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December 9, 2007

Transaction Analysis

Big Moves in the NL

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Dealt RHP Jose Ascanio to the Cubs for LHP Will Ohman and UT-R Omar Infante; designated OF-L Willie Harris and RHP Lance Cormier for assignment; released INF-R Pete Orr.

Well, say this for the Braves-they don't let sentiment for their own cleverness get in the way of making a move to help themselves. As neat as it was that they managed to see something in Harris' swing that they could fix, and as cool as it was to see how that translated into a torrid couple of months, he did go back to being Willie Harris eventually, and that's not necessarily a great way to utilize a spot on your 40-man roster. Since they were the team that caught lightning in Harris' particular bottle, letting him loose should tell you he's probably back to being a replacement-level water bug for basepath skittering, worthy of a NRI contract at a major league franchise near you.

What cost him his space was the two-for-one swap with the Cubs, since everybody involved is a 40-man roster guy. I've been told I'm an optimist, but I still think Infante is as much a useful utilityman and roster space-saver for the Braves as I felt he was for the Cubs, and he's only the kicker for an exchange that brought the Braves a solid situational lefty. There is Ohman's weirdly awful performance at Wrigley Field against his work on the road, which doesn't appear to have anything to do with pitching in day games; if anything, I think the real problem is that the guy only got to face fewer than 170 hitters last year in game situations. Two veteran spare parts for a decent young right-hander without a lot of star potential? Maybe it would have been cheaper to go sifting through minor league free agents to find guys not much worse than Ohman and Infante, but I think the interesting market dynamic in play here is that it takes two major league veterans to get just a modest prospect of Ascanio's ability.

The decision to ditch Harris reflects some interesting changes in the outfield. Brandon Jones' near-readiness for the majors should put the young lefty power source into the mix with Matt Diaz for an improved and more traditionally power-producing left field platoon. Jones isn't really a platoon hitter, having crushed southpaws in both the Southern and International Leagues, but it plays to Diaz's utility to have them split time, and if Jones eventually makes the job his own by rising to the challenge of having to beat Diaz out, there's nothing wrong with that.

Where I think there's still another shoe to drop is in finding a center fielder-Harris wouldn't have been a bad temp, but right now Atlanta is sort of down to Josh Anderson, the scrubby organizational soldier it picked up from the Astros in dealing away Oscar Villarreal. Anderson's a speed guy with no special other skill; he doesn't get on base and doesn't slug, so we're looking at a guy who might struggle to deliver an OBP above .300 or a SLG within a hundred points of the league average. All in all, I think it's safe to say that the Braves aren't finished making moves just yet. The organization's always big on Georgia natives-why not take a spin with Corey Patterson on an incentive-laden one-plus-option deal?

CHICAGO CUBS
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Acquired RHP Jose Ascanio from the Braves for LHP Will Ohman and UT-R Omar Infante.

Ascanio's a nifty bit of swag for dumping a pair of veteran bodies-he has options, and a nice fastball/slider mix with heat that touches the mid-90s. He might make the club's big-league pen coming out of camp, and this also reflects a possible willingness to see if Neal Cotts might be able to be the club's second lefty behind Scott Eyre as well. Of course, the other purpose here was to help make space for a Rule Five guy, and our own Kevin Goldstein has already touched on the virtues of righty Tim Lahey.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Signed RHP Francisco Cordero to a four-year, $46 million contract with a $12 million club option for 2012; designated OF-L Buck Coats for assignment and then dispatched him to the Blue Jays for a heaping helping of future considerations; released INF-R Jorge Cantu.

