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July 2, 2009
NL West Roundup
Outrighted LHP Jon Coutlangus to Reno (Triple-A). [5/1]
The offense is dead not simply because Chris B. Young has put his own spin on regression, not towards the mean but below replacement level. It's not just because Tracy and Conor Jackson got hurt, or Eric Byrnes has failed to bounce back before breaking down again. It's because guys like Felipe Lopez (.271/.308/.346 on the road) or Stephen Drew (.222/.273/.344) or even Mark Reynolds (a downright Deer-like .220/.319/.463) are still basically park-propped run producers. It's because they've been reduced to playing Tony Clark at first base or Gerardo Parra and Alex Romero-keeping with an organizational theme, a park-generated producer in a Reno park that's only too friendly to stick-wielding bipeds, batting .403/.449/.589-in the same outfield. It's because this is an organization that has no upper-level prospects down on the farm in any better position to provide Justin Upton with a worthwhile supporting cast. It's because they paid too high a price on mediocrities like Byrnes or Tracy at a point in time when the market isn't going to be kind to teams in straitened financial circumstances seeking to unload expensive junk. And for all of these reasons, that offense is busted and will stay busted, in a way where the late-Aughties Snakes resemble the early-'70s Angels, fielding plenty of individually interesting talents and generating outsized expectations that they'll somehow add up to something more than the surprisingly inadequate sum of their parts.
The problem is reflected in the same sorts of investments getting made on the pitching side of the slate. In the same way that Byrnes wasn't and isn't a solution for anything beyond placeholding, so too was this the case with Jon Garland. By choosing third-rank talents for second-rank jobs, you wind up not having a whole lot to fall back on when you lose some of your best players. It's easy to focus on the damage done when you're down Brandon Webb or Connor Jackson. Add in the accelerating value of Young's deal-with $5 million guaranteed for 2011, $7 million for 2012, and $8.5 million invested for 2013-plus the arbitration battle royale to come with Drew, and you can see how the Snakes can expect to be hobbled for a while yet as far as their freedom of action to fix their problems with big-ticket solutions. That leaves them in the dodgier realm of trying to acquire further place-holding talent on the seeming cheap (the F-Lop route), or taking chances on riskier propositions in the hope that they can home-grow the next Eric Byrnes and then not repeat the financial mistake that followed. And in the meantime keep praying for the lower levels and their recent drafts to yield up something of value.
If there's one particularly unmitigated disaster, it has been the bullpen. Even the brightest bits of good news, say the decent work that they're getting out of Juan Gutierrez in middle relief, gets adulterated by a flurry of ineffectiveness caused by mechanical issues. Clay Zavada's earning his keep, but only in a supporting role as a second-chair southpaw in a pen that has gotten bad work from the alternatives, whether veteran Scott Schoeneweis, organizational soldier Doug Slaten, or prematurely promoted prospect Daniel Schlereth. The pen's also delivering mediocrity or worse from key veteran right-handers Jon Rauch, Chad Qualls, and Tony Pena, the men charged with pitching in the high-yield, high-leverage assignments. Saying that things might have been better if Flash Gordon were around doesn't really alter the fact that those three righties have failed to deliver much value. Beyond Gutierrez, the system's produced Esmerling Vazquez, who has struggled in a low-leverage role.
Designated LHP Glendon Rusch for assignment; purchased the contract of LHP Randy Flores from Colorado Springs (Triple-A). [5/15]
The question is what to do about specific positions. Take the outfield. It's neat how everyone was excited about Dexter Fowler, for example, and he's a prospect and all that. Keen. He's also degenerating into Tom Goodwin, a slugless speed guy who doesn't actually run much, and who relies on the odd base on balls and a clever use of sacrifice bunting to resemble an active contributor to an offense. In 28 games played on Jim Tracy's watch, he's dropped six sac bunts, more than half his season total. Keen. And hit .235/.321/.357, which is about as useful as self-fragging. The question is whether or not the team has alternatives, or whether Tracy's going to have to get creative in terms of mixing and matching what he has. Ryan Spilborghs has reverted to the fourth outfielder stock he came from, hitting just .237/.303/.424 on the road, and an even more limiting .259/.306/.356 against right-handers. As for calling up Gonzalez, the CarGo Cult seems as ill-conceived as the basis of a faith-based value system here as it was in Oakland. It's enough to make you wonder what Seth Smith needs to do to earn a few more starts. Brad Hawpe's hitting lefties well enough to shed the platoon tag for the time being, making him someone whose remaining limitation is that you might want to swap him out for defense late in a game with a tight lead. That's OK, as it really only leaves two outfield slots in which Tracy might make elective decisions. Favoring Fowler for defense and out of a belief in his future is well and good, but playing Fowler and CarGo regularly in the same outfield, especially on the road, seems like a great way to make sure the other team's pitching catches a break.
