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May 18, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Heroes Take a Fall

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Placed RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 16. [5/18?]
Recalled RHP Michael Bowden from Pawtucket Red Sox (Triple-A). [5/18?]
Placed RHP John Lackey on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 12 (right elbow strain). [5/16]
Activated RHP Scott Atchison. [5/16]

In some cases, injuries aren’t entirely unwelcome. Whether or not Lackey was at less than full strength physically in his last start—check today’s Collateral Damage for more on that—he looked and sounded like a man badly in need of some reason to be removed from action. Given his fatalistic post-game comments, it’s safe to say that pitching had become painful for him, although whether the majority of that pain stemmed from his elbow or his ERA is difficult to say. Of course, the two might be intertwined; at this point, the Sox would probably almost welcome a treatable injury to serve as an explanation for their highly paid starter’s struggles, since they can’t treat either an age- or attrition-related loss of skill or his wife’s illness, which has likely been an understandable distraction.

With Lackey’s departure, Atchison was summoned from Pawtucket, where he’s been close to flawless, for the second time this month. He’s already been designated for assignment once, but he survived waivers to pitch again for Boston. For all their stockpiling of starters over the winter, the Sox don’t have a surefire rotation replacement waiting in the wings. Instead, they’ll turn to Tim Wakefield, who, much like Billy Joel, has added very little to his legacy since he turned 43.

The moves haven’t been made official, but the Sox are also set to disable Daisuke Matsuzaka and call up Michael Bowden from the Pawtucket bullpen. This is another case of losing a player whose absence should come as a blow in theory, but whose actual performance has been poor enough that the Sox can’t be said to have gotten much good out of him while they did have him at their disposal. Alfredo Aceves will inherit Matsuzaka’s place in the rotation, while Bowden will slide into the middle innings. Bowden ditched his flat curve last year and added a cutter in winter ball; so far, his revamped repertoire has led to success in his first season spent exclusively in relief, yielding 28 strikeouts against only four walks in 22 2/3 innings. He’s not much for ground balls, so he’ll have to maintain an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio to stick with the Sox.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Placed CF Julio Borbon on the 15-day disabled list (left hamstring inflammation). [5/14]
Called up OF Endy Chavez from Round Rock Express (Triple-A). [5/14]
Transferred RHP Brandon Webb from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day disabled list. [5/14]
Optioned OF Leonys Martin to Frisco RoughRiders (Double-A). [5/11]

MLB’s transaction site lists Borbon as appearing on the 7-day DL, suggesting that his hamstring might actually be concussed, not inflamed. Maybe Borbon has been thinking with his hamstring all along—that would certainly explain his poor plate approach. All signs point to this being a clerical mistake, though, as other sources list Borbon as having been put away for the usual 15 days. Regardless of the length of his DL stay, Borbon’s hamstring injury has definite Pipp potential—not because Chavez, who was squeezed onto the 40-man at the expense of Brandon Webb’s mortal remains, has a bat that’s any better, but because Martin probably isn’t long for the minors.

The Cuban defector is off to a hot start at Double-A, batting .318/.348/.545 in his first five games with a homer and three steals, and scouting reports suggest that he could be a long-term solution. When Texas GM Jon Daniels writes that Martin is a “true leadoff guy with feel for strike zone and understanding of his role and value of getting on base,” it’s hard not to hear an “unlike Borbon” at the end. Borbon had a decent batting-average-inflated start to May, but it’s clear that he’s settled in as a .300 OBP guy after his fluky partial season in 2009, and the writing is on the wall. If Martin keeps hitting, he could be up before rosters expand. Once in the majors, he’ll hope to escape the Rangers outfield jinx—Borbon was the last of Texas’ Opening Day outfielders still standing, though his loss certainly won’t be felt to the degree that those of Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz have been.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Called up RHP Scott Proctor from Gwinnett Braves (Triple-A). [5/15]
Placed RHP Brandon Beachy on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 14 (strained left oblique). [5/15]

I must have missed the scene where Proctor warned Joe Torre that if the manager struck him down, he’d become more powerful than Torre had ever imagined, but after being reduced to a Kenobi-like empty uniform on the mound by repeated calls to the bullpen, Proctor appears to be back to his pre-surgical form. His first season following Tommy John surgery didn’t go so well—Proctor posted a 6.91 ERA across two minor-league levels in 2010, then struggled in a September call-up to Atlanta—but he got off to an excellent start at Gwinnett this season, turning in a 1.06 ERA with 24 strikeouts and only five walks.

