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July 14, 2008

Transaction Analysis

Eastern Update

by Christina Kahrl

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I'll be turning to the AL Central tomorrow, but I wanted to bang something out on a series of moves by the rest of the league. Later in the week, we'll go over what's been going on in the senior circuit.


IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BOSTON RED SOX
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Recalled RHP Clay Buchholz from Pawtucket (Triple-A); optioned 1B/OF-R Jeff Bailey to Pawtucket. [7/11]
Placed SS-R Julio Lugo on the 15-day DL (torn quadriceps); recalled INF-S Jed Lowrie from Pawtucket. [7/12]

For a team that, strictly speaking, should be fighting for its shot at the playoffs, the Red Sox can afford to be a bit blasť about some of their problems. David Ortiz's breakdown afforded them the opportunity to play both Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury, and perhaps spared them from dealing the former before it's all that certain they should leave Ellsbury be in center. Losing another everyday player in Lugo for upwards of a month or more might sound like another terrible thing in the abstract-he's the starting shortstop for the defending world champs!-but it isn't. In part, that's a reflection on how Lugo hasn't been indispensable as much as expensive (which isn't his fault), but also how he's been something less than a good shortstop (whether you want to use SFR, RZR, or Clay Davenport's Fielding Runs).

As a result, a construct like 'replacement level' doesn't have a whole lot of meaning here; Lugo is simply the player the Sox employ at shortstop, and replacing him isn't really that significant as problems go. Whether the Sox choose to plug in Alex Cora for defense (plus some lefty contact hitting) or turn to Lowrie for his bat and more workmanlike defense, they'll be in solid shape. Lowrie's hitting for Pawtucket this year is interesting, in that shape-blind OPS says he's been equally effective from both sides (793 both ways), while he's actually hit .277/.370/.423 vs. RHPs, and 250/.338/.436 against LHPs. It's not a contact issue-he actually strikes out slightly more often against right-handers-so it isn't like there's an obvious platoon role for him. If it's a question of favoring defense when certain guys are on the mound, Cora's the obvious choice, but he also isn't so good that there isn't a chance here to work Lowrie into some playing time and potentially have him up to speed if he were needed to assume a larger role because of an injury.

Considering the time of year, what might be the more interesting question to ask is whether or not having Lowrie up now is an opportunity to showcase him in case there's something the Sox wind up needing or wanting in their quest to defend. No matter what, the club is committed to Lugo at short through 2010, with the odds of his playing-time-dependent vesting option for 2011 getting vested looking pretty likely, even with a month off. If Lowrie's position isn't going to be shortstop, then you get into questions of whether his bat would play at third (not especially well, but not badly) or if they want to hold onto him as Pedroia insurance all that far into the future. Whereas it makes sense to keep Crisp in light of concerns over Ellsbury's hitting, not to mention the health of both Manny Ramirez and J.D. Drew, shopping Lowrie has a certain logic to it, but it depends on whether or not they see a hole they need to fill. All in all, it could be a very quiet deadline for the Sox, but that doesn't mean they won't be busy and putting an ear to the ground.

Starting pitching might be a concern if you want to get worked up over Clay Buchholz's struggles finding the strike zone in the majors, but that's a matter of fretting over who your fifth starter is, and why would they when they have Justin Masterson already ready as an alternative, Bartolo Colon working his way slowly back, and Michael Bowden potentially coming up if his workload permits his making any contribution to this year's Sox squad. Getting a catcher might make sense, given Jason Varitek's slack bat, but the need to have somebody catch Tim Wakefield preserves Kevin Cash; getting some journeyman for spare change in late August seems a more likely option if the Sox decide to go this route, and they could just as easily bring up George Kottaras and take advantage of his relative familiarity with starters like Masterson, Buchholz, and perhaps Bowden (by then). Given the concerns I've expressed over Ellsbury, I could see adding an outfielder, but here again, it's more likely to make sense to get somebody on the low end later on than pay a premium now, especially when buyers outnumber sellers, and it's somewhat dubious you'd get somebody so good it would be worth peddling Lowrie for him.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Signed LHP Eric Milton to a minor league contract. [7/11]

Back in the Cenozoic Era (also commonly referred to as the '90s, when Hootie and the Blowfish enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven, and when sticky presidential snafus involved optional dry cleaning instead of quagmires), Milton was a first-round draft choice out of the University of Maryland. He was everything the current crop of young Yankee hurlers are supposed to be: talented enough to impress scouts and speed guns with a power fastball and a snappy slider, and impressive enough in terms of performance in his one minor league season as a Yankee farmhand in '97 to be drool-worthy to prospect hounds and statheads. That one season was enough to make him one of the key moving parts in the Chuck Knoblauch deal with the Twins. That exchange sort of worked for both parties, in that Knoblauch became another high-OBP weapon in a Bombers offense that chewed up opposing pitching, while Milton and Cristian Guzman sort of panned out, and throw-in Brian Buchanan had careers. Of course, Knoblauch's yips at second kind of changed his relative positional value to the Yankees, while Milton and Guzman both wound up being somewhat less than their most passionate believers hoped for. When Twins GM Terry Ryan flipped Milton to the Phillies for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, and Bobby Korecky, that turned out even better for the Twins, and as it was a one-year rental for Ed Wade's Phillies, not something that turned out nearly so well for them. That was followed by Milton's monster payday at the Reds' expense, tearing up his elbow last summer to cap a disappointing sojourn in the Rhineland, and this winter's slow recovery from Tommy John surgery.

