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March 3, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Nick Johnson, Chad Durbin, and Dregs

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Signed RHP Chad Durbin to a one-year, $800,000 deal. [3/1]
Signed 1B-L Nick Johnson to a minor-league contract with a spring training NRI; traded LHP Aaron Laffey to the Mariners for UT-R Matt Lawson; added Durbin to the 40-man roster. [3/2]

Hannah Hoch observes: I wish to blur the firm boundaries which we self-certain people tend to delineate around all we can achieve.

Kudos to the Tribe for eleventh-hour shopping, because while they had to settle for what's left on the shelves, what was there wasn't all that bad. Johnson's as unsure a proposition as any in the game, capable of anything from total excellence to total absence, while Durbin has managed to surprise people with his effectiveness as a fairly durable reliever for the Phillies the last three years.

Nick the Stick hasn't managed anything like a full season since 2006, but his on-field highlight since then was his 2009 campaign playing for—wait for it—Tribe skipper Manny Acta in Washington. Johnson was healthy enough to start 92 of 102 games before he was dealt to the Marlins, as Acta wasn't afraid to give him rest days. Johnson responded with a .295/.408/.402 line, and went on to do better yet with the Fish, but it was perhaps the extended demonstration of health that, more than anything, got him a $5.5 million payday to DH for the Yankees last season.

As seems par for his course, Johnson naturally followed that with an early season-ending wrist injury, but nobody employing him at this stage of his career is unaware of the risks involved: he breaks. Easily. Repeatedly. If, as the old joke goes, heaven is where the Germans are the engineers, the Brits are the police, and the French are the cooks, while hell is where the Germans are the police, the Brits are in the kitchen, and the French are the engineers, then Nick the Stick may as well have a Peugeot badge on his grille, because you already know something's going to break, and there's no point in pre-ordering the part—it won't be in stock, and you'll have to find alternative means for first-base play.

The Indians already have that, sort of, in that they're supposed to have full faith and confidence, in Matt LaPorta as someone who still has a future, or in DH Travis Hafner being healthy and effective and capable of being somewhat less embarrassing with almost $30 million and two more seasons to go on his disastrous deal. But any more than they could bet on Johnson giving them 500 PAs, they can't really bet on those things either. In such a situation, layering their risk and aspiring to achieve something more seems fairly reasonable. If Acta can get some small amount of value from Johnson at some point during the season, the Tribe's attack will have acquired a slightly sharper edge. If (or when) one of LaPorta or Hafner disappoints early on, Johnson should be ready to come back from last year's wrist injury at some point.

As for Durbin, it is perhaps a mild surprise that he lasted this long on the market, especially after giving the Phillies two excellent seasons out of three, wrapping a 19.1 ARP campaign in 2008 and a 10.4 ARP in 2010 around a -4.8 season in '09. What's sort of surprising is that Durbin has managed to improve his strikeout rate in each of the last three years, topping out at a very nice 21.6 percent clip last year. What makes that even more surprising is that he's not a power pitcher by any stretch, relying on a sinker/slider mix where his heat sits around 89-90 mph, providing his best value by getting spotted carefully against right-handers and weaker lefties. His flyball tendencies will no doubt lead to negative nattering, but happily the Tribe's home park isn't a high-offense environment.

As long as Acta follows those warning labels, Durbin ought to be a bargain. I know, PECOTA says "4.43 ERA," and that's that—except that Durbin, like any reliever, isn't just run out onto the mound at random to fire away at all lineup slots in all situations. Managers matter, as do usage patterns. I don't want to suggest Cleveland should throw a parade, but it's a nice little signing, and a better use of a roster spot than Laffey.

Finally, there's the body picked up for Laffey in the dump deal with the Mariners. Lawson isn't a big-time prospect, having only arrived in the Mariners organization late last summer as the third player received in the Cliff Lee trade. As Kevin Goldstein noted at the time, "he has a chance of turning into a decent bench player. For more of a grinder than someone with impressive tools, Lawson has gap power out of a big swing that leads to a high strikeout rate, but he works the count well, is a good runner, and has played some outfield this year in an attempt to improve his positional flexibility. It's doubtful that he'll ever turn into a big-league starter, but for a throw-in, one could do much worse."

