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March 3, 2006

Transaction Analysis

February 27-March 2

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
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Acquired RHP Jason Bulger from the Diamondbacks for 2B-B Alberto Callaspo. [2/28]

Bulger's nice enough as young relief maybes go, with mid-90s heat and a decent slider. The shame is that this is all the Angels get for Callaspo: a pitcher about as good as you might find on a waiver claim. Bulger might grow up to be an adequate big league reliever, but he's already 27, he's a former 1st round draft choice, and he hasn't really been all that impressive above A-ball, however good his stuff is on scout's charts. The Angels' infield picture was understandably crowded, with Howie Kendrick, Brandon Wood, and Erick Aybar all fighting for who gets assigned to Triple-A, and who has to settle for the Texas League looking up at the other two.

Now, admittedly, that's not such a terrible problem to have, but it's also nice of the Angels to thoughtfully dip into that depth and try to help the big league club right now, while freeing up their lesser infield prospects to their individual pursuits of happiness and profitable employment in other organizations. That's certainly what they did by swapping Alexi Casilla to the Twins for lefty relief workhorse J.C. Romero, after all. The problem is that, like Romero, I'm not so sure they added something of significant value. Romero's failures last season, particularly with men on base, hardly bode well for his bid to be the Angels' first quality bullpen lefty since... Scott Schoeneweis? I guess that's slightly less humiliating than "Mike Holtz." But in Bulger, all they've gotten is a righty reliever with a fastball and options, and in a pen that might already not have room for both Esteban Yan and Kevin Gregg, and which will also have organizational soldier (with extra surgery stripes) Greg Jones knocking around in camp. There's little about Bulger to make you think that he's more worthwhile than any of that lot, let alone someone you trade somebody off of your 40-man roster for.

If there's solace to be taken, it's that none of the Angels' top middle infield prospects has been dealt, and if there are sources of frustration, it's that they might have to risk losing a non-Bulger reliever on waivers at the end of camp. If instead Bill Stoneman uses that as an opportunity to deal a Yan or a Gregg for a catcher with some immediate utility, that would be okay, but in the meantime, he's peddled from depth without addressing the team's most serious weakness, its catching. And if they were so concerned about their relief depth, keep in mind this is something created by the same decision-makers who kept someone like Josh Paul on the 40-man last winter, and signed Yan to a two-year deal that same winter, while putting Bobby Jenks on waivers.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Signed RHP Hideo Nomo to a minor league contract. [3/1]

The point here is that Nomo is not going to get invited to big league camp. So if pitching coach Don Cooper's going to be doing any good deeds and fixing the wind-up delivery that has gone from explosive to generating explosions, it'll be from a distance. Nevertheless, the top possible call-up in case of a rotation injury isn't automatically the setting son of the Far East, not when there's an even more interesting retread NRI in camp in Tim Redding, and not while Brandon McCarthy's prospect status is alive and well. It all makes for good depth, and that's a sensible investment for Kenny Williams to be making now that there's a division to be won.

For my money, that sort of fight for status within a team's major and minor league camps is worth far more than reading DL (Designated Lia... Lawyer Who Speaks to Congress to Keep the Commissioner out of the Hoosegow) Bob DuPuy demonstrate that he's the one guy in the industry made of spare time in spring training, and pumped about talking about the latest febrile product of MLB's marketing mayhem, the noisome WBC. I think I know someone more interesting on the subject anyways, but as weak marketing goes, this latest funky old dude activity has to rank well behind watching Flavor Flav get his groove back. But then that's not really fair, not when one of these men was part of the greatest rap act of all time, while the other man is only slightly less cool than a skateboarding Montgomery Burns.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Acquired 2B-B Alberto Callaspo from the Angels for RHP Jason Bulger. [2/28]

A nifty little pickup for the Snakes, in that Bulger is an eminently replaceable commodity, while Callaspo's a young prospect with several things going for him. First, he's a slick second baseman in an organization that isn't really all that deep in middle infield prospects. Add in that he has a bit of power and patience, and that he can run, and you've got a guy who might get into an All-Star game someday while also giving the Snakes a middle infield that can put runs on the board once Stephen Drew is up as well. That's all for the future, of course, since the Snakes are well-set on that score for this season with Orlando Hudson and Craig Counsell. But Counsell's only under contract through this season, while Hudson's got two more lucrative spins at the arbitration wheel to look forward to, something that might encourage GM Josh Byrnes to shop him around later on this season if the D-backs fall out of the running by the deadline, or during next winter to another pennant-minded ballclub looking for a quality defender with a bit of sock for immediate help. And yes, while the organization does have Justin Upton in the wings, a lot can happen to an 18 year-old on the way up, so let's not ink him in at shortstop for 2009 just yet. Basically, the chances that Arizona could have Drew at short and Callaspo at second aren't insignificant.

