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July 3, 2008

Transaction Analysis

AL East Moves and Issues

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Big Move? There's more than just sentiment involved, but bringing up Radhames Liz and sending Steve Trachsel to the knacker is symptomatic of what has been a season-long struggle to sort out the rotation and the way in which the changes might actually be fixes, and not merely change for change's sake. No doubt Trachs would dawdle in the shadow of the hammer, and they'd have to call in Temple Grandin to tell him that it's best just to get on with it-everybody's just meat someday. However, dispensing with Trachsel and losing first Adam Loewen and now Matt Albers to injury hasn't been disastrous. These things initially opened up opportunities for Liz and Garrett Olson, and that's generally to the good-Olson's as ready as he's ever going to be, and Liz is an important part of the franchise's future. That's not to say that Liz is perfectly ready-he only made five quality starts in 11 pitching for Norfolk, and tended to get hammered after every fourth inning there, allowing 15 runs in 19 innings-but if he doesn't deliver, Loewen's back. If Loewen breaks again, they might give ill-starred Hayden Penn a spin to see if there's a reason to keep him on the 40-man over the winter, at which point we may be close enough to the end of the year that they might start thinking about passing around cups of coffee to kids like Chris Tillman and David Hernandez.

It may not sound all that exciting at the moment, but that's an entirely plausible rotation. Sure, it ranks only 24th in the majors in SNLVAR, but the much-loved Twins crew of young pitching is just one rung ahead, and the O's are tied with the Mariners, who have to be disappointed that, despite spending so much in terms of human and financial capital to add Erik Bedard, they'd be keeping company with more than one choice Oriole. More fundamentally, look at what the Orioles have on hand: some homegrown talent (Daniel Cabrera plus Loewen, Olson, and Liz); some useful bodies fished out of the free talent pool (Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Burres); and some prospects acquired by trade (Albers and Tillman). This is how floundering franchises get turned around. Here's hoping that they just continue to keep an eye on the waiver wire, though, because the season-ending injuries to Albers and Troy Patton, plus the always-dodgy health of Loewen, make it clear that while there's been progress, there isn't a lot of depth.

Major Injury: Non-Loewen or non-expensive reliever category? Nothing, really.

Gaping Hole: Shortstop. Giving Luis Hernandez, Freddie Bynum, and Alex Cintron test runs might be a bit frustrating to people rash enough to jump on any of these Radio Flyer-sized bandwagons, but I find it sort of entertaining. Hernandez was never really a solution, and Bynum's a lovely 25th who gives you speed and positional flexibility, but who hurts you when pressed into everyday action. That left Alex Cintron (before he got hurt) and Brandon Fahey, with Eider Torres lurking in Norfolk. It isn't like Cintron or Torres or Fahey will ever wind up shaking their fists if they lose playing time and saying they would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those darned kids-there are no kids, so the monsters just get to take turns giving prospective witnesses the willies. Even so, I like the idea of seeing Cintron get one more shot, especially in a situation as desperate as this, since he has a wee bit more pop than your average infield reserve, and I don't think we can write him off at short when he's more than three years removed from his last season as a regular (with the Snakes, in 2004), and has averaged roughly 27 full games' worth of playing time there in each season since. The alternative would be turning to Fahey, and I don't think there's a Theriot-like mid-career course change in his particular range of possibilities. But with Cintron damaged and Bynum back, it's a situation that remains broken.

Cool Underrated Move: Getting former farmhand Jeff Fiorentino back on a waiver claim from the A's isn't really cool, and can't really be rated anything, but it is sort of funky.

Tactical Oddity: As the season has progressed, Dave Trembley's been more and more willing to spot-start Aubrey Huff at third base. Certainly a big part of the reason why is that Melvin Mora isn't hitting, but then neither is Kevin Millar. Still, an unused skill goes to seed rather quickly, and if Huff's going to have any value in trade, it's best to have him appear to be as positionally flexible as possible. If they're stuck with him and Mora's bat is cooked, it makes for an adequate fix for the lineup in the short-term. I also like the recent reduction in Jay Payton's playing time from erstwhile platoon partner for Luke Scott to mere fourth outfielder-it's always best to put something where it belongs, and stop pretending it's something it isn't.

Things I Like: I get fuzzy happy feelings seeing Guillermo Quiroz finally sticking, without one or the other lung collapsing or some other extraordinary mishap befalling him. He isn't doing much, but it's just nice to see him catch a break and put in time towards that coveted membership in the International Brotherhood of Backup Backstops. Someday, he'll be able to say, "You can call me Mr. IBBB!"

