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May 31, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Calling for the Cavalry

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Recalled LHP Andrew Oliver from Toledo Mud Hens (Triple-A). [5/28]
Optioned RHP Ryan Perry to Toledo Mud Hens. [5/28]

As R.J. Anderson noted last week, Phil Coke’s serviceable switch to the rotation was interrupted by a bone bruise sustained while attempting to field a bunt, which left a void in Detroit’s rotation. To replace Coke, the Tigers tabbed 2009 second-rounder Andy Oliver, had previously made five disastrous starts marked by poor control and a high BABIP last June and July. Oliver’s 2011 Triple-A performance is a near match for his showing last season at that level, so the results will most likely be better on the big-league side the second time around. (The lefty made it through six innings in his first start.)

Oliver is the rare lefty who throws in the mid-90s consistently, he’s passed the Triple-A test, and the Tigers aren’t a team that turns down young pitching when it’s ready to help. Should another vacancy in the rotation turn up before Coke’s return, there’s a real possibility that Oliver might never throw his 200th inning in the minors. Wonky mechanics have caused Perry to walk nine batters in 10 1/3 innings, resulting in an ugly 12.19 ERA. Control has never been his strong suit, but a short stay in Toledo might help him regain the passable feel for the strike zone that made him an asset in the Tigers bullpen in each of the last two seasons, barring an underlying injury. His first post-demotion outing, a two-inning affair, went off without a walk.

COLORADO ROCKIES
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Designated 3B Jose Lopez for assignment. [5/27]
Recalled IF/OF Eric Young from Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Triple-A). [5/27]

On paper, the Rockies’ Jose Lopez experiment really should have worked. Lopez was a victim of Safeco Field’s righty-killing dimensions during his years in Seattle, when he hit .251/.282/.385 at home and .280/.312/.413 on the road (and remember, when it comes to most players, home is where the high OPS is). Take that road line as a rough proxy of Lopez’s performance in a neutral park, then give him 81 games at altitude, and it was easy to see how the Rockies might have obtained an undervalued commodity when they extracted Lopez from Seattle for organizational arm Chaz Roe last December. Thin air can only do so much for a player—even on the moon, Lopez might not walk enough to post a high on-base percentage, relative to the rest of the lunar league—but it seemed safe to expect a power boost, at the very least.

Instead, Lopez cratered, failing to match even the meager contact ability and extra-base power he showed during a down year in Safeco last season. At 27, he’s seemingly too young to be over the hill, but he’s never been known as a hard worker or a gym rat, and his combination of a bad reputation and poor performance in the last two seasons makes it difficult to imagine him getting another job. Ty Wigginton will succeed him at third.

Eric Young Jr. has started three times at second and once in center since being recalled, batting in the leadoff spot each time. He hasn’t gotten on base enough in his previous stints with the Rockies to be dangerous, but he showed some serious sparkplug potential with the Sky Sox this season, hitting .363/.462/.544 with 17 steals in 18 attempts. He won’t sustain the .400-plus BABIP that helped him put together that line, of course, but he could stick with the team as a pinch-runner and utility type even after the hits stop falling.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Called up RHP Jordan Lyles from Oklahoma City RedHawks (Triple-A). [5/30]
Placed LHP Wandy Rodriguez on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 23 (fluid in his left elbow). [5/28]

A couple of months ago, I identified some players whose hot spring trainings had set them up for bigger and better things in the near future. About Lyles, who finished with a 1.98 ERA in 13 2/3 exhibition innings, I wrote, “the longer Houston has to look at the likes of Ryan Rowland-Smith and Nelson Figueroa on the major-league roster, the better Lyles’ spring showing will seem.” The Astros chose not to look at Rowland-Smith at all, assigning him to Oklahoma City before the season began, and they waited just over a month before sending Figueroa to the same place.

Brett Myers has turned back into a traveling home run derby after keeping balls in the park just long enough to earn an extension from the Astros last August. J.A. Happ has the unflattering ERA that his peripherals last year suggested he should have. Bud Norris is ranking among the NL leaders in starter strikeout rate but overshooting his SIERA for the third straight season—he now has a career 4.56 ERA to go along with his 3.77 SIERA. His 3.76 ERA this season looks good, but it’s actually worse than league average (which still takes some getting used to). Aneury Rodriguez has been better as a starter than he was in the bullpen, but his Rule 5 status and the hope that he might one day amount to something have more to do with his continued presence on a major-league roster than his 2011 performance.

The only piece of flair in the Astros rotation this season has been Wandy Rodriguez, and with his temporary exit from the rotation, the ‘Stros were compelled to summon their top prospect from Triple-A before Mark Melancon could become the team’s most exciting player. (Okay, Hunter Pence and Brett Wallace are having pretty good seasons, but that doesn’t seem like the foundation of a killer marketing campaign.) Lyles, who’ll make his major-league debut tonight in Wrigley Field, was one of only two four-star prospects in the system that placed 28th in Kevin Goldstein’s organizational rankings. The righty reached Triple-A at age 19 last season and began 2011 in the same place, but with better results. His strikeout rate fell in the upper levels of the minors, but he succeeded by staying stingy with walks.

