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June 23, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Replacing Pujols

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Optioned 1B-L Daric Barton to Sacramento River Cats (Triple-A). [6/22]
Activated 2B-R Mark Ellis from the 15-day disabled list. [6/22]

Barton’s success last season seemed to make a lot of people uneasy, since the idea of a first baseman who hits 10 home runs over a full schedule seems to upset the natural order somehow. Even compliments about Barton tended to be prefaced with the words, “He doesn’t have the kind of power you want from your first baseman, but.” It’s true that the power-deprived A’s could have used someone capable of hitting the ball out of the park last season, but Barton wasn’t part of their offensive problems. In fact, he was their most productive hitter in a cumulative sense and their second-best hitter on a rate basis (behind only Jack Cust), and he finished tied with defensive whiz Cliff Pennington for the highest WARP on the team.

“Good hitter” was something of a misnomer in Barton’s case, since when he did hit the ball, nothing particularly spectacular happened. What the lefty really excelled at was walking. Barton walked more frequently than any other player with at least 400 plate appearances, and that patience—coupled with positive contributions in the field and on the bases—made him worth nearly five wins to the A’s. Few teams would be sorry to have a five-win player, whatever his warts, so Barton’s starting spot was secure, despite his passing resemblance to a prototypical first baseman.

Despite showing up for this season in the proverbial “best shape of his life,” Barton has failed to go yard in 280 plate appearances, which isn’t the kind of power you want from your pitcher during interleague play, let alone your starter at a premium offensive position. His ISO has never been impressive, but it fell low enough to be placed on Willits watch this season, and his BABIP also declined by some 60 points since 2010, indicative of either atrocious luck or (more likely) consistently weak contact. Barton’s walk and strikeout rates largely held steady even as his batted balls increasingly found leather, but while pairing a league-average OBP with a .212 batting average might be something to be perversely proud of, it wasn’t enough to pull Barton above replacement level. He also made eight errors in 65 games, contributing to the impression that his hitting was impairing his play in the field, though his FRAA remained strong.

Barton’s BABIP might have rebounded if given time, but the A’s decided they’d seen enough and sent him to Triple-A yesterday, in the process making room for Mark Ellis. One might suppose that meant they had a capable first-base replacement lined up, but the cupboard is empty enough in Oakland that Conor Jackson—he of the batting line not much better than Barton’s—has been picked to play the position in Barton’s absence. If Barton regains his stroke in Sacramento, he could find himself back in the Bay Area soon, but he’ll have to be quick to avoid being replaced by positional heir apparent Chris Carter.

Carter, who led the A’s Top 11 in January, has hit .235/.362/.494 in Triple-A this season, but that line doesn’t capture the story of his season. The hulking slugger got off to a miserable start in April before hitting the DL with thumb soreness—something he also struggled with last season—and missing the entirety of May, but since his return he’s put together a .333/.425/.727 performance, looking much more like the guy who hit 34 homers across two levels last season (and also leaving left field for first base). That’s the kind of power you want from your first baseman. Barton is less than a year older than Carter, but age is just a number, and Barton’s might be up.

Update: As R.J. Anderson notes, Carter was called up today to replace the injured Josh Willingham.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Called up OF-R Wily Mo Pena from Reno Aces (Triple-A). [6/21]
Outrighted 3B-L Sean Burroughs to Reno Aces. [6/21]

The Diamondbacks have had something of a Buffalo Springfield bench this season—there’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear. This particular transaction involves two players whose careers looked a whole lot more promising in the early aughties, before the harsh realities of major-league life slowly sucked away both their performance and their potential. In my piece on his promotion last month, I noted that Burroughs’ “assault on opposing pitchers [wasn’t] likely to continue,” which wasn’t exactly the riskiest call I’ve ever made. Twenty-three games later, the erstwhile prospect returned to Reno with a .250/.250/.292 line in tow.

In fairness to Burroughs, he didn’t get much of a chance to strut his stuff—he started only one of those 23 games, appearing as a pinch-hitter in the other 22. As a result, those 23 games granted him only 24 at-bats (with nary a base on balls), forcing him to wrestle with the pinch-hit penalty on top of everything else. It can be said of him that he was probably better than the pitchers whose places in the batter’s box he took.

