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September 6, 2008
Activated RHP Jon Lieber from the 15-day DL; activated RHP Angel Guzman from the 60-day DL; recalled RHP Michael Wuertz and 1B-L Micah Hoffpauir from Iowa (Triple-A); purchased the contracts of C-S Koyie Hill and 3B-R Casey McGehee from Iowa; transferred RHP Chad Fox from the 15- to the 60-day DL; recalled LHP Rich Hill from Daytona (High-A), and placed him on the 15-day DL (lower back soreness). [9/1]
Reflecting the Cubs' overall depth, most of this is useful in one way or another. Among the position players, there are a pair of mid-career guys worth plugging in, and playing them won't involve fielding a radically worse lineup. With Derrek Lee slugging only .355 since the All-Star break, it's worth keeping in mind that the lefty-swinging Hoffpauir managed to take a hot start with Iowa to stoke an even hotter second half, finishing up his I-Cubs season with a .387/.430/.838 August to post a final seasonal line of .362/.393/.752. As that production suggests, that's basically a lot of contact and a ton of power on contact, and given that he's 28 there's really not much of a career window to investigate, but if Lou Piniella wanted to mix things up while leaving Daryle Ward in a pinch-hitting role, you could do worse. McGehee's a pretty slick fielder at third base by reputation, but his limited power combined with his already being 25 years old combines to make it unlikely that he'll be the new Steve Buechele or something. Koyie Hill's hot hitting at Iowa belies his having to come back from almost cutting off four fingers on his right hand in a home table saw accident last October. Certainly, his hitting .275/.350/.492 in Iowa despite that challenge has helped put him back into the mix for a backup role on somebody's roster, or at least I hope it does. In terms of translated potential peaks, Hoffpauir comes up with a compelling .298, while McGehee's at .241 and Hill at .225.
Among the pitchers, Lieber played an important part in the Cubs' early-season success, but he and Wuertz were and are essentially interchangeably useful right-handers. If the supply of pitching was rationalized in some Stalinist act of pitching collectivization they would be stalwarts on one of the 30 rosters. On the other hand, if Stalinist solutions were the order of the day, the way Bobby Howry's been pitching, I wouldn't be surprised at all if they decided to call him a Kulak and get him out of the way. Lieber's still a bit too readily disposed towards dispensing cookies (and way too vulnerable to all lefties) for him to be a key element of the post-season pen, but if his arm's up for middle-inning work, it shouldn't hurt. I suppose there may still be some among you who think of Guzman as a pitching prospect, and while a healthy future for him seems about as improbable as it always was for Fox, in point of fact the guy's still only 26, and still fooling some of the people some of the time.
Recalled RHP Ramon Ramirez from Louisville (Triple-A); optioned 1B-S Adam Rosales to Louisville. [8/30]
Activated OF-L Scott Podsednik from the 15-day DL; optioned C-S Adam Melhuse to Colorado Springs (Triple-A). [8/22]
The outfield's finally about to get interesting, not simply because of Willy Taveras' quest for Collins-style haplessness—for me, some measure of adopting sabermetric orthodoxy came from a few too many early Strat squads that had Dave Collins on them—and certainly not because Podsednik's back. (I may be alone in this, but if the big leagues include Tokyo, Podzilla's better off gunning for something more his level.)
Instead, the real question is whether or not the future is now, and if that means that Fowler's going to get a serious look-see in center now that he's back from Olympic adventures and terrorizing the Texas League. In 505 Double-A PA, the 22-year-old whippet hit .335/.431/.515, a major improvement in the power department, while the 61 unintentional walks he drew speaks to his potential atop an order (more than his stealing just 20 bases in 28 attempts). That sort of breakout was good enough to translate into the fourth-best upside in the circuit, behind just a pair of Ranger prospects already up (Chris Davis and Max Ramirez) and the Padres' ginormous first-base prospect, Kyle Blanks. So far, Fowler's been stuck in a witness role, but Taveras' ever-tepid production might change matters, especially since the veteran's arb-eligible and might therefore be eminently non-tenderable. That figures into Spilborghs' future as well; he might seem wasted on merely platoon and defensive-replacement chores in right field, paired up with Brad Hawpe to cover for Hawpe's well-documented limitations. However, in light of Spilborghs' doing quite creditably in center in the last two seasons in limited time, he represents perhaps a more multi-purpose holding pattern in center until Fowler wins the job outright (perhaps in camp, but also maybe during the 2009 season). If Fowler's ready sooner rather than later, then the Rockies have a gifted fourth outfielder, and that's hardly the end of the world, and given that Spilborghs just turned 29, it isn't like he has all that much upside potential.
