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April 26, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Return of the Busted Prospects

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TEXAS RANGERS
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Placed RHP Mason Tobin on the 60-day disabled list (tightness in right elbow). [4/20]
Optioned Michael Kirkman to Round Rock Express. [4/20]
Called up Brett Tomko from Round Rock Express. [4/20]
Recalled Taylor Teagarden from Round Rock Express. [4/20]

Even had the date not been 4/20, it would have been fair to wonder what the Rangers were smoking while making at least one of their roster moves last Wednesday. As Steven Goldman detailed elsewhere, the Yankees made a curious decision in calling up Buddy Carlyle on Friday (they also released Jose Ortegano, who sounds like a seasoning but is actually a lefty reliever incapable of cracking the Yanks' roster even in the absence of Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano), but Carlyle was upstaged in this week’s annals of no-upside callups by Brett Tomko, another unlikely Yankee of recent vintage. As my brother-in-transactions R.J. Anderson said to me upon learning that a Tomko was back in town, “That better be Tomko’s son.”

When the Yankees called up Tomko in May of 2009, he was sporting a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (who actually play in Moosic, despite all that punctuation), with 17 strikeouts and four walks. As unlikely as it was that a 36-year-old Tomko had somewhere in that trio of Pennsylvania towns discovered not only the fountain of youth but the key to good pitching, which had eluded him even in his younger days, the Yankees could at least cling to those innings as evidence—however inadmissible—of a turnaround.

The Rangers can’t point to anything quite as compelling as even those 14 flimsy frames in support of their decision to summon Tomko from Round Rock. The righty didn’t make it to the majors last season, but he did allow an incredible 17 homers in 62 2/3 innings in putting up a 7.18 ERA across three levels of Oakland’s system; he kicked off this season in Triple-A by coughing up two more, while barely managing a positive K:BB ratio. With no room at the rotation inn, sending down Kirkman for more seasoning is understandable, but Tomko in the Ballpark in Arlington is a definite 1812 Overture scenario. The Rangers now have the dubious luxury of employing two past-their-prime long men, so they can choose just how they’d prefer to let games get out of hand.

Taylor Teagarden—the first of three disgraced prospects in this article with multiple Baseball America top-100 rankings in their rear view mirrors—was called up shortly after Mike Napoli’s consecutive starts on the 17th and 18th, which loosened the seventh seal. (At three consecutive Napoli starts, his managers presumably get cast into a lake of fire, which suggests that Jeff Mathis may have been the Lamb all along.) In response to the move, longtime Rangers beat writer T.R. Sullivan wrote, “The Rangers now have three catchers and have increased the versatility of catcher Mike Napoli.” If that was truly the motivation for the move, it could work in the Rangers’ favor, even though Teagarden hasn’t hit a lick since 2007 (save for a hot start in Triple-A this season). Napoli is now hitting .313/.476/.844, but he’s started in only half of the Rangers’ first 22 games.

However, Teagarden hasn’t gotten into a game since his callup, and his presence only seems to be exacerbating an already perplexing roster logjam. Complicating matters is the fact that four players have spent time at first base for the Rangers already this year, all of whom are currently on the roster. Couple that with a pair of catchers and Michael Young’s regular duty in the DH slot, and there’s nowhere for Napoli to go without stealing the playing time of another entrenched player. Aside from Teagarden, Chris Davis seems like the infielder with the least reason to be on the roster, so he might not be long for the majors. However this situation shakes out, it’s unfortunate that Napoli couldn’t have ended up somewhere with more room to breathe after years of fighting for exposure in Anaheim.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Called up Brandon Boggs from Nashville Sounds. [4/22]
Placed CF Nyjer Morgan on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 18, 2011 (deep thigh bruise). [4/21]
Outrighted C George Kottaras to Nashville Sounds. [4/21]

Brief awful Brewers bench status check: still awful. Milwaukee sent down Kottaras instead of Wil Nieves, opting for defense instead of acceptable offense in the backup backstop department, but at least they're down to two catchers after having spent some time juggling Jonathan Lucroy and those two to boot. The Brewers had to make an outfield move after Nyjer Morgan became the latest in a long line of players to lose a collision with a wall, and they went with Brandon Boggs instead of Jeremy Reed, who made the team out of spring training but was soon assigned outright to Nashville (which sounds like the subject of a country song: Assigned outright to Nashville/And my baby done gone away/Said goin’ hitless in the bigs is one thing/But she don’t date in Triple-A).

