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May 21, 2008

Transaction Analysis

Flipping Fishies and Still-Ancient Mariners

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart
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Optioned C-L Jeff Clement to Tacoma (Triple-A). [5/18]
Recalled OF-L Jeremy Reed from Tacoma; claimed RHP Tracy Thorpe off of waivers from the Blue Jays. [5/19]

"Gee, is that a quarter? Was I supposed to call something? Well, whatever. Let me tell you, I figured it was the best thing for him, to put the kid out of his misery. I mean, it's just terrible to see a hatchling fall out of the nest and hit the pavement, don't you think?" >THUNK< sssssss...
"Ow. You've got a funny way of holding up your end of a conversation, mister. Anyway, I figure the best way to deliver on my obligation to the good people of this fair city, and to achieve the destiny that is my birthright, and to fulfill the greatness that I am absolutely certain this team possesses, is for me to resolve our offensive problems without going crazy about the future. You know, in the months to come." >THUNK< sssssss...
"Ouch. So, like I was saying, I think the solution to my team's problems is to turn back to Jose Vidr-hey, wait." >THUNK< ssssss...
"C'mon now, that smarts. Have I told you about Jose Vidro? He's like Jose Lopez, except he's only got the same first name: Ho-say. I think they're from some other country, like yours, Mr. ... I don't think I rightly got your name."
"Chigurh, and I see this is going to be a lot more difficult than anyone expected."
"My stars, don't I know it."

The concept of a decision tree, by its very nature, usually involves branches. As a leader, you make decisions, important ones. Contingencies invariably arise, and those big decisions always involve subsequent follow-up choices. Maybe you go forward and eventually reach daylight. Maybe you go back, figuring it isn't too late for a do-over. Or you wind up way out on a branch that can't hold the weight of your commitments, sending you hurtling down. And maybe you'd rather just chase your tail on the trunk, and avoid going too far out along any one branch. It works for squirrels, but then they're not generally charged with steering franchises.

It's that latter case that I fret about, because there seems to be a problem with committing to a plan here. Scouting will tell you that Clement can hit, and past performance tells you that Clement can and will hit. Nevertheless, you bail out after 14 starts? After he'd just given you his first couple of multi-hit games in his last four? This seems like another case of a guy getting blamed for the bad first week he had, not what he'd been doing lately-which speaks to getting hung up on the numbers. So what, he gets a sombrero against Chris Young and Heath Bell in his last start. It's going to happen. So he struck out in 35 percent of his PA-that's going to happen. But why not wait and see what happens once he gets going? You already know what Jose Vidro going good gets you-a weak-hitting DH in a lineup desperate to plate runs. I guess if I want to be optimistic, maybe Clement plays a lot of first base as a Rainier in the next few weeks, and comes back as the Sexson eraser. Even so, I'm pretty disappointed in this latest bit of indecisiveness. I'm not arguing for stubborn resolution in the face of mounting data-that might lead to a really bad idea, like committing to Vidro because what was good enough last year should be good enough now. This resembles the worst of all possible worlds, and could presage another confused muddle that resembles Bavasi's last year with the Angels, when he was clearly caught flat-footed by a team's failure-and incapacity-to achieve his expectations for it.

Not that calling up Reed is a bad idea-the man was hitting like it was 2003, pelting PCL pitching at a .349/.413/.557 clip (which translates to a very playable .303/.363/.467, and a .290 EqA). Despite being around seemingly forever, he's still only just coming up on 27, and he's still mostly playing center, so even in the worst-case scenario, he should still represent a good part-time player and fourth outfielder, especially for a team that has an aging Raul Ibanez in one corner, Wladimir Balentien's battle with the strike zone in the other, and the absence of a playable DH on the roster. If he's employed on a regular basis, it could alleviate the team's Vidro-sized problem, with Ibanez perhaps starting at DH more often than not, and with Vidro spotting at first, maybe second, and DHing only when necessary. It wouldn't single-handedly fix a lineup getting hollow performances out of everyone beyond Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre, and Ibanez, but it would be a start, and on some level Reed's arrival prefigures the eventual challenge of making room for Michael Saunders (although that's really on the 2009 calendar, unless he totally goes whack on the Southern League).

FLORIDA MARLINS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed OF-L Jacque Jones to a minor league contract. [5/19]

As the great Stan Ridgway observed, sometimes people just want the freedom to have a little chili every morning. That's swell, and more power to 'em, but that doesn't necessarily embody progress. Thinking on that makes me wonder what it is that the Marlins want. Do they remember what a center fielder looks like, or did too many years of Juan Pierre bust their palate so badly that, instead of something fresh, they're just sticking with leftovers from here on out? Don't get me wrong-Jacque Jones is probably better to have playing center field for you some chunk of the time than Alfredo Amezaga, in the same way that chili for breakfast probably makes better sense than Krispy Kreme-you may not want to make that choice, but if it's all you've got...

I know that's terribly unfair to Cody Ross, but maybe a combination of Ross and Jones and someone who can really fly in center lets you convert a present problem into a lineup slot that allows you to keep your bench fresh by moving people around. Jones may have some line-drive sock left, and although he may always look awkward in center, SFR and Plus/Minus were among the metrics that saw his defensive performance for the Cubs last season as good enough to play. The point is somewhat irrelevant; carrying a platoon in center and someone who can play center really well and elder statesman/ex-famous person Wes Helms and perhaps somebody who can play third base to caddy for Jorge Cantu doesn't really add up all that well, not when you've got only five bench players. But maybe there's a way to get all of those things out of what's on hand on the roster.

