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August 8, 2007

Transaction Analysis

AL Roundup

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
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Optioned RHP Marcus Gwyn to Salt Lake (Triple-A); activated MI-S Erick Aybar from the 15-day DL. [8/6]

It's hard to see where Aybar will get playing time beyond the usual off-day fill-in assignments. Maicer Izturis' bat is heating up as he shakes off the rust, and Chone Figgins shouldn't come out of the lineup for any great stretch of time, not when he's rebounded from his coldest of cold starts to enjoy what might be his best season yet. There might be spots around the edges where Aybar will play beyond spot duty at second or short--pinch-running wouldn't be so terrible, assuming he isn't only coming in for the dreaded pinch-caught-stealing--but his pre-injury start was pretty toothless, and he doesn't have the benefit of past success under Mike Scioscia's watchful gaze the way that Figgy and Izturis do.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Optioned RHP Cory Doyne to Norfolk (Triple-A); recalled LHP Kurt Birkins from Norfolk. [8/3]
Activated 3B-R Melvin Mora from the 15-day DL; optioned MI-S Luis Hernandez to Bowie (Double-A). [8/5]

Now that Mora is back, we probably need to devote some time to asking what it was that the Orioles were thinking at the deadline, because their failure to ship out anything--not free agency-bound players like Corey Patterson, and not movable redundancies like Kevin Millar--really calls into question what they're doing. Aspiring to .500 is awfully neat, certainly, but they've boxed themselves in with a number of ex-famous lineup sinkholes with defensive handicaps, and need to come to grips with swallowing some salary at some point in the very near future. Aubrey Huff is owed more than $16 million in the two seasons to come; he's an adequate four-corners reserve with no upside and a visibly decaying collection of old-player skills at the plate. Jay Gibbons is due nearly $12 million over these same two seasons, and he's not even living up to his previously-set replacement-level DH standard.

Either player in a significant role would be survivable, but having both, plus Millar, plus Jay Payton playing regularly in left field... that's a formula for an unnecessarily weakened offense at premium offensive positions. If Millar clinches his playing time incentive that locks in his 2008 option, they'll be paying out more than $20 million next year for four weak performers at three premium offensive positions. There's a failure to understand that just because Gibbons was a nifty snag via the Rule 5 draft more than six years ago, he isn't a building block; he's disposable talent. There's an absence of awareness that just because Millar or Huff cost less than they might have if they'd been free agents at their peak value, they're not bargains. There's a fundamental blind spot when you look at Jay Payton and see an everyday left fielder. This sort of behavior, in talent acquisition and on the market, is a problem from the past, a leftover from the point in time before many GMs started sorting out that you're supposed to crush the middle class, and favor the low- or no-cost free talents and rookies balanced against star players. On some level, the Orioles got it partially correct; getting skill-position free agents like Miguel Tejada and Ramon Hernandez made sense, and retaining and handsomely compensating someone like Brian Roberts is equally wise. But the accumulation of crummy offensive talent on the periphery really does seem like a return to the waning days of guys like Mike Young, Larry Sheets and Jim Traber--except that their contemporary replacements are worse.

BOSTON RED SOX
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Optioned LHP Javier Lopez to Pawtucket (Triple-A). [8/5]
Activated RHP Curt Schilling from the 15-day DL; placed 4C-L Eric Hinske on the Bereavement List; recalled OF-L Brandon Moss from Pawtucket; signed OF-S Bobby Kielty to a minor league contract. [8/6]

Bringing Schilling back into the Kason Gabbard slot worked out rather neatly, with Julian Tavarez drawing the lone open assignment that fell between the deadline deal for Eric Gagne and Schilling's return from the DL. The Sox even won that game, as the Orioles failed to exploit getting Tavarez on the ropes early. So, a single-start win gets followed by a sigh of relief, followed by the Sox slotting Schilling back in to give them their best-case scenario in the rotation coming into the stretch, with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett in front of the Squad Leader junkie (I was always more of a Panzer/Armor/88 fan myself), and Tim Wakefield and Jon Lester coming up behind. If nothing else, the Red Sox are squared away as far as facing the challenge of the Yankees' similarly retooled, best-case rotation for the stretch.