The Brewers signed Boggs as insurance last November, so now they’re cashing in the policy. It won’t cover them for long, but it won’t have to, since Corey Hart could return as soon as tomorrow to end Milwaukee’s game of right-field roulette. To make room for Hart, the team will have to make a decision between Boggs and Erick Almonte, both of whom are out of options; even James T. Kirk might be forced to admit the existence of a no-win scenario under those circumstances. With Hart in the lineup, the Brewers will still be without a competent fourth outfielder, but that’s a better problem to have than being without a starter. The team will likely pursue a more optimal solution as the season wears on, but there’s no truth to the rumor that Doug Melvin has been heard breathing heavily on Sam Fuld’s answering machine.

NEW YORK METS
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Designated 2B Brad Emaus for assignment. [4/19]
Recalled Justin Turner from Buffalo Bisons. [4/19]

The Mets changed course quickly with Emaus, returning the Rule 5 pick to the Triple-A affiliate of the Blue Jays last week, but it’s hard to muster much outrage here. Giving Emaus a mere 14 games to show his major-league mettle threatens the integrity of spring training position battles, but it was already difficult to take those seriously, and given Terry Collins’ flirtation with Luis Hernandez and Emaus’ lack of major-league experience and history in the Mets organization, it was already clear that he wasn’t on the firmest footing. That said, waffling of this sort seems inadvisable, if only because it sends the wrong message to the players, who generally seem to like knowing where they stand. 

That the Mets had a vacancy at second in the first place stemmed from two ancient evils. The first was Omar Minaya's ill-advised Luis Castillo contract, which was addressed by the belated removals of both men from their former positions. The second was the team's quixotic quest to find a position for Daniel Murphy that demanded more offense than he could provide, which has seemingly come to an end this season. Murphy played second base in high school, but he became a full-time third baseman after turning pro. The organization was set at that position thanks to the immovable presence of David Wright, so Murphy had to move or face being blocked for the foreseeable future. Where the Mets went wrong was in trying him at premium offensive positions for which he had little defensive feel, which prevented him from being an asset on either side of the ball. Second base is more Murphy's speed, and there's reason to believe that he has at least as much upside there as Emaus. In Murphy and Justin Turner—a right-handed version of Murphy with less power but more patience—the Mets have the makings of a moderately productive platoon at the keystone that could last them at least until Reese Havens is ready. While their early-season flip-flop may have been regrettable, it shouldn't hurt them on the field.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Activated SS Brandon Wood. [4/23]
Claimed Brandon Wood off waivers from Los Angeles Angels. [4/22]
Designated SS Josh Rodriguez for assignment. [4/22]

He’s only 26, but Brandon Wood, who was designated for assignment by the Angels last week, has already made a convincing case as one of the least productive players in baseball history. I don’t mean to pile on, but Wood’s former top-prospect status makes his spectacular failure to launch particularly prone to rubber-necking. For the moment, though, put his prospect pedigree aside. Forget that he was once rated as the third-best prospect in the universe by Baseball America, and that he cracked the top 100 for four years running, proving that his ability to take in talent evaluators—if not, ultimately, to justify their praise—was a repeatable skill. If Wood had been deemed not most likely to succeed, but most likely to be the next Mario Mendoza, he still would have underperformed expectations.

Wood's -4.1 career WARP ranks 35th-lowest among position players since 1950*, but on a rate basis, he's been even more impressive, in a thoroughly unimpressive sort of way. Wood's .173 TAv to date qualifies as the worst career mark managed by any player with a minimum of 400 plate appearances:

Name

PA

TAv

Brandon Wood

494

.173

Houston Jimenez

438

.175

John Vukovich

607

.175

Ken Huckaby

451

.181

Gus Polidor

456

.186

Kevin Cash

714

.188

Bob Davis

733

.189

Mario Mendoza

1456

.190

Luis Gomez

1390

.190

Angel Salazar

932

.192

With time, of course, Wood might yet play his way off this list; other players have gone on to respectability after suffering similarly slow starts. Including Wood, 95 players in the Retrosheet Era have posted negative WARP scores in each of their first four seasons in the bigs. Of those, 18 ultimately finished in the black, led by Dusty Baker, who amassed nearly 36 WARP after his slow start. It would be unfair to say that Wood had sputtered in all four seasons, since he saw significant playing time in only two of them. (Baker saw even less.) However, Wood made his limited opportunities count: if we lump his first four seasons together, his WARP comes out as the fifth-lowest in the first four seasons of any post-1950 player’s career, behind luminaries such as Unabomber sound-alike Ted Kazanski, Jackie Gutierrez, Wayne Tolleson, and Rob Picciolo. Thanks to his 2-for-14 start to the season with the Angels, Wood is already on his way to a fifth sub-replacement season.

It reflects poorly upon the Pirates—if that undead team can even be said to cast a reflection, after 18-plus seasons out of the sun—that one can uncork a few paragraphs’ worth of putdowns condemning Wood’s performance as a player, and in the very next sentence, call his retrieval by Pittsburgh a good pickup. Wood probably isn’t the game’s latest and greatest inefficiency, but he represents the best bit of Pirates dumpster-diving during a week that also saw them unearth Blaine Boyer and Brett Sinkbeil, only to discover that neither was redeemable for five cents at the local supermarket. This is a team that’s currently calling Ronny Cedeno a starting shortstop, so Wood has room to advance if he can get his bat in order, and the Pirates have little to lose beyond the major-league minimum if he can’t. Wood got off to a nice start in his new uniform by plating the winning run in his 1-for-4 debut for the Pirates last night, though if he continues to take playing time away from Pedro Alvarez at third, I'll take back the few nice things I've said. To make room for Wood, the Pirates designated Rule 5 find Josh Rodriguez for assignment and endured a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Pedro Ciriaco. The Pirates are currently attempting to trade Rodriguez rather than offer him back to the Indians, and if they get anything back for him, it’ll be a better return than the Angels saw for Wood.

Wood’s failure highlights a potential pitfall that has perhaps become obscured as the value of prospects has been quantified and increasingly recognized: the danger of holding on to young players too long. Former Angels GM Bill Stoneman, who presided over Wood’s happier days in the Anaheim organization, developed a reputation for playing prospects close to the vest, and his decision to sit Smaug-like upon his prospect horde rather than exchange some of his team-controlled baubles for proven performers was a source of frustration for Angels fans.

Of course, had Wood panned out, as there was plenty of reason to believe he would, Stoneman's stubbornness would have been celebrated. Even in the low minors, Wood was not an asset to be trifled with: according to recent estimates, the expected value of a position player prospect in the Baseball America top ten is roughly $40-45 million, so it’s safe to say that Wood has done some depreciating since his bubble burst. Wood was often mentioned in trade rumors during his days as an attractive commodity, so with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to go back and rosterbate about how much better off the Angels might have been had they sold high and traded in his talent for a more certain and immediate return.

One has to go back four pages to exhaust MLBTradeRumors’ archive of never-consummated deals involving Wood—one highlight, from late July 2007, has the Angels walking away from a deal for Mark Teixeira because the Rangers, after agreeing to accept Casey Kotchman and Joe Saunders, would not accept Terry Evans or Nathan Haynes as the third player in the deal, instead insisting on receiving either Wood, Nick Adenhart, Howie Kendrick, or Ervin Santana. Aside from wondering what might have been with Adenhart, it's temping to speculate about what such a deal might have meant for the current balance of power in the AL West. It’s clear that Texas dodged a bullet in passing up the Angels’ package in favor of Atlanta’s, and the Phillies can also breathe a sigh of relief, since the Braves would look even more formidable going forward with Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, and the rest of the Rangers’ prospect haul still at their disposal.

Finally, this has been a rough week for Rule 5 picks, as Rodriguez, Emaus, and Tobin all bit the dust within days of each other. (Tobin was actually placed on the 60-day DL, the Soviet-style solution to retaining Rule 5 picks, but UCL inflammation is no joke to a pitcher who’s already suffered through three elbow surgeries.) Of the nine active Rule 5 picks I identified earlier this month, only four remain in the majors, and Diamondbacks lefty Joe Paterson now has the newly-signed Ron Mahay to contend with. It’s tough to survive on a team that has very little invested in your success, and the odds are still against Paterson, Pedro Beato, Aneurys Rodriguez, and Michael Martinez seeing the end of the season. If I had to bet my life on any one of them making it through September, I’d pick Rodriguez, but I’d also make sure that all my affairs were in order.                                 

