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March 31, 2010

Transaction Action

Return to Sender

by Christina Kahrl

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DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded LHP Nate Robertson and cash to the Marlins for LHP Jay Voss; optioned SS-L Brent Dlugach to Toledo (Triple-A). [3/30]
Optioned OF-L Clete Thomas to Toledo. [3/31]

For the Tigers deciding to make this trade, you're left asking a couple of questions. Why Robertson? Was this all they could get? And did they really have to make this deal? They're spending just as much money as they would have had they simply cut Robertson outright. Robertson was the cheapest of the three veteran starters they were already committed to overpaying, with a $10-million commitment; Dontrelle Willis is on tap to make $12 million, and Jeremy Bonderman's got $12.5 million coming to him. All three were going to be coming off the balance sheet after this season, so if you're going to cut one or eat salary with one guy, I suppose it's worth noting that Robertson is the least expensive.

Against that, obviously you can at least trade Robertson. It's unlikely that anyone would trade for Bonderman given his checkered history as far as health, and it's virtually inconceivable that anyone would trade for Willis given his miserable litany of performance issues (actual and anticipatory), anxiety, stress, Blassitis, walk-shock, or whatever. So if you limit your choice to one between eating salary and getting something for one of the three, then dumping the guy who gets you something, even if he might be the most likely to achieve a certain utility as a back-end rotation starter, perhaps makes some measure of sense. It involves making a pretty significant bet on Bonderman and Willis in your own rotation, but we'll get to that. Of the three, I'd accept the argument that Robertston's probably the one you can trade, as opposed to just eating the money.

So, what's the fruit at the end of that particular branch on the decision tree? Voss is coming up on his 23rd birthday, and was an eighth-round selection out of Kaskaskia College*, and he's a middling sort of relief prospect in the sense that he's never going to go nuts in the league, but he could have a career. He's left-handed and his fastball touches the low 90s now and again, and maybe his off-speed stuff works enough to keep him sneaky. He made it up to Double-A last season and struck out 24 percent of his opponents without showing particularly steep platoon splits; overall, across levels he managed 46 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings, against 17 unintentional walks. He's got a happy ground-ball tendency, and after missing some time to help his father after a home injury, he managed a dozen strikeouts in 14 2/3 IP in the Arizona Fall League (but also 25 baserunners in that hitter's league). He's not on the 40-man, so beyond the reasonable expectation that he might be useful, the Tigers do also get Robertson's roster spot back. That's not important right now—Jeff Larish and Robbie Weinhardt were reassigned to the minors, so there are no non-roster players making the Opening Day roster—but it will matter later, especially if a reliever worth grabbing pops up on waivers later this week.

But dealing Robertson is assuming that you're starting from the proposition that one of the three hurling boondoggles must go, and go right now. The absolute necessity of that seems a bit dubious as a proposition, especially since the Tigers' staff is already wracked with injuries, and they're not even saving the $400,000 the Marlins have to pay Robertson, since they have to pay somebody at least the minimum to take his place. Brad Thomas is out of options, so it would have had to have been Phil Coke or Fu-Te Ni or Eddie Bonine who would have had to go if they kept Robertson as a reliever until they witnessed Bonderman's next breakdown or Willis' latest dissociation with the strike zone. Since Armando Galarraga is already back in Toledo and the presumed staff patch once either of those things happened, and Bonine might make a serviceable back-end option, it isn't like the Jungleers are totally without alternatives if (or once) one or both of the expensive guys let them down. Given the merely modest expectations they might have attached to Robertson, they could afford to ship him out. And if getting Voss is just the latest variation of the off-season master plan for lefty bullpen arm acquisitions on the thinking they will never, ever let Joe Mauer see a right-handed reliever named anything besides Valverde for the next few seasons, so be it.

Since this year's run by the Tigers at the Central title is a bit of a roll of the dice anyway, picking Bonderman and Willis can also be seen as a decision to just take their chances with the guys who at least notionally have better upside value. Back in the day, both were seen as future aces, after all, and Willis is only in his age-28 season, Bonderman in his age-27 campaign. But so many years removed from anything resembling excellence, what will their upsides really look like? Bonderman's best year was in 2006; he's been a reliable disappointment in terms of staying healthy and how he's pitched since. With Willis, you have to take it another year back, to 2005; since then, he's had a mediocre 2006, a bad 2007, and his two lost years as the Tigers' missing kitty. If all the Tigers get is a return to, say, his 2007 level of performance, that's a tremendous moral victory for Willis, but not really good news for the team—that would be a rotation regular who gets you no closer to a title, even in the five dwarves' division we call the AL Central.

I suppose the positive way to look at the Tigers' predicament is that this is a fixable problem. They could cut Willis or Bonderman at the end of April, and it would probably do nothing to affect their chances of winning the division. Replacing them with Bonine and Galarraga doesn't necessarily improve their shot, not unless the two young veterans are truly hopeless. Given that the money's already spent, you can understand a decision to see how far they can go with either; you can also understand if they pull Willis from the rotation after three or four spins if he's walking more than a man per frame.