The combination of events in the outfield is what I find much more interesting. Losing Hinske isn't fun, certainly, but there's not nearly enough to Mike Lowell's recent slump for me to feel like my prediction that he'd fall hard this year is anything other than still wrong, and Kevin Youkilis is earning his keep. In the outfield, Manny's being Manny, although J.D. Drew's doing a convincing Trot Nixon impression as far as his capacity to disappoint. They'll all still keep playing, so who's on the bench in this case is interesting because the Sox decided to focus on adding outfield depth, and punt worrying about who plays first or third if Lowell or Youkilis needs a breather. Instead, they brought in a fifth outfielder in Moss, which doesn't speak well of their opinion of designated fourth outfielder Wily Mo Pena.

That seems like a pretty harsh comment on Pena, although it also speaks to Moss' talents as a professional hitter type. Hitting .290/.371/.477 in Triple-A as a 23-year-old is good, but doing so without an exploitable platoon split doesn't help all that much beyond adding a useful alternative in the fourth outfielder universe; Moss cannot really handle center. It's hard to call him a contact hitter; the guy strikes out in a quarter of his plate appearances despite only adequate power for a corner outfielder.

That choice goes a long way towards explaining the decision to sign a platoon starlet like Kielty, because while Kielty is merely adequate (if that) against right-handers, the man with the more punk/mod riff on Ronald McDonald's rakish good looks should still have value in the role at 31. The question is whether he can be fit onto the postseason roster, at whose expense, and whether the Sox will have the good sense to avoid an 11-man pitching staff in October.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Activated RHP Mike MacDougal from 15-day DL; optioned RHP Charlie Haeger to Charlotte (Triple-A). [8/2]

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Activated LHP Aaron Fultz from the 15-day DL; designated RHP Fernando Cabrera for assignment. [8/1]
Signed RHP Scott Elarton to a minor league contract, and assigned him to Buffalo (Triple-A). [8/3]
Purchased the contract of LHP Aaron Laffey from Buffalo; designated LHP Jason Stanford for assignment. [8/4]
Signed 4C-L Russell Branyan to a minor league contract, and assigned him to Buffalo. [8/7]
Designated INF-L Mike Rouse for assignment; purchased the contract of MI-S Asdrubal Cabrera from Buffalo. [8/7]

Laffey is the latest alternative to Cliff Lee in the rotation, and while I think they were a bit quick on the draw as far as deciding to not give Stanford a shot, it is only Jason Stanford. Still, considering that Lee is supposed to come back at some point, presumably after appropriately learning his lesson and dominating International League lineups stocked with journeymen and organizational soldiers, would giving Stanford a turn or two have killed them? They can always subsequently turn to Laffey, especially since adding him to the 40-man is a pretty big step.

Then again, he would have had to be added after this season anyway, because he certainly earned it this year, giving up fewer than 3.5 runs per nine while generating more than twice as many groundball outs as flyouts with a plus sinker and much-improved slider; in 117 1/3 IP, he's struck out 86 while walking just 26. So, where service time's concerned, this is just a two-month head start, and there's a division title to be won. He's no power pitcher, but the ability to keep the ball on the ground and avoid souvenirs (he's allowed just seven homers on the season) has contributed to an 11-4 record between Akron and Buffalo. He didn't do all that badly in his debut, going up against Matt Garza before the Twins choked off any Tribe rallies by getting into their pen early.

Laffey is clearly talented, but in the same sort of way that Jeremy Sowers was and should still be--a decent choice for the back end of the rotation, but no sure thing. The problem is that there are virtually no alternatives during Lee's absence, which explains the decision to sign Elarton. While there's something about Elarton's return that conjures up a sick-dog supper that I frankly don't much like, after Laffey, for they've got nothing in-house. This is certainly an area where a waivers-minded pickup of a veteran swingman might make sense, but that won't be that easy to pull off.

Although they've silenced those fans who doubted that Casey Blake could move back to third--I think an "I told you so" works here; it's good for me, how about you?--I can see how bringing back swinging surfer star of Three True Outcomes godhood makes sense for an Indians team that might like to have a lefty-hitting alternative on the bench to Blake at third and Ryan Garko at first. Picking up Branyan certainly makes sense on that level, and if he's given the opportunity to gun for the Bisons' franchise record for home runs in the meantime, before postseason rosters are set, that might at least add some element of cool to what has been an often frustrating career.