*Doug Flynn, an extremely light-hitting infielder of the late 1970s and early 1980s, somehow managed to be worth 18.5 wins less than a replacement player over the course of his career, more than six wins worse than any other player since 1950. The mystery isn’t how he did it—he hit .238/.266/.294 in 11 big-league seasons, in addition to getting caught stealing as often as he succeeded—but how he was allowed to do it. One can only hope that he was worth at least 20 wins in the clubhouse; a miraculous ability to make everyone around him better might explain how he became a major component of the Reds' June 1977 trade for Tom Seaver (before finishing the season by batting .191 for the Mets). When George Orwell wrote, “Sanity is not statistical” in 1984, he may have been thinking about bad middle infielders, for whom ’84 was an astonishingly good year. At times during that season, the Expos’ double-play combo was Flynn and Angel Salazar, who hit .155/.178/.201 in 80 games (you know him as number ten on the worst TAv list above). Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Houston Jimenez hit .201/.238/.245 as the starting shortstop for the Twins. You know him as number two.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Activated RF Cody Ross from the 15-day disabled list. [4/20]
Optioned 1B Brandon Belt to Fresno Grizzlies. [4/20]

Okay, so the Brandon Belt era got off to a rocky start. BP's staff prediction of a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting for Belt looked great a few weeks ago, when he made the Opening Day roster after a solid spring training, but considerably less so after the .192/.300/.269 showing that got him sent back to Triple-A and rendered the anticipated roster crunch accompanying Ross’ return easy to resolve. Belt would hardly be the first player to enjoy a productive career after a false start, so this shouldn't in any way affect our expectations for him in the long run; as if to serve notice that he’d be back before long, he homered in his first at-bat after returning to Fresno (off of Micah Owings, who still seems to be sticking with that pitching thing). Of more interest than his continued ability to hit minor-league pitching is his place in the field: Belt has played left field since returning to the minors, perhaps in preparation for outfield duty in San Francisco later this season, once he’s grown used to the position and his service clock has been sufficiently stalled.

With Ross back in action, the Giants might be better off in the short term with Belt in the bushes, since Aubrey Huff's chalk-outline act in right field got old shortly after Opening Day. Ross' return and Belt's demotion allow Huff to return to first base, the only position he could be said to be suited for (with a straight face, at least). Huff is hardly hitting like a first baseman, but he’s probably a safer bet than Belt at the plate for this season, and the Giants can’t afford to give away much offense.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed free agent 2B Eric Duncan. [4/18]
Assigned Eric Duncan to Springfield Cardinals. [4/19]

Duncan is something like the minor-league equivalent of Wood, without even the redeeming quality of playing a premium defensive position. Both players became first-round selections in 2003, when they were drafted just four picks apart. Duncan got his own top-100 prospect love in back-to-back years, but unlike Wood, he did almost nothing to justify it above A-ball. To call Duncan an organizational soldier at this point in his career might be too kind: he’s more like an organizational militiaman, pressed into service only in emergencies (in this case, outfielder Aaron Luna’s promotion to Memphis, which opened up a spot in Springfield). As the proud owner of a Duncan-autographed baseball—yes, it might be worth more without the signature, but it’s keeping my signed Clay Bellinger ball company—I’ll be pulling for him, but he won’t sniff the majors without several more emergencies. If he ends up being remembered at all, it’ll be as living proof that Wood wasn’t the biggest bust from his draft round.

Typically, spending multiple seasons at a minor-league level augurs improvements in a player’s stat line, to the point that apparent progress is dismissed with the observation, “Sure, but he was repeating the level.” No such caveats were necessary with Duncan, who put up a .252 TAv in his first full season of exposure to Triple-A at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (there are those towns again!) and proceeded to use his intimate knowledge of his environment to post .233 and .184 TAvs in his next two cracks at the level—all while playing corner positions at which players are expected to earn their keep offensively. The most surprising aspect of this move might be that nepotism had nothing to do with it, since Duncan bears no relation to the Cardinals’ long-tenured pitching coach.

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

The Brewers extend Ryan Braun (4/21)


Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf 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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