Starting Lyles’ service clock in a lost season might seem suspect, but there is something to be said for showing the fan base the dim light at the end of the tunnel, even one whose terminus the team might not reach for a few more years. From a developmental standpoint, Lyles probably has less to lose from a premature promotion than the typical prospect his age, since he already has four viable pitches and the poise and pitching savvy of a hoarier hurler.

Arms aren’t forever, and since Lyles’ might already be approaching its ceiling, keeping him on the farm while the big club’s rotation reels might not have been the best thing for his career. Whether it would have been the best thing for the Astros is open to debate, but perhaps new owner Jim Crane is willing to foot the future bills for an early glimpse of one of his few exciting individual assets. Brad Millscomment that Lyles could stick around “for two starts or 20 years” indicates that neither arbitration nor competition from the likes of Rodriguez will stand in Lyles’ way if the righty has a smooth transition to Texas.

NEW YORK METS
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Activated CF Angel Pagan from the 15-day disabled list. [5/27]
Designated LHP Pat Misch for assignment. [5/27]

The Mets didn’t suffer as greatly as they might have in Pagan’s absence, as Jason Pridie—who “projects to be an offensive zero in the majors,” according to Baseball Prospectus 2011—hit .233/.313/.407 at the position, which qualifies as above average for the league, let alone the position, in these trying times for batters.

The Mets could use a dose of defense—they currently rank 25th in the majors in defensive efficiency—but replacing Pridie with Pagan might not move the needle much. As good as Pagan is in the field—his 10-FRAA performance in center last season contributed to a five-WARP season—Pridie is no slouch with the leather, either. FRAA considered him an asset in center at Triple-A, and the Mets thought enough of his fly-catching to sit Willie Harris in his favor. Pagan should outhit Pridie by a significant margin going forward, and Pridie makes for a better defensive replacement than Scott Hairston, so this is still an upgrade, if not one that is likely to make the Mets into fearsome fielders in one fell swoop.

Poor Pat Misch has been designated for assignment twice already this season, which is more or less how life as a finesse lefty goes. In seven innings, Misch has already walked as many as he did in 37 2/3 frames last season, which also has something to do with his all-expenses-paid trips to Buffalo.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Scott Podsednik assigned to Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Triple-A) from Philadelphia Phillies. [5/28]
Signed free agent CF Scott Podsednik. [5/27]
Activated RHP Jose Contreras from the 15-day disabled list. [5/26]
Optioned RHP David Herndon to Lehigh Valley IronPigs. [5/26]

With Shane Victorino disabled by a hamstring strain, the Phillies signed Podsednik, who had requested his release from the Blue Jays organization. The Phillies have primarily been playing John Mayberry Jr. in center, so there might have been room for an upgrade, but Victorino is already on a minor-league rehab assignment and could be activated as early as Friday, so whatever window of opportunity the Podfather might have had here may have already closed.

Podsednik curiously declined his side of a $2 million mutual option after last season and signed a minor-league deal with Toronto, posting a .254/.365/.352 line in Triple-A after recovering from a recurrence of the plantar fasciitis he suffered from last season. He’s probably closer to a fourth-outfielder job with Philly than he was with the Jays, but this is still purely a depth move. The light-hitting outfielder is rapidly approaching the point at which he’ll be better known for his nuptials with Lisa Dergan than for his athletic endeavors. If there’s any consolation (aside from the obvious perks of marriage to a model), it’s that Dergan dated Michael Bay before plighting her troth with Podsednik, which ensures that no matter how bad he gets at baseball, he won’t have been the least critically acclaimed guy in her life.

Contreras started the season as the Phillies’ closer, converting all five of his attempts, but in his absence, Ryan Madson finally took firm possession of the job, going 12-for-12 and otherwise extending his string of several fine seasons in relief for the Phillies. Madson is the rare reliever who’s managed to stick around in the same bullpen for a long stretch of time—in his ninth season, he’s the third-longest-tenured Phillie, behind only Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley—and he’s accomplished that feat while thumbing his nose at the notion that relievers are nothing if not fungible, eschewing even a single subpar campaign (aside from 2006, which he mostly spent as a starter).

