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February 3, 2009

Transaction Analysis

Roster Oddments

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Acquired LHP Rich Hill from the Cubs for a PTBNL; designated LHP Brian Burres for assignment. [2/2]
Signed 4C-R Ty Wigginton to a two-year, $6 million deal. [2/3]

Raiding the Cubs' larder after picking Bill Bavasi's pocket last winter seems to be the play in the MacPhail playbook, but it's not a bad one. Even if Hill is damaged goods in terms of where he's at with his fight with Blassitis, and even if there are people in the industry questioning his commitment, we're still talking about a player who's shown electric stuff and the capacity to dominate. There hasn't been a major arm injury to contribute to his setbacks, and the classic "change of scenery" deal might perfectly suit the man, even if it involves coming into the DH league's toughest division. There's not a lot to say as far as what the Orioles can or should expect-Hill's out of options, and even if he's got his head on straight, he's probably going to be too wild to use in any other role but starting. Happily, the Orioles don't have a rotation worthy of the name that might complicate matters, so they can afford to just clear out one slot behind Jeremy Guthrie, schedule out Hill's first couple of months in it, and see how things turn out with some hands-on work with pitching coach Rick Kranitz, a fellow former Cub. There's obvious, tremendous up-side potential here-the Orioles might just have landed their best starting pitcher. They might also have added a guy they'll cut by June. Given their circumstance, however, it's exactly the sort of chance MacPhail should be taking.

The virtues are a little less clear in their decision to ink Ty Wigginton, but between the money and his multi-positional employability, he has value both for the team and as a bargaining chip at the end of July. In that sense, adding Wigginton's really sort of a layering move for their infield: Brian Roberts may prove impossible to get re-signed to a multi-year deal before he heads into free agency after the season, which would create that much more impetus to flip the second baseman for value any time between now and July 31. In such a situation, after dealing Roberts, moving Melvin Mora to second and handing third to Wigginton would make some sense as an '09 patch; the 2010 club option on Mora would probably be rejected now if it were possible, so third might more properly belong to Wigginton in the meantime. Even if the Orioles find a way to convince Roberts to stay and they actually elect to leave Mora alone at third base more often than not, they can still use Wigginton to spot for Felix Pie in left against lefties, or for Luke Scott at DH, or Aubrey Huff at first base. I'd rather see them ask Mora to revert to his days as a rover, since his bat doesn't merit everyday play, but using him as the primary reserve at second, short, and third, plus in spots in the outfield or DH, might still add up to enough playing time to keep him relatively happy in what ought to be his last season with the O's.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Designated 1B-L Michael Aubrey for assignment, and outrighted him to Columbus (Triple-A). [1/12]

DETROIT TIGERS
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Signed RHP Brandon Lyon to a one-year, $4.25 million contract; designated RHP Eddie Bonine for assignment. [1/24]

I don't want to say that I'm entirely sanguine about the chances of success with signing Lyon, but it's not as bad a deal as I was worried about at first blush, when you're dealing with words like "Brandon Lyon" and the verb form of "sign." It's for one-year, which is exactly right, and the money isn't mammoth, so it isn't at all like last season's Eric Gagné bullpen/payroll soufflé-style dare that the Brewers tried. Lyon's leaving the weaker league after a relatively dubious-looking season in the aggregate, rating just 82nd among big-league relievers in WXRL in 2008, but a big part of his problem last season was the chore of having to pitch in Saggy Bank Ballpark (West Campus) in Phoenix. Working in the air-conditioned confines of that particular penal assignment for pitchers, Lyon struggled, putting 55 of 144 batters faced aboard, leading to 26 runs allowed in 29 1/3 IP. On the rest of the planet, Lyon gave up 32 baserunners in 30 IP, posting a 2.40 ERA. While we can talk about how moving to the DH league won't help Lyon any, let's face it, how many pitchers at the plate are late-game relievers facing? So, while Lyon was a bit overrated after his success in a set-up role in 2006 and 2007, this looks like a market over-correction of sorts, in that I like the chances of the Tigers getting value on the deal. Mix him in with presumably healthy Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, and there's a good chance that the Tigers could have a better late-game trio than they ever had in Todd Jones' "heyday."

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Designated 4C-R Joe Dillon for assignment, and outrighted him to Sacramento (Triple-A). [1/15]
Signed RHP Russ Springer to a one-year, $3.3 million contract; released RHP Andrew Brown outright. [1/29]
Traded OF-R Rich Robnett and MI-R Justin Sellers to the Cubs for RHP Michael Wuertz. [2/2]

As I noted in the Cubs segment, I like this exchange for both teams. Robnett wasn't really in the picture for the A's outfield corners, even before last season's setback, not after they brought in Carlos Gonzalez and Aaron Cunningham in last year's swap-o-rama, while Sellers doesn't look like he had the upside to provide an answer for the team's Crosby-sized crater at shortstop. So the A's dealt a pair of former top prospects who had declined to organizational types to get somebody they can use in the present. Wuertz is never going to be a great reliever, but he could still be pretty handy as something of a bass-ackwards righty, snapping off slider after slider to help out in a pen that doesn't really have anyone else like him. While the A's have some young live-armed talent in the pen on the way up, bringing in Wuertz, Springer, and Chris Schroder gives the club a group of employable veterans in the present to support Brad Ziegler and Joey Devine, but I guess the question I'm left with is why the A's have gone to this much trouble, let alone decided to go for the additional expense of spending on Springer. They do still have Santiago Casilla and lefty Jerry Blevins, after all, and Brown, while his shoulder was a nuisance last season, wasn't without value. Spending seven large in this market on a situational right-hander, even one as rubber-armed as Springer's been of late, just seems like a lot to invest. Presumably there's some element of putting a gray dog on campus, because it isn't like any one member of this generally talented group can boast an extended track record for success. I guess my concern is that pieces like Wuertz and Springer give you two right-handed specialists of sorts, and getting into a reliance on too many situational guys when you don't exactly have an established rotation strikes me as a bit of a strange risk to take in roster design when you're supposed to be short of cash and probably shy of contention.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Signed RHP Jon Garland to a one-year, $6.25 million contract, with a mutual $10 million option for 2010 ($2.5 million buyout if club declines, $1 million buyout if Garland does). [1/29]

When you're looking for a fifth wheel in a rotation, Miss Manners might approve if your fifth makes everyone else look good in comparison, but this is baseball, not hostessing, and witty repartee tends to peter out when it's punctuated by big innings. Then there's the consideration that, as rotation roundouts go, Mr. Garland's invitation to attend the festivities is more than a bit expensive, and you wind up with the rotation's answer to Eric Byrnes. The seven years of taking his turn might speak to certain metronomic gifts, but the indicators that Marc noted yesterday make him a wee bit scary, so barring his pulling a Mike Scott-like late transformation by adding some incredible new pitch to his arsenal, I'm afraid there's no extra surprise awaiting the Snakes in terms of what they'll get once they take him out of the shrink wrap. Pretty much everything about Garland speaks to a certain mediocrity: 17 quality starts in 32 isn't a good mark, but it isn't a bad mark either, it's the sort of thing you can feel good about when that's your fifth starter. On the other hand, a SNLVA Rate of .454 ranked 107th among the 131 pitchers who logged 100 IP as starters last season-better than some, certainly, but also behind guys like Kyle Kendrick, Brian Burres, and Daniel Cabrera, all of whom lost their jobs with their 2008 employers as a result.

Now, admittedly, it's "just" one year and "just" $8.75 million when the team has to bite the bullet and wish Garland well after this season, but I suppose that reliable mediocrity must have its attractions as the team tries to pick between the very different qualities of Max Scherzer and Yusmeiro Petit for the fifth slot. While guys like Matt Torra and Cesar Valdez and even Juan Gutierrez are all interesting in their ways, I wouldn't want to count on them as anything more than fifth starters initially, and that only becomes affordable should Scherzer prove ready right now to be a solid big-league starter-not an unreasonable proposition in February, but also not one with any guarantees. The misfortune here isn't that the Snakes sought out a veteran placeholder to leave one slot for Scherzer and Petit to fight over, it's that they spent a premium on near-adequacy, and seem certain to be disappointed by the results.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Agreed to terms with 1B-L Casey Kotchman on a one-year, $2.885 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [2/2]

CHICAGO CUBS
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Signed C-L Paul Bako to a one-year, $725,000 contract. [1/30]
Traded LHP Rich Hill to the Orioles for a PTBNL; traded RHP Michael Wuertz to the A's for OF-L Rich Robnett and MI-R Justin Sellers. [2/2]

Starting with the best news first, the deal with the A's is sort of a win-win of buck bets. The Cubs are really short-handed as far as warm bodies in the upper levels of their farm system, so while Robnett and Sellers aren't great prospects or even good ones, they're pretty solid additions to the lineups of the team's top affiliates. Robnett's an adequate line-drive type with a modicum of patience and the ability to step in at any of the outfield slots, but he really can't handle center in anything more than short stints, and his power hasn't really developed the way anyone hoped when he was a first-round pick out of Fresno State in 2004. He's also had more than his share of bad luck with injuries, losing more than half of his 2006 season to a broken hamate, and then a good chunk of last season with a surgery to remove a benign tumor on his stomach. While he's thickened up with age, he's not sessile just yet, he is only entering his age-25 season, and he might be able to pop in and contribute as a reserve at some point in the next few years.

Sellers isn't really a prospect any more either, although he was once seen as such coming from the same high school team as Daric Barton. He is only 23, his glove plays in either middle infield position, and while hitting .255/.333/.367 in his first full season in Double-A last year might not represent a clean success, it also wasn't a failure. As nice as it might be to have an infielder who can field, do the little things, and even walk a bit, we're more in Augie Ojeda territory here as far as upside-useful, but not great. On the other hand, Sellers apparently might give you that Herc Hauk East Side undercover vibe that Windy City baseball fans might be missing ever since Mike Caruso disappeared from the scene. Put that together with the Augie suite of skills, add water, and we might have a Wrigleyville hero of a different sort.

Discarding Hill might seem an odd choice, but it also reflects the absolute conviction that he just wasn't going to help them any time soon, and while familiarity might have overbred contempt in this instance, I think we can cut Jim Hendry some slack here. If the organization really couldn't see a way where Hill could help them because of factors beyond simple talent or even sports psychology, we'll see if Hill generates enough value in a new organization to give the old organization some interesting selections to choose from once they get around to picking their PTBNL. In the meantime, the team's up a slot on the 40-man roster, and while they don't have a great group of non-roster invites, scenarios in which So Taguchi, Mike Stanton, Chad Fox, or even Matt Smith might earn jobs in camp aren't all that implausible to be mooting if there isn't something else on the agenda.

Finally, I suppose that adding what bits are left of Bako's career gives them a notional catch-and-throw type who bats lefty to complement Geovany Soto, but he might not outplay Mark Johnson (another non-roster player) in a fair fight for the roster spot, and as poor a hitter as Koyie Hill has been in his brief bits of exposure, this is Bako we're talking about. If Soto breaks down, the Cubs would be screwed every bit as much now, with Bako in the fold, as they would have been before, so it's really just a reflection of taste in backup backstops, or a lack thereof.

NEW YORK METS
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Signed LHP Oliver Perez to a three-year, $36 million contract. [2/2]

I guess we've been building towards this moment for a while, and although we can just as properly ask the question about A.J. Burnett and his instantly regrettable deal, in signing Perez I ask myself the Mike Torrez question: If Mike Torrez was available right now at any point during his odd career, would I offer this kind of money to get the next three seasons? (No doubt someone older than me might call this the Bobo Newsom question, and for even better reasons.) I think the answer in Perez's case has to be a decided 'no,' but that's because there's even less consistency to latch onto and say that you've really resolved a rotation issue by signing him. Even his great moments haven't been that great, and they seem mired in a thicket of questions over his mechanics and command that seem to recur far more than you'd expect for a guy who's been knocking around for seven seasons already.

Because he's left-handed and throws hard, we can keep hoping he becomes... what, the new Mark Langston? He's not that good, and increasingly, we're left with a nagging feeling that maybe this is all we can reasonably expect him to achieve, the odd season as good as 2007 balanced against equal measures of frustration, maintenance, and mechanical overhauls that make you wonder if you bought a German sports car and not a left-hander. At this late stage of the offseason, if you had to pick between him, or Ben Sheets, or Randy Wolf, sure, I'd probably pick Perez too, but at this price? Talk about getting played by the market instead of playing it a bit more aggressively earlier on. I know that we run into issues of how many things any one front office can achieve at once, considering that it isn't like Omar Minaya and company have been sitting around all winter, but still, this seems like a steep price to pay for a starter most of the rest of the market sensibly shied away from at this sort of price. The difference between what the Mets are paying Perez, for example, compared to what the Braves have paid Derek Lowe ($15 million in Average Annual Value) and more likely to received in return, doesn't do the Mets all that much credit.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Signed LHP Paul Maholm to a three-year, $13.75 million contract with a $9.25 million club option for 2012 (or $750,000 buyout), avoiding arbitration; signed 4C-L Eric Hinske to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. [1/30]

Slowly but surely, this is turning into something of a fun roster. The Pirates won't necessarily be a good team, mind you, but Hinske's power makes for an excellent addition to a lineup that has to endure another spin with Adam LaRoche's early-season slumber with the lumber at first base, the mystery of when the real Andy LaRoche will stand up at third, and two temporary question marks in the outfield corners in Brandon Moss and Steven Pearce. One of those two was already in danger of being erased by the arrival of the center fielder of the (near) future, Andrew McCutchen, sometime this summer, but neither one of them is a no-brainer quality prospect worth enduring too long if they don't deliver at present. Essentially, between the outfield corners and third base, Hinske gives the Bucs a playable veteran to threaten all of the kids with simultaneously, and if any one of them can't fend him off, that sort of defines certain limits to their career horizons right there. Employing Hinkse might also make it easier to move Adam LaRoche if a contender needs a bat. Certainly the combination of having Hinske, Nyjer Morgan, and Ramon Vazquez gives skipper John Russell three useful lefty reserves that cover the club at all the non-catching positions while letting the manager play matchup games in different situations when he has to go to his bench: Morgan for pinch-running, defense, or pinch-hitting assignments that come leading off innings, Vazquez for contact with runners in scoring position, and Hinske for power in big-inning scenarios. I know, these are the Pirates we're talking about, and this is sort of an idealized chalkboard exercise, but it's been a while since the team had entertaining as well as useful weapons to turn to in-game, let alone creative lineup options.

As for the Maholm contract, it's not unreasonable, given that he's something of an "is what he is" sort of starter who doesn't have a ton of upside, but should be able to give the team a solid three seasons. In the unlikely event that he exceeds that expectation, that big option for 2012 might be worthwhile, but given its size and the really cheap buyout, free agency after three years seems like the more likely outcome. The Pirates' fortunes may well change in the meantime, of course, especially in terms of their sorting out what Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Tom Gorzelanny are going to be worth to them by that point, but financial considerations don't seem likely to be taken off of the table by then.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Signed INF-R Juan Uribe to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [1/29]

Generally speaking, I'm not going into the non-roster contracts, since a large majority of these guys will wind up getting their tickets to Triple-A during the course of camp, and a very few will bob up to the big leagues because of injuries or whatever. (I do nevertheless plan to do a quick review of the NRIs who have chances of making it as camps open, for reals.) But the Giants' picking up Uribe is the sort of thing I found really interesting, because it's a decent little pickup on a couple of levels. Assuming he's in shape, he can be a defensive asset at short and third, and for a team that's employing Edgar Renteria at short and taking Pablo Sandoval seriously as a third baseman, a left-side defensive replacement might be a very good thing to have around. Add in that he still has a modest amount of sock against lefties (slugging .465 against them last year), and he might even make for an easy choice to be a platoon partner for Travis Ishikawa in the lineup, with Sandoval moving across the diamond on defense to play first base when the Giants face lefties. There's a chance that Uribe might cadge more than a few starts at second given the team's lack of a set solution there, but the only disaster would be if he won the job because Kevin Frandsen and Emmanuel Burriss both fell into a vortex of suck or something. To some extent, Uribe's chief rivals might be Josh Phelps and Scott McClain, since either represents a plausible platoon partner for Ishikawa, but since the Giants will carry an extra catcher with Sandoval in the infield, Uribe's positional flexibility and experience will probably guarantee him a slot in some capacity, regardless of whether or not Bruce Bochy decides to carry a 12th pitcher.


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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