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July 6, 2008

Transaction of the Day

Infield Issues Out West

by Christina Kahrl

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I'll be turning the next roster moves review-the AL West-next, but these two teams' problems at shortstop were worth getting to right now, because of what I see as a larger trend concerning position scarcity, and the very different solutions that each team has at its disposal. I first started thinking that we were seeing something very interesting with shortstop scarcity last season, when we saw the (then) Devil Rays and the Royals dealing with their lack of shortstop in very different ways: the D-Rays decided to take a hit on defense and plug in Brendan Harris; while the Royals made, observed, and perhaps now regret a commitment to Tony Pena Jr. What those examples, these, or the Orioles' current problems at short reflect is how very ambiguous a term like 'replacement level' becomes once we get to the specifics of who teams have and what their options are. Not everyone has ideal depth, not everyone anticipates every problem, and supply is never so perfectly balanced that the demand for the 30 best shortstops gives us the 30 best playing at the same time. In the real world, the fun is in seeing what creative solutions teams come up with, often on the fly.


IN THIS ISSUE

National League

COLORADO ROCKIES
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Placed 1B-L Todd Helton on the 15-day DL (strained lower back); recalled 1B-L Joe Koshansky from Colorado Springs (Triple-A). [7/4]
Placed SS-R Troy Tulowitzki on the 15-day DL (lacerated hand); optioned RHP Greg Reynolds to Colorado Springs; recalled OF-L Seth Smith and LHP Glendon Rusch from Colorado Springs. [7/5]

We'll probably hear more from Will on the subject of this particular injury tomorrow, but Tulo's latest setback only punctuates what has been a thoroughly miserable season, for him and for the team. With all of the concern over shattering bats and the injuries that they might cause, there's some irony in this particular hurt, in that Tulowitzki hurt himself by slamming his bat, breaking it, and lacerating his thumb. Even so, he's expected to miss just the two weeks to heal up, and in the face of the club's major commitment to him, there's not really anything to be proven by any in-season heroics-he's their shortstop.

The slender benefit in his absence is that the Rockies have been able to continue to evaluate who their primary infield reserves should be, and who's worth their spots on the 40-man, and several players have taken these opportunities and run with them. Clint Barmes has turned into a key middle-infield alternative, fielding more than well enough (by RZR, at any rate), and hitting well enough on the road as well as on Planet Coors (.367/.419/.684 at home, .309/.333/.420). Admittedly, that road rate's basically just a lot of singles, and when he hits fewer of those, the rest goes with them, but when you're talking about a second-rank player pressed into everyday action, playing Barmes has been beneficial, instead of just a necessary evil. Beyond him, while Jeff Baker hasn't been scintillating afield at the keystone, he hasn't been hopelessly bad either, and suddenly a player who once seemed like a four-corners reserve becomes a much more useful utility man. Ian Stewart didn't look too terrible at the keystone either, so while his hitting remains something of an issue if you see him as an everyday third baseman, some newfound flexibility suddenly makes him a much more viable major leaguer. (However, now that he's back in Colorado Springs, he's really only playing third.)

In contrast, Jonathan Herrera quickly excused himself, and Omar Quintanilla's in danger of doing the same now that he's not showing the OBP or speed that once made him a prospect; at this point, his saving grace is that he's that rare middle infielder who hits from the left side of the plate. My concern is that Koshansky's stint as Todd Helton's replacement might expose him as belonging more in this category than the former. Hitting .281/.360/.569, his performance at Colorado Springs is as superficially impressive as you would expect, but a more involved look at his translated performance tells you that it boils down to an execrable .258 Equivalent Average, nowhere near good enough performance at the plate from a first baseman. Since there also isn't some massive platoon split involved that suggests he'll be that much more worthwhile splitting time at first with Baker, it really becomes less a matter of having a prospect to plug in than just turning to the 26-year-old organizational soldier you had at Triple-A because your starter's down. As a result, I'm much more intrigued by their bringing up Smith, because this might be a scenario where they could return Brad Hawpe to his original position at first base, and plug Smith into right field. Smith's hitting has been better than Koshansky's (.323/.426/524), he's been very strong against right-handers (.337/.437/.586), and he's hit everywhere in the PCL, not just in Colorado Springs. While I led off saying it's just as well that the Rockies get to evaluate who can do what and who might therefore be worth keeping, Smith's going to be 26 in September, so his future is just as much rooted in what he can do in the present as Koshansky's.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Activated INF-R Nomar Garciaparra from the 60-day DL; activated CF-R Andruw Jones from the 15-day DL; optioned OF-R Jason Repko to Las Vegas (Triple-A); placed PH-L Mark Sweeney on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); transferred SS-S Rafael Furcal from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [7/4]