As far as where he's played, Lawson has spent considerable time at second and short, with limited exposure to the outfield. Between Frisco and West Tenn, he hit .293/.372/.439 at Double-A, walking in 8.5 percent of his plate appearances—adequate, not great, in the patience department, but taking an additional 12 plunks for the team is what helped juice his OBP a bit. Optimism as far as the acquisition comes in two flavors. First, that he'll be handy at Akron or Columbus, and perhaps someday will be found rattling around at the back end of the bench. Second, that adding him might be a sign that alternatives like Cord Phelps and Jared Goedert won't be stuck helping the Aeros or Clippers, instead answering a higher calling—to the Show.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Released OF-L Jody Gerut, coincident with his announcing his retirement. [2/27]
Traded UT-R Matt Lawson to the Indians for LHP Aaron Laffey; placed RHP Shawn Kelley on the 60-day DL. [3/2]

Kurt Schwitters advises: Invest your money in Dada! Dada is the only savings bank that pays interest in the hereafter!

Cold comfort that, but Gerut's career has been dancing on the proverbial volcano for years, going back to a 2005 knee injury that shelved him for 2006 and 2007. Gerut was kept busy nonetheless because the Pirates, being the Pirates, mulishly decided to pretend there was no injury while trying to release him in '07, but happily the MLBPA hauled them through the grievance process to acquaint them with this particular reality. Even with the bad wheels, Gerut's successful comeback with the Padres was one of the great feel-good stories of 2008. Getting traded to the Brewers in 2009 (for Li'l Gwynn) effectively re-killed his career, as he rotted away as a frequently ignored reserve on Ken Macha's bench. As I fretted after his fourth trade, if the Brewers "just want [Gerut] around as insurance and to pinch-hit, that's sort of a shame, because whether you assign that roster spot to Gerut or Chris Duffy and/or Brad Nelson or [Frank] Catalanotto, it's a lousy job to have."

The interesting thing about the trade for Gwynn was that it was the fourth time that Gerut had been swapped for another outfielder, having been swapped in the past from the Rockies to the Tribe (with Josh Bard) for Jacob Cruz, and then to the Cubs for Jason Dubois, followed shortly thereafter by his fateful dispatch to the Steel City for Matt Lawton. Cruz, Dubois, and Lawton combined to play exactly zero games for their new employers in any subsequent season, a streak of disposability that Gwynn ended with his contributions to the Padres in 2009-10.

While the Mariners have obvious needs in the outfield—for bats, and perhaps also for a dose of no-fuss professionalism, since they're still stuck with Milton Bradley—Gerut left camp on Sunday, announcing, "When a player finds his willingness to compete to be so greatly diminished, that player must leave the game so as not to disrespect it by becoming a player who plays solely for his paycheck and his own personal glory." Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times wrote eloquently about Gerut's decision to walk away after years of trying to play through the constant battle to rehab his knee, pondering that "you only have so much mental energy in you and the constant, lonely struggle of rehabilitating an injured knee year after year does eat a lot of it up." Add in that Gerut had to spend a chunk of his active career squabbling with baseball's most dead-end franchise, and you can also wonder if that didn't play a part in killing his joy in the game. Whether these things added up or not, you can respect Gerut's decision to walk away on his own terms.

Which leaves Seattle that much more stuck with last year's unhappy choices, as Bradley and Ryan Langerhans looking like the probable reserves while Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez try to come back from abdominal injuries of one sort or another—Saunders from appendicitis, Gutierrez from a stomach ailment. It's enough to give a fan ulcers, perhaps making Gerut's heart-wrenching personal decision all the more poignant. They really could have used him, but perhaps his example will be a wakeup call for a liberally well-compensated former colleague or two.

In the meantime, there's also the minor trade with the Tribe for the Mariners to console themselves with. Laffey's a familiar face to new skipper Eric Wedge at the very least, which it might be good news for him, since on Wedge's watch he'd been relatively left alone role-wise, starting instead of being relegated to a swing role. Laffey might seem an odd fit for the M's, given that he's a slow-pitch nibbler who walked almost 11 percent of opposing batters last season while striking out as many. He tries to keep balls in the infield with a fairly pedestrian sinker/slider mix, and lacks anything with any swing-and-miss virtue to push past right-handers. While I'm sure he'll profit from pitching in Safeco, the House that Jacobs Built is one of the most pitcher-friendly parks around, and just about anybody who pitches should benefit from pitching in front of the Mariners' glovely collection of hitless wonders in their infield. The Mariners need all the healthy arms they can get, though, so if Laffey's simply available on Opening Day, that and his past experience with Wedge could put him on the roster as a utility pitcher.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Signed RHPs Brett Tomko and Elizardo Ramirez to minor-league contracts with spring training NRIs. [3/1]

Raoul Hausmann opines: Dada... wants over and over again movement; it sees peace only in dynamism.

