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January 12, 2011

Transaction Analysis

NL Central Roundup

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed 1B-L Carlos Pena to a one-year, $10 million contract. [12/8]
Signed RHP Kerry Wood to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. [12/17]
Noted the loss of RHP Brian Schlitter to the Yankees on a waiver claim. [1/5]
Acquired RHP Matt Garza, LHP Zachary Rosscup, and CF-L Fernando Perez from the Rays for RHP Christopher Archer, C-R Robinson Chirinos, SS-L Hak-Ju Lee, OF-R Brandon Guyer, and OF-L Sam Fuld. [1/8]
Claimed C/1B-R Max Ramirez from the Red Sox on waivers. [1/10]

You'll find last month's write-up of the Carlos Pena signing here, and my evaluation of the decision to get Garza to shore up the rotation here. Which leaves us with matters big and small, the former a decision to put some Wood back in Wrigleyville, while the latter's a matter of promptly exploiting their expanded post-Garza swap wiggle room on the 40-man roster to grab Ramirez.

Signing Wood is a fairly straightforward add-on in terms of its virtue for a bullpen that desperately needed the help after finishing 29th in the majors in both ARP and bullpen FRA last year. Even with the expectation that home-grown assets like Andrew Cashner get better, this was a pen that needed a fourth man to add to the Carlos Marmol/Cashner/Sean Marshall trio. Wood is perfect, because finding a reliable righty in front of Marmol was a problem all year, and his utility as either the substitute closer on days Marmol isn't available or as the eighth-inning set-up stud will let Mike Quade use Cashner and Marshall in the sixth and seventh innings. The fewer games decided by Jeff Samardzija, John Grabow, and Justin Berg, the better the Cubs' fortunes are likely to be. There was no real genius involved--Wood was willing to dispense with getting the best financial deal possible just to get himself back to his original organization and back in the city where he's probably still the most popular Cub from over the last 10 years.

As for grabbing Ramirez, Jim Hendry promptly put some of that roster space opened up by the Garza trade to work. The benefits of employing Ramirez are fairly well understood; in some ways, he presents the same challenges on a roster as Matt LeCroy. For a catcher, Ramirez can hit, or at least he used to, having slugged .496 on his minor-league career while walking close to 13 percent of the time. However, his slugging has disappeared over the last two seasons, which is perhaps a symptom of the wrist injuries that ruined his 2009 campaign. It hasn't come back in winter ball so far, because he's slugging just .368 in Venezuela after managing just .336 and .381 in his last two seasons with Oklahoma City. So there's that--the Cubs will have to find out if his already long swing has been permanently sapped of power, not that the Cactus League's pinball action will help them.

The even larger question is whether Ramirez can really catch effectively enough to stick in the majors. He has never found a way to speed up his footwork to compensate for a weak arm, notching baserunner kills at a barely better than 20 percent clip, and he's a stiff receiver at best. Although those things look ugly on an everyday basis, in today's age you'd think he'd be eminently employable. Teams simply don't run that often these days, and rosters in the age of the 12-man staff should be too short to afford single-use bench players. Having a backup catcher who can hit well enough to make his starts is cause for confidence, not cringing, and someone to possibly take some spot duty at first base is handy enough. Put him in Wrigley Field, a park that rewards power strokes from both sides of the plate, and it would seem you have a fine choice to unseat Koyie Hill.

CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Re-signed INF-R Miguel Cairo to a two-year, $2 million contract. [12/8]
Signed SS-R Edgar Renteria to a one-year, $2.1 million contract; signed OF-L Fred Lewis to a one-year, $900,000 deal. [1/10]

Points to Walt Jocketty for adding a pair of veterans his club needed. This isn't a call for Renteria to start ahead of Paul Janish at short, but as a veteran right-handed bat in the always cozy Gap, don't be surprised if you're seeing stories about Renteria's re-born power stroke four or five weeks into the season. Spotting Renteria for Janish when some of the rotation's more fly ball-oriented starters are on the mound will be a nice way of adding offense without risking too much on defense, and it beats employing an alternative like Orlando Cabrera in the same kind of role. Maybe this is my fondness for watching Renteria play talking, going back across his stardom with the Cards to his arrival in the game as teen phenom and his starring for the world champion Marlins of '97. Even so, putting him on Dusty Baker's bench in an elder statesman's part-time role, getting to hit in a bandbox... it should make for a fine way to wind down his career.

