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July 26, 2010

Transaction Action

Send Me Some Angels

by Christina Kahrl and Kevin Goldstein

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LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired UT-S Alberto Callaspo from the Royals for RHP Sean O'Sullivan and LHP Will Smith. [7/22]
Acquired RHP Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks for LHPs Joe Saunders and Patrick Corbin, RHP Rafael Rodriguez, and a PTBNL. [7/25]
Activated RHP Matt Palmer from the 15-day DL, and optioned him to Salt Lake (Triple-A); optioned RHP Trevor Bell to Salt Lake; purchased the contract of RHP Michael Kohn from Salt Lake. [7/26]

CK: Credit Tony Reagins and company for not simply thinking in terms of this season, but in terms of what will keep the franchise in contention with Texas the next three seasons. Because those are the stakes, not merely throwing everything away on the possibility that the division title in this particular season is worth throwing heaps and scads of stuff at. This wasn't a tit-for-tat like the Cubs adding Rich Harden to make up for the Brewers renting CC Sabathia-down in Texas, Cliff Lee goes away after this season, where Haren is Angels property through 2012 at least, and 2013 if they choose to pick up the option.

That's critical to note in evaluating this deal and before we start generating any expectations in terms of its immediate impact. The Angels are down by seven games in the AL West standings by the time you read this, and however maimed the AL East's top three teams might wind up being via injuries or events, the wild card remains even further out of reach, so this isn't about keeping up with the Rangers this season as much as it helps to sustain the Angels' ability to do so in future seasons.

Taken on those terms, and as a way of avoiding paying market prices for a starting pitcher who, before this season, had been reliably among the 20 best starters in the majors in the last three, you can only call Reagins and company brilliant. Acquiring three years of contractual control of a front-end rotation starter is all the more inspired because it comes without dealing any major talent to make it happen-the Angels didn't surrender Hank Conger or Mike Trout or Fabio Martinez or Trevor Reckling, let alone Peter Bourjos or Jordan Walden. Get past that group, and you're well into the second or third rank of prospects in an organization not notable for its depth. Saunders might be the name pitcher, but with a career 54-32 record despite weak peripherals, he is perhaps the most perfect symptom in cleats of the team's recent run of far surpassing their expected records.

Instead, by taking on Haren's salary, the Angels swung this deal by flexing financial muscle now, and not in December or January. That's not to say they haven't spared themselves some expense-Joe Saunders was already making $3.7 million, and however mediocre his performance, he stood to make more via arbitration in the next two seasons. Count that avoidable expense against the benefit of employing Haren at a salary below what the open market would have paid him, and Haren becomes not just an upgrade within the rotation, but an example of money better spent now and into the future.

Which brings us to the benefit of the man himself. In the last six seasons, Haren has managed a full workload in every campaign, making 33 or 34 starts from 2006 through to the present. He's leading the league in strikeouts, and managing an impressive strikeout rate of 23.2 percent despite having to work with a defense that has provided him with a career-worst .341 BABIP allowed-which makes for longer innings and more batters faced, making Haren's relatively stable strikeout clip that much more impressive. That said, that poor defensive support might go towards explaining why Haren has allowed a career-worst 10.2 percent of his fly balls to leave play as homers-while he's throwing the same average number of pitches per batter, because of all those uncaught balls in play he's not getting as deep into his ballgames while nevertheless facing more batters per game. That means more batters faced in tougher situations, and that's happening earlier on in his ballgames.

That said, this isn't the only challenge Haren has had to overcome. His overall numbers have been handicapped by almost every possible challenge attendant to pitching for a bad ballclub, all of which contributes to a SIERA (3.16) almost a full run and a half below his ERA (4.60). The Snakes' bullpen and his managers' adaptations to the issue are just one example of what he's had to work around-despite just 11 quality starts in 21 in terms of raw tallies, he has an additional three blown after the sixth inning. So, without even getting into the full extent of the damage, you're talking about a starter who has managed quality starts two-thirds of the time out in what is seen as a massively disappointing season-that while pitching in a bandbox, while pitching in front of a lousy defense, and while having to be left out in his games longer than ever before by skippers trying to avoid turning games over to the worst bullpen of the last 60 years, or what effectively amounts to the worst bullpen ever.

