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February 4, 2008

Transaction Analysis

Philly Non-Fixes and the Seattle Predicate

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Agreed to terms with 4C-R Casey Blake on a one-year, $6.15 million contract, avoiding arbitration; signed RHP Jorge Julio to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI.

Having taken chances on relievers of varying degrees of combustibility in the past, and gotten survivable results from Joe Borowski and slightly more scorchy work from Roberto Hernandez, there's nothing out of character or especially troubling about a decision to haul in Julio. He's still throwing mid-90s heat, and while location and command have both been career-long problems, for a no-cost add-on who might have some measure of upside if one particular pitching coach finds a way for him to improve on those areas, he's an especially worthwhile NRI.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Agreed to terms with INF-R Esteban German on a one-year, $1 million contract, avoiding arbitration.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Traded LHP Johan Santana to the Mets for RHPs Deolis Guerra, Philip Humber, and Kevin Mulvey, and CF-R Carlos Gomez.

As I discussed on Wednesday, I'm not exactly wild about this deal for the Twins, but what's done is done, and the season can be devoted to seeing whether or not they've got an outfield of the future in Delmon Young and Gomez and... Jason Pridie? The Twins should be able to do Gomez a favor and start him out in Rochester, since some combination of Pridie, Craig Monroe, Darnell McDonald, and maybe even Denard Span might work out well enough as an immediate fix in a season where the focus will be on competitiveness, not contention.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Signed 1B/3B-R Morgan Ensberg to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI.

I definitely like this move. Ensberg might not have a lot of value as a glove man at either corner, but maybe working with hitting coach Kevin Long will help him hit fewer popups and get back to being able to contribute as a power source. If he doesn't get his swing fixed, no harm, he's only a non-roster invite. Should he stick, Ensberg would provide a lot of flexibility on the roster: as a sometime alternative to A-Rod at third and Jason Giambi at first, as well as a right-handed bat to add to the DH mix. However, he's essentially squeezed into a competition with Shelley Duncan for a roster spot, because the Yankees will already have the benefit of the best infield reserve in baseball, Wilson Betemit. It'll make for an interesting collection of bench options, and with a new manager who may not have the same unwillingness to employ his bench that the old one had, it's fair to say that Ensberg and his agent chose pretty wisely. A pity the Phillies didn't give him the same sort of consideration.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Signed OF/1B-L Brad Wilkerson to a one-year, $3 million contract.

Some Mariners fans might despair that this prefigures the deal that would send Adam Jones to the Orioles for Erik Bedard, but while such an exchange would be expensive in terms of talent, it might also deliver on a front-end starter to better support a bid to unseat the Angels atop the division. Although Wilkerson's too unpredictable a commodity to be a guaranteed an important part of a winning club's lineup, they would still have Wladimir Balentien in the organization as a still-tasty alternative to Wilkerson if he flops, and the presence of both gives the Mariners alternatives to Jose Vidro if the punchless DH gets any more feeble. What's uncertain is whether Wilkerson will hit in Safeco (as a flyball/line-drive hitter who isn't generating as much power, he's an odd fit) or hit right-handers well enough to merit regular play, but there's a measure of upside if he's finally healed up, and for the money and the length, it's a worthwhile chance for the M's to take, especially with Balentien still in the fold and likely to contribute in the wake of an Adam Jones-centered deal with Baltimore.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Agreed to terms with RHP Matt Belisle on a one-year, $1.2 million contract, avoiding arbitration; signed C-L Paul Bako and LHP Scott Sauerbeck to minor league contracts with spring training NRIs.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Signed LF-L Luis Gonzalez to a one-year, $2 million contract; signed 3B/1B-L Dallas McPherson to a one-year, $475,000 contract; designated LHP Chris Seddon for assignment.

While I'm impressed with the decision to bring in McPherson as a challenger for the third base job, there's also a chance that if he's healthy and hitting but as frustrating as ever as a third baseman that he might stake a claim to some at-bats at first, at Mike Jacobs' expense. The alternatives to McPherson at third are Jose Castillo and Jorge Cantu, and Cantu can't really play third all that well, and Castillo can't hit well to present truly viable everyday option, except in that amiable Alfredo Amezaga "plays when/where asked" sort of way. This might make for an entertaining three-headed platoon not unlike the one employed by the Phillies last season, where McPherson faces many right-handers, Cantu generally starts against lefties, and Castillo functions as the defensive replacement for both. Jo-Jolas McCastantu? Sounds like a half-Romanian, half-Irish mercenary who moonlights as a yak rustler.

