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April 29, 2008

Transaction Analysis

Whipped, Hurt, and Stomped

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
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Optioned 1B-S Kendry Morales and INF-R Sean Rodriguez to Salt Lake (Triple-A); recalled RHPs Jose Arredondo and Rich Thompson from Salt Lake. [4/25]
Optioned RHPs Jose Arredondo and Rich Thompson to Salt Lake; recalled 3B/SS-R Brandon Wood and C-R Bobby Wilson from Salt Lake. [4/28]

Taken collectively, these moves are transitional, and reflect who is getting Mike Scioscia's complete confidence, for better or for worse. It isn't Morales, because like the already-banished Reggie Willits, he's blocked by the terrible tandem of elective commitments. First, there's the decision to give Garret Anderson the extended version viking funeral package that probably only puts Angels fans on slow burn, as the all-time great Angel sees his production flag. By itself, that might be affordable, maybe even something of a karmic giveback for all of the hastily severed relationships during the Mike Port years in the '80s; you didn't have to be an Angels fan to wonder why they treated Doug DeCinces or Rod Carew pretty shabbily at the end. The problem is that the roster's also cluttered with a white elephant that isn't one of Connie's pennant-winning Mackmen from days of yore, it's Little Sarge, cashing checks-and no need for him to apologize for that-and consuming equally valuable roster space and playing time.

I know we've beaten this horse so often the SPCA's looking to slap the lot of us in irons, but I'll take my chances and reach for the cat o' nine tails, and believe me, it's not just because I like to. Assume that 40 wins is about the level of a replacement-level team (hello, poster children!), and say your average marginal win above that level is going to cost about $4 million to a team to get it up in the vicinity of average. Using those basic assumptions, you can flip the math around a bit to come to the conclusion that a plate appearance is worth about $13,000 to a team. You want a guy who's going to help you towards wins, but Matthews' Marginal Lineup Value per game (or MLVr) last year actually represented a drag on the offense. The difference between Willits and Matthews is pretty slight; leave Matthews where he was (and currently is) and assume that Willits is every bit as productive as he was last year, and the difference is still short of ten runs; Willits' MLVr for '07 was .05 better than Matthews', times 162, or eight runs, so that's just shy of a win. Maybe Matthews' value on defense offsets that. The problem is that we're talking about a corner outfield job, and you don't help yourself if you're just getting by. Consider how silly the argument gets if you compare what Matthews will do against what Juan Rivera did do in 2006; that gets you up around a clean four wins' worth of difference. That's huge, and it isn't like we're talking about the difference between an inadequate player and Barry Bonds. Admittedly, the Angels don't know if Rivera's going to be able to reach that level again, not after he lost a year of his career, but it would be better to find out than guaranteeing themselves Little Sarge's equally wee production.

Now look, here I've already gone to the whip, and I still need to get back to the moves at hand. I touch on the other stuff because it's important to remember that the Angels are working within a self-referential range of roster choices, and have to work against self-inflicted run scarcity, which makes their subsequent elective decisions that much more important. Rodriguez's demotion prefigures the return of Howie Kendrick to action at some point this week; it might seem especially pointless in light of the subsequent reshuffle to get Wood up, but between a naggy recent hurt to Maicer Izturis and the absence of a DL move, they couldn't bring Rodriguez back up within ten days of shipping him out, and the fact that the Halos are full up on the 40-man means they don't have a lot of position player choices. You can reasonably expect Wilson to head back down once Kendrick's ready, and with Chone Figgins' hot start, I wouldn't read anything into Wood's call-up. Izturis's injury could loom large, if only because it might help Erick Aybar get a leg up on him in the competition for regular playing time in the infield. In Kendrick's absence, Aybar and Izturis have both been playing regularly, and both are doing some of the things they do well-Izturis is drawing walks, while Aybar's doing the slap-and-dash thing and swiping a few bags. One of them will have to sit while the other mans shortstop most days once Kendrick resumes playing second daily. In what will Scioscia invest his trust, Aybar's gaudy April batting average, capacity for basepaths aggression, and former top prospect status? Or will he invest it in Izturis's perhaps more subtle offensive skills, and perhaps more obvious defensive limitations?

I'm not going to pretend that either player represents a perfect solution; if it was my choice, I'd keep thinking about Brandon Wood as a shortstop. But as exciting as Aybar is, the Angels really shouldn't invest too much time in wishcasting that he's something more than the new Pat Listach or Eric Yelding-he's not a good enough shortstop to merit an Alfredo Griffin comparison, at least not yet, and perhaps not ever. That's nevertheless a player who has his uses, but it's not somebody who's part of a complete everyday lineup, especially not in a lineup which is punting offensive contributions from key spots like left field and DH. As Sidney J. Mussburger put it, "so, the kid caught a wave." You want me to believe that Aybar's going to hit .329 for the year? "Yeah yeah, sure sure."