As a recovering alcoholic, Proctor is surely familiar with the first step to recovery: admitting that one is powerless and that one’s life has become unmanageable. He must have experienced a similar feeling on the mound while leading the AL with 83 games in 2006 and equaling that total in the following year, but with a skipper other than Torre for the only time in his career aside from the second half of ’07, Proctor can now proceed to step two: trusting a greater power to restore his major-league life to sanity. Unfortunately, he may not have long to sit at the right hand of Fredi Gonzalez, since Beachy’s injury could necessitate another spot start from Julio Teheran tonight, but the Braves won’t require a fifth starter again until May 31, so Proctor could be back soon if he keeps it together at Triple-A. Now he just has to avoid getting a job in the commissioner’s office after his playing career ends, since you know Torre would make him work weekends.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Called up LHP Doug Davis from Iowa Cubs (Triple-A). [5/14]
Optioned RHP Justin Berg to Iowa Cubs. [5/14]
Outrighted RHP Thomas Diamond to Iowa Cubs. [5/13]

Say what you will about Carlos Silva—and the Cubs have—but the big righty gave the team an exemplary performance before getting bogged down with health concerns in the second half of last season. Even with his starts at less than full strength dragging down his overall stats, he finished with a better-than-league-average ERA and a SIERA that suggested he might deserve even better. True, his track record made that kind of success the exception rather than the rule, but he’d also changed his approach in a way that suggested that some aspects of the new Silva might be sustainable. For his troubles, Silva was cut loose this spring, even though the Cubs were already on the hook for his substantial salary.

Silva is now toiling in the Yankees system, where he’s made three successful starts. Meanwhile, the Cubs haven’t had the rotation depth they thought they did when they pushed him out the door. Andrew Cashner made one start before hitting the DL with shoulder stiffness; it was announced yesterday that he’d aggravated the injury while rehabbing, which will keep him from picking up a ball for the next few weeks. Randy Wells was also disabled after his first start, during which he suffered a forearm strain.

In light of his acrimonious exit, the Cubs still probably weren’t wishing they’d retained Silva’s services, but he might have come in handy had he still been on hand. In his absence, the Cubs have started six games with Casey Coleman and another four with James Russell. The duo has averaged fewer than five innings per start, with only a pair of “quality” outings between them. Coleman likely has only tomorrow’s start still in front of him, since Wells might return by the time the Cubs next need a fifth starter on May 27.

However, Cashner’s misfortune may have given Davis some staying power. It’s a wonder that Davis eluded the Yankees’ roving retread recruitment drive until April 12, when the Cubs snapped him up, but his addition plugged a hole, even if it was one the Cubs created by ditching Silva in the first place. The lefty gave the Cubs five good frames in his start on Saturday against the Giants, and he did so without throwing any Silva-style tantrums. Davis missed part of the 2008 season while undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer; last year, he was limited to 38 1/3 innings by inflammation of the lining surrounding his heart, followed by elbow problems. In 2009, his last healthy campaign, he turned in a vintage Davis season, leading the NL in starts for the second time in his career and finishing with an ERA slightly above league average. Even at 35, he probably has a better chance to post a similar performance over the remainder of the season than any other healthy hurler on the North Side of Chicago.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Placed LHP Aroldis Chapman on the 15-day disabled list (left shoulder inflammation). [5/16]
Recalled RHP Jordan Smith from Louisville Bats (Triple-A). [5/16]

We knew control wasn’t Chapman’s strong suit, but 20 walks in 13 innings is generally a sign of something seriously wrong either mentally or physically, even with the most walk-prone of pitchers. Chapman was shut down for four days earlier in the season when his velocity dropped, but he hadn’t actually allowed a run until recently. (His fastball speed has fallen roughly one mile per hour on average since last season, though at 98.3, he still has a ways to go before entering “crafty lefty” territory.) Once he broke the ERA seal, though, he quickly made up for lost time, coughing up 10 runs and 12 free passes in his last four appearances, which comprised only 1 1/3 innings.

