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August 19, 2010
The Lee Deal
Placed 2B-R Martin Prado on the 15-day DL (fractured pinky), retroactive to 7/31; recalled MI-Diory Hernandez from Gwinnett (Triple-A). [8/2]
Noted the loss of RHP Chris Resop to the Pirates on a waiver claim. [8/4]
Placed RHP Kris Medlen on the 15-day DL (elbow); recalled RHP Cristhian Martinez from Gwinnett; outrighted OF-R Brent Clevlen to Gwinnett. [8/5]
Optioned RHP Kenshin Kawakami to Gwinnett; purchased the contract of LHP Mike Minor from Gwinnett. [8/7]
Placed 3B-S Chipper Jones on the 15-day DL (knee), retroactive to 8/11; recalled INF-R Brandon Hicks from Gwinnett. [8/13]
Activated 2B-R Martin Prado from the 15-day DL; optioned INF-R Brandon Hicks to Gwinnett. [8/17]
Acquired 1B-R Derrek Lee and cash from the Cubs for RHPs Robinson Lopez and Ty'Relle Harris and LHP Jeffrey Lorick; placed 1B-R Troy Glaus on the 15-day DL (knee); recalled INF-R Brandon Hicks from Gwinnett. [8/18]
Tweaking your fifth starter for the stretch run isn't necessarily a major item in itself-whoever you pick, he's not going to make any October starts-but it's interesting in light of the Lee trade in the context that the two decisions are not cut from the same cloth. To fix one issue, they made a veteran selection where a quality kid was available; to fix the other issue, they did the exact opposite, with similar quality choices on hand.
Let's start with the trade. I already covered the Jones situation at some length yesterday, noting that the best way to compensate for losing Jones wasn't to fret over what they were going to get from guys like Omar Infante or Brooks Conrad in the playing time created by losing Chipper Jones for the year, but instead to focus on helping themselves by adding offense to compensate for the various causes for concern, namely at first base, and specifically by calling up Freddie Freeman. Obviously that's off the table, unless of course Lee pancakes, but as far as the intent, it's not very different.
How likely is Lee to contribute? First basemen who hit .251/.335/.416 (and a .267 True Average) are improvements on the Casey Kotchmans of the world, but it's actually a step down from what they had gotten from Glaus (.275 TAv). An additional fly in the ointment is Lee's proclivity for hitting into double plays, as he's more deadly in this regard than any Brave, ranking 13th overall in the NL, and that's no joke in a lineup driven by OBP and not a lot of power.
But where Glaus was an interesting off-season risk who had started to slump and might not have been able to keep up his seasonal rates, Lee is someone perhaps more likely to deliver at even this modest level over the next six weeks. It's also worth noting that Lee was projected to be much more valuable this year, around .287/.368/.479; he's delivered a MLVr of 0.02, when you should have expected him to be around 0.1 on the year if he's fulfilled his normal projection.
If, for the sake of argument, Lee rediscovers his stroke and becomes just that guy down the stretch, that's not a small thing-it's an upgrade of about three runs net on the season on what Glaus was doing. Add in Lee's excellent range around the bag, and maybe you've netted a half-win with 42 games to go. That's not shabby, and while it's up to Lee to fulfill just that baseline expectation, and the good news is that he's gotten much stronger in the second half, suggesting he's already rebounding ever higher than that after hitting a much more Lee-like .313/.356/.583 since the All-Star break.
Adding Lee also has the additional benefit of re-expanding the Braves' tactical options, in that Glaus' immediate shelving with a "knee injury" will handily propel him into a rehab gig where he'll play third base for Gwinnett while there are still Gwinnett games to exploit for the purpose. That's all well and good, but in the meantime, the Braves have favored a minimum of fuss, letting Prado come back to man the hot corner and leaving Infante, the better defender, at the keystone in the meantime. That was a decision Prado was apparently partly out of consideration for his healing pinky. Here again, Infante's value as a superutilityman helps create that much more flexibility with the rest of the roster.
I wouldn't sweat Prado's performance overmuch if he can swing a bat with any problem-he wasn't doing anything ludicrous in terms of his power on contact or balls-in-play outcomes relative to the two seasons before. The eventual reckoning once Glaus is "healthy" and ready to return from his rehab reacquaintance with the hot corner is going to be between Infante and Glaus, and whether Prado's ready to move back into the middle will be as important as any other consideration-as well as something we can't peg one way or another.
