August 15, 2003
It's always nice to see Adam Riggs get a shot, even now that he's 30, and his potential as a second baseman with pop has been long lost to injuries. In Salt Lake, he was hitting .294/.354/.490, not too shabby for a broken-down minor league vet, but not that hot at Salt Lake, and almost identical to his career numbers in Triple-A: .294/359/.483. Riggs had been making great progress through the Dodgers chain, reaching the majors in '97 in only his third full pro season. Then he started getting hurt, losing chunks of '97 and '98, and then sort of drifting into minor league veterandom. While he's not really a second baseman anymore, the Angels have the need for position players of any stripe, and Riggs can still play first or an outfield corner. He's earned a break, so even if it isn't some Disneyesque vision of contributing to something significant, it's just nice to see him get a shot he earned long ago.
Acquired LHP Kent Mercker from the Reds for a PTBNL (which on 8/14, became RHP Matt Belisle). [8/12]
Adding Kent Mercker for Belisle might seem expensive, but the Braves' pen has been a problem for most of the season, relying on John Smoltz's virtue and very little else. The expectation that Ray King was going to fill the bill as situational lefty has been thoroughly disappointed with his galling performances with inherited runners, so Mercker steps directly into an eighth inning role with the best team in baseball. And let's not overstate Belisle's value while noting that Mercker was available for change last winter; the Braves and their historic legacy would look a lot happier in retrospect if they won another World Series, especially with so much likely to change after the season. Why scrimp on the little stuff now, and risk winding up like the '93 Phillies, a reliever or two short of permanent glory?
Elsewhere, anytime some component of your roster moves over a couple of days involves no more Roberto Hernandez, you have to be happy. Perhaps especially if you're Bobby Thigpen, and perhaps less so if you're John Smoltz, but in terms of actual baseball and not footraces after statistical footnotes, if you're a Braves fan you're happy to see Hernandez go away for a bit.
As for reactivating Hodges, he's got to rate higher on Bobby Cox's totem pole than still-present Jason Marquis. Marquis has only been used in blowouts, and hasn't been particularly effective even then. There might be a shot for either of them to earn the 11th and final spot on the playoff roster, but of the two, I'd bet on Hodges. The real question is if he can push his way past Shane Reynolds (who could be selected for veteran allure) or Hernandez (for his valuable save situation-generating skills) or Darren Holmes (whose shoulder makes his otherwise obvious inclusion a bit iffy). I'd be happier if they found space for Jung Bong somewhere in there, but with a pair of lefties in King and Mercker already in the pen, and especially if they should keep Reynolds around as an emergency starter, his shot might only be better than Marquis' at this point.
To their credit, and to my embarrassment considering my comment from a couple of days ago, Mike Hargrove and the Orioles got back down to 12 pitchers by shipping off Driskill. So Hargrove's comfortable and the Orioles are slightly less short-handed. With Rick Bauer up for middle relief, and Eric DuBose doing good stuff in a swing role, Driskill had to outpitch somebody like fellow journeyman Hector Carrasco if he was going to get to stick around, and he hadn't.
Now that Surhoff is back, on an organizational level, the challenge is for them to nevertheless keep Jack Cust in the lineup. I know Surhoff's nice little comeback season might be useful to verify the existence of cockles in Peter Angelos' heart by their having been warmed, but Surhoff's value this season was as another valuable contributor to the team's drive to remain ahead of the Devil Rays, and like so many others, he can recall that achievement with pride. Guys like Cust and Larry Bigbie need to be looked at now with an eye on 2004. If Surhoff can settle for a start a week at first, left, right, and DH, and thus not really get in anyone's way, that might be the best solution.
Purchased the contract of LHP Neal Cotts from Birmingham (Double-A). [8/12]
The searches for fifth starters and closers continue, with the White Sox not really having had either, but willing to fiddle around on the off chance they find one internally in the midst of a pennant race.
It's pretty clear Danny Wright is not going to be Jerry Manuel's first choice for the fifth slot, although his relief effort of Neal Cotts might have breathed some life into his case. The choice to turn to Cotts is, in itself, pretty bold, but it's a comment on how well Cotts has pitched in his first year in the White Sox organization. In his first season above A-ball, Cotts has been nothing short of brilliant, posting a 2.12 ERA in 106.1 IP (2.3 runs per nine), allowing only 62 hits and two homeruns, with an equally stunning 131-55 strikeout-walk ratio. Despite those numbers, he arguably only throws hard for a lefty, instead doing an outstanding job of changing speeds and setting hitters up. Birmingham's a great place to pitch, but the raw numbers alone are ridiculously good. Even so, because he's wild and not overpowering, I'd have trouble claiming that he ought to be in the rotation right now. That he's up is more a comment on the White Sox's need.
