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April 12, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Never Enough Pitching

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Placed LHP Scott Kazmir on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 4, 2011 (tightness in his lower back). [4/9]
Recalled Matt Palmer from Salt Lake Bees. [4/9]
Optioned Michael Kohn to Salt Lake Bees. [4/11]
Called up Tyler Chatwood from Salt Lake Bees. [4/11]

It’s easy to wonder whether the tightness in Kazmir’s lower back is related to the fork that’s been sticking out of it for two years now. In light of the lefty’s recent track record, one could forgive the Angels for fantasizing about fabricating an injury just to get him off the field:

Team Doctor: Any physical complaints?
Kazmir: Right as rain, doc.
Team Doctor: Are you sure?
Kazmir: Never felt better.
Team Doctor: Not even a hint of pain?
Kazmir: I’m in the best shape of my life.
Team Doctor: Tell me how you feel after Mark Trumbo hits you in the lower back with this bat. Whenever you’re ready, Mark.
Kazmir: Now that you mention it, my lower back feels a little tight.
Team Doctor: Why don’t you take some time off?

Okay, so that’s not what actually happened. (For one thing, Bobby Abreu would’ve been a better choice, since Trumbo’s bat is a product of the PCL.) Still, whatever its origins, Kazmir’s injury might hurt the Angels less than his continued health. The southpaw walked 13 and struck out 10 in 21 2/3 exhibition innings, but he managed to beat out Matt Palmer for a rotation spot nonetheless. The man formerly known as “Kid K” claimed that he felt good “even if the numbers didn’t show it” (they didn’t), which became even harder to believe after he was shelled by the Royals in his first regular-season start, prompting Mike Scioscia to observe that Kazmir didn’t have “velocity or command,” two things a pitcher generally can’t do without concurrently. It would be easier to blame his diminished stuff on back problems if declining results hadn’t become an established trend. Even if his back loosens up, he could find himself on the Oliver Perez bullpen-or-bust plan before long, with a high probability of suffering a similar outcome.

With Joel Pineiro out until the end of the month, the Halos had already called on replacement-level replacement Palmer to take up some slack, but rather than pursue the path of least resistance by summoning Trevor Bell or Horacio Ramirez from the Salt Lake Beehive, the Angels instead called up top prospect Tyler Chatwood to make last night's start. The 21-year-old Chatwood is a legitimate prospect, ranking ninth on Kevin Goldstein’s pre-season organizational list, but he’d thrown only 6 2/3 innings above Double-A and only 68 1/3 at Arkansas after being promoted from High-A last season, which made him an unlikely choice to get a call this early.

Chatwood earns Roy Oswalt comparisons for his compact frame, and he has the stuff to justify them, as he showed by hitting 94 with his four-seamer last night. He also has a two-seamer and a respectable curve. In his debut performance, he walked four Indians and struck out three, struggling early but settling down in his final three innings. Some of those missteps may have stemmed from nerves, but Chatwood’s transition to the majors didn’t figure to be smooth: his otherworldly groundball rate for Rancho Cucamonga suffered somewhat as he climbed the ladder, and he hadn’t yet mastered the art of missing bats in the upper minors, so he shouldn’t be expected to in the Show.

There is a possibility that Chatwood could have some staying power this season if Kazmir doesn’t recover, but his initial visit to the majors will most likely be a short one. The question, of course, is whether there’s any harm in giving a top prospect an early look at the majors before sending him back down for further seasoning; the argument is easy to see from both sides, but difficult to resolve. As a result, it’s something best addressed by the instructors and executives who have the best sense of the player’s personality, though even their take might be little more than guesswork. Regardless of the state of Chatwood's psyche, it’s unlikely that he is ready to excel on the Angel Stadium mound just yet, which opens the organization up to second-guessing if he struggles to regain his confidence after a rude major-league awakening, rather than using the experience as a springboard for further success.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Designated LF Lastings Milledge for assignment. [4/7]

I almost wrote last week about Chicago’s decision to include Milledge on the Opening Day roster, but something told me to wait. That something may have been a word count that was already out of control, but it also may have been Milledge's .269/.328/.394 career line entering the season. That kind of offense simply doesn’t pass muster in the outfield, especially for a player saddled with Milledge’s dubious defensive gifts; the “Lastings Milledge, center fielder” experiment has already been tried and mercifully abandoned, relegating him to the corners, where he’s found the the offensive bar prohibitively high.  

