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July 26, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Angel in the Infield

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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Signed RHP Charlie Haeger to a minor league contract. [7/24]

With Tim Wakefield clearly nearing the end of the line, it would be pretty to think the Sox had found his successor in Haeger, but while the 27-year-old’s floater got him to the majors with the White Sox (to be followed by appearances for the Dodgers and Padres) at the precocious age of 22, he’s fallen on harder times over the past two seasons.

Since the start of 2010, Haeger has been wild even by knuckleballer standards, recording a 127-to-122 strikeout-to-walk ratio both for LA and in the Dodgers’ and Mariners’ minor-league systems. Fortunately, Wakefield himself offers reason to hold out hope for Haeger; the well-worn Sock spent his age-27 season posting a 5.84 ERA for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, complete with his own abysmal strikeout-to-walk showing (83:98). The very next season, his knuckleball clicked, and he not only made it to Boston but finished third in the AL Cy Young race.

No, Haeger probably won’t enjoy a Wakefield-like epiphany next season (or ever, for that matter). Still, normal rules don’t apply to knuckleballers (much to many a baseball fan’s delight), and even though Haeger has reached what would be an advanced age for a more conventional prospect, he’s still young by the standards of his breed. When Wakefield retires, R.A. Dickey might keep the mantle of the knuckleball order’s survival from weighing too heavily on Haeger, but with Charlie Zink—who’s already passed through the Red Sox system—banished to the independent leagues, Haeger is the only other practitioner of the pitch in the pipeline.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Optioned SS-L Reid Brignac to Durham Bulls (Triple-A). [7/23]
Recalled OF-R Desmond Jennings from Durham Bulls. [7/23]

The long-awaited shoe finally fell in Florida, as the Rays summoned top position player prospect Desmond Jennings, who left both Super Two concerns and a fractured finger behind him in Durham. Simultaneous scratches of Jennings and B.J. Upton from their respective lineups spawned instant rumors of a swap, but Upton hasn’t gone anywhere yet (though it certainly wouldn't surprise me if I were to find myself writing about him by this time next week). Jennings’s Triple-A line over the past two seasons doesn’t necessarily scream super-prospect, but his power has recovered after being sapped by a wrist issue last season, he plays a fine center field, and he’s contributed a Beltran-caliber stolen-base success rate since the start of 2009 (88.7 percent, 110-for-124).

As R.J. Anderson noted recently, one of the main concerns about Jennings as a prospect—his tendency to get hurt—might be overblown, the product of a first impression that hasn’t been updated to incorporate recent events. He recorded a two-bagger in each of his first three games in the majors this season and also added a triple in his return, so he's already doubled his extra-base-hit total from his 17-game audition last season. In the unlikely event that the Rays hold on to Upton, they’ll enjoy an airtight outfield defense blessed with almost enough range in left and center to give Matt Joyce the occasional night off and leave right field vacant. If they don’t keep him, they’ll have a readymade replacement just an outfield corner away. Until the Upton issue is resolved, the Rays will carry five outfielders so as to avoid exposing any one of them to waivers.

Brignac’s hacktastic approach from last season persisted in 2011, but this time around he had even uglier results to show for it, though his impressive glovework seems to have weathered the passage of time intact. The lefty was a valuable man in the middle infield in 2010, but even the finest fielding can’t compensate for a .174 TAv. Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson will split the team’s shortstop duties and should easily outhit the man who went before them, though Brignac will remain on the Rays’ radar.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Released LF-R Wily Mo Peña. [7/24]
Signed INF-R Angel Berroa to a minor league contract. [7/24]

The Wily Mo Experience was fun while it lasted, but in the end, the Diamondbacks realized that the walks Pena takes aren’t even close to the plate appearances he makes. In that sense, it’s not surprising that Wily Mo went the way of all flesh, or at least all flesh that can’t play defense and won’t take accept a free pass to first. In parting with Pena, the D’backs also ditched his .196/.196/.522 line—your standard 41.3 percent strikeout rate, 0.0 percent walk rate, and .326 Isolated Power. Fans of the DiSars might be disappointed that the Snakes didn’t give Pena a sporting chance at taking over the top spot, but nothing about his recent track record suggests that he’s anything but a titan of the two true outcomes

It’s not that there’s no value in that—even with a walkless .196 average, Pena managed a league-average TAv. In time, Pena’s batting average and slugging percentage would have begun to converge, but his overall output likely would have stayed at a similar level. Still, Pena would have to be even better with the bat to balance out his lack of leather to the point that an NL team would be comfortable carrying him much past the interleague portion of the schedule.