Then there's the snaggy-nasty matter of what to do at third base. Garrett Atkins might be especially victimized by the Coors-light first-half schedule; mix in his limited value as a defender, and you're not left with a whole lot. Unfortunately, Ian Stewart hasn't exactly shown much ability to make consistent contact and earn his keep, putzing along with a 15 percent rate of line drives, popping up more than your average bear, and hitting plenty of fly balls. He may well get an altitude-aided renaissance in the second half, but if he does, it would be something of a first, since he's hit better on the road in a career that's still less than 600 PAs old. Since neither has been all that much use afield, and the number of teams that might relish the opportunity of employing a D(un)H like Atkins with a salary arbitration case to look forward to in the offseason might be limited, the Rockies may have to just suck it up and platoon the pair.
One thing to keep mind with all Rockies, however, is that their numbers will go up a tick or two now that the interleague portion of the schedule has concluded, and with Rockies left with more than half of their road schedule played (45 games) against just 32 home games so far. That means good things for the hitters-some more than others, of course, since Coors can deliver an outsized benefit to strikeout-prone sluggers of moderate wattage.
It also might encourage the Rockies to try and get their bullpen sorted out before the inevitable park-aided middle-inning massacres occur; being able to divorce themselves from day-to-day frustrations and instead have a solid sense of which relievers they can turn to would be an important assist to their shot at the National League Wild Card. They don't have that at present, what with Corpas breaking down, really only leaving them with Huston Street and Alan Embree and the hope that free-talent add-ons like Rincon, Josh Fogg, Randy Flores, and Joel Peralta can keep it together.
Whether you just read or typed that last part, you immediately recognize that this is a team that has to hunt for some relief help, because that home-heavy second half is going to put pressure on a Jeff Francis-free rotation that has exceeded expectations. As is, they'll need to start giving more thought to swapping Franklin Morales back in as he rounds back into form for the Sky Sox, with Jorge De La Rosa being the obvious bumpable rotation mate. Since Samuel Deduno, Jhoulys Chacin, and Esmil Rogers are all pitching well in the upper minors, I wonder about whether the organization would try any of them in relief roles down the stretch, especially if bartering in July goes badly for a Rockies organization a bit shy of a full cornucopia on the talent front.
Optioned INF-L Blake DeWitt to Albuquerque (Triple-A); purchased the contract of RHP Jeff Weaver from Albuquerque; transferred 1B-L Doug Mientkiewicz from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [4/30]
What's there to say about the team that seemingly has everything? Premium defense, a dominant pen, and an offense that's putting runs on the board well enough to keep on keeping on at some level, even Manny-free. And what of the rotation? Good defense certainly affords you the opportunity to take your chances with a few leftover Lazaruses, but there's something still somewhat glorious and brag-worthy about the Dodgers using both Weaver and Milton, certainly. Let's not get too carried away, however; the next quality start either man spins will be the first of the year for both. But it might be fair to say that with that pair plus McDonald or Stults, they've lined up an extended cast of characters to fall back upon over 162 games behind that now-healthy front three of Chad Billingsley, Kuroda, and Randy Wolf. That's the kind of depth that will afford them the opportunity to control Clayton Kershaw's workload as careful as they might wish, and with that pool of long relievers from among those not tabbed to start plus the under-touted middle-relief tandem of Ramon Troncoso and Ronald Belisario asbsorbing plenty of innings as well, the Dodgers actually boast a staff that's virtually Stengel-esque in its multiplicity of armaments able to help out in a variety of roles behind the big-name rotation regulars, and in front of closer Jonathan Broxton.
To make matters interesting, there might be more help on the way in-season. They might work Claudio Vargas or Hong-Chih Kuo into the picture at some point, but with either, it would have to be up to them to make their cases as compelling as possible for coming back off of the DL. Kuo's still trying to figure out what's wrong with his elbow, while Vargas has been predictably struggling to get left-handed people out. When things are going this right, you can afford to get especially picky in such matters, which leads me to wondering about how much creative freedom the Dodgers have with their pitchers as a result of having a front-rank defense.
