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July 26, 2007

Transaction of the Day

Linebrink-Inman, Belliard, and Izturis

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Optioned OF-L Tony Gwynn Jr. to Nashville (Triple-A); activated CF-R Bill Hall from the 15-day DL; acquired RHP Scott Linebrink from the Padres for RHP Will Inman and LHPs Joe Thatcher and Steve Garrison. [7/25]

One of these things is not like the other, and will actually do the Brewers some real good in their pursuit of a winning record, a division title, and general relevance in a dimension they haven't visited since 1982-and it ain't the trade. Getting Hall back will do the Brewers all sorts of good, not because Mini-Gwynn was a problem, but because Hall's a key power source, and getting the outfield back to Hall, Corey Hart, and the Menchkins platoon is important when Kevin Mench can't really contribute much beyond mashing the odd lefty in Miller Park. Should the Brewers get into October, I think we can look forward to a postseason bench that has Mini-Gwynn on it and Mench in his proper role, which along with having Gabe Gross back should make for giving opposing managers fits, because Ned Yost might be the only manager with enough bullets in the bandolier on his bench to go match-up to match-up against the usual late-game situational pitching changes. That alone would make the Brewers one of the most interesting teams to see in postseason baseball, but that's in part because I'd really like to see us get rid of the twelfth pitcher and get back to a more tactically interesting game.

So, I digress, and the Brewers have made a big trade, and this is... exactly the sort of payoff we've come to expect from deadline action these days. Linebrink's not having a bad season per se, but he's clearly not having as good a season as in he had in years past:


Year    ERA     WXRL   ARP    FRA
---------------------------------
2004   2.14    3.559  32.6   1.53
2005   1.83    3.729  22.3   2.21
2006   3.57    3.995  12.6   3.44
2007   3.80    1.804   5.8   3.47

It isn't that Linebrink's bad, it's that he's a few rungs below his previously-achieved greatness, and now that we're in a second season of that climbdown--added to the specter of his free agency this winter--he's an odd sort of proposition. Clearly, it's worthwhile to get a guy who's "merely" good with a recent record of flat-out dominance, but I guess I just don't see Linebrink having the same sort of bounceback potential that Francisco Cordero had coming over from the harder league and a harder park last season. Linebrink's leaving Petco behind, and probably a better overall defense.

Then we get into the question of necessity. Did the Brewers need Linebrink? I don't see why they should have. It's one thing to consider him desirable-a lot of GMs still have 2004 on their minds, and if Todd Jones can endure as a closer, of course somebody like Linebrink can close. But the Brewers didn't have a weak pen, they have the fourth-best pen in the National League, and in Cordero, Carlos Villanueva, Derrick Turnbow, Matt Wise, and situational lefty Brian Shouse (an underrated pickup by Melvin from last summer), Yost has an effective and deep relief corps. In terms of 2007 performance, Linebrink's only the fourth-best reliever, and even then, only just, because Wise is having a pretty solid little season soaking up middle-inning work. You trade one of your best prospects, plus a big league-ready lefty, and a third arm, to get two months of a guy who might be your fourth-best reliever?

Now, even if the lefty was a credit to the organization's ability to dig talent out of the independent leagues, and even if there's a pretty solid shot that the draft picks that Linebrink should turn into during during the offseason stand to be pretty tasty--since they'll be made by Jack Zduriencik--I'm still a little non-plussed by whatever it was the Brewers think they've achieved here. They dealt one of their best bargaining chips to reinforce a team strength? That's insecurity writ large.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Acquired MI-S Cesar Izturis and cash from the Cubs for a PTBNL. [7/25]

Littlefield's being banged on for trading Izturis and purportedly undermining his negotiating position in trying to deal Jack Wilson, but I don't think that's what's wrong here. I don't mind the idea of playing aggressively to secure yourself against a future deal, but it really makes sense to make sure that you first have that deal in hand. With the massive financial commitment to Wilson (more than $14 million through 2009, at a minimum) that Dave Littlefield has already made seemingly headed nowhere fast, it's hard to envision what it is that Izturis actually gives the franchise. Barring a Wilson deal, we can invert the utility of this deal by suggesting that the Bucs shop Freddy Sanchez, but not a lot of contenders need a second baseman with poor range or a third baseman without the power you usually want from your man at the hot corner. I suppose they could always put Izturis at second, and then move Sanchez to third, burying Jose Bautista. That isn't really progress; it's just reshuffling a deck without any face cards, and then wondering why your solitaire games seem to go nowhere.

There is some hope, in the form of Brian Bixler, who's having a nice season in Indianapolis-.291/.387/.425. Perhaps in a post-Wilson deal landscape, he's the shortstop of the immediate future, with Izturis representing a veteran insurance policy. That's sensible, right? Unfortunately, Bixler's not really seen as a defensive asset at short, so he's probably going to move to second, at which point, you're still left with your monster commitment to Wilson, you still have your needless commitment to a temp like Izturis, and you still haven't figured out what Freddy Sanchez is for. This story has an ending, doesn't it? Or heads in some identifiable direction, right?

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Acquired RHP Will Inman and LHPs Joe Thatcher and Steve Garrison for RHP Scott Linebrink; recalled RHP Clay Hensley from Portland (Triple-A). [7/25]

I think it's a fascinating exercise in Kevin Towers and company keeping an eye on their future. A rotation that has Greg Maddux or Jumbo Wells in it obviously isn't built to last forever one through five, but something that has Jake Peavy locked up through 2009 and Chris Young through 2011 has its front pair set. For the sake of argument, if Hensley goes back into the rotation next year, and Justin Germano can be a solid fourth or high-end fifth starter, and you bring Inman into the equation, that's a rotation you can contend with, but which is also affordable. I was sort of wondering if this might save the Padres enough money to help them swing a follow-on deal, but Linebrink's only due $1.75 million on the year, so really their only real "hidden" exchange in the deal was giving up the draft picks that Linebrink's impending free agency would have generated to buy the possibility that the three arms received are-in total-better than what they might have wound up with next June.

