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July 15, 2008
AL Central Moves and Issues
Big Move: Nothing really applies, but that isn't to say that the Sox haven't been busy doing what they can to improve their chances of taking this thing to the wire. Losing Paul Konerko to the DL created an interesting opportunity for Ozzie Guillen to spread some playing time around, which he did by putting Nick Swisher at first and plugging in Brian Anderson and DeWayne Wise in center. This latest resurrection for Wise is a bit of a surprise, but between his batting lefty (helping the team with its heavy lean to the right), speed, and contact-hitting, he's not the worst choice to carry as a fifth outfielder on this particular team. A brief hot streak earned Wise extended consideration, Anderson got at-bats that he needed, Jim Thome didn't have to worry about reinjuring himself by donning a glove, and Swisher continued his weird yet fun Mazzilli-like swing from center to first and back to center. It always gets lost in the not-ready-for-prime-time posturing, but this Guillen guy's pretty nimble tactically.
Major Injury: A few weeks back, it would have been that to Paul Konerko, but he's back in action (if not usefulness). Now, it's Bobby Jenks, but here again, he's already getting in his rehab work and should be back at the end of the week. Will's always spot-on for giving Herm Schneider and the rest of the training staff high marks, but if you want a subtle reason for why things are going well on the South Side, it's the Sox's ability to keep their team on the field.
Gaping Hole: First base. Konerko's got to show something in the next few weeks if he doesn't want to avoid losing starts to Anderson and Wise (with Swisher playing first), or if he doesn't want to encourage Kenny Williams to ponder what sort of damage Brad Eldred could do in the Cell after hitting .265/.332/.620 with 26 homers for Charlotte. That last is pretty unlikely; whatever else Eldred's virtues, his performance translates to a guy who would peak a good ten points short of average for a first baseman in the majors. If there's an area that Williams might choose to address at the deadline, it might be here, but keep in mind that Swisher's positional flexibility gives them the option of getting a center fielder and moving Swish to first.
Cool Underrated Moves: Kenny Williams has been sensibly checking out veteran spare parts on waivers, briefly bringing in veteran situational lefty Ray King on a minor league deal, or picking up possible back-end rotation reinforcement Esteban Loaiza. King didn't pan out, and Loaiza's having a hard time getting his velocity back, but when the system's as threadbare as Chicago's is, it's best to kick around alternatives if you see them bobbing around on waivers. Not all of these pickups are going to work out; hell, most of them won't. But it's not like the Sox are sitting still and keeping their fingers crossed.
In-Game Tactical Fun: While there's something of a tom-tom beat to get Juan Uribe into somebody else's uniform, I like the way keeping him works out in terms of being a roster space-saver with in-game tactical utility. Uribe is sort of a platoon option to Alexei Ramirez at second, but he is also Orlando Cabrera's backup at short, which allows Ozzie some tactical flexibility at two lineup slots. (He had even more flexibility when the team had Pablo Ozuna around, but the decision to keep Wise and a 12th pitcher after Konerko came off of the DL got Ozuna designated for assignment.
In-System Solutions: If Alexei Ramirez's bat goes slack, the Sox have options at this one position down at Charlotte: Chris Getz (.303/.361/.452, which translates to a peak in the .270s in EqA) and Danny Richar (bouncing back from a slow start and hitting a tasty .280/.364/.488 against RHPs). In case Loaiza isn't the answer and one of the rotation regulars goes down, it's going to be a bit tough, because it isn't like the most experienced guys are doing all that well in Charlotte—Tomo Ohka's been tateriffic with 19 allowed in 92 2/3 (yes, one-nine with a -teen at the end), Lance Broadway's not a great answer, and Jack Egbert's had a rough time of it before his current 14-inning scoreless streak. As a result, it might be a matter of Clayton Richard or nobody. Richard's interesting on a couple of levels—he was briefly quarterbacking at Michigan before focusing on baseball, but it's much more germane that he's a big-bodied lefty with a nifty sinker. He's also in his first season above High-A, having pitching his way through the Southern League in two months, but he's rattled off six straight quality starts in his first work at Triple-A since earning the promotion. Given how desperately bare the cupboard looked in February, it's actually sort of a happy surprise that the Sox have even this many options.