Now, take all of those lousy contributing factors out of the picture. Instead, put that guy with a 3.16 SIERA already foretelling better future performance, and put him on perhaps the best-ever ballclub when it comes to outperforming its expected record year after year. Put him in a much more pitcher-friendly park, pitching for one of the best managers in the game today. Give him the benefit of a lineup that shows up on the road as well as in its home games. And then add at least two, and perhaps three more years of it to the Angels' future besides. Reagins may not have won his ballclub the AL West in 2010 with this move, but he may have won an offseason that hasn't even begun yet with this early entry for best move to win in 2011 and beyond. After Lee, there was no better available starting pitcher than Haren right now-including Roy Oswalt-and no better starting pitcher available as a free agent in next winter's market. Why get caught in a bidding war on a Lee rental, or pay Lee's price in December, when you can get Haren for less talent in trade and for less cost on your future payroll?

Add in that this is a big-ticket move that helps let Angelenos know that Arte Moreno is as willing as ever to flex financial muscle to make something happen, and perhaps season-ticket sales lose nothing to a year without finishing in first place. As stated before, the Rangers with Lee may have too big a lead to overcome. Maybe so, but adding Haren does what Saunders could not guarantee-that the Angels will be in the best possible position to keep up and potentially take advantage of any misstep in Texas. It's a lot easier to see an Angels team contending with Haren up top in the rotation, regardless of who they end up with in the last slot-Scott Kazmir, Trevor Bell, Geoff Zahn, you name it-than with that same choice plus Saunders. It's certainly more plausible that a team with Haren, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, and Joel Pineiro gets enough winnable ballgames that they mount a serious run that really turns up the heat on the Rangers, right now as well as in the three seasons to come.

The question now is whether or not the Angels have the run-scoring ability to maximize on this opportunity. Adding a multi-positional player like Callaspo might seem like a nice way of coming to terms with the idea that neither Izturis or Brandon Wood will be the answer. However, it's really not that big of an addition, except insofar as Callaspo plays third base effectively, and this allows them to use Izturis up the middle as needed.

It's important not to overstate the impact of adding Callaspo. His .256 TAv ranks well below the MLB-wide average of .269 at third base; in the broadest of strokes, that still represents a major upgrade on the Halos' tepid production at the hot corner (.212 TAv). That's basically all Brandon Wood's fault. Callaspo's hitting isn't going to be a major upgrade on what they've gotten from Izturis (.262 this year against .267 projected, after .272 last) or Frandsen (.254 this year, .251 projected). Despite Callaspo's Angel-friendly low strikeout rate, it also may not seem like a perfect match of player and noisily advocated institutional culture, in that Callaspo ranks among the 20 most destructive baserunners in baseball this season. However, a trio of Angels are running the bases even worse, so we really ought to be able to dispense with the legend of those canny baserunning Angels teams.

Basically, Callaspo is nothing more than a nice addition as far as depth and multi-positional utility, since he could help out in the outfield as well as up the middle as needed. He's in his age-27 season and about to begin the arbitration-eligible portion of his career, meaning that the Angels have added him at exactly the point at which he becomes more expensive, which goes towards explaining why they managed to pick him up for so little in terms of the talent surrendered. It's a reasonable pickup of a player whom they'll control for three seasons. He'll help, but he's not a major solution of their third-base problem, any more than adding him elevates a bad lineup that much closer towards the middle of the pack.


KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded UT-S Alberto Callaspo to the Angels for RHP Sean O'Sullivan and LHP Will Smith; activated OF-L Rick Ankiel from the 15-day DL. [7/22]
Placed OF-L David DeJesus on the 15-day DL (sprained thumb); recalled OF-L Alex Gordon from Omaha (Triple-A); designated RHP Anthony Lerew for assignment. [7/23]

The coldest critics might complain that perhaps not even the Royals can make bringing back Alex Gordon simple, straightforward good news. However, when you think of the attending events, so many of which are cause for optimism, it's not quite as glum as you might think. Remember, after the initial, irksome decision to ship Gordon out after his struggling through an injury-abbreviated spring, they had the good sense to finally place some faith back in Mike Aviles, who now seems settled in, playing at second base. That was progress, in a way that dangerously possible alternatives like playing Chris Getz or Wee Willie Bloomquist would not have been. Absent Gordon, trusting Aviles helped shunt Callaspo from the keystone over to third base, a defensive improvement as well as a sensible way of employing a solid placeholder utilityman.

