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May 18, 2007

Transaction of the Day

Six Reshuffled Decks

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

DETROIT TIGERS
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Placed RHP Jeremy Bonderman on the 15-day DL (blister), retroactive to 5/9. [5/16]
Recalled RHP Zach Miner from Toledo (Triple-A). [5/17]
Optioned RHP Zach Miner to Toledo; recalled LHP Andrew Miller from Erie (Double-A). [5/18]

Losing Bonderman for a start certainly isn't good news, but it's a reminder that the first-place Tigers have somehow been getting it done in the rotation despite already losing Kenny Rogers. How'd that happen? To review the performances of the five rotation regulars, the Tigers have had the benefit of nobody sucking. Sure, they've gotten good work from Justin Verlander and Nate Robertson-that's not entirely a surprise, though. They've also had the benefit of good stuff from Bonderman, although the frustrating thing there is that it seems as if he's still teetering on the cusp of true dominance. Instead, what's really interesting is the winnable ballgames the Jungleers have gotten of late from the less-heralded heroes in the fourth and fifth slots. It's more than convenient that Mike Maroth has given them consecutive quality starts against a division rival like the Twins, and even more happy still that Chad Durbin has delivered three quaility starts in his last five, all three against division rivals. And when Durbin hasn't shone, he's been pulled before he got the team in trouble. For example, on May Day, Jim Leyland turned Durbin's start into a collective effort, getting solid multi-inning outings from retread Bobby Seay and Guitar Hero of the Revolution Joel Zumaya to bail Durbin out after some uncharacteristically wildness (no doubt it was his native sympathy with the plight of the masses on their day).

The absence of suckitude may not entirely be the same thing as quality, but the Tigers have had the advantage of having no starter go Jeff Weaver on them, and when you have an offense that might be a rung or two below the best, but still potent, you can capitalize, and Leyland's lackeys have. The challenge now is whether or not during Bonderman's brief absence and Maroth's even more brief disappearance (to deal with a bout of flu) their replacements can similarly deliver winnable games? Miner spotted for Maroth, and he's been strong of late, but inconsistent overall. Given that he's walking an unhealthy number of guys (20 in 42 IP), I'm not wild about his chances, but he was good enough to lose well yesterday against the Red Sox. Coming up to replace Bonderman for tonight's start will be buzz-slathered prospect, Miller, who had a great outing at Double-A Erie (8 6 1 0 0 7) after getting promoted away from less consistently dominant performances in the High-A Florida State League (21 runs allows in 41.1 IP, with 43 hits and 15 walks allowed, with only 28 K's). I'm not sure it's going to work out all that well, but at least he draws one of baseball's worst lineups in the Cardinals for his first-ever big league start.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Designated RHP Sidney Ponson for assignment; sold minor league LHP Mike Venafro to the Blue Jays. [5/13]
Recalled 1B-L Garrett Jones from Rochester (Triple-A). [5/15]
Placed RHP Jesse Crain on the 15-day DL (shoulder inflammation); recalled RHP Julio DePaula from Rochester (Triple-A). [5/16]

There's just something fundamentally dysfunctional about how the Twins run a roster. They've finally had the good sense to cut bait on the Aruban knight, and will probably promote Scott Baker to give him his latest shot at a rotation job-sounds great, right? Well, yes, but also no, because the person they seem likely to demote is Jones, because they're about to go into this weekend's interleague play, and they'd rather have a twelfth pitcher than a pinch-hitter. That's despite their already having an off-day this week, and no pen-wearying extra-inning mayhem during their getting swept by the Tribe this week. The pen's tossed three innings in the last two days, Joe Nathan's thrown one inning in the last week-the last thing this team needs is a twelfth pitcher, especially considering that it's already carrying both a righty and a lefty long reliever (Matt Guerrier and Glen Perkins, respectively).

Now, this isn't the same thing as saying that Jones is a great bet to fill this club's basic need for a real DH. He's had a nice spring with the Red Wings, hitting .305/.351/.525, but just .260/.305/.458 against right-handers, and that isn't that different from his 2005 season at Rochester (.244/.297/.445) or his 2006 (.238/.302/.430), at which point, it doesn't look like he's ready to graduate to the majors in his third season at Triple-A. He's not especially young anymore, turning 26 next month, but using him beats doofing around with the alternatives; after all, this is the team that does things like start entirely powerless hitters like Mike Redmond (nine times) and Jason Tyner (four) at DH. Getting Jason Kubel turned around might fix this problem, or give them a left fielder.