Problem Positions: First, third, or DH, or more basically wherever Huff isn't. Since we're talking veteran filler players at those positions, this doesn't really help Andy MacPhail swing a deal to add prospects come the deadline.

In-System Solutions? I'd like to see Scott Moore up and playing third in the majors instead of dealing with the distraction of playing everywhere in Norfolk's infield. Heck, I'd like to see him playing third base everyday for the Tides, because that's where his career potential is, and it isn't like Mike Costanzo's doing any damage while splitting the playing time with Moore at the hot corner. Since the O's don't have a prospect at third at Bowie, a solution suggests itself, but since neither Huff nor Mora represent great long-term solutions, the organization will be better off letting Moore and Costanzo be third basemen-and potential answers.

BOSTON RED SOX
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Big Moves: Losing Dice-K, then Bartolo Colon, and turning to Justin Masterson to replace first one, then the other. Keep in mind how many things have gone amiss in the Red Sox rotation, yet they're still perfectly OK. It's best they not get too worked up over Colon-in six starts, he drew the Mariners twice, the Orioles twice, and the Royals, and then got clobbered by the Phillies. Masterson is dealing with a bit of league-wide adjustment to his wiles. Still, practically speaking we're talking about sorting out who the fifth starter is, and that's not exactly a pennant-losing postulation, not in isolation. The problem is more one of how the overlap in the rotation might generate a bit of overconfidence, because just about all of the starters not named Tim Wakefield have to answer questions about their full-season durability or in-game endurance. These can be solvable problems-Jon Lester's building up his strength and might be a second-half workhorse, Josh Beckett might be fine for the stretch run, and Matsuzaka might start putting batters away faster. But if none of those things happen, not even depth will mask the mounting in-game workloads being placed upon the pen, and the offense will have that many more games in which to deliver. It's not quite as simple as having depth and redundancy, nice as those things are.

Gaping Hole: Well, it isn't really gaping, but it's the problem of how to replace the bat of David Ortiz well enough in his absence, and that's essentially become a question of playing both center fielders. Life without Papi isn't exactly colorless-Manny Ramirez will always keep the presses printing and talk radio yammering-but it provides its share of hazards, with perhaps one lone benefit. The benefit is that you could argue that losing David Ortiz helped create playing time for Coco Crisp and an extra incentive to hang onto him, and that could prove critical as Jacoby Ellsbury's slump deepens. While interleague play came along at the right time, the real problems will come with its conclusion should Ellsbury not get back on track, because at some point, the Sox may have to think less about their commitment to his development, and instead start evaluating their alternatives as far as doing what they have to do to win.

If that means Crisp plays center and the Sox review some of their alternatives in left field or at DH until Papi returns, that's not such a bad idea in the abstract. The problem is that the alternatives aren't that great. Seeing a lot more Sean Casey, at first or DH? Brandon Moss in left? Calling up Chris Carter or even Jeff Bailey? It's a menu almost designed to encourage the Sox to stick with Ellsbury until Ortiz comes back, because none of these guys is a perfect simulacrum of the human hitting machine.

Cool Underrated Move: It's almost impossible for the Sox to do something that doesn't immediately elicit legions of RSN zombies cooing their approval or ripping their hair out, so let's give this category a Jamesian "pass."
In-Game Tactical Oddity: Kevin Youkilis has moved from one corner to one of the other three in eight different ballgames. That's kind of cool, and not simply for fantasy league position eligibility. Having someone who can play four corners-and both infield corners well-while also providing value at the plate, makes for a nifty space-saver in terms of the overall roster. Of course, what that buys them is that seventh reliever they feel they have to have, in this case organizational soldier Chris Smith, at least while Mike Timlin's on the DL for ineffecti-tendonitis. With the aforementioned questions in the rotation, the extra arm for garbage time isn't such a bad thing to have around.

In-System Solutions? In the rotation, the good news is that Clay Buchholz seems to be regaining his command in Pawtucket-in his last four starts, he's walked only five of the 84 batters he's faced, while striking out 24. It doesn't hurt that he's also allowing less than two runs per nine. If we focus on the outfield/DH problem, the production from the PawSox options is good, but not quite great. Chris Carter's doing reasonably well against right-handed pitching in Pawtucket (.297/.349/.539), but he's the sort of outfielder who would keep Manny in left. Moss isn't as good as his sporadic playing time as a PawSock would have you believe (.300/.355/.543, and a .292 EqA), because an awful lot of that is four homers in two games in Durham in May. OK, he owns Jeff Niemann, but is that going to matter in a pennant race? There is also Jeff Bailey, hitting .294/.398/.595 without any platoon hangups, and it isn't all some Pawtucket product. However, considering he's a bit long in the tooth, his production really only works out to a .285 EqA, not quite enough to make plopping him into the lineup a no-brainer. None of them are implausible, but none of them add up to an easy pick over Ellsbury during Ortiz's absence.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Sign of the Apocalypse? Chien-Ming Wang's out, so... Sir Sidney Ponson to the rescue? Isn't this sort of how the career of Mike Torrez ended, wandering from team to team and getting run off the roster of one after the other?

