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November 14, 2006

Transaction of the Day

Major Moves, November 8-13, 2006

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Acquired RHP Jaret Wright and $4 million from the Yankees for RHP Chris Britton. [11/12]

To the credit of Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette, the Orioles did what bottom feeders need to do to make modest improvements by taking on some measure of salary to see if they can get value. You can also see this is a symptom of the club's perceived trouble wooing free agents. In that sense, getting Wright isn't significantly different than their getting Kris Benson last winter, except that it cost them less, and it comes with the hope that reuniting Wright with Leo Mazzone might re-create the circumstances of Wright's one genuinely good year in the last eight. I say might, because we could have said the same thing of their picking up Russ Ortiz off of the scrapheap last summer (and did), and that didn't really work out. However, Wright does offer some measure of hope, especially in that he did finish up 2006 with a flourish by making four quality starts in his last four, although it's also worth noting that he got at least a week's worth of rest between appearances during that promising "streak." Basically, I don't think he's quite as useful as his Support-Neutral numbers for 2006 suggest, but considering how poorly the Orioles' rotation did, he's still a nice addition.

What Wright offers the Orioles is a veteran placeholder for the rotation who, if healthy, affords them a choice between Adam Loewen and Hayden Penn for the fifth slot in the rotation early on, and who can then get dealt at the deadline to make room for the other of the two. Four or six months of Wright, plus the prospect he might generate in return in a deal or (less likely) in the form of picks as a departing free agent seems more than worth Britton.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Acquired 2B-R Josh Barfield from the Padres for 3B-R Kevin Kouzmanoff and RHP Andrew Brown. [11/8]

I guess I'm not quite as sanguine about this deal as some, but that's because Mark Shapiro had to give something up to get something good, and getting Barfield creates follow-on roster and position issues that will have to be addressed in the months to come. It also takes one possible lineup solution off of the table: Kouzmanoff can rake, and plugging him into left field might have been pretty tasty low-cost option for the Tribe's other unanswered lineup position question. However, if he wasn't going to left field, Kouzmanoff wasn't going to be able to stick ahead of Andy Marte at third for any great length of time, so his value to the Tribe was somewhat mitigated by that. Brown was basically a sweetener of choice, and not someone the Indians should regret dealing either. (As far as what this means for the team's outfield corners, right now, they can get by with a combination of Shin-Soo Choo, Casey Blake, and Jason Michaels. That's not great, but it's an improvement on what they had coming into last season, when it was just Blake and Michaels.) Essentially, the Indians dealt from strength to take a chance, and the question isn't whether or not it's a good deal-it is, for both clubs-it's whether or not it's going to pay off as much as some of my colleagues seem to be taking for granted.

The positives are pretty obvious: Barfield's young (he'll turn 24 next month), cheap, a solid power source at the plate, a solid defender at second, and he's five years away from free agency. His power numbers should improve now that he's out of PETCO, but he's not a perfect hitter. Consider his major splits in his triple crown rate stats:

Home:     .241/.279/.361
Road:     .319/.355/.484
vs. RHPs: .266/.299/.376
vs. LHPs: .331/.378/.587

In other words, his problems weren't all PETCO, they also involved the majority of hurlers in major league baseball. Also keep in mind that he drew only 23 unintentional walks in 578 plate appearances. To his credit, he gets good marks for his work habits, and even if he continues to struggle against righthanders, outside of PETCO I think you'll see his overall rate stats improve, but basically, what you can expect is that he'll get plugged into the bottom of the lineup, and be useful and dangerous there. I think there's a small chance that he'll improve enough to become an All-Star-caliber hitter, walks or no walks, but there's also a chance that he continues to struggle to get on base often enough to be anything more than a nice little bottom-of-the-order hitter. It's a decent balance of risks and rewards, and one the Indians can also help him out with by spotting lefty-hitting Joe Inglett at second against the toughest righthanded pitchers. That won't hurt Barfield's numbers all that much, especially if he's only missing a start every week or so against guys who might otherwise dice him up at the plate.