Big Move: Dear Mr. Van Winkle, while you were out, something big happened. Of course, you probably also slept through buying season tickets, so perhaps it's just as well.
Major Injury: Losing both Jake Westbrook (for the year) and Fausto Carmona (in an extended absence) on top of dealing CC Sabathia leaves them with a rotation that had to be filled out with Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey, and journeyman Matt Ginter. Laffey's delivered 10 quality starts in 14, so he's securing a future for himself in a rotation that will have Carmona and Cliff Lee in it. On the other hand, with only one quality start in nine, Sowers is pitching poorly enough to merit honorary mention with guys like Jose Roman in the franchise's history of abrupt disappointments. Plus there's the whole issue of Travis Hafner's shoulder keeping him out until perhaps August, Victor Martinez's similarly extended absence, and perhaps even Josh Barfield's unavailability to man second until around the end of July. Basically, it's bad news.
Gaping Hole: There are too many to count, most of them seemingly in far too many lineup regular's bats. Winding up with Jamey Carroll as their everyday second baseman certainly wasn't part of anyone's master plan.
Cool Underrated Move: Not that I have all that much hope left that Andy Marte's going to pan out, but it's reasonable for the Tribe to start playing him regularly at Ryan Garko's expense (with Casey Blake moving across the diamond to play first). If Marte shows anything, that's reason to include him in their future plans; if he doesn't, that's another 40-man roster spot that Mark Shapiro can put to some other use this winter. In the bullpen, it's good news that they're running Edward Mujica and Jensen Lewis out there, and even an organizational soldier like Tom Mastny; no time like the present to sort out who's a keeper. And while it isn't a move, I suppose the virtue of having Victor Martinez out is that Kelly Shoppach's getting regular playing time, which might make him an irresistible target for some catching-light contenders should the Indians be receptive on offers for him.
In-Game Tactical Fun: The platoon of Shin-Soo Choo and Franklin Gutierrez has its virtues, and I guess there's the chance of flipping Blake from one corner to the other when the mood strikes him.
In-System Solutions: While it's easy to root for Michael Aubrey, he isn't hitting at Buffalo, so beyond his considerable injury history, it's hard to suggest that he should get a shot once Shapiro deals Blake. Trevor Crowe was tearing up the Eastern League (.325/.415/.506) before tearing up an intracostal muscle, quashing the promotion to Buffalo he was on the cusp of earning. Southpaw David Huff might give them another young lefty to put into the rotation, having succeeded at both Akron and now Buffalo. It's grim pickings hereabouts.
Big Moves = Major Injuries: ... and they have been legion. Jeremy Bonderman's done for the year, Dontrelle Willis' knee problems are so major that he's desperately re-working his mechanics, The lineup's been no less afflicted with poor fortune: Magglio Ordonez has had to spend the last two weeks on the DL but should be back when real games resume on Thursday, but Gary Sheffield didn't do squat to help make up for it, adding additional doubt to his status as a useful DH.
Gaping Hole: If it's any one spot, you might worry about the rotation, because the overall numbers aren't too pretty. However, Justin Verlander's had six good weeks, going 5-1 in eight starts with a 2.72 ERA while striking out 52 in 53 IP, Kenny Rogers has 2.76 ERA in his last nine (with eight quality starts), and even Nate Robertson's delivered five quality starts in his last seven. (I'm counting Blown Quality Starts as Quality Starts, by the way, since those are in part the product of a manager's decisions.) Add in that Armando Galarraga's still earning his keep, and the real question is over what they do if Willis can't come back, because this team can't afford to go a man down if they want to catch up to the Sox and Twins. As a result, the real holes are at closer, shortstop, and DH, because it's really a question of who's doing the least good between Todd Jones, Edgar Renteria, and Sheffield, respectively.