One of the alleged imbalances of interleague play often bandied about is the notion that NL teams often lack a suitable DH during their appearances at AL parks. Determined not to be one of those sorry clubs whose position players are all actually capable of playing positions, the Diamondbacks exchanged one player who’s excelled at Reno this season for another, calling up Wily Mo Pena to serve as their DH as they entered a stretch of nine out of 12 games in AL parks.

The right-handed hitter has only one intriguing attribute as a player—power. In his heyday with the Reds, Pena’s game strongly resembled that of his teammate Adam Dunn, but without the walks. An Adam Dunn without walks wouldn’t be a great player— as we’ve seen this season, not even Adam Dunn with walks is a cinch for success—but he would have his uses, and Pena appeared to have a lengthy career in front of him. The power he showcased in Cincinnati soon receded, though, before utterly evaporating in 2008, when he made just over 200 plate appearances for the Nationals and hit a measly two homers. He hasn’t sniffed the majors since.

He hadn’t particularly pressed the issue, either, until he exploded for 21 homers in 271 plate appearances in Triple-A this season, producing a .363/.439/.726 line, albeit in a hitter’s park in a hitter’s league. Perhaps most surprisingly, his walks are up and his strikeouts are way down. He’s whiffed in just 17.7 percent of his plate appearances, roughly half his rate with the Reds in ’05. As this quote courtesy of mlb.com makes clear, the change has been intentional:

It’s different. My approach is just to hit for average. I think everybody knows that I would just worry about hitting home runs, just think about that. But I've realized I have to go to the plate and just make contact. I know I've got power. I just told myself that I have to prove that I can hit for average, too. I'm taking pitches, taking some walks and striking out less. I was surprised when I saw my numbers. I was like, wow, that's not me, not the way I used to strike out before. My main thing is just to make contact. If I make contact, something will happen. Just trying to put the ball in play and we'll see.

Pena hits the ball hard enough to be a high-BABIP guy, but not as high as .400, where it’s hovered during his last two Triple-A stops. That’s due to come down, but what Pena has done is still rather remarkable. Contact rate and power aren’t supposed to move in concert—if a player wants to cut down on his Ks, he generally has to be willing to forsake a few homers. Pena has been having his cake and eating it too, but major-league breaking balls could still spoil the party. He got off to a nice start for Arizona, homering (and striking out twice) in his first game, but he’ll have to cram a lot of hitting into the next 10 days to prove that he merits a roster spot once defense reenters the equation.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Called up 2B-R Julio Lugo from Gwinnett Braves (Triple-A). [6/21]
Optioned UT-R Diory Hernandez to Gwinnett Braves. [6/21]

Yes, this is that Julio Lugo, the one who hit .249/.298/.282 for the Orioles in 93 games last season, and no, there isn’t much reason to think he’ll be much better than that this time around, given that he’s a year older and was hitting .231/.286/.365 in limited Triple-A action. Lugo’s defense deserted him some time ago, so the only thing keeping his career alive had been a bit of pop and some moderate on-base ability. In light of recent events, it’s not clear whether Lugo can clear even the low offensive bar set for utility infielders. The off-season consensus seemed to be that he couldn’t, as he went unsigned until inking a minor-league deal with Atlanta on May 23.

As we wrote in this year’s annual, “Hernandez can play second base, third base, and shortstop with great aplomb, but that damn rulebook doesn’t allow non-hitting designated fielders.” That same inescapable fact came back to bite the Braves this season, as Hernandez batted and on-based .212, which was good news only in the sense that he doubled up on his dual .111 figures from last season. Hernandez is just 27, can run laps around Lugo, and wasn’t a total offensive non-entity in the minors, so this is a case in which reflexively reaching for a veteran was likely the wrong move, albeit one that won’t have much of an impact as long as those spot starts remain few and far between.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Signed free agent C-R Max Ramirez. [6/20]
C-R Max Ramirez assigned to Fresno Grizzlies (Triple-A) from San Francisco Giants. [6/21]

