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July 22, 2009

Transaction Action

The LaRoche Deal

by Christina Kahrl

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BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Activated RHP Cla Meredith; optioned RHP Kam Mickolio to Norfolk (Triple-A). [7/21]

BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Tim Wakefield on the 15-day DL (strained lower back), retroactive to 7/18; recalled RHP Clay Buchholz from Pawtucket (Triple-A); acquired 1B-L Adam LaRoche from the Pirates for RHP Hunter Strickland and SS-R Argenis Diaz. [7/22]

There comes a time to dispense with the more cutesy suggestions. Little girls are not made of sugar and spice, Elvis is really very dead, and if puppy dogs and rainy days really were all that special and well-loved, we'd all be squalorously hip-deep in smelly, wet puppies. So it's nice to see the Red Sox treat their depth issue as something more than atrophying honorifics devoted to the roster remains of Mark Kotsay, nice person and swell teammate and completely ineffective hitter if you need to do something practical, like replace a lineup regular for a few games, weeks, or months. If Mike Lowell's hip goes sproing, or David Ortiz's re-descent back down to sub-marginal utility as a batsman endures, or J.D. Drew's latest odd notion shelves him from even his sub-Deer TTO feats, a crisply spanked single from Kotsay isn't the solution, it's a symptom of the problem.

The solution to all of these possible lineup problems is probably going to have to involve plugging in LaRoche at first base or DH, and let Kevin Youkilis take over wherever else. And while LaRoche is very definitely a platoon hitter, the team does have Rocco Baldelli to turn to against southpaws, which makes for a good replacement proposition should any playing time come free because of injuries or ineffectiveness.

It appears that the Sox have been willing to absorb the expense of employing LaRoche for the balance of the season, which helps go far towards explaining why they had to give up so little in terms of talent for the season-ending rental. Certainly they won't miss either player dealt, so it's a credit to the player development program's generating deal-able depth in the same way that it's a credit to the organization at large for its largesse when it comes to affording itself a better substitute. The question that needs asking is, 'how much better?', because LaRoche has effectively done his damage all against right-handers (again), bopping them at a disappointing .257/.360/472 clip that reflects that his much-rumored tendency to pick it up in the second half has been betrayed by his weak .220/.245/.363 clip in the last month of action. Even that OBP overstates his performance, as he's been handed a half-dozen intentional passes by right-handers willing to take their chances with the rest of the Bucs.

Put all of that together, and keep in mind that the NL Central isn't the AL East. As a result, while LaRoche is a nice enough pickup for a team that needs bench depth, and a worthwhile addition to an organization that has seen far too many of its upper-level farmhand fill-ins falter or felled by injury, it's important not to overstate his value. If anything, the Yankees may have gotten the better Pirates lefty power source when they traded for Eric Hinske, but where Hinske's virtues afield away from first base aren't all that hot, the Sox have the benefit of Youkilis' better abilities at other positions, allowing them to acquire a first base-only guy like LaRoche on the off chance that he gets hot down the stretch. Given how little it took in talent to land him, and the upside possibility suggested by LaRoche's hitting in seasons before this one, it was a move well worth making.

As for losing Wakefield for any stretch, take this as a reminder that even knuckleballers break down, but with Buchholz available, it isn't as if the Sox have cause for complaint in their rotation. Scratch one All-Star, and you've got one of the 10 best pitching prospects on baseball there for the calling. As much fun as Wakefield is to watch, this isn't a case of boo-hoo Boston. Buchholz will get a chance to make a case for his retention beyond Wakefield's return (or that of Daisuke Matsuzaka, for that matter), and with Brad Penny pitching his way out of town and John Smoltz doing even worse, the Sox might well end up with a rotation where some of the famous people get excused down the stretch, leaving the rotation the better for it.


NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Purchased the contract of RHP Sergio Mitre from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Triple-A); designated RHP Brett Tomko for assignment. [7/22]

It's important to keep in mind that Mitre's just a patch in the fifth slot of the rotation, and that was about what he was before surgery when he was coming up in the Cubs' system, with matters not changing much since. If your active standard is 'fifth starter,' you won't be disappointed; if you think in terms of his replacing somebody who won 19 games in consecutive seasons, you will be. And by that I mean Chien-Ming Wang, not Waite Hoyt, although when franchises are around as long as this one, they might make out like hockey used to, and start naming roster spots for people. In that spirit, let's assess Mitre appropriately: he's no Dave LaPoint; he also isn't Kevin Mmahat (well, maybe just a little).

If you're merely looking for employability, Mitre's that. The problem is that the rotation in general hasn't done very well. Consider Support-Neutral performances of the rotation: only CC Sabathia's delivering anything like what you'd expect or pay his price for, providing a .560 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage and a dozen quality starts (through six innnings) in 20. A.J. Burnett's .527 SNWP is good enough to rate second on this team, but it might also understate his value down the stretch, since he's given the club 13 quality starts in 19, including in eight of his last nine. But then things get less happy; Andy Pettitte (.476) is pitching in a way that suggests his next elaborate off-season mulling of retirement won't involve anyone waiting on his doorstep, while Joba Chamberlain's upside might obscure that his work this season (.474) is the stuff fourth starters are made off.