NEW YORK METS
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Announced the retirement of 2B-R Bret Boone. [3/1]

This not entirely lamented event should not erase anyone's memory of Boone the ballplayer. However, this does create a more straightforward competition for the job at second base, with "incumbent" (to use the most generous of definitions) Kaz Matsui contending with Jeff Keppinger and Anderson Hernandez. While Keppinger isn't a great prospect, there's really only one bad choice among those three, and Matsui did badly enough last season that not even time served then is going to count towards his getting more now. It should make for one of the most interesting position fights this spring, in anybody's camp.

As for Boone, it was a good career. Although he had what seems like an improbably good late career spike, starting with his walk year with the Reds in 1998, back at the start of his career, he was an odd sort of prospect, a second baseman who was a Three True Outcomes hitter short on one of the outcomes (walks), and who alienated then-Mariner manager Lou Piniella with one of the others (the strikeouts). Then came four indifferent years with Cincinnati, then his big-money year, then further indifference with the Braves and Pads, and then his extraordinary three-year stretch with the Mariners before 2004's decline and 2005's implosion. It makes for a pretty funky career, certainly one that defies any easy claim of having a pattern. His defensive performance and reputation was similarly all over the map, going from a reputation for playing too deep to three Gold Gloves in the AL (all from that 2001-03 stretch, when he hit well enough to win the respect of the electorate, I suppose), and one another in the NL, although that came in 1998, the year after he might have had his best season afield over his entire career, at least in terms of his fielding Rate and Rate 2. But again, that's those funky voters for you, eventually catching up with a player's reputation, and to be fair, Boone's performances afield in 2001-03 were good, so it wasn't like Ryne Sandberg getting the award in 1990. So now he's gone, and as our own Jay Jaffe puts it, now the contest is between brother Aaron (in his capacity as the Indians' third baseman), and dad Bob (the Nationals' Assistant GM) to see who can do the most damage to his employer among the Boone clan. My money's on the old man, not that you should take that as an endorsement of the playah.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Agreed to terms with SS-R Jack Wilson on a three-year, $20.2 million contract extension through 2009, with a club option for 2010. [2/28]

Well, I suppose whoever ends up buying the team from Kid McClatchy will have to toss off the line, "Well there's another nice mess you've gotten me into," although I doubt the Kid will be weeping by that time. After this winter's pantomiming the activities of honestly competitive, well-run ballclubs, I can't imagine that McClatchy will hold on for too much longer, not with attendance plummeting and the team on the field liable to be exasperatingly dull where it isn't simply staffed with roster-clogging placeholders like Sean Casey, Joe Randa, or Jeromy Burnitz. Like the circle of Hell where Netflix only delivers National Lampoon Vacation movies, regrettable rentals rarely distract for the full length of the feature, usually driving the audience out of the room to take up fascinating hobbies like darning socks. After this year's flotsam stops bobbing and starts sinking, the Pirates will be that much closer to a team that's looking for new capital and a willingness to pay off the longer-term mistakes.

That may all seem harsh, since we're talking about Wilson here, and he is a legitimately glorious player to watch in the field. But at this sort of pay rate, the expectation seems to be that 2004 is going to happen again and again, when it very much looks like the rare outlier, like Gary DiSarcina's 1995, in a career that's very much looking like that of a healthy DiSarcina. That isn't a bad ballplayer, but it also isn't Jay Bell. His counting stats might seem okay; perhaps you're thinking that a team that doesn't have Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada is fortunate to have a guy who bopped eight home runs and seven triples. But Wilson took more than 600 plate appearances to get even that much on the board, and that's basically the only way he looks good, by playing great defense, and racking up just enough things that look productive that are more the function of Wilson's other skill beyond defense, which is health. Those are good things, but good enough for nearly $7 million per? There, I'm more than a little skeptical.

