July 18, 2008
More NL Swappery
This move might be spun as the exclamation point on a white-flag segue to the second half, but if you were willing to suspend disbelief on that subject after the Harden deal, you should still have wind in your sails despite a Blanton-free rotation. That's because Blanton hasn't really been all that effective this year, ranking last among the rotation's regulars in SNLVAR and 112th among all major league starters, and having delivered a very fifth starter-y 10 quality starts in 20.
I'm more of a pragmatist, in that the first half's nice run was just that, nice, but I harbored no great expectations, and if Billy Beane's a pip, Lew Wolff's no Miss Havisham. What this deal does—besides cut down on this year's budget as well as those for 2009-10—is give the A's another clear in-house replacement for another veteran Athletic whose time with the organization is probably running short. It also has the added benefit of bringing in three players who weren't on the Phillies' 40-man, which is handy for a team that has so many players on the DL and/or added from other organizations in the last eight months.
Cardenas is the obvious prize, the guy who, if he can stick at second base, seems the best bet to eventually replace Mark Ellis as the A's wave good-bye to their keystone stalwart when he enters free agency this winter. Only 20 and a former star of the Miami high-school scene, Cardenas rated as the Phillies' third-best prospect before the season on the basis of his plate coverage, bat speed, and power on contact, and he's lived up to that billing by hitting .309/.374/.444 on the muggy fields of the Florida State League. Swiping 16 bags in 16 attempts has challenged our pre-season descriptions of him as “Ray Durham without speed” to some extent, but that isn't a reflection of any untapped ability to blaze on the basepaths. It's also nice that he's not showing any platoon problems. There are reasons to worry, of course: having already moved off of short, he may not be able to hack it at second—it's never a good sign when the initial evaluation of his work at the keystone is 'adequate'—at which point you've got someone it's harder to define a purpose for. If he's not a second baseman, he'll have to add a lot of power to cut it at third or left, and while that's sure to come in the California League now, there's the challenge of Double-A to look forward to. Given his age and ability, he's got the potential to respond to all of these challenges and become... well, a second baseman who is an offensive asset but who may need a lot of help from his shortstop. Seeing him in an A's uni sometime in the second half of 2009 doesn't sound all that improbable.
Cardenas might be the prize, but Outman isn't that far behind. It seems as if the A's have been getting quality southpaws in almost every deal they pull off of late, and while Outman's future is in the pen, there's nothing wrong with a lefty who can dial it consistently into the low 90s and who adds an element of difficulty with his deceptive delivery. He's still as fly ball-oriented as in the past, which can mean trouble, but it's also the sort of thing that contributed to his moving to relief work this spring. I guess I'm not wild about a lefty whose splits (.198/.275/.283 against his fellow lefties, .283/.380/.380) in the Eastern League already seem to define a destiny in LOOGY-dom. That kind of talent has its tactical virtues, and the combination of Outman's delivery and velocity seem likely to help him resist getting slotted into the role before he's in his thirties.
As for the last, Spencer's very rough-edged, seen as somebody with some sort of power potential, but the Florida State League's a lousy place to show it, as reflected in the cherry-picked happiest bit of data in his performance for Clearwater, his hitting .266/.330/.376 against right-handed pitching. Yes, that's the good news, that and that he's only 22 years old. Maybe two months in the Cal League will lead to happy stats, but it's a hitter's league, and we'll need to see if player-development personnel and scouts see any noteworthy improvement. He's effectively non-roster ballast, a maybe who may be something, but who probably isn't.
So, who replaces Blanton in the rotation? The A's have four days to decide, so they may settle for a minor move in the meantime involving somebody already on the 40-man, but early speculation already points towards the A's purchasing Gio Gonzalez's contract from Sacramento. They might also take a spin with Lenny DiNardo or Kirk Saarloos, I guess, or Dan Meyer if they decide to evaluate him with an eye towards his future in the organization (or off of the 40-man). Gonzalez is the only one of those prospective fill-ins that would come with a happy spin to it, not just because it would reunite los dos Gonzos in the majors, but also reflect how Gio's delivered four straight quality starts, perhaps finally putting his maddening early-season inconsistency behind him.