Let's assume a few things that are pretty safe to assume, starting with that head count of five guys for the bench, since with this outfit, the Marlins want and probably need seven guys in the pen. Jones is apparently going for a quick tune-up in extended spring training, after which it seems reasonably safe to assume that he'll push Brett Carroll off of the roster and move into the outfield picture. With no regular in center or behind the plate, and with Josh Willingham out for a while, you've got Luis Gonzalez starting in left, joining five other everyday players (the starting infield, plus Jeremy Hermida in right). I know, that's investing a measure of confidence in Cantu, but we'll get to that. Absent Willingham, and taking it for granted that Matt Treanor and Mike Rabelo are your catchers, that gets you down to picking four guys for your bench. With that, let's take a look at the moving parts:


Set (8)
1B Mike Jacobs*
2B Dan Uggla
3B Jorge Cantu
SS Hanley Ramirez
RF Jeremy Hermida*
LF Luis Gonzalez*
C Treanor/Rabelo#

Less Set (Pick 5 of 7, later 9)
Center Field: Ross, Amezaga#, and/or Jones*
Nailed to the Bench: 1B/3B Wes Helms, MI Robert Andino, OF Brett Carroll
Triple-A Alternative: 1B/3B Dallas McPherson*
DL: LF Josh Willingham, CF Alejandro De Aza*

Looking at the group, there are some additional considerations. Like the veterans, Amezaga's out of options, but happily Andino and Carroll are not. I'm complicating the picture by putting McPherson into it, but the guy's hitting .297/.396/.659 with a PCL-leading 15 homers. While adjusting for his age makes for a relatively modest translation, only a .262 Equivalent Average, if we're going to throw Helms into the mix of people about whom we need to ask what they do and what they're for, we ought to bring McPherson into the conversation, especially when the quality of Cantu's fielding and his ability to reach base consistently are mutable.

Sifting through the options, who would you pick for this team's bench? For me, the fact that Andino isn't playing and still has some notional value as a prospect suggests to me that he ought to be back in Albuquerque, where he can put his skills to use either as eventual trade bait or as the team's second baseman or shortstop of the future, especially in case the Fish get tired of Uggla's fielding at second and move him to third. Sure, that's probably frustrating for Andino, in the same way that Ronny Cedeno had to wonder what he had to do at Iowa last season to get a fair shake. However, Andino was already a loser in the fight for roster spots back in March, so there's no "line of death" commitment to observe here; he made it back onto the roster at the last instant when De Aza got hurt (again), thereby perpetuating the center-field problem (again). In Andino's place, employing Amezaga as their primary utility infielder works just fine, in that he can play second, short, and third; since Uggla and HanRam play almost every inning of every game up the middle, there isn't a lot of need to carry a second middle-infield reserve anyway. So that's one easy choice.

But is it the only one? I would argue that it isn't. These days, Helms really only has use as a pinch-hitter against lefties; that plus his effectively vestigial glove work anywhere beyond first base really leaves me wondering why he's here. McPherson would make for a better choice for the roster spot, perhaps particularly as a sometime starter for the scatter-armed Cantu at third or spot-starter for Jacobs at first (not to mention someone who can claim those all-important DH at-bats during interleague action).

So that's two guys you could move aside-Andino for his own good, and Helms for your own-with two additions, Jones and McPherson. Boiled down, this means call up McPherson, get Andino at-bats as an Isotope, and look into putting Helms back in the box to return to sender. With Willingham off of the table for the foreseeable future, I'd keep Carroll as a right-handed bat to spot Gonzo in left or Hermida in right.

Consider what that group of four non-catching bench players does for you: McPherson can play either infield corner and give you serious lefty sock off of the bench, and potentially lets you use Cantu in the same way. Ross might still be stuck as the fourth outfielder if Jones gets most of the playing time in center; as unfair as that may be to him, you're covered in terms of having a righty bat with power on the bench as well. Carroll can function as your early-game pinch-hitter and spot-starter in either outfield corner. Offensively, that group gives you power, McPherson a few walks, Carroll and Ross more contact ability; that's a nice blend. Finally, there's Amezaga, your utility infielder, and best to leave the compliments there. If you're frightened of the glove work of Cantu or McPherson at third, maybe that's Amezaga's new role, and the Fish invent their own version of last season's three-headed third baseman in Philly.

Looking forward, between Jones and Ross you have two playable bats in center whose defense might be a bit dodgy; maybe the wire gives you somebody to slot into the fifth outfielder job to fulfill your center field defense and pinch-running chores, and maybe there's no need to bother with that since De Aza might be back in action sometime next month. Things get complicated when Willingham comes back and Gonzo has to ride pine; as we saw last year, his solid citizenship doesn't seem to preclude griping for at-bats, even with better players on hand. Later still, maybe once rosters expand, is perhaps when Cameron Maybin serves as a primo defensive replacement, assuming he doesn't just earn an outright shot at the job by then.

Why go through this whole virtual chalkboard exercise, you may ask-it's only the Fish. To which I say, the season has passed its first quarter mark, and there's no reason to not take yourself seriously when you've got some tremendous young talent and the reasonable opportunity to do something with it. Snagging Jones was a worthwhile move; why not make a few more, and really give it your best shot?


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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