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May 10, 2011
Something Lost, Something Gained
Placed SS Marco Scutaro on the 15-day DL (strained left oblique). [5/8]
On the Ides of March, I pinpointed Jose Iglesias as one of a number of players whose small-sample spring training heroics might have an immediate impact, noting that “Iglesias has no chance of winning a starting spot out of spring training, but the glove-first shortstop prospect’s second consecutive strong showing in camp is improving his odds of breaking in either later this year or in 2012.” As it turned out, Iglesias didn’t have to wait until 2012—he was summoned to Boston before Sunday’s game to replace Marco Scutaro, who had been placed on the DL because of a troublesome oblique. He debuted as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning of the Sox’ 9-5 win, assisting on the last out. (His throw short-hopped Adrian Gonzalez at first, but we’ll give him a pass, given the circumstances.) In a good-natured bit of rookie hazing, the injured Scutaro hid Iglesias’ glove behind a cameraman as he prepared to take the field. If the incumbent hopes to extend his stay in Boston, he’d do well to find a better hiding place, since Iglesias’ glove is both his ticket to a permanent place the majors (perhaps at Scutaro’s expense) and, at least currently, his only asset on the field.
Iglesias went from a .320/.370/.320 showing in the exhibition season to a .253/.278/.253 start in Pawtucket that’s probably more representative of his offensive abilities. Those pair of identical batting and slugging marks indicate that Iglesias failed to record an extra-base hit in well over 100 at-bats against much weaker competition than he’ll be facing in Fenway. (I originally wrote “And you thought Derek Jeter didn’t have power” here, but removed it in deference to Jeter’s two-homer Sunday. Was it just me, or did his hairline even look a little less receded after the second blast?) Iglesias hit for a fairly high average in his two-level trip through the minors last season, but he didn’t show the kind of strikeout-to-walk ratio that normally makes that kind of successful contact sustainable. Either he lucked out or he’s one of those rare creatures capable of sustaining a high BABIP, but we won’t know which until we have more to go on than we can glean from his lone professional season. The only meaningful data we have on his fielding prowess are the rave reviews of every scout in creation; earlier this spring, Kevin Goldstein labeled him “the best defensive player in the minors.” If he hits like Rey Ordonez, he won’t be a star (in fact, he’ll run the risk of being, well, Rey Ordonez), but if the glove is as good as advertised, even an empty average could catapult him into very valuable territory.
Iglesias’ first stint in the majors won’t last long, and he’ll likely be almost entirely limited to defensive and pinch-running duties. (After Jed Lowrie walked with two outs in the ninth last night, Iglesias took his place and scored the winning run on a Carl Crawford double.) One never likes to see a young player on the bench when he needs regular reps, but two weeks of sporadic play shouldn’t stunt Iglesias’ development, and the Sox’ $150 million-plus payroll isn’t just for show—they are trying to win now, and going without a capable backup middle infielder wouldn’t help their chances.
As it happens, the identity of Boston’s starting shortstop hasn’t changed in Scutaro’s absence, since Lowrie had already pretty well claimed the job on the strength of his hot start and Scutaro’s slow one. Over the past two seasons, Lowrie has now hit .304/.374/.522 for the Sox. Granted, that impressive combined line comprises only 350 plate appearances—staying healthy hasn’t been one of Lowrie’s strengths, and a struggle with mono kept him out until last July—but when coupled with his .380 minor-league on-base percentage, it just might be enough to make him the best-hitting shortstop in the American League. At first, that assertion seems far-fetched—a mere eight seasons removed from a time when A-Rod, Jeter, Nomar, and Tejada were still punishing pitchers as AL shortstops, we’re bowing down before Jed Lowrie?—but it soon becomes clear that his stiffest competition for the distinction comes down to the likes of Maicer Izturis and Asdrubal Cabrera. If the Red Sox could combine Iglesias’ glove and Lowrie’s bat, they’d have a hell of a player, but even if it’s an either/or proposition, the Sox stack up well at the position with any other organization in the junior circuit, at least as long as Manny Machado is still in the Sally League (with a dislocated kneecap, to boot).