The White Sox didn’t give Milledge an opportunity to improve on that line, cutting him after two games and four plate appearances. In this year’s annual, we wrote that Milledge was “likely another mediocre half-season away from journeyman fourth outfielder status,” but even that much is in doubt after this latest setback. The Sox are a team in need of a capable backup—Milledge’s departure makes Brett Lillibridge the last extra outfielder standing on the South Side—and Milledge had already been cut by the terrible trifecta of the Mets, Nationals, and Pirates. At 27, his inability to stick even on teams that would seem to be good fits for his services is threatening to preclude a career.

For what it’s worth, Milledge wasn’t dropped because of his play, but because the Sox needed to add a twelfth arm to their staff after back-to-back twelve-inning games. Then again, getting cut to make room for Jeff Gray might be a sign that the discarded player in question should concentrate on his rap career, regardless of the circumstances. Milledge might not be through with the Sox, but they’ll need to sneak him through waivers in order to retain his services. If such a maneuver depended on staging a diversion to distract potential claimants, Chicago’s fractious front office could surely oblige, but it probably won’t take much subterfuge to make other teams pass on a player who couldn’t hack it in Pittsburgh. Milledge doesn’t mash lefties like a Matt Diaz, track down flies like a Tony Gwynn, or win friends and influence people like a Francoeur (don’t worry, there’s only one), so the only thing recommending him for the fourth-outfielder role is his fading prospect pedigree, which grows dimmer with each passing day.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed free agent RHP Jeff Suppan. [4/4]

It’s easy to poke fun at the Royals for signing Suppan, just as it was easy to mock them for bringing in Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera before him. While Kansas City could hardly do more to become the butt of jokes in sabermetric circles, it’s important to distinguish between this recent rash of seemingly ill-considered signings and the earlier ones that helped get them into such a fine mess at the major-league level in the first place.

Suppan was more than serviceable in his first four-plus-season stint with the Royals; his 4.73 ERA in royal blue from 1998-2002 might not seem like anything special, but it made him an above-average starter (and a workhorse to boot) in the context of the era’s high-offense environment. Now, of course, the righty has reached the “have arm, will travel” stage of his career, having been deemed a sunk cost by the Brewers—who released him last year with half a season left on his contract—and a worthless investment by the Giants, who signed him as insurance in January but released him after all of their real starters stayed healthy in spring training. His 3.84 ERA after being reunited with Dave Duncan down the stretch in St. Louis last season might seem to suggest a second wind, but his 5.23 SIERA for the Cardinals was actually worse than the 5.05 mark he managed in the course of earning his ouster from Milwaukee.

The Royals are under no illusions that Suppan is the same pitcher he was in his mid-20s, so it’s not as if they’re banking on a return to his 2001 form based on those 70 1/3 misleading innings in St. Louis. This move is more about the options on hand, since Suppan would fit right in with a rotation fronted by Luke Hochevar and also featuring Kyle Davies and Bruce Chen. Moreover, this isn’t Gil Meche redux, any more than Francoeur’s or Cabrera’s pacts were the second coming of Jose Guillen’s mega-contract. It’s a minor-league deal, and even if Suppan spends time with the big club, Kansas City can pay him the major-league minimum and show him the door at season’s end.

The Royals are delightfully free of financial commitments after 2011, which should help them supplement their young talent with the right kind of veterans, as well as retain the services of some of their homegrown stars through their free-agent years. The team has under $10 million in major-league payroll allotted as of 2012 (most of it to Billy Butler) and a completely clean slate by 2016, when the Yankees will still be paying Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira a total of $44.1 million (more than the Royals are spending on their whole team this season). That’s just as true after the Suppan signing as it was before, so while there’s little to like about his homecoming, there’s not much more to snark about. PECOTA harbors a seemingly irrational hatred for Suppan, projecting a 5.74 ERA (in the NL Central, no less), which would be his worst figure over a full season. Still, if he takes some pressure off the team’s high-ceiling arms in the short term and bows out before he can begin to block them, this minor move should be, at worst, the rare no-decision in Dayton Moore’s losing transactional record.

