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May 8, 2008

Transaction Analysis

A Wee Quartet

by Christina Kahrl

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Nothing major, so consider this my version of a notes column, where I flit from one little switch to another.


IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart
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Reinstated UT-L Alexei Ramirez from the Restricted List. [5/6]

Ramirez's going onto the infrequently-used RL had nothing to do with his slack performance or with any real malfeasance of any sort. Instead, it's something akin to Nap Lajoie's problems with playing in Pennsylvania (which got him traded to the Indians from the Philly A's), except that it isn't our Canadian friends who are the problem, but the stickier points of Ramirez's work visa as a Cuban emigré. Like a lot of the recent inconveniences being piled upon people in this country, it's a sign of the times and a product of policy, and there seems to be naught that can be done for it. Suggesting that we annex our neighbors to the north to free the seas for submarine transits through the Northwest Passage and free the airports for imported major league labor is all fun and games, but in times such as these, the humor palls a bit, even after setting aside such considerations as the fact that Canada's 2-0 against US invasions. At any rate, this particular contretemps does little or nothing for Ramirez's getting his bat going, assuming you're a firm believer in the virtues of Cuban imports in general, which I'm not, for reasons I argued with perhaps overmuch vehemence a few years back. So, toss me in the bin of analysts yammering for a nice couple of months in Charlotte for the Cubano, to show us what he can do in games that count against teams that weren't assembled on a central commissariat's whim.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Designated OF-R Jason Michaels for assignment; recalled OF-R Ben Francisco from Buffalo (Triple-A). [5/6]
Sent OF-R Jason Michaels and cash to the Pirates for a PTBNL [5/8]

It's been so easy for statheads to like the Indians because they do so very many sensible things. They're stubborn about challenging players to rise to the level of their greatest value, whether that's with Cliff Lee as a starting pitcher, Victor Martinez as a major league-caliber starting catcher, or Jhonny Peralta as a shortstop. The going hasn't always been smooth-last year's attempts to get Lee and Peralta pointed in the right direction yielded some pretty bitter fruit-but Martinez is doing just fine as a backstop despite so much wailing about how he had to doff the tools of ignorance, and Lee looks like he's a quality starter again. The organization understands the value of having premium hitters at key defensive positions, and having players succeed in the face of being assigned some of the toughest possible roles.

Which is what makes their now three-year-old problem in adequately stocking their outfield corners that much more exasperating. They know you're supposed to get offense out of your corners-everybody does, and nobody's being stupid. What's so immensely frustrating is that they keep winding up with patches. Jason Michaels was never a solution, he was an already past-peak platoon player initially miscast as a regular. Pace Trot Nixon and David Dellucci, players who have their uses, but remember that Dellucci and then Nixon in '07 were seen as necessary major improvements upon Michaels and Casey Blake, the everyday corner outfielders in '06. Then there's the problem with the in-house alternatives, who aren't past-peak, but have much the same issue, in that they're not quality everyday players. That's not to slight Franklin Gutierrez-he may very well be the new Gary Roenicke Lite, a plus defender at any outfield position who can kill lefties and... do a really swell job of warming pine against right-handers. A right-field combination of Davlin Gutiucci is a potentially productive, absolutely swell setup for one outfield corner. There are two.

If Francisco is supposed to fix that, you may as well wish for Andy Marte to magically rediscover his hitting prowess and for Casey Blake to move to a corner. It isn't that Francisco is useless-like everyone else mentioned so far, even Michaels, he has his uses. The problem is that one of those uses isn't as an everyday outfielder in the major leagues. In his "breakout" in Buffalo last season, his ISO against International League right-handers was .171; in his "disappointing" 2006 campaign, it was .178. He's good with the leather in either outfield corner, and he steals a few bags, but add it all up, and it affirms that he's a patch, not a solution, for a team looking for some offense from an outfield corner. In the best of times, a contender doesn't settle for a corner outfielder who, if things break right, slugs .450, but that's what Francisco represents. These aren't the best of times, though; Blake's struggling to hit at third, Ryan Garko's power has gone MIA, Peralta's morphing from a down-ballot MVP candidate into Jose Hernandez (still useful, that, if disappointing), and Travis Hafner's bat has disappeared faster than you can say "Super Joe!"

There's only so much a team and a GM can do, of course, but let's not pretend that Francisco is a fix. The Indians are stuck with Hafner, and have to see if they can turn him around. Likewise, they're going to be wise to sit still and see what comes with Peralta. But first base and the outfield corners will need to be addressed one way or another, and that means putting out feelers to see who they can get for left or first, or possibly even the best bat available to use at DH, with Hafner playing a good amount of first. Whichever course they choose, the quandary is that they must choose to do something, because right now, this isn't an offense that works, it's a team whose run-scoring abilities rank ahead of only the Royals, and Mark Shapiro has nothing like the litany of reasonable excuses that Dayton Moore can recite.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Designated OF-L Jacque Jones for assignment; purchased the contract of OF-L Matt Joyce from Toledo (Triple-A). [5/5]

While I might generally disagree with the point that Joe made earlier today about cutting bait on the living dead on some rosters, in the case of the Tigers and Jones, I think he's spot-on-this was a fit of pique aimed at a player who had a cold start, and who wasn't really a great solution for any team's corner outfield needs in the first place. (Now, just watch, he'll sign with the Tribe and have a great four months. Ain't the game grand in its possibilities?) That said, in terms of cash alone, it was also eminently affordable, because the Tigers already cashed the $2 million check from the Cubs for taking Jones off of their hands, and only have whatever's left of the rest of Jones' salary to pay off beyond that (say, something around $3 million-plus, less whatever else his next employer pays him at the minimum).

