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February 22, 2008

Transaction Analysis

Odds and Ends

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Signed OF-L Jason Tyner to a minor league contract.

Kevin Goldstein IM'd me with this hot-off-the-wires story, alerting me to the fact that they'd be dancing in the streets of Buffalo because of the return of the mite-y Tyner. Lest we forget, the peerless punchless one was a key contributor down the stretch for the Bisons in 2004, and in something of an echo of those days when Buffalo was on the short list for an expansion team because of solid attendance, the enthusiasm generated for an International League playoff team and its heroes lingers on. Can you blame the people of Buffalo? Tyner is admirable as the anti-Branyan (more on him in a bit), a player of an extreme type who scraps, living up to Ozzie Guillen's comparison of him and his later Twins teammates to a riverine slaughterhouse. He may be less fond of the 2004 season than Buffalo seemingly is-for Tyner, it was his year in the Triple-A wilderness, time lost between his ignominious demotion before his own bobblehead day in Tampa Bay and his subsequent major league resurrection with the Twins.

The Bisons are still operated by the Rich family, who were the driving force behind the attempt to get major league baseball in Buffalo, but who used to place a premium on fielding a competitive team. (Not too much unlike Rochester for ages, and perhaps now too for Sacramento in the PCL.) After ditching their affiliation with the Pirates after 1994-the Riches seem to have wisely anticipated how some things might be incompatible with winning-and hooking up with the Indians, Buffalo went to the playoffs in nine of its first 11 seasons as the Indians' top affiliate. That's changed, as the Bisons have been shut out of the International League playoffs in consecutive seasons in 2006 and 2007, a first for them in this relationship, and the first time it's happened since the honeymoon-killing '93-'94 double shutout from post-season play that killed off the partnership with the Pirates. As implausible as it might sound, bringing Tyner back is a win-now move, and in an organization that very much wants to win now-albeit not just in the AL Central alone. If signing Tyner keeps people excited and coming to games in Buffalo, more power to them, and modest kudos to the Tribe for making it so; would that more teams were more responsive to ambitions of their affiliates.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Signed OF-L Bubba Crosby to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Signed 2B-R Ian Kinsler to a five-year, $22 million extension through 2012 with a $10 million club option for 2013.

This preempts his arbitration eligibility by a year, and effectively takes him two years into his free agency eligibility, as well as past his 31st birthday. Kinsler probably suffers from some indifference because he's merely been very good as opposed to outstanding, but when you look at the components-the walks, the steals, the good (not great) glove work at the keystone-it's a decent package. Nevertheless, there is the matter of whether or not he's a park-inflated asset, because the discrepancy between his home rates (.314/.387/.537) and road (.234/.315/.359) is the difference between a down-ballot MVP and a Triple-A lifer.

In terms of what else happens at the plate, Kinsler is a bit above-average in delivering line drives (23.6 percent last year, against a 19 percent average for right-handed hitters over the last five), but is also above-average in hitting popups (10.3 percent, against 8.6) and fly balls (31.7 percent, versus 28.5). That's an interesting spread that equals a lot less groundballs than your average righty at the plate, but what I'm curious about is where they'll go from here-if he hits popups, will it be because he's connecting squarely even more often, and delivering even more of his tasty line-drive power? Will the liners predictably "regress to the mean" (we use that phrase way too often here), or is that simply a reflection of what Ian Kinsler does? Certainly, if the rate drops, that would be a symptom of something going very wrong for him.

An interesting element of the deal is that final option year, where the buyout's an exceptionally cheap half-million; if Kinsler remains a half-useful player, the odds the option doesn't get exercised become a near-certainty. As good as Kinsler is, and as generically sensible as this kind of commitment is, there's work that remains to be done, and it'll be interesting to see whether it gets done, and what the upshot of it will be.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Signed INF-S Alex Cintron to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI.

Well, fiddle, no sooner do I want to add an amen to the idea that he might be a decent low-cost solution to the Orioles shortstoplessness, and he decides he'd rather take his chances at Windy City cameos and a lot of time spent in the cornfields of Iowa. I wouldn't say it was a wise choice-Ronny Cedeņo is out of options, Ryan Theriot isn't going anywhere, and Mark DeRosa's got to play, and that's all before we start drawing up scenarios that put Brian Roberts in the Cubs' middle infield picture. It's interesting that what went really wrong for him since that brief bit of sunshine in 2003 is that he was hitting a ton of line drives from both sides of the plate back then, and never has since.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Signed RHP Josh Fogg to a one-year, $1 million contract; placed LHP Bobby Livingston on the 60-day DL.

