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May 5, 2009

Transaction Analysis

NL Central Shuffling

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

CHICAGO CUBS
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Recalled RHP Jeff Samardzija from Iowa (Triple-A); designated RHP Luis Vizcaino for assignment. [4/23]
Placed RHP Carlos Zambrano on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); purchased the contract of UT-S Bobby Scales from Iowa. [5/4]

Managing assets to maximum benefit is a part of the racket, but how well have the Cubs done on this score? Discarding first Chad Gaudin and now Vizcaino to no real gain isn't exactly ideal operating procedure, and with Zambrano breaking down and Rich Harden being a somewhat predictable cause for concern, that rotation that was supposed to rank among baseball's best simply isn't in the early going. Zambrano wasn't struggling with his workload; he'd logged four quality starts (one of which was blown after the sixth inning) in his first five, and was on his way towards a fifth in six before getting hurt, and his strikeout rate was up. Ideally, this will just given him the time off that will let Lou Piniella go to the whip with the big man down the stretch.

In the meantime, I'm somewhat bemused to see a Cubs team that was supposedly overstuffed with rotation options suddenly left with the proposition that they'll be calling up Randy Wells later this week to take Big Z's turn on Thursday. No Gaudin, sure, but is Aaron Heilman so far removed from his spring trial as a starter to make a swing role inconceivable? Are Samardzija's starts in the PCL so far removed in history (his most recent start on April 18th for Iowa being so many yesterdays ago) as to make that move equally inconceivable? Say, come Zambrano's next turn, would a pen start, where Heilman and Samardzija lead off and combine for five innings to start out with, really be inconceivable? Perhaps it's just as well; with Zambrano only expected to miss the minimum, leaving Heilman and the Domer in their roles is an easy enough choice. Wells has done well with the I-Cubs early on, with a 3:1 K/BB ratio in 26 IP stretched across five starts (a total lowered when he was hauled out after three innings during his start yesterday), and the former catcher would make an entirely acceptable fourth or fifth starter on many teams.

In terms of the when and how, however, there are additional options to moot. Thanks to next week's offday on Monday, if they elect to keep the other four rotation regulars on turn, they can spread their coverage of Zambrano's absence across more than a week, with a presumptive fifth man starting this Thursday and then on next Friday the 16th, both times taking a spin against the Astros in a road-and-home tandem, and which might suggest a between-appearances roster move. Or they could keep their fifth man on turn, have him start on the 13th or 14th against the Padres, and then reclaim the roster spot for other uses before reactivating Zambrano in time for the game against the Cardinals on the 19th (there's another offday on the 18th). Effectively, that makes for a choice between whether you want to get hyperactive and keep the space devoted to a fifth starter-Wells-across six days and then go for another position player who, as with Scales' likely demotion come Thursday, might only be up to ride pine for a few days between Wells' second start and Zambrano's activation, when a lot of teams favor yo-yo'ing people through the roster spot: Scales through Wednesday, then Wells for a day, then somebody else (perhaps a red-hot Jake Fox, with 12 homers in 98 PA) until they elect to use a fifth starter again. Since the Cubs have only 35 men on their 40-man, whatever they do, they can afford to purchase a contract or two, as they did with Scales.

Speaking of whom, it's nice to see the old-timer get his first taste of the majors after reaching his seventh season above A-ball in organized ball this spring. He's produced Equivalent Averages in the .240s the last three years in Triple-A, and as far as the utility suite, he's more the Marlon Anderson type, someone you can play at second or an outfield corner, or roll the dice with some work at third base (where he might politely be referred to as 'error-prone'), but perhaps even more useful, in that he's a true switch-hitter, having not struggled against right- or left-handers. Indeed, he could represent an improvement on Aaron Miles, since we projected Scales to deliver a .246 EqA this year were he in the majors, where Miles was projected for a .232 climb-down from last year's career-perpetuating spate of singles that dropped in.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Acquired INF-S Drew Sutton from the Astros to complete their trade of 3/31, and optioned him to Louisville (Triple-A); outrighted 2B-L Danny Richar to Louisville. [4/16]
Placed 3B-R Edwin Encarnacion on the 15-day DL (wrist chip fracture); recalled INF-R Adam Rosales from Louisville. [4/28]

Losing Encarnacion is less of a blow if you think that perhaps the man was already playing hurt; certainly his early production was a little unusual for him, as he was pushing four pitches per plate appearance for the first time since his rookie season, and drawing more walks or striking out in a larger proportion of his PAs without hitting a lick. In his absence, it looks like Dusty Baker's going to ride the hot hand and make a one-for-one swap in his lineup-Rosales was smiting Triple-A pitching like Thor after a draft from the horn of plenty, socking them at a .431 clip while slugging .754. We can safely say that Rosales isn't a .700 slugger; indeed, his forecast suggests that .400 might be his more normal range, but hitting for contact is his core skill at the plate and he gets to call a bandbox home, so he's adequate filler for a limited stretch. If you want to get into the difference between Rosales' projected production against Encarnacion's projection using MLVr, you wind up with the difference being a run lost every four games or so, not good, but survivable, and that's in the abstract, where a healthy Encarnacion's being replaced by Rosales when delivering his usual thing. The math should work in the long run over the course of many more games, of course, but the Reds ideally won't have to find that out, because Encarnacion will be back in the two weeks or so that was initially anticipated, making this question more academic. I suppose there's still the chance that Baker turns to Jerry Hairston Jr., but since the alien inhabiting Hairston's body last season appears to have returned to the mother ship and Dusty seems aware of this, five of the first six starts in Encarnacion's absence have gone to Rosales.