Ahhh, so that's what closers are going for these days? I suppose it's easier to buy them off the rack than conjure up something that fits on your own. You might think this a strange pickup for a team not often considered to be a worthy entry among the ranks of 2008's contenders, but the Reds aren't patsies. Whatever you think of Dusty Baker as a manager, the man doesn't go in for rebuilds; he wants to win and win now, wherever he goes, and while that might be tough on young talent in the Reds' system, signing Cordero is a natural subsequent symptom of a club that sees itself as not all that far off. I think Wayne Krivsky has got that much right-the Reds aren't that far off, as the division remains within reach of any team that can get to 80 wins, and signing Cordero does indeed help them get closer to that. They already have the depth in the lineup and in both the outfield and infield to help get themselves there on the offensive side of the equation, and the real question is whether or not Homer Bailey might be ready to bridge the rotation's gap between Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo up front, and Bobby Livingston and Matt Belisle behind; if he is, they don't have to get too invested in this winter's starting pitcher market. The problem is that they can't really know that until March. However, keeping in mind that Livingston is recovering from shoulder surgery, and Belisle isn't really very good, they might pick up some veteran filler as insurance against Johnny Cueto or Carlos Fisher being something short of ready in the first half.

So-deep breath-the Reds have reasons to fancy themselves and their chances in 2008, and Cordero is a pretty solid indicator of how seriously they do. The question from there is whether or not Cordero is a great bet to deliver value on the deal. He hasn't missed significant time since 2001, and that was from stress fractures in his back that haven't recurred. He's still pumping premium-grade gas, so his arm hasn't lost anything to age, and that one bad spell in Texas in 2006 doesn't seem to have been indicative of any larger chronic problem. Compare that to the alternatives. Eric Gagne's not likely to go for an incentive-laden deal, and most teams should shy away from giving him a multi-year deal with his health record. Armando Benitez might be cheaper, but he might also be getting close to fully cooked. If you wanted to live dangerously, you might try him out for size, or Octavio Dotel. Maybe you want to be clever, and see if Shawn Chacon can build on last season and step back into closing. None of these guys provide anything like the reliability that Cordero has demonstrated in terms of staying healthy and being able to do his thing his way when he's out there. Nobody's going to give Krivsky a medal for being brave with the checkbook, or being unwilling to take a cheaper risk, but as much as I might initially struggle to accept a major capital investment in a closer, there's an understandable aversion to risk blended with the club's aspirations in the seasons to come.

Certainly, having Cordero delivers the benefit of putting David Weathers back in a set-up role, and that can provide a cascade of additional benefits. Maybe Bill Bray or Marcus McBeth, or Brad Salmon, or Todd Coffey thrive in the middle innings, and graduate to more important things as the season goes on. Okay, I know, Dusty Baker and kid relievers go together like turpentine and pasta-bear with me. The point is that the club has pitching talent in the pen, but by putting an alpha dog at its front, maybe that creates the usage patterns that allow some of those youngsters to shine. That, or they get intimately familiar with the Louisville shuttle, to the point that they have pre-assigned seats. But let's try and keep this optimistic for the moment.

The other thing that maybe-maybe-signing Cordero does is give Krivsky something to show to Adam Dunn and his peeps, as part of a further demonstration of a desire to contend. Maybe that helps Dunn see his way clear to signing a multi-year extension; stranger things have happened. I know that these things might ideally be sorted out in isolation, but that's not the way people are. If a (presumably) refreshed Dusty Baker and the market's best closer don't help Dunn see merit to sticking around, I doubt anything will.

COLORADO ROCKIES
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Re-signed C-R Yorvit Torrealba to a two-year, $7.25 million contract with a mutual $4 million option for 2010; re-signed RHP Matt Herges to a one-year contract with a club option for 2008; sent RHP Denny Bautista to the Tigers for RHP Jose Capellan.

As far as the Bautista/Capellan exchange, both guys are out of options, so both will go into camp facing a challenge to make the roster or face the wire. Although escaping from the challenge of pitching at altitude would normally be something most pitchers might welcome, I can't help but think this might be a good spot for Capellan. As their commitment to Herges reflects, the Rockies aren't afraid to take chances on other people's discards in their pen, and last year's relief crew was an important part of their success in-season and in October. Capellan is big, he still throws hard, and after delivering a good year for the Brewers in 2006, he's worth taking a chance on after a season where his real problem was getting cranky about another bad decision involving the Brewers and their bullpen, specifically his demotion.