While the price might seem right and Fogg has plenty of experience pitching in hitter's parks, I guess I'm left wondering why you'd sign a veteran with next to no chance of pitching better than Matt Belisle. I suppose it notionally buys Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and/or Edinson Volquez some quality time getting double- or triple-dipped in seasonings down at Louisville (and hopefully not getting battered as well). But if it's a win-now move to placate Dusty Baker by giving him somebody he's heard of, it doesn't really work, even by the relatively modest standards of the NL Central. One of the most noteworthy virtues of Fogg's performance record has been how he pitched against some of the Rockies' divisional rivals over the years, but that goes away in a different division with the unbalanced schedule, and you're left with a finesse righty with a track record of getting pasted by the Astros, Cubs, and Cardinals (and even the Pirates, but in only three starts). Add in that he's a fly-baller going to the Gap, and that Dusty might not be as quick on the draw getting him out of ballgames as the Rockies were, and I'll let you ink in the Batman-style "Kapow!" effects.

Nevertheless, Reds fans should consider this a win, if and only if this means that dealing far too much talent to the A's for Joe Blanton is now off the table. That doesn't necessarily mean Dusty's ever going to figure out what a Joey Votto is for, or that a Johnny Cueto can pitch, but it's better to have your own hatchlings on hand, instead of growing up in someone else's nest. Consider the Fogg signing one cuckoo move that doesn't push anybody out of the nest.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Signed RHP Shawn Chacon to a one-year, $2 million contract.

One of the always-fun elements of having a new skipper running a camp is that it can fundamentally shake up a team's composition, and just as radically alter player roles. In a situation as fluid as the Astros' pitching staff, bringing in a utility pitcher like Chacon, for this little money over just one season, fits in perfectly. At least two rotation spots, and perhaps three, are up in the air-and they should be. Woody Williams, Chris Sampson, and Brandon Backe haven't earned any consideration. Similarly, just about every spot in the bullpen beyond those of Jose Valverde and Doug Brocail could be up for grabs; sure, Geoff Geary and Oscar Villarreal seem likely, but a really bad camp might change matters. I'm not saying that Cecil Cooper's some sort of wild man, but he's got options, and given that even Williams has been told he has to earn his spot in the rotation, to Cooper's credit he seems willing to ponder them.

As a result, Chacon's sort of a Mr. Fix-It pickup, someone who could conceivably become Valverde's best set-up man at some point, and who could just as probably be the team's third-best starter. I'm not saying he'll be good, mind you, but the talent's still there, and he has experience closing in Coors and starting in Yankee Stadium, and, at least superficially, that sounds like the breadth of experience that would make him a worthwhile pickup for the Astros' kamikaze run on contention this year. In an exercise of fun with statistically meaningless samples, in his four starts last year for the Pirates, Chacon threw an initial "pen start" of sorts, tossed one absolute gem, got let down by his bullpen after a decent outing, took a beating from the Yankees, and headed back to the pen, which adds up to mean exactly nothing. In 2006, his combined SNLVAR between the Yankees and Pirates added up to 0.7-not good, but to pick a weak-sister argument, that isn't really any worse than what they got out of Jason Jennings last season. I know, not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Some might quail over Chacon having walked a batter every other inning last season, but keep in mind that almost a quarter of his walks (11) were at the orders of Jim Tracy; take that out of Chacon's rate, and you've got a guy who walks just under 3.5 batters per nine-not bad, but not very good either. Survivable, and since he struck out more than twice as many, he's obviously still got stuff that fools a lot of the people some of the time. For the price and at this time of year, and given that the Astros' pitching might really only have four names that Cooper can put down in ink in terms of both spots and slots, a nice little pickup.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Signed 4C-L Russell Branyan to a minor league contract without a spring training NRI.

"Look, it's the Russell Branyan action figure! 'He slugs!'"
"Hrm, 'Batteries not included.'"
"But he's on sale!"
"Son, he's always on sale."

Derision aside, I'm delighted to see the TTO demigod back in action at the site of some of his greatest mashing. It also isn't inconceivable that he might be able to crack the roster at some point this season. His primary opponent for a four corners reserve role might be the equally storied journeyman Joe Dillon, but in Branyan's favor, he has more major league experience despite being four months younger. If Bill Hall's move to third goes especially badly, that might also help Branyan, but less helpful is the fact that Gabe Gross is out of options. The roadblocks that Dillon and Gross represent might be gone by Opening Day, however, as there's a chance that the Brewers might instead keep Kid Gwynn and the comebacking Gabe Kapler as their primary outfield reserves, putting Dillon in Nashville and Gross on somebody else's roster via trade or waiver claim. That latter possibility would be a nice break for Gross-he's too good to be a fifth outfielder, but he's not good enough to merit starting ahead of the Brewers' regular outfielders.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Outrighted OF-L Drew Macias outright to Portland (Triple-A), but didn't un-invite him from spring training.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed LHP Ron Villone to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI.

Not a bad little pickup. Although Villone might be considered a heavy as a result of his being named in the now-infamous Mitchell Report, the Birds don't exactly have a set situation among their options for southpaw specialists in the pen. Tyler Johnson should be a lock as the primary lefty-getter, and that's solid enough. After that, for the indispensable second lefty (this is a Tony La Russa team, after all), you get into picking one of the two Flores brothers, Randy or Ron, neither of whom is really a great choice. As a result, the hulking Villone might make an interesting as well as more effective alternative to Johnson.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Signed Nepotista-R Bret Boone and LHP Odalis Perez to minor league contracts, but only Perez's comes with a spring training NRI.

