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May 21, 2010

Transaction Action

Crumbling and Crumbs

by Christina Kahrl

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BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned LHP Alberto Castillo to Norfolk (Triple-A). [5/21]
BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Josh Beckett on the 15-day DL (strained back); purchased the contract of RHP Joe Nelson from Pawtucket (Triple-A). [5/19]
Designated LHP Scott Schoeneweis for assignment; purchased the contract of MI-R Angel Sanchez from Pawtucket. [5/20]

Beckett's absence should run just the two weeks, with a possible return to the mound on June 3 against the A's to close out a homestand seeming like a pencil-worthy target. If he can hit that window, that means June 2 will be the date on which a selection between Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield for the fifth slot gets made. Thanks to the scheduled offday on May 31, either would be available, and each will have gotten two turns in the meantime to make a case. Wakefield's managed three quality starts in five turns, Dice-K one in four. Wakefield's SNWP of .451 is the best of the lot, but it also reflects a performance roughly in line with expectations if he was going to be plugged into the rotation to stay, where much better is expected of Beckett and Matsuzaka.

Assuming that pitching coach John Farrell's worth with Beckett's delivery bears fruit and gets his curveball to be less readily readable (and re-arm the righty against lefties), the expectation is that Beckett's return will be a key element for returning to the race in the AL East. The question is whether Matsuzaka will be a key contributor as well. Last year's failures were frustrating enough, but now there's yet another bit of drama over who plays well with others where the team's catchers are concerned, and that's been cause for elaborate overreactions in Boston before. Between Matsuzaka's squabbles with Victor Martinez and Terry Francona's avowed preference to avoid “personal catchers”—beyond automatically hiding Jason Varitek from Wakefield, because apparently that was written into the Constitution at some point—there's going to have be a climbdown on somebody's part. If getting proper mileage from Dice-K requires regular work for Tek every fifth day, that shouldn't be the end of the world, and Francona's proven flexible in the past. Given that Wakefield and Matsuzaka are scheduled back-to-back the next two swings through the rotation, you can even dress it up as a matter of giving V-Mart a day off from catching after chasing down knuckleballs, and nobody loses face.

Meanwhile, it won't be much longer before the Sox won't have significant injuries to point to as an explanation, and will have all hands on deck to help them try and climb back into the races for one of two playoff slots. Certainly, the Yankees' current amalgam of problems helps keep things positive for the Sox. Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron are days (or maybe hours) away from reactivation, but in their absences the Sox have gotten the benefit of Jeremy Hermida's hammering right-handed pitching and Darnell McDonald's putting the hurt on lefties. Picking between McDonald and Hermida seems inevitable, at least as long as the Sox seem committed to observing their commitment to Mike Lowell in the last year of his contract. Whether they are or aren't, there's the additional question of whether or not there would be enough playing time to go around to keep Hermida or McDonald or Lowell sharp. There should be: McDonald would certainly seem like a good choice to have around as a pinch-runner and platoon partner for Papi at DH in Lowell's place, while Hermida would still make a better choice to spot-start for any of the starting outfielders against right-handed pitching during a day off for Cameron, Ellsbury, or Drew.

The time might not be right for working up the nerve to release Lowell, even as he gripes about playing time. However, as David Ortiz has picked up the pace, they've already dialed down from starting Lowell against all lefties at DH. He's done well in limited work as a pinch-hitter (3-for-6 with three walks), but once Ellsbury and Cameron are back, his opportunities for even that sort of work dwindle to spotting for Papi against the toughest lefties. Shopping him around as an ex-famous right-handed slugger doesn't figure to be very successful when Pat Burrell's available for free. I wouldn't expect a release this early in the season, but it's going to be interesting to see whether the Red Sox continue to carry the right-handed half of a DH platoon they're not even using for that once they move back to carrying a seventh pitcher.

On that score, there's the emergency call-up of Sanchez to help hold down the fort during Marco Scutaro's recovery from a cortisone shot to aid his ailing elbow. A decent singles hitter—his power's been entirely environmental, only showing up when he's been able to call High Desert and Las Vegas home—he's not the worst middle-infield reserve to have around, as he can play a good short. That said, Scooter's supposed to be back tonight, Ellsbury's coming back tomorrow, and Cameron won't be that far behind. Sanchez and Jonathan Van Every are the usual suspects for going back to the PawSox, with a choice between McDonald and Hermida—or Lowell—perhaps waiting until that felt need for a seventh reliever becomes irresistible.

As for the bullpen, however cold it might seem to have cut Schoeneweis on a tragic anniversary, Francona's comments in defense of the decision seem spot on. Schoeneweis wasn't fulfilling his responsibilities as a situational southpaw, and if they're dialing down to six in the bullpen, a bad second lefty really ought to be the first guy to go. The minor misfortune is that they've already lost their chance to see if Alan Embree wasn't a better choice, but that's small beer. Adding Nelson for middle-relief applications is a better use of the roster spot. The soft-tossing right-hander wasn't doing all that well with Pawtucket, issuing 13 unintentionals in 21 2/3 IP, while striking out 21. The strikeouts might seem impressive, but here again, he's just the same guy he's always been—a finesse right-hander who works up in the zone. Sometimes that works, and sometimes not so much. He's fun to root for, but not someone you'll see counted on as a major component.

The more basic pen problem for the Sox is that they're still waiting on Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez to round back into form; Ramirez hasn't been nearly as effective as a situational righty this year, and hasn't delivered in a tight game all month, while Okajima's been little better. That in turn has put Daniel Bard on the spot in more tight situations, to mixed results, as he's plating a few too many of his inherited baserunners.


CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed CF-L Grady Sizemore on the 15-day DL (knee), retroactive to 5/17; purchased the contract of 1B/OF-R Shelley Duncan from Columbus (Triple-A); transferred SS-S Asdrubal Cabrera from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/19]

There's not much in the way of a silver lining here. Sizemore's latest breakdown figures to keep him out of action until early June, and we'll have to see if he's gone for longer than that if surgery becomes necessary. Add that to the loss of Cabrera, perhaps until August, and you can see how this season's tenor has switched from competitive to just happy to be here in short order. Trevor Crowe in center on top of Jason Donald at short and Lou Marson behind the plate and Mark Grudzielanek at second a good amount of the time makes the Indians up the middle something of the Secondary Average Non-Stars, as the lineup that employs them has to go sans power or walks or many steals or much of anything beyond the occasional sprinkle of singles. Add in Matt LaPorta's non-contributions and Travis Hafner's still-missing power, and the Indians are degenerating into a vanilla team in almost every sense of the word. How many times can Russell Branyan homer to plate Shin-Soo Choo? Not nearly often enough. It seems unlikely that a well-traveled minor-league vet like Duncan's going to be able to break that up any, between the team's commitments to Pronk (a full bank account), LaPorta (a full hope chest), or Austin Kearns (there's a full monty to come once his .420 BABIP gets over-exposed).


MINNESOTA TWINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned INF-S Matt Tolbert to Rochester (Triple-A); recalled RHP Jeff Manship from Rochester. [5/19]
Recalled INF-R Trevor Plouffe from Rochester; optioned RHP Jeff Manship to Rochester. [5/21]

I'm happy to see them switch from Tolbert to Plouffe, if only because we know that Tolbert's not useful for much beyond bunting and being pinch-hit for, while Plouffe's flagging prospect status could at least merit some evaluation at the major-league level. What would be really nice would be to see if Ron Gardenhire would give Plouffe any consideration for playing time with both Nick Punto and Brendan Harris failing to slug or reach base at a .300 clip, but you know the Twins, that's not how they roll. J.J. Hardy will be back next week, Plouffe won't have much time to do more than renew acquaintances and perhaps slip in a live-action big-league debut before getting kicked back to the Red Wings.

However, let's give Plouffe his due. He's a former top prospect who didn't quite turn out as expected, but he's only in his age-24 season, he's a middle infielder with some power (his career ISO at Triple-A is .160), and he's played some third base as well. He's even had his moments of Tolbertian bunting, dropping 15 sacs on the Eastern League in 2007. Given that the long-term problem is finding someone who can play third base, Plouffe's perceived shortcomings at short shouldn't count him out of consideration. He's been crushing lefties in Triple-A (.327/.404/.694), which he'd been known to do in the past, clubbing them at a better than .500 clip in 2008 at both Double- and Triple-A before faltering last season in Rochester.

Add all of that up, and that might make him somebody who could push Harris out of a job. Naturally, you might discount that because they have Harris under contract through 2011, but one thing to remember is that however conservative the Twins might seem, they're not infinitely patient. As low-end veterans like Mike Lamb and Craig Monroe can attest to, the Twins are not afraid to eat some salary when they decide there's just not much point to employing a guy. Punto at least has his defensive reputation going for him, but Harris lacks even that.


NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed C-S Jorge Posada on the 15-day DL (fracture – foot), retroactive to 5/17; optioned RHP Mark Melancon to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Triple-A); recalled INF-R Kevin Russo from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; purchased the contract of C-R Chad Moeller from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; transferred 1B-L Nick Johnson from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/20]

Losing Posada from a lineup already missing two regulars might sound like the end of the world, but keep in mind that the club's already had Francisco Cervelli start almost half of the schedule. Not that Cervelli's going to slug above .450 for much longer, but in the same way that Juan Miranda's a serviceable replacement for Nick Johnson for the interim, Cervelli's not your average hopeless catch-and-throw backup backstop. (That's Moeller.) And with Nick Swisher back in action, it isn't like the lineup's really hurting for useful players at any position save one—left field, with Randy Winn looking more and more like an unfortunate elective off-season addition.

The problem is that Posada might be gone a month, and there's going to be a lot of settling in the weeks to come, which will help pull the Yankees down from their perch atop the majors in offense. Robinson Cano was slugging .700 two weeks ago, and .600 a week ago; his climb down from that clip isn't a matter of his going cold as much as just reaching the other side of an especially torrid hot streak. Cervelli's due for the same—it won't be a matter of over-exposure or suckitude, just a player seeing his at-bats accumulate and slowly tug a great start back from the statistical stratosphere. Marcus Thames certainly isn't going to boast a BABIP of .450 forever. Alex Rodriguez has been right around where you'd expect, with a TAv above .300; a well-timed rampage would be helpful, but he hasn't been a problem.

If you're looking for offensive heroics to help the team break out of its recent 4-7 stretch, it's going to have to come from Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter producing at the paces you'd expect from the numbers on their jerseys and their careers, but Tex already is, having bounced back from an awful April to hit .295/.375/.538 in May. Jeter's having the worst year of his career at the plate, not that a .263 TAv is bad stuff from a shortstop, but the problem there is a walk rate that's been cut in half. He's slugging at a clip you'd expect (via ISO), so while his recent pronounced ground-ball tendency might be annoying El Jaffe, the really galling problem is the disappearance of the base on balls from his game. Despite the spike in his ground-ball rate, I wonder about flip-flopping Jeter and Brett Gardner, because his double-play numbers aren't bad, and it might open up a few tactical opportunities. The Yankees' ninth-slot hitters haven't been much fun to hit behind, producing at a weak .246/.310/.310 clip, and maybe putting Jeter more reliably into a slot where he's got a baserunner on in front of him might help him break this ugly cycle of shorter at-bats and more ground-ball outs. Or not, and he's just finally showing his age, but in the meantime it's worth thinking about.


OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned RHP Henry Rodriguez to Sacramento (Triple-A); recalled RHP Vin Mazzaro from Sacramento; outrighted RHP Edwar Ramirez to Sacramento. [5/20]

As noted before, calling up Mazzaro wasn't really a surprise, but the decision to start Tyson Ross in the fifth slot anyways was, as the two split yesterday's game. Ross struggled in his second pair of innings and his second time through the lineup, allowing three runs and six hits to batters in their second at-bats against him. Mazzaro tacked on two more 12 pitches into the fifth before spinning zeroes in the four remaining frames. I wouldn't expect the Ross-as-starter experiment to continue given those results, but it's interesting to see the A's use the slot as the venue for an open competition between the two.


SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Activated OF-S Milton Bradley from the Restricted List; optioned RHP Sean White to Tacoma (Triple-A); transferred LHP Erik Bedard from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/19]

Not to make light of his situation, but we'll have to see if Milton's over his latest case of between-the-ears distractions. One game, any number of platitudes or polite statements, and the rest, that all means exactly nothing. Whatever people make of Bradley's issues, they're real enough to have radically altered the course of his career, and to suggest that we know what comes next would be foolhardy in the extreme. You can admire the Mariners for their understated handling of this latest bit of Milton-related drama, but as far as whether or not it will mean anything for him in terms of achieving some form of stability off the field and productivity on it, we'll just have to wait and see.


TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Activated LHP Marc Rzepczynski from the 15-day DL, and optioned him to Las Vegas (Triple-A); released 1B-R Randy Ruiz; recalled OF-L Jeremy Reed from Las Vegas. [5/19]

It's interesting to see the team swap to Reed with the interleague portion of the schedule coming up, but it's also understandable. Going with a lefty bat for the bench for pinch-hitting, pinch-running, and whatever else as they head to Phoenix for a weekend series makes sense, and with the activation of Edwin Encarnacion earlier this week, they were fine for right-handed bats and infielders. Add in that the Snakes don't have a lefty reliever in the pen or a lefty in the rotation, and it wasn't like Ruiz even had situational applications. Pile all of that on top of a merely modest performance record over his career and a bad start to his season, and he was an entirely disposable talent. If both parties are willing to retain the relationship, he should be able to slip through waivers and head to Vegas to paste PCL pitching for a bit.


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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