The question is whether the Indians haven't created subsequent blocks to some decisions they might have to make later on. Certainly, Inglett and Hector Luna won't get the shot as regulars they might have otherwise gotten, but as a pair of reserves, it would be hard to do better than that duo. The question I wonder about is whether or not acquiring Barfield creates subsequent problems should Jhonny Peralta have to move from short. I'll defer to the Indians over our defensive metrics on the subject of his glovework-if the man's ability on the double-play doesn't outweigh questions about his range, he's going to wind up moving across the keystone. Admittedly, I'm worrying about something that might not matter. To their credit, the Tribe sees this as a situation where they might have a middle infield combo that puts runs on the board and can flip the deuce better than most. If Peralta struggles afield to the point that they have to consider dealing him after 2007 now that Barfield's the second baseman of the present and the future, that's a problem for a later day. It's also a problem scenario for which they also already have in-house fixes at shortstop, with Luna available in the near-term, and the possibility that Asdrubal Cabrera develops suggesting a future potential tack. For the right-now part of the program, though, like the general idea that it's going to be worth taking a chance on Barfield's potential, it's also going to be worth seeing if Peralta can pick up the slack defensively and regain some of the ground he lost at the plate between 2005 and 2006.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Acquired OF-R Gary Sheffield from the Yankees for RHPs Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan, and Anthony Claggett; signed Sheffield to a two-year, $28 million contract extension through 2009. [11/11]

The Tigers quickly spent some of their victory dividend, and while I don't mind the prospects portion of the program, it's the decision to keep Sheffield happy (and quiet) by giving him the two additional years that I'm not quite so excited about. Will he be healthy through his Age-40 season? That's a huge bet to place, and not one I'd make. Although Sheffield offers this team a major fix for its OBP needs and should step immediately into the three-hole in the lineup, and although Sheffield had played more than 150 games in each of the three seasons preceding 2006, old players start losing pieces of their game as well as time to the daily hurts, and the more serious injuries they become more prone to. While Sheffield's not your average old man, and has done a good job of keeping himself in relatively good repair, his slugging's slipped every year from 2003, his OBP isn't getting any better, and he's effectively going straight to the DH slot, or at least sharing it and right field with Magglio Ordonez. That blocks Marcus Thames, or reduces Thames to the spectator's role he got squeezed into in the World Series, although it's always possible Thames might start filching playing time from Craig Monroe in left.

Overall, though, Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez seem likely to keep losing their individual fights with Father Time, Placido Polanco's power isn't a good bet to reappear, and you still have the problem of who plays first base. So, while Sheffield's a help, he's cost the Tigers a lot of their freedom of action in terms of the money he'll cost and the talent it took to add him, and without a much better solution to their needs at first base, I don't think this lineup's really going to be that much better in 2007.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Acquired RHPs Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan, and Anthony Claggett from the Tigers for OF-R Gary Sheffield. [11/11]

Acquired RHP Chris Britton from the Orioles for RHP Jaret Wright and cash. [11/12]

Overall, I like what the Yankees are doing here. Contracted compensastion acceleration among the team's veterans was already going to produce an eight-figure inflation on the team's payroll, and that's without counting what a full year of Bobby Abreu was going to cost them, so moving salary made sense. The question is whether or not they got all they could for Sheffield. The veteran's whiny brinksmanship over his 2007 option seems to have successfully balanced on that fine line between canny business and Operation Shutdown, as the Yankees essentially got three arms of mixed promise for the one year of Sheffield they could deliver. Is that enough, or did Sheffield make himself enough of a headache that the Yankees took what they could get?

Sanchez strikes some prospect hounds' collective fancy, but I guess I'm always going to be a bit cautious about injury-prone and overweight pitching prospects. Sanchez was dominant at Double-A Erie this spring, striking out 86 in 71.2 innings while allowing only 47 hits, two homers, and 27 walks. It was also the third season he's put in time at the level; he did well enough in six weeks as a Mudhen (51.1-50-20-43, four runs allowed per nine) before essentially losing the last six weeks of the year to a tender elbow. While his low 90s heat and nice curve can play in the majors, I guess I just wonder if he can pan out, between the elbow considerations and my more general skepticism over whether or not he's just the new edition of Carlos Castillo, a pitcher with similar stuff, even greater promise at an earlier age, and a debilitating weight problem. There's also the question of the Yankees as an organization that can manage a young starter's career, or if they can help him get a handle on the weight issues. We'll see, but he's not the best bet from among the trio.

The guy I like better than Sanchez is Whelan, because he's a college conversion project picked last year from Texas A&M (4th round) with mid-90s heat and a nice splitter. Whelan posted pretty sweet numbers in the High-A Florida State League, striking out 69 and walking 27 (unintentionally) in 54 innings, while allowing only 34 hits and a single homer. If he shows at Double-A that it wasn't all damp Florida air keeping his flyballs in the park, and shows continued aptitude for pitching, he could come up in a hurry. The problem is that he wouldn't be the first talented young reliever to rocket up to The Show in this system, and if he struggled, he also wouldn't be the first one whose career the Yankees mismanaged. Handled with care, though, he could be a cheap relief asset. Claggett's not too dissimilar, in that he's a minor league reliever picked in the '05 draft (11th round), although he doesn't have Whelan's stuff. He's the most 'maybe' of the three maybes.