That was all while awaiting their former third-base prospect's return, right? So that when they traded Callaspo, they'd be ready to finally redeem said third-base prospect, right? Well, not so much, because as I suggested back in May, waiting for the Royals to land on their perfect lineup might require an infinite number of monkey particles to produce the closest thing to a happy result. Complicating the situation was that the Royals had long since decided that Alex Gordon's next incarnation after his previous appearances as 'source of frustration' and then 'object of organizational pique' would be 'Alex Gordon, outfielder.' This led to an understandable amount of despair among those whose despair-sense organs hadn't already been long since burned off by powder blue perfidy, because pushing Gordon down the defensive spectrum seemed like a too-readily abandoned career path while needlessly surrendering his potential value as a prospect at a more difficult defensive position.

That said, Gordon made the shift without distraction, focusing on showing off what is admittedly his best tool, his bat. His return was long since overdue, after mashing the PCL at a .315/.442/.577 clip (and a .297 Tav). In a case perhaps equal measures of auto-merciful avoidance and batsman's indulgence, the circuit was walking him 16 percent of the time without once walking him intentionally. But, the Royals being the Royals, they were adamant about Gordon staying in Omaha until injury or accident forced their hand-and perhaps not even then. After all, Rick Ankiel's injury didn't create an opportunity for Gordon, they wasted weeks on accumulating direct evidence that Mitch Maier and Bloomquist are not better options. Even that might have made sense if Maier was being used in center, with an eye towards his defensive reputation, but Maier hasn't been playing center every day in six weeks, instead moving in and out of the lineup, and getting starts in right field.

That's the point at which you have to recognize you're no longer playing a complete offense, you're just humming along at a few spots because you've forgotten all the words. That said, they seem to have noticed the problem. While it took DeJesus' injury to get them to bring Gordon back up, that was in addition to reactivating Ankiel, with neither move being made in lieu of the other. For the time being, the Bloomquist/Maier cycle is over. It's still up to Moore (and Ned Yost) to stick with Gordon after DeJesus returns. However, since Jose Guillen is untradeable and a free agent at season's end, and since Scott Podsednik provides no great value from his slot in the lineup, you have to hope that playing Gordon is one small step forward that doesn't get subsequently undone.

In part, I'm an optimist that this will work out, in that now that Gordon's back, I'm wondering if Moore hasn't actually managed to capture enough monkey particles with the Royals' answer to a Bussard ramjet that he isn't almost all the way there towards fielding his best possible lineup. Perhaps stranger still, it seems to be the product of that rare instance of positive impact of shared Braves experience, because between a former Braves front-office minion now in the Royals' GM chair, and the former Braves coach now skippering the ballclub, it seems almost logical that they've landed on a former Braves prospect to answer their immediate need for a third baseman: Wilson Betemit. Admittedly, I'm almost certainly more positive about Betemit's potential value and capacity to come back than most. But it's worth noting that he is still only 28 years old, and if Yost and Moore successfully get Betemit's career back on track, they'll deserve credit for seeing something left where so many had written him off.

In the meantime, there's what they got for Callaspo, which we could leave for last because it wasn't really special. Callaspo is headed into arbitration eligibility this winter, and that apeared to be something they wanted no part of. O'Sullivan is just an organizational right-hander, the sort of guy who has been and will continue to be yo-yo'd between Triple-A and the majors for spot starts, perhaps eventually graduating to fifth starter status until someone moderately less nondescript shows up. Smith is a fast-moving pitchability lefty, having moved through High- to Triple-A before moving back down to Double-A. Having just turned 21 a couple of weeks ago, that's a remarkable swing through an organization in just his second full season, especially after spending all of 2009 in the Low-A Midwest League. That said, he's not some tremendous talent, but he is a big-bodied lefty (standing 6-foot-5) armed with excellent command of a merely average fastball/curveball mix. Adding him to the Royals' burgeoning crop of lower-level arms, he may not stand out any more than O'Sullivan in the long run.


ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded RHP Dan Haren to the Angels for LHPs Joe Saunders and Patrick Corbin, RHP Rafael Rodriguez, and a PTBNL. [7/25]

CK: Are the Snakes' straits as a franchise about to head towards Pittsburgh-level horrors? Because looking at this trade, you're left with a high-profile move made by an interim general manager that achieves very little beyond guaranteeing that the payroll will be considerably lower over the next three seasons. Indeed, to get so little for a front-end rotation starter is worse than anything the Pirates had to stoop to in breaking up a non-contender, because Haren is a better talent than anything or anyone that Neal Huntington had to bargain with in tearing down a team that had not contended, whereas Haren was a key component to a franchise that had understandably set its sights much, much higher. If this is all that temporary honcho Jerry Dipoto (or whoever supplants him) are able to get for a key element of a Diamondbacks team notionally better stocked with name talents than the Pirates were, the immediate future in Phoenix is about as bleak as any proposition involving the Pirates.

Let's start with noting that dumping Haren is as much about dumping the $29 million from their budget for the next two years (or $41 million for the next three, given the option on 2013) against the value of any package they might have received in return. A charitable view would be that the D'backs will employ the money in some other way, but to be realistic, that this isn't going to happen. The Snakes cannot replace a starter of Haren's caliber for that kind of money, which represents the truly lost opportunity-by having Haren under control for the next three seasons at market rates below what A.J. Burnett or John Lackey were able to command, Dipoto and company were shopping an asset that, despite his performance this season, was still healthy and still priced at below-market compensation.

Even with the understanding that the D'backs would be flipping this kind of player at something less than his full value, what they've gotten in this deal beyond salary relief looks little better than anything the Pirates received in their various tear-down deals, while giving up a lot better player in Haren than someone like Freddy Sanchez or Xavier Nady. In some ways, it's more like the Jason Bay trade, if you want to keep the comparison to the Pirates' situation intact, in that Bay was under contract for another season beyond, except that nobody Arizona has gotten back is as promising now as Andy LaRoche seemed then. All Arizona is getting back for an under-control front-end workhorse is an established fourth starter in Saunders (if you're feeling charitable and wish to call him such), a prospect in Corbin whose ceiling might be as another fourth starter-i.e., the next Joe Saunders-plus a reliever in Rodriguez of a quality most organizations can generate on their own.* If the PTBNL is who Kevin Goldstein anticipates it will be, that's the one guy who might be something more than this sort of organizational filler.

So put that together: one of the best starting pitchers of the last three years, having rated among the top 20 via Support-Neutral Winning Percentage in 2007, in 2008, and in 2009, and you ditch an existing three-year commitment to him at less-than-market prices to get a guy who might be a third starter, one guy who is a fourth and one who might be, and a spare relief arm. This isn't just a surrender, it's a massive setback for the Snakes, the sort of lost opportunity where the best you can brag about is how much money they've saved. Nobody is going to get a starting pitcher of Haren's quality at such a low price in blood or treasure come the next offseason, and however poorly stocked the Snakes' system may be, this doesn't do nearly enough to re-stock it.

To turn to the pitcher they're plugging into the big-league rotation, Saunders may not get as much of a benefit from leaving the stronger league as you might normally expect. He's about as non-famous as a guy can be, despite winning 33 games in the previous two seasons, but he also doesn't deserve any additional notoriety. He received exceptional run support last season (6.5 RPG), and he got outstanding defensive support in 2008 (.269 BABIP). Not getting either of those things this season, he might appear the worse for it, but he's still effectively the same pitcher: his SIERA's merely moved from 4.73 in '08 to 4.89 in '09 to 5.08 this year. Despite that modest decay, he's essentially just somebody who has had the benefit of taking his regular turn the last three seasons while pitching for a good ballclub. That advantage just went away.