Meanwhile, with the demotions of Dlugach and Larish, the position-player fight is down to Clete Thomas versus multi-positional minor-league vet Don Kelly. Kelly will play everywhere when asked, but that's not that necessary on a roster that has a utility infielder (Ramon Santiago) on top of at least one other guy who can play anywhere in Ryan Raburn. Heck, they could even turn to Carlos Guillen in the last extremities, not that it's likely or advisable. However, Kelly is also out of options. Against that, Thomas has had his skipper's eye for a while, and with Johnny Damon and Magglio Ordonez in the corners, and rookie Austin Jackson in center, it wouldn't be too shocking to see Thomas get kept around as the club's de facto fourth outfielder, with Raburn being tasked with a utility role and designated lefty mashing, whatever position he's playing at.

3/31 AM Postscript: With today's decision to demote Thomas, it looks as if his shoulder injury and Kelly's utility and option-lessness combined to suggest a solution that lets Thomas get regular playing time with the Mudhens as he returns to full function. This should slot Raburn as the guy who gets center-field starts whenever Austin Jackson needs a day off, while depositing Kelly in the role of being everything from a pinch-runner to blowout participant to multi-purpose roster widget. Here again, with the defensive issues of Ordonez and Damon, this seems like a role where he'll see at least some use.

*: Kaskaskia College isn't properly in Kaskaskia at all, since the Mississippi effectively wiped the old French colonial burg and original capital of Illinois off the map in the 19th century. Instead, the campus is in Centralia, which doesn't have any cool historical associations beyond the fact that Gary Gaetti and Roland Burris are from there. Whatever you think of the French, Jesuit missionaries, or the fur trade (back when beaver shooting didn't mean what Jim Bouton said it did), for sheer historical coolness those things still beat out the recipient of a frickin' valuable thing... or an Illinois apparatchik turned US senator who did not win that 1987 ALCS MVP trophy. Meanwhile, what's left of Kaskaskia is now on the wrong side of the Mississippi relative to the rest of Illinois, and probably ought to petition for adoption by Missouri, since it's inaccessible from the land of Lincoln. Presumably the nine people who still live there have more productive hobbies.


MIAMI MARLINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired LHP Nate Robertson and cash from the Tigers for LHP Jay Voss; released RHP Seth McClung. [3/30]
Optioned RHPs Rick VandenHurk and Tim Wood to New Orleans (Triple-A). [3/30]

The Marlins are effectively getting Robertson for free in terms of pay, since they're only paying the major-league minimum to employ him, or exactly what they'd have had to pay a McClung or a VendenHurk or a Hayden Penn. In dealing Voss, they've really only peddled an organizational arm, so that's not really a setback. He might prove handy someday, but he's exactly the sort of pitcher their system should be able to identify, develop—and replace. So the price? You almost can't beat it, since the next-best option would be inking him after his outright release. Since you're the Marlins and you can't guarantee that anyone would choose to don teal if they were on the free market, it's worth tossing the Tigers a small fry to land a guy.

Then there's the straightforward proposition of whether or not Robertson could prove useful. It's easy to slip into making a straight comparison to what the Marlins got the last time they made a deal with the Tigers involving Robertston—they sent the then-25-year-old lefty to Detroit to add veteran southpaw Mark Redman to their rotation. Redman did his part to help propel the '03 Marlins to a World Series win with quality starts in the NLDS and NLCS, and chipping in 4.9 SNLVAR and a SNWP of .547 during the regular season. Maybe it's because there's so little drama surrounding Robertson's failures, but I'm willing to buy into PECOTA's expectation of a return to adequacy. Consider his back-story: in 2007, he had to be shut down with what was then called a tired arm, in 2008 he was simply beaten like a drum, and in 2009 he finally got operated on in-season, and came back from the table with some decent work down the stretch.

Heading into his age-32 campaign, Robertson's older now than Redman was then, so I don't expect anything like what happened in 2003. As is, Redman's surprising return to a strikeout rate of 7.0 K/9 in '03 when he'd fallen below five per nine with the Tigers in '02 was pretty remarkable, weaker league or not. Nevertheless, Robertson was already at 6.3 K/9 in the AL last season, and if he gets his walks back down around three per nine—and PECOTA's median had him at 3.2 BB/9, and that was in the AL—he'll also have the benefit of being a fly-ball pitcher moving into Miami's damptitude. It isn't difficult to see the outlines of what might be a fine bounce-back campaign, and the price is well within the reach of even the cheapest Fish monger.

Which leaves the question of what kind of team he's going to be a part of. Robertson will be the token lefty, as well as the token veteran pitcher from a past pennant-winner. He'll round out a rotation staffed with the burgeoning greatness of Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, the upside potential of Anibal Sanchez, and the worm-killing stylings of Chris Volstad. That doesn't sound too shabby, and if it buys time for relatively unfinished products like Sean West or VandenHurk, that's an added benefit. But it also figures to help the Fish inch forward just a little bit right now, perhaps still only on the fringes of a wild-card bid. I expect that's the sort of thing that would figure to take the already virulent condemnation of this club and its player acquisition strategy and reduce it to tongue-swallowing mouth-frothing madness, but it's also the sort of possibility that should give any other National League contender pause. Would you want to face a club throwing Johnson and Nolasco at you in a short series? Would you want to face Hanley Ramirez in such a series? Are you nuts?


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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