MINNESOTA TWINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Placed 2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka on the 15-day disabled list (fractured left fibula). [4/8]
Recalled Luke Hughes from Rochester Red Wings. [4/8]

Losing Nishioka for an extended period might seem like a significant blow to Minnesota’s playoff hopes, given that he was the team’s only prominent off-season import, but the impact on the Twins during his four-to-eight-week absence should be negligible. As we noted in our Nishioka comment in BP2011, “He heads stateside with worse stats and scouting reports than Kaz Matsui, which doesn’t inspire confidence.” He does have three NPB Gold Gloves to his name—which sounds good until you realize that Matsui had four—but most of his experience in the field overseas came at shortstop, so it was expected that he’d experience a few hiccups in his transition to a new position and playing surface. He also came complete with an extensive injury history. That fragility and inexperience at second came together on one play, when his positioning while turning the double play from a new angle may have contributed to the force of his fateful collision with Nick Swisher.

Even had he survived that play unscathed, Nishioka was unlikely to be an asset at the plate, where his 2010 batting title was made possible by an anomalous and unsustainable BABIP. In essence, Nishioka had all the makings of another in a long line of replacement-level Minnesota middle infielders, which was a shame, given that the Twins seemed to have kicked the habit last season. J.J. Hardy was the man who put a temporary stop to the Twins’ domination of the Replacement-Level Killer leaderboards, but he became a victim of Ron Gardenhire’s craving for additional speed in the lineup this past offseason. Nishioka is capable of supplying speed, but not a high stolen-base percentage, and jettisoning a productive player like Hardy in blind pursuit of a physical tool without an obvious application seems like an egregious example of inflexible thinking.

With any other team, it might make sense to speculate about potential replacements from outside the organization, but the Twins have shown many times that they have no qualms about hemorrhaging runs up the middle (and at third), and Hughes—a 26-year-old Australian with more pop than Nishioka, which isn’t saying much—should be as equipped to accomplish that. Then again, they’ve also proven that they’re more than capable of making the playoffs despite punting (and in some cases, Punto-ing) those positions.  

NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed free agent RHP Carlos Silva. [4/9]

Initial reports suggested that the Yankees weren’t interested in Silva, but as it turns out, they hadn’t quite had their fill of acquiring starters long past their sell-by dates. With Silva and Kevin Millwood in the fold alongside Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon (and A.J. Burnett, for that matter), the Yankees have assembled a phenomenal 2005 rotation—had these arms been in the Bronx back then, the team might have been spared the dark days of Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. However, time doesn’t treat pitchers kindly, and it’s not clear how much any of these arms has left.

As Steven Goldman intimated elsewhere, it’s now a race to the majors between the two veteran castoffs not yet on the roster, with the Yankees the likely losers no matter who crosses the finish line first. Silva was a pleasant surprise for the Cubs last season: widely viewed as nothing more than the incoming albatross who made possible the departure of outgoing albatross Milton Bradley, he exceeded expectations despite undergoing cardiac ablation surgery, not only retaining the impressive control he’d boasted before surrendering most of 2009 to rotator cuff problems, but nearly doubling his career strikeout rate by reconfiguring his repertoire to include more off-speed stuff.

Current Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild witnessed this transformation first-hand while employed in the same capacity with the Cubs, and it’s reasonable to assume that his fingerprints could be found on this deal. However, Rothschild wasn’t around to witness Silva’s ineffective spring and ugly exit from Chicago—highlighted by a scuffle with Aramis Ramirez and trash-talking of Rothschild’s successor, Mark Riggins—and more importantly, what worked in the NL Central won’t necessarily fly in the AL East, against whose patient and high-powered offenses “pitching to contact” might quickly come to resemble “pitching to the right-field stands.”