Cool Underrated (Potential) Moves: I'd like to see them keep finding ways to work Ryan Raburn into the lineup, but that might be just me. The opportunity is here for them to compensate for the failures of a guy like Sheffield once Ordonez returns to create stable platoons in left and DH utilizing Clete Thomas and Matthew Joyce from the left side, and Marcus Thames and Raburn from the right. Happily, Curtis Granderson isn't totally useless against southpaws this season, so the Kitties wouldn't have to do much more than spot for him now and again. You could add Jeff Larish to the lefties pile for DH and Brent Clevlen to the right-handed-hitting outfielders to that mix easily enough. The Tigers don't have to die with the old men in the lineup any more than they have to in the pen.
In-Game Tactical Fun: Between Brandon Inge's ability to play catcher, third, or center and Carlos Guillen's similarly handy readiness to flit from one corner to the other (and perhaps play short in an emergency), the Tigers have plenty of fun in-game potential. On the other hand, it looks like Miguel Cabrera's nailed to first base, and that's sort of a less-happy development considering that isn't what the Tigers were hoping he'd be up for when they initially went out and got him.
In-System Solutions: Thomas and Joyce have been godsends in the wake of the Tigers' twinned mishaps in the outfield corners (the injury to Ordonez, and the early-season implosion of their initially drawn-up left-field platoon). It's interesting that Jim Leyland's made some amount of time for the kids—not that he's had all that much choice—but it makes for a much more interesting blend of talent than was initially anticipated. If they don't go for a deal to bring in a veteran to round out the rotation, they might be able to trust the last spot to Virgil Vasquez should Dontrelle Willis never be able to help out; Vasquez has delivered seven quality starts in his last eight while striking out 38 against nine walks in 55 2/3 IP.
Big Moves: Putting Brett Tomko out of his misery? Benching Tony Pena Jr.? Getting over Joey Gathright? It seems these sorts of things abuse the meaning of the word “big.” The fixes are slightly more important, in that it's just as well to see if Kyle Davies is ready to take over a rotation slot, if Mike Aviles can play, and if Jose Guillen and Mark Teahen will do enough of something to be interesting to trade for at month's end.
Major Injury: Well, there are the metaphorical injuries, to the prospect status of Alex Gordon and to Billy Butler, but there's still time for both of them to rally. On the more literal side of things, injuries to pitchers like Luke Hudson or John Bale hurt themselves more than it really hurts the Royals, since they can treat the back end of their pitching staff as an open casting call; anybody who gets people out is going to get to stick around. Alberto Callaspo's run in with John Law over the subject of drinking and driving and his subsequent deposit in the DL isn't too much different—there's an opportunity for him if he can play, but if there are things keeping him off of the field, he may not get a chance this good every again.
Gaping Hole: First base, because Ross Gload isn't much of a placeholder, even if he's started 28 straight games, and Omaha's Ryan Shealy is really no better. At some point, you'd think they'd figure out that playing Billy Butler at first is not a Fear Factor challenge of some sort, but is it time to consider Kila Kaaihue on the strength of his hitting .304/.448/.615 (and .324/.469/.676 against right-handers) in the Texas League? Even setting aside the 61 unintentional walks in 317 PA, that's a ton of power for a club that could use anything, even a dose of ephemeral greatness Bob Hamelin-style.
Cool Underrated Move: Giving Aviles his shot. No, he'll never be flashy at short, but by Dan Fox's SFR and Clay Davenport's fielding translations of his work from last year, he ought to be adequate, and that's more than you can say for Pena's hitting. Add in that the rotation outside of Luke Hochevar is sort of fly ball-oriented, and it's a swap that makes sense as an adaptation as well as a way to juice up a lineup that needed more than just sprucing up.
In-Game Tactical Fun: Esteban German's played second, short, third, and left, but that's what happens to second basemen who don't play regularly—they become utile, or they become Triple-A lifers. In what otherwise be a case of crippling blandness, I guess it's keen that Mark Teahen's started in both outfield corners as well as at first base.