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Claimed CF-R Rajai Davis off of waivers from the Giants; designated RHP Kirk Saarloos for assignment. [4/23]
Signed DH-R Frank Thomas for the balance of the 2008 season; placed OF-L Travis Buck on the 15-day DL (shin splints), retroactive to 4/19; transferred 3B-L Eric Chavez from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [4/24]
Outrighted RHP Kirk Saarloos to Sacramento (Triple-A). [4/25]
Optioned LHP Lenny DiNardo to Sacramento; activated RHP Justin Duchscherer from the 15-day DL. [4/26]

If you're an A's fan, you came into the season with a series of sensible reservations. After the winter raiding filled up the farm system with so many other people's goodies at the cost of breaking up a goodly portion of a team that probably didn't have another division title in it, you pretty much expected that this might be one of those years. A pre-"good things" year, if you're an optimist, perhaps something like 1986 or 1997, where you could see things getting better, but you accepted that it wouldn't be a year you'd treasure as a fan. You probably harbored reasonable concerns about assertions that Ryan Sweeney and a potentially gimpy post-knee injury Chris Denorfia could cover enough ground in center. That's a reasonable bit of doubting-let's face it, everyone was initially suspicious about the suggestion that Dave Henderson would be able to hack it out there as well, but after Luis Polonia in '87, you were willing to give that a go. It's the lot of A's fans that we probably all still have Magellan flashbacks. Still, seeing the A's grab Davis was reassuring. He shouldn't be an everyday regular, but as a guy who can cover the gaps reasonably well on defense, serve as a pair of fresh legs for some of the more heavy-footed regulars in-game, and spot-start in center a couple of times per week-perhaps especially when more fly ball-oriented pitchers like Greg Smith or Duchscherer start-he has his uses. Considering that nobody in this outfield should be a regular-at least nobody while Buck's been this cold and/or this hurt-there's certainly space for a guy like Davis.

By Opening Day (of either the cash-grabby or simple stateside variety) you were probably also feeling blue over the heart of the order. Mike Sweeney and Emil Brown, da bot' of them? Scrape that top coat off of this new duo, and sure enough, you find the Royal blue of a pair of KC rejects, both trying to dodge the chop shop. It's like I made and lost my first bar bet with Rany, and this is the price of defeat. Happily, here again the waiver wire proves generous. I probably wasn't alone in wishing Frank Thomas well when J.P. Ricciardi almost ridiculously outbid the A's in December 2006; certainly Billy Beane was pretty philosophical about it. But I'm also happy to get him back on Toronto's dime after the latest bit of overreaction and off-screen drama to come out of the Blue Jays organization. I'm certainly lined up with those who feel that a cold April is no cause for panic; the more troubling consideration is whether or not Thomas can still drive anything from right-handers, because while the OBP boost is sure to be nice, it's the sock that the Big Hurt can deliver that the A's really need. And Mike Sweeney? Most frequently hurt-or Just Hurt-signing him in the first place was a similar low-risk, plausible-reward pickup, just on a smaller scale. If it's a matter of choosing, everyone favors Thomas, as they should.

The question is how well it all works as a roster. Jack Cust and Chris Denorfia in a platoon in left? It isn't Lowenstein and Roenicke '83, but what is, these days? Sweeney and Davis also sort of platooning in center? Seems like a decent patch, and if the A's confidence in Sweeney proves justified, it could also prove to be more than just good enough. Emil Brown in right just about daily isn't going to be pretty, but you have to think that Buck will be back at some point. Who knows, maybe we see a trice of platoons in the A's outfield. Sweeney taking Thomas's offdays and trying not to hurt himself spotting for Daric Barton against especially tough lefties? Well, if they've got the roster space, why not? Admittedly, it would be a little difficult to squeeze in three outfield platoons and two right-handed DHs onto the same roster, but they're carrying only five true infielders now, and unless (or until) Eric Chavez heals up and/or Bobby Crosby gets hurt, they can make do in the meantime. Once Chavez returns, however, things get interesting, because while Jack Hannahan is optionable, would you really want to forgo carrying a caddy for the oft-injured veteran? Of course, assuming Sweeney's still healthy by then is a pretty big leap of faith. Whatever happens, roster management in Oakland should prove especially interesting this season.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Released RHP Matt Morris; recalled RHP recalled John Van Benschoten from Indianapolis (Triple-A). [4/27]

There isn't really a lot to say here, but with Rajai Davis already in somebody else's uni, the only tangible benefits to David Littlefield's last disaster are found on the relative payrolls of the Giants and Pirates. Joe already made the point I wanted to yesterday-that Morris is effectively done-so there wasn't any sense to waiting around for a good string of starts to see if that makes some portion of Morris' contract palatable for some much more needy team. No, instead I see this as a nice no-cost move with some symbolic value. Neal Huntington's talked about not making deals just to make noise and instead focusing on maximizing the value received in return, and that's sensible, but this was one summary execution worth affording. The money was already spent, the mistake already made (by the previous administration), and at this point, the playing time will be better invested in sorting out if there's anything to Van Benschoten that will keep the erstwhile prospect in the running for the Pirates of the future. Discarding Morris is sort of a psychological stomp on the memory of the Littlefield years, with the hope that one of the other horrific legacies-overworking Tom Gorzelanny down the stretch-doesn't have any long-term consequences.


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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