Getting Joe Mauer back from the DL might create an additional wrinkle. Consider the alternatives in this angels/pinheads exercise that presumes everyone's healthy simultaneously:


    Either / Or
C   Mauer  /  Redmond
LF  White  /  Mauer
DH  Kubel? /  Best Bat

With Mauer's potential to continue to blossom as a hitter potentially hanging in the balance, I'd probably go with the 'Or' and be done with it. Admittedly, this suggestion also depends on the sunny optimism that the Twins can correctly identify the best bat (presumably Kubel), in the face of a depressingly large body of information to the contrary.

Criticizing the decision to go to twelve pitchers also isn't the same thing as saying that the team won't miss Crain, and that they aren't a man down in the pen. He was obviously pretty good in 2005, but was just another guy last year, and using this as another reason to explain away disappointment would be dishonest. Scaring up relatively anonymous quality relief help is something this team has done and can do. DePaula's more of a soft-tosser, and the number of changeup-dependent relief greats makes for a pretty short list.

In the end, this team is still the one that decided to sign Ponson in the first place, and still the team that invested seven starts to rediscover that he's still cooked. The hollow production the team's getting from DH and left field are similarly self-inflicted. While injuries and player struggles are obviously a big part of the problem, the former's something you plan for, and the latter, intertwined with a decision-making process that brings back Rondell White. While losing Mauer for any length of time can cast a pretty big shadow over everything else, that should not loom so large as to leave people in the dark over the mismanagement of the roster, from the hot stove league to spring training to the present.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Placed RHP Huston Street on the 15-day DL (right ulnar nerve irritation), retroactive to 5/13; purchased the contract of RHP Connor Robertson from Sacramento (Triple-A). [5/15]
Placed OF-L Chris Snelling on the 15-day DL (knee contusion), retroactive to 5/11; purchased the contract of OF-R Hiram Bocachica from Sacramento; transferred OF-S Bobby Kielty from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/16]
Optioned LHP Dallas Braden to Sacramento; released 1B/2B-L Todd Walker outright. [5/17]

Okay, so they're down their ace and another starter, most of their outfield, their starting DH, their catcher's having trouble slugging the Mendoza Line, and they lose their closer for something like a two-month stretch? Sheesh, this is starting to resemble some of the cheats from Ender's Game, when they just didn't want the bright kid in the class to win. Not that I'm sanguine about the A's chances to keep up with the Angels, but it definitely seems to be a situation where if it isn't one thing, it's definitely going to be another. Snelling's latest disabling injury seems a fine reflection on his ability to fit right in with his latest team.

Braden's demotion sort of throws open the question of who's going to round out the rotation until Rich Harden can come off of the DL, but I don't think I'd give up on Braden just yet. Starting a game where the outfield has Nick Swisher in center and Shannon Stewart in left is just no way to do a rookie left-hander any favors, and Emil Brown's Braden-chasing triple to left field-not a common place for one-was sort of indicative of how this wasn't the best combination of lineup and moundsman. I'd still like to see Braden get a chance with a major league center fielder in center, Swisher in left, and some promise that he'll get solid outfield defense. Next week's off-day pretty much makes it easy to keep Braden shuffling in essentially paper transactions, as the fifth slot only has to come up on the next three Tuesdays, at which point we might be talking about Harden's return. If not Braden, we've got an unappetizing choice between guys like Shane Komine (6.6 RA/9, and only thee quality starts in eight), Jason Windsor (5.4 and two of eight), with Dan Meyer seemingly forever trying to get back in gear. The odd option might be minor league veteran Colby Lewis, who's given up only 2.5 runs per nine while logging seven quality starts in his eight. Of course, adding him to the 40-man wouldn't be easy-they're already at 40, with four bodies on the 60-day DL besides-but there's still some slack in the form of a guy like Donnie Murphy.

Speaking of squeezing onto the roster, as much as this has the outfield featuring a cast of thousands, I'm pleased to see Bocachica in the mix. Maybe it's my expectation that Stewart is never going to break out talking, but with Kielty shelved for a long time to come, the one thing the A's don't have in their outfield crowd is a right-handed bat worth starting against a lefty, and Bocachica might provide some sock. He's already 31, but he was off to a tremendous start for Sacto, hitting .318/.450/.628, and he's the sort of hitter who makes for a nice alternative for the A's, a guy with line-drive power and good plate coverage. Once Milton Bradley's 100 percent-well, if-even after they get guys like Snelling and Mark Kotsay back, I could see keeping Bocachica at the back end of the bench, while sending Travis Buck to Sacramento and Shannon Stewart back to the Twins as prepaid freight.

