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June 21, 2011

Transaction Analysis

There's No Such Thing as a Catching Prospect

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Placed SS-S Jed Lowrie on the 15-day disabled list (sore left shoulder). [6/17]
Recalled UT-S Drew Sutton from Pawtucket Red Sox (Triple-A). [6/17]

Back in early May, I noted that Lowrie had hit .304/.374/.522 for the Sox over the past two seasons and suggested that he had a strong case as the best-hitting shortstop in the American League. Oops. Since then, he’s hit .202/.275/.281 in 102 plate appearances. Of course, that line represents the output of a clearly hobbled Lowrie, who injured his shoulder in a collision with Carl Crawford on May 27 (since then, he’s hit just .163/.217/.256). The unfortunate truth about Lowrie, though, is that he’s so often been hobbled; whether a healthy Lowrie would in fact be one of the AL’s best offensive shortstops is almost immaterial, considering how infrequently a healthy Lowrie is at the Sox’ disposal. Losing the Lowrie they had at the beginning of the season is a blow to Boston, but he wasn’t much use to the team in his diminished condition, so the time off should be a boon to both parties.

With Lowrie on the DL for the third straight season, Marco Scutaro will take over full-time duties at short. The Red Sox also recalled Drew Sutton to bolster their infield depth. Sutton had just been sent back to Pawtucket on Tuesday, which normally would have put him out of the Red Sox’ reach for 10 days, but Lowrie’s DL move allowed Boston to bring him back sooner.  The soon-to-be 28-year-old has hit well this season, both in his limited major-league opportunities and in his more extended trial at Triple-A, where he’s put together a .301/.380/.507 line that would make his swing mechanic proud. He won’t keep up anything approaching that pace in the majors, but he’s not an automatic out, which sets him apart from most infield injury reserves. That and his experience at every position save for center field and catcher make him a competent candidate for utility work.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Called up OF-L Dewayne Wise from New Orleans Zephyrs (Triple-A). [6/16]
Optioned CF-L Chris Coghlan to New Orleans Zephyrs. [6/20]
Placed CF-L Chris Coghlan on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 17 (left knee inflammation). [6/20]
Recalled RHP Jose Ceda from New Orleans Zephyrs. [6/20]

At first glance, Coghlan seems well on his way to joining a group I’ll always think of as the Bob Hamelin All-Stars, a coterie of disappointing players who did very little to distinguish themselves after being named Rookie of the Year. Hamelin, who took home the hardware with an assist from the 1994 strike, amassed 3.4 WARP in his award-winning season and 1.2 WARP thereafter, calling it a career during his age-30 campaign. Compounding the problem was Hamelin’s appearance; the stocky sometime-slugger looked like a larger Drew Carey with even thicker glasses, which helped make his fleeting success seem more improbable than his subsequent failure.

After accumulating an almost identical 3.6 WARP in his own Rookie of the Year season, Coghlan’s performance has slipped nearly as quickly. Coghlan is almost unquestionably the superior jeans salesman, but is he bound for the same ignoble end?

His .230/.296/.368 triple-slash line would seem to suggest so, especially in the wake of a decline from near stardom in ’09 to roughly league-average performance last season, but he does have a few points in his favor that Hamelin didn’t. For one thing, Hamelin was on the old side for an honoree, winning acclaim as the AL’s best rookie at 26 (Coghlan was 24 when he earned the NL nod). What’s more, Hamelin hadn’t exactly been banging down doors in the bushes; the season before his Rookie of the Year campaign, Hamelin hit .259/.367/.493 as a 25-year-old first baseman in Double-A, which hardly screams “promote me.” Coghlan’s minor-league performance was at least a little more indicative of future success, though no one would have pegged him as a safe bet to be the best member of any rookie class.

Coghlan’s Rookie of the Year campaign was propped up by an unsustainably high BABIP, so some regression was probably inevitable. However, he hasn’t been at full strength very often since his debut season; last year, he tore the meniscus in his left knee and missed the last 10 weeks of the season, but as we noted in BP2011, “the knee was just the coup de grace in a season-long litany of hurts.” This time around, Coghlan revealed that the knee was still an issue only after being demoted, but assuming that he wasn’t fabricating a physical explanation for his on-field failures, the knee could explain some of his struggles. Then again, that’s not necessarily reassuring—Hamelin had leg problems, too. Despite Coghlan’s subpar performance and Dewayne Wise’s hot hitting in Triple-A for Toronto, who released him earlier this month, center field in Florida is in even shakier hands with Wise and Emilio Bonifacio patrolling the pasture (and batting leadoff, no less).

