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April 1, 2010

Transaction Action

Claim and Deal

by Christina Kahrl

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BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired INF-R Julio Lugo from the Cardinals for future considerations. [3/31]
Designated 1B-L Michael Aubrey for assignment; released C/UT-R Chad Moeller. [4/1]

So, after pondering the state of the Orioles' infield bench options yesterday, the subsequent decision to acquire Lugo from the Cardinals fairly buries concerns for Justin Turner's lot—Turner's canvas is now getting as progressively blurry as his namesake's late masterpieces, just swap out the increasingly notional ships for a concept like 'position player,' and you're left with a study in whatever colors he's wearing. Beyond the 40-man's excusal of the perpetually ill-fated Aubrey, as far as the Opening Day roster, this inspires the question of whether or not they'll do something genuinely bold, like flash a bit of impudence and dare a rival to take Robert Andino into their own ranks in a case of subtraction by addition to somebody else's roster sums. They will have to make space on the 40-man for the club's surviving spring NRI, Will Ohman, so someone beyond the perpetually luckless Aubrey's headed for waivers before the weekend's up.

The key factor in adding Lugo is that it clearly indicates that the concerns for Brian Roberts' health haven't dwindled. What's interesting is that while adding Lugo doesn't do much advancing the Orioles' prospects for finishing higher than fourth in the AL East, it should at least help secure it. Relative to Andino's projected performance, it should substantively improve their day-to-day lot in terms of the offense they field during days off for Roberts or Cesar Izturis or Miguel Tejada; neither might add much more than 100 points of ISO, but Lugo's reliably delivered a BABIP of .310 or better in almost every season of his career (save 2007, which Red Sox fans won't soon forget), a walk rate around seven or eight percent would be consistent with his career, and he'll have a little bit of value on the bases. It might be just me, but PECOTA seems to have Lugo's median set low relative to the bulk of his career, so I wouldn't be surprised at all if, given around 300 at-bats, he managed something approaching that 60 percent prediction of an OBP of .341, slugging .378, and producing a decisively adequate .260 TAv. Greatness it ain't, but with Izturis in front of him, he's on a team where he represents an offensive spot-start upgrade at short.

Now, it may not add up to a win's worth of difference, but Andino's inability to make consistent contact and differentiate himself from standard-issue utility infielders makes this a modest improvement, at least on the offensive side of the ledger. Defensively, Lugo's performance borders on the maddening. He's sort of his generation's Raffy Ramirez, because he's strong-armed but spectacularly inconsistent. That might seem like a strange skill set to associate with a veteran player, but experience doesn't always lead to the reliability that too often gets attached to the notion of what a veteran is supposed to be. Now and today, as it did then with Ramirez, that just doesn't work out too well on an everyday basis at shortstop; append to it Lugo's poor footwork working around either side of the bag, and he's in the process of becoming that rare commodity, the offense-oriented utility infielder.

As I noted, that's not a bad thing to have around when you've got a defense-first shortstop like Izturis playing every day, but it will make for an interesting bit of timing for when he's in the lineup. The Orioles currently project to rank last in the American League in staff strikeouts, but they also project to be more dependent on fly-ball outs than any team in the league because theirs isn't a staff of worm-killers. Fly ball-oriented pitchers like David Hernandez or Jeremy Guthrie or Brian Matusz should be hurt less by having Lugo lined up behind them than, say, even a hurler with a more normal distribution of ground-ball versus fly-ball outs like Brad Bergesen would be. A lineup more heavily dependent on ground-ball pitchers, on the other hand, would be forgiven for a clubhouse riot at the news that Lugo was joining their team. Again, this suggests the amusing curiosity that the Orioles might be one of the few clubs where Lugo's limitations are less of a problem.


CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned RHP Carlos Carrasco to Columbus (Triple-A). [4/1]

Between shipping out Carrasco and successfully outrighting Jeremy Sowers, the Tribe's rotation picture has taken its initial form for the season. Will it be enough to sustain a bid to contend in the Central? Perhaps a front three of Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona, and Justin Masterson has to be taken with plenty of sugar to make the necessarily performace-enhanced wishcasting work, but play along with me here.

