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June 15, 2010
Getting a ComeSuppance?
Optioned C-R John Hester to Reno (Triple-A); activated C-L Miguel Montero from the 15-day DL. [6/12]
There's only so much Montero can do to repair a bad situation, but at least this is some form of good news for the long-suffering Snakes. The problem is that getting more offense out of their catcher's slot wasn't exactly a major problem as things worked out-Chris Snyder was producing a .262 TAv, delivering secondary-average value on the road and at home, against right-handers as well as lefties, so while Montero's obviously more useful than Hester, he's going to have to deliver right off the bat to merit the playing time Snyder's certain to lose. Sure, there's the incremental benefit of getting more Montero batting higher in the order than having Snyder's bat in the eighth slot. Sure, it's going to help a team that's producing at a .249/.324/.423 clip against right-handers-a little.
It's sort of like Conor Jackson's hitting slowly coming around-it's nice to see, and cause for optimism, but how much optimism can be sustained in the face of a lineup that simply doesn't bop away from the now-Bob-less BOB? The Snakes are hitting a tepid .231/.304/.375 on the road, and that's pretty much the same as it ever was. A.J. Hinch didn't make that happen-he didn't assemble this team, and whether he stays or goes, that problem's been with this ballclub for years.
Admittedly, there was reason to hope that a young cadre of talent was going to outgrow this and develop into the foundation of a reliable contender. I know I was willing to believe in the upside after 2007, and it's understandable how management drew the same conclusion. Chris Young, Stephen Drew, and Jackson have to deal simultaneously with being the poster children as well as the victims of exaggerated expectations, expectations the organization perpetuated, but a lot of projection tools generated. Now, no matter how young, how talented-seeming, how "exciting" the lineup appears to be, it's important to remember that this is no longer a young lineup, it's one in the middle of its peak, and what do you do when you've scaled the full height of your core's hillock and found it doesn't keep going up? Ask Josh Byrnes to make like Hugh Grant and try to stammer and charm his way out of the mess? Were that it was so simple. Snyder is 29, and Jackson 28. Drew is already 27, Mark Reynolds gets there in August, and Young will turn 27 himself come September. The future is already here for this lot, and it isn't very exciting.
As easy as it is to castigate and demonize your Mr. Byrneses, Eric for the contract that he happily signed, Josh for his decision to offer it to him in the first place, or Monty for blotting out the sun. The real problem is that Eric Byrnes was simply an early, advanced symptom of overrating the talent on hand, not the disease itself, and that's likely to engender all sorts of unhappiness come the day the organization decides to break down the majority of the roster for parts and see what they can build up around Justin Upton.
Placed CF-L Nate McLouth on the 15-day DL (concussion-like symptoms), retroactive to 6/10; recalled SS-R Brandon Hicks from Gwinnett (Triple-A). [6/12]
In the abstract, this sounds like a major setback for the Braves, but two months into the season, McLouth had started to lose playing time to a bad bat-sorry, toe, I meant to type 'a bad toe,' really I did-so his concussion suffered from an outfield collision gets his bat/toe/head/self out of the lineup in a way that will not simply allow him the time he needs to recover from a horrible yet unavoidable accident, but should also involve his getting him an extended rehab stint to figure out what it is that has gone so completely wrong with his bat. You know things have gone awry when Melky Cabrera, mired in his own slump, starts to look like an outright upgrade. In the meantime, whether they get the benefit of starting the Melky Man, the invariably utile Omar Infante, or give speedster Gregor Blanco a second chance, it's hard to suggest they'll be worse off for it during McLouth's absence.
As is, Bobby Cox has been playing mix-and-match, moving Eric Hinske around from spotting at first base to starting in left to handling some of the interleague action-created DH chores, while similarly moving Infante around as needed (and when available). Generally, Cox has kept everyone active while working around overlapping injuries to good effect, but with Chipper Jones hurting and possibly heading to the DL today, they may finally have come an injury too far. It's one thing to lose your worst performers, as they have with Matt Diaz's injury or McLouth's, but another to lose a major OBP source they may not be able to replace so readily. The farm system doesn't exactly have much to offer for hot-corner help; there's always Sloppy Joe Thurston, but that's F Troop material as far as the cavalry riding to the rescue. It's more likely that in Jones' absence we'll continue to see plenty of Brooks Conrad and-once he heals from a bruised foot-Infante. Infante's nagging hurt is part of the reason why Hicks is up instead of something more useful; they needed a middle-infield reserve who could handle short, and Hicks is that.
Optioned LHP James Russell to Iowa (Triple-A); recalled RHP Mitch Atkins from Iowa. [6/12]
Spring surprises have a way of becoming passing fancies you subsequently regret, but in the past the Cubs were willing to invest the 25th slot on the roster to a Rule 5 pitcher last season, so instead giving that sort of seventh reliever's job to a generally nondescript organizational soldier wasn't really all that different as far as an operating procedure. It was perhaps mildly frustrating if you were wondering why Jeff Stevens or John Gaub weren't here already-they only traded Mark DeRosa to get those two guys, after all*-but it's important to keep in mind how much the initial assembly of this season's bullpen was a collection of commitments and compromises that didn't really create a lot of initial openings.
