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July 13, 2006

Transaction Analysis

July 10-13

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
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Optioned RHP Jason Johnson to Wilmington (High-A). [7/10]

Although this demotion is motivated by the desire to keep Johnson on turn in the rotation, keep in mind that Johnson has been rocked by both Florida teams, so this might be the only way to make the man king for a day. That said, the Lilliputians did take down Gulliver, and Johnson hardly looked the giant against mighty Frederick, striking out one A-ball hitter in seven innings while allowing ten hits and four runs. Suffice to say that the team's search for a fifth starter probably still lacks a healthy and worthwhile alternative, at least until Matt Clement is back in commission. Admittedly, Clement's SNVA of -1.2 isn't a whole lot more impressive than Johnson's -1.7, but whatever the argument about Clement's inability to thrive in Beantown, the promise of talent and performance is enough to merit trusting him with the last slot once he's able.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Activated RHP Chris Booker from the 15-day DL, and designated him for assignment. [7/9]

Activated RHP Mike MacDougal from the 60-day DL; optioned RHP Joe Nelson to Omaha (Triple-A). [7/12]

MacDougal hurled five consecutive scoreless innings in his rehab stint at Omaha, and it seems to be something of an organizational priority to get him back into the closing role--Buddy Bell seems to treat MacDougal as the second coming of Goose Gossage or something. But for all of the rejiggering of the pen, I don't see getting MacDougal back as a solution to the club's bullpen woes. True, fixing any one element of the team would be progress, but it's a lot to expect that MacDougal, a fringy one-inning closer more like Don Stanhouse in the best of times, is going to make things noticeably better. At most, this gives Ambiorix Burgos a shot at working a few more innings in his outings, instead of waiting for a rare lead, but if the Royals are really lucky, they'll be able to flip MacDougal in a waivers deal in August, assuming he's first done his impression of a major league closer adequately enough.

What I'm a little frustrated about is the quick discard of Booker, but his one outing was ugly, and as much as he's able to impress speed guns, we are talking about a guy who's 29 and whose recent success in Louisville last season was the product of his adding an occasionally impressive splitter. Maybe Dayton Moore doesn't think his stuff will fly in the majors, and that Booker's no better than a Triple-A floater; it wouldn't be an unreasonable decision, and maybe he's willing to look at Booker later on, but as a Rule 5 pick, Booker couldn't be simply optioned away. Between that and his trying to bounce back from offseason knee surgery and work through a subsequent groin injury, Moore decided to get the 40-man roster spot back. It might not merit the term 'gamble,' but it might work out for the best if nobody claims Booker and he slips back to Omaha. When rosters expand, the Royals might have the space to purchase his contract and take a longer look, but their fortunes won't be made or broken on discarding one flyer on a middle-aged middle man.

You might argue that it would be more useful to look at Booker than keep Elmer Dessens around, considering that his relief work has generally left the Royals beaten de-senseless, but he's under contract for 2007, and Moore might not yet have the pull to ditch him, and/or might be entertaining hopes of peddling the veteran by the deadline.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Released DH-B Ruben Sierra. [7/10]

Another eminently sensible decision from Terry Ryan. Having climbed down from their Sierra high, the Twins now seem to be more soberly committed to alternating Shannon Stewart and Jason Kubel back and forth between the starts at DH and left field, with whoever's wheels feel worse between the two determining which winds up leatherless on that give day. It also clears space on the roster for the club to bring up a fifth outfielder (Jason Tyner? The Jason Tyner? Man, I still want one of those) and/or Scott Baker, should he wind up in the fifth slot of the rotation. The question is whether they'll do both, and ditch one of the relievers-Willie Eyre or Pat Neshek? Eyre has limited upside, and he's struggled, while Neshek seems pretty promising, and should get a look. If they demoted Eyre to keep Tyner as a pinch-slap-hitter, pinch-runner, and as "Kubel's Legs," I might actually have to accept the suggestion of Tyner on the roster as a good thing, but if they instead send down Neshek or do something rash like cut Lew Ford, Twins fans would have reason to be a bit grumpy.

Meanwhile, Yankees fans, be afraid. Joe Torre may not watch the wires, but he's heard of this Sierra guy, and the Yankees do need help in the outfield. Me, I'd rather see an Oscar Gamble comeback. Mel Hall, even.

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS
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Acquired RHP Mitch Talbot and SS-B Ben Zobrist from the Astros for OF/1B/3B-L Aubrey Huff and cash; Talbot and Zobrist will be assigned to Montgomery (Double-A). [7/12]

As disappointing a return that this might seem to be on the long-anticipated Huff exchange, keep in mind that with trades, the three most important words are timing, timing, and timing, and the responsibility for not flipping Huff at a well-timed moment ranks as perhaps the final sin of the sinfully inept Lamar regime.

Organizationally, dealing Huff provided the necessary spur to move B.J. Upton to the hot corner. This was probably long overdue, but after letting Upton try shortstop one more time this year with Durham, both he and they have plenty of direct experience to make certain that this option was explored as far as it had to be. After 28 (more) errors, everyone should be content with the knowledge that Upton will not be a major league shortstop, but that doesn't necessarily stop him from becoming a good third baseman. Even if Upton's an error-prone but occasionally brilliant fielder at third, in sort of a Bobby Bonilla sort of way, that's still a player with tremendous upside. Plus, it keeps Upton out of the outfield logjam for the time being, and that's going to afford them that much more opportunity to see what Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes are capable of. They don't have to move Carl Crawford or Rocco Baldelli yet, or even over the winter to come, but they should be in a position to peddle one or both by the next year's deadline. Whenever and wherever, just as long as GM Andrew Friedman exacts maximum benefit and avoids repeating the Huff experience.