First, let's say a healthy Westbrook could deliver a full 33 or 34 starts, and delivers something like a 4.5 SNLVAR. That might seem like a bold stretch, but it wouldn't be inconsistent with what he was doing in his last healthy to healthy-ish seasons, back in 2006 and 2007. Justin Masterson's projected ERAs are under 4.00, and if he manages to get 30 starts, that might be another three wins or so above a support-neutral replacement level. The unpredictability of Fausto Carmona's possible performance remains the deciding factor, in that if he can do anything like his 2007 season, when he posted a SNLVAR of 7.0, you've got a front-end starter who lets you go toe-to-toe with the best starters in the division. Since that's far from a likelihood, even if he just manages to recoup utility, that's another starter keeping you in ballgames.

Which takes us to their selections for the last two slots. The option-less former Ray Mitch Talbot is getting his spin to be a team's back-end rotation regular, with the Indians hoping he delivers something like what Jason Hammel did for the Rockies last season. With a projected median ERA of 4.75 and a strikeout rate around six per nine, that seems like a reasonable proposition.

Last, they're going with David Huff, which also makes sense. As I noted six weeks ago, Huff's rookie season had its happy notes in terms of quality start tallies through his first six innings, and perhaps managed by a manager with a quicker hook than Eric Wedge, he'll turn the corner. PECOTA's faith in Huff's ability to contribute value is roughly on par with its endorsement of Talbot, but a strikeout rate well below league average last season is projected to remain so, and tied to a modest assortment, suggest that he's going to need a lot of help from his friends afield to make that stand up.

Add it all up, and it will be a better unit, but that's not really saying much—the club ranked 13th last season in both SNWP and SNLVAR. But if you assemble a unit where everybody's contributing a few wins above replacement level, one where perhaps just the floaters in the fifth slot are being churned through until you find a guy who does the least harm, you wind up in the middle of the pack over 162 games. If that sounds .500-ish, it should, and put that in the Central, and you've got a contender. If Carmona or Westbrook return to anything like their past performance, you do a bit better than just that. So, no, this particular fantasy doesn't require the perfect accessory, although it's obviously a function of the company they're keeping in that division.


KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned RHP Blake Wood and 1B-L Kila Ka'aihue to Omaha (Triple-A); outrighted LHP Edgar Osuna to Northwest Arkansas (Double-A). [3/31]

The latest setback for the impassive batsmanship of Ka'aihue is reasonable cause for despair among those of us who love walks, but the Royals long ago made their commitment to 100 percent employment for Jose Guillen, so however often he falls short of reaching that target, or meriting it, he may as well be an honorary son-in-law or something. And while we all know that spring stats don't matter, it's nevertheless amusing that in demoting the most reliable boom from the islands this side of Mauna Loa, the Royals are the team that ships out its spring leader in homers and walks; as has become obvious, this team isn't interested in such trifles.

However, to indulge in a tepid defense of the move, this isn't to say that Ka'aihue is a lock for stardom, the Bomb-Tiki waiting waiting to blow up if only he were liberated from the powder-blue legion of gloom. Unfortunately, his top five comps suggest the ranges of possibility for players of his ilk: Nick Johnson, Dan Johnson, Jeff Manto, Bob Hamelin, and Mario Valdez. Setting aside Manto as someone who played a good amount of third base, and so had better utility (not to mention he batted righty), that gives us a four-scenario spread of varying flavors of disappointment relative to exaggerated expectations from the sabermetric set. Nick the Stick's the obvious best-case scenario, but he was also in his fourth full season in the majors at Ka'aihue's age, and Johnson's spins on the DL occur with the sort of machine-like efficiency you generally regret. The transient greatness of the Hammer or the equally transient utility of Dan Johnson as starters at the far end of the defensive spectrum provide endorsements of the most dubious sort. Valdez wound up logging more than 4000 plate appearances in Triple-A, and walking in 14.4 percent of them; he never got an opportunity as good as, say, Scott Stahoviak's, which just goes to show that life isn't entirely fair. This isn't to say Ka'aihue couldn't have a sweet year or two, as a patch, and it would be lovely if the Royals got the benefit of an in-season Guillen absence to give him the opportunity. But even after he arrives, I'd just caution you against expecting a lasting phenomenon.