Lewis makes for a similarly handy part-time player. At the very least, he can be a lefty changeup and defensive asset in left to alternate with Jonny Gomes, but his career rate of hitting .280/.354/.442 vs. RHPs makes him eminently platoonable with Gomes and his feeble .233/.309/.438 rate against his fellow righties. However, Lewis is also playable enough in center to be able to spot him for Drew Stubbs in center once in a while as well. In short, he's the fourth outfielder this team needed as they're making the mistake of over-committing to Gomes. If they correct for that in-season, Lewis' role would undoubtedly get redefined, but adding him to the status quo is a solid bit of improvement upon on a flawed design.

There's something to be said about re-signing Cairo, something, dare I say it, charitable. Let's face it, the job of a pinch-hitter isn't a happy lot. It requires preparation and adaptation that better batters, used to at-bats in their hundreds, can't handle. Cairo is getting a big benefit of the doubt, the park helps prop up his numbers, and his defensive value is notional at best. Even with all that, he can be a worthwhile use of a roster spot, as long as you're actually making that slot work; a disposable any-time pinch-hitter who makes contact and keeps himself ready has value, however minuscule. And if he implodes, the pile of money's small enough there's no cause for lament over cutting him.

HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith to a one-year, $725,000 contract. [12/9]
Signed UT-R Bill Hall to a one-year, $3 million contract, with a $4 million mutual option for 2012 ($250,000 buyout). [12/20]
Traded RHP Matt Lindstrom to the Rockies for LHP Wes Musick and RHP Jonnathan Aristil. [12/23]
Acquired LHP Sergio Escalona from the Phillies for 2B-R Albert Cartwright. [1/10]

Meh. Dumping Lindstrom is really just that; Musick is a local, since he was a University of Houston product drafted by the Rockies in the ninth round in 2009, while the 24-year-old Aristil has been knocking around the Rockies' organization for five seasons since signing out of the Dominican. They're organizational arms, but perhaps slightly better than the oddments shipped to the Fish to get Lindstrom in the first place.

It had to fall to somebody to see whether the Mariners inhaled when they decided Rowland-Smith was a locked-in asset for 2010, but with SIERAs of 4.80 in 2008, 4.86 in 2009, and 5.60 in 2010, I'd say last year's lower back problems were less the issue, compared to a reliable sub-mediocrity from a guy pitching with the benefit of a pitcher's park. Naturally, that's the stuff Astros fifth starters might be made of, but as a fly-ball pitcher without swing-and-miss stuff, Rowland-Smith could get killed in Houston's Fruit Beverage Ballpark. He'll also have to win the job away from Nelson Figueroa and Rule 5 pick Aneury Rodriguez, a combat he's not sure to win.

At least signing Hall isn't so hard to understand, given that the Astros are hoping for so many things to go well at so many positions that they had to do something to address as many of them as possible at once. Having somebody capable of being Plan B at three or four of them seems like an intelligent adaptation, what with Carlos Lee's expensive statuesque lassitude, Chris Johnson's daring the BABIP fairy to come down and smite him after last year's .387 gift, and the surgery on Jeff Keppinger's foot that will seemingly shelve him into April. If anybody needed a superutility player who could also provide righty power, it's the Astros, because of this park as much as this roster. Hall might be the Opening Day second baseman, the team's starting third baseman on June 1, and its everyday shortstop by August, with lots of time in the outfield as well. He'll be a bargain, and might automatically be the leading position-playing candidate for token Astro in the 2011 All-Star Game.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Claimed RHP Roque Mercedes off waivers from the Diamondbacks. [12/21]
Signed RHP Sean Green to a one-year, $875,000 contract; signed INF-L Craig Counsell to a one-year, $1.4 million contract. [12/22]
Signed RHP Takashi Saito to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. [1/5]

The names are more impressive than the performances at this point, but the pair of fortysomethings know their jobs, and they make solid back-end additions to a contender's roster. Credit Doug Melvin for being unstinting in these areas after focusing on rebuilding his bullpen. Used with care, both Counsell and Saito can be effective enough, but expecting greatness would be silly. And Green is a nice little pickup, at least at this price.