One would think that Madson would have worked his way up to the highest-leverage outings before now, but save for a stretch in 2009, he was buried in the setup zone, which is sort of like the friend zone, except even harder to escape. Madson played second fiddle to some inferior pitchers during his run as a fireman in non-save situations, so it’s nice to see him get his shot at a big payday after this season, as well as a bigger profile on the national stage. The timing of the injury was tough luck for Contreras, who returns to the setup role in which he excelled last season, but few pitchers have managed to keep racking up saves near (or beyond) the age of 40, and Contreras is no Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Activated OF Brandon Belt. [5/26]
Called up SS Brandon Crawford from San Jose Giants. [5/26]
Called up C Chris Stewart from Fresno Grizzlies (Triple-A). [5/26]
Placed C Buster Posey on the 15-day disabled list (fractured bone in lower left leg). [5/26]
Placed CF Darren Ford on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 23 (left ankle sprain). [5/26]
Placed SS Mike Fontenot on the 15-day disabled list (left groin strain). [5/26]

The Giants can’t seem to keep their infielders healthy. Since Pablo Sandoval went down a month ago, they’ve lost Mark DeRosa multiple times, and Mike Fontenot has now joined him on the disabled list. All those injuries have meant more Miguel Tejada, which generally hasn’t been a good thing for the Giants. Tejada hit .254/.273/.338 in April, but a larger sample size hasn’t saved his stat line: his May went even worse (.209/.221/.242).

Tejada barely has the range for one position, so rather than entrust him with the entire left side of the infield, the Giants called up 24-year-old Brandon Crawford, who made his major-league debut on Friday. Crawford barely missed the cut for Kevin Goldstein’s San Francisco Top 11 in February, coming in at number 12. At the time, Kevin wondered, “He’s a good defensive shortstop, but will he hit?” So far, the answer has depended on his minor-league level: at High-A San Jose, the answer has been a resounding yes (.335/.415/.560 in 208 PA, including a .322/.412/.593 performance in 69 PA this season), but at Double-A Richmond (.250/.313/.369 in 765 PA), he’s looked more like a defense-first option.

Until summoning him to the majors last week, the Giants hadn’t been particularly aggressive in promoting Crawford, perhaps because he hadn’t survived the Double-A crucible with his bat intact. Crawford entered the organization in the same draft as Buster Posey, reported to the same instructional league, and became the backstop’s friend, but he’s not in the same offensive neighborhood as a prospect. His repeat performance at Double-A last season was interrupted by a broken hand, and a broken finger suffered this spring training prevented him from picking up where he’d left off. Considering Crawford hasn’t hit at that level, he’s not likely to hit in San Francisco, despite a grand slam in his debut, but his glove will get him some playing time, especially in light of the alternatives (Emmanuel Burriss, anyone?).

The Giants have been linked to Jose Reyes since the beginning of this month, if only in a speculative sense, but their need for offensive assistance has grown even greater since then, so expect those rumors to fly through July. Losing Posey for the season certainly won’t quiet those whispers any; last year’s Rookie of the Year wasn’t showing quite the same pop as he had last season, but he’d upped his walk rate and remained one of San Francisco’s most productive bats. The impact of his season-ending injury been covered elsewhere at BP, both in terms of the catcher’s medical outlook and the Giants’ divisional aspirations, but perhaps the call-up of Chris Stewart captured the loss best.

Even the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers might shy away from extending a membership to Stewart, who has now embarked on his fifth major-league season with his fifth major-league team. The Padres deployed Stewart to perfection last season when they got him into two games without giving him an at-bat, but the Giants won’t have the luxury of limiting themselves to his leather (not that first-stringer Eli Whiteside’s bat is much better). There’s hardly a glut of catching talent available, so an improvement on Whiteside might take more than it merits in prospects.

If there’s a saving grace here for the Giants, it’s the return of Brandon Belt, who could put his aborted first attempt at the majors behind him by transferring his hot hitting from Fresno to Frisco. Belt batted .337/.470/.525 for the Grizzlies after his disappointing big-league debut, prompting calls for a call-up almost immediately after his demotion. Somewhat perplexingly, Belt has played only once in five games since being summoned for the second time, and his lone appearance came in left field, the province of Pat Burrell. Belt was slumping superficially before his call-up, but he was really only a couple of singles off the blistering pace he’d been setting before, and if the Giants had concerns about his bat, they would have waited to call in the cavalry.

The real problem is probably the positional logjam created by Aubrey Huff at first and Tejada’s contract at third. Belt would be a bigger offensive upgrade if his arrival pushed Huff to the hot corner, but the Giants either might not be ready to consign Tejada to the scrap heap or might justifiably suspect that Huff can’t handle anything but the least demanding defensive position. Belt needs regular playing time to progress as a player, so something has to give here, and it’s likely to be a slumping veteran who suffers.

Belt’s first game after the call-up came on May 29, which happens to be the same date that Posey debuted for the Giants last season. Both the Giants and Belt would be wise to forget about his early-season struggles and hope his second act turns out to be same sort of belated influx of talent that propelled the Giants to the postseason in 2010. The team has opened up leads of varying lengths on all of its divisional opponents save the Diamondbacks, but in Posey’s absence, a repeat performance might be even more improbable than the original run.


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

Playing Catch-up with the Cubs (5/30)
Branyan Finds a New Home, Cubs Grab Another Arm
(5/26)

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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