As an aside, does anyone else remember when last winter's deal between Oakland and the White Sox (Keith Foulke, Joe Valentine, Mark Johnson & cash for Billy Koch, Daylan Holt & Neal Cotts) was supposed to be a big deal of closers, where the A's made up the difference between Foulke's remaining contract length and Koch's more distant free agency with minor league talent? Well, between Koch's ineffectiveness--shocking, isn't it, that yet another closer saw his career going sour on Jerry Manuel's watch--and the quick irrelevance of bit parts like Johnson and Holt, if anything, the deal has quickly boiled down to Foulke and cash for Cotts, with Valentine turning into a parts-are-parts part in the Guillen trade, and Koch being hopefully redeemable at some point. At the time, the inclusion of Cotts didn't get as much attention as it deserved, but as much as Kenny Williams gets routinely run down in this space and others, it's to his credit that he got Cotts in this deal.
Meanwhile, with Koch's latest breakdown (complete with a Manuel backhand suggesting Koch might have been hiding an injury), the Sox are hauling up Jon Adkins, last year's payoff for Ray Durham. Whereas last year's plan was to make Adkins into a dominating reliever, in Charlotte this year he's basically been a rotation regular, with modest results: 4.8 runs allowed per nine, 110 hits allowed in 115 IP, a 55-33 strikeout to walk ratio--basically, nothing that suggests that you have to keep him on the 40-man roster. In short, he will not be part of the solution to a Koch-less closing situation. Instead, Manuel will continue to rely upon some combination of Flash Gordon and Damaso Marte. Where Adkins enters the picture is that beyond Gordon and Marte, nobody in this pen has been a reliable contributor (Kelly Wunsch has been, when healthy). So the opportunity exists for anybody--Wright, Adkins, anybody--to step up and become a hero in a setup role.
Optioned RHP Juan Cruz to Iowa. [8/14]
Traded LHP Kent Mercker to the Braves for a PTBNL; recalled C-R Corky Miller from Louisville; purchased the contract of LHP Mark Watson from Louisville; optioned RHP Joe Valentine to Louisville. [8/12]
Received RHP Matt Belisle from the Braves as the PTBNL in the Mercker deal. [8/14]
Undoubtedly the decision to deal a bit of free (that is, essentially interchangeable) talent in Kent Mercker will be hailed as another disaster in Reds history, to rival the dispatching of Scott Williamson and the immortal Aaron Boone, moves that clearly took the next great team in baseball history, only to see it scattered to the winds in a fit of banana magnate whimsy. Or not. At any rate, flipping Mercker is exactly what you're supposed to do once you're out. He's not somebody you want to re-up for multiple years, and not somebody you offer arbitration to. Of course you deal him.
In return, the Reds received Matt Belisle, whose prospect status hasn't really bounced back since his losing 2001 to a ruptured disc. He doesn't have the same velocity or command he had before the injury, but he's a live arm, he's only 23, and he's had a decent year between Double-A Greenville and Triple-A Richmond: 4.0 runs allowed per nine, 145 hits allowed in 145.1 IP, a 104-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and only six homeruns allowed. As payouts for a veteran lefty go, it might not be Brian Giles, but it's a worthwhile pickup.
The other callups are also interesting. Corky Miller's a solid big league backup catcher in the making, arriving after a decent season (.248/.323/.425) at the plate, and with continuing good reports on his glovework. To replace Mercker in the pen, journeyman Mark Watson is up after a year where his best number is allowing only one homerun in 53.2 IP--not that there's anything shabby about a 46-13 strikeout to walk ratio, but allowing five runs per nine isn't anything to get excited about. The Reds are intrigued that he might be a low-cost lefty who fits seamlessly into their pen. If it's just situational work, as opposed to what Gabe White was for, I guess I can see it.