If there's good news, it's that the club got to keep Osuna, a Rule 5 pick from last December. Whether that's a matter of professional disinterest from the Braves, or a pity-pass on a former prospect to benefit of former Braves front-office type, we can leave to the imagination.


SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed LHP Erik Bedard (shoulder) and INF-L Jack Hannahan (groin) on the 15-day DL, retroactive to 3/26; optioned LHP Lucas French to Tacoma (Triple-A). [3/31]
Noted the departure of 1B-R Ryan Garko to the Rangers on a waiver claim; optioned LHP Garrett Olson to Tacoma. [4/1]

Making your way in the world as the short side of a first-base platoon is tough going in the Age of Seven-Man Bullpens, but it's especially rough when you're going up against all of the things that General Garko had to contend with in terms of making the Mariners. As I wrote in this year's player comment in the annual, Garko's upside wasn't really all that special to begin with, and when you're this far out on the margins of utility, little things like defense, popularity, familiarity, expense, and former fame start to count.

For starters, this does leave the starting role in the hands of Casey Kotchman. However far removed he remains from becoming the new John Olerud or J.T. Snow or Lyle Overbay or Bruce Bochte or... well, we could go on, but that's sort of the problem—set a standard, and Kotchman keeps coming in below it. However, one thing that generally gets conceded to Kotchman's benefit is his value on defense, and you'd be benching that once in a while to get the platoon benefits Garko is supposed to provide. Which doesn't really add up to quite that much—say what you will, but Garko's career clip .313/.392/.495 isn't excellent, it's the sort of basic level of adequacy that you'd better get from a first baseman in this competitive environment when the league's right-handed hitters .272/.345/.437 against lefties (not counting the feeble exercise of pitchers' hitting), as the 2009 AL did. Just looking at the ISO alone, the power's a mere notch above average, and at first base, you either bash or you crash. Add in Garko has negligible defensive value, and you can understand how he's a tough thing to keep around.

So, it isn't really a shocker that they let Garko go, but it is surprising as far as who they appear ready to keep in his place: Mike Sweeney, reprising last spring's non-roster bid when the club really seemed more inclined to encourage his move into coaching, and instead winding up on the team. Now, sure, by all reports Sweeney's a popular teammate, and he's a former All-Star. But he also hasn't exactly hit at even Garkesque levels of platoon efficiency: .235/.303/.449 against lefties last year, for example. He didn't hurt himself in 11 games at first base, but really, if Garko was a non-descript first baseman who occasionally stood in an outfield corner, Sweeney's even less than that. If Garko isn't worth the roster spot, how then is a fragile, platoon, mostly-DH type on a roster already employing his better half—an almost equally fragile, platoon, mostly-DH type like Ken Griffey Jr.? If Sweeney's a glorified coach and the Kid's supposed to be a clubhouse pick-me-up, I guess I'm wondering, as innovations go, and with this many cheerleaders without skirts, where are we in history—Dallas, 1972, perhaps?

As harsh as that criticism might be, as the team that took on Milton Bradley, maybe inaugurating an era of good feelings is called for. Far from being a roster of abominations, it's worth keeping in mind that it's beginning to look like the Mariners will be one of the happy few willing to carry five bats on the bench instead of going with a seven-man pen. How long that lasts in-season will have to be seen, especially once Cliff Lee's back in working order, but if they slot Jason Vargas into Lee's turn once or twice, will they also elect to go lefty-less in the pen in the early going?

Obviously, the Mariners are doing things differently from everyone else, and they're not even quite as inflexible as “two platoon DHs” makes them sound. They can always use Eric Byrnes as a sometime DH against the toughest lefties so that Sweeney plays first base in Kotchman's place. Having already shown considerable flexibility with Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez, and Matt Tuisasosopo as far as their positions, the club's proving highly adaptive in terms of who plays where. If they're carrying an extra bat instead of, say, a utility infielder they may not play much, that's not bad news, is it? Given their demonstrated creativity so far, the eventual decisions once Lee's back in action and once Hannahan comes off of the DL will be interesting, to see how they reshuffle. Will they bump Tuiasosopo to Tacoma to get everyday at-bats? Will enough playing time have been spent on Sweeney to suggest a graceful retirement, in case he's struggling? Or will they risk losing Ryan Langerhans on waivers?