In terms of replacing Huff's stick for the time being, no worries there, and not simply because this is the D-Rays, and what does it matter? Instead, with Russell Branyan and Ty Wigginton and even Greg Norton all hitting well enough, Huff's bat won't be missed too much, although there is the danger that Travis Lee could start seeing significant playing time again. Here's hoping that the Rays give aging minor league vet Kevin Witt a shot after his hitting .287/.363/.562 down at Durham. No, Witt's not a prospect, not at 30, and playing first probably isn't something he does well enough, but why bother with Lee, so obviously a symbol of the club's mostly-harmless past, when he's downright truculent about not getting to play?

Which brings us finally to the goodies received as opposed to the organizational benefits accrued. Considering that it was picking people out of the Astros' relatively empty cupboard, Friedman and company did pretty well. Zobrist has shown that he's over the knee injury that created concerns for his future this past winter, and also quieted some concerns that his glove at short wouldn't play at the major league level. He's continued to hit in his Double-A debut, pasting the Texas League at a .327/.434/.473 pace, and not showing a galling platoon split the way some switch-hitters do. Although he's already 25, keep in mind that he was drafted at 23, and that he'll probably be fast-tracked for a significant utility role. He won't be a great player, but he should be a keeper, and possibly an asset.

As for Talbot, I suppose it depends on your point of view. As a 2nd-round draft choice in 2002, expectations were high for him, but he was being picked out of high school, necessitating a longer development curve. He wasn't especially impressive in either of his first two full seasons, but the Astros bumped him up a rung each year, and did the same with him this season, boosting him up to Double-A at 22. His virtues are clean mechanics and a spiking strikeout rate, with 96 in 90.1 IP, a career-best clip. However, a bevy of unearned runs allowed mask his 4.9 runs scored against him per nine. He's not getting hit all that hard despite allowing more than a hit per inning, though, and he's generating a goodly amount of groundball outs. Although he apparently still lacks a good breaking pitch, his combo of merely decent heat and a plus changeup seems to be working against advanced competition; considering his relative youth and the fact that he's only just made it up to the upper levels, you can cut him some slack and see him as a pitcher with promise, if something just short of a prospect.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Optioned OF-B Jason Botts to Oklahoma (Triple-A). [7/11]

This is more than a little frustrating since Botts hasn't really gotten a fair shot--sixty PA doesn't really tell you much, other than that the guy got sixty times at the plate, and the Rangers notionally have the playing time to spare since their decision to ditch Phil Nevin. However, Buck Showalter instead seems committed to the idea of ping-ponging Kevin Mench and Brad Wilkerson between one corner outfield spot and the DH job, because they're becoming just as committed to Mark DeRosa playing every day as they have been to Gary Matthews Jr.. In each case, it's a matter of riding the hot hand, and it's worked so far, but once both or either start hitting the way they have in their long careers, it's going to start hurting. I still like Botts' upside, and I'd still like to see him get a real crack at playing every day.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Announced that LHP Chris Hammond has cleared waivers (they're shocked, shocked!), and has become a free agent. [7/12]

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Acquired OF/1B/3B-L Aubrey Huff and cash from the Devil Rays for RHP Mitch Talbot and SS-B Ben Zobrist; optioned OF-R Jason Lane to Round Rock (Triple-A); designated UT-R Joe McEwing for assignment. [7/12]

The cash is being reported as something like $1.6M, almost half of what's left to be paid out to Huff over the final two and a half months. So, does this fly, will this make up for Lane coming up short or Preston Wilson being a lot less than expected, or is this just another P-astro on parade?

I guess I see it as a needed patch, in that Huff gives the team a lefty bat to help balance out the historically right-leaning lineup. Protection theorists will no doubt jump all over how this makes Lance Berkman better or less likely to be intentionally walked, but Berkman was already enjoying an insanely great year and wasn't being handed that many free passes. There is the question of whether or not Fruit Beverage To Be Named Later Ballpark is a lefty-friendly medium to Huff's power game--BIS's 2003-05 park factors indicated that Houston's a 77 for lefty home runs, and 95 for lefty batting averages, although Tampa Bay's only slightly juicier, rating 97 and 99 respectively. Huff's a pull hitter, so I wouldn't guess that he's going to suddenly spy the Crawford Boxes and start trying to inside things out for opposite-field shots. As a result, I wouldn't get carried away with my expectations. Regardless, Huff should obviously also be an upgrade on Lane or Wilson, although not so much as you might think. Huff was only cranking out a .271 Equivalent Average for the Devil Rays, to Lane's .250 and Wilson's .254, but there's the virtue of making the Astros lineup that much more likely to make Tony LaRussa make pitching changes, and the probability that Huff can do much better--he was projected for a .293 EqA.

Credit Tim Purpura for taking a page out of the playbook of Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty, and effectively buying away veteran help from a non-contender. Like Jocketty, he doesn't have much in the way of minor league talent to peddle, but he effectively saved the D-Rays something on the order of $1.6 million and gave them a plausible pair of prospects. In that sense, it's a win-win deal.

My only complaint is that I'd probably rather have Lane than Wilson. Lane can play his corner better than Wilson, and his rate stats would look much healthier if he got his average back up into the .260s. It isn't like he's striking out that much more often this year, so you'd think his average on balls in play would rise back to something like his career levels. However, the key consideration was that Lane's the guy with an option, while Wilson's the guy with guaranteed money (although happily, he'll also only cost them a $500K buyout to avoid the obviously-to-be-avoided three-year, $24 million club option), and Lane has a pretty obvious hole in his game, while Wilson just simply hasn't been very good.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Announced that C-R Chad Moeller cleared waivers, and outrighted him to Nashville (Triple-A). [7/10]


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

Related Content:  A's,  Aubrey Huff,  Triple-A,  Jason Lane,  Year Of The Injury,  Team

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