Russell's sticking around as a third lefty in the pen on the basis of a tremendous spring campaign at worst briefly obscured his limited upside, but he was just one part of a free-form mess that's slowly congealing into a better bullpen. The problem in the spring was that constructing this season's pen involved a few unhappy compromises. Sean Marshall, the forever-fragile Angel Guzman, and retained merc John Grabow were all locks behind Carlos Marmol. Jeff Samardzija was an unavoidable organizational favorite/folly, while Esmailin Caridad and Justin Berg had both made nice bids to stick last fall. Add in the problem of taking on the fact of Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny both potentially crowding somebody out of the rotation after making good cases for themselves in camp. Then Guzman broke down-again-and it's no wonder that the search for the right righty got weird for a while, what with Zambrano's bulk briefly bumped to the bullpen.
In Piniella's defense, if you had to sort through this (Jeff) Gray Man Group, picking between Tippo Berg or the Tarnished Domer or Feliz Caridad's convincing impression of Guzmanesque implosion, and all of that before a top talent like Andrew Cashner eventually got added to the mix, is it any wonder the selections started trending towards the medieval? Now, with Stevens and Cashner on the staff and providing quality right-handed help in the middle plus Marshall the established left-handed set-up man instead of the now-injured Grabow, and it's beginning to look like the Cubs might end up with an in-season solution that provides them with a quality pen for the second half.
They'll also still have a lefty long man now that Gorzo the Magnificent has been planted in the pen now that Zambrano's back in the rotation. That should last until July rolls around and the Cubs will have to sort out whether they're goners and ought to deal one of their veteran starters, presumably making room again for Gorzelanny. It's possible Gorzelanny could be the guy they swap, but that would be if they're back in the race in six weeks, because he's relatively cheap and under club control for two more years. Identifying the need he'd help fill is a matter for another date, though, and I think it's more likely that, if the Cubs fall out of the race, they'd be stuck with the equally unappealing options of getting something less than a lot for renting out the remaining months of Ted Lilly's contract, or eating quite a bit of cash on the contracts of Carlos Zambrano or Carlos Silva.
Meanwhile, to speak well of Russell despite an ugly four-batter, four-run outing that put the exclamation point on Friday's loss and earned him his bus ticket to Iowa, Lou Piniella had been willing to use him in tight games at different points. But Russell had been employed only sporadically at best of late, and perhaps that prefigured his perhaps unavoidable demotion. That's because Grabow is a week into his rehab stint out in corn country, and he's likely to find his way back between the stalks in short order. Once Grabow is back in action, you could even charitably pair him off with Bob Howry, long since fetched from the scrap heap for veteran leavening, in this new and improved refabricated relief corps. However circuitous the route taken to put it together, it's a better bunch than what they had on Opening Day.
* As much as the DeRosa deal got banged on and deserved to be at the time, credit Jim Hendry for nevertheless getting eventually useful stuff from the Indians. It looks like Stevens and later Gaub will both be useful big-league relievers, and the third pitcher they received in the deal, Chris Archer, is really looking like he'll be the pièce de resistance that might have folks speaking kindly of Hendry in at least this respect in a few more years. Archer is roughly 1:1:1 as far as baserunners allowed, strikeouts, and innings pitched as a 21-year-old at High-A Daytona, and he's getting a nice ground-ball ratio with a power fastball/curve mix.
Placed DH-L Matt Stairs on the 15-day DL (knee), retroactive to 6/7; recalled OF-R Aaron Cunningham from Portland (Triple-A). [6/11]
Even with another breakdown, Bud Black's actually settling into a more stable outfield alignment lately. Scott Hairston's already back in action and playing every day in left, Mini-Gwynn's getting most of the starts in center, and right field is manned by a potpourri consisting of equal parts Chris Denorfia and Will Venable, a battle both seem to be losing. Early contestant Oscar Salazar seems to have decisively played his way out of further consideration, while Cunningham looks like he may have to settle for being happy to be here. So it isn't like the Padres are really caught short-handed by the Wonder Hamster's breakdown. Indeed, thanks to the retroactive nature of the move, they may have him back in time for their last DH-needed interleague series in Tampa Bay next week if he's recovered by then. Meanwhile Kyle Blanks is rehabbing at nearly the most deliberate pace possible-he finally moved up to Portland after 10 games in the Cal League-but given how poorly Chrill Venorfia is doing, it's possible that he could regain his spot in left, with Scott Hairston moving across the pasturage to start taking up most of the playing time in right.