Big Moves: Getting Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez back, because it's very clear this isn't a team that can turn its fortunes over to Jose Molina and the like. While there's been some excitement-like the Astros' flashback to the days of disco, when running was the rage, stealing four bases on six attempts against Posada on June 13, or Tuesday's Texas outburst-for all of the talk about how much it hurts to have a catcher who can't throw much, let's face it, this isn't quite like asking the same question about Ted Simmons in the '70s or Matty Nokes in the '80s and early '90s; here in the Aughties, running is simply less a part of the every-game experience:


Decade    SB    CS      G     SBA/G
1970s   24584  13724  39610   .967
1980s   31258  14894  40674  1.135
1990s   31378  14556  43187  1.064
2000s   23759   9981  41414   .815

We can dicker over reasons why this is so-broad dissemination of "Moneyball" thinking (I'd call it Weaver-style wisdom updated for the present), different racial makeup, a stronger industry-wide commitment to a better brand of infield defense and holding baserunners than you saw 30 years ago-but this is the game as it is, not as Whitey Herzog might wish it to be.

Gaping Hole: Blaming the Yankees' problems on Melky Cabrera's slack bat or Jason Giambi's spavined crab act at first base is sort of like my blaming Vista for my writing lethargy in June-sure, these things suck, but getting hung up over how much they suck runs the risk of neglecting the truly important problems that are making a real hash of things. Beyond the rotation-more on that in a second-the bench is as much of a mess as it ever was on Torre's watch, and as the club's core predictably declines, that's a lot less survivable.

How about the absence of a lefty reliever? I suppose there's some segment of the audience fretting over that, for good reason. With LaTroy Hawkins looking like every bit the mistake he seemed over the winter, and with both Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez having problems against lefties, it'll be interesting to see if the kind of reliever the Yankees prioritize in their shopping is a veteran left-hander with experience in the set-up role. This is a pen that needs more than just another Tony Fossas/Mike Myers type, and even that kind of pitcher isn't really on the 40-man roster.

Uncool Potentially Overrated Move: Jobamania might obscure the point a bit, but plugging the rotation with Dan Giese and Darrell Rasner is not a whole-cloth solution, it's patchwork. And not those cool iron-on patches either, but more laborious sew-ins where you wish the colors matched a bit better, and what you get when you're done is a rotation far too poorly tailored for the contender's ball. Rasner looked good initially while facing a weak or slack group of lineups; generate enough video and see the schedule mix things up, and suddenly you've got a fifth starter wannabe putting baserunners aboard by the bushel, and wearing the proverbial emperor's clothes. Giese's an even better tough-luck story than the oft-injured Rasner, but here again, anybody want to take bets on how he does after he gets passed around the league a bit?

Now, I don't say this to hammer on either man-it's great that they're getting the opportunity, and they've both certainly put in the time. I guess since we're in Gettysburg season, I'd draw a comparison to the Flying Dutchmen-they don't want to suck, and they do try, and maybe a change of scenery will end up helping, just as it did the ill-fated 11th Corps once they got away from the pressures of performing in the East. Nor do I say this to bang on Brian Cashman and the rest of the suits-nobody here thinks that the answer to this team's problems is to find the next Aaron Small ('05 vintage, a lovely year, effervescent with a touch of the unrepeatably improbable), and nobody should be overconfident about how these sorts of knock-up jobs hold up over multiple months. I just bring all of this up because at the end of the day-or this month-the Yankees are going to have to get back to seeing what they can reasonably get from Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy, and how much they should throw at the problem before the deadline. That's assuming they can let it go that long, though, because there are potentially another six or maybe even 10 starts for Karstens and Giese, and that could be potentially deadly in a playoff picture that's already crowded within the division.