Is that enough? It's a reasonable spread, given that the Yankees were giving up the walk year of a veteran DH who'd cranked about playing first, his lack of an extension, and who was redundant on a club that had Bobby Abreu in right and (an untradeable) Jason Giambi at DH or first. The problem is whether or not the Yankees really know how to get the most out of the trio, and there, their track record is poor, and the quality of the headline prospect, Sanchez, is a little dubious. It wasn't a great exchange, but in a market where most teams would want the Yankees to send money in the deal, it was a pretty reasonable bit of damage control by Brian Cashman and crew.

That's not to say they didn't spend to make other problems go away. Paying the Orioles to make Jaret Wright go away makes sense, both in terms of the club's already having to pay $4 million one way or another (that was the price of not picking up Wright's '07 option), and instead of freeing Wright, they added a right-handed reliever who can help them. Britton's offspeed stuff needs work, and he can get chunky, but he attacks the strikezone effectively with low 90s heat, posting a 41-14 K-BB ratio in 53.2 innings as a rookie. Considering that this was his first season out of A-ball, I'm impressed. There's a possibility that he might turn out to be no less valuable than the best of what they got from the Tigers for Sheffield, and there's nothing in the new CBA that compels the Yankees to only employ people making significantly more than the major league minimum. As a way of filling out the back end of the pen with pitchers more likely to deliver than your next Tanyon Sturtze or Scott Erickson sighting for what amounts to petty cash, it's a modest and useful move.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Signed 3B-R Aramis Ramirez to a five-year, $75 million contract; signed RHP Kerry Wood to a one-year, incentive-laden $1.75 million contract. [11/12]

The current mania is that everybody's going to have to spend more to compete, perhaps infused with a bit of new CBA-inspired euphoria. That helps explain Jim Hendry's comment that he has to "keep up with the Cardinals. At least as far as far as spending money." It's in anticipation of the cashbaths bleeding bottom lines to come that some have already rushed to congratulate the Cubs for signing Ramirez to this sort of money, but I guess I'm a little more reluctant to sign on with that brand of crowded wisdom. Ramirez isn't especially athletic or nimble, and his third-base play has already lost ground considerably from his more aggressive days with the Pirates-he's not good pouncing on bunts, ranging to his left, guarding the line, or starting double-plays. Instead, he's functional, and that's okay, but that's him at this best, and now that he's entering the tail end of his peak, it's unlikely to get better. Skip asking whether he'll be able to play third effectively in five years; he might not manage it in three.

So essentially, the Cubs are paying $15 million per year for his bat, from ages 29 through 33. To his credit, he has excellent plate coverage and top-shelf power. The question is whether or not that will persist as he moves out of the more-usual peak period of ages 25 through 29, into his early thirties. There, last season's PECOTA card comparables offer some clue, in that the most-similar players to him through 2005 were Tony Perez after 1970, Larry Parrish after 1981, and Tim Wallach after 1985. I don't take those as good signs. Parrish's career was scragged by injuries, and by that point, he couldn't handle third any more. Perez also couldn't really play third, but like Ramirez, he was pretty durable; the problem is that his power went from outstanding to adequate at the ages where the Cubs are hoping that Ramirez stays at the levels of the last couple of seasons. And Wallach? He was significantly less the hitter and by far the more brilliant defender than Ramirez is. The comparison to Perez, who was coming off of a monster 1970 season, seems particularly appropriate.

Looking at the money spent and the future I think we can reasonably expect from Ramirez, this really looks like a panic move, where the Cubs couldn't afford to lose face, and will instead be forced to deal with a question of whether or not they'll survive Ramirez's decline in the field. As is, I expect they'll regret his decline at the plate over the life of the contract, but that's in part because the hitter Ramirez really reminds me of is George Bell, and like Perez, Bell never again reached the heights he scaled in a normal peak period. As much as I like watching Ramirez hit, and as much as he's been an essential cog in their lineup, barring a major overhaul of the roster to field a genuine, less-fragile contender, this was a major financial mistake. If Hendry achieves that overhaul or not, either way, the contract's a major millstone, untradeably huge from a player who might have to go to first or DH before it's done.