There is the question of the cost, of course, and Frank Wren did end up having to make a sacrifice or two. Lopez is a worthwhile prospect, and the Braves are reportedly paying somewhere in the vicinity of half of Lee's remaining $3.2 million of salary, so it isn't like this was just a waiver-deal handoff of a free agent-to-be. That said, it's one arm and an extremely modest financial investment, and like adding Rick Ankiel at the deadline, it's a matter of giving the Braves a lot of overlapping talent around the diamond. Beyond Brian McCann behind the plate, there may not be a slot in the lineup where they'd be mortally stricken by another season-ending injury. What it lacks in sexy flair like adding Mark Teixeira, it makes up for in stolid, reassuring depth.
If trading for Lee makes for an understandable, somewhat safe choice, what's fascinating is the contrast between that and a very different sort of blossom from the same decision tree: calling up Minor from the minors. With Medlen's season ended and his Tommy John surgery an already accomplished fact, the Braves did not make the conservative choice, and simply slot the veteran Kawakami back in. That's to their credit. From the point that they signed the Japanese leaguer through his two seasons stateside, he's done no more than fulfill low expectations for what he's able to contribute. Rather than settle for the safety of a six-inning pitcher who might kick in a quality start half the time-Kawakami managed seven in 15 turns this year, and a .467 SNWP-they reached for upside by hauling up last year's first-rounder.
Naturally, I expect there's a good number of workload nellies already bleating about the risks, but the Braves aren't being crazy here. After having him take 21 turns and throw 120
Purchased the contract of SS-R Darwin Barney from Iowa (Triple-A). [8/12]
Activated 1B-R Derrek Lee from the Bereavement Leave List; optioned 1B-L Micah Hoffpauir to Iowa. [8/13]
Traded 1B-R Derrek Lee to the Braves for RHPs Robinson Lopez and Ty'Relle Harris and LHP Jeffrey Lorick; recalled OF-L Sam Fuld from Iowa. [8/18]
OK, so the season's dead, and at this point it's about sorting out which retainers get to be in attendance for Lou Piniella's sendoff at the otherwise irrelevant conclusion. The curtain's dropped on Jim Hendry's veteran-driven rebuild, and if the late-Aughties team didn't match the '03 team post-season near-miss for near-miss, it was still a run that had its moments. Given the tough task of trying to peddle something from among his innumerable big-ticket veterans with all sorts of built-in booby traps and no-trade clauses and the like, you can also give Hendry some credit from actually making one departing free agent leave early and getting something for his troubles. Bean-counter joy may not be dialed all the way up to venti over the $1.6 million he's saved by moving Lee, but it's still a nice chunk of change.
That isn't all that Hendry got from the Braves, however. Perhaps par for the course, he got low-minors pitchers who won't have to be added to the 40-man roster for a few years, but he didn't settle for merely warm bodies. Among the three pitchers acquired, Lopez rates as a genuine prospect. The 19-year-old Dominican was having a nice full-season debut in the Sally League, striking out seven and walking four per nine in 92
As for the other two arms, they were both college pitchers selected in consecutive rounds late in the 2009 draft, with Harris coming from the University of Tennessee in the 19th followed by Lorick out of the University of Virginia in the 20th. Almost by default they'll be characterized as organizational arms, as they didn't merit any sleeper plugs after the draft, although each is interesting in his way.
Lorick may not speak for the trees, but he has been utterly dominant against Sally League lefties, knocking them right out of their barbaloot suits by holding them to .128/.222/.170. That said, he's a guy with three years of ACC exerperience who is older than most of his competition. Consistent with his college experience, he has also been generating a good number of ground-ball outs (1.7 GB/FB ratio) while avoiding homers. Second lefties have to come from somewhere.
Ty'Relle Harris (which most sources are simplifying to Tyrelle) took the slow road, moving from the University of the Pacific to Sacramento City Community College after being kicked out of UoP for an off-field incident as an 18-year-old-he was accused of slapping a young woman in a melee. Hopping to another program, he then put in two years with Tennessee as a transfer. At 6'4" and ~235 pounds, the big right-hander has struck out 84 batters against 24 unintentional walks in 67 career pro innings, generally working in relief. He's also already 23 years old, so the fact that he reached Double-A earlier this month is interesting, but is not a compelling development by itself.
By dealing Lee, Hendry has, of course, also created the narrow possibility that Micah Hoffpauir might be next year's starter at first base (once he's eligible to be brought back). Not to get overly excited over a 30-year-old Quad-A player with a .248 TAv for Iowa, but he has hit .291/.365/.571 against right-handers in the PCL this season. On the unlikely chance that he's given a shot at next year's job, he would at least be a cheap solution, and when the market's generally limited to providing dubious options like Carlos Pena, Lance Berkman, re-engaging Lee, or seeing if the Yankees kick Nick Johnson to the curb, cheap isn't that much worse than the purported premium brands. An aggressive pursuit of Adam Dunn would be another matter altogether, but the Cubs shouldn't be the only interested party. Getting Johnson on an incentive-laden deal with Hoffpauir as the necessary alternative once he breaks would be interesting as well as thrifty, but we'll see what happens.