Chapman didn’t have an MRI, so inflammation was inferred from his shoulder discomfort, not actually observed, but the southpaw claimed that the problem—which he’d hidden for some time—was hindering his control. Some observers suggested that Chapman’s background in Cuban baseball might have been responsible for his initial reticence in revealing the injury, but as any number of American-born players have shown us, hiding injuries isn’t a practice limited to athletes in Communist countries.

Chapman isn’t expected to miss more than the minimum, but for the time being, his injury leaves Bill Bray as the Reds’ lone lefty. It’s nice to see Bray healthy for once, and not just because I suggested in Baseball Prospectus 2011 that this could be the season that the Reds might finally see the reliever they traded for back in 2006 for an extended period. Of course, they’d rather have their more recent big-money signing pan out than salvage some value from a five-year-old swap.

Chapman’s superhuman velocity makes it easy to see this minor injury as the first droplet of wax from Icarus’ wing, a sign that time and repetition might one day doom him to throwing only as hard as most major leaguers. It’s true that we’ve probably already seen Chapman at his fastest—as Jeremy Greenhouse found, it’s never wise to bet on a pitcher to add velocity once he’s reached the majors—but this isn’t necessarily the beginning of the end of Chapmania. One can only hope that Chapman won’t bring further inflammation (or worse) upon himself by aiming to up his radar-gun readings once he returns.

If Kevin Goldstein’s repeated calls for sanity in prospect promotion haven’t calmed the irrational exuberance exhibited by some prospect hounds, maybe the missteps taken by some of this season’s most heralded call-ups and youngsters will. Consider BP’s top three picks for NL Rookie of the Year: Freddie Freeman, Brandon Belt, and Chapman. Freeman’s potent bat has been sub-replacement at first base so far this season, Belt hit under .200 before being demoted, and Chapman lost the plate before hitting the DL. After 83 plate appearances, Dodgers Jerry Sands’ line stands at .194/.280/.292.

Those slow starts are just that—starts—and there’s still time for those players to salvage their seasons, to say nothing of their promising careers. (The late, great Harmon Killebrew hit .224/.289/.378 over his first five seasons and 280 plate appearances, which didn’t keep him out of Cooperstown.) Still, it’s worth remembering that few top prospects transition to the majors as smoothly as Michael Pineda and Zach Britton, so it’s not a given that the highly touted tyro currently catching your eye in the upper minors is ready to displace the weak bat occupying his position for the big club.

NEW YORK METS
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New York Mets called up IF Nick Evans from Buffalo Bisons (Triple-A). [5/18]
Placed 3B David Wright on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 16 (lower back stress fracture). [5/17]
Activated RHP Pedro Beato from the 15-day disabled list. [5/17]
Recalled 2B Ruben Tejada from Buffalo Bisons. [5/17]
Optioned RHP Ryota Igarashi to Buffalo Bisons. [5/17]
Outrighted IF Chin-lung Hu to Buffalo Bisons. [5/17]
Placed 1B Ike Davis on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 11 (left ankle sprain and bone bruise). [5/12]
Recalled RF Fernando Martinez from Buffalo Bisons. [5/12]

 

The last week was marked by a number of infield activations that put out raging roster fires around the league. Scott Rolen returned to the Reds, reducing the risk that Miguel Cairo and Paul Janish might be asked to start at a position where offense is generally regarded as part of the cake, not just the icing. Mark DeRosa resurfaced to spare the Giants from the sight of Miguel Tejada at third base, though he couldn’t banish Tejada from the infield entirely. (Sadly, that job falls to Mike Fontenot.) J.J. Hardy’s recovery ended the Orioles’ extended exposure to Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino. The arrival of each of these players came as manna to beleaguered fan bases yearning for big-league-caliber bats.

While other teams were recovering their infielders, the Mets were busy losing both of their corner men, one of them their second-most-productive hitter thus far, and the other their best bet for production in the balance of the season. After a minor-league career and a rookie season that seemed to suggest adequacy more than stardom, Davis had made encouraging strides with the bat before spraining his left ankle and sustaining a bone bruise in a collision with Wright. Wright himself earned a starring role in today’s Collateral Damage for a stress fractured back that likely had something to do with his underwhelming performance to date. Unlike Davis, Wright faces an extended absence; if there’s a silver lining, it’s that he should return to raking after the layoff.