Which brings me to the last, toughest nut: what to do in Street's absence. There, I'm at a loss. I don't know what brand of Kool-Aid Jay Witasick is, but I haven't wanted any for a couple of years now. In Justin Duchscherer's absence, the rest of the pen looks like a bunch of specialists or aspiring specialists, and while those can be assets when you can mix them and match them, when you're short the closer, the primary set-up man, and anybody who can reliably handle a multi-inning outing, "specialist" becomes a bit of a dirty word. Even getting the Duke back probably leaves them stuck, since if he's sequestered in the closer's role, you've still got to find people who can help you protect the leads he's supposed to close out. As much as the Angels make it seem easy to conjure up a guy with a funky delivery and briefly turn him into a relief star (a la Ben Weber or Brendan Donnelly), I don't see Robertson turning out nearly as well. Despite the flamethrowing you might infer from his 19 Ks and 10 walks in 18.2 Sacramento innings, his stuff's relatively modest, and has nothing like the nasty break that out-of-nowhere guys like Weber and Donnelly had. So, while he can make it hard to pick up the ball, I worry he won't be able to fool enough of the people enough of the time.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Optioned RHP Kevin Barry to Richmond (Triple-A); activated RHP Bob Wickman from the 15-day DL. [5/15]
Placed LHP Mike Gonzalez on the 15-day DL (elbow spasms); recalled LHP Macay McBride from Richmond. [5/16]
Released 1B/LF-R Craig Wilson outright; activated C-S Brayan Pena from the 15-day DL. [5/17]

A lot's been made of how good the Braves' pen is, with multiple closers and a general sense of relief over relief, but I have to wonder. While they rate a very nice third in the National League, and fourth overall in WXRL, they're pretty middle-of-the-pack in what they do with inherited runners and the help they're providing the starters, and when you take those sorts of failures into account, you wind up with a pen that ranks closer to the bottom in their impact on the ballclub.

Getting Wickman back is supposed to help them, of course, because although he isn't actually pitching all that well, putting him in the situations where he's just logging saves might be totally okay if that means that Rafael Soriano's holding those leads and helping deliver them to the ninth inning in the first place. That's probably helpful enough to help them cover for losing Gonzalez handily enough in the near-term, but what else can they do? Tyler Yates and Chad Paronto have done decent work in relatively low-leverage situations, but I guess I'm curious about whether or not Cox can back a quality setup man like Soriano with a strong situational tandem; Pat Neshek and Dennys Reyes with last year's Twins make a particularly handy recent example. Since his being called up, Peter Moylan's doing the side-arming slaughter of right-handed hitters he's supposed to, limiting them to .143/.189/.229-but who's going to handle the portside chores?

That's where you can hope that McBride's reacquired a handle on his command during his stint in the capital of the Confederacy. The Braves had him starting games to stretch out his arm, but he also has more talent than most situational careerists-he throws a tick harder than most of their ilk, and flings a pretty sweet slider, and at 24, it seems a shame to just consign him to relief work. However, given the number of young lefty starters coming up in the organization (notably that Mississippi trio, Dan Smith, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Matt Harrison), there are other niches to be filled, and McBride had his moments last year. McBride's also shown improved control, striking out 14 against one walk in his last three starts across 13.2 IP, so there's a chance here for him to build on his good work in Richmond and potentially join Moylan in minor situational deitydom. Add that to their vaunted "three closers," and you've potentially got a pen that can pick up after any disasterpiece from Kyle Davies or Mark Redman.

To switch over to the offensive side of the equation, Wilson's release is another indication of how far the onetime mighty have fallen. It would be easy to see this as some sort of vindication of Dave Littlefield-how good can the guy be if he's been cut, so what's the big deal over not dealing him a year or two earlier-but that's a reminder that players are perishable commodities, and that Littlefield's job is to build the next good Pirates team. That's still going about as well as O.J.'s hunt for "the real killers." Meanwhile, for the Braves, it creates an interesting non-problem. Salty hasn't looked overmatched, but he shouldn't stick around to watch Brian McCann start games (that's what Pena's for). So once they feel the time's right to ship out Salty, what will they do with the roster spot? At this point of the season, probably the dull choice and go with a pitcher. That's in part because I'm not sure Scott Thorman needs a platoon partner at first base, and there aren't that many circumstances in which they'll have to pull him-if your first baseman's batting seventh, and he doesn't need to be platooned, he might not make the All-Star game, but a .282 Equivalent Average and a .490 SLG certainly beats doing something really dumb, like giving Sean Casey seven large. If they want to think about tweaking the roster, the thing they could use on the bench would be a lefty pinch-hitter who can play first and the outfield corners, but now's probably not the best time to pick those up at a bargain, not while there are plenty of contention-minded clubs.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Optioned RHP Rocky Cherry to Iowa (Triple-A); purchased the contract of 2B-L Mike Fontenot from Iowa; transferred RHP Kerry Wood from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/15]
Optioned INF-L Mike Fontenot to Iowa; recalled RHP Carlos Marmol from Iowa. [5/18]