Even with the news that Furcal's out for at least eight weeks, and perhaps the season, the Dodgers still have the present to ponder, especially playing in a very winnable NL West where 85 wins might be enough for a division title. So, while it would be easy to condemn them for screwing around with Chin-Lung Hu ("He's their shortstop of the future! Just play him! Play him!"); easier still to question their plugging in Luis Maza when both Dan Fox's SFR and Clay Davenport's Fielding Runs metrics suggest he wasn't much of a second baseman, let alone a shorstop; and easiest of all to bang on them for bringing in Angel Berroa. But let's face it, the stakes are pretty high, the internal dynamics and politics of that front office have to be a bit of a bear to negotiate, and there was once a point at which Berroa was a talented player-maybe taking a Royal out of the Royals is a way to cure him of what ails him. Add in the complication that the initial, seemingly short timetable for when Furcal might be back encouraged the club to think in terms of short-term fixes. As that became fluid, they started getting increasingly desperate (enter Berroa), and now that desperation is mothering a bit of reinvention: Nomah at short, just like back in the day, when he was one of the blessed trinity of superstar shortstops in the American League.

So, it's desperate, and it might be unsustainable, in that Garciaparra might be so terrible at short, or so physically incapable of meeting the challenge of playing there regularly, that we might see him revisiting the DL or third base or the bench in relatively short order. Still, as a way to repurpose a player who it was a mistake to retain, it's creative in a "wall/throw/sticks?/see" sort of way, and he should at least be a better player than Maza or Berroa out there. So it is at the very least an interesting solution. It would work a bit better if the Dodgers had a defense-oriented shortstop to provide Nomar some late-inning succor, swapping in on defense or pinch-running for him after that third or fourth plate appearance, but that doesn't describe either Maza or Berroa, which makes things interesting in the near future. Hu would be an obvious candidate, except that he hasn't played for Las Vegas since June 13 after coming down with some vision problems (which might also explain his early-season struggles with the parent club, of course).

Will the Dodgers really go for a big deal for a "name" shortstop who can fill the hole for the immediate future? Or could they settle, albeit for something better than what they've got in terms of alternatives to Nomar? I'd recommend they go for another bit of bargain shopping, because this really would be a situation where a glove man would come in handy, so if the White Sox are actually willing to hand them Juan Uribe (and perhaps even eat some of his contract), or if the Jays throw up their hands and would be willing to part with John McDonald, that might work well enough. If, on the other hand, they decide to shop for a more complete ballplayer, it's interesting to ask out loud if the Pirates or Indians might be interested in escaping their long-term commitments to, respectively, Jack Wilson (owed at least $7.85 million for 2009, with an option for 2010) and Jhonny Peralta (owed a minimum of $8.25 million for 2009-10, with an option for 2011).

What I wish we'd see less of is Russell Martin at third base. It's complicated enough that the team has its warm fuzzy for Blake DeWitt, but if you asked them in November or January or in the abstract who should play third base in a choice between DeWitt and Andy LaRoche, the answer should have never changed: LaRoche. While injury and a hot streak by DeWitt might have briefly muddled that particular picture, that answer still has to be the same. Nothing has changed in terms of the relevant skills of the players involved, but sentiment's getting in the way of what should be a relatively cold-blooded and sensible management decision. Adding Martin into that mix just gives you a wee bit more churn, some general celebration over the demonstrated position flexibility (or in fantasy leagues, position eligibility), and an awful lot of Torre inflicting on his catcher what was done to him when he was mid-career, a Cardinal, and converted into a catcher-and-play-third player by Red Schoendienst. At least Schoendienst was making space for a young Ted Simmons, and he couldn't put Torre at his more usual alternative position at first base because the Cards also had Dick Allen. (Throw in Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, funny man Jerry Reuss, Steve Carlton, future exec Dal Maxville, future announcer Mike Shannon, future Japanese leagues star Leron Lee, and that makes for what might have been one very interesting clubhouse.) In contrast, Torre's just getting at-bats for... well, Martin, on the days that he doesn't want to pick between LaRoche or DeWitt, since it isn't really adding up to all that much playing time for first Gary Bennett and now Danny Ardoin. Heck, those guys don't even have articles in their name, like "von Bennett und Henningsdorf" or "de la Ardoin," so they're not even worthy of running with LaRoche and DeWitt on that level. Just picking a third baseman and giving Martin a few days off might not be all that gee-whiz neato in terms of box score mayhem, but it's the sort of conservatism that pays off in terms of solving one positional problem while doing something that would ideally guarantee themselves their All-Star catcher at full strength come the stretch drive.


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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