Counsell's offensive attributes are simple enough--he's a lefty batter who draws walks and makes contact, and that's fairly rare in infield reserves, and even more so when you're talking about a guy who can actually play the up-the-middle positions. As a caddy for the unglovely Rickie Weeks and the generally execrable Yuniesky Betancourt, he'll get plenty of playing time.

Saito remains a bullpen asset who needs to be used carefully, avoiding consecutive days' work lest he blow games and joints all to hell. Bobby Cox got better use out of him (2.0 WXRL) than Terry Francona (0.1) while using him in a much more meaningful set-up role, and learned to never let Saito work across multiple innings; the one stretch Cox did not do so, in late May, was almost immediately followed by a trip to the DL. We'll see if new skipper Ron Roenicke and pitching coach Rick Kranitz take care to do likewise. Here, because of the home-grown depth and LaTroy Hawkins' return to health, he won't have to be asked to do more, so it should turn out well.

Giving Green a guaranteed deal is a minor surprise as he comes back from an injury-wrecked 2010, but he'd been a rubber-armed situational righty for the Mariners and Mets in the previous three seasons, and you can see how he might be handy in a middle-inning role.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed LHP Scott Olsen to a one-year, $450,000 (base) contract, with a $4 million club option for 2012 ($100,000 buyout). [12/10]
Signed 1B-L Lyle Overbay to a one-year, $5 million contract; signed OF-R Matt Diaz to a two-year, $4.25 million contract. [12/14]
Signed RHP Kevin Correia to a two-year, $8 million contract. [12/17]
Designated RHP Joe Martinez for assignment. [12/22]
Claimed LHP Aaron Thompson from the Nationals on waivers; designated LHP Wil Ledezma for assignment. [12/23]
Traded RHP Joe Martinez to the Indians for future considerations. [1/4]
Noted the loss of LHP Wil Ledezma to the Blue Jays on a waiver claim. [1/5]

You'll find the write-up of the Matt Diaz signing here, but the rest is in a very similar vein--these are men who should feel great about getting guaranteed seven-figure deals, even if they are with the Pirates.

Admittedly, the list of people choosing Piracy is automatically going to be short, but players like Overbay and Correia need this gig more than the Pirates need to give it to them specifically. It isn't like there's a swarm of Overbay groupies in Monongahela Valley rushing to order season tickets now that their man is in the fold; Braddock isn't holding a parade because Kevin Correia is now a Pirate. I suppose the most generous thing you can say about this is that the Pirates are dutifully expending their revenue-sharing proceeds on those happy few willing to don black and gold, keeping their 29 indulgent peers and the MLBPA happy.

The indignities attached to the Correia deal border on humiliating, but they're really just a sign of how much the Bucs have to give up to get someone who needs to say 'yes' somewhere to grudgingly ch-ch-choose them. A $2 million signing bonus, and playing time bonuses, and no opportunity to offer arbitration if Correia winds up a Type-A free agent? Credit Correia's agent for perhaps understanding that his client's signability in light of his performance record goes down if he somehow winds up Type-A. It's not that big a deal to fuss over, but it does reflect the extent to which the Pirates don't even get the unlikely upside benefits of signing a guy who just gave up 5.5 runs per nine in a season while pitching in Petco.

Or, take the Overbay deal. Does spending $5 million on Lyle Overbay move them at all closer toward something exciting, some higher goal, something as bold as--dare we say it?--fifth place? Does it even buy them a good regular? No, not when you're talking about a platoon first baseman who dropped off to .250/.340/.441 against right-handers, and whose once-fine fielding has been sliding consistently for years. What it notionally does for them it get them is a less embarrassing starter than Jeff Clement, but when you're in danger of letting your standards be defined by your mistakes, face it, you're caught in a cycle of self-abuse.

The point is to try and build something up, however slowly, and wind up numero uno, not numero Onan. The 19th year of the losing streak is pretty much unavoidable, so why spend top dollar to enlist Overbay as a willing participant for a single season? The problem is that it really doesn't do anything but enrich Overbay, because he isn't sure to be a better option than Garrett Jones or John Bowker or even Steve Pearce, or giving up on Ryan Doumit's days as a catcher, or ending the trickling death by a thousand wormkillers turned base hits as long as the travesty of letting Neil Walker play second.