The reckoning has now come for two veteran pitchers who had managed to avoid the DL entirely until this season. Dan Wheeler, who inherited the distinction of having pitched the second-most games without a DL stint among active hurlers from Derek Lowe earlier this spring, got to revel in the notoriety for only a few weeks before succumbing to a calf strain and turning over the number-two spot to Mark Buehrle. Wheeler might have done the Sox a favor if he’d gotten hurt earlier, since he’s racked up an 11.32 ERA over 10 1/3 innings (albeit with a more respectable 3.95 SIERA). Both he and Bobby Jenks, who has gone through even greater struggles, were disabled after a 13-inning marathon last Wednesday. Wheeler made an ugly seventh-inning appearance in that game, while Jenks was unable to pitch after he experienced arm cramping, either while warming up in the bullpen or while tucking into the clubhouse spread during a rain delay.
Neither pitcher had pitched well enough for the Fenway faithful to be distraught over the dual departures; given the timing, it’s likely that the Sox simply needed some fresh arms and seized the opportunity to give a breather to two of their struggling off-season relief acquisitions. Scott Atchison’s performance in Pawtucket this season has been phenomenal, but his lone outing in Boston didn’t go as well. Following that appearance, the Sox designated Atchison for assignment for the second straight season and then optioned him to Triple-A once he cleared waivers, replacing him with Alfredo Aveces—who, unlike Atchison, has experienced most of his success in the majors this season, dispelling concerns about lingering back problems in the process.
The other promoted player is a good deal more interesting. Since his 2007 heyday in the Cubs rotation, Rich Hill has transformed himself into a sidearming lefty reliever, a role in which he earned a late-season look from Boston last season. Wildness has plagued Hill at every level from 2008 on, but early indications are that he’s corrected his control problems, walking only five batters in his 16 innings on the farm. Lefties have gone just 2-for-20 against Hill in Pawtucket this season; a sidearm delivery from a 6’5” southpaw has the potential to be extremely hard on same-handed hitters, so Hill might yet enjoy a productive second major-league life if he can continue to find the strike zone.
Optioned RHP Jeanmar Gomez to Columbus Clippers (Triple-A). [5/9]
In last week’s TA, I noted that while Alex White was an emergency call-up summoned to fill the void left by Carlos Carrasco’s inflamed elbow, his selection nonetheless represented a commitment to winning on Cleveland’s part. After all, the Indians could have passed him over in favor of a Triple-A retread like David Huff, opting not to start White’s arbitration clock in his age-22 season. To their credit, they decided not only that White was their best hope for victory in that start, but that in light of their unexpected lead in the AL Central, earning a victory in that start trumped any potential financial ramifications down the line.
One start for White wouldn’t have doomed him to Super-Two status (if Super-Two status even survives the next CBA), but spending the rest of the season in the majors might. I wrote last time that if White could establish himself as a reliable rotation option by the time Carrasco returned, he stood a chance to “stick around at the expense of someone like Jeanmar Gomez,” which would make the Tribe’s staff stronger in an appreciable way. It took White only two six-inning starts to do just that; with Carrasco lined up to take Wednesday’s tilt against the Rays in Cleveland after a successful Double-A rehab start, it was Gomez, not White, who lost his roster spot. White’s place in the rotation is now safe at least until Mitch Talbot is ready to return from his own elbow woes, but Talbot is hardly an immovable obstacle himself—the man we called “the ultimate generic right-hander” in Baseball Prospectus 2011 could give way as easily as Gomez if White can keep his growing pains to a minimum in the meantime. There’s a fine line between wishcasting and taking advantage of unforeseen good fortune, but the Indians are making the right call by leveraging White to help fend off regression following their 22-11 start.
Rhymes made an appearance in the same mid-March article I linked above on the strength of a .328/.375/.406 spring. As I wrote at the time, “The case of Sizemore v. Rhymes should set an interesting precedent in the ongoing battle between large and small sample sizes in the decision-making process: Sizemore boasts the better minor-league track record, while Rhymes has a superior fraction of a season in the bigs to his credit.” Rhymes also had the more successful exhibition performance, which may have tipped the scales in his favor. Whatever the decision ultimately hinged on, Rhymes started the season in Detroit, while Sizemore spent the last month getting back in touch with his Toledo side.
Predictably, it didn’t take long for the two to trade places. Rhymes hit .221/.321/.235 as the Tigers’ primary second baseman, while Sizemore tore up Triple-A to the tune of a .408/.495/.605 line. (He’s off to a slower start in the majors, though he’s still taking his walks.) So what made Detroit think things would be any different? Perhaps it had something to do with Sizemore’s inferior glove, or maybe it’s that Rhymes is both shorter and hairier, which makes him exponentially more gritty. As Robert Plant sang, “Ooh, it makes me wonder.” Then again, Robert Plant also sang, “I saw a lion he was standing alone with a tadpole in a jar,” which makes the Tigers’ second-base decisions seem downright comprehensible by comparison.