Pena seems to have a few suitors, though as Craig Calcaterra observed, he’s a much better fit for an offense-starved AL team than an NL contender. Wherever he goes, Pena won’t fail to entertain, but it’s become clear that he’s something of a Quadruple-A player. His career line at Triple-A (after seven separate stints at the level) stands at .324/.390/.581, which would make him a star if it could be ported to the majors even close to intact. However, Pena has struck out in 30.4 percent of his 1771 career major-league plate appearances, a far cry from his 21.6 percent rate one level lower, and according to FanGraphs’ pitch type values, he’s been over 16 runs combined below average against sliders and curveballs, compared to over 10 runs above average against straighter stuff. (Paging Pedro Cerrano.)

With Sean Burroughs on the bench and Pena on his way to another organization, Arizona acted quickly to add to its collection of faded prospects whose best days on the diamond came early last decade. A recent USA Today blog post on the demise of Stephen Drew, whose broken ankle removed him from the team’s starting shortstop slot, read, “Stephen Drew out for season; Jose Reyes said to be unavailable.” As any good GM knows, the only solution when a team is saddled with an absentee shortstop and Reyes won’t report for duty is to call upon Angel Berroa, whose middle name at this stage of his career might as well be “available” (instead of his more emasculating actual middle name, “Maria”).

That murmur you just heard was the collective incredulity of everyone who thought Berroa was out of baseball, which he very nearly was. Berroa, of course, is a proud member of the Bob Hamelin All-Stars, a group of players for whom a Rookie of the Year Award represented the end of achievement, not the beginning, and he hasn’t sniffed the majors since being signed and released by both New York teams in quick succession in mid-2009. In a move with major playoff implications for the Long Island Ducks, Berroa was plucked away from the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League, for whom he was hitting .263/.305/.408: good, perhaps, but no Luis Lopez (or Adam Greenberg, Danny Putnam, Wes Bankston, or Prentice Redman, to name just a few of the former major-league offensive luminaries who were outhitting Berroa in Bridgeport).

There’s so much potential for snark here that one hardly knows whom to disparage first, but the truth is that the Snakes were long shots to make the playoffs even with Drew (or with Reyes, for that matter), so a little infield futility won’t do any lasting damage. If Berroa gets a shot, he won’t hit the target, but Arizona’s other in-house options are Cody Ransom and Willie Bloomquist, who has accrued 0.2 WARP to date this season and is projected to add a whopping 0.0 more Wins over Willie to his total before October arrives. In light of the alternatives, bring on Berroa.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Optioned INF-R Josh Harrison to Indianapolis Indians (Triple-A). [7/21]
Activated SS-R Ronny Cedeno from the 7-day disabled list. [7/22]
Activated 1B-R Steven Pearce from the 15-day disabled list. [7/22]
Optioned RHP Chris Leroux to Indianapolis Indians. [7/22]
Placed OF-L Alex Presley on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to July 23 (left hand contusion). [7/25]
Recalled 3B-L Pedro Alvarez from Indianapolis Indians. [7/25]

It’s difficult to board the Pirates’ bandwagon with any expectation of arriving at a desirable destination when one of the horses expected to pull the load at a premium offensive position is Lyle Overbay, who only twice in his career—most recently five seasons ago—could be said to be something more than a league-average player and now appears to have left even that modest distinction far behind.

Pearce’s return from a torn left calf might seem to offer a solution, but his .281/.352/.483 career Triple-A line hints at an Overbay-like upside even if he could stay healthy. A platoon might yield something close to an acceptable bat, so the Pirates would be best-served by exploring that arrangement, even at the cost of an extra roster spot.

With the surprising Presley injured, the Pirates recalled Alvarez, who had hit an encouraging .365/.461/.587 at Indianapolis since his demotion. Neil Huntington’s comments made it clear that the GM would’ve liked to give him more time at Triple-A, but that wasn’t a luxury that a first-place team with the league’s second-worst offense could afford, since Ronny Cedeno’s return from a concussion wasn’t about to make any Pirates fans commit the cardinal sin of forgetting Arky Vaughan.  


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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