I'm a lot less excited about the decision to bring back Torrealba, but the supply of catching help is thin, thin enough that despite his modest virtues, that contract won't be a deterrent to dealing him should Chris Iannetta do something to claim the catching job for himself. It's also not so expensive a deal that it precludes keeping Torrealba while Iannetta inches annually towards arbitration eligibility. If, for the sake of argument, Iannetta unseats Torrealba, there's still value to keeping the veteran around as insurance, and to spare the team from having to find out where Jayhawk Owens is keeping himself these days should Iannetta hit the DL after a tragic cannoli accident. Hey, don't laugh-they must be keeping Andy Garcia's warning about mob violence in Denver in too-frequent cable rotation because it's such a serious problem, right?

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Acquired CF-R Cameron Maybin, LHP Andrew Miller, RHPs Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz, and Dallas Trahern, and C-S Mike Rabelo and from the Tigers for LHP Dontrelle Willis and 3B-R Miguel Cabrera.

My colleagues have already covered this is detail, so just as far as my own two cents, this is your basic disaster as dumps go. Maybin and Miller certainly aren't ready for The Show just yet, with neither of them really showing they're any more advanced than being very ready for Double-A. Certainly, it will be interesting to see if the Fish really do put both on their Opening Day roster, given their desperate needs in center field and the rotation. As Kevin Goldstein already touched on, both have things to work on. Having already taken the PR hit of dealing both Willis and Cabrera, though, doing what's right for Maybin and Miller right now should be the organization's first priority, not trying to show anybody willing to buy a season ticket for 2008 that they got something of import out of this deal. If Larry Beinfest has the strength of purpose to treat Maybin and Miller as unfinished blue chippers, instead of immediate proof of value, I'll be impressed, and it will at least mean the club will get something closer to the premium value it thinks it's added here.

Certainly, the Fish had space on their 40-man to fit four new bodies on it (only Badenhop and Trahern didn't have to be added). The immediate problem for the Fish is that from among the four, maybe only one should be on the club's Opening Day roster, and thats the guy with zero upside, Rabelo. Rabelo might be good enough to be one of the team's two catchers, but he's not exactly an improvement on Miguel Olivo and Matt Treanor, just some extra depth. I suppose there's also a better than zero chance that De La Cruz could help this team's bullpen in April, but De La Cruz isn't significantly more likely to make this deal work than Rabelo is; good relievers can be found, and while I like the chances that De La Cruz will be a very good reliever, that's still not enough in terms of value.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Signed 2B-S Kazuo Matsui to a three-year, $16.5 million contract.

Apparently the energy crisis is such that they've been reduced to burning money in Houston; strange that they'd do it in December, right around when they can finally shut off their air conditioners, but so be it. It seems remarkable to me in retrospect that 20 years ago we were so concerned that Japanese corporations were going to snap up all of our art and artifacts. I remember the rumor going around in Berlin in the summer of 1990, when they removed Checkpoint Charlie, that a Japanese consortium has snapped it up for use in its lobby. (This was not true; the booth itself is in a West Berlin museum.) I guess I consider Matsui something like a gift in return, sort of a piece of performance art not unlike The Turk-sure, it's a hoax, but play along, and you can pretend that he's a starting-caliber player. He's a weak platoon player who has to be employed in the strong half of a platoon, and what slender production he generated in his "comeback" as a Rockie was generated by the benefits that go with hitting at altitude. While I'm sure the Astros' pitchers will appreciate his glovework, he'll be another reason why the Astros struggle to score runs despite playing in a bandbox.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Signed RHP David Riske to a three-year, $13 million contract with a club option for 2011; designated CF-L Laynce Nix for assignment; acquired RHP Salomon Torres from the Pirates for RHPs Marino Salas and Kevin Roberts.

Wade's Palsy is no laughing matter for general managers. A nervous tic that involves your roster having a permanent case of the shakes, only temporarily ameliorated by an increasing addiction to the rush of adding yet another reliever, the real problem is the entropic frustration and sense of inadequacy that goes with throwing more and more money and resources for ever-smaller returns. It cannot be cured by anything other than external success in the frequently only tangentially related area of team performance, but more commonly leads to paralysis, despair, and lethargy.