The last callup is an interesting project, although he's well down in the pecking order of the organization's interesting projects in the outfield. Dernell Stenson is an intriguing story, having had an excellent start to his career in the Red Sox organization, hitting with authority at Triple-A when he was 21. But in reaching Pawtucket, he sort of stuck, as the Red Sox didn't seem to know what to do with him, fiddling with him in the outfield, and sort of waiting around to see if they'd have to actually play him at some point. He had a bad year his third and fourth seasons as a Paw Sock (2001 and 2002), before slipping onto waivers, where the Reds were waiting to pounce. This year, Stenson's regained his hitting credentials, smacking 50 extra-base hits between Double- and Triple-A (31 doubles, 19 homeruns). Spending most of the year in Chattanooga, he hit .306/.371/.503, 35 BB in 409 PA, and spent most of his time there at first base. Moving up to Louisville, he spent all of his time in the outfield (for better or, more probably, for worse, he's got a Casey-sized roadblock at first). He's the hitting equivalent of a live arm, a live bat, and given his relative youth (he's still only 25), it isn't too hard to wishcast that he could enjoy a Dmitri Young-style renaissance. There was a point at which Young was considered a flop, but like Stenson, he'd risen far fast, and expectations outstripped performance, until the Cardinals got tired of waiting. There again, the Reds were ready to create an opportunity.
The Tigers have so few bits of good news to enjoy, that we should jump ahead to the good news, just for its own sake: in calling up Danny Klassen, they got an upgrade at utility infielder. Sure, he was only hitting .246/.303/.393 as a Mudhen, but compared to their old utility infielder, at least he can play a pretty passable shortstop.
OK, that was a bit forced, but that's the extent of the good news. The bad news is that their old utility infielder, Shane Halter, is their new starting third baseman, not to mention they've lost one of their very few useful hitters in Eric Munson. So basically, it's a disaster, sort of on the magnitude of losing all the world's forests when the sun goes nova: a pity, but in the grand scheme of things, hard to pick out of the flames. With three cracks in his thumb, Munson's season is almost certainly over. However, he did a surprisingly adequate job at third, and he hit, so it isn't like he's in danger of losing his job. He just won't get to be on the field for any of those historic moments we can look forward to: the 120th loss, Brian Kingman's teary speech as he wishes his minor notoriety goodbye, and the rest.
Setting aside the question of need, if you were the Fish, and you could point to the Mantei deal as one of the finest non-'97 moments the franchise has had, you'd pick up bum-winged relievers with a few minor closing accomplishments to their credit too. P.T. Barnum might not have been selling relief pitching, but his wisdom on suckers and profitability belong to the ages. So sure, Chad Fox it is, for as long as he's physically able to pitch.
As for losing Tommy Phelps, while Phelps has been one of the season's nifty little stories, the Fish still do have Mike Tejera around to use as a long lefty middle-man and spot starter. Although this hasn't been Tejera's best season, he's been an asset in the past, and he's healthy. As a result, they aren't really that short-handed. Similarly, Armando Almanza hasn't had a great year, but between Jack McKeon's track record for building effective pens, and Almanza's past track record, it isn't hard to believe that Florida has more going for it than a simple glance at Michael Wolverton's Reliever Evaluation Tools would tell you.
This was the eventual denouement of last week's premature announcement from the Astros, which was followed by Kenny Williams carping to the commissioner's office about the rules. Typically for its modus operandi whilst on Seligian auto-pilot, the commissioner's office hasn't done anything about it, although that could be just as much from bemused indifference as from its more characteristic organizational somnambulism. The Astros shouldn't have anything to worry about; other teams have played fast and loose with the rules in years past, and Drayton McLane hasn't done anything to cross Selig, at least not lately.
In the past, we've talked about how second basemen as a group see more than their share of career blowouts. You can add Carlos Febles to a list of guys who were expected to be so much more than they became: Brent Gates, Warren Morris, Geronimo Pena, Roberto Mejia, and that's just over the last decade or so. All of them were all-tools players, arriving with reputations as hitters with a little bit of everything. None of them grew up to be Mark Grudzielanek. So now the Royals are cutting bait, making Desi Relaford their everyday second baseman, and running with Mendy Lopez as a utility infielder. That's not a bad distribution of roster space. Lopez has managed to hammer lefties some years, so he's not an offensive zero. Similarly, Julius Matos has a bit of sock for a utility infielder, he can play second or third well enough, so Febles didn't merely have to contend with his own disappointments, but with palpably better ballplayers capable of outhitting him as well as being able to handle other spots on the diamond. For the stretch, the Royals are better off without him.
With Kaz Ishii on the DL, both Andy Ashby and Wilson Alvarez have been pressed into the rotation, leaving the pen a bit short-handed for bodies to toss the extra innings that you don't want your top relievers pitching, in blowouts or early exits by the starter or whatnot. So let's give a big hand to the return of Masao Kida to the major leagues, giving the Dodgers yet another ronin moundsman from the Empire of the Sun to draw and entertain. Unlike Ishii or Hideo Nomo, Kida's a less-successful import. In a swing role at Vegas, he'd given up just under five runs per nine (4.98), while showing his characteristic command (17 walks and 53 strikeouts in 72.1 IP), and no particularly dominating pitch. He's a body for junk innings, nothing more.