In-Game Tactical Fun: With the late-game gambit of bringing in Jose Molina to catch and switching Jorge Posada to first, there's more in play than just one former catcher-turned-skipper looking for ways to get a fellow backstop playing time. It's a sensible adaptation to Posada's limitations, maximizes the value of Giambi's bat but gets his defense out of the late innings of games, and puts the catcher who can throw the ball in there when close scores can make baserunning critical to the end results. The outgrowth of this kind of in-game tactical flexibility that follows might be shocking for Yankees fans raised on a generation of tactical stasis-say Giambi gets aboard in the sixth or seventh, maybe you even pinch-run for him with Brett Gardner (or Melky Cabrera on days he doesn't start), and throw the catcher's spot (with Molina in it) to wherever it decreases the odds of Molina batting, and Joltless Joe starts looking like an AL edition of Manny Acta or something. Add in the ability to rely on one primary outfield reserve and one primary infield reserve (Wilson Betemit), and the roster can afford to devote space to a third catcher and a twelfth pitcher. It makes for a pretty cool configuration, and a way to make Posada's limitations behind the plate into something more than just a handicap.

In-System Solutions? Playing Gardner a bit wouldn't be the end of the world, but as his PECOTA projection reflects, he's not quite all that, although his season with Scranton puts him among the International League's elite. I'll buy playing him some, insofar as a day off now and again wouldn't kill Melky, and there's enough playing time to go around when you only have four outfielders on the roster. Gardner's not exactly a Tyner wannabe-he runs well and plays a solid center, but also walks often enough and makes enough solid contact that he's not just some slappy water bug. As a change of pace for a lineup with its share of lead-foots, it makes sense to work him in and see if he'll have enough tactical value to be worth the roster spot even after Hideki Matsui comes back off of the DL.

Thanks to Clay Davenport for a research assist.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Big Moves: Al Reyes out, Troy Percival in, then into limbo, and then out. It gets people worried about who's getting saves worked up, but it doesn't seem to have fundamentally undermined the effectiveness of the Rays' pen and run prevention, as Nate and Joe talked about yesterday.

Gaping Hole: First base was with Carlos Pena out of action, but Pena's back, and it's an open question as to whether it still is a problem, because Pena's failure to make consistent contact or hit for much power is conjuring up images of his career going Casper on us yet again. He does at least give them quality glove work at first, but an ongoing failure to perform is going to create an expanded opportunity for Eric Hinske.

Cool Underrated Moves: Bringing Grant Balfour back from the near-dead after multiple arm injuries is pretty cool, but on some level he's just part of a group of comebackers in the pen-Percival, from retirement; Reyes from surgical issues of his own; Gary Glover from a 2006 season spent with Yomiuri in the Japanese leagues... it's enough of a mixed bag that it makes roster nomads like Dan Wheeler and Trever Miller seem downright middle class. At any rate, with the care invested in keeping Percival semi-operable and with Reyes likely to start rehabbing next week, a bullpen almost entirely conjured up through low-end investments in talent or treasure should be able to keep on keeping on.

As far as another strange-fitting piece goes, it might initially seem hard to sort out what Willy Aybar is for. Initially, he was the proxy third baseman while the drama over whether or not the team was managing Evan Longoria's service time flared and then fizzled out, and then he got hurt, and once back he played far too much first base during Pena's absence. However, I like the possibility that Aybar could wind up being sort of the Rays' Betemit Lite, a utility infielder who probably shouldn't play much short but who can fill in the other three spots without conjuring up comparisons to Miguel Cairo or Willie Bloomquist. On the downside, they don't really have an alternative to Jason Bartlett should their shortstop either never get his bat going or if he gets hurt, but that's something they can decide to do something about (or not) at the end of the month. I suppose they could give Ben Zobrist another shot, but his defense has never really been seen as an asset, and his track record as a hitter hasn't really thrilled anyone, even those of us who'd hoped his OBP skills would play at the major league level.

In-Game Tactical Fun: Having an open outfield slot where you don't have an established regular doesn't have to be the end of the world, and the Rays are enjoying the benefits to the hilt as they rotate Hinske, Jonny Gomes, and Gabe Gross through their right-field starts. That kind of depth spills over into other lineup slots as well: Hinske's a four-corners reserve, ready to spot start for Pena, Evan Longoria, or Carl Crawford, while the always-fragile Cliff Floyd would probably break down even if limited to a role as the everyday DH. So instead, the Rays have depth, talent, and power where some people are still wondering if Rocco Baldelli will "fix" the problem. It isn't a problem, and however much sympathy people can and should have for Baldelli as he works his way back from his latest injury, it's up to him to prove he's useful enough to be mixed into this crew, and not feel a need to replace it outright.