In any other division in baseball, it's still a rotation you get to the playoffs with, but relative geographical correctness of the sort the NFL doesn't truck with puts the Yankees in something that these days seems to be a source of overstated pity where we used to call it 'a pennant race': a three-sided knife-fight, and one made all the more entertaining because it features two stiletto-wielding bystanders from Baltimore and Toronto on the periphery, looking to shiv their betters for general brag-worthiness.

As for Brett Tomko, I might be the only person wondering what comes next. I remember that he was already seen as something of an oddity for being the kind of guy who'd go to the opera. How many opera companies are there in cities with minor league affiliates? Or the Mexican League? One of the great achievements of the 20th was the invention of leisure culture, and here Tomko's at risk of becoming a gentleman of leisure. This shouldn't mark the end of his career just yet, so now's not quite the time for an elaborate send-off for the former star prospect.


ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned RHP Luis Valdez to Gwinnett (Triple-A); recalled RHP Tommy Hanson from Gwinnett. [7/20]

COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Matt Herges to a minor league contract, and assigned him to Colorado Springs (Triple-A). [7/20]
Activated RHP Ryan Speier from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Joel Peralta to Colorado Springs. [7/21]


PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Outrighted RHP Tyler Walker to the Iron Pigs (Triple-A). [7/21]

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired RHP Hunter Strickland and SS-R Argenis Diaz from the Red Sox for 1B-L Adam LaRoche. [7/22]

OK, it's a salary dump by the look and feel of it, but to be fair, that's money worth saving when the Bucs could count on a last-place finish whether Adam LaRoche played badly or well, or went on a multi-month golf vacation, or decided to chuck everything and go off on a fact-finding mission on the plight of the Uyghurs as baseball's ambassador to the steppes. Instead, with the oft-lamented LaRoche moved aside, at the major league level the Pirates get to conduct a multi-month exercise in determining whether Garrett Jones' slug-worthiness so far will be as ubiquitous as the original, but as with Arthur Slugworth, Jones' hitting appears remarkably and conveniently timely. Not that he'll keep mashing at a .700 clip, but the standard in play is to do as well as Adam LaRoche, and Jones should be able to manage that. And if not, there's always the exercise of giving Steven Pearce yet another chance. Even if both fail, there's always the question of whether or not they'll want to move Pedro Alvarez across the diamond. In the meantime, however, Jones is more a first baseman playing an outfield corner, and the sooner they move Jones to first to take LaRoche's place, the sooner they'll have made space in their outfield for Lastings Milledge.

Beyond the money saved and the playing time they get to re-employ, there is the actual talent received in the deal, and as with others from among Neal Huntington's moves, it can be described as the acquisition of playable depth with enough promise to make it something more than just an outright dump deal. The key virtue of employing the slick-fielding Diaz will be how handily it allows the Pirates to wish Jack Wilson every bit of luck landing someplace as a free agent after this season.* Diaz is a 22-year-old Venezuelan import currently at Double-A, where he's hitting .253/.309/.310, and no, he doesn't run well, so there's no hidden value in his offensive production. Even so, it's not that grim; he's considered a plus-plus defender, and over his minor league career, as aggressive as he's been, he has still managed to walk in a little more than eight percent of his plate appearances. So there's no power and little speed, but he has some idea of what he's doing, and he's young enough that you can take a chance when you're a team like the Pirates. We made a comparison to Felix Fermin in the annual, and while that's not great, it's also good enough to play in the majors for a bit. He's also been relatively bass-ackwards this year and last, which makes me wonder if his numbers won't improve some once he gets used to facing more advanced southpaws. It doesn't speak well of the futures of guys like Brian Bixler or Brian Friday, but Bixler's a utilityman in the making, and Friday would have to make more noise with his bat to earn consideration.

As for Strickland, he's interesting, but no blue-chipper: a 6-foot-5 right-hander picked in the 18th round of the 2007 draft out of a Georgia high school, he's someone who throws strikes with average velocity (he'll touch 92 mph), adequate off-speed offerings, and plus command. He was seen as projectable when the Sox grabbed him, and he's seen as such still, pitching well enough for Greenville down in the Sally League, with a 51/12 K/UBB ratio in 83 1/3 IP, but with 11 homers allowed. Considering that he won't be old enough to drink until a couple of weeks after the minor league season is over, he's clearly a long ways off, and finding out whether or not he'll ever get closer is something it'll take a goodly amount of time to find out.

*: Someplace where standards remain similar to those in the Steel City that Wilson got so comfortable with might have to do; having jabbered much of the summer away lamenting the breakup of the storied franchise talents, nay, these titans of recent Pirates history, those whose achievements will long be the subject of songs and toasts in Pennsylvanian beer halls for decades to come, Wilson will have to find some other franchise, someplace where rising to a .400 winning percentage affords you the opportunity of congratulating onself on achieving such a feat, what with going up against the best players on the planet. I mean, let's face it, you, me, and 23 randomly gathered strangers wouldn't do better, and to hear some people kvetch so laboriously, that's apparently the alternative now that they've broken up the Buccos.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Depth,  The Who,  Triple-A,  Adam Laroche,  Garrett Jones,  Depth Chart

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