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February 25, 2013

Rumor Roundup

A Snag in the Grand Plan

by Daniel Rathman

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Last Thursday, we learned that Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd is still searching for rotation reinforcements, and that his options are mostly limited to the trade market, because a bid for Kyle Lohse is considered unlikely. Over the weekend, a source named a name to ESPN’s Buster Olney.

Jeff Niemann among Rays pitchers drawing Rockies’ attention
That name was Niemann, and according to Olney, O’Dowd has also asked his counterpart, Andrew Friedman, about other major-league-ready arms. The Rays exported James Shields and Wade Davis to obtain Wil Myers from the Royals earlier this offseason, but there are plenty more rotation options where those came from, with seven pitchers competing for five spots, based on the organization’s official depth chart.

The Rays have pitchers, and the Rockies need them, so it makes perfect sense that O’Dowd and Friedman are in touch. Meanwhile, Colorado—per last week’s report from FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal—has a surplus of catchers and other position players from which to deal. Tampa Bay does not have a glaring need for catcher or infield depth, even after sending Elliot Johnson to the Royals as the player to be named later in the aforementioned Shields-Myers trade, and, interestingly enough, Friedman and O’Dowd struck a barter just 11 days ago, when the latter added Reid Brignac to his existing stockpile.

A 6-foot-9, 260-pound behemoth, Niemann no longer throws 94, like he did at the beginning of his career, or 92, like he did in 2010, but the downward plane on his hard stuff enables him to generate ground balls, and he has a complete assortment of off-speed pitches to keep hitters off balance. Unfortunately, he also has a complete assortment of shoulder ailments in his injury history, most recently a strain that cost him the last month of the 2012 season. Niemann made only eight starts last year, mainly because of a fractured fibula that put him on the disabled list from May 15 to September 1. But while the leg injury was a freakish occurrence caused by a batted ball, the arm trouble that cropped up in the fourth inning of his return fits a worrisome trend that dates back to 2005.

Nonetheless, Niemann’s ability to induce grounders appeals to the Rockies, who added Chris Volstad on a minor-league deal earlier this offseason but are looking for more proven hurlers whose style is impervious to the thin air at Coors Field. Niemann, who turns 30 on Thursday, matches the job description, having posted a career-high 51.4 percent ground-ball clip in 2012, over an admittedly limited, 38-inning sample. The northpaw is owed $3 million for the coming season, a salary that he garnered by forgoing his second year of arbitration eligibility, and is projected by PECOTA for 1.1 WARP over 19 starts.

With pitch-framing wizard Jose Molina back on a $1.8 million club option, Jose Lobaton returning to spell him, and Robinson Chirinos and Chris Gimenez providing depth, the Rays are likely comfortable with their situation behind the dish. Ben Zobrist’s versatility mitigates most of their concerns at second base, where Ryan Roberts, Kelly Johnson, and Sean Rodriguez are set to vie for playing time. And Friedman addressed the designated-hitter opening by bringing back Luke Scott earlier this month, essentially rounding out his Opening Day roster.

The lack of an obvious match between the Rays and Rockies might explain why talks have not yet advanced—or, at least, had not as of Saturday morning, when Olney tweeted the rumor. Jordan Pacheco, whom Rosenthal mentioned as a possible trade chip and whose knack for hitting left-handed pitching could make him a target, might fit, but he is less versatile in the infield than Rodriguez and may be viewed as redundant. Ramon Hernandez, another spare part for the Rockies, who would like to unload his $3.2 million salary, offers more power than any of Tampa Bay’s catchers but may not be viewed as an upgrade on the whole.

Friedman appears to have shifted gears, instead eyeing left-hander Christian Friedrich, a onetime top prospect, whose stock has cooled in part because of elbow injuries and a poor debut. Denver Post beat writer Troy Renck wrote on Sunday that Friedrich’s back stiffness, which comes on the heels of a stress fracture that cost him the last two months of the 2012 season, is holding up both the trade negotiations and his preparation for Opening Day. Although little progress is being made at this point, Renck believes that talks could accelerate once the Rockies have a chance to evaluate their rotation candidates in Cactus League play.

Yankees lose Curtis Granderson for 10 weeks
Speaking of injuries, the Yankees are down a man after just two Grapefruit League games. Granderson, the subject of an entirely different story in camp—with manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman leaning toward shifting him to left field and moving the speedier Brett Gardner to center—was hit on the forearm by a J.A. Happ pitch and will need two months to recover from the resulting fracture.

Immediately after reporters, including MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, relayed the team’s announcement, Twitter was abuzz with trade ideas. Alfonso Soriano? Vernon Wells? Giancarlo Stanton? That last one was (hopefully) a joke, but none of the three represents an ideal solution. The Cubs and Angels may be willing to eat significant portions of the money still owed to Soriano and Wells, but the Yankees have brought in a plethora of right-handed-hitting outfielders already, and could face a logjam when Granderson returns. Soriano, the only viable trade candidate mentioned on Sunday that could provide a material upgrade over Cashman’s internal options, is unlikely to accept a part-time role come mid-May and has the no-trade protection to ensure it won’t be forced upon him.

Thus, Cashman may need to find a one-and-a-half month replacement from within the organization. Matt Diaz and Juan Rivera, who inked minor-league pacts with the Yankees this winter, are the favorites for the job, but each is a liability against right-handed pitching. Meanwhile, Eduardo Nunez, who won’t be needed at shortstop now that Derek Jeter’s ankle is well enough for him to return in the first half of March, is “not an option,” per Cashman.

Further down the list, a couple of recent Cuban imports might be worth watching. Hoch mentioned Ronnier Mustelier, a 28-year-old who signed with the team in 2011 and quickly rose up the minor-league ladder, on his way to a .303/.359/.455 triple-slash line for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 89 games last year. Later, New York Post columnist Joel Sherman tossed 27-year-old Adonis Garcia—who signed last offseason and followed up a .288/.325/.492 effort for Double-A Trenton with a .292/.319/.481 showing for Mayaguez in the Puerto Rican Winter League—into the mix, perhaps as a platoon candidate.

You can track the performances of Mustelier, Garcia, and the Yankees’ other pertinent prospects, such as Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa, in Jason Martinez’s Minor League Update, which kicked off today and will focus on position battles throughout the spring.

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

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