Torrealba's absence might span the remainder of the season, but he's been completely outplayed by Chris Iannetta now that the latter's lived up to last year's pre-season billing, so it's not much of a reversal for the team as a whole. Iannetta's proven himself to be the real deal in what appears to be an expanding cadre of quality catching in the senior circuit, while Torrealba's just a guy who can catch and throw and fill space until you find somebody with upside. Still, because the Rockies committed themselves to Torrealba down the stretch last season, and he played up to his own meager standards then, this is being spun as some sort of setback. It is, but only if you're Mr. Torrealba. At worst, he should be Iannetta's backstop; at best, the fact that he's signed for next season means that he'll be dealable to some suitably desperate team next season, although the mutual option for 2010 that'll pay him $4 million could represent a bit of a deterrent.
Finally, on the pitching side of the ledger, bringing Hirsh and Reynolds back might lead to their getting starts once the Rockies are eliminated. However, Hirsh has been struggling with shoulder problems all year, leading to a rough season at Colorado Springs (six runs allowed per nine, a 51/49 K/BB ratio in 99
Signed RHP Scuffy Moehler ($2.3 million) and 1B/OF-L Darin Erstad ($1.75 million) to one-year contract extensions. [8/29]
It's easy, in retrospect, to suggest that some things are not good ideas, but I wrote about the seemingly crazed kamikaze run the Astros were launching in Baseball Prospectus 2008, and while it might represent some form of success by their own lights, that's not the standard by which their season should be measured. Sometimes it takes teams a while to learn that they weren't ready, and perhaps never will be, however bold their aspirations. However, having decided to run up their "mission accomplished" rag, I guess it should come as no surprise that they're expanding their commitment to near-adequacy by throwing almost $2.5 million more at a pair of veteran placeholders after getting functional work from the duo this season. To be sure, both players have exceeded whatever modest expectations could have reasonably been entertained for them. Erstad's played a pretty inspired center when asked, but he's really only an expensive reserve able to contribute a few well-spanked singles (beyond the oft-mentioned good citizenship cred that invariably gets associated with him), and he's struggled in the NL-style outfield reserve chore of pinch-hitting effectively. While Moehler's been a nice surprise in the rotation, kicking in a 3.3 SNLVAR, keep in mind that we're talking about a guy who has contributed just eight quality starts in 22. He won four games in August in five decisions, but that's partially a product of great run support, and partially a reflection of Cecil Cooper's good sense to keep Moehler on a pretty short leash, pulling him before the sixth inning was over in four of six games. These are neither good nor bad players, and certainly for the price Moehler's an outstanding fourth or fifth starter (as long as you have a pen deep enough to compensate for his shorter outings), while Erstad's contract represents a grim, determined observance of their commitment to Michael Bourn as their center fielder of any minute now. If those twin commitments reflect a perpetuation of this season's ambitions, I'd suggest they also represent how modest those ambitions really still are.
In that light, Nieve's call-up might represent the closest thing to good news here, although he's had a pretty bumpy season coming back from Tommy John surgery, having been pummeled by the PCL, posting ERAs of 5.70 or higher, first as an initial Express starter, and later as one of their relievers in a role change. Nieve did finally pitch a little more closely to his former potential in August, having struck out 16 (against three walks) in 14
Designated UT-R Pablo Ozuna for assignment; recalled 3B/2B-L Blake DeWitt from Las Vegas (Triple-A). [8/27]
To say that the Dodgers' middle infield seems a mess would be an understatement. Nomar Garciaparra's "resting," perhaps like the proverbial Norwegian blue, while Kent's shelving for knee surgery is supposedly also limned with the benefit of a late-September return to action. In the absence of this pair of the formerly famous, instead of going for Hu's defense, they're relying on Angel Berroa at short while putting DeWitt on the spot at second. Happily, this LA story is turning out surprisingly well—DeWitt has responded in Kent-like fashion by hitting a pair of homers and reaching base nine times in 25 PA in six starts, while even more improbably Berroa's reached base 12 times in 29 PA and delivered four extra-base hits out of the eighth slot in the lineup.