The decision to exchange Cabrera for Rouse might seem particularly savage, but I think it's pretty straightforward. Cabrera's comeback as a prospect seems complete now that the 21-year-old Venezuelan import is hitting .310/.380/.448 on the year; he's every bit the act of baseball banditry made flesh I said he was last year. Rouse was a simple placeholder, and while you can feel for him--his bat had to have gone pretty stale watching four months of baseball--Cabrera is the better glove, an actual prospect, and has the benefit of his four months of regular playing time. As a more defense-minded alternative to Jhonny Peralta at short, and potentially as a switch-hitting alternative to the still-struggling Josh Barfield at second, this is a straightforward upgrade that should give a talented middle infielder a shot at contributing to his club's pennant chase down the stretch.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Reinstated RHP Zach Miner from the Bereavement List; optioned RHP Jose Capellan to Toledo (Triple-A). [8/3]
Placed LHP Andrew Miller on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); activated RHP Fernando Rodney from the 15-day DL. [8/4]

Miller's need for rest arrives on top of losing Kenny Rogers, which means that we'll be seeing Chad Durbin take a turn or two on top of starts by Jordan Tata, and perhaps even Zach Miner if things don't go well for Durbin or Tata. If that sounds decidedly un-bodacious to you, you're not alone, but since the Indians have their own issues with fleshing out a rotation with a full fivesome, the AL Central seems to be working it's way down from being what had been the best playoff race to one that's decidedly in the back seat behind the mounting drama between Boston and New York. While Durbin did deliver six quality starts in 14, decent work for a fifth man, and that's good enough to rate as the rotation's third-best starter, this is easily his best work since his one year as a Royals rotation regular in 2001. This might be a matter of investing a bit too much hope and faith in a free talent all-star.

The silver lining is that at least the Tigers have Rodney back in the fold, and while it was only the Devil Rays, he was handed and held an eighth-inning lead working without any days' rest. It hasn't been a good season for Rodney to start off with, but his ability to bounce back to last season's level is going to make a huge difference to how well the Jungleers can keep up with Cleveland.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Returned OF-R Reggie Sanders to the 15-day DL (hamstring); placed LHP Jorge De La Rosa on the 15-day DL (strained elbow); recalled OF-L Joey Gathright and RHP Ryan Braun from Omaha (Triple-A); activated 1B-R Ryan Shealy from the 15-day DL, and optioned him to Omaha. [8/1]

The deadline came and went, and nobody had been gulled as to Reggie Sanders' sometimes sort of availability and sort of sometimes productivity. Now that they've managed to move beyond that particular non-development, they can now turn to the more interesting questions of whether or not Gathright can hit well enough to stick, and if David DeJesus can play center well enough to make Gathright expendable. If this also means that Emil Brown won't see too many starts from here on out, those are the wages of inherent replaceability, and shame on Dayton Moore for offering Brown arbitration. Happily the price wasn't too steep, and it can be corrected easily enough in the winter to come. With De La Rosa's breakdown, they can also create easy roster space for Kyle Davies to step into the rotation, and if Davies didn't exactly thrive in his Royals debut, he did also have the misfortune of drawing the renascent Yankees.

Perhaps meriting greater attention instead should be the banishment of Shealy to the PCL. In part because I never drank from that particular pitcher of Kool-Aid, I guess I find it a remarkably unimportant transaction, but given how much some of my own colleagues got worked up about Shealy once he became a Royal, I guess I feel some compunction to note the damnation implicit in not being able to beat out Ross Gload in your age-27 season. The takeaway? That there's a long way to go before we can easily assert that life under Dayton Moore is entirely progressive. Every deal comes with risks, and Shealy represented a risk, even from the perspective of those of us who like seeing minor-league value pick-ups get opportunities. Certainly, when I talk about those guys, Shealy wasn't one of them, but some people might be sufficiently worked up over his hitting lefties in the PCL to see him as a prospect, and might yet be ready to apologize for his miserable performance this year because he's been hurt when he hasn't simply sucked. Me, I just calls 'em as I see's 'em.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Noted the loss of 1B/3B-R Jeff Cirillo to the Diamondbacks on a waiver claim; activated OF-R Michael Cuddyer from the 15-day DL. [8/3]
Optioned OF-R Lew Ford to Rochester (Triple-a); recalled LHP Carmen Cali from Rochester. [8/4]

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Optioned MI-R Chris Basak to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Triple-A); activated RHP Jeff Karstens from the 60-day DL. [8/1]
Optioned LHP Sean Henn to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; activated RHP Phil Hughes from the 60-day DL; designated RHP Colter Bean for assignment. [8/4]
Designated LHP Mike Myers for assignment; purchased the contract of RHP Jim Brower from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. [8/6]
Optioned RHP Brian Bruney to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; designated INF-S Miguel Cairo for assignment; purchased the contract of RHP Joba Chamberlain from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; activated 1B-L Jason Giambi from the 15-day DL. [8/7]

