July 27, 2010
Utterly McLouthless in the Pursuit of Excellence
Activated OF-L Nate McLouth from the 15-day DL; optioned OF-S Gregor Blanco to Gwinnett (Triple-A). [7/21]
Optioned OF-L Nate McLouth to Gwinnett; activated OF-R Brent Clevlen from the 15-day DL; signed C-R Dave Ross to a two-year, $3.25 million contract extension through 2012. [7/27]
By trusting in the fact that depth would provide solutions, the Braves' outfield situation is generally resolving rather nicely. Right field is back in the hands of Jason Heyward, the last of a long list of prodigies broken in by Bobby Cox, and the kid's raking. The sudden coalescence of the Eric Hinske/Matt Diaz arrangement in left field may not enjoy the sort of longevity of Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg in the annals of great Cox platoon solutions, but it will take its honored place in a long list that reflects an adaptive manager making an impact somewhere that too often gets overlooked or underrated-on the lineup card, and with the usage patterns of his players.
And then there's center, which is where unhappy accident and something more has left last season's very good idea looking a lot less so. That doesn't change the wisdom of getting McLouth from the Pirates for the package Frank Wren put together-at the time of the trade, beyond 2009 he'd added an established, slugging center fielder already locked in through 2011 (for $12.25 million) or 2012 (for $21.65 million), or what seemed like a below-market price for at least the next two seasons. In '09, McLouth delivered less for Atlanta than he had for Pittsburgh, dropping from the TAv in the .290s he'd been delivering 2007-09 to .280 in his first four months as a Brave. Still, that was above-average production for a center fielder, so no cause for regret.
Then there's this season. Long before he suffered a concussion after colliding with Jason Heyward, he was having a flat-out bad year, hitting just .176/.295/.282 before landing on the DL. It would be easy- or lazy-to cite his BABIP, and note that his walk rate has remained the same. However, considering that his ISO had dropped by half this season, there was more going on here than just some unlucky guy hitting 'em where they wuz. He's been hitting more fly balls, and a few more popups, but neither problem is epic. As much (or, more appropriately, as little) faith as you can invest in his "documented" line-drive rate also suggests he's hitting the ball with less authority-not that his pancaked power didn't really sort of already tell you that. There were reports that he's been fiddling with his batting stance to try and get back to what worked for him in Pittsburgh; if there might be any area to criticize the Braves, it might be drawing an inference that they'd somehow messed with success in the first place.
Taking his recovery from that concussion slowly was sensible enough, but now that he's been back in action and presumably OK, the very early returns still weren't any good, and he didn't hit much during his rehab either. What does this leave you with, if you're in the Braves' shoes? With an unhappy decision, but one which they were able to make-McLouth doesn't have enough service time to have rejected the option they still could exercise. It's really sort of a decision they had to come to, because there's no obvious thing to fix, no easily explicable cause for why a quality regular suddenly went to pieces.
In the meantime, it also means you'll be seeing a whole lot of Melky Cabrera, which isn't looking like such an entirely bad thing, considering that he's hitting a very characteristic .286/.332/.409 since his ugly April (.195/.287/.221). He won't win a Gold Glove in center, even in a world where McLouth did, but he's employable in a "mostly harmless" sort of way. Falling back to an adequate replacement when a star-level player flops isn't very sexy, and it doesn't make up for the power that the Braves offense is missing as a product of McLouth's meltdown, but at least if Cabrera starts taking on a larger share of the starts in center, it isn't the end of the world.
The question is whether or not there's anything to be done about getting McLouth turned around, in-season or over the winter. In the meantime, at least thanks to Wren's building up a range of options it isn't like the Braves are entirely stuck. They're just understandably, massively disappointed in the immediate, unexpected outcome of a rational transaction, a result that certainly puts his 2012 option at risk.