In other news, Kershaw's "demotion" barely merits the term, as the Dodgers exploited the wrap-up of the minor league season to yo-yo him on and off of the roster as a way to add Elbert to the mix while not even costing Kershaw a turn. I suppose there's a notionally punitive element to it, in that Kershaw had been clobbered in his last two starts before the send-down (one of those by the Nats, no less), but he followed that up with a bit of dominance over the Pads, facing only 21 batters and throwing 74 pitches through six; the Dodgers were up 8-0 going into the seventh. Joe Torre left Kershaw in to lose the shutout, but the Pads scored only once, and it took Kershaw only 10 pitches to get through the eighth despite the run. Torre's decision here was entirely defensible—leaving Kershaw in to face the likes of Nick Hundley and Matt Antonelli with runners on second and third and one out, you can expect good things, and the Dodgers got them, even if Hundley's grounder plated an essentially meaningless run. But why leave Kershaw out there to hit for himself in the bottom of the seventh, and pitch into the eighth? The kid's 19, he's already at a career-high 147 IP, meaning that if the Dodgers were worried about anything like "the rule of 30," that's already just about out the window (last year, Kershaw threw 122 innings). The game was as good as won, but putting the kid out there to walk a pair of batters in the eighth made things needlessly interesting while doing him no favors. If you can't trust the bottom of your pen to hold a seven-run lead against the Padres, there's something extra fraidy-cat about that in my book.
Speaking of that pen, it's worth noting the additions of Elbert and James Zeil McDonald, a pair of hard-throwing hurlers with power curveballs. Elbert's slow recovery from (procedurally "minor") shoulder surgery was worth waiting through, as he was exceptional in Jacksonville's pen, allowing only 43 baserunners in 41
Recalled RHPs Mark DiFelice and Tim Dillard, LHP Mitch Stetter, 4C-R Joe Dillon, OF-L Tony Gwynn Jr., 1B-L Brad Nelson, and C/UT-R Vinny Rottino from Nashville (Triple-A); purchased the contract of "3B"-L Mat Gamel from Nashville; purchased the contract of C-R Angel Salome from Huntsville (Double-A); recalled SS-R Alcides Escobar from Huntsville; transferred LHP Chris Capuano from the 15- to the 60-day DL; designated RHP Richie Gardner for assignment. [9/1]
Kevin already covered the virtues of this group's "big three", and I don't think there's much I can add to what you already should know about Escobar, Gamel, and Salome. Beyond them, however, there's value to be found here, not simply because some of these guys are useful filler at the back end of any team's normal active roster—Stetter has his uses as a LOOGY, Dillon's a fine bat to have around to back you up at all four corners, while Kid Gwynn's a fourth outfielder waiting to get matched up with the right team to get to be one. Rottino's not really a good catcher (committing a PCL-leading 16 passed balls), so the effort to convert the utility grinder can't be considered a success. Nelson's sort of fun, in that he's played a bit of third and outfield beyond first, not that he's really a true four corners player; he's a bit on the chunky side, which won't help him win friends and influence people. Even so, a guy who hits PCL right-handers at a .303/.393/.518 clip should have his uses somewhere for somebody.
Designated RHP Ruddy Lugo for assignment. [9/3]
Signed 2B-R Tadahito Iguchi. [9/5]
While this is a nice turn for Iguchi and a renewal of last season's stretch relationship between the team and the player, it's a pretty minor move as these things go; Chase Utley isn't hurt this time around, after all, so in terms of impact, we're talking about three weeks' worth of primary insurance at second base and the difference between a few Iguchi pinch-hit at-bats and somebody else's likely performance in those some plate appearances. As long as we're on the subject of tiny/meaningless amounts of data, there is the fact that Iguchi's a career .316/.417/.737 hitter as a pinch-hitter, so if nothing else, he's not uncomfortable in the role. If there's a disappointing element to this, it's that the Padres didn't do Iguchi the favor of releasing him before September 1, so that he might have been eligible for somebody's post-season roster, but in fairness, if the Phillies had been that interested, I'm sure a very small amount of money would have made such a thing possible.