It was nice to see Fontenot back up, but he was only here for the simple reason that Mark DeRosa's hurt and Derrek Lee's hurting, so the bench needed bodies as long as Ryan Theriot was starting second and Daryle Ward at first. That meant that the twelfth (and ideally optionable) twelfth pitcher had to go, and while Cherry's pitched like a peach, he's got to accept that sometimes life's a pit.

So, Fontenot's callup wasn't a matter of the things he's done, although his feats have been relatively impressive. He's off to a hot start, as hitting .364/.401/.628 is a lovely thing, of course. But Theriot's still swinging a hot bat, so while Fontenot has a nice list of playable utility comps (Stubby Clapp! Pee Wee Briley! The less-famous guy named Newhan!), I doubt he's ever going to draw much platoon duty at the keystone. Might he stick as a utilityman? He's been playing all sorts of short and third base for the I-Cubs, so you might think he's ready to be a good-hitting utility infielder, one of those second basemen who make the jump to quality utility guy. Well, not so much-he's really sort of been playing on the left side because Eric Patterson's starting at second base, and everyone else at short and third has been terrible. Shortstop has been a bit of a scar for the I-Cubs, at least before Ronny Cedeno's demotion, with non-prospects like Carlos Rojas and Albenis Machado (the minor leagues' answer to Steve Jeltz) manning the spot. Third base has been little better, as Scott Moore has also struggled-.235/.355/.333 is a long way from keeping himself on alternative third base options for major league teams looking to a deal with the Cubs. So Fontenot's been an I-Hero, and that was enough to briefly make him the Last Cub du jour.

NEW YORK METS
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Optioned RHP Lino Urdaneta to New Orleans (Triple-A); recalled RHP Ambiorix Burgos from New Orleans; acquired INF-L Jake Gautreau from the Indians for a PTBNL or cash, and assigned him to New Orleans. [5/15]
Placed OF-R Moises Alou on the 15-day DL (pulled quad); recalled LHP Jason Vargas from New Orleans. [5/17]

So, the latest twist in the rotation is that Jorge Sosa is suddenly something more than an experiment, he's the guy whose name just went from pencil to ink in the rotation, and the latest flip is to take a spin with Vargas in the rotation. What's even goofier about it is that isn't like Vargas had started putting things together-he'd been smacked around in his last four starts as a Zephyr after opening the year with three "qualities." I don't disagree with the idea that they're better off letting Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber try to get their acts together before bringing them back up to stay, but Vargas and Sosa and John Maine's routine baserunners aplenty outings just seem like a formula for not kicking out to a lead on the Braves.

Vargas even did a pretty good job, right up until he got blitzed in the sixth, but to Willie Randolph's credit, he decided to risk running him back out there to face the bottom of the order in the seventh, and it worked. What was really remarkable about last night's game was whether or not you saw last night's lineup. It shouldn't have led to a win, and heck, it didn't, not on its own, but the Mets had the good fortune to catch Ryan Dempster in another one of his too-frequent impersonations of a napalm-stuffed piņata. That lineup's a product of an overlapping set of disappointingly cold starts and the latest Alou breakdown, but in the face of those sorts of problems, the Mets have decided to do something a little bold here as well, in their promotion of Carlos Gomez a few days back. Gomez is still a bit of an odd prospect, a speed guy who isn't all slappy at the plate, and who might have some upside. He's shown improved patience from last year's breakthrough to Double-A by walking in almost 10 percent of his plate appearances in the early going at Triple-A; that's the sort of growth the Mets are expecting from him. Although only 21 and gifted with the tools to make a good center fielder, it's still sort of uncertain what he might grow up to be, and where. He's not moving Beltran, and he doesn't have the power for a corner, though at his age, it's hard to saw if he never will. He can either be an extremely valuable bargaining chip right now, or the man who made Endy Chavez expendable.


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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