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August 16, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Catching Up with NL Contenders

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Placed 1B-R Xavier Nady on the 15-day disabled list (fractured left hand). [8/13]
Signed free agent 1B-L Lyle Overbay. [8/13]

Shortly after being deemed unfit for duty by one unlikely contender, Overbay found his services sought by another. The pre-collapse Pirates traded for Derrek Lee to replace Overbay’s subpar first-base production, but they might be feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse after watching Lee hit the DL with a fractured wrist (the other one, this time). They likely aren’t having second thoughts about sending Overbay under the bridge, though, since the 34-year-old hasn’t been any better than a league-average player since 2006, and he’s played below replacement level since the start of the 2010 season.

With Brandon Allen in Oakland and Nady hitting the DL, the Snakes felt they needed a southpaw to pair with rookie slugger Paul Goldschmidt, who’d had some trouble making contact before notching three hits on Sunday. Manager Kirk Gibson complained that the D’backs have been light on left-handed bats, but it’s not clear that Overbay makes them much weightier in that area, even though he does stand in from the appropriate side. In fact, here’s what Jack Magruder of Fox Sports Arizona had to say about the latest impression Overbay made in an Arizona uniform:  

Overbay, who signed with the D-backs in 1999, looked like the career .270 hitter he has become in 11 major league seasons is in his first batting session Saturday, lining balls to the right-center field and left-center field gaps before dropping one into the pool area.

When was the last time you watched an impressive batting-practice display and thought, “Man, that guy looks like a .270 hitter?” Even when Overbay is putting on a show, it’s no longer a show that’s likely to be renewed for another season. He hasn’t hit appreciably better against righties than he has overall since 2009, and Goldschmidt hadn’t struggled against same-handed pitchers in the minors. Overbay made two trips to the plate for the Diamondbacks during their 2001 stretch run; if they want this season to end the same way, they’ll keep his appearances to a minimum again as they cling to their narrow division lead.  

ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Called up RHP Arodys Vizcaino from Gwinnett Braves (Triple-A). [8/10]
Activated C-L Brian McCann from the 15-day disabled list. [8/14]
Activated RHP Scott Linebrink from the 15-day disabled list [8/14].
Placed RHP Tommy Hanson on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to August 7 (right shoulder tendinitis). [8/14]
Optioned RHP Anthony Varvaro to Gwinnett Braves. [8/14]

Those of us who had action figures in our younger years invariably wish that we’d never removed them from their original packaging, allowing them to appreciate in vacuum-packed perfection. Instead, we plucked them out of their boxes and into lives of perpetual plastic peril, forcing them to sacrifice their bodies one accessory or attachment at a time until all they were good for was the Goodwill or the garbage. Your set of Kenner Star Wars toys might have put your own kids through college had you had the foresight to leave them untouched, but leaving toys untouched to save up for secondary education was as far from your 7-year-old self’s mind as asking for Microsoft stock for Christmas. Still, there’s something to be said for the less prudent approach: The toys were fun while they lasted, and if the Toy Story trilogy taught us anything, it’s that there are few things sadder than an inactive action figure.

Give the Braves credit for valuing their prospects highly enough to keep them intact and in their original uniforms, but not so highly that they aren’t afraid to remove them from their protective wrapping and play with them once in a while. As the trade market developed last month, word was that Braves GM Frank Wren had deemed his top four pitching prospects—Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Vizcaino, and Mike Minor—untouchable. He stuck to his guns and still landed Michael Bourn in perhaps the most impressive deal consummated on deadline day, but even though he denied other teams access to his toys, he hasn’t kept them off-limits to his own club.

Minor is already in Atlanta’s rotation, and when the Braves have needed a spot starter this season, they’ve often reached within for one of their own blue-chippers rather than following the Yankees’ example and importing a retread from outside the organization. Teheran has made two starts, and Delgado has made one in Tommy Hanson’s stead; with Hanson again shelved with shoulder tendinitis, he’ll make another today. Neither has pitched particularly well for Atlanta, but at ages 20 and 21, respectively, some struggles must be expected. Still, by sticking with internal solutions, the Braves gave two young talents a taste of the majors without impairing their development or greatly reducing the team’s expectations of success, which can only encourage their other young arms struggling to climb the minor-league ladder.

The latest tyro to dive into the deep end is Vizcaino, who came to the Braves in the deal that sent Javier Vazquez back to the Bronx for another drubbing last season. Vizcaino, a hard-throwing righty whom Kevin Goldstein named the Braves’ fourth-best prospect in February, has vaulted from High-A to the majors this season and experienced few struggles at the upper levels. He has a high ceiling as a starter, but his changeup is still a work in progress, and he’s had trouble staying healthy. The Braves wisely sought to maximize the short-term value of their asset by putting him in the bullpen, where he’s excelled in the early going both in the minors and the majors, in the process offering further evidence that a 96 mph fastball that comes with good control work is a language understood at every level. (He also struck out three in two-thirds of an inning on Sunday, so he’s not above the occasional wild pitch.)