With Silva in the organization on a minor-league deal (and the Cubs footing the bill for the $11.5 million remaining on his preexisting pact), the Yankees now enjoy at least the illusion of depth, in that should Garcia (or Phil Hughes, or Burnett, or Ivan Nova) falter, they can call on someone with a recognizable name to fill the vacated slot. That’s not without value, since their pitching-rich system may not be quite ready to graduate any surefire successes suitable for a stretch run.

Still, Silva seems fairly redundant in light of the other unattractive options already in place, so it’s fair to wonder whether recent events have convinced the Yankees that Hughes is more than an adjustment or two away from regaining his lost velocity, in which case shellackings like the two he’s been handed this season could become a regular occurrence. Silva might not be much of a substitute for the young stud the Bombers thought they had on their hands, but the organization’s any-port-in-a-storm approach to resolving its uncertainties in the rotation has its merits at the major-league minimum.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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DH Manny Ramirez retired. [4/8]
Called up 1B Casey Kotchman from Durham Bulls. [4/8]

Here’s how good a hitter Manny Ramirez was: despite coughing up runs on the bases (-44 BRR) and in the field (-81 FRAA)—and disregarding his contributions in the clubhouse for now—Ramirez virtually matched the all-time WARP output of Roberto Clemente, who produced at a Hall of Fame level in every facet of the game (.303 TAv, 35 BRR, 123 FRAA). Like Clemente, Ramirez’s career was brought to an abrupt end at the age of 38, albeit for far less heroic reasons. With 76 career WARP, he’s in good company, Cooperstown-wise: in addition to Clemente, the already-enshrined Cal Ripken, Paul Molitor, Reggie Jackson, and Robin Yount all fall in the 70-80 range, along with a host of should-be-ins, could-be-ins, and will-be-ins whose on-field performance has little to do with their exclusion thus far (Pete Rose, Frank Thomas, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, and Mike Piazza).

This isn’t intended to promote discussion of Manny’s Hall of Fame candidacy, which—thanks to his inglorious exit—won’t hinge on his statistics, but to serve as a reminder of what the Rays lost when Ramirez hung up his syringe. Of course, the all-time masher described above wasn’t quite the hitter the Rays thought they were getting when they signed Ramirez at what seemed to be a bargain rate in January—Manny was getting on in years, and his slugging percentage didn’t survive the second half of last season—but his projection still called for a .298 TAv, a valuable contribution, if significantly below his prime output.

To replace Ramirez on the roster, the Rays called up Casey Kotchman, perhaps the most inadequate response to the passing of a legend since Babe Dahlgren succeeded Lou Gehrig, if not since Andrew Johnson took the oath of office. Kotchman isn’t Manny’s direct successor, of course, but he will inherit some percentage of his expected plate appearances while manning first and allowing PECOTA darling Dan Johnson to occupy the DH slot. Johnny Damon and Sam Fuld figure to trade off in left, depending on Johnson’s presence in the DH slot. Fuld is patient at the plate and a plus defender in left, but he’s not a starter on a playoff team. Fortunately, he may be a temporary solution until the Rays can call up Desmond Jennings without fear of offending the service-time gods.

The coming of Kotchman, coupled with the Rays’ emphasis on defense and their offensive power outage to begin the season—the team scored 20 runs in its first nine games—might have made parallels to last year’s anemic Mariners squad inevitable, but such comparisons would have been ill-founded: the Rays played most of those games minus their best hitter, Evan Longoria, and even without him they possessed more firepower than an offense that lived and died with Ichiro. As if to emphasize the point, Tampa Bay exploded for 16 runs against the Red Sox last night, more than the 2010 deadball Mariners ever managed in a single game. Losing Ramirez cost the Rays at most a couple of wins, and while that could be enough to reevaluate their intention to compete, especially given Longoria’s absence and the team’s early struggles, it’s not about to plunge them into a complete offensive meltdown.


For further reading, check out R.J. Anderson’s Transaction Analysis Blog entries since last week's installment of TA:

Boston Extends Buchholz (4/10)
Manny Ramirez Retires
(4/8)
Craig Hansen Released
(4/6)

Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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