Keep in mind, now that this latest dream has been disspelled, sorting out how to be a more .500-ish semi-contender's still an achievable feat in today's National League. In the meantime, you can expect Piniella to dial up a good amount of Hoffpauir and Xavier Nady, and maybe some Jeff Baker should Hendry relocate Nady before the end of the month. It's the four-headed outfield metastasizing to include at least two more bodies and one more position.
Placed 1B-L Ryan Howard on the 15-day DL (sprained ankle), retroactive to 8/2; recalled OF-S John Mayberry from Lehigh Valley (Triple-A). [8/3]
Acquired 1B-R Mike Sweeney from the Mariners for cash or a PTBNL. [8/4]
Designated INF-R Cody Ransom for assignment. [8/5]
Outrighted INF-R Cody Ransom to Lehigh Valley; optioned OF-S John Mayberry to Lehigh Valley. [8/9]
Recalled LHP Antonio Bastardo from Lehigh Valley. [8/10]
Activated CF-S Shane Victorino from the 15-day DL; optioned LHP Antonio Bastardo to Lehigh Valley. [8/12]
Activated 2B-L Chase Utley from the 15-day DL; designated 4C-L Gregg Dobbs for assignment. [8/17]
A 26-17 record during Utley's absence has to qualify as one of the happier developments of the Phillies season, all the more surprising when you consider that while he was gone, they've had to get by with a couple of weeks without Howard (9-4 without him), not to mention a couple of weeks without Victorino (10-4 without him). Even with all of that going on in their lineup in August, the Phillies have managed to score 5.5 runs per game while hitting just .284/.344/.409. Considering that Howard is a crowned MVP and Utley is a deserving candidate, who are we supposed to nominate as the new heroes? That's a lot of timely singles of course-you don't have a 12-3 run without some good fortune-but they're not squeaking by, with a 3-2 split in one-run games that masks the fact that the two losses were shutouts.
I'd suggest two things are going very right for the Phillies, factors which transcend their transient absences and make them look a proper monster come the final kick, because they're things they might have going for them as well as a top offense once everyone's healed up.
First off, with the addition of Roy Oswalt to the still-rolling Roy Halladay, you now also have the benefit of Cole Hamels pitching every bit as well as Halladay. Any team with three top-quality starters is going to be in more than its share of ballgames, but the Phillies are one of just five teams with SNWP marks of .555 or better*. Add in that they have both Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick kicking in quality starts, and it's a rotation firing on all cylinders, sparing the bullpen and making Charlie Manuel's job easier. All told, the Phillies' rotation has tossed six-inning quality starts in 12 of 15 games this month-deliver that kind of pitching, and you can get by stringing singles and walks together. Can they expect more of the same? Yes, if you like SIERA for feel-good vibes for what should come, because Halladay and Hamels rank in the top 10 in the majors, and Oswalt's 17th overall. This is a strong unit likely to be this strong-it isn't like anybody in this rotation has been as remarkably lucky as Tim Hudson has been on ball-in-play outcomes, to note one prominent rival.
But the other heroes who deserve calling out are both Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro Jr. At a time as tactically inert on offense as we may ever see, Manuel didn't freak out over the challenge of running a pair of platoons in the same lineup. Not that I'm wild about a Gload/Sweeney platoon at first base-Gload's adequate and Sweeney's fragile and nearly useless in the field-but it's a fall-back position and it isn't Miguel Cairo, and beyond that it's providing baserunners and modest sock at a time when both are particularly precious given the Phils' unslugly offense in August. Using Domonic Brown and Ben Francisco in right field during Victorino's absence didn't hurt-indeed, it gave them an opportunity to start breaking Brown in.
Once Howard returns to action at the end of the month, it may be tough for Manuel to keep all of these spare parts fresh down the stretch, but the potential is there for the Phillies' skipper to have a better-stocked bench for in-game offensive weapons than any other team in the league. Props to Amaro for that aspect of his winter planning working out, to Manuel to using these bits to good effect when he's had to, and to both men for adapting in-season. While Amaro's impact on the season may be just about done, Manuel's gifts as a dugout operator remain an underrated asset. Now that he has Utley and Victorino back, they may remain in the background, but as with the pitching staff's likely contributions for the stretch, this is a quality that won't go away if (or once) the offense gets back in full gear.