Traded 3B/OF-R Jose Bautista to the Blue Jays for a PTBNL. [8/21]
Activated C-S Josh Bard from the 15-day DL; optioned C-S Luke Carlin to Portland (Triple-A). [8/22]
If there's a consistent thread throughout almost all of this activity, it's about culling already-outbound veteran players and perhaps offering encouragement to the best a generally weak system has to offer. As Paul DePodesta noted in his blog, the Pads were under no compunction to add Antonelli or LeBlanc to the 40-man, not now or over the winter; as 2006 picks, they weren't going to have to be added until after the 2009 season under the new CBA, so accelerating that timetable by more than a full season is every bit as significant as DePodesta slyly suggests. In contrast, purchasing Venable's contract was perhaps a foregone conclusion, even if Hairston wouldn't have been out for the year; as a 2005 pick, Venable was already going to get added in recognition of his big step forward this past season. That said, these additions are symptomatic of a team that has space on the 40-man right now, and that is certainly the product of a moribund farm system as well as a dispensable collection of down-market vets who were supposed to help propel the Pads to another division title this season.
Focusing on the three "name" prospects who've been added, Venable's clearly the most advanced of the three, having hit .292/.361/.464 in his introduction to the PCL. Others have belabored his athleticism, which is all well and good; what's really going to matter is whether or not he can play center, because if he can't, he's another instance of what I might refer to as the Mumphrey Zone: a guy who can hit right-handed pitching—Venable pasted PCL northpaws for a .304/.374/.481 clip—but who might not be able to stick in center, at which point what have you got? The classic tweener dilemma, a guy who can hit in the majors, and perhaps a potentially valuable platoon player for a corner a few years down the line (assuming it's on a ballclub equipped with an infield that produces runs). All of which may sound harsh, but the guy's going to turn 26 this winter, and though his past exploits on the hardcourt go some ways towards explaining that, while also engendering some optimism on his potentially non-standard development curve, there's no time like the present. So whatever else, Venable's one-month audition is going to be handy, because it affords the Padres the opportunity to see whether or not he can handle Petco's big pasture, and if he shines in this time, that makes their winter shopping list one item shorter.
Antonelli's a different proposition, trailing Venable by a year in terms of his vintage, but he will be 24 next spring, so he's not really a kid either. Age necessitated an accelerated timetable, and as DePodesta pointed out, he has had a good month (.290/.391/.473) after four miserable ones with the Beavers. It's the age as well as a happy ending to his PCL campaign that's driving this, not that there's anything wrong with that. If Antonelli adapts—however slowly—an aggressive promotion schedule is still the best way to make sure he has a career. As in Venable's case, how well Antonelli does looms large, and his September may determine whether or not the team decides to make the finding of a second baseman a priority.
Finally, there's LeBlanc. A lefty soft touch who will never impress the speed gun, the question is really whether he'll to be able to set up his change effectively enough to survive in the majors. As a product of the SEC's hammer-and-tongs forcing ground, this is another instance where I'd suggest that, adapting to wooden bats already out of the way, there's not all that much lost in advancing his timetable. As with Antonelli, LeBlanc was in Triple-A in his second full season as a pro, and 139 Ks in 138
As far as what this can mean for the organization, I like the trend. For guys like Hayhurst or Geer or Macias or Ekstrom, the odds aren't that much greater that they'll stick, but it has to mean something that they know they'll get the opportunity, and anybody who swims instead of sinks is going to earn any extra attention. Beyond what that can mean for these few, it can mean that much more for the guys around the system, because there are (perhaps not unreasonably) guys who can say to themselves they're not worse prospects in the grand scheme of things, and maybe if they work at it... again, I know sabermetrics is about the counting of things, but whether we can count it or not, there is always going to be a human element, and the matter of opportunity can be a big motivator.
Optioned RHP Matt Palmer to Fresno (Triple-A); recalled RHP Osiris Matos from Connecticut (Double-A). [8/27]
Placed OF-R Brian Barton on the 15-day DL (strained oblique), retroactive to 8/25; recalled OF-R Nick Stavinoha from Memphis (Triple-A). [8/26]