The big stick is back, and the question is, where does he go? Never the best backstop around, the question needs to be asked whether the Mets and Piazza are best served having him resume his regular catching chores, or whether both wouldn't be better off with him playing first. In part, that's because of the theoretical payoff both would get by letting Piazza avoid the grinding responsibilities of the tools of ignorance; Piazza could hit better longer, and his Hall of Fame candidacy would, if anything, be solidified instead of diminished, a la Joe Torre or Ted Simmons. Moreover, in his absence, Jason Phillips has hit well enough to stay, and Vance Wilson cemented his status as a solid backup. Phillips has spent most of his time at first base, but he remains a useful catcher, whereas Piazza...well, if he didn't hit as well as he does, would anyone want him catching? He was never particularly strong-armed, has had few supporters among his pitchers when it comes to calling a game, and his plate-blocking and receiving skills leave a lot to be desired. With the team mired in last, making the change now, porting Piazza to first and running with a combination of Phillips and Wilson behind the plate, seems well-timed.
As for who had to take the fall for Piazza's return, what gives? Admittedly, Duncan had slumped in the last week or so, and he should be back in two weeks, once rosters expand, but really, if you're the Mets why do you send Duncan down? Tony Clark's recent hot hitting might make him a commodity, but...well, it's Tony Clark. He should be available in a waiver deal, but who wants him? OK, if Clark's too valuable to cut loose, why not cut Jay Bell? It isn't like he's doing that much of value at this point; the Mets infield is essentially set. Ty Wigginton's played well enough to get some people's Joe Randa juices running, the Jose Reyes era has started at short, and you can get by at second between Marco Scutaro and Joe McEwing. So why spare Bell, and why not go with an infield where McEwing is the lone utility infielder? The problem has been created by the decision to keep all three catchers here, but Duncan's been reaching base, and the Mets can use that. Robbing the outfield to crowd the catching situation doesn't seem like a move the Mets should be making.
Ick. OK, I admit, it would be too much to expect the A's to cut Terrence Long, and eat his contract. I admit, with Eric Byrnes' huge slump, there's no way they're going to cut Chris Singleton either. But potentially losing Adam Piatt, just to carry a 12th pitcher of uncertain health, doesn't sound like a great idea to me. Especially with roster expansion right around the corner...why risk losing Piatt now, when you may well need him for the postseason roster? I guess the 'nice' thing is that this gives Long a few more at-bats, but doesn't that fly in the face of trying to win anything anytime soon? Admittedly, Piatt didn't help himself by complaining, but the A's need right-handed power at all four corners, and Piatt can play the four corners if asked.
The basic problem is that roster space was at a premium, and there aren't a lot of options or optionable players around. I'd still suggest that leaving Mecir on the DL a couple of weeks, or better yet, having Mike Neu endure a case of de rigeur Rule 5 arm soreness, makes a lot more sense than designating Piatt for assignment, but I'm admittedly not off the Piatt bandwagon just yet. A hundred at-bats spread over almost five months says nothing about a guy's usefulness; his career as a hitter in the minors does.
We flog Ed Wade pretty regularly around here, what with his fascination with overpaying relievers, usually to get headlines and demonstrate resolve, but as stretch drive moves go, I love this decision. By bringing up Utley to play second base, they're moving Placido Polanco over to third base, shoring up a weak spot in the lineup while giving one of their best young prospects a shot. Down at Scranton, Utley had done well, hitting .323/.390/.517, good for a .279 big league Equivalent Average, and the most productive season anybody in the International League was having. If you're a stathead, you might fret about his walk rate, since he's only drawn 35 unintentional walks in 490 PA, but getting hit 11 times has helped ratchet up his OBP to reasonable heights, and his power's solid. He's not a great second baseman, but he's made a lot of improvements in the last two years, and with good gloves at short and wherever Polanco's standing, the Phillies shouldn't have to worry about infield defense.
The other effects of the move are that it returns Tyler Houston to the bench, where he's an asset as a pinch-hitter, giving the Phillies a lefty threat instead of an iron glove at third. If Utley hits well enough to keep his job, once David Bell's ready to come off of the DL, they can essentially platoon the two, taking advantage of Polanco's utility at second and third to shuttle between the positions. Heck, it also leaves them solid should anything happen to Jimmy Rollins, because then they can put Polanco at short, leave Utley at second, and pick a third baseman from among Bell, Tomas Perez, and Houston.