This shift to shorter outings shouldn’t alter our long-term expectations for Vizcaino—many a successful starter has broken in in the bullpen before moving on to bigger and better things—but his arrival could be just what the Braves’ bullpen ordered. Atlanta has been strong in relief all season, but the team’s success in short outings has come on the strength of what has appeared to be a Faustian bargain by its top arms: The Braves have placed three relievers—Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel—among the top 16 in the majors in ERA, but the same three have also cracked the top 12 in games pitched. Vizcaino’s presence should allow Fredi Gonzalez to ease up on Venters’ reins down the stretch without jeopardizing his club’s wild-card lead, which can only make the Braves a more formidable opponent in October. Linebrink’s return should further solidify Atlanta’s arsenal in the middle innings; Varvaro, whom the Braves snagged off waivers from the Mariners in January, struck out 16 batters in nine innings, but he also walked six, continuing a Triple-A trend (he’s fanned 59 and walked 30 in 50-plus frames at Gwinnett).

FLORIDA MARLINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Optioned LHP Brad Hand to Jacksonville Suns (Triple-A).
Recalled RHP
 Jose Ceda from New Orleans Zephyrs.

I wrote about Jose Ceda at length here, but let’s bring things up to date. In the “pro” column, a 1.36 ERA with 12 strikeouts per nine innings as the closer for the Triple-A Zephyrs this season. In the “con” column, this (higher-quality, un-embeddable version here):

Here at BP, we encourage our readers not to draw conclusions based on small-sample performances, but it’s taking every bit of my willpower not to write Ceda off on the basis of that one at-bat.*

*Is it possible for a batter to be so bad that it psyches out an opposing pitcher? Maybe Ceda was missing inside because Casilla was standing so far off the plate. Casilla’s back foot was literally outside of the batter’s box, but he was still stepping in the bucket. He also appeared to have no idea what the count was, though he’s experienced his fair share of walks from the mound. Bonus points for disdainfully handing his batting gloves to the bat boy before heading to first.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed free agent DH/OF-L Jack Cust. [8/12]
Signed free agent RHP Dave Bush. [8/15]
Dave Bush assigned to Lehigh Valley IronPigs. [8/15]

The Phillies are winning at a .655 clip and added Hunter Pence at the deadline, but Ruben Amaro couldn’t rest without adding two recent cast-offs from other organizations. If Amaro was wondering what to get the team that has everything, “Jack Cust” and “Dave Bush” seem like strange answers. The Phillies could use some improvement on the basepaths, in the field, and at the plate, but Cust isn’t necessarily an upgrade in any of those areas.

As Jeff Sullivan noted last week, Cust’s game has increasingly come to resemble that of a potted plant; once a three-true-outcomes masher, Cust is essentially down to two outcomes, having lost over half his ISO since his first two seasons in Oakland. When the Mariners—a team as desperately in need of offense as any in baseball—kicked him to the curb, the smart money was on his landing with an AL team, but the Phillies signed him despite already having a better first baseman and a left fielder who can’t play defense. That puts Cust in the position of hoping to crack the roster as a pinch-hitter, as Jim Thome did with the Dodgers in 2009 (or Matt Stairs with the Phillies in 2008, for that matter). Given that Ross Gload has made 59 pinch-hit plate appearances this season (batting .246/.271/.316 in the process), Cust might just make it, and his bat could perk up in Citizens Bank. Bush hasn’t had a FIP under 4.50 since 2006 and wouldn’t be an upgrade over Kyle Kendrick in long relief.

Cust and Kendrick won’t see much time for the Phillies, if they see any, but in a sense, their arrival is an ominous byproduct of Amaro’s flair for the dramatic. The GM has made midseason splashes at three straight deadlines, and that kind of aggressive acquiring comes at a high price in prospects. The Phillies have been an old team for some time now; this season, their pitchers are pushing 30 as a group, and their batters have a collective age of 31.5, over a year older than the next-oldest team, the Giants. Teams that ancient can be quite successful, but they don’t stay successful for long without an infusion of youth, something that’s in short supply at the upper levels of the Phillies’ system in the wake of the team’s talent outflow.

In the absence of youngsters fit for major-league duty, fading veterans like Cust and Bush can find a home. That’s not a problem as long as they remain nothing more than depth, but old teams also have a tendency to get injured, and problems arise when holes can’t be plugged from within. As we wrote in BP2011, "Amaro and the Phillies would be well advised to channel their organizational tendency for action and their newfound financial resources towards stockpiling amateur talent." Just as soon as they finish contending for another World Series title, that is.


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

Vizcaino, Darnell, and Alvarez Arrive (8/10)
More Youth Arrives (8/11)
Morrison Demoted (8/14)
Delmon Dealt (8/15)

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

4 comments have been left for this article.

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