In the wake of this latest deal, it's sort of interesting to review who's left who will be drawing a seven-figure payday from the 2009 A's. If Ellis departs as a free agent, that really gets us down to Eric Chavez's $11 million, Bobby Crosby's last year at $5.25 million, Alan Embree's $3 million option, and the arbitration cases of Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer, and Jack Cust. It doesn't look like Frank Thomas' option will vest. Skip comparing the A's to an investment bank, they're becoming more and more of an extreme example of how many near-minimum players you can employ on an active roster and still be competitive.
As solutions go, this has the advantage of being low-cost in talent and cash, with the primary problem being that adding Clark reflects some unfortunately modest ambitions. I'm willing to concede that a ghastly-bad left fielder is a survivable problem for a contending ballclub, and Conor Jackson's exacty that. I just worry that with the overall “quality” of the Snakes' offense—a scaly 14th in the NL in EqA, and 25th in the majors—they need to be more aggressive in fixing that, and a Chad Tracy/Tony Clark platoon at first base might only give them league-average production at the position if they're both only cranking at roughly a .270 EqA clip. Strategically speaking, that means they'll have foregone the opportunity to acquire any of the big-name outfielders available the next two weeks, and as much as this team's bets are on its young players' development and the quality of its rotation, it's a shame if this is what they're going to settle for when the league's relatively wide open, both down the stretch and into October.
Acquired RHP Joe Blanton from the Athletics for 2B-L Adrian Cardenas, LHP Josh Outman, and OF-L Matt Spencer. [7/17]
Meh. Credit the Phillies for paying about the right price, and having a good sense of the virtues and limitations of the players they were giving up. It's the question of whether or not Joe Blanton's the sort of starter they should want that I wonder about. He's not an overpowering pitcher, so losing the Coliseum's foul ground is going to hurt, and going to a ballpark where both corners and the power alleys are ludicrously nearby could be especially devastating. As durable as Blanton is, what good is durability if it translates to a guy who's getting pasted every fifth night? He's had a bad year despite drawing more home assignments than you'd expect, 14 games in Oakland againt six road starts, and the results from those six have been ugly: a 5.73 ERA, six homers in 36 2/3 IP (half his season total), and a drop from 4.8 strikeouts per nine at home to 3.3 on the road. Skip Brett Myers or Jamie Moyer, this might be the Phillies' rotation “horse” who really has trouble denting bread with a gale-force back wind. Add in that Blanton gets pulled slightly more often than other pitchers, and how well do you think this is going to work out in Citizen's Bandbox?
While you might think this is a way to get the Phillies to some happier place where they get to pick between Myers and Adam Eaton for the fifth slot in the rotation, the problem is that Blanton only gives them variety and not improvement, still leaving them with three good starters and two slots they have to worry about, if now three bodies to move in and out of those slots. When you take into account that they also just dealt two of the best prospects in a poorly-stocked organization, and it isn't like they're going to be able to re-repair this, and that they're also going to have to decide what to do about Blanton's pair of pending arbitration-eligible seasons, it turns uglier still. I thought that expensive non-solutions that generate almost immediate regret were the province of the economy these days, so I guess we can credit the Phillies with being hip to the age.
Acquired RHP Evan Scribner from the Diamondbacks for 1B-S Tony Clark. [7/17]
Bartleby! It's just as well that we have online resources to find out about you, lest we find that when it comes to conveying info about yourself, you prefer not to. Do you really sleep at the ballpark? At any rate, the best pitcher to come out of Central Connecticut State since Ricky Bottalico is exactly the sort of talent you'd expect to get for a 10-week rental of Tony Clark. When you see 62 strikeouts against only eight unintentional passes in 44 relief innings, you've already got a hint of what to expect; he's a command pitcher who struggles to top 90, and his curve's a bit on the slow-and-loopy side. Knowing where he's putting his stuff has served him quite well as a pro since being drafted last year, so while he is a limited-upside type, we'll have to see if that superiority over younger players in the Midwest League will still translate at High- or Double-A.