Finally, there's Olsen and grabbing Thompson. There's something sickly about the shuttle of Pirates going to Washington and Nats packing up their kit bag and heading for Pittsburgh. Add in that they're both Marlins discards, and you can see how second-class citizenship has its privileges. We're now four seasons beyond when Olsen was last interesting, but the terms are reasonable for both parties, and this is more the sort of creatively structured contract the Pirates should be trying out on more people. While committing themselves to little more than the minimum, it's an mildly expensive lottery ticket: if Olsen is healthy enough and effective enough to max out his playing-time bonuses, he'll make almost $3.5 million in 2011. The odds of that aren't good, but that's why he's here.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Traded SS-R Brendan Ryan to the Mariners for RHP Maikel Cleto. [12/12]
Signed C-R Gerald Laird to a one-year, $1.1 million deal. [12/14]

Dealing away Ryan might seem to leave shortstop to Ryan Theriot's best efforts, but I wouldn't automatically say it will be so. His play might prove deterrent enough, bouncing from -9.5 Runs Above Average via Colin Wyers' new Fielding Runs in 2008 to 5.9 in 2009 back to -3.7 in 2010. It is at least not consistently awful, but it isn't good. But moving him to second last year has the data to suggest it made sense, as he was +6.5 at second base.

Which sort of gets to the worse problem around the keystone. If Skip Schumaker repeats last year's experience, and doesn't hit on top of the problem that he cannot handle second base, there comes a point at which you have to submit that scientific curiosity has been satisfied, and some things are just bad ideas. There are a number of possible up-the-middle combinations, with Schumaker and Daniel Descalso at second, plus Theriot or Tyler Greene at either position. Unfortunately, Greene isn't necessarily a defensive upgrade on Theriot at short, so while the Cards have lefties and righties and overlapping possibilities to pick from, the more basic problem is that a Schumaker/Theriot keystone combo might provide an entirely new definition of defensive indifference.

If fielding becomes that much of a distraction, this might be a situation that slick-fielding Pete Kozma exploits, even after a .243/.318/.384 repeat campaign at Double-A. While he wasn't much use against right-handed pitching, in the broad strokes Kozma walked just under 10 percent of the time and hits for some power (.141 ISO, 43 extra-base hits). He was granted an AFL assignment, which he didn't flub, but he also didn't shine, hitting .269/.329/.433 in a league that hit .283/.357/.431. Now that he's four years out from being the Cardinals' first-round pick, he is at least making progress, and he'll be headed into his age-23 season. Bringing him up now might seem a reach, but the competition is weak, especially if the Cards don't commit to a Descalso/Theriot combo up the middle, and this was the team willing to indulge Brendan Ryan's batsmanship for a couple of seasons.

Given that Ryan's fielding has graded extremely well in that time, you might think this was little more than throwing him away. They didn't even get the 40-man roster spot back, for that matter, since the young Dominican hurler had to be added. Happily, Cleto is no pretender, because he's as hard-throwing as they come, firing triple-digit heat. Giving up more than seven runs per nine in High Desert might not seem like much of an endorsement, but he managed to strike out 18 percent of all batters in one of the worst hellholes for pitchers in affiliated ball, and having him start wasn't a comment on his guaranteed future role, it was a task assigned to him to make sure he got innings. If the Cardinals move him to a relief role, it isn't hard to see how his timetable and his upside would both change dramatically for the better.

As for signing Laird to be their veteran catch-and-throw backup to Yadier Molina, it's a reasonable if unexciting proposition. Laird can't hit and won't, not when three of his last four seasons have involved TAv marks below even his tepid .233 career rate, but he's a durable enough receiver to step in if Molina gets hurt, and pairing him up with Bryan Anderson in such a contingency wouldn't be the worst scenario in the world. The paycheck is fairly standard for backup backstops. The frustration is that they won't just let Anderson win the job to give La Russa a lefty-batting alternative to Molina, but if Molina is going to keep starting 130 or more games, you're talking about a reserve role that gets little more than a start per week. Marooning Anderson in that kind of role in his age-24 season wouldn't do him that many favors, where regular work in Triple-A will have him ready to step in and play regularly if Molina is out for a month.

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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