It may have taken longer than anticipated for the Cubs to start regretting giving Ceda to the Marlins, but now the right-hander has come home to roost. To recap, the Cubs traded Ceda, a hard-throwing relief prospect, to the Marlins for proven mediocre closer Kevin Gregg following the 2008 season, evidently uncomfortable with handing Carlos Marmol the job after deciding to let Kerry Wood walk. Ceda was just 21 at the time, coming off a season in which he’d reached Double-A, and while he was perhaps too young to step into a major-league bullpen and be expected to succeed, it seemed almost inevitable that he’d eventually surpass the veteran (and free-agent-to-be) for whom he was traded.

Gregg recorded 23 saves for Chicago in 2009, as even the likes of Jeff Samardzija could have done if afforded the opportunity, before giving way to Marmol, who predictably outpitched him, in August. Ceda, meanwhile, lost the entire season to a torn labrum, preventing the Marlins from seeing any immediate return. Last year, though, the exchange began to pay dividends, as Ceda showed that his fastball had survived the surgery, striking out 45 batters in 32 1/3 Double-A innings and earning a scalding cup of coffee (his strikeout stuff survived the promotion, but he left his control in the Southern League).

This year, Ceda finally appears poised to make the Cubs regret their impatience. The big righty with the classic reliever’s repertoire posted a 0.89 ERA over 30 1/3 innings in New Orleans, with 40 strikeouts and only 10 walks, and his dominant performance got him earmarked for Miami, where he’ll immediately become one of the most promising members of the Marlins’ usual array of inexpensive, under-30 arms. Ceda is another fine example of the team’s talent for balling on a budget, as well as its mostly successful revolving-door approach to bullpen-building.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Released C-R Max Ramirez. [6/16]

The impact of this move on the Astros, who signed Ramirez to a minor-league deal in May after he was released by the Cubs (who had claimed him off waivers from the Red Sox in January, after the Sox had claimed him from the Rangers just days before—are you sensing a pattern here?), is negligible, but it does offer an opportunity for a quick trip down memory lane. A few years ago, the Rangers were the undisputed kings of catching depth, much like the Reds are now. In addition to Gerald Laird at the major-league level, Texas boasted an exciting catching trio in the high minors: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Max Ramirez, and Taylor Teagarden. All three were legitimate prospects; at least one, if not two of the three, graced Baseball America’s list of the top 100 prospects in baseball in each pre-season from 2006-2009.

For a time, it seemed as if every other rumor out of Boston or New York, where Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada were getting grayer every day, involved one of the Rangers’ talented young backstops, since the team appeared to be so stacked at the position that it almost couldn’t help but consent to help out another organization in need (or so the thinking went). Subsequent events revealed that that smoke likely did conceal some fire, since Boston eventually ended up with two of the three, but not until well after their respective stocks had fallen.

By the time the Sox got Saltalamacchia, he cost them only a player to be named later, two fringe prospects, and some cash, since a succession of injuries had reduced him to someone with an upside of “average.” Ramirez, who had been perhaps the minors’ premier offense-first catcher, stopped hitting after suffering injuries to both wrists in 2009, and he cost the Sox nothing but a waiver claim. (He stuck around for only five days before moving on to Chicago, as mentioned above.)

Teagarden is the only one of the celebrated young backstops still with the Rangers; now in his age-27 season, he’s hit at Triple-A for the first time in years but hasn’t seen much major-league action. The Rangers’ vaunted “DVD” trio of pitching prospects—John Danks, Edinson Volquez, and Thomas Diamond—panned out fairly well in comparison, given how harsh TINSTAAPP can be, though none of those three arms did much to aid the Rangers directly. Saltalamacchia, Ramirez, and Teagarden lacked even a catchy abbreviation, and thus far, they haven’t shown that they deserved one; even Salty, who’s spent the most time in the majors, hasn’t come close to living up to his billing. Had the Rangers sagely sold high on even one of the three, they’d be in better shape as a team today.


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

The Return of Andrew Miller (6/20)

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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