What's also interesting about this deal is that both of these teams were already among the best in the league in relief work. The Pads rank first in the NL and second only to the Red Sox in team WXRL, and the Brewers rank fourth. The Padres dealing from strength is understandable; doing so to go prospect-shopping, however, is a bit more unusual, especially since they're mano y mano with the Dodgers for the stretch.

However, even with Linebrink gone, they're still in good shape in the pen as far as who's going to deliver leads to Trevor Hoffman. Heath Bell has been this year's iteration of the Linebrink of old, and like the original article, picked up on the relative cheap. Kevin Cameron has delivered outstanding value in middle relief work. Cla Meredith hasn't been as brilliant as he was last season, and it's a little strange to see how hittable he's been while not showing the sort of platoon split you'd normally expect from a sidearmer. (We'll have more on Meredith next week, assuming my back-and-forth with Marc Normandin about his shockingly large BABIP comes to fruition in the form of Marc's next Player Profile.)

Thatcher comes right up into that pen, and addresses one area of relative weakness in the Pads' collection of relievers by giving them a probable upgrade at the situational lefty slot; although Royce Ring and Justin Hampson have their uses, neither one of them has especially dominant stuff. What Thatcher offers is a potent cutter/slider mix and a delivery only slightly less funky than a sidearmer's, and after striking out 53 in 38 minor league innings this season, it's bold-but understandably bold-for the Pads to turn to him. It's really sort of interesting to see the Pads pick up Thatcher, because they're pretty well-known for scouring the independent leagues for talent, and Thatcher was one of the ones who got away.

So, Thatcher's interesting, and offers a change of pace to a pen that leaned pretty heavily to the right, but the real payoff is in the prospects brought on board. Inman is very much a performance analyst's kind of prospect, a command pitcher with a slightly deceptive delivery and thorough mastery of a decent assortment. Not too unlike Germano, only much, much better, because Inman's been dominant save for a slightly rough introduction to Double-A that he's already ironed out, striking out 42 in 39.2 innings in the Southern League. That may or may not move him up Kevin's recent review of his list of the top 100 prospects in baseball, but I guess I like the suggestion that a pitcher with a Madduxian capacity for strikezone artistry is in the same organization with the man himself. It would be premature to expect Inman to arrive this summer or next spring, but the potential to pitch himself up through the upper levels quickly is reflected in his career 333/75 K/BB ratio in 276 career innings. The danger sign I would pay the most attention to so far would be his seven homers allowed in Double-A-that's not the kind of cookie distribution that anybody can get away with, but assuming that it's a matter of making adjustments and crediting Inman with no small measure of aptitude, I think it's the sort of thing we can forgive from a 20-year-old pitcher with obvious potential.

Finally, there's Garrison, but it's a little hard to get really worked up about a guy giving up five runs per nine in the Florida State League. Still, he's a lefty who's topped 90 once in a while, so he's not just a 20-year-old strikethrower from a New Jersey high school. As the third wheel, he's interesting, but whether he earns his way onto the 40-man in another couple of years remains to be seen.

I know this deal is already seen as controversial in San Diego, but it seems to me to be a great bit of good scouting and good business made without significantly endangering the ballclub's prospects for winning yet another division title.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed 2B-R Ronnie Belliard to a two-year, $3.5 million contract extension. [7/23]

If this is preliminary to making Belliard somebody else's ballplayer, that's great, but if it isn't-and it isn't-then my first worry was that this is a waste of money that they should have kept for the war chest this winter. After all, Belliard's already 32, and he's not especially spry; indeed, his lack of athleticism has always been considered a major strike against him, albeit one that he's overcome to have a very solid career. His defensive work has been more than a little all over the map, ranging from execrable at points last year to seemingly much improved this season, but I wouldn't exactly call that an endorsement for a guy who will probably have to line up alongside an iron-gloved Felipe Lopez at short for another year. He's plinking enough singles to be useful, and he was a solid enough bargain bin snag this past winter, but his walk rate's down, his value on the bases is negligible, and he's not a premium power source. It's like Jose Vidro never left, but re-arrived with a lower price tag.

Now, that's not a bad thing, and Belliard's an adequate enough placeholder, but the interesting wrinkle that might come from this is what it might mean for the club's plans for Lopez. Try as he might, Lopez just isn't ever going to be an asset in the field at short, and his offensive value basically evaporated as soon as he left the Great American Ballpark. Would you give a defensive zero with a sub-.300 OBP and negligible power anything close to last year's arbitration-generated $3.9 million? Or would you non-tender him, keep your fingers crossed that Cristian Guzman has something left to offer, and in the meantime go shake the glove tree to see if you might not get some sort of slick-fielding journeyman? You'd wind up spending less on the Brand X shortstop and Belliard combined than you will have to if you try and keep Lopez.

So, in short, the Nats might stand to realize some savings here, and if it provides their beleaguered pitching staff with some better defensive support next season, so much the better. If it means that Jim Bowden's got another couple of million dollars to throw at some pitching, again, that's a happy development. There's still the shoe (or is that axe?) that has to fall regarding Lopez, but I think this actually might work out relatively well, assuming the Nats aren't just making the mistake of trying to keep everybody as some sort of demonstration of loyalty.


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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Transaction of the Day... (08/14)
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Premium Article The Mill: Thursday Upd... (07/26)

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