The other interesting development is that, however free he's been with his pitching staff, Joe Torre's gotten even more set lineup-oriented, perhaps even downright Houk-ian if we want to keep up with comparisons to other former Yankee skippers. Setting aside their plugging Juan Pierre into left while Manny's not there, can you name the Dodgers' reserve with the most starts? To Jay Jaffe's chagrin-that he has to wish for it, albeit out of concern for Russell Martin's health-it isn't Brad Ausmus; including last night's action, Ausmus has only 13 starts. Nor is it designated pinch-hitter Mark Loretta, who also has all of 13 starts-and none in the middle infield. That's your hint as to who right there, because the answer is Juan Castro, with 17. With those kind of work patterns being distributed to the roster's little people, of course it doesn't make sense to bury Blake DeWitt in the desert with the Isotopes; on this bench, he'd be more than six feet under. It's a lovely thing to see minor league slugger and former Yankees farmhand Mitch Jones get his shot on a big-league bench before his 32nd birthday after more than 4,000 minor league plate appearances spread across 10 seasons as a pro; it's also important to remember that that's where he'll stay, at least until Manny's return forces someone back to Albuquerque. While that might be third catcher A.J. Ellis, Jones is the other obvious alternative. If Doonesbury were starting over in the 21st century, B.D. would wind up as a pinch-hitter on the Torre team, not an equally ignored third-string quarterback. (Whatever the sport, just remember to avoid drafting him.)
So, whatever weeping there is to come on behalf of Juan Pierre from the ink-stained elites of the Fourth Estate (or on behalf of Andre Ethier from we among the pixel-spattered should Torre go that route), the real crux of the matter is that the Dodgers skipper is just flat-out indifferent about getting his bench into the game. When you're scoring runs this effectively and getting handed this much in-game initiative by a high-performance pitching staff, there's not much cause to get cute. The real concern is to what extent the skipper will wear out someone like Matt Kemp in center or Martin behind the plate or Orlando Hudson at second; as much as he might be relatively protective of Rafael Furcal, it's as if Torre won't allow himself any more than one of "those guys," worthy of tender care.
Outrighted RHPs Eulogio De La Cruz and Mike Ekstrom to Portland (Triple-A). [5/1]
As a wee thing back in the day, I used to joke that one of the great things about wondering what might happen about Whitey Herzog taking over Team X would be how many people he'd just dump on the spot. (With Dick Williams, the variation usually involved an extreme lack of ceremony and too many second basemen; with Billy Martin, a certain amount of equally unceremonious violence.) So there's something semi-amusing to see the Padres making changes not just here and there, in increments, settling for roster embroidery in fits and starts as their year slowly breaks down into a nondescript seasonal sludge no amount of hamfisted and ill-considered ersatz Gwynn nostalgia can cure, at the very least the Pad people are making big changes with an alarming regularity. Just look at the hurly-burly of June 19th: nine, count'em nine bodies, and on top of that, there are innumerable suspects as fare as who might be responsible for this much carnage, because nobody's quite sure who's in charge of what any more in San Diego. Sorting out who the Padres are any given day is sort of like the roster equivalent of playing a game of three-dimensional chess-it's complicated, and no matter how intricate your maneuvering, every time out you lose to the guy with the pointy ears.
Then we get into the specifics of the names showing up in the box scores. Everth Cabrera... could that be Enzo Hernandez? Some guy named Gwynn who's sort of fast, moving from center to right? Squint a bit, and you might mistake David Eckstein for Tim Flannery. Names like Venable and Hairston and Blanks haunted a lot of boxscores in my childhood.
Maudlin musings aside, it's cause to celebrate that they've finally moved to starting Cabrera at short instead of Luis Rodriguez, and giving their pitching some help at the position; in every few Rule 5 classes, you get a legit position player who gets a chance, and if Cabrera continues to hit anything, let alone as well as he has, it's a tribute to the team for having taken him. Adding Kid Gwynn was gratuitous but also doesn't exactly hurt if you consider Gerut to be a freebie fished out from a limbo he'd been stuck in since a series of knee problems derailed his career. One fanciful suggestion would be to just settle down and use Gwynn in center, bump Hairston back to an outfield corner, and make room for Kyle Blanks and Will Venable in the corners by trading Kevin Kouzmanoff and moving Chase Headley back to third, and at least we wind up with a team with the virtue of relative youth, at least until Giles limps back off of the DL.