I wrote about Ramirez at length on Tuesday following his release from the Astros, but subsequent developments have earned him another paragraph. The Giants have been in the market for an offensive catcher since Buster Posey played his last. Three years ago, Ramirez might have met that description; then again, three years ago, Ramirez wasn’t a minor-league free agent recently released from the worst team in baseball. The righty hit .347/.439/.628 across three levels in 2008, planting himself on Baseball America’s pre-2009 top-100 list, but he hurt his wrists the following season and hasn’t hit since. In violation of the Nichols Law, Ramirez’s offensive decline hasn’t granted him an improved defensive reputation, which makes him merely a bat-first catcher who’s lost his lumber.

Eli Whiteside is hitting .207/.290/.341 as San Francisco’s primary catcher, which makes him ripe for replacement, but Ramirez has hit even more poorly in the PCL and plays worse defense, which doesn’t suggest that he’s the man for the job. The Giants have little to lose by taking a flier on Ramirez in hopes that he’ll suddenly regain his firepower in Fresno, and they could even swap him for Chris Stewart on the big-league bench without anyone noticing, but their search for a suitable Posey replacement will continue.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Placed 1B-R Albert Pujols on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to June 20 (fractured left forearm). [6/21]
Recalled 1B-L Mark Hamilton from Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A). [6/21]

Every so often an injury makes room for an exciting young player or rights a wrong on a roster, but most injury analysis follows a simple formula: Player A gets hurt; Player B replaces him; Player B is less productive than Player A; team eagerly awaits return of Player A.

That goes double when Player A is Albert Pujols, since no team has a Player B capable of stepping in to fill the shoes of the past decade’s best hitter. The Cardinals are better equipped than most clubs to handle the loss of an offensive star, something they’ve had to do on multiple occasions already this season, but their depth was already diminished by an injury to Allen Craig, and Pujols is a special case.

The Cardinals already have a slugging first baseman in right fielder Lance Berkman, whose -4.7 FRAA ranks 12th-worst in the NL (though only third-worst in St. Louis, behind Colby Rasmus and Ryan Theriot). In the club’s first game without Pujols, Berkman shifted to first and Jon Jay took over in right, which seems like the wisest way to cope with Albert’s absence, and one that might limit the cost to the Cards to a win or two.

However, the Cards also called up Mark Hamilton, who’s played first base almost exclusively in the minors. Hamilton’s presence suggests that Berkman will still be outfield-bound with some regularity, which is bad news for Cardinals pitchers but good news for Hamilton, who’s spent his whole career blocked by Pujols. The soon-to-be 27-year-old owns a .317/.409/.562 career line in Memphis, and while he won’t make anyone forget The Machine, he’s capable of doing some damage against right-handed pitching.

What interests me even more than the injury’s effect on the Cardinals is the injury’s effect on Pujols’ future paychecks (although that too affects the Cardinals, in a less immediate way). This season hasn’t destroyed Albert’s earnings potential—he’s been far too good for far too long to scare off many suitors with a single season of subpar (for him) production–but it’s hard to imagine anyone being any more eager to shell out hundreds of millions for his services come November than they were this spring.

Pujols, of course, had gotten off to an uncharacteristically slow start to the season, but in June, Pujols had been Pujols, producing a .317/.419/.778 performance. A few more months of typically Pujolsian production, and that slow start might have been buried. As it is, Albert won’t be back till August, which won’t leave him with enough time to pile up numbers to the point that his 2011 stat line wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. A 31-year-old player coming off a career-worst season looks exponentially less desirable than a 31-year-old player who isn’t coming off a season of injury and possible decline, even though—as Corey Dawkins and I noted on Wednesday—this isn’t the kind of wrist injury that’s likely to limit Pujols’ power production in the future. As such, those pre-season dreams of an A-Rod-type deal could die hard, forcing Pujols to settle for the sort of six- or seven-year deal St. Louis was reportedly seeking before he reported to camp.


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

Beachy and Peavy Return (6/23)
The Jays Extend Escobar
(6/21)

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

1 comment has been left for this article.

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