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May 7, 2010

Transaction Analysis

A Tale of Three Shortstops

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Optioned LHP Alberto Castillo to Norfolk (Triple-A). [5/5]
Activted RHP Koji Uehara from the 15-day DL. [5/6]

Well, as bad as Mark Hendrickson has been, he's a use-or-lose (or more properly, use-and-lose) asset, while Castillo's optionable, and as I noted on Tuesday, something had to give. As infrequent as save opportunities have been and will be for the O's, it's sort of pointless to worry about whether Alfredo Simon will keep the job for any length of time or lose it to Uehara between now and the end of the month, when Mike Gonzalez is expected to return. On the year, the club's gotten eight actual save opportunities-the kind where the reliever has a shot at an actual save instead of a hold-and converted five. Gonzalez got three of those chances (blowing two) in the first week, so that's five opportunities in the four weeks since. As long as the offense continues to rank among the game's worst (with .242 TAv), and a rotation doing no better (ranking 27th in SNLVAR, ahead of just the Reds, Tigers, and Pirates), arguing about who gets to be the team's closer is sort of like nominating a fire chief for a station at the bottom of the Inner Harbor-why worry about putting out the flames when you're already sunk?

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Activated RHP Kerry Wood from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Jensen Lewis to Columbus (Triple-A). [5/7]

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Placed RHP Mark Lowe on the 15-day DL (lower back), retroactive to 5/3; recalled RHP Shawn Kelley from Tacoma (Triple-A). [5/5]
Placed OF-S Milton Bradley on the Restricted List; recalled OF-L Michael Saunders from Tacoma. [5/6]

This just in: Milton Bradley won't be making the trip to the All-Star Game this year. Not to be overly flip about one man's problems, his cry for help, and the organization's admirably restrained response, but the meltdown risk was one taken on from the moment that Jack Zduriencik pulled the trigger on the Double Disappointment Dodge back in December. The Mariners apparently couldn't simply buy an upside player on the free-agent market to shore up their offense, so they aimed to repurpose some element of their existing salary commitments. Similarly, I don't think we should second-guess the decision to trade away Carlos Silva to take this particular risk: It's Carlos Silva, and now that his season-opening consecutive quality starts streak was ended at four noisily enough by the Snakes, it's worth remembering that.

The real problem is that the Mariners' upside-risk strategy for their lineup has been so shot full of holes that it's going to be interesting to see how it gets addressed before it scuttles the season. Just as they did with Casey Kotchman and Eric Byrnes, with Bradley they were betting on a veteran's ability to live up to his past production, and while there are special risks involved with employing Bradley, it's important to note that none of them have worked out that well. Nor has their big-ticket free-agent addition-while Chone Figgins is getting on base, that's almost the only thing he's done. All of these players had their virtues in the abstract, and all of them have turned out badly as the recurring difficulties of reality came home to roost. The Mariners can't score runs, and while there are reasons to expect that Jose Lopez and Figgins and even Kotchman will do better, none of them will do so much better to tip this lineup over into becoming a good one. Bradley was supposed to be the big difference-maker in the middle of the order, and that hasn't happened. However much you want to dissect the quality of his so-far brief Mariners career, there's no way to know whether or not a happy Milton Bradley would do X better, because there's no easy solution for what X will be.

In the meantime, they don't stand much of a chance to score runs. Saunders won't repair that, any more than a pair of DHs who don't do what they're designated to. You can hope that the lineup has a few more players approach their projections, and that the eventual arrival of Erik Bedard keeps scores low enough, and that their mediocre pen doesn't blow their narrow leads, and that the division retains its around-.500 equilibrium deep into the season. And even with this setback, those really aren't unrealistic expectations.

As for the bullpen, Lowe might have been the bullpen's designated set-up man, but his performance was less than inspired in the early going, even in a unit the performance of which overall might best be described as bland: David Aardsma's accumulating saves, but a review of the entire group's performance finds nobody's been especially effective, and only Jesus Colome's been unambiguously bad. Even once Lowe returns, it's worth remembering that his 2009 performance wasn't notably better than Kelley's or Sean White's, he was just used in more significant situations, which he handled with only slightly less competence than either. If Colome's still struggling once he's ready for reactivation, that's one bit of potential improvement, and if Brandon League outshines Lowe in the set-up role in the meantime, makes for another positive possibility.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Placed SS-R Yunel Escobar on the 15-day DL (strained groin), retroactive to 4/30; purchased the contract of SS-R Brandon Hicks from Gwinnett (Triple-A). [5/4]
Placed RHP Jair Jurrjens on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring), retroactive to 4/30; purchased the contract of RHP Craig Kimbrel from Gwinnett. [5/5]

Of themselves, neither loss is that big as setbacks go. As far as replacing Escobar goes, Omar Infante's a good defender and a good enough bat that it isn't as if the lineup will blow a gasket during his absence, and there's no expectation that Escobar will still be missing before the month is out. What is lost is a bit of in-game flexibility, since Infante's useful for so many different purposes. Hicks won't provide that, but he is a good defensive replacement with slightly more power than most future backup shortstops, and some baserunning value. For all the Braves' problems as they wait for some kind of offense from Nate McLouth or the left-field and first-base choices, not having Escobar struggling through an injury is just one setback among many in the lineup, but at least it's one that healing up should fix.

Similarly, in the rotation Jurrjens will miss at least a turn, with Kris Medlen starting in his place tomorrow, but then the schedule allows the Braves to skip using a fifth starter until May 18, at which point Jurrjens will be eligible to be reactivated. As much as a single start stands small on the full season's scale, Medlen's a good enough pitching prospect that he could use the opportunity to serve notice of his value as the club's designated sixth starter once a more serious setback occurs. As is, getting a chance to look at Kimbrel's high-velocity contributions in a bullpen that has gotten mixed results out of Jesse Chavez (perhaps predictably, given his modest track record) as well as Peter Moylan. If Kimbrel shines, the Braves will have something to consider, but his wildness has been as problematic as ever with Gwinnett-he may have "just" five walks in 15 frames, but he hit another four with pitches, while also striking out 21 and securing all six save opportunities.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Optioned INF-L Chad Tracy to Iowa (Triple-A); recalled SS-R Starlin Castro from West Tenn (Double-A). [5/7]

You might wonder if desperation comes in enough flavors to stock a Howard Johnson, but after getting swept in Pittsburgh-by the Pirates, no less, since it wasn't facing a quality club on neutral ground-and with the Cubs increasingly desperate to find ways to extend the window of a veteran ballclub before the season goes off the rails, you can understand a decision to turn to their best position-playing prospect now. Castro had hammered Double-A pitching with aplomb, with his first month's translated performance clocking in at .306/.336/.477 and a .274 TAv, exceptional enough for a 20-year-old that it generates eventual projected career peaks of .324/.384/.550 and a .303 TAv. Obviously, that will be star-level performance from a shortstop, but keep in mind that those projected numbers come from a lone month and stand to show up years down the road-they will not happen right now.

In the meantime, I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that the Cubs might get something not unlike some early-edition Edgar Renteria at the plate, barring anything as funky as Renteria's rookie-season BABIP spike. For me that means an average in the .270s or .280s, maybe another 50 points of OBP, and an ISO under .100, while keeping in mind that Castro has nothing like Renteria's speed back in the '90s. Absent any real power from Castro's bat this early on in his career, it doesn't hurt them that badly offensively. While what he does should add up to less than what they might have gotten from Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker in the lineup this season, it won't be that much less, especially with Fontenot's 2008 season disappearing further into the rear-view mirror of history. Slotted eighth, behind Geovany Soto, it isn't like Castro's average-dependent batting will kill them. As it was, Soto was a strange choice to mire in the eighth slot, where Castro's free-swinging bat might actually come in handy from there as far as in-game outcomes.

Now, add that to plus defense from a 20-year-old, and that's a nice player to add, with Ryan Theriot moving across the bag to a position where his range rates a bit better. Then there's the additional bit of advantage in doing this now: he'll debut against the Reds in their bandbox against their struggling staff. It's also before the Cubs' next extended homestand, which gets the kid's big-league debut out of the way without the full weight of the serried ranks of the hometown sports commentariat crowding 'round. Enough folks are already baying for blood and accountability and winning yesterday that it's a minor bit of sensible consideration for Castro's sake.

Finally, there's the additional ripple concerning the club's bench. Absenting Tracy isn't that big a setback, because playing time for Tyler Colvin and Xavier Nady (and Fontenot and Baker) will have to come from somewhere, and that quartet of bats makes for a fine group for Lou Piniella to pick spot-starters from for everyone in the lineup save Soto, as well as a good collection to pinch-hit with. Piniella's one of the few pro-active offensive managers when it comes to using his bench for more than rest days and blowout-related chores, so I like the chances he'll continue to use that crew to decent effect.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Signed 4C-L Doug Mientkiewicz to a minor-league contract. [5/5]
Designated 1B-L Mike Lamb for assignment; recalled OF-L Bryan Petersen from New Orleans (Triple-A). [5/7]

Is this really a Minky alert? It's more than a little possible, of course, especially with Logan Morrison dealing with a shoulder injury down in Triple-A, while Gaby Sanchez is hitting for a lot less power than you might like from a first baseman. Certainly, bumping Lamb makes it clear the Fish aren't happy with their position playing alignment, but what's going on here transcends just taking a chance on Mientkiewicz's arguable utility, or clearing space to eventually give the veteran/Miami native a chance to continue (or finish) his career in teal.

It might seem as if Lamb's being punished more for going ohfer in his first 10 PAs against his 4-for-8 pinch-hitting run with three RBI since, and another instance of a guy getting blamed more for his cumulative performance than his most recent work. However, the fact was that their bench already has Wes Helms and Brian Barden both hanging around, both capable of playing both infield corners, and Barden's barely getting any at-bats as is. Helms is already the team's go-to pinch-hitter, and how many of those do you really want to keep around, or can afford to?

Since Lamb's uses on defense anywhere but first base are somewhat vestigial, bringing in Petersen was a matter of swapping in another lefty batter, but one who could play the outfield-which speaks to the real problem in the lineup, which is the struggles with the stick of all three outfield regulars. The problems with all three regulars failing to get their bats going has already created more playing time for Brett Carroll, and not just at Cameron Maybin's expense (with Cody Ross moving into center). Chris Coghlan, last year's Rookie of the Year, is still looking for his first extra-base hit and still struggling to get his OBP above .250, and Carroll's drawing platoon starts in left. For both Maybin and Ross, who are both optionable, it's hard to expect too much job security as we move deeper into May.

Which is where Petersen comes in. He turned in a solid season in Double-A in his age-23 season last year (.297/.368/.413), then raked in the AFL, and then made a nice impression in Grapefruit League action in spring training. Since coming out of UC Irvine and being drafted in the fourth round of the '07 draft, he's shown significant progress in his command of the strike zone and in his selectivity, and he can play all three outfield positions. So he's exactly the sort of guy who can step into the present outfield mess and box somebody out, because his utility and left-handedness makes him a fine fourth outfield candidate at the least, and that's someone who could stick around after somebody eventually loses his everyday job to Mike Stanton. One way or another, there's no word on what Mr. Petersen drives, or what his standards are for forms of address.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Placed LHP Tim Byrdak on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); optioned RHP Sammy Gervacio to Round Rock (Triple-A); purchased the contract of LHP Gustavo Chacin from Round Rock; recalled RHP Wilton Lopez from Round Rock. [5/4]
Optioned C-R J.R. Towles to Corpus Cristi (Double-A); purchased the contract of C-R Kevin Cash from Round Rock; transferred RHP Alberto Arias from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/5]

As symptoms of desperate need, it doesn't get much worse than resorting to a catch-and-throw guy like Cash to become a semi-regular option at catcher. Not that Towles was earning his keep, but neither was Humberto Quintero, and with Jason Castro walking but doing little else for Round Rock (.221/.369/.250, but throwing out 35 percent of opponents' stolen-base attempts), there was no immediate need to rush their top catching prospect into the middle of their current disaster. The question as I see it is why they promoted Cash at all-there's no happy outcome there, in the same way that there's no real reason to give Towles a chance to re-prove himself a rung below Castro, and almost three years since he graduated from the Texas League. All of the non-Castro options are bad, but how is it that the Astros didn't do anything to line up a better minor-league veteran than Cash?

Which brings me to the other current problem, where hauling up Cash has an echo in the 'Stros' resurrection of Chacin after years away from the majors. It isn't that Chacin is a good option, or that the Astros don't have likely better alternatives for southpawed pitchers at Triple-A in the form of Polin Trinidad or Wesley Wright. You might ask, why put anyone with promise into this mess right now this instant? Fair enough, but then you've found yourself without a situational lefty because you've lost Tim Byrdak of all people-and you don't even have a token lefty reliever in Triple-A to replace him with, you've got Chacin, an attempted retread operation a good five years removed from his last big-league success. It's great for Chacin, but is this really the best the organization can do for lining up support staff at Round Rock?

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Placed SS-S Rafael Furcal on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring), retroactive to 4/30; purchased the contract of INF-R Nick Green from Albuquerque; transferred RHP Cory Wade from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/4]

While Jamey Carroll's useful in a lineup for his usual patience, it's a bit exaggerated in that Carroll's batting eighth, where Furcal was the club's leadoff man; Carroll's walks are nice, but they don't make up for the fact that in Furcal's absence in the lineup has Reed Johnson and Russell Martin on the spot at the top of the order. Johnson's predictably struggled, while Martin's tanked as well, but at least Joe Torre didn't sit still, instead slowly working Xavier Paul into the left-field mix and getting good work out of him. Whether that puts Garret Anderson on the spot when the Dodgers reactivate Manny Ramirez tomorrow remains to be seen.

The additional problem with losing Furcal is the hit the Dodgers take at defense in his absence, especially on Hiroki Kuroda's days on the mound, or if they decide to turn to the ground-balling stylings of Carlos Monasterios over Charlie Haeger. It isn't like Nick Green's virtues with the glove are reliably positive across the full panoply of defensive stats to give them an obviously better alternative in the field, but Carroll's in his age-36 season and years removed from playing shortstop much at all: his last extended spin was in 2005 with the Nats, and coming up through the then-Expos' system, he'd been exposed as a second-and-third infielder without the glove to really handle short in anything other than a utilityman's brief bits of playing time.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Placed RHP Brendan Donnelly on the 15-day DL (strained oblique), retroactive to 4/28; recalled 1B/OF-R Steve Pearce from Indianapolis (Triple-A); returned Rule 5 pick OF-R John Raynor to the Marlins organization. [5/4]

You can try to slather on some sunshine to the bumblebee-togged crew here, but it isn't easy. They're back down from 13 pitchers, which is something. And of course this represents a nice opportunity for Pearce, to spot-start in the outfield corners and at first base; it may not be a straight shot at a job, but if he can bop against southpaws well enough to stick, it's enough to make a brief career. Some still stuck on his 2007 breakthrough might take that as a disappointment, but face it, the guy's already 27 and this is as good as it gets.

The bad news is twofold. First, there's the minor matter of losing Donnelly for any length of time. If you look at him as a pay-and-trade rental merc and somebody you're hoping to get multiple good months out of so that you can flip him for a prospect at the deadline, losing him after a bad, wild first month obviously makes dealing him a bit more difficult. Admittedly, we're talking about C-list prospects, but the Pirates need those too.

Then there's the more basic problem of having to turn to Pearce not just because he's off to a good start, having hit .349/.452/.605 for Indy (which boils down to a .295 TAv). He's also up because Jeff Clement's fallen, and he can't get up. Clement's latest failure to make consistent contact comes with additional disappointment in the form of a 23:2 K:UBB ratio in 82 PAs, not to mention the worst performance in plating baserunners of any regular on the team-his 3.7 percent clip ranks among the 10 worst in the majors. Clearly, that's not what anybody expects from their first baseman. To reach for positives, you have to credit him for being merely wooden at first base, or appropriately cautious on the basepaths.

When that's the standard that Pearce has to contend with, you can understand how this might represent a shot at something more than part-time play. But even then, there's the chance that they instead move Garrett Jones back to first base to get Ryan Church into the lineup at Clement's expense-and John Russell's made a point of penciling Church into the lineup in five consecutive games. Pearce's batting from the right side will still keep him in play for platoon starts in such a situation, but for Clement to not turn into the club's immediate answer to their need at first base is as big a setback to the organization as anything that simply shows up in the standings' gross scale.

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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