Sutton is the payoff for making Jeff Keppinger an Astro, which might qualify as overpayment considering that Sutton was the Astros' eighth-ranked prospect before the season, but the Astros' system is arguably the game's worst, so on one level, this might actually be a step down from Richar, the former D'backs and White Sox bumped from the 40-man to make room, and someone once seen as a plausible starter for somebody at second. However, with Richar struggling to keep his average above the Mendoza line and his OBP above the Guillen line (in many more years to reach it, Ozzie put up a .300 OBP in as many seasons-four-as Mario topped .200), I doubt there's a diehard band of Richar defenders left out there. Sutton's not a defensive asset anywhere in the infield, and he's already in his age-26 season. Between some modest amount of speed and pop added to his switch-hitting, he could stick as somebody's utilityman someday, but effectively, this is an exchange that sent the Reds somebody no more than a Keppinger wannabe for the original article. If there's a scorecard on this kind of deal, it more probably involves Walt Jocketty doing Ed Wade a favor, and maybe that matters for something later on this summer, when the Astros are dead while the Reds still have ambitions to entertain.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Placed RHP Brian Moehler on the 15-day DL (sprained knee); recalled RHP Alberto Arias from Round Rock (Triple-A). [4/15]
Optioned RHP Alberto Arias to Round Rock; recalled RHP Felipe Paulino from Round Rock. [4/18]
Placed C-R Humberto Quintero on the 15-day DL (strained shoulder); recalled C-R J.R. Towles from Round Rock. [4/25]
Activated RHP Doug Brocail from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Jeff Fulchino to Round Rock. [4/26]
Placed RHP Jose Valverde on the 15-day DL (strained calve), retroactive to 4/27; recalled RHP Jeff Fulchino from Round Rock. [4/28]
Returned RHP Doug Brocail to the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); activated RHP Brian Moehler from the 15-day DL. [5/4]

As Christopher Columbus may have noted, it's not such a bad thing to ride an accidental discovery for all it's worth, but the bad news here is that, having had a nice taste of what Paulino would be able to do for them, with three winnable starts while flashing plus stuff, they've gone back to their initial concept of riding the old men in the rotation. So, beyond Mike Hampton and a renewal of their commitment to Scuffy Moehler-two defensible choices-they're also going to keep on keeping on with Russ Ortiz, even if 36 baserunners in 19 innings is just an initial sample of what's to come. You can hope that this is a Columbus-like initial stubbornness-they set out to determine that Russ Ortiz is back, and the pain of learning that he's back to being Russ Ortiz has to get beaten into their brainpans before they come to terms with the suggestion that maybe-maybe-they will at least accomplish something and develop somebody who's homegrown.

Similarly, while I'm hopeful that their getting Towles up is a gift horse they won't get overly dental about, keeping the kid on the off chance that he picks a few things up from Ivan Rodriguez, not to mention the benefit of having someone worth playing and thereby earning Pudge a few days off, ideally also keeps him relatively fresh, or as fresh as a human being can be as he closes in on 2,200 games behind the plate in the major leagues. Unfortunately, here as with there, I expect that once Quintero heals his body, they'll bring back his broken bat, and tuck Towles back down in Triple-A, to continue his penance for last season's failure.

Finally, I suppose there's something to be said about their losing Valverde, but since LaTroy Hawkins has been fine in the role, the problem is less that Valverde might miss most or all of May than that they've lost Valverde and Brocail, which forces them to rely on Chris Sampson, Tim Byrdak, and Geoff Geary late in games for setting up Hawkins. That's a pair of functional middle men and a lefty who's handed back almost as many opportunities as he's been given, a proposition every bit as dodgy as it sounds, but I guess we on the stathead-y side of things can watch to see if assertions that anybody can close-maybe even Hawkins, now, and despite years of hounding on the subject-and all sorts of people can help out in relief both get put to the test. Assuming the Astros have all that many leads to protect, of course.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Placed RHP David Riske on the 15-day DL (elbow), retroactive to 4/10; recalled LHP R.J. Swindle from Nashville (Triple-A). [4/16]
Activated RHP Trevor Hoffman from the 15-day DL; optioned LHP R.J. Swindle to Nashville. [4/26]
Placed C-R Mike Rivera on the 15-day DL (sprained ankle). [4/29]
Purchased the contract of C-S Carlos Corporan from Nashville. [4/30]