Placed RHP Todd Wellemeyer on the 15-day DL (quad); recalled RHP Joe Martinez from Fresno (Triple-A). [6/11]
Wellemeyer was producing a .445 SNWP, or about what you'd expect from a guy giving up 5.5 R/9, delivering quality starts less than half the time (he'd contributed four and seen a fifth blown in his 11 turns). His SNLVAR was barely above zero, so he was very much the definitive filler fifth in a five-man rotation. Like the Cardinals, a friendly schedule means that the Giants won't need a fifth starter until the 26th after Martinez takes today's turn. Since Wellemeyer may not miss any more than the minimum, he could be back in time to take that next fifth man's spin, making this nothing more than a one-start stint for Martinez.
You can treat this as something of a reward for the tough-luck Martinez after he spun a nine-inning complete game, allowing a single score to Las Vegas to win on June 4. Lest we forget, Martinez was the organizational soldier who earned a slot last season, only to take a nasty line shot to the head off the bat of Mike Cameron. He battled back to get a few turns last season, but he had to return to Fresno this spring, crowded out by the battle for the fifth slot between Wellemeyer and Madison Bumgarner. For the Grizzlies, he'd generated 2.5 times as many ground-ball outs as flies, walked less than three and struck out almost seven per nine frames, while giving up 3.6 R/9. He'll never be more than a strike-throwing sinkerballer who might beat out the likes of Todd Wellemeyer for a rotation's last slot, but that's all the Giants need at present.
Outrighted LHP Tyler Norrick to Palm Beach (High-A). [6/11]
Optioned RHP Adam Ottavino to Memphis (Triple-A); signed RHP Jeff Suppan to a one-year contract. [6/14]
We'll see what happens here, but the basic problem is that in the intervening four years since Suppan was last a Cardinal, he lost a tick or two off an already pedestrian fastball, making him that much more a poundable junkballer. But is he really someone that Dave Duncan can fix in his age-35 season? After all, Duncan didn't fix Dave Stewart in their renewed engagement in 1995, when Stew was 38. Nor did he magically turn around Storm Davis in 1993, when Davis was only 31 and nevertheless nearly done. Dave Duncan didn't prevent the Reaper from collecting his due from Ron Darling or Bob Welch on his watch, subsequent to his resurrections of the pair. Moving forward to the La Russa/Duncan brain trust's time with the Cardinals, a second spin with Andy Benes didn't yield happy results.
All in all, it's notable that they Cards have generally avoided handing out second chances for the guys they're already put through the second-chance mill. What, you want to see what they'd do with another shot at resurrecting Sir Sidney Ponson? So, for all that, a renewed engagement doesn't make Suppan all that more magically attractive-he's still Jeff Suppan, and still the guy who has floundered for four years. Dammit, Jim, he's just a pitching coach, not a pizza puff repairman. And keep in mind, Suppan's "good old days" in 2005 and 2006 involved SNWP marks in the .515-.517 range. He was employable but not very special-four years ago.
For all of that said, in Suppan's defense he wasn't getting any of that very thing as a Brewer. Imagine the difficulty of being a defense-dependent hurler, a guy who can't get five strikeouts per nine, and you're stuck pitching in front of the worst defense in baseball. Think that's going to make things easy for you? The Cards may only rank 16th per PADE, but mediocrity is pretty appealing when you're used to seeing Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder move around on the right side with all the coverage and dexterity of a drukenly operated foosball table. Now, consider what he's getting with the Cards: he'll be pitching to the best catcher in baseball, instead of the weak-armed George Kottaras. He'll have the benefit of Albert Pujols, the very opposite of Prince Fielder at first base. He'll have a far more rangy collection of outfielders to run down his inevitably pasted plate-ward puffery. OK, so he will still have to deal with the same middle-infield proposition a bad glove at second on Skip Schumaker's days in the lineup, but he'll still have a good shortstop in Brendan Ryan as opposed to Alcides Escobar. It adds up to a significantly better collection of support.
So, put that together, and could we see a "reborn" Suppan? I don't see how a SNWP in the .440-.450 range is all that impossible, just as a matter of his getting league-average defensive support and being healthy enough to take the ball every fifth day. That isn't good, and it's probably a bit on the optimistic side since Suppan had slumped to a .420 SNWP in 2009, but for Cardinals in the short-handed interim, it might do. If they do get even that much, I wouldn't call that a full-fledged resurrection as much as keeping a journeyman on life support until something better comes along.
In the meantime, the schedule is going to let the club go without an actual fifth starter until a week from Saturday (on June 26), by which point they'll have a pretty good idea of when Brad Penny's due back, as well as a couple of spins with Suppan to determine if he'll be their actual fifth man for the time being. I'd expect a best-case scenario involving a few five-inning, three-run chuck-and-duck spins for him. If that qualifies as a testament to Duncan's genius or Cardinals desperation or both will probably depend on the song you're already willing to sing.