Designated LF Milton Bradley for assignment. [5/9]
Yesterday, the Mariners initiated divorce proceedings with Milton Bradley, becoming the latest team to give up on the temperamental outfielder. The difference this time was that Bradley’s bat made the decision easy. In the past, his employers have been forced to weigh his production against his disruptive outbursts and disciplinary issues, but after more than 100 games and nearly 400 plate appearances as a Mariner, Bradley was hitting .209/.298/.351 with painfully poor defense, which left very little on the positive side of the ledger to counteract his abrasive personality.
The acquisition of Bradley in an albatross-for-albatross trade with the Cubs seemed like another example of Jack Z’s genius in December of 2009, but it was actually the outgoing albatross, Carlos Silva, who proved to have more life left in him, though he too failed to play out the end of his contract without another forced relocation. Bradley’s stay in the Mariners organization is almost certainly over, and the official end of his time as a major leaguer might not be far behind. Unfortunately for the Mariners, while they can close the book on Bradley, their checkbook will remain open for a little longer: the 33-year-old is making $12 million this season, $5.5 million of which comes out of Seattle’s coffers. As Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing observed, this picture, taken during Bradley’s latest run-in with the on-field authorities—an altercation at home plate last Friday that came close on the heels of a suspension-worthy argument less than a week earlier—sums up Bradley’s season nicely; the switch-hitter’s mouth figures far more prominently than his bat, and Eric Wedge’s long-suffering expression spells out his left fielder’s approaching fate.
Langerhans has at times been something of a sabermetric darling, based on his patience at the plate, his capable defense in the corners, and his ability to play center in a pinch, but he’s been worth just a shade over four wins above replacement in his 500-plus career games, so it’s not as if the Mariners are casting adrift an unsung star. For a while there, Langerhans was leading the M’s in home runs, and after a couple weeks of action, he was hitting .182/.379/.591, which isn’t the sort of line you see every day, even in mid-April. Since then, though, his slugging percentage has joined his batting average in sub-.200 territory. Langerhans may remain in the organization if the M’s don’t find a taker via trade, so it’s quite possible that we haven’t seen the last of him in Seattle.
The Mariners have again struggled to score this season, and Bradley and Langerhans were two of the responsible parties, but if the M’s were to carry their game of offensive addition by subtraction to its logical conclusion, they’d be left with an empty lineup aside from Justin Smoak and Ichiro Suzuki. Both of the players Seattle called up to replace the departed have good power but poor command of the strike zone, which means this move isn’t likely to signal the end of the team’s struggles at the plate.
Carlos Peguero has already seen some action with Seattle this season, struggling in sporadic action over 11 games; his strikeout-to-walk ratio is likely to improve on an infinite 5:0, but only slightly, if his 178 whiffs and 56 walks in Double-A last season are any indication. Peguero is the stereotypical free swinger who thinks breaking balls in the dirt always look enticing, though when the big lefty does make contact, he’s capable of driving balls out of even Safeco-sized parks. He’s not ready, but neither was Bradley, and at least Peguero has a chance to get better.
Mike Wilson, who is more likely to stick around after Franklin Gutierrez returns in roughly 10 days (until then, he and Peguero will platoon), was the Mariners’ second-round pick in the 2001 draft; a decade later, the soon-to-be-28-year-old will aim to give the M’s a belated return on their investment. Wilson didn’t reach Triple-A till 2009, when he bombed after a mid-season promotion. Last season, he repeated the level and improved, though not in quite as convincing a fashion as you’d like to see from a player in his second crack at the level in his age-27 season. His third time was looking like the charm, as he kicked off this season with a .381/.429/.683 outburst at Tacoma. While he’s unlikely to be a legendary late bloomer and his defense leaves much to be desired, he does have an excellent chance to become the best Mike Wilson in major-league history: his only competition went 0-for-4 in five games for the 1921 Pirates.