On the pitching side of the equation, the matter of import is not a question of Bruney versus Chamberlain or Brower. There's little reason to believe that Brower isn't still done, but Bruney stopped being the sort of pitcher who overpowered people at the plate more than a month ago, and fixing him at the big-league level isn't a luxury the Yankees can afford. Gearing up to put Joba the Hot (Prospect) on this staff has been in motion for weeks, as our own Kevin Goldstein discusses in today's New York Sun. The real problem is sorting out why the Yankees might have called up Brower, who is reliably releasable a reliever as any league could claim. Ginormous Chris Britton has been struggling of late, and T.J. Beam is coming back from an injury, which gets you back into discussing the merits of Edwar Ramirez, and we already know he's a guy Torre forgets to use. I really wonder Jeff Karstens is doing here, but he's the notional mop-up and long relief guy, and in the fussily contrived role-playing in big-league bullpens, I guess he's just following orders and collecting his check like the rest of us.

The roster choice there was really between providing Joe Torre with a veteran while also gifting him with a talent like Chamberlain, with Miguel Cairo representing the real loser to a decision to stick with 12 pitchers. So, setting Brower, Karstens and that lot aside for the second, the real problem in this pen is that there's no reason why the Yankees should prefer to carry guys like Sean Henn or Ron Villone as situational lefties over Myers. Joe Sheehan made this point on our in-house e-mail list, but the data remains interesting:


2007 Performance versus Lefties
Pitcher    PA  BB   K   AVG/ OBP /SLG
Villone    52   3   3  .292/.346/.438
Henn       45   4   5  .263/.364/.342
Myers      88   9  18  .312/.379/.442

The problem here isn't that none of them have been very good--that's not happy, certainly. The real problem is that there's a distinct difference between Myers, the guy you're supposed to be bringing in to face top lefty batters, and still fooling some of them some of the time, and Villone and Henn, who aren't fooling anybody from among their fellow southpaws in less-critical situations, but who have been comparatively hit-lucky. But it was Myers they cut? Don't be surprised if he bobs over to some other contender once he passes through waivers, and if the Yankees lose a key game or two in late September or October because they don't have a situational lefty worthy of the name--because gods above and below know, you wouldn't want to ask David Ortiz to hit against the guys he slugs less than .400 against late in a game. Don't say you weren't warned.

As for Giambi's return, the amazing "problem" the Yankees seem to be having with this is that they really can't seem to reconcile having Giambi, Johnny Damon, Shelley Duncan and Wilson Betemit all at once, yet somehow see only one regular lineup slot that doesn't involve having them spot for somebody: Designated Hitter. Never mind that first base is still no more manned than any Mars mission. I know I'm being hard on them here; Damon will get playing time in the three outfield slots as the primary reserve there, while Duncan can spot in left or at first base. Betemit should get to start at third, short and first, and although he'll be one of the largest second basemen in the league, he'll start there as well, as long as Joe Torre remembers to use him. This is still the problem, and it's getting sillier with time--Andy Phillips is no more a regular first baseman than he is a U.S. Senator or a refreshing frothy summer drink, but he's the warm body that has drawn 35 of the last 38 starts at first base; one went to Betemit, while two of the remaining three went to the unlamentedly dispatched Cairo.

The release of Cairo, like the decision to pick up Betemit, demonstrates that Brian Cashman's best tool in fixing this team is take away the toys Joe Torre likes to play with, and replace them with better toys. This isn't about the manager's comfort zone, it's about winning the division, and the longer any vestige of that sort of haphazard, downright slack management style remains in play, the more the front office should be asking itself how long it can indulge this behavior.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Placed 3B-L Eric Chavez on the 15-day DL (lower back spasms), retroactive to 7/27; recalled INF-R J.J. Furmaniak from Sacramento (Triple-A). [8/3]
Noted the loss of LHP Joe Kennedy on a waiver claim by the Diamondbacks; recalled RHP Ruddy Lugo from Sacramento. [8/4]

Somehow, I don't think anybody really envisioned a stretch where the A's would be playing second baseman Donnie Murphy as their everyday shortstop and utility infielder Marco Scutaro as their everyday third baseman, but here we are, and yes, this is the cast for a disaster. Murphy is at least doing enough to make him a plausible Scutaro alternative, but he's yet another non-viable replacement shortstop playing short in the absence of teams perhaps taking Earl Weaver too seriously about where you find your replacement shorstop (to paraphrase, Triple-A). For all of the yammering about the shortage of catchers or pitchers, I'm beginning to think the increasing shortage of people who can plausibly pick it at short is really what I'm noticing in the wake of assorted breakdowns, injuries, and flameouts.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Designated OF-R Jason Ellison for assignment; recalled CF-R Adam Jones from Tacoma (Triple-A). [8/3]