As a practical matter, McPherson's back problems aren't easily shrugged off after they cost him all of 2007, and didn't heal soon enough for him to log any at-bats during a winter ball tune-up. So he'll be coming to camp pretty cold, and while he's only 27, his defense was brutal at the best of times. This might make for a worsening of the team's infield defense-Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla might both need position changes, Cantu has no position, and McPherson's best at first, not the hot corner. Not exactly the unit you want a young pitching staff to have to work with, which is why I still harbor some hope that the eventual solution involves putting Robert Andino at short and moving HanRam to third. Rotating people around won't put the Fish in the postseason, but it might make life easier for the young hurlers, who will need all the help that they can get.

As for the decision to haul in Gonzalez for a dose of veteran tokenism, it's not the end of the world. Gonzo still has a great reputation as an all-around good guy, and teams with real-world concerns about how well everyone works together in a clubhouse value that, and should. While he can play both left and first, putting him at either position means having to set aside that he can't and won't outhit Josh Willingham, or Jacobs, or perhaps even McPherson. Maybe this creates a situation where Willingham might get another look behind the plate-Mike Rabelo and Matt Treanor are both card-carrying members of the IBBC (International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers) Local 28, and get extended to full-time status only at their employer's hazard. I wouldn't bet on that, but it isn't entirely improbable. I think we can expect that Gonzo will get at least 80 starts spread between the outfield corners and first, as well as function as the team's primary pinch-hitting option on the days he isn't starting. That's not a bad use for him, as sort of a latter-day conversion to a Jeff Conine type of role.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Agreed to terms with LHP Joe Beimel on a one-year, $1.925 million contract, avoiding arbitration; released RHP D.J. Houlton so that he might play in the Japanese Leagues.

NEW YORK METS
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Acquired LHP Johan Santana from the Twins for RHPs Deolis Guerra, Philip Humber, and Kevin Mulvey, and CF-R Carlos Gomez; agreed to terms with Santana on a six-year, $137.5 million contract, with a vesting/club option for 2014; agreed to terms with LHP Pedro Feliciano on a one-year, $1.025 million contract, avoiding arbitration; claimed RHP Ruddy Lugo off of waivers from the Athletics.

So, without any snark or irony, it's safe to say "mission accomplished," and jolly well done by Omar Minaya. Like I said on Wednesday, this was the sort of cutthroat move that perhaps only the Snakes can claim to have from among the NL contenders in their pickup of Dan Haren, and if that deal was more expensive in terms of talent to Arizona than bringing in Santana was for the Mets, that's the product both of Billy Beane sensibly striking early and, as Kevin Goldstein put it, already locked-in low-cost contracts have extra value in today's market.

It says something about the state of the Mets' farm system that they already had space on their 40-man for Lugo before dealing two players from off of it among the four they'll be sending to the Twins for Johan Santana. It's not a great pickup, in that Lugo's managed to disappoint people in the past. He certainly makes for an easy target for getting DFA'd if he has a bad camp and one of the non-roster invites wins a spot for himself in camp-say, Jose Valentin in a utility role, or Ricky Rincon as yet another situational lefty, or Fernando Tatis in a pinch-hitting role. Of course, if Lugo earns his keep, it's important to recognize that they're not that deep in right-handed relief help beyond their big-name guy, Aaron Heilman. Matt Wise is merely staff filler, and the quality of Duaner Sanchez's bounce-back season from a lost campaign after his car accident is an unknown. Given that Lugo throws in the low 90s, you can understand why he inspires interest, and there is some upside here.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Signed 3B-R Pedro Feliz to a two-year, $8.5 million contract, with a club option for 2010.

Well, it's not a great idea, but it's what you wind up getting left with when you put things like finding a starting third baseman off until February. At the very least, Feliz is a good defender with pull power coming to a lovely place to play if you're a pull hitter. That's the full limit of his virtues, because he doesn't walk, can't run, and he'll be 33 this season. It might be sort of good news that he isn't really costing the Phils all that much, and I suppose it's plausible to suggest that he'll make it easier for Charlie Manuel to pick his spots with Greg Dobbs at the hot corner, but what this really represents is a modest improvement over their previous decision to get Wes Helms to fix their third base problem. Consider this set of changes to the third base/infield reserves picture:


  2007              2008          
Greg Dobbs        Pedro Feliz
Wes Helms         Greg Dobbs
Abraham Nuñez     Eric Bruntlett