Where Joe's point really bites into the heart of the matter, and where the Tigers didn't do themselves any favors, is in having an alternative lined up. Cutting a crummy overpriced veteran in the last year of his contract can be easy, redemptive, and rewarding. It can also be utterly unhelpful if there isn't a better option to plug in, and the question for the Tigers is first whether or not they have one, and then, if they do, if they're going to play him. Initially, it doesn't look so good. As BP2K8 pointedly observes, Joyce will perhaps "never be enough of a hitter to play every day, but he's left-handed, has a little bit of juice in his bat, and is an outstanding defensive player." Which is ducky, except that finding the new Pat Sheridan isn't the objective, and just because that skill set happens to mesh nicely with Marcus Thames' strengths and weaknesses, the goal isn't to find someone who might make Thames useful while not screwing things up too badly himself, it's to find a player who can help you hurt the other guys. We're talking about left field, and this is what the Tigers are up to? That's all that Jones was good for, so what sense is there in observing that same standard?

If they want to go with someone who has future promise, the better choice would be Ryan Raburn, because at 27 his future is now, and because his bat is ready. Admittedly, that doesn't help them with their lineup's heavy tilt to the right, but Joyce isn't the solution to that any more than Jones was; playing a bad lefty hitter over a better right-handed hitter often doesn't help you anywhere, anywhere but performance-blind managerial metrics like platoon percentage. Swell, I'm sure Jim Leyland will sleep better.

The other sensible adaptation would be to put Miguel Cabrera in an outfield corner-they're moving him anyway-and get Brandon Inge back in the lineup as the near-everyday third baseman. Sure, that means they have to take the platoon "hit," such as that might be (remember, we're talking Inge against RHPs versus Matt Joyce, not Kirk Gibson), but they receive the defensive value of Inge's play at the hot corner. Given the modest standards in play, if you're not going to see Raburn, I'd certainly rather see Inge for what that will mean for the pitching staff, not to mention Inge's dissatisfactions. As long as you're punting one slot in the lineup, why not do so to get some measure of defensive virtue at a position-third base-with considerably more value than left field?

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Optioned MI-R Brent Lillibridge to Richmond (Triple-A); recalled LHP Jo-Jo Reyes from Richmond. [5/3]
Acquired 1B/OF-S Greg Norton from the Mariners for a PTBNL or $$-S Stacks O'Cash; transferred RHP Peter Moylan from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/5]
Placed INF-R Martin Prado on the 15-day DL (sprained thumb); added Norton to the active roster. [5/6]
Placed C-S Brayan Pena on the 15-day DL; activated UT-R Omar Infante from the 15-day DL. [5/8]

In itself, nabbing Norton didn't do all of the things that the Braves needed to get done in patching up their infield, but it's a good move no matter how you slice. Losing Prado hurt in that Prado is a playable glove at both middle infield positions, where Ruben Gotay is a good-hit second baseman who can't really play short, and probably shouldn't play third. Norton hasn't played third since 2005 (at Charlotte), and really hasn't played a lot of third since 2000, for the White Sox. Happily, Infante was due to come off of the DL, eradicating that particular problem. Having Gotay and Norton means that the Braves have a pair of very playable bats to plug in for pinch-hitting, no small thing in the National League, or as an improvement on last year's woeful bench. It does still leave them in a bit of a pinch should Chipper Jones get hurt for any length of time, but to be fair, losing Chipper would probably throw the Braves' season off the rails (or put a big burden on Frank Wren to do something, akin to Pat Gillick's quick pickup of Tadahito Iguchi last year in Chase Utley's one-month absence).

The silver lining to adding Norton is that it should be remembered that he was playing at less than full speed much of last season after April surgery on his knee; from August 1 on, Norton hit .310 and slugged .460, and while it's easy to play these sorts of sample-size games, keep in mind that Norton had a big year in 2006, that he has a lot of experience coming off of the bench, and that he has a decent career record as a pinch-hitter (.237/.321/.409). Add in that he's a much more effective hitter against right-handers, but doesn't go away against lefties, and he's absolutely worth a wee bit of O'Cash. He should be a strong enough hitter to spot for Mark Teixeira now and again at first (as needed), play an outfield corner in a pinch, and be an automatic plug-in for DH duties in the interleague games.

I don't want to overstate the importance of the move, but would that many of the Braves' competitors were as sensible. Norton does for the Braves what Greg Dobbs does for the Phillies. It isn't quite a return to the days of full-fledged professional pinch-hitters, but it's a nice use of a roster spot in the age of expanded pitching staffs.


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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