That's the basic fun involved with the Mariners' roster—they're going to keep people guessing, and they're going to have some good reasons for what they do. What fun that leads to in the standings will be more interesting still.


TEXAS RANGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Claimed 1B-R Ryan Garko off waivers from the Mariners; optioned C-R Max Ramirez to Oklahoma (Triple-A); outrighted LHP Ben Snyder to Frisco (Double-A). [4/1]

Garko may not have fit neatly into the Mariners' selections for their own bench, but put him in Texas, and you might just be able to cut to the chase and cue David Bowie and run that Marlon Byrd highlight reel, because playing in a park that rewards modest power instead of throttles it, Garko's in a great place to exploit the fact that he's somebody who makes a good amount of hard contact (his career strikeout rate's just 15.6 percent). With a base of just $550,000, he's cheap, and while he'll obviously spot for Chris Davis at first base (and perhaps pinch-hit for the non-Kinslers at the keystone until the starting second baseman's back from the DL), he just as obviously has value as a potential placeholder in any scenarios where Davis falters while Justin Smoak seems not yet ready. While his uses in the outfield are dubious at best, as the token fifth outfielder beyond David Murphy, he can be plugged in as needed. And Garko solves an immediate roster problem, in that he should be kept rather than their screwing around with a choice between minor-league third baseman Matt Brown or Ramirez's aspirations to be a catcher or DH or first baseman, they can let Ramirez get everyday playing time that should enhance his value as a bargaining chip. Add in the grudge angle, as the General takes aim at his temporary former teammates in Seattle, and it's a fun and useful pickup.


TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned LHP Brett Cecil and RHP Josh Roenicke to Las Vegas (Triple-A); placed LHP Marc Rzepczynski (hand) and RHP Dustin McGowan (shoulder) on the 15-day DL. [4/1]

Thus the Jays resolve the lingering questions over who does what where that were raised in this space yesterday. Dana Eveland's rounded out the rotation—literally, figuratively, take it as you will, and it works—while all of the young veterans stick, as does Eveland's colleague in off-season claimancy off waivers, Merkin Valdez.


ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Reassigned LHP Rich Hill to their minor-league camp. [3/30]
Optioned RHP P.J. Walters to Memphis (Triple-A); traded INF-S Julio Lugo to the Orioles for future considerations. [3/31]

As in the case of Sherlock Holmes' noting the dog that did nothing in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Silver Blaze, the keys here aren't who's being moved, but the matter of who's sitting still.* The fifth starter job has been handed to Jaime Garcia, perhaps temporarily silencing the argument that Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan don't trust the young—of course they do, at least when they're as demonstrably talented as Garcia is. That has the nifty ripple effect of ending the Kyle McClellan experiment in the rotation, shoring up the pen against its perceived shortage of useful right-handed help. Hill can re-enter the picture, of course, but that's if Garcia struggles while he inspires confidence; given the hope that both Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny turn out just fine, having Hill handy on the side may matter for more than just naming a notional fifth man in the rotation, since real certainty beyond Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright doesn't exist.

Similarly, trading away Lugo's fine in the wake of the previous decision to add Felipe Lopez. Not that Lopez is any better a reserve shortstop than Lugo is, but he should be a better veteran alternative to David Freese at third or the still awkward Skip Schumaker at second. The additional benefit is that this clears roster space for Allen Craig to back up the four corners while giving the bench a quality right-handed bat, but it has also secured the jobs of Nick Stavinoha and Joe Mather, which seems somewhat strange, given that's three right-handed hitters who play the outfield corners and first base. Which seems strange, since you might think another infielder would have been handy, especially if they elect to rotate Schumaker into the outfield later on in games. Naturally, some inevitable appeals on behalf of walking man Ruben Gotay will crop up, and even as dubious as I am of Gotay's greatness (per his BP2K10 player comment), this particular collection of options does suggest to me that he'd be a useful addition to the Cards' bench.

*: That, or we're talking about Basenjis.



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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