Placed C-R Brett Hayes on the 15-day DL (wrist); designated LHP Nate Robertson for assignment; purchased the contracts of RHP Jorge Sosa and C-R Brad Davis from New Orleans (Triple-A); outrighted PH-L Mike Lamb to New Orleans. [7/21]
Placed RHP Jhan Marinez on the 15-day DL (strained elbow); recalled RHP Chris Volstad from New Orleans. [7/25]
Placed LF-L Chris Coghlan on the 15-day DL (knee), retroactive to 7/26; purchased the contract of 1B-L Logan Morrion from New Orleans; released LHP Nate Robertson; designated RHP Kris Harvey for assignment. [7/26]
There's already plenty of speculation that the Fish don't know if they're coming or going, but their orbit around .500 is just the gravity well around which these latest tweaks orbit, because nothing happening here seems likely to propel them toward escape velocity in any particularly happy direction. Ditching Robertson (.359 SNWP) after getting just five quality starts in 18 and 6.3 RA/9 helps matters a little, but not a lot, because while swapping back to Volstad (.449) is nice, it doesn't radically alter a rotation picture that boils down to Josh Johnson and the Johnsonettes.*
Was there a plan here? Volstad didn't really deserve his dismissal in the first place, since he was outpitching Robertson at the time. However, as suspicious as the Marlins always are in such matters, this wasn't a case of mucking around with his service time to avoid arbitration-he wasn't going to get there until 2011 regardless. It's also important not to mistake his being shipped out as having anything to do with sparing the 23-year-old's arm any-the Fish didn't use the intervening time to save him any additional work, because during his 18 days between big-league starts, he took three turns for the Zephyrs, and he had to come back and pitch on three days' rest in his return to the majors. So his actual workload on the season is 21 starts, 521 batters faced, and 1,960 pitches thrown, and not merely his big-league tally. Those aren't excessive totals, but my point is that he wasn't getting time off. His quality start his first time out-that despite working on short rest-after being called back is nice. Maybe this really was just a matter of sending him to Triple-A for re-education, a la Ricky Nolasco in 2009, and then bringing him back after whatever chastening was deemed necessary had been accomplished.
Less murky is the matter of adding but then losing Marinez so quickly after calling him up. It's an especially glum outcome considering his plus stuff, which earned him the status as the pre-season sixth-ranked prospect on Kevin Goldstein's Top 11 list for the organization. While you can't count on just one man to help fix a bullpen, the Fish rank 20th in the majors per bullpen FRA, so any dab will do to punch up the teal crew. Things do seem to be slowly getting better, although the absence of an effective lefty hasn't helped. Leo Nunez, Clay Hensley, and Brian Sanches are the only pen men doing consistently good work, but Jose Veras has been a revelation in his first month back after an early-season demotion, notching 19 Ks in 14
Losing Coghlan might be seen as a setback, but last year's Rookie of the Year award-winner is sort of like Todd Hollandsworth-a nice player, but not a great one, and with a .258 TAv, one of the reasons why the club ranks just 14th in the league in team offense. In his place, they're going to give the second-best prospect in the organization a shot to join Mike Stanton, their No. 1, in the outfield. Logan Morrison has been starting in left field for New Orleans almost exclusively since the All-Star break, and he was hitting more than well enough to provide confidence he'll be an upgrade on Coghlan: .307/.427/.487, the second-best TAv of any PCL regular (.297, better than the much-anticipated Alex Gordon), an unintentional walk rate of 15 percent, and hitting effectively enough against southpaws to negate any platoon concerns. Of course, with the Fish the glass has to be half-full-they're talking about having him split time with Emilio Bonifacio, which you have to hope is merely a matter of being polite.
With Morrison being the most extreme example, what might seem like a collection of problems are really just symptoms of slow, transformative improvements. The team's better players are getting opportunities. If Morrison shines, Coghlan might have to come back and resume the infield portion of his career, which wouldn't be a problem for the Marlins if a pair of current rumors come to pass: they deal Jorge Cantu, and sign a long-term extension with Dan Uggla. Keep in mind, Coghlan was originally a second baseman, and first baseman Gaby Sanchez has played a lot of third. They could put Coghlan back out in left, move Morrison to first, and bounce Sanchez to third, or they could leave Morrison in left, move Coghlan to second, and push Uggla over to third base.
So, even if they do trade Cantu, that doesn't necessarily mean they've folded up their tent for 2010. As with so much else going on in Miami, they can't be sure how seriously they can take the present with what they have in hand. They could deal Cantu, and remain where they are. They could play the kids, like Morrison or Marinez, and surrender nothing. Is it a surprise they're not sure whether they're really coming or going?
*: Admittedly, I'm biased; betting on Alex Sanabia to keep on trucking when he's giving up almost two baserunners per inning in his starts isn't one I'd care to make.