Here’s your daily reminder that our ever-advancing understanding of the way the game works hasn’t allowed us to decipher all of its mysteries: since putting up a .296/.369/.501 line as a 23-year-old in a pitcher’s park and with a proven minor-league pedigree, Jeremy Hermida has hit .244/.319/.389 in 1307 plate appearances. The faded prospect has spent the last couple of seasons bouncing around the majors, as a series of teams have tried to reanimate the remains of the player who posted that 2007 line and should in theory only now be enjoying his prime, but he’s washed out in all three of his auditions for organizations other than the Marlins, and the list of potential suitors can’t be growing longer.
Between Chris Heisey and Lewis, who had been sidelined with an oblique strain suffered in spring training, the Reds are well-provisioned in the extra-outfielder department, although one of them won’t be “extra” for long if Jonny Gomes doesn’t stop reprising his 2008 season with the Rays (albeit with a much-improved walk rate). Meanwhile, Hermida will languish in Louisville, where so far this season he’s produced a line eerily similar to that of his 2007 false breakout. In the increasingly likely event that he never again equals that performance, his legacy will forever be reflected in a slight reduction in the average peak age among major leaguers. If you think of sabermetric inquiry as a classical whodunit, an effort to determine how teams wind up with their win totals, which players are responsible, and whether they can be counted on to remain virtuous, reform, or repeat their athletic crimes, then it’s twists like Hermida’s last several seasons that will keep you coming back for more.
A couple of years ago, getting Bay back would have been a reason to rejoice, but the left fielder has performed so poorly in New York that some Mets fans might be sorry to see Willie Harris relegated to a bench role. Bay has now hit .256/.343/.396 between injuries for the Mets in parts of two seasons, showing little of the offensive firepower that landed him a four-year, $66 million deal before the 2010 season. If you’re looking for a reason for optimism, you could turn to 2007, when injuries held Bay to a .247/.327/.418 line for the Pirates. Once Bay’s knees recovered, so did his bat, and he went on to have two productive seasons before cashing in as a free agent. Unfortunately, that comparison stands on a shakier foundation than Bay did with bum knees: he’s now 32, not 28, and he’s playing in a park ill-suited to a flyball hitter who struggles on defense. He probably won’t meet as ignoble an end as Luis Castillo or Oliver Perez, but Bay’s next two seasons will reaffirm Omar Minaya’s status as the general managerial gift that keeps on giving from beyond the professional grave. If Omar learned anything from Boston’s tepid pursuit of Pedro Martinez and the pitcher’s subsequent physical breakdown in Flushing, he certainly didn’t show it when he again ran right through the stop sign the Sox put up and granted Bay his payday.
Brian Sweeney is a 36-year-old reliever with a career 3.38 ERA. So how, one might wonder, has he come within a month of reaching the ripe old age of 37 without accumulating more than 117 major-league innings pitched? The answer is that teams have always known that the second 117 wouldn’t be so successful. The right-hander has good control, but he’s struck out just 54 batters, a rate of 4.2 per nine. Sweeney’s innings in the sun have come in four separate stints with the Mariners and Padres, each of whom has acquired him, put him in uniform, let him walk, and then unearthed him again at a later date. His major-league employers have at least one important trait in common: giant pitcher’s parks that could contain Sweeney’s mistakes and make him appear slightly more valuable than he would have otherwise.
Sweeney was assigned to Triple-A Buffalo, where his forward momentum will almost certainly stop (though if he does make the Mets, he’ll add experience in another pitcher’s park to his resumé). The Bisons rotation was reeling after the promotions of Dillon Gee, Pat Misch, Ryota Igarashi, and Mike O’Connor and season-ending injuries to Jenrry Mejia and Boof Bonser, which explains how 10 different pitchers have started their first 32 games and a no-upside journeyman like Sweeney found himself in demand. (The lone holdover from the club’s Opening Day rotation is the immortal Casey Fossum.*) Sweeney has never started a game in the majors, but he’s taken the ball at the start of 207 minor-league matchups, most recently in a six-inning outing against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees last night. He pitched in Japan from 2007-2009 and was sighted in the independent leagues after washing out of Diamondbacks camp this spring, so you know his affinity for the game hasn’t faded. It’s easy to celebrate the perseverance of a pitcher who’s willing to go anywhere in pursuit of his next big-league cameo, even as you hope fervently that it won’t come with your team.
*Fossum doesn’t seem good enough to have a nickname, let alone one that makes him sound intimidating, but his B-Ref page insists that he’s known as “The Blade” nonetheless. Surely a nickname that cool has to come with an equally impressive origin story, right? After extensive research, I came across a nine-year-old article in the Hartford Courant that reveals how “The Blade” was born: