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February 24, 2009

Transaction Analysis

AL Roundup

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Outrighted 3B-L Scott Moore to Norfolk (Triple-A), but extended to him a spring training NRI. [2/13]
Signed 2B-S Brian Roberts to a four-year, $40 million contract extension. [2/20]

It might be just me, but you don't have to be a spinmeister to see how the Roberts extension is something of a product of the franchise's fortunes on Andy MacPhail's watch. The fact that they're headed in a direction at all, let alone one that represents progress, has to be as satisfying for long-term Orioles players as it ought to be to the team's fans as well. Whether it's a matter of who they've drafted-and with Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz the last two years, that's no small thing-or the swag from the Erik Bedard trade and how guys like Adam Jones and Chris Tillman in particular represent equally promising components in the future, or even how repeatedly snapping up the Cubs' odds and ends to bring in upside guys like Felix Pie or Rich Hill... I don't want to say that these things made Roberts' mind up for him. He did just get $40 million, after all, not too shabby for a guy past 30 in the worst market for big-ticket extensions in recent memory. But I would venture a guess that this isn't much like landing Marty Cordova (and then having to figure out where to bury him). As far as the relative forecast for Roberts' value over the course of the contract, PECOTA thinks the Orioles are getting a minor bargain (a little more than $5 million, not a ton spread over four years, but nice).

BOSTON RED SOX
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Signed OF-L Brad Wilkerson to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/16]

Given the Red Sox's delicate balance between keeping the PawSox stocked with talent that can compete while also using the Rhode Island roster as a larder to store selectively added elective insurance against hurts and woes at the major league level, it's no surprise that Pawtucket's been home to a few zombie sightings in recent years. Last season, Pawtucket was graced with Keith Ginter, Dan Kolb, Jason Lane, Sloppy Joe Thurston, Mike Tejera, and Josh Wilson; dial back to 2007, and you get Michael Tucker, Alex Ochoa, Brady Clark, Junior Spivey, Joe McEwing, Travis Hughes... not exactly the famous, the formerly famous, or even properly guys who got their 15 minutes anywhere but on beats such as this one, but certainly people you've heard of, guys knocking around hoping for that break to wind up on the tail end of somebody's roster. It doesn't really translate to the same sort of Triple-A dominance as you find in, say, Sacramento, but flags that fly forever in second-tier cities in New England aren't exactly the stuff of dreams, even New England-style dreaming.

Now, it might just be me and my fascination with tough-luck and back-end guys as far as who's on the bottom of a big-league roster and who gets to star in Triple-A, and clearly a former almost somebody like Wilkerson doesn't really count as a guy who's gotten a raw deal. But it does make for an interesting exercise as far as what goes into putting a Triple-A roster together, and how well it dovetails with the anticipated shape of the big-league roster. It's the sort of thing that led me to love Steve Fireovid's The 26th Man in my personal pantheon of favorite baseball books. Wilkerson's repeated physical breakdowns have long since ruined any chance that he had to fulfill his former potential, but it would be fun to see if he rallies to do a few feats of strength with the PawSox, and maybe even contribute to the Red Sox in a pinch. While I wouldn't hold my breath, the guy is still playing, and when the competition for reserve roles in the Red Sox outfield involves the DH-worthy Chris Carter, the equally fragile and dubious duo of Mark Kotsay and Rocco Baldelli, and fellow non-roster heroes like Chip Ambres, Jeff Bailey, and Paul McAnulty, that's a lot of people with sketchy track records at the plate, questionable utility in the outfield, and/or problems staying healthy.

Put it all together, and I wouldn't rule any of these guys out as far as showing up in Fenway, especially when J.D. Drew is a starter. The problem with Wilkerson is that his skill set as a hitter hasn't really translated well to a reserve role-pinch walks are something of an acquired taste-but if Kotsay can't really play center any more, we're basically talking about a group of guys for the corners with some first-base utility mixed in, and for all we talk about how making personnel decisions on the basis of a fistful of spring training at-bats is a mistake, it's still part of the fun of following the action in Arizona and Florida.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Signed INF-R Tony Graffanino to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/15]
Acquired RHP Juan Salas from the Rays for INF Isaias Velasquez; designated 3B-R Andy Marte for assignment. [2/19]

Graffanino's an interesting invite, in that this is his year back from a 2008 essentially lost to getting his knee rebuilt. He'll be 37 in June, so this seems like a long shot, especially when the team already has Jamey Carroll for all-around utility employment, plus a tough decision to make on their need to keep Josh Barfield around for all that much longer. Add in that Asdrubal Cabrera can handle both middle infield positions, and that Mark DeRosa could play second just as easily as his current starting assignment at third, and this might be more a matter of doing Graffanino a favor to put him back in the Tribe's camp and see if that gets him a job somewhere, or as insurance against an injury to Carroll or a starter.

Trading for Salas is a nice enough minor snag generated by the 40-man crunches around the game. Even if the former position player doesn't turn the corner as a guy who can deliver mid-90s heat but nothing else, it's still worth taking a flyer to see if the less-likely upside play pans out. Whether as an extra arm or as a ready reinforcement up in Buffalo, he's a nice add-on for a team that has perhaps only three set relievers (Kerry Wood, Rafael Perez, and Rafael Betancourt). With as many live-armed options as Eric Wedge has to pick between in camp this spring, watching who gets used and how much against which opponents and which situations should make for a particularly interesting camp battle.

As for Marte, we'll see who, if anyone, is still picking the sandy dregs of that particular brand of Kool-Aid out of their teeth and elects to claim him. He's still only 25, and what I said last time around on the virtues of Scott Moore goes for Marte easily enough as well. Put a big right-handed guy with sporadic power in the weaker league, batting in front of the Crawford boxes, and... man, that horse has been dead for a while now. I guess if I keep going on about the horrors of the Astros' third-base situation as currently proposed-Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone? Man o man, where is Denny Walling when you need him?-people might start mistaking me for a fan or something.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Claimed INF-L Tug Hulett off of waivers from the Mariners; designated LHP Neal Musser for assignment. [2/19]

I've been tooting Tug's horn for a while now, so naturally I love this pickup for the Royals. If there's a problem, it's that he might be only something of a better version of a player the Royals used to have in-house, Jason Smith: he's a lefty-swinging hitter with platoon value and some pop, and limited range at the two middle infield positions. Admittedly, Hulett's better than Smith, but with Mike Aviles sort of plugged in at short, Tony Pena Jr. reportedly seeing things like baseballs much more clearly now that he's had Lasik surgery on his eyes, and with Alberto Callaspo, Esteban German, Mark Teahen, and Willie Bloomquist (ugh) to sort through at the keystone, there isn't a lot of reason to believe that Hulett will be able to push through that mess. Certain things need to be sorted out with each of the second-base options: Callaspo's ability to deliver, German's ability to remind people that he deserves to be taken seriously, Bloomquist's talent for getting taken far too seriously, and Teahen's ability to move from the corners to an up-the-middle position. There won't be roster space for everybody either, so while I'm reasonably sure you'll see Hulett bopping for the Omaha Royals early on, it isn't like the Royals' infield is so talent-laden as to prevent his getting an opportunity, and he certainly has the ability to do something with it when it comes.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Signed RHP Luis Ayala to a one-year, $1.3 million (base) contract; designated RHP Bobby Korecky for assignment (and lost him on a waiver claim by the D'backs). [2/18]
Signed 3B-R Joe Crede to a one-year, $2.5 million (base) contract; placed RHP Pat Neshek on the 60-day DL. [2/21]

While I really like adding Crede, perhaps beyond all reason, the Ayala thing's a bit of a menace. Take a reliever who hasn't been the same since overuse and breaking down, take him out of the easier league and easy parks to pitch in, and even if the Humpdome's one of the better places to pitch these days in the junior circuit, I don't like the sound of it. Add in that Ayala's bereft of any real platoon split, and it looks more like a matter of adding a thumpee instead of a thumper, even if his velocity's getting back to around where it was before he wore out. As much as I might agree that the Twins could have used an assist in their pen, Ayala's just not the best candidate to select, and when you add in the expense, however moderate, it might have been better if they'd waited to see who shakes loose from the other 29 camps by the end of March.

Crede, however, is another matter, though I'm admittedly biased in that I simply enjoy watching the guy play. Seeing Ed Sprague as his top comp with a relatively low score reflects how Crede's career path hasn't been like a lot of other people's, so easy comparisons aren't there to be made. Even so, when you think about his primary virtues when he's at his best, if his back is sound enough for him to show the whip-fast reactions at the hot corner or if he can still pounce on slow rollers and bunts up the line with his former aggressiveness, the comparisons to Gary Gaetti will be easy to make and take, even if Crede's best-case offensive contributions may be of that same stripe-some homers, a few walks, a few more whiffs, and a whole lot less situational hitting than the Twins tend to favor. Maybe in the worst case that adds up to the past-prime Jim Presley, which wouldn't be a happy thing, but given that it's one year and a modest base, that's not the end of the world. He'll have the added incentive to help his new team take their best shot at a weak division's title at the expense of his former ballclub.

The ripple effect on the roster isn't all that major, in that Brendan Harris was going to be tasked with a lion's share of the utility work before, and will be still; he'll just get fewer starts at third against lefties than he was going to. Brian Buscher loses his initial claim to a job-share or straight platoon at the hot corner, but here again, that's not a bad thing, and he might still have value on the bench as Crede's caddy, spot starting against the tougher right-handers while adding a lefty bat to the bench's brew. Taken together, I like the sound of that, especially when I think we can be reasonably sure that Ron Gardenhire will continue to employ his reserves with the sort of regularity that has typified the team from Tom Kelly's heyday to the present.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Claimed RHP Luis Pena off of waivers from the Brewers; designated INF-L Tug Hulett for assignment (and lost him on a waiver claim by the Royals). [2/15]
Signed C-R Jason Phillips to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI; signed 2008 pick RHP Joshua Fields to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/16]
Signed OF-L Ken Griffey Jr. to a one-year, $2 million (base) contract. [2/18]

I know some of my colleagues don't care for it, but I think the sentimental arc of the Kid heading back to don the uniform that I still see him wearing in my mind's eye is a perfectly valid reason to spend this sort of petty cash (at least in baseball terms). Throwing Griffey into the DH and left-field mix for at-bats would make sense even if Wladimir Balentien wasn't having visa issues; it isn't like Endy Chavez should be given regular playing time, after all. (Indeed, I'd rather see Chavez getting about a third of the starts in center, to help compensate for Franklin Gutierrez's handicaps against right-handed pitching.) It's hard to say how much gas Griff's got in the tank, but it can't hurt to look. From a marketing perspective, being able to offer fans a chance to see Griffey and Ichiro Suzuki in the same outfield has to be worth something in terms of ticket sales, even if the Mariners weren't already trying to get over their Bavasi-induced hangover. It might be worth only a win, maybe two, which may not mean much in the final standings, but anything that helps spin this season as a clean break from their recent disappointment and the cost in cash and talent it took to achieve it, has to be taken as a positive. At this point, the Mariners can't strictly be about presenting a competitive product relative to their league or division as much as they need to provide a competitive product relative to Netflix, suburban ennui, rampant indifference, swallowing your own tongue, or, heaven help us, the X Games.

Somewhat similarly, adding Griffey has an impact on where other people will be getting at-bats, because spreading playing time around might be a minor issue. I think that signing Phillips makes that much more interesting the news that the Mariners will have Jeff Clement work out a bit at first base this spring. Now, Phillips' opportunity came about because of an injury to Luis Oliveros, so some of this is a matter of having enough guys to catch the people pitching, but if Clement's being considered for work at first base, having Griffey in the mix at DH contributes to that on some level. With Bill Bavasi's ill-considered extension with Kenji Johjima to live down stuck on the roster (and the payroll) for a while yet, the opportunity for a third catcher to make the team is obviously there. Since Jamie Burke fulfilled that role during chunks of last season, and he's back in camp as a non-roster invite, he's obviously first in line for third on the depth chart, but injuries and catching go together like bacon and everything, so this could turn into something more than just a chance for Phillips to knock around in a big-league camp again.

Finally, nabbing Pena seems to make perfect sense. Former associates-in this case new GM Jack Zduriencik-have a tendency to raid their former places of employment, and not simply for that favorite successory or that all-important perfect stapler. Instead, this is a matter of grabbing a guy who can throw high-90s heat but is still figuring out the "where to?" portion of the program. While Hulett has his uses, having already added Ronny Cedeno, I can understand how risking his loss to bring in a pillar of flame in cleats makes sense.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Agreed to terms with INF-R Willy Aybar on a two-year, $2.6 million contract, with a $2.2 million club option for 2011, avoiding arbitration. [2/18]
Traded RHP Juan Salas to the Indians for 2B-R Isaias Velasquez; signed 2B-L Adam Kennedy to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/19]
Signed RHP Jason Isringhausen to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/20]

As easy as it would be to laugh off their picking up Izzy and Kennedy, I like both moves well enough as insurance-minded plays. The former's not really a different pickup than their previous, generally positive spins with Al Reyes and then Troy Percival, where there's some upside potential without a lot of risk. Even if the Izzy goes boom (again), either physically or statistically, the team has the sort of depth to be able to shrug it off and see what's going on with their wave of rising young hurlers from the farm system, and which ones might be ready to move into the pen this year la David Price in the last. Kennedy is obviously less useful in that he's much more of a fall-back option. Even if something happened to Akinori Iwamura, they'd still have their fine pair of primary utilitymen in Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist. At best (if you're Kennedy), should somebody get hurt, employing Kennedy for defense at the keystone and some spot-start work against right-handers isn't a disastrously bad situation. I know, that involves a lot of accidents to get Kennedy onto the big-league roster, but we'll see if just getting reps and being in a camp is enough to keep him in circulation should somebody else lose a second baseman and have an immediate need.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Signed OF-R Andruw Jones to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/8]

I know that the A's are a favorite stealth-contender choice in the AL West, but there's something about the Rangers that keeps me wondering. I know, the pitching staff's still a big question mark, but signing Jones is something I find rather interesting. He's rumored to have ditched last year's supersized edition of Andruw and come into camp in much better shape, and the Rangers' outfield really isn't that much of an obvious source of strength as it is an interesting collection of overlapping maybes once you move past Josh Hamilton.* Don't get me wrong, I like what you might get from David Murphy and Nelson Cruz, and Marlon Byrd is handy (once he's healed up). But the operative word there is might, and while Jones is far from a sure thing himself, he's one exercise in flabby frustration removed from being seen as a significant asset. Murphy and Byrd or Murphy and Cruz might only be a good platoon in one corner, Hamilton might need the odd day off, and over in the DH slot I think everyone knows that Hank Blalock's availability will be a sometime thing, given his track record. Who knows, maybe having Andruw pushes Blalock back into the mix for playing time at either infield corner, particularly third, especially if Elvis Andrus proves to be less than entirely ready.

So while the field's crowded, it's not crowded with greatness as much as crowded with goodness, and Jones' upside potential is such that he could give the Rangers another right-handed thumper to balance out a lineup with an increasingly left-wards lean. If Milton Bradley was able to get his career back in order playing for Ron Washington, and if hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is every bit the great instructor that his reputation holds him to be, I can see how this becomes the retreading bargain of the offseason. Either that, or we'll be treated to more of those stories of how Andruw's jonesing for something stronger than diffidence when it comes to his own career.

*: Think about that a second-Hamilton is the sure thing in a team's outfield. Now that your cognitive dissonance and mine have been properly shaken, add olives, pour, and serve.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Re-signed RHP Dirk Hayhurst to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/13]
Outrighted LHPs Brian Burres and Reid Santos outright to Las Vegas (Triple-A). [2/19]


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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