In a less smart-assy vein, both Riske and Torres are strike-throwers, and if Torres might be in danger of having shot his bolt after yeoman efforts for the Pirates, at least Riske's coming over from a tough park and the tougher league. You can expect both of them and Derrick Turnbow to all try and catch Ned Yost's fancy in the scramble for save opportunities in a post-Cordero pen. In a situation this fluid, though, I wouldn't leave the list of candidates there-Greg Aquino or Seth McClung could be dark horses, and who's to say Claudio Vargas or Carlos Villanueva don't get deployed in the slot should everybody look awful in camp? It's the sort of thing that might make both Yost and fantasy managers reach for the Pepto, but I think the more fundamental challenge here is for Yost to make a solid call and then have the staying power to see it through. One of his problems was cycling through his non-Cordero relievers with alarming speed, and it might be better to go into Opening Day having created some stability in their roles for his pitchers to cling to. At least for the first week.

NEW YORK METS
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Acquired OF-L Ryan Church and C-L Brian Schneider from the Nationals for OF-R Lastings Milledge; bought RHP Brian Stokes from the Rays.

Usually, when you mention "monumentally bad ideas" and "New York" in the same sentence about a person, a few predictable contemporary names might come up: see, Howell Raines and Judith Giuliani popped right in there, without a moment's thought. Put "the Mets" into that mix, and you might pause, shudder, and then gin up memories of Al Harazin or M. Donald Grant. So imagine what kind of magnitude might have to be involved to create a true crossover hit, something so spectacularly ill-conceived that people from all walks of life might cover their ears or resort to their wards against the evil eye?

To be fair, what Omar Minaya did here doesn't quite get there, not yet. It might take years and years and years of Lastings Milledge going to All-Star Games to really drive the point home. But there's just something fundamentally stunning about this trade. Unless an all-points bulletin goes out to find the skeleton in the closet that has Milledge's bloody handprints all over it, it flat-out doesn't work. Church is already 29; for a variety of reasons, his getting a shot at enjoying his peak seasons took a few years to happen, and while he's been a solid hitter in the opportunities he's gotten, and while he's been able to thump right-handers, how much longer can he do that? Say he doesn't end up fighting the Big Apple experience like some latter-day Chad Curtis, and say that having escaped RFK he can slug .500 against right-handers, for a year... maybe two? That's worth five or six years of Milledge? No.

So getting a... third... third catcher-remember that, because they already traded for Johnny Estrada, and already re-signed Ramon Castro, this very winter, no less-that makes it make sense? Sure, the guy hits like Johnny Blanchard, right? This will be great, he's a lefty, and he'll provide power from the other side of the plate than Castro, and with Estrada as a switch-hitter, they've got every conceivable base and side of the plate and platoon differential possible to exploit. It's ingenious! This'll be great!

Except that Brian Schneider doesn't hit for power, and hasn't for years. He hasn't hit anything for years. Increasingly, it's as if you could drop him on a chair from close range, and the closest you'd get to a safe landing was a foul bounce. Maybe Expos fans might consider him payback for getting Mike Fitzgerald for Gary Carter, except that there are no more Expos. Maybe we can consider it a repeat of the Ed Hearn experience, except that there's no outsized wishcasting here that Schneider is something and somebody other than what he is. Maybe Omar's got an outsized mancrush on a guy he brought up back when he was auditioning for 29 other jobs by helping guide the Expos franchise through the motions. That's not reason enough to give up Lastings Milledge to get the guy, and it certainly isn't reason enough to threaten to play Schneider. Consider the Mets' backstop trio and how they've hit the last four years (2004-07) using Equivalent Average, and keeping their ages in mind:

Age Estrada   Castro   Schneider
27                      .243
28   .283      .161     .261
29   .233      .264     .234
30   .259      .251     .248
31   .244      .302

None of them are young. None of them are big-time walk-drawing contributors in a lineup. Castro has power, Estrada's got switch-hitting, and Schneider has left-handedness. Castro's never gotten anything like the playing time the other two have. Schneider's track record only gets worse if we add his 2003 season (.234 EqA). That all suggests we've seen Schneider at his best, and he made it up to mediocrity as a hitter; removed from that peak, he's got nothing close to Castro or Estrada in their better years. Defense? There's not a lot of reason to conclude that Schneider's the best of the lot, and any argument that he's a great handler of pitchers runs up against the Nats' obvious willingness to embark on their 2008 season without him. Perhaps the Mets can deal from depth? Sure, but not immediately, not unless they deal Schneider, and that's not going to happen. Even if they do, what you've gotten for Milledge is Ryan Church and something equivalent in value to Schneider or Estrada-something or somebody about as good as Guillermo Mota, apparently. That's improvement?