The contrast is Wood's deal, which after initially paying him the $3 million to buy out his 2007 option, seems like a reasonably minor financial risk. If Wood fulfills all of the playing time and active days on the roster incentives, he stands to make more like $6 million, and if he does that, chances are the Cubs will be happy about it. There's some question about what role he'll be employed in, but a resurrection as a relief ace seems to be within the realm of possibility. As much as Wood has been called upon to do so much for this team, and as much as he seemed to be ill-served by it at times, I'm glad to see him stick around.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Acquired 3B-R Kevin Kouzmanoff and RHP Andrew Brown from the Indians for 2B-R Josh Barfield. [11/8]

I probably like this deal more than most analysts from the Padres' side of things, although what's involved is one pretty theoretical consideration. Does the limited supply of adequate third basemen on the major- and minor-league free agent markets invalidate the concept of replacement-level and-one more practical self-imposed challenge-can the Padres instead find a second baseman?

Before we get to those things, though, let's first address what they club got. Kouzmanoff hit a combined .379/.435/.682 between Double- and Triple-A, and he didn't do it in hitter's havens. Like Barfield, he crushed lefties (hitting .450 and slugging .890 against them in the minors), but he also stood in just fine against righties (.347 AVG, .561 SLG). While a 25-year-old at Double-A is far from a spring chicken, and he did draw only 27 unintentional walks in 394 minor-league PAs, 51 extra-base hits in 94 games is pretty amazing. Considering that he's also a workmanlike (if not gifted) glove at third, and you've got a pretty interesting player, one with the power potential to replace what Mike Piazza did for them in 2006, and one who then frees up Russell Branyan for more general spot duty at all four corners.

As for the more ethereal concern about replacement-level third basemen, a large part of the problem is that your generic replacement-level player isn't automatically waiting around for you. Is Branyan replacement level? At the plate, I'd say he's much better than that, but he bobs around from team to team, alienating some with his fielding, others with his strikeouts, and apparently others still with his attitude. But if you had you choice between Branyan or Kouzmanoff, I'd take Kouzmanoff. The free agent market doesn't offer many choices-Aubrey Huff? Nomar Garciaparra? I wouldn't pay the high-end money to sign either of them, not if I could instead add Ray Durham at the high end, Adam Kennedy from mid-market, or Craig Counsell at the low end, assuming you can't swing the much-rumored Marcus Giles deal. For the sake of argument, let's say you've got these sorts of combinations in play at second and third:

Barfield + Branyan
Barfield + Garciaparra or Huff
M. Giles or Durham or Kennedy + Kouzmanoff

For 2007, I think there's an argument to be made that the last choice is also the best. Add in that in a lineup where you're already swapping out Piazza for Josh Bard, and have questions about left field, and where you would rather have Branyan as insurance instead of as someone you put into the lineup in ink instead of pencil, I don't think the particular on the decision tree the team's picked is the wrong one. Kouzmanoff's upside and right-handed power at a position where there's relative scarcity is compelling, and the market's got more second basemen in play who might cost less than a different solution to their third base problems.

The chance here is that if the Padres might be a lot better offensively in 2007 than they would have been if they'd stood pat, balanced against Barfield's upside. Kevin Towers is risking that Barfield doesn't blossom, and that Kouzmanoff doesn't tank or reinjure his back, but as a way to adjust to the market, field a solid lineup in 2007, and accept that there's probably always going to be more second basemen around that you can use than third basemen, I like the risks involved. As noted in the Indians segment, Barfield isn't perfect, and if Kouzmanoff gives them an answer to their third base needs for the next four to six years, by the time he reaches free agency, he'll probably be at the point they'd want to let him walk anyways.

As for Andrew Brown, in mid-August I noted he was "(p)art of the package picked up from the Dodgers for Milton Bradley, Brown's able to throw in the mid-90s. He's regressed a bit this year: after striking out 81 in 70 innings in Buffalo last season (against only 19 walks), his walk rate spiked this season (36), and he's fooling fewer people (53 Ks). There are questions about whether or not he's going to master his craft, but the raw stuff is good, and since he's already on the 40-man, you may as well take a look... ."

Not much changed from there, as he struggled with his command with the Indians, walking seven (on his own) and striking out seven in ten innings. He's promising, and it no doubt helps to be a pitcher in PETCO. Still, he he could struggle with his command and never pan out, or become the new Scott Linebrink, or anything in between. He was worth nabbing as an evener on the deal, but the real key is whether or not Kouzmanoff answers the team's third base needs for the next several years.


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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