Hauling up Jones was probably overdue, considering that the prospect was hitting .314/.382/.586 for the Rainiers. The Mariners' lineup is already short of quality production at first and second base, and settling for adequacy from its left fielders and designated hitters. The interesting question is whether or not they plug all of these holes at once. Jones gives them an outfield reserve who might allow them to bench Raul Ibanez, but that's not all that different from the suggestion that maybe they should have Ben Broussard start for Richie Sexson a lot more often at first base, or that their recent decision to experiment with using Jose Vidro at second base might not help them now and again. They have the tools with which to help themselves, and certainly the suggestion that they might choose to employ Vidro in some role other than DH helps, but the thought seems to be that Jones will somehow chew into Jose Guillen's playing time. That makes little or no sense considering that Guillen's not a problem, not nearly to the same extent that players like Ibanez or Sexson have proven to be. This being a Bill Bavasi ballclub, reason isn't a guaranteed part of the program.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Recalled OF-S Jason Botts and RHP Wes Littleton from Oklahoma (Triple-A); optioned RHP Scott Feldman and 3B-R Travis Metcalf to Oklahoma; outrighted INF-S Desi Relaford to Oklahoma. [8/1]
Placed RHP Kameron Loe on the 15-day DL (tightness - lower back), retroactive to 7/29; recalled RHP Mike Wood from Oklahoma (Triple-A). [8/4]

Most of this is a matter of cleaning up the roster in the wake of their twin big deals. As a practical matter, this means that Botts, Sammy Sosa and Frank Catalanotto will be splitting time between the left field and DH slots in the lineup, at least as long as Nelson Cruz keeps bopping from right field, and as long as they devote themselves to simply sticking Jarrod Salatalamacchia at first base. The player truly boxed out for the time being seems to be Brad Wilkerson, but seeing that he's about to become a decisively unattractive free agency wallflower, jobbing him isn't exactly the end of the world. There's still the embarrassment of having to play Ramon Vazquez at third as a regular, but without getting evaluation time for Hank Blalock until September, they're making do.

The real goal here is having something to build on, and Botts is a long-overdue part of that. After hitting .320/.436/.545 and having just turned 27, there really is no time like the present for Botts. Give his age and his defensive limitations, he really won't be anything more than a multi-year patch at the DH and left field slots, providing adequate production before he becomes arbitration-eligible and, coincident with that, considerably less useful as a way of warding off the Wilkersons, or the Catalanottos for that matter.

Less hopefully, there's still the rotation to sort out. Losing Loe shouldn't represent a major setback, but it did leave them with a temporary, grisly choice between Willie Eyre and Mike Wood (Jamey Wright couldn't be pressed into action). Happily, they shouldn't need a fifth starter again until August 18th--thank you, o capriciously generous scheduling gods--at which point it isn't inconceivable that Vicente Padilla will be ready to come off of the DL, keeping Wright in the pen and John Rheinecker out there every fifth day, and... hrm. There's just no fixing some things, is there?

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Designated UT-L Howie Clark and SS-R Royce Clayton for assignment; claimed MI-R Hector Luna off of waivers from the Indians; purchased the contract of SS-S Ray Olmedo from Syracuse (Triple-A). [8/3]
Released SS-R Royce Clayton. [8/7]

And just like that, the Blue Jays are better, but then they always could have been. Olmedo was here the whole time, after all, while Royce Clayton merely had the virtues of being Royce Clayton, something that on an experiential level has consistently encouraged everyone to get off that particular high and seek some new prescription. I suppose the happier way to look at this is that the team has belatedly recognized that there was no particular virtue to leaning on the people making something more than the minimum, and that they could risk improvement by taking someone like Olmedo (.290/.345/.341 at Syracuse), or by nabbing Luna off of waivers. It's worth noting that Luna's offensive performance at Buffalo (.251/.297/.362) has done nothing to overshadow concerns about his defense at short after an error-plagued spring training got him run out of Cleveland, so while he might be able to stick as a utility infielder, it seems more likely that he's a few steps down the Enrique Wilson road to premature over-touting (by myself, among others) and complete irrelevance.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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