So you're left with a decision to deal a premium prospect without getting an impact player in return. Mets fans can be forgiven if they find their hopes and dreams in this matter reduced to wishing for some horrible secret about Milledge to come out, or that Church is the new Hank Sauer, and/or that Schneider's been playing possum for the Nats and suddenly becomes a quality player. Of those three, only the first seems plausible; perhaps it's so horrible that this really is all they could get for Milledge, and Milledge's swagger was such that it was totally inconceivable that they'd ever let him put on a Mets uniform ever again. Maybe so, and maybe it's a matter of holding the wrong people accountable and getting worked up about one thing, rather than coming to grips with a winter where the Mets aren't making a splash after they didn't win anything, and have no guarantees that they'll just move right back to the head of the pack in the NL East.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Claimed LHP Shane Youman off of waivers from the Pirates; released RHP Julio Mateo.

I'm not a huge believer in the proposition that Youman's worth a 40-man roster spot, but between snagging him-perhaps for a utility role, perhaps for the benefit of the IronPigs-and also picking up Lincoln Holdzkom and Travis Blackley in the Rule Five Draft, I wouldn't bet against anybody making this team. After all, if anybody learned the benefits of taking free talent seriously, it should be the Phillies after they reaped big benefits last season from snagging guys like J.C. Romero and J.D. Durbin off of waivers; no word on their interest in J.A. Pena, J.B. Cox, or long-suffering J.F. Sebastian to complete the set. Mateo's release is a modest surprise, but I don't know if that means his legal troubles related to the assault charge against him for suspicion of hitting his wife are getting worse, or if the Phillies would just rather be rid of him, or what.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Released INF-R Jose Castillo; acquired RHPs Marino Salas and Kevin Roberts from the Brewers for RHP Salomon Torres.

As a cost-cutting measure and as a way to re-stock the system, I like cashing in Torres well enough. Salas has heat that gets into the mid-90s and a well-regarded slider, and while he struggled a bit at Triple-A, he's interesting enough as arms go. He'll be 27 in camp, so it isn't like there's a lot of projectability, but he could stick in a big league pen. Roberts is a short college right-hander out of the University of Houston that the Brewers drafted in 2005's fifth round. He was also a pretty good hitter for the Cougars in college. Gifted with a good curve but only sporadic command, he had a nice enough High-A debut, striking out 73 in 64 1/3 IP, but big-program college pitchers should do well at that level; whether or not he's as sharp at Double-A will define whether he's just organizational cannon fodder or somebody to watch.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Sold OF-L Terrmel Sledge to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Well, it's nice for him, and I would assume the Fighters will give him the more extended opportunity that he never really got and exploited in the States. Besides, there's sort of a funky Bruce Lee/Kill Bill disco violence vibe to sending a big man with a stick named Terrmel to the land of the rising sun. What, nobody else remembers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's kung fu prowess? Shame on you.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed MI-S Cesar Izturis to a one-year, $2.85 million contract; designated OF-L John Rodriguez for assignment; released OF-R So Taguchi.

So, this boils down to a middle infield of Adam Kennedy and Izturis, which will inspire hope and faith in... Pittsburgh? Between that pair, Yadier Molina behind the plate, and the slender hope that Jim Edmonds bounces back and has a great year while turning 38, and that they keep Scott Rolen and he also heals up, it looks a lot like the Cardinals will have a serious problem with scoring runs. So, having missed a year, Chris Carpenter's going to be able to start every other game, right?

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Acquired OF-R Lastings Milledge from the Mets for OF-L Ryan Church and C-L Brian Schneider; signed LHP Ray King to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI; signed INF-R Aaron Boone to a one-year, $1 million contract; released LHPs Billy Traber and Justin Jones.