The new group has the virtue of providing slightly better flexibility-Feliz may not have a lot going for him as a hitter, but he is a better hitter than Nuñez and a better fielder than Helms. Bruntlett's a better bench weapon than Nuñez, in that he plays a decent short, can run well, and get plugged into all three outfield spots at a moment of need. Consider him a sort of poor man's Denny Hocking, and he's a worthwhile last man on the bench. And Dobbs is Dobbs, a guy without a position, but a lefty bat with a modicum of sock. It's another weak patchwork solution that leaves the Phillies without adequate production at third base, but in its own feeble way, it's improvement of a sort.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Claimed MI-S Ray Olmedo off of waivers from the Blue Jays; designated LHP Sean Burnett for assignment.

A nifty little pickup. I know, I may seem like I'm all fangirl over Ray Olmedo of all futility infielders, and should Jay ever deliver on FIFI (the futility infielder futility index), Olmedo has all sorts of chart-topping potential as a no-power, low-OBP middle infielder. Nevertheless, the man plays a good short, and should new GM Neal Huntington find the right deal to ship out Jack Wilson, there's a reasonable chance that Olmedo would be a thoroughly adequate fill-in until they're ready to promote Brian Bixler.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed C-S Johnny Estrada to a one-year, $1.25 million contract; agreed to terms with RHP Jon Rauch on a two-year, $3.2 million contract, avoiding arbitration.

I admit, an Estrada/Paul Lo Duca platoon isn't the sort of backstop tandem to make anyone's pulse quicken or conjure up memories of great catching platoons of the recent past: Spanky Lavalliere and Sluggo Don Slaught, Matty Nokes and Mike Heath, B.J. Surhoff and Bill Schroeder. Maybe it's somewhere around Greg Myers and Pat Borders, or maybe Joe Nolan and Rick Dempsey. Moving past memory lane, what's really relevant is that as a one-year fix designed to buy Jesus Flores a few months of regular playing time in Harrisburg or Columbus to work on his hitting (especially pitch identification), it's a totally acceptable solution. Flores' long-term outlook is still that of a potential All-Star catcher, with plus defensive skills and more than enough talent with the bat to play every day at a level where Brad Ausmus and Yadier Molina have become very wealthy men and useful regulars despite their limitations as hitters.

As far as specific concerns about Estrada's limitations, he's perhaps seen as having problems controlling the running game after a season with the Brewers in which he threw out fewer than ten percent of all thieves in motion. However, I think it's worth noting that despite that weak performance, basestealers made fewer attempts per nine innings against him than against all catchers as a group. Add in considerations about how lousy the Brewers' defense was last season, and I don't think I'd write Estrada off as hopeless in thwarting the running game, not when he was in the middle of the pack throwing runners out as a Snake and a Brave the previous two seasons. The more fundamental concern is whether his batting is primed for a major drop-off, but there again, it's a one-year deal for next to nothing, so whether he flops or thrives, it's a matter of having an alternative to Lo Duca, especially if the controversial former Met's knee troubles keep him shelved in the early going.

As for the Rauch deal, consider me well pleased. In the same way that predictions about Livan Hernandez's career and likelihood for injury proved to be mere assertions-untrue ones, at that-if Rauch can handle 80-plus games in a season, he's an equally rare pitcher, one who pushes the boundaries of what we think we know about sustainable workloads. Despite radical differences in terms of size and delivery, Kent Tekulve might provide some guide; the human stringbean was able to pitch in more than half of the Pirates' games over a seven-year stretch, 1977-1983, while pitching a lot more innings than Rauch has per season. However, in terms of pure mechanics, it's an obviously lousy comparison-Teke might have looked like a stringbean, but on the mound he was as coiled as a curly fry, slinging strikes side-arm or lower, while Rauch's a telephone pole that rains down fastballs on the ant-like batters below him at the plate with a true overhand delivery. If Rauch appears in 81 or more games this season, he'll be the first to do so three seasons in a row since situational lefty Steve Kline (1999-2001) and rubber-armed bloody Paul Quantrill (2002-2004). Again, neither makes for a good comp to Rauch; Quantrill's 2004 season, the year Joe Torre wore him out, he had to face 424 batters, more than Rauch has had to face in either of the last two seasons, and Quantrill was your standard-issue average-height right-hander. In short, where Rauch's concerned, we should have no idea what to expect, which makes following him that much more interesting.

Jason Paré contributed research to this article.


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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