The interesting thing about Milton is the number of times and ways people really wanted to be able to say he'd turned a corner, and the number of times he simply hadn't, didn't, or just kept plowing along in splendid adequacy. Consider his performance record:


Year  GS  SNLVAR  Rank  DERA  *tBB/9 *tK/9 *tHR/9
1998  32   2.7     87   4.84    3.0    5.5    1.1
1999  34   5.2     29   3.90    1.9    7.1    1.0
2000  33   4.4     50   4.24    1.1    7.2    1.2
2001  34   4.9     34   4.18    2.1    6.0    1.2
2002  29   3.2     70   4.87    1.2    6.0    1.1
2003   3   0.3     --   2.58    0.0    3.7    0.9
2004  34   3.0     80   4.81    3.0    6.5    1.5
2005  34  -0.1    239   6.25    2.1    5.5    1.6
2006  26   2.2    101   4.72    1.9    5.1    1.3
2007   6   0.0     --   4.96    1.9    5.2    0.9

*: Translated Pitching Statistics, making this a TPS report of sorts

Basically, he had a three-year arc up front that left us all wanting more, before injuries set in and he became something less than the power-pitching lefty he seemed to be. As tragedies go, it's not all that tragic-he was an AL All-Star in 2001, and a post-season hero for the Twins in 2002, so we're not talking about the wasted greatness of Mario Soto here. The man's mande a good living. I'll admit, I have a weak spot for Milton; it's easier for me because it wasn't my money (or yours), and he wasn't pitching for my team, and because I'll always welcome an opportunity to make a weak Paradise Lost gag. Still, that's a guy who briefly flirted with being one of the game's best non-ace starters, and someone who declined into something more nondescript, with the spectacular failure of 2005 in his first season as a Red perhaps permanently palling whatever perspective we may have on him.

Still, he's a guy who had his moments, he's left-handed, and as no-risk flyers go, I like the Yankees taking this particular chance. Not in a "this is inspired genius, he'll make people forget John Candelaria!" sort of way, or even as a matter of a late-day comeback akin to Tommy John's later incarnations in pinstripes, but certainly compared to contemporary options like heading for a dumpster to dig out Sir Sidney Ponson and throw him into a wheelbarrow to cart him onto your roster. Milton's now more than a year removed from last year's surgery, which helps put him into the picture for helping the club down the stretch. He's already been assigned to Scranton's disabled list, so practically speaking he'll be rehabbing in Tampa, but whether he'll be able to come back with the command to help in any role, or with the durability to help out in the rotation, is mostly guesswork. Since the pen's short of a lefty specialist, it might be an interesting spot for him.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Optioned SS-L Reid Brignac to Durham (Triple-A). [7/13]

With Jason Bartlett due back from his knee injury after the All-Star interlude, this was basically about getting Brignac back to where he'll play every day. As is, when Bartlett went down, Brignac only got two starts while Ben Zobrist took over the everyday duties, so there isn't much more to be learned from his brief time up than you wouldn't already know from his performance at Durham this season, which is that he isn't ready. At 22 years old, Brignac has plenty of time to mature, of course, and since Bartlett's injury wasn't a major long-term setback, this represented a nice opportunity to give Brignac his first cuppajoe. He didn't get enough time in the field to make a lasting impression as far as his improved glove work in the last couple of seasons, though, while Zobrist's play has made it clear that the same concerns about his range at short that were dogging him as an Astros prospect two or three years ago aren't about to go away. Zobrist still gives a team a little bit better-than-average production at the plate, sort of a variant on the Geoff Blum package with slightly more OBP, slightly less power, and much worse defense. As long as he's only spotting for Bartlett, he can be a solid utility infielder.

It's sort of interesting that between Zobrist, Willy Aybar, and at least notionally Eric Hinske, they have three infield reserves on the roster, but none of them makes for a good alternative to Bartlett at short. It might be semi-cool if the Rays took Earl Weaver's advice that you find your backup shortstop in Durham (I'm paraphrasing here, and that's what Brignac sort of represents) to take a chance on sprucing up the offense now and again and get Eric Hinske at the hot corner at Bartlett's expense. So who plays short? Evan Longoria, and while it would probably only make sense to start Longoria at short on days when their more strikeout/fly ball-oriented starters are on the mound (Scott Kazmir in particular, but also Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson to lesser extents). It wouldn't be without risks, but if it was a matter of trying to score some runs against a tough opposing starter, it makes for an interesting gambit. It also wouldn't hurt to keep Hinske in circulation at third, rather than let that aspect of his game go to rot.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Placed CF-R Vernon Wells on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring). [7/10]
Recalled OF-R Kevin Mench from Syracuse (Triple-A). [7/11]

Between Alex Rios' departure to attend to the arrival of his firstborn in this world and Wells' departure with a new-born hammy woe, it made for a pretty ghastly set of options in the Jays' outfield over the weekend; seeing Joe Inglett or Brad Wilkerson in center is the sort of thing you might expect in spring training or the 16th inning, not starting games that count. It won't last, of course, as the arrival of the wee Rios should get his dad back in uniform and playing center after the break. That still leaves the club with the unappetizing choices of Wilkerson, Inglett, and Mench in right field, a dilemma that will last until the last few weeks of August given the severity of Wells' strain, but considering how the rotation already came apart at the seams, it's not simply about breaking up this team for parts and thinking about the future, it's whether or not anybody would buy those parts, even if they were given chop-shop pricing.


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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