the bullpen, Delcarmen's departure adds to the DL-flavored noise, but it's an injury that just crowds the trainer's room without really setting the Sox back. Despite his long service with the team, Delcarmen had pitched poorly with men on base and had posted just a 4.46 FRA and a -0.3 WXRL despite being used in high-leverage situations, leaving his ballgames in worse situations than he found them in more than half the time since June 1. The bigger problem is getting Hideki Okajima turned around, because while you can hope that fungible right-handers like Manuel or Scott Atchison might adequately replace Delcarmen, the limited selection of reliable late-game help is a problem as long as Okajima continues to struggle while Ramon Ramirez performs with less success as a situational right-hander.


NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned LHP Boone Logan to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Triple-A); purchased the contract of RHP Dustin Moseley from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. [7/2]
Activated OF-R Marcus Thames from the 15-day DL; optioned OF-R Chad Huffman to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. [7/4]

As expected, Huffman only got garbage time and platoon work, making four starts during Thames' absence, three against lefties, and one against Scuffy Moehler. As expected, he didn't do a whole lot with the opportunity, but since he was a free-talent addition snagged off waivers in the absence of much in the way of ready alternatives for righty-batting outfield reserves in the organization, consider this a case of getting what you don't pay for. Now that Thames is back, that sort of sporadic playing time goes into his bin, although he may also get a share of the DH playing time, at least if Jorge Posada's ability to catch more frequently allows it.

As for the gratuitous bullpen tweak, Logan didn't entirely hurt himself in his latest bid for sticking around: he allowed just one of six inherited baserunners to score, and held lefties to 2-for-10 with no walks, and allowing seven hits and two unintentional freebies against seven strikeouts in 7 2/3 IP doesn't sound so terrible. (Joe Girardi did order up a trio of intentional walks from Logan, marring an otherwise fine line.) Why Moseley's up seems to defy easy explanation; if it's a line-in-the-sand codicil of his deal that allows him to walk, letting him go wouldn't have been especially injurious. Beyond generating a ration of 2.5 ground-ball outs to fly-ball outs for Scranton, there wasn't much to his performance that didn't suggest anything other than that he's just going to repeat his past performances as a major-league mop-up man, but since losing Sergio Mitre to the DL, it's worth noting that Girardi apparently likes carrying two of the type. Chad Gaudin hasn't exactly shone since getting fished out of the refuse bin, so Moseley could wind up challenging the Cajun's job security if he does enough in those moments that matter least.


TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Designated DH-L Hank Blalock for assignment; activated OF-R Gabe Kapler from the 15-day DL. [6/30]

Ah, the joy of making right choices. The Rays didn't discover the dubious utility of employing Hank Blalock any more than Columbus discovered America, but there's something to be said for finding it out for yourself, and having been there and done that, moving on to make things over to your liking. As noted last time around, now they're a little closer to having the space in terms of playing time to use Matt Joyce and see if he's ready to add walks and more to the Rays' lineup, but that's still far from certain. Just as Leopold Bloom struggled to achieve what seemed to be his original intent, the Rays' landscape is as peopled with distractions as Joyce's Dublin, what with Willy Aybar and Kapler both in the mix for at-bats in the outfield or DH. Last week, B.J. Upton's quad issue helped keep Joyce in the lineup, in that it pushed Ben Zobrist into center field for a bit, leaving right open for Joyce to man (and leaving Aybar pecking away at his playing time at DH). Going forward, there's always the option of putting Zorilla at second base if Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac slump enough, at least relative to Joyce. Happily, Joyce is walking, and if any team's going to evaluate him on the merits of that and that alone, it's the Rays.


TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Shaun Marcum on the 15-day DL (elbow inflammation). [7/2]
Optioned INF-R Jarrett Hoffpauir to Las Vegas (Triple-A); recalled LHP Marc Rzepczynski from Las Vegas; purchased the contract of 3B-R Edwin Encarnacion from Las Vegas. [7/3]

A week's worth of punishment time in Vegas seems to have inspired Encarnacion with a sense of his own professional mortality, but after going unclaimed through waivers, you can understand how that may have been the case. Deposited in the PCL, a place where BABIPs go to blossom, his own tumesced to top .400 while hitting .438/.486/.781 overall, ripping three homers without the benefit of the usual suspects among the circuit's bandboxes. So, the Jays called him back, because as Cito Gaston suggested, “what are you going to do?” Perhaps nothing involving shipping him out in the first place, considering that Double-E's issue was more a matter of ball-in-play outcomes than any failing with walking or bopping. You can always argue that demotions have their own value as a source of inspiration, and maybe that's the case here. Certainly Hoffpauir did little more than hit like a replacement-like second sacker, which is his lot in life.

