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August 8, 2006

Transaction of the Day

Snakes Livan Large

by Christina Kahrl

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National League

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Acquired RHP Livan Hernandez and cash from the Nationals for RHP Garrett Mock and LHP Matt Chico. [8/7]

Arizona's managed to shake up observers already, because of its willingness to play to win through trusting to its kids. Whether it's been cutting loose Russ Ortiz, or pushing past the ineffectiveness of veterans like Shawn Green to get Carlos Quentin up and starting, or just letting injuries to Craig Counsell and Tony Clark serve as reason enough to play Stephen Drew and Conor Jackson, GM Josh Byrnes has been ready to take advantage of the farm system that former scouting director (and newly-minted Nats Assistant GM) Mike Rizzo has assembled. But given that the Snakes are in the hunt for both the wild card and the NL West, it was probably time that Byrnes also put some of that talent to use to shore up a specific weakness, and potentially two.

Livan's a name starter, going back to his playoff performances as a Marlins rookie, and he arrives with an incomparable track record as a staff workhorse. Although it's been an ugly season for him in total, the key consideration is that Hernandez has cranked out seven quality starts in his last eight, a good indication that he's worked his way through the knee troubles that have hobbled him all season. His SNLVA in that eight-game stretch is 0.1, not great, but solid. Of course, we could nit-nat about those eight starts, in that while exactly half of them were in pitcher-friendly RFK, he also got the benefit of pitching in San Diego and San Francisco on the road, and one of his other road opponents was the light-hitting Pirates. But that's where we're probably getting too invested in parsing smaller and smaller bits of data.

The question isn't who Bob Melvin will replace in the rotation with Hernandez, but who he should. Consider the performance of the Snakes' five horsemen (as starting pitchers only):

Pitcher           GS   ERA    FRA    QS/BQS  BR/9   SNLVA
Brandon Webb      23   2.74   3.16   16/2    10.3    3.5
Miguel Batista    23   4.87   5.59    9/1    14.6   -0.5
Claudio Vargas    21   5.40   6.13   10/1    13.6   -0.8
Juan Cruz         13   4.95   4.64    4/0    14.0    0.5
Enrique Gonzalez  12   5.37   5.45    6/0    12.1   -0.1
Livan             24   5.34   5.89   13/1    13.9   -0.8
FRA: "fair" runs against average; runs allowed with inherited/bequeathed runners included. QS: quality starts, defined by six-plus innings, and three or fewer runs (not earned runs) BQS: A quality start that was subsequently blown by runs allowed after six innings BR/9: counting HBPs but not IBBs SNLVA: Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added, adjusted for the ability of the performance of each batter the pitcher faced.

Now, there's some goofy stuff going on there, in terms of who's doing well and why. Cruz's name ranking second by SNLVA might surprise some, but after re-gilding his promise as a starter with a 13-start stint in Sacramento in the A's organization last summer, he wound up being the best man to take Ortiz's place in the rotation; the Snakes moved him in at the end of April. It's not clear that he's more than a five-inning starter after a trip to the DL in June, since he hasn't gotten past the sixth more than once in his seven starts since. He and Gonzalez both have up-side, but they also have the shortest track records as major league starters in the organization. Vargas is your basic fifth starter and journeyman, and has given the team a decent proportion of winnable ballgames in his starts despite a generally poor performance. Fifth starters may be a necessary evil in today's day and age, but remember, they're also not people you end up using, and certainly not starting, in the postseason.

Which leaves us with Batista, the self-described utility pitcher. Although he hasn't been all that special in the rotation, he is somebody with a solid resume as a major league reliever, counting last season's stint as the Blue Jays' closer. Now, that said, he wasn't an outstanding reliever last year, ranking 91st out of 653 major league relievers in lineup-adjusted Wins Expectation above Replacement, or WXRL. The team's pen isn't a serious weakness, but at 16th in WXRL, it also isn't a strength. Arizona lost last night's game in no small part because Bob Melvin's not wild about what he's getting out of Brandon Medders or Greg Aquino lately-Medders has been struggling of late, while Aquino seems reserved for blowouts. The pen's problems get worse when you consider that Cruz, Vargas, and Gonzalez aren't the sorts of guys who can consistently give you more than five innings in a night, which puts a heavier workload on the pen, something that might become even more telling as we get deeper into the stretch drive. Adding Hernandez helps address that problem in part as an innings eater in the rotatioin, but the Snakes have the opportunity to double their benefits in the deal by pushing Batista into the pen to help them compensate for the questions about the durability of their other starters. They'd be improving the pen while also doing something about their relative shortage of innings from their rotation.