It's easy to mock Jim Bowden, and easier still to decry some of his moves-or in the case of the non-deal of Alfonso Soriano, his non-moves-but credit the man for his willingness to play for big stakes and make a blockbuster trade now and again. I've kidded in the past that there are points in time when it seemed like "makeup" could be an area for Moneyball-style arbitrage, where talent with a capacity to turn people off can be picked up at something less than a straight market price for their abilities; it's almost unavoidable when you bring up someone like Milton Bradley, for instance, although obviously Bradley's fragility is another factor which has handicapped his ability to get that monster contract.

So it's sort of entertaining in a way to see a team add first Elijah Dukes and then Milledge, when it's the same team that gave Dmitri Young what might have been his last chance. Putting any one of these guys on your team can be seen as taking a huge risk, where the decision to pick him up might blow up in your face. But unlike Young, adding Dukes and Milledge has the opportunity to also radically change this team's fortunes for the better. Both have breakout potential as hitters, and both are so young as well as so gifted that they can be building blocks of the first great Nationals team. In terms of sheer upside, I guess I immediately think back to the great Blue Jays outfield of the '80s, although the distinction there is that the Jays drafted Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield, and then snagged George Bell in the 1980 Rule Five Draft. There's sorting out which of the Nats outfielders play which roles, since either Milledge or Dukes could be this team's center fielder, but that will be one of the entertaining stories to follow in camp.

In terms of the deal itself, it's not even close. The only reason Milledge gets flipped for this kind of package is over his reputation as a bad egg. That might have been a problem with the Mets, but not on a Nats team where there is no tradition but the one they create themselves, and where the club has the good fortune to employ a manager with Manny Acta's gifts, which are not limited to simple strategy and tactics. Acta's not afraid to use these guys, Bowden's not afraid to acquire them, so maybe this is just me-someone who grew up on the admittedly insane legendry of how Al Davis assembled the Raiders year to year in the '70s-but I love the possibility that this is the team and the situation where fresh starts lead to franchise-making breakouts.

Consider that Milledge is seen as a disappointment after hitting "only" .272/.341/.446. At 22 years old, in the major leagues. Now yes, most of it was against lefties, and most of it was hitting eighth in a great lineup, but that's a great cherry on top of the promise already developed by his hitting in the minors. As a place to start, with what you can hope for in the next five years-right up through the front half to the crest of what most analysts would expect to be a guy's peak period-damn straight I'll give up a politely well-regarded backstop of limited offensive utility and an adequate corner outfielder pushing 30 who's about to start getting arbitration-induced raises. Even if Milledge blows up, even if the makeup issue derails his career, for what the Nats gave up, you have to take the chance, because Milledge has still not done anything on the field to discourage the expectation that glory-in the form of All-Star Games, and at least down-ballot MVP-level productivity-is in his future.

There's even something sort of sly about bringing back hefty lefty Ray King for another pass at situational work like he was attached via organizational bungee cord; who knows, if he makes the team, maybe they'll be able to extend his services to another team at the deadline yet again.

If there's one thing not to like, it's seeing a team that employs the father sign up the son; call me an American, but I'm pretty allergic to anything that might smack of nepotism, and I don't see how Boone was a necessary pick-up for the Nats. In an infield that has plenty of right-handed sock, you add a right-handed-hitting reserve? One who can't play second, let alone short, and whose defense at the hot corner in Cleveland was considered toxic? So what's this supposed to do for the Nats, provide Dmitri Young with someone around his own age to keep him company at first base? No, I don't like it, not one bit. Dmitri didn't even have major issues against left-handed pitching last season, so Boone doesn't even fulfill some necessary platoon function-which he doesn't have much of a track record for anyways. He doesn't have some great rep as a pinch-hitter, doesn't run well... it really just looks like a favor. If Boone's as awful as he was in 2006, or 2005, for instance, do we really expect that they'll make a straight baseball move and cut him? And having done this good familial deed, they spend a million on him to boot? I know, it's not my money, but it still strikes me as a bad idea, of a kind with the over-extensions for Young and Ron Belliard.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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