In-System Solutions? The pitching talent within the organization already gets plenty of love, but I'm a little more concerned about the position player substitutions available to the organization. There's something ironic to the A's fan in me that their in-system replacement for Pena might well be the discarded Dan Johnson, since he's doing his thing in Durham, getting on base and slugging a bit (.291/.409/.510). (Anyone want to take odds on Daric Barton's playing by the other bay inside of five years?) I could see Justin Ruggiano squeezing out Gomes if the former keeps slugging as a Bull-and killing lefties-while the latter struggles to slug .400 as a lead-gloved platoon player. Reid Brignac might get sucked into the gap should anything happen to Bartlett, but he isn't hitting well enough to make that a comfortable fall-back position, just .265/.312/.431 overall, and a pathetic .234/.275/.400 away from Durham. Only 22 years old, he's obviously still a prospect, but it's the performance that has me wondering if the Rays might review the available infielders, rather than have to revisit last season's infield horrors if anything happens to their slick-fielding starter at short.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Big Moves: Where the Jays are concerned, it's almost been nothing but major moves. We can start at the top, where I'm pleased to see Cito Gaston back in a dugout. Sure, I always liked to deride Sleepy Cito back in the day, but at least there's a connection here as he serves the organization again, and it beats spinning your wheels with some chatterbox who gives good interview and finds himself out of his depth doing the managing part of managing. Then there's the outfield; getting Vernon Wells back floats some people's boats, but it's more a matter of who he's replacing than his own virtues. Losing Shannon Stewart and demoting Kevin Mench cleared the way for Adam Lind to start in left field, but ditching that pair has led to things like David Eckstein, DH, against left-handed pitchers, which is another example of the degeneration of the position from a spot to stick a glove-challenged slugger into a spot to spread playing time around to allow for the gloveliness of seeing Jason McDonald flit around the infield.

Which brings us to the last major change, where the Jays' cluttered middle infield situation has gotten only more cluttered by their losing Aaron Hill to injury. Between Eckstein, McDonald, Joe Inglett, and Marco Scutaro, they've got enough bodies, to be sure. The goofy thing is that all of them are useful, but it just seems silly to have all of them. Inglett could finally stick as that always-handy lefty bat with some sock for the middle infield, and Scutaro's an experienced reserve, and Eckstein's going to get on base, and McDonald is perhaps his generation's Mark Belanger, but you look at those discrete uses and wonder if you might not pair a couple of them off and see if firing up some telepods and Brundleflying them them might give you something closer to a complete player. Gaston might favor the experiment; back in the day, he was positively Houkian in his readiness to establish regular lineups and ride them to the bitter end. That makes his initial flexibility on the job so far that much more interesting-in his first 12 games, beyond the "Eckstein, DH" thing, he's started three different shortstops. It'll be interesting to see how this all shakes down if Aaron Hill continues to make progress coming back from his concussion-will Gaston pick a shortstop? Will he add Inglett to that mix? Will the Jays have the roster space, or will they wind up subtracting one?

Gaping Hole: Losing Shaun Marcum was potentially devastating, because the Jays' fortunes depend almost entirely upon their rotation's ability to keep games within range of the weak offense. I know, John Parrish gave them a good start in his first time starting in Marcum's place, but the news that Marcum will be back on the mound after the break is about as rainbow-flavored as good news gets. To give Parrish his props, however, he was doing good stuff starting at Syracuse, allowing 3.6 R/9 as a starting pitcher, winning eight of 11 starts, and striking out 90 in 82 total IP. Getting Gregg Zaun back from the DL meant a little less Rod Barajas in the world-or at least out in public-and that also can't hurt them any, so the hole at catcher's fixed up well enough.

Cool Underrated Move: I guess I'm the type to be fascinated by their picking up INF-L Kevin Melillo from the A's in a minor trade; they're playing him at third and second at Syracuse, and he keeps on mashing against right-handed pitching. Still, he's already 26, so I'll hold off on any John Lowenstein stories for the time being.

In-Game Tactical Oddity: I think we've covered this, but the horde of middle infielders is weird and fun, with the flavor profile leaning one way or another depending on your particular palate for such things.

In-System Solutions? They don't have many-Lind's already back out there in left, after all. Ryan Klosterman isn't going to be rushed up into the middle infield to perhaps provide them with a more balanced shortstop. J.P. Arencibia's already up at Double-A, so he might get a cup of coffee before the season's out, but like blue-chipper Travis Snider, his timetable isn't entirely up to him, because both will have to be added to the 40-man, and the Jays may prefer to forestall questions of service time as long as possible.


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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