As for the financial side of the deal, it seems like a reasonable pickup. The Nats are eating about $2 million of what Hernandez is owed, and he's under contract for $7 million for 2007. Given that there won't be a lot of free agent hurlers available at that price for one year, that's a pretty reasonable investment for next year's bid for contention. Batista's the only significant free agent on the staff at season's end, so if you subtract his $4.75 million from the balance sheet for next year, Livan becomes that much more affordable.

Basically, it's a good move. The pitching prospects given up are pretty tantalizing, but the Snakes have a shot now, and they're already getting the benefit of turning to low-cost starters like Cruz and Gonzalez. With Webb locked in for the next several seasons as the staff ace, and with Livan plugged in as the representative famous guy with playoff experience between them, that's a pretty solid foundation for the next year or so. Beyond that, we get into talking about whenever Dustin Nippert will stick, another nice problem to have, so nearly-ready minor league pitching wasn't really a problem. If you accept the proposition that Hernandez's most recent work with the Nats represents what Arizona will get for him down the stretch, and acknowledge that Hernandez will be an important part of a contention-ready team in 2007 as well, it's a solid win-win move.

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Acquired RHP Garrett Mock and LHP Matt Chico from the Diamondbacks for RHP Livan Hernandez and cash. [8/7]

Now that Mike Rizzo is the Assistant General Manager of the Nats, the notion that Washington might try to add talent from the site of his scouting exploits should surprise nobody. The Nats are out of it, they need depth at every position in the fram system, and they're particularly short of worthwhile pitching above A-ball. Both pitchers are 23 and already at Double-A. Here's their performances this year, with Mock's numbers all at Tennessee in the Southern League, and Chico's split between that level (ten starts) and the hitter-friendly High-A Cal League (13 starts):

Pitcher     GS    IP     H    BB   K    HR   R/9
Chico       23    131.1  110  32   112  11   3.2
Mock        23    131.0  144  50   117  14   5.6

Chico's already looking like he could be a good fourth or fifth starter in the major leagues, but he's had a semi-bumpy road to prospectdom. A top amateur in high school, he passed up pro money from the Red Sox to play at USC, couldn't hack the coursework, drifted out of sight and into a SoCal semi-pro league, and got rediscovered by the D-backs in 2003. They've taught him how to pitch when you can't overpower everyone the way he did in high school, but even so, we're talking about a lefty who can get into the 90s; add in some guile, and you've got a guy who might be ready to stick by the end of 2007. His stuff works just fine against right-handed hitters, so he's not a reliever in the making. I've already mentioned Chico positively in passing, which might surprise some of you, considering he's finally passing Double-A in his third shot in three years after flopping the first two times. But the first time around was an aggressive late-season promotion from the Low-A Midwest League in only his first full season as a pro (2004), and the second, last season, was when he started off at that level and proved he really did need to get in some time at High-A. He's a pretty good example of a guy who's been challenged by his parent organization, and the challenges have made him a better prospect in the long haul.

Mock's a little more difficult to project. He's been an enormous source of frustration not just for the Snakes in particular, but to scouts in general. Scouts see the stocky power-pitcher's body, that he throws into the low/mid 90s, has a good changeup, and that he throws two breaking pitches for strikes. Stuff, command: sounds great, right? Unfortunately, despite that stuff that should make him easily projectable as a major league starter, he was more hittable than you'd expect in the Cal League last year, and he hasn't made any real in-season progress at Double-A this season. You might have thought he'd turned a corner with a good June, but he's gone flat since. Righties, lefties, with runners on, the bases clear, Mock just keeps getting hit by everyone in every situation, and much more than people expect. There's nothing that anybody has picked up on mechanically that's begging for an easy correction, and no indication that he's tipping his pitches. It wouldn't be crazy to suggest that he figures it out, and suddenly becomes a potentially solid third starter in the major leagues; it also wouldn't be crazy to think he'll just continue to be maddening. Either way, though, he's something the Nats should want a piece of, because the off chance that he pans out is one worth risking.

Now, the temporary upshot of this is that the Nats will have to fill Livan's slot in the big league rotation, both down the stretch and next season. Since both Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. will be free agents after the season, they're already going to be stuck with that problem, and there's no guarantee that guys like Shawn Hill or Michael O'Connor will cut it. However, they should be able to pencil in Brian Lawrence and John Patterson if both recover fully from their injuries, so the Nats aren't really as far off from having a viable rotation next spring as you might think. All in all, kudos to GM Jim Bowden for making the move, and for his utilization of his new AGM's insight into his former organization's talent. Like the deal with the Reds at the end of last month, it's another move that helps put the Nats on the right track towards fielding a more competitive franchise.

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:  The Who,  Livan Hernandez,  Nats

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