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April 23, 2008

Transaction of the Day

Old Business

by Christina Kahrl

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Or, perhaps more appropriately, transactions of the day, since we can't just beat on the Brewers day after day, the Rays took advantage and did something that might have their most fevered wishcasters wishing ever more fervently, and it's worth reviewing the Cubs' decision to pull a volte-face over their decision on who to carry on the roster in Alfonso Soriano's absence. Consider this a notes column of sorts, where I tackle some new twists on some old business, also address some of the always-welcome questions that the more bold among you fired my way.

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Claimed 1B-L Dan Johnson off of waivers from the Athletics; designated RHP Calvin Medlock for assignment. [4/18]
Optioned RHP Jeff Niemann to Durham (Triple-A), and added 1B-L Dan Johnson to the active roster. [4/20]
Acquired OF-L Gabe Gross from the Brewers for RHP Josh Butler. [4/22]

Forgive me a Mel Allen moment, but how 'bout that? I don't want to nominate Gabe Gross as the new bestest-ever free-talent find or something, but he's an eminently playable hitter in an outfield corner years removed from free agency (yet replaceable enough should arbitration become too rich for Rays' blood in his case). He's an instant improvement on their options in right field-he's six weeks younger than Nathan Haynes-as well as someone who should let Eric Hinske DH and only sometimes come into play as a four corners reserve. Once Cliff Floyd's ready to come off of the DL in three weeks (or more), that makes for an interesting problem as far as where to find playing time for everybody, but Hinske's multi-positional utility will help significantly.

It's nothing short of a low-cost win-now move made by a team that hasn't had cause to make many of those. You might wonder why I'm this enthused, given that Gross has slugged well only once (in 2006), and has never been an everyday player, but between getting out of a Blue Jays organization that rarely seems able to identify what it should do, and then spending two years on the Brewers' bench (appropriately, for the most part) and getting his playing time in dribs and drabs, it's easy to lose sight of how PECOTA's optimism that he might slug in the high .400s could be merited on the basis of his full track record, and not merely his peripatetic career in the bigs. Add in getting him for a minor league pitcher with little chance of making it coming up from among the massed ranks of little Raylings on the way up, and it's effectively a no-cost pickup with outsized implications for a bid to post the franchise's best season ever.

The guy I feel badly for is Dan Johnson, who perhaps only hours before the deal might have been thinking he might be catching a break and getting a shot at some playing time as their sometime DH and as Carlos Peņa's caddy. Now, he's effectively living on borrowed time, a likely exile-to-be destined to become another Durham hero hoping that some slugging feats there might spice up a shot at free agency next winter.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Optioned 2B/OF-L Eric Patterson to Iowa (Triple-A); recalled OF-R Matt Murton from Iowa. [4/19]

Well, can you blame them for being of two minds on this subject? The pretext for reversing their previous decision is that Patterson purportedly needs to work on his swing, the Cubs might face as many as five lefties in their next ten games, and Murton's Murton, a player still completely qualified to play in the major leagues. I don't see much of that overriding the points that I initially made. Pie's still a work in progress even after the recent assertion from inside the organization that "he's not a prospect" (as in, he's got to play now, and not in Iowa). And as noted before, they've got seven guys who hit lefties just fine, but you want to suggest that they're worried about the eighth? What about who starts in left in the other ten games that don't involve opposing starting southpaws? Admittedly, Soriano should be back in another week or so, but let's be clear-Murton isn't getting an opportunity, he's just here. On Tuesday, the Mets started Nelson Figueroa, and who played left? Platoon center fielder Reed Johnson, because he's spanking enough singles to be mistaken for a hot hitter. If Murton's just up to be a platoon left fielder who can't field or run or merit playing against even the league's less plausible right-handed starters, that's not the best use of a roster spot, let alone the best course for Murton's career, or a way to refurbish his reputation as a commodity somebody else might want to trade for.

An interesting additional development in terms of the way the playing time's being distributed in Soriano's absence is that a homegrown talent is nevertheless actually getting a shot, even if it isn't Murton. Instead, it's Ronny Cedeno who's achieving feats of strength at the plate while reminding people he's the team's best defensive middle infielder. That might make for an interesting immediate scenario not too dissimilar than that in Cleveland: How long do you observe a commitment to play the worse starting middle infielder at short, just because he's "established" at the position? Cedeno at short and Ryan Theriot at second would be a pretty solid alignment, and perhaps this is something where Lou Piniella can finesse things in such a way that it becomes the eventual setup. It still runs the risk of recrankifying Mark DeRosa on the subject of playing time, of course, and Cedeno as a regular just maintains the lineup's already troublesome heavy tilt to the right. However, as Mike Fontenot's grip on any sort of playing time continues to slip, I remain intrigued by the possibilities of swapping in Patterson for him, given Patterson's better track record as a prospect, broader utility, vastly better speed, and shared left-handedness at the plate.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Traded OF-L Gabe Gross to the Rays for RHP Josh Butler. [4/22]
Activated OF-L Tony Gwynn Jr. from the 15-day DL. [4/23]

Well, look at it this way, it isn't entirely bad news-they do get a 40-man roster spot back in play, after all. Dealing Gross was something the Brewers were almost certainly condemned to, given their multiplicity of players who are out of options at spots where you might definitely prefer to have some flexibility. There isn't a lot to say about Josh Butler; he's big and right-handed, throws in the low 90s and has a fine sinker. A former Torero out of the University of San Diego picked in the second round of 2006, you could reasonably expect him to dominate the Sally League last year, and he did; he got smacked around a bit in the High-A Florida State League. Repeating the latter level this year, he's remained hittable, although obviously as a ground-ball pitcher he's that much more dependent on the infielders behind him, and that much less likely to get the benefit of the best in A-ball. As an interesting something to get for perhaps four years of Gabe Gross' service time, it isn't a lot, but it isn't like the Brewers should have any reason to regret getting Gross along with David Bush and Zack Jackson for Lyle Overbay and Ty Taubenheim; they still win that trade by default, not merely because they're the team that isn't employing Overbay, but also because both of the pitchers still hold promise.

As for swapping in a reserve outfielder who can hit for one who doesn't really-famous timely triple aside-but makes for a nice pinch-runner and defensive replacement... well, that isn't really an apples-to-apples exchange. It's more a matter of taste and which of the two player's discrete skills best complement those of the regulars. Since we can expect Ryan Braun and Corey Hart to get the vast majority of the starts in the corners, Gross' bat was going to waste to some extent, unless the Brew Crew decides it might like to return to its original league and get all of its bats in action.

So, all in all, if that's the alignment that makes them happy, that's not the end of the world. Punting potential game-winning offensive innings because you're left with putting Jeff Suppan up there, however, very well might be. As the tactical limitations of carrying only three bench players become manifest, I wonder if Ned Yost will come to terms with how, if he absolutely must carry 14 pitchers, ditching the gambit of hitting the pitcher eighth is something he really ought to do in the interim. When your real pinch-hitters can be counted on your thumbs, the last thing you should be doing with your lineup card is creating a slightly higher chance of the pitcher's slot coming up in-game. If he wants to go back to being nouveau smart once he's got a more fully-stocked bench, that's perfectly fine, but in the meantime it's more an ill-chosen luxury than an idiosyncratic affectation.


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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