In the end, I think this is a contract that will be more important in the boardroom than what it achieves for the Pirates on the field. It's the expensive sort of move more likely to eventually contribute to the departures of Dave Littlefield and McClatchy. If, in the grand scheme of things, that might be progress, that just makes me ponder Karl Kraus' observation that "Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature." Before Pirates fans get worked up hoping for a better day with a better set-up at the top, I suppose we can recall similar enthusiasm felt by Royals fans when Herk Robinson got the axe, or Expos fans when Claude Brochu finally went away.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Signed OF-B Randy Winn to a three-year, $23.5 million contract extension. [2/28]

Sent RHPs Joe Bateman and Justin Hedrick, C-Rs Brian Munhall and Guillermo Rodriguez, 3B-L Brian Buscher, 3B-B Pablo Sandoval, 3B-R Jake Wald, OF-R Brian Horwitz, and OF-Ls Clay Timpner and John Bowker to their minor league camp. [3/1]

Most of the Winn-now jokes have already been coined, so let's stick to the brass tacks on this one. Winn's going to get more than $7 million per, which is the sort of random happiness that one-season wonders like Rick Cerone might only ever dream of. It's the sort of crushing obligation that kills a team when it's been made on the basis of one really freaky-deaky, uncharacteristic two-month stretch. Not that Winn has to give those two months back, of course. It's sort of like when Chris Speier hit two grand slams in a five-day stretch for the Giants in 1987. Sure, it's unlikely, but the deeds still count, and that's part of the fun of the game. It's when you're paying for that unlikelihood and making it an expectation that you wind up with a poisonous sense of regret. If your expectations of Winn are that he's a decent player to have in center (despite his arm), you're liable to get cranky or prematurely curmudgeonly about what decent center fielders cost these days, bordering on Frank DeFord-whiny even. I'm not really worried about that angle as much as I'm the sort of chronic scold who wonders how much this will limit the Giants' financial ability to help themselves in 2007 and 2008. He's athletic enough to age well, despite closing in on 32 already, but the Giants are paying Winn to be a star, and when the guy who had those incredible two months doesn't show up this season, it's going to be an unhappy thing indeed.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed RHP Pedro Astacio to a one-year contract, pending a physical. [2/27]

You might think this was a matter of it being a buyer's market for the likes of an acquired taste like Astacio. But with Brian Lawrence out for three months (as if) to a year (yup yup yup) with a torn labrum and rotator cuff, the Nats went from fickle suitor to closing-time neediness in 24 hours. That's what got Astacio a guaranteed deal instead of a late NRI, and that's what's probably going to get that penciling in on the big league roster switched over to ink in pretty short order. Beyond Astacio, the pitchers on the list of possibles to replace Lawrence are Billy Traber, Ryan Drese, and perhaps Jon Rauch, and this certainly locks both Tony Armas Jr. and Ramon Ortiz into the rotation.

But for that last slot in the rotation, four bodies hardly translates into four contenders, not when Rauch seems unlikely to ever remain healthy for months at a time, and not when Drese simply can't pitch well enough to hold a job. And much as I might like Traber as a former hard-throwing lefty with exceptional control, Astacio did crank out 14 quality starts in 22 total starts for the Rangers and Padres last season, including eight in his last nine for the Pads. Certainly, you have to think that pitching in RFK is the right sort of place for Astacio to give up homers closer to his clip with the Petco-gifted Pads (4 in 59.2 IP) than his pastings with the Rangers (13 in 67 IP). Don't be surprised when Astacio turns out to be the better pickup than Ortiz, and winds up the club's third-best starter. Mind you, I'm not saying that's a good thing, I'm just suggesting that you shouldn't be surprised. For myself, I'm with Frank Robinson, and more curious about how well Traber shapes up, but that could be in any role, and since the Nats aren't that likely to repeat last season's flirtation with contention, it's important to scale your expectations on the basis of seeing whether or not the club assembles building blocks from among the retreads and rentals, not instant success stories.

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

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