However, Encarnacion's claim on everyday play in the majors is no less at risk than it was last month. Come the day when Travis Snider is reactivated from the DL, he'll be heading into the lineup at somebody's expense. As a result, this gives Encarnacion's demotion a particularly penal cast to it, since there's no time like the present to evaluate his ability to stick around and contribute. Now that he's back and given Jose Bautista's positional flexibility, Encarnacion will need to do something to outshine at least one of Bautista (.208/.339/.406 since June 1), Adam Lind (.167/.227/.275 in that same span), or Fred Lewis (.247/.333/.330) to keep his claim on starting chores intact. Lind's horrific hitting would seem to be the easy target, but there's the little matter of his spring contract extension to afford.

Meanwhile, there's the setback with Marcum in the rotation to fret over, since his getting shut down for the time being seems a clear warning that the organization hasn't done a great job of anticipating that the recently rehabilitated are as reliable after injury as they were before the Blue Jays broke them the first time 'round. Marcum had his TJS in the fall of 2008, but the team fiddled around with trying to get him back in action for the tail end of 2009 from very early on last year, only to see him belatedly shut down in August of '09 after five rehab starts left him with a bad back.

Now he's being shut down again, and it's an open question as to whether the 36-batter, 112-pitch outing he was put through on June 2 was the demand they should not have placed upon him in his first full season back. It had all of the circumstances that could help contribute to it almost seeming like a risk worth running at the time: a six-reliever ballgame for the Blue Jays the day before (including using Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs, and Shawn Camp in both of the previous ballgames), plus a 2-1 lead taken into the ninth. That was six starts ago, of course, and it didn't get nearly the kind of attention as Edwin Jackson's no-hitter, but consider what happened in the five starts since: he got drubbed by the Rays, drew the bliss of a Petco assignment against the punchless Pads, then walked five in five against the Giants, then got another break in catching the injury-riddled Phillies to log another quality turn, then took his early-exit beating at the hands of the Tribe. He'd managed nine quality starts in 11 up until that extra-long outing on the not-so-glorious 2nd of June, and 10 in 12 if you count that turn since it was blown in the ninth. Since, he'd managed two in five. Interestingly, his fastball velocity didn't drop, and even with the vagaries of PitchF/X data, tells us something about the imprecision of using that as a diagnostic tool.

In his absence, the Jays are covered, in that Rzepczynski has rounded into form after a rough return to action after breaking his middle finger on his pitching hand towards the end of spring training. After three ugly drubbings (18.56 ERA, with 35 of 67 batters faced reaching safely), he was solid in June, making four quality starts in his six times out, striking out 36 in 38 IP against 14 walks, and posting a 3.32 ERA and four wins. Which is another way of saying that his cumulutive data isn't really very informative, since he was working his way back from a tough injury for a pitcher, and has done enough of late to suggest that he's as well-equipped to step into a big-league rotation this season as he was last, when he posted a .543 SNWP, not far behind Marcum's .550 this season.

Whether he gets tasked with too heavy a workload is another question, however. A month removed from his 25th birthday, Rzepczynski is the latest young charge on Gaston's staff. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are both beyond any so-called “injury nexus,” but both have been given extra rest after a couple of turns nevertheless, which seems admirable enough as a matter of operational practive. It seems as if Brett Cecil's being handled with some care as far as his pitch counts and batters faced, and they're being gentle with Jesse Litsch so far. The real problem is seeing whether they can continue to manage everyone's full-season workloads in a way that leaves none of them the worse for wear and ready to contribute in future seasons, and considering they have to handle the entire crew with some care, you have to hope that games like Marcum's one especially extended outing remain one-offs instead of a repeated mistake.


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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