Of course, the question is also who comes off once Bell comes back--assuming he's not out for the year, as some have suggested. But with Perez safely ensconced in the utility role, that should mean bad news for Nick Punto. Again, as bench weapons go, Punto's not really a short series asset, since his real skills are his glovework at short and his patience at the plate. Those are good things, but things that don't mean much in five or seven games. Overall, the Phillies would be better off if Utley takes his opportunity and hits, keeping Houston and Perez on the bench in October. Should the Phillies get there, of course. But again, this move can help them do that.
If there's a sad note to strike, it's that Brandon Duckworth has lost his job as the fifth starter for the time being. In the last month, he's really only had one good start, and that was against the punchless Dodgers. He hasn't managed five innings per start, and he's handily the worst, most consistently bad starter the Phillies have had, by any metric, including Michael Wolverton's Support-Neutral stats. It's expected that they're going to plug Amaury Telemaco into the slot. Should the Phillies reach the postseason, it doesn't matter who the fifth starter is, since he won't start. But for right now, the Phillies need to do something to keep them ahead of the Marlins, and promoting Utley and temporarily turning away from Duckworth are a pair of moves that should help them do that.
As if the Giants' offense didn't have trouble enough. Nevertheless, Bobby Bonds is not well, and while undoubtedly some of Bonds' critics will gripe about this sotto voce, they're already the sorts who throw anything onto their pile of evidence in their crusade against Bonds' greatness. Let the man see his father, and set aside the comparative unimportance of a pennant race. The Giants, and Barry Bonds, have their priorities in order.
In his absence, the Giants have Tony Torcato up, complete with the acclaims that his swing is pretty, and anyone who swings so sweetly must be able to play this game. Torcato also arrives from Fresno's bandbox hitting all of .297/.302/.368, which is nowhere near well enough to frighten your average fourth outfielder's sense of job security. But more than Torcato, the man on the spot is Jeffrey Hammonds, since he's the warm body most likely to get the playing time. The lead's now 9.5 games, with the Giants playing the Expos, Braves, and Marlins, while the Snakes draw the Braves, Reds, and Cubs. Stay tuned.
Taking advantage of their depth, the Mariners don't plan on rushing Sasaki back into save situations, instead allowing him for all practical purposes to do some rehab work at the back end of the big league bullpen his first few times out. It becomes a lot easier to do that sort of thing, of course, when you've got Armando Benitez instead of the Jeff Nelson-Arthur Rhodes duo as an alternative. That's less an indictment of Rhodes than a comment that it's easier to find a right-handed mate for him--particularly if you're the Mariners and as loaded as they with right-handed pitching talent--than it does to find a closer whose official closer ID is recognized by those closer decoder rings all major league managers carry nowadays.
This month's 'best pitching prospect the Rangers have' gets thrown into the fire, having started the season in A-ball, and worked his way up three rungs to pitch in the majors, as much out of desperate need as outright achievement. To their credit, if you were going to do something like this, the Rangers did it right by letting Dominguez debut against the hapless Tigers. Dominguez knows how to locate his fastball and set up his change, he works carefully, and he doesn't seem like the sort who will get rattled as easily as you might expect from a guy who opened the year in the California League. Overall, his season has been outstanding, as he's gone 10-0 between Stockton, Frisco, and Oklahoma, combining for 131.2 IP, allowing only 104 hits and 37 walks, only a half-dozen home runs, while striking out 137. On the year, he's given up 3.4 runs per nine, not quite Goodenesque, but if he managed to give up fewer than six runs per nine, he's an upgrade for the Rangers.
Unfortunately, that's the rub, since he's 23, a guy without a great breaking pitch, and this season already represents his heaviest professional workload. With more time, he would have picked up a breaking pitch, but the Rangers might be feeling a salmon-like urge to fight their way up to third, at whatever cost. At any rate, if the Rangers weren't in such a hurry to get nowhere, they could do Dominguez a favor, and choose one of two things: let him mature in the bullpen, Weaver-style, or let him labor away as a starter to entertain fans in flyover cities in bus-worthy leagues. It's a little murky why giving him service time now so that he can take a few shellackings makes real sense, although the snafu involving his eligibility for the Rule 5 draft last year (before his real age was known, since it made him eligible) could have forced the Rangers into a decision to place him on the 40-man roster now, rather than accept the caprices of Seligian justice.