News flash: Hoffman will get saves. I think I've been noisy enough on this particular topic already, at least as far as how I see this working out over the course of the season, but beyond his opening run of five scoreless frames and a quick quartet of saves to please the save-minded, it's perhaps even more impressive that he's already handled a pair of back-to-back appearances handily. If I get to be wrong about the man's Milwaukee incarnation, here's hoping I learn something from the exercise, but we have a whole lot of baseball to see yet.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Optioned INF-R Luis Cruz to Indianapolis (Triple-A); added OF-S Delwyn Young to the active roster. [4/17]
Placed C-S Ryan Doumit on the 15-day DL (fractured scaphoid-wrist), retroactive to 4/20; recalled C-R Robinzon Diaz from Indianapolis. [4/21]
Placed RHP Craig Hansen on the 15-day DL (neck spasms), retroactive to 4/20; recalled RHP Evan Meek from Indianapolis. [4/25]
Placed SS-R Jack Wilson on the 15-day DL (sprained finger), retroactive to 4/25; recalled SS-R Brian Bixler from Indianapolis. [4/26]

There are a few things in play here, and keeping in mind the Pirates' lot, this really isn't as grim as it would appear at first blush. Adding Young seems to be an instance of identifying a guy with experience in the rare role of professional pinch-hitter, but if Brandon Moss doesn't start hitting, there's the chance that this becomes an opportunity for something more than that for the former Dodger; it would certainly beat getting too deeply involved with Craig Monroe. Hansen's breakdown, while lamentable in itself, creates the opening many have anticipated for Meek, giving the team an opportunity to see what they've got. If Tyler Yates keeps setting the scoreboard aflame, there's nothing writ in stone that says the Bucs can't turn to Hansen and Meek to set up Matt Capps. Deactivating Wilson might have been a bit aggressive, but whether they find someone willing to trade for the veteran at the stretch this year or not, taking another peek at what a future with Bixler could look like isn't going to hurt, him or them.

On the other hand, yes, losing Doumit is genuinely bad news, but it's also a reminder that he isn't the most durable player in the world, and having traded for both Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz, each a useful catching prospect in his previous organization, it isn't like their fall-back position involves playing scrubs. Jaramillo may be a worthwhile second-division starter in his own right, someone who can provide modest measures of patience and power beyond his good receiving skills and strong arm, while Diaz is the type of potentially solid backup backstop who makes a lot of good contact and might luck into the odd Junior Ortiz '90 or Einar Diaz '99 sort of season, and end up perpetually employed as a reward. It isn't as if they're stuck with the Dane Sardinhas or the world, and if this strengthens their hand down the road when fielding trade offers, so much the better.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Optioned RHP Josh Kinney to Memphis (Triple-A); purchased the contract of RHP P.J. Walters from Memphis. [4/17]
Acquired RHP Blaine Boyer from the Braves for OF-R Brian Barton; optioned 3B-R David Freese to Memphis. [4/20]
Placed INF-R Brendan Ryan on the 15-day DL (hamstring); recalled INF-R Tyler Greene from Memphis. [4/30]
Optioned RHP P.J. Walters to Memphis; recalled RHP Brad Thompson from Memphis. [5/4]

While most of this just seems like ticky-tack stuff, it adds up. Barton's an interesting outfielder to have, and even though the Cardinals were already crowded, if somebody-John Mozeliak or Dave Duncan-saw something in Boyer that they felt they could use, I guess I nevertheless regret giving up the one to get the other. Boyer had been barely better than waiver bait, where Barton's playable on more than a few rosters, so the challenge here is for Boyer to prove he was worth circumventing the wire. The Redbirds are still seeing Greene at short despite Khalil's temporary absence, since Tyler's not a bad option to fall back upon in the meantime. Injury problems have hampered the 2005 first-rounder's development, but he's still only 25 years old, and he has the arm and range for short. He probably isn't a good enough hitter to ever really stick-he's that rare shortstop who plays at the power game while not having much patience, but with a little pop, some speed on the bases, and a glove, he sounds like someone with more than a lot of other utility infielders end up having to offer.

The more interesting issue has been staff management during Chris Carpenter's absence, as they've given Mitchell Boggs and Walters turns, with Boggs doing well enough to earn rotation consideration beyond the veteran's absence. Swapping in Thompson came predictably after he'd geared up for longer assignments after three starts in Memphis, which beyond backing up Boggs could come into play if Kyle Lohse's knee or Todd Wellemeyer's performance creates a need for somebody to come out of the pen and give them three or four frames at a time. Walters will get his own refresher with rotation work in Triple-A in the meantime, having already gotten his first spin in The Show and seeing that his more finesse-oriented game can be a tough proposition, but he remains a worthwhile prospect in a system that's increasingly doing a decent job of spreading around enough work to keep the staff armed once or if the treads come back off of any of Duncan's retreads. I wouldn't bank too much on any one of them-not Boggs or Thompson or Walters-but there's a chance that one of them contributes enough to help cover substantively the inevitable absences from among the ranks of the older men, and ideally these initial trials should prophylact against later cases of the yips under pressure.


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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