However much Blanks might be ready or almost ready to play, though, we're talking about someone who's Frank Howard-huge with Frank Howard ponderousness in left, and without Frank Howard-grade power. At Portland, Blanks hit .283/.393/.485, which sounds pretty good, and translates to a .288 Equivalent Average, with a projectable peak of .326. That's worthy of pushing other people aside (in contrast, Venable's upside in EqA is mired at a decisively mediocre .264), but there's the question of whether or not Blanks and Adrian Gonzalez can be in the same lineup in the DH-less league. If Blanks can handle left, Headley can take over third from Kouzmanoff after the latter gets dealt. If he can't handle left, the Padres can leave him in Portland for a certain stretch before they have to come up with a plan of action.
I guess one of the benefits of playing in Petco is that you can just wing it and get by in terms of pitching. Peavy's gone, perhaps for the year, as is Hill (predictably enough), and there's no timetable for the return of Young. At present, the rotation's down to free-talent additon Chad Gaudin, Mexican Leaguer Walter Silva, Giants discard Kevin Correia, Blue Jays refugee Josh Banks, and notional prospect Joshua Geer. A bad patch for any of these guys might get LeBlanc back in the mix, and Mariners reject Cha Seung Baek's supposedly going to be healed up shortly. Things might get more interesting at the end of the season, should Will Inman survive his introduction to the PCL and earn a cup of September coffee, or if Mat Latos is healthy that far into the future.
Optioned RHP Osiris Matos to Fresno (Triple-A); recalled LHP Pat Misch from Fresno. [5/12]
As weak as this offense is, the thing I get a kick out of is wondering if they'll stick it out with some of their more stunted farm products, or if they'll get to pruning. Consider Travis Ishikawa-he was never a top prospect, and I think it's safe to say he isn't one of the 30 best first basemen in baseball. But he's also got a funny history for fitful starts and stops. Since sinking to his seasonal low point on May 24, he's been on a small tear, bopping at a .310/.355/.621 clip since. That's almost all against right-handed pitching, and it's a puny sample, but it's an interesting suggestion that first base might not be the position the Giants have to fix in a lineup that certainly does need bolstering. (Whether Brian Sabean elects to haul in a better right-handed complement to Ishikawa's a different proposition, however; get the right guy to change first base into a job-sharing assignment, and Ishikawa might shine down the stretch.)
Instead, the Giants have exerted their efforts at other positions, with Nate Shierholtz getting starts in right field, bumping Randy Winn over to left, and the eternally luckless Fred Lewis to the bench. They've also stumbled their way into playing Juan Uribe at second, which can't exactly be seen as a positive development either. Benching Lewis outright costs a run-starved team OBP when they might be better off rotation Shierholtz, Winn, and Lewis through the corners; Uribe's just not going to hit, save in comparison to the unready Burriss or benchable organization types like Downs-barely three months removed from the Cal League in terms of game experience-or Frandsen.
There's really only a couple of ways that they can go here, in part because they're stuck with Edgar Renteria, Bengie Molina, and Aaron Rowand at top-dollar prices up the middle. The spots they can help themselves are really limited to adding a big-ticket outfielder, maybe a first baseman, and somebody to fill in that pothole they're carrying in the lineup at second base. While it would be nice to add somebody of Jermaine Dye's caliber, I'm not buying the suggestion that the White Sox will fold up just yet, not unless they go into a dramatic death spiral involving an extended losing streak. Among the second-base types who could be free agents after the season, the Pirates' Freddy Sanchez would do quite nicely (as would Adam LaRoche at first), and the Pirates seem willing to ditch contracts for marginal talents in bulk. Beyond that, at the keystone we get into wondering if the Nationals would fork over Ronnie Belliard for a party favor, or if the Indians would part with Jamey Carroll. The Nationals might be coaxed into parting with Nick Johnson and/or Josh Willingham; toss in Belliard, and maybe that's enough stuff to get a non-Bumgarner TBNL from down on the farm.
As ever, thanks to the incomparable Baseball-Reference.com.