I recently finished reading the late Gunther Rothenberg's last book, The Emperor's Last Victory, an account of Napoleon's first major battlefield defeat and last war-winning contest. As ever with the old master and his noted Austrophilia, Rothenberg's attention is more closely fixed on this latest mishap to befall the Habsburg empire, with particular attention to the fractious relationship between the emperor, Franz, his younger brother and battlefield commander, the Archduke Karl, and their younger brothers, the Archdukes Johann, Joseph, and brother-in-law Ludwig. Generally speaking, they were a collection of men supremely unqualified for the responsibilities given to them by their equally lackluster eldest brother. Franz feared that his brother Karl might have designs on the throne, and so constantly spied upon and interfered with command and control of the army. Franz had reason for his suspicions, because Karl was a reluctant Generalissimus, preferring to treat with the French emperor he was supposed to be fighting against over secret peace offers. Karl had equal reason to despair over his ability to conduct the campaign with every possible resource for victory at his disposal; Ludwig may have sensibly scampered home early on, but Johann and Joseph were spectacularly uncooperative, and the lot of them anticipated that if they lost badly, the dynasty itself might collapse.

So, what came of family management? Generally, everyone managed their games to try and not lose as opposed to trying to win, while investing a huge amount of time in CYA-minded prevaricating and actions that fundamentally undermined the chances of success for any of the others. So they lost, but not as badly as they might have, and the penalty was tossing their nubile baby sister Marie Louise to the infamous "Corsican Ogre," who was craving the sort of validation that only a blond trophy wife can really bring to a self-made emperor having a mid-life crisis. For his indeterminate loyalties, Karl was put out to pasture for the remainder of his adult life despite being the first general to have beaten Napoleon in the field at Aspern-Essling. He was replaced the next time Austria entered the lists against French domination by a non-family member, Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg. Schwarzenberg can be politely referred to as the entirely competent if cautious architect of total victory over Napoleon in 1813-14; this was before the game French emperor's last, doomed comeback attempt a year later, but that petered out well short of a full season at Waterloo. (Steve Carlton should have taken notes.)

Which brings me to this profusion of Boones in the Nationals organization, because like putting too many Habsburgs into the mix, it just doesn't seem like something with any kind of relationship to winning. Aaron was a bit of a stretch, but setting aside that he can't really play anywhere but first-although, like any archduke TBNL, he'll do more if asked, with not necessarily desirable results-he's been employed by somebody and done well enough to be seen as a decent enough replacement for Robert Fick; heck, he's even an upgrade on that guy, who wasn't even related by marriage. Signing Aaron might have been skeevy, insofar as proud pappy Bob Boone is part of Jim Bowden's retinue, but there's enough there to defend it conceptually as a baseball move.

But Bret? Bret abruptly walked away from the game in spring training 2006 after two mediocre years at the plate; his defense was already a problem, and if he couldn't hit well enough to make himself an asset at second base, there wasn't a whole lot else to recommend having him around. He'll "only" be 39 this year, so I suppose it's possible that he'll provide well-aged something or another at Columbus. Maybe this will be a way to have the Boone clan do a one-game reunion in spring, where failed manager Bob runs a squad that has son number one planted at second, and son number two planted at third. Heck, maybe the old coot puts on the tools of ignorance; he was apparently cranky his games caught record bit the dust, and don't the Nats need a catcher?

See, that's my problem with nepotism in a nutshell-it's no longer about finding the best talent, it's about trying to work around people who clutter up an improving organization that has real-world tasks like winning more games. A plague of Boones has nothing to do with that, but the fact that this is being done here should make people wonder if this is the way life's going to be with the Lerner family in charge. What's next, a Stephen Larkin comeback? He's only been out of baseball for a couple of years too, so why not? To anticipate a complaint that I'm taking this a bit seriously, consider that this is the same game run by the same people who said they wouldn't let the White Sox put Minnie Minoso on the field because it was a travesty; it was, but either you have standards, or you don't, and this ranks with the career of Jim Morris among the proofs that there aren't standards, there are only agreed-upon conceits, and less agreeable ones.

Oh, and Odalis Perez? Long coveted by Bowden, he does have the virtue of not being related to anybody, except for his family, and they're apparently not baseball people, so that must not really count for much, does it now? It's hard to suggest there's much left in the tank after his recent failures-Perez didn't do well against righties or lefties, early in his games or late, on the road, at home, in interleague contests. With a train, in the rain, and you know the rest. If you're really struggling for a compliment, I suppose you can note that he did somewhat better with runners on base, but then he was also intimately familiar with throwing from the stretch, so that's not exactly the sort of silver lining you want to spin into something to dress up this move. However, with perhaps only two rotation slots set, and those only for as long as both Shawn Hill and John Patterson are healthy, I suppose there's always a danger that Bowden will inflict another ill-fated project on his staff, not unlike Zach Day or Ryan Drese or Brian Lawrence, all in his quest to find the next Jimmy Haynes.


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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