When players of Davis’ and Wright’s caliber go down, there’s usually scant consolation for their teams; it’s almost a given that their replacements will be considerably less talented, since having another David Wright waiting in the wings for emergencies would be a poor use of resources, so the only question is how long they’ll be forced to slum it with bench bats and Triple-A material. As things currently stand, the Mets’ 25-man roster features eight players who started the season in Buffalo. R.J. Anderson covered the Martinez call-up at length last week; Martinez was hitting well and is enjoying one of his rare healthy periods, but he’s of little use as a second understudy for Carlos Beltran and would benefit from regular playing time, even at a lower (and entirely age-appropriate) level. Kirk Nieuwenhuis is hitting .312/.416/.567 in Buffalo after blowing through Binghamton last season, so it probably won’t be long before he pops his major-league cherry.

Daniel Murphy has played first since Davis’ demise, with Justin Turner sliding over to second and Willie Harris claiming a start at third since Wright also bowed out of the lineup. Rather than stick with that alignment, the Mets demoted Chin-lung Hu and called up Ruben Tejada to play second and Nick Evans to platoon at first with Murphy, which leaves Turner as the primary third baseman.

Evans had picked things up with the stick after a slow start in Buffalo; this will be his seventh stint with the Mets in the past four seasons, and it’s unlikely to be the one in which he breaks on through to the other side. Sandy Alderson wanted Tejada to spend a full season in upstate New York after last year's headlong rush to the majors, but ready or not, circumstances required the 21-year-old’s presence. This personnel exchange doesn’t do wonders for the Mets’ season outlook, but since they’re already mired in last place and coming off an offseason of minor moves made to keep the engine idling until it can really kick into gear, they’ll likely be content to stand pat (or even unload, if John Perrotto's Monday rumor comes to fruition) and wait for the worst to be over.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Designated RHP Brian Broderick for assignment. [5/14]
Recalled RHP Cole Kimball from Syracuse Chiefs. [5/14]   

And then there were four. Broderick bowed out of Survivor: Rule 5 after allowing nine runs in his 11 games and 12 1/3 innings (with matching 2.9 per nine strikeout and walk rates), leaving only Michael Martinez, Aneury Rodriguez, Joe Paterson, and Pedro Beato—who was just activated from the DL—still standing in the race among Rule 5 picks to remain in the majors. With Chase Utley on the comeback trail, the smart money on who'll survive this ever-intriguing Running Man-style elimination challenge probably shouldn’t be on Martinez, who’s spent the bulk of his minimal playing time this season at second.

Rodriguez, Paterson, and Beato all have strong cases to stick on their respective teams’ rosters. Paterson’s and Beato’s cases are performance-based, since the pair has yet to allow a run in a combined 24 2/3 innings. Rodriguez, the owner of a 6.23 ERA, stakes his claim on playing for the Astros, who’ll finish in last place with or without him and aren’t exactly flush with more talented suitors for his roster spot. That he might amount to something one day sets him apart from much of the rest of the Houston bullpen, which could keep him in major-league meal money despite his struggles.

As for Broderick, he’ll likely return to the Cardinals, from whose system he was plucked. His replacement, Cole Kimball, is a 25-year-old four-pitch righty who’s developed only an abstract notion of where the strike zone might lie: in his age-22 season, he finished with a combined total of 116 walks, hit by pitches, and wild pitches against 122 strikeouts in 128 1/3 innings. His control has improved somewhat since then, and if you count his successful AFL stint with the Scottsdale Scorpions, he’s allowed just one run in his last 25-plus frames, but he still might walk too many batters for his “future closer” label to stick, even aside from the fact that Drew Storen has both the present and the future covered in the DC closing department. Storen himself called Kimball a “pie-thrower,” referring to his stiff-arm delivery, but he noted that “they are really hard pies.”

Credit GM Mike Rizzo for overseeing the successful conversions of Kimball, Tyler Clippard, and Collin Balester from the rotation to the bullpen, which has helped give the Nats an impressive collection of power arms in relief, an area that was previously a glaring weakness.


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

Mazzaro Moves In (5/10)
Mets Place Davis on the DL
(5/12)
Sizemore Heads to DL, Bradley to Free Agency
(5/16)
Cubs Demote Colvin, Mateo
(5/17)

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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