The extent to which Saunders' modest success was symptomatic of his being an Angel is underscored by other unhappy facts. His strikeout rate has been consistently below five per nine in the last three seasons, but that's just another way of noting that he's a soft-tossing lefty. Now he's a soft-tossing southpaw leaving a relatively neutral ballpark and a stronger defense to pitch in a hitter's haven in front of one of the worst defenses in baseball. If he was a worm-killing fiend, and someone you could expect to avoid the risks attached to pitching in the glorified souvenir pen that the D'backs nest in, you could harbor some hope-but he isn't, generally getting flies and grounders only slightly above league norms in the past, and for another ominous indicator, he's fallen back around league-average this year.

How bad could things get? I'm not an optimist, because he's also losing the benefit of pitching against Oakland, a club he's owned, delivering a career-best 11 wins, as well as getting three of his 10 quality starts through six innings (in 20 total turns) this year. Take the A's off the schedule, and he's giving up six runs per nine against everybody else. He's a pitcher giving up a relatively normal rate of home runs per fly ball before moving to a ballpark where the average pitcher's rate is a couple of percentage points higher. Then you get into the fact that he has a career-long platoon issue on his permanent record, having allowed right-handers to slug almost 100 point higher. That comes before he has to pitch in the bandbox formerly known as Bob; how do you expect that to turn out for him?

Now sure, he's coming to the easier league, and that might make for two or three pitcher at-bats or so per ballgame. You have to balance that against his having to pitch in an environment where every stick-bearing biped gets better, hitting against a defense where every ball is more likely to land fair, and where deeper benches in the NL-thanks to the absence of the DH-make it that much easier for opponents to spot additional right-handed battters.

Take all of that together, and having the next two years of contractual control over such an asset might be as much a hazard as a benefit. At best it gives the Snakes an easily indentifiable rotation regular behind Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, but only that. Keep in mind, Saunders is already 29 years old, so there is no upside to find here, just a relatively durable back-end rotation starter.

KG: I saw Corbin pitch this year, and he probably belonged in High-A at the start of the year. He's going to make to make the big leagues. He's tall and skinny, but his mechanics are loose and clean and pretty to watch; he pounds the strike zone, really goes after guys. The fastball is 88-91, and can have a little sink or a little bit of cut to it, because he can move it around, and he hits his spots. He throws a decent slider; it's not bad, but it's not good, and it isn't some monster pitch for him. He throws a changeup, which is what you can say for it-he throws one, but it's also not that good. He's crafty, but for a ceiling, he's a fourth or fifth starter.

As for Rodriguez, he's just a 'bounce' reliever, in that he's going to bounce from Triple-A to the majors for a while the way things are going. He's neither big nor small, and he doesn't have a big pitch that grades plus: the fastball comes in at 88-92 mph, and while he can sink it, cut it, or split it, whatever he does, it's an average pitch. His breaking pitch is a slider, but it's not a great pitch, just a functional one. If he figures everything out, he can be a middle reliever in the big leagues.

The best prospect of the lot is the PTBNL, or the guy expected to be named later: supplemental '09 first-rounder Tyler Skaggs. The reason he's not named yet is he hasn't put in a full pro season since signing, but he's generally assumed to be the player getting named later in this deal. Just 19 years old after getting selected out fo Santa Monica High School last summer, he's very long-bodied, standing 6'4" to 6'5", with a long arm as well as what I'd call long arm action. Currently, he's throwing 88-91 with his fastball, but it's expected that he'll touch 92 more consistently as he matures. That's decent for a lefty, but the key pitch in his curve, a true 12-to-6 pitch with a lot of late down break. He's got outstanding command and control for his age. It's the curveball that makes you say he could be a solid No. 3 in a big-league rotation-if everything works out-as it was one of the better breaking balls in the Midwest League this year.

*: Yes, the Snakes have a historically awful bullpen this season, so perhaps we should not underrate the value of an adequate off-the-shelf right-hander. I'd call adding Rodriguez as a matter of winding up with more of the same-aim for adequacy by adding the adequate, and you can't really brag about achieving these kinds of modest aspirations as much as you're defined by them.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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