In-System Solutions: Most of them have already been employed at the big-league level. I guess there's the always-exciting prospect of letting Shane Costa or Mitch Maier take their cracks at some playing time in the outfield, and I suppose that could be done now at Gload's expense, with Teahen retreating to first base. The most interesting upper-level pitching option as yet unexplored is Dominican Carlos Rosa. Kevin Goldstein reports he's not only got above-average velocity, he throws his fastball where he wants it when he wants it, getting a good number of grounders on location (it's a four-seamer), and complementing the heat with a fosh change and a curve. Add in his going 8-4 and allowing 2.7 RA/9 between Double- and Triple-A with an 83:17 K:BB ratio in 92 2/3 IP, and the five non-Tomkos had better live up to their billing.
Big Move: Taking Boof Bonser out of the rotation? Not that Livan Hernandez has been all that hot either, but it seems as if the Twins will go as far as their quartet of relative youngsters in the rotation can take them. Scott Baker's return from the DL gave them a trio of strike-throwing machines, as he joined Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn, while local boy Glen Perkins seems to have bounced back from a rough patch to consistently deliver winnable ballgames. It makes for an interesting quandary for the organization—what does going for it mean for them? Dealing the famous people to get another famous person? Dealing farm talent for a veteran front man, a good reliever, a quality third baseman, or a shortstop? Bringing up Francisco Liriano? It makes for an interesting test for Bill Smith in his first season, certainly.
Major Injury: Michael Cuddyer's injured index finger is taking longer than expected to heal up, but happily enough, Denard Span's stepped in to give the Twins a premiere of Attack of the Piranhas 2: This Time With Talent. In contrast, losing Adam Everett at short didn't hurt the offense any, but then Nick Punto went down for a bit as well, forcing far more “Brendan Harris, SS” onto Ron Gardenhire's lineup cards than anyone really thinks is wise. However, Everett's absence has given Punto another chance to bring his career back to viable, and although the former Astros' shortstop should be busily rehabbing for the next week or two, it might only be to come back as Punto's defensive replacement.
Gaping Hole: Third base is a pretty solid candidate. Taking Mike Lamb off of the hot corner made sense once he didn't deliver anything resembling adequacy in any phase of the game; he hasn't started at third in more than a month. Although it seems unlikely that Brian Buscher's the long-term answer given his lack of power, a combination employing Brendan Harris with some Buscher might work out well enough once the Twins' injuries in their infield get sorted out. Perhaps a better choice for this category would be the set-up crew in the pen, because outside of Joe Nathan, nobody has been that valuable. Change gears, and you'll see that Matt Guerrier's still valuable as a long reliever, but losing Pat Neshek for the year early on has proven especially tough.
Cool Underrated Move: On the surface, having Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe platoon at DH while also fulfilling the roles as the team's primary outfield reserves is... well, so entirely sensible that it makes you wonder if teams that do stuff like employ Jose Vidro might start taking notes or something. The odd wrinkle is that Monroe is hitting lefties so poorly (.122/.217/.216) that it would almost be impossible to find someone who might do better than that. Since there's nothing to suggest that Monroe's core skills have changed any, and that it's just a lousy 80-odd at-bats, I expect they won't switch things around, but it's definitely a minor surprise as these things go.
In-Game Tactical Fun: Beyond their passel of positionally-flexible infielders (maybe even positionally ambiguous, even), they've got in-game tactical fun on tap if they want to open the floodgates. Gardenhire could ratchet things up a notch and turn loose guys like Punto and Alexi Casilla. As is, with Span acting as a second leadoff man from the ninth slot batting in front of Carlos Gomez and then Casilla, there's some opportunity for additional basepaths mayhem.
In-System Solutions: Well, that Liriano guy's thrown 20 straight shutout innings in his last three starts, so there's something. Aussie import Luke Hughes is having a big year at Double-A New Britain, hitting .328/.396/.589, and might represent the best internal option at third base. He's also played a bit of second, but he's more frequently a third baseman, he's passable there, and a few weeks shy of his 24th birthday, he might have some upside.