The Rangers will be Tomko's 10th organization in 17 seasons as a pro since getting drafted in the second round in 1995, which means he'll need just 34 more years to collect the full set of 30. Texas might seem like the last place the homer-happy hurler would want to call home; in 2009 Tomko managed to surrender a dozen bombs in 57 ⅓ IP in the majors, but his HR/FB ratio of 12.4 percent that season wasn't even a career high—he managed 14.1 percent with the 2001 Mariners. He also has three separate 30-homer seasons to his credit, which can only be a good thing for a pitcher if your name was Babe Ruth (or perhaps Micah Owings). As much as the Rangers might be casting about for alternatives, and as much as any reasonable person might wonder if a great pitching coach Mike Maddux can help him find something extra, it's worth remembering that Tomko's about to turn 38, and is coming back from elbow and hip issues which helped keep him shelved in the minors rehabbing last year. He's more likely to be org filler in case injuries mount up. Since Oklahoma Round Rock will be his ninth Triple-A team, it's safe to say he's familiar with the drill.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Placed RHP Ronald Belisario on the Restricted List. [3/2]

Richard Huelsenbeck notes: Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.

Whoever's wearing the badge, this probably consoles Belisario not a bit as he deals with visa-related delays. Still, as long as the man is keeping him down (south of the border), and he's dealing with the nuisance of Venezuelan bureaucratic machinery grinding slowly along, maybe the notion of life without borders or badges or limitations is reassuring somehow.

However, in light of Vicente Padilla's elbow surgery and his likely roost on the DL come Opening Day, the Dodgers' list of initial bullpen likelies just went from a fairly short list to a much more open-ended collection of possibilities. There are still the four sure-seeming things—Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Kenley Jansen, and Matt Guerrier. After that, the Dodgers have three jobs to fill, and no end of possible people to fill them with.

From the 40-man, there's a gaggle of semi-experienced right-handers. Blake Hawksworth is the changeup-slinging swingman who might be a one-for-one replacement for Padilla, but Carlos Monasterios could also provide that kind of value. Look at the non-roster bodies, and Lance Cormier could do that too. Ramon Troncoso was briefly in vogue, but he went through a two-win swing in value, going from a top-30 performance (15.2 ARP) to being part of the problem (-7.6) in last season's collection of disappointments. As a right-hander without big gun readings or a reliable off-speed pitch, instead surviving by taking something off his fastball or mixing in a cutter, he might also be something of an acquired taste. Travis Schlichting's also had his moments, before last season's shoulder problems shut him down.

For something from the left side, Scott Elbert's comeback from last season's case of professional disinterest in his own career seems to be coming along nicely; if he's back with his plus stuff as well, he could turn Don Mattingly's head. He might not be the only lefty with a shot, since Ron Mahay has his uses as a situational weapon.

Finally, if that's not enough to choose from, there's the horde of blasts from the past, former heroes like Juan Rincon, Oscar Villarreal, Roman Colon,and Mike MacDougal, not to mention Dana Eveland. All might seem improbable at first glance, but between a new manager and the absence of Padilla and now Belisario, they're all potentially the right guy in the right place at the right time. All of which adds up to cause for paying attention, especially if you're a Dodgers fan fretting over your rookie skipper.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Signed RHP Jason Grilli to a minor-league contract without a spring training NRI. [2/26]

Hugo Ball claims: What we call Dada is a piece of tomfoolery from the void, in which all the lofty questions have become involved...

Grilli missed all of 2010 with a knee injury, the latest hiccup in a career that had been hopping along well enough with the Tigers after Jim Leyland took a shine to the former fourth overall draft selection in 2006. That spared Grilli from being a historic flop, although the fourth spot's been a bit snakebit: in the last 20 years, teams picking fourth have wound up with Jeffrey Hammonds, Antone Williamson, Adam Loewen, and Daniel Moskos. The most valuable fourth overall selection in that time has been Kerry Wood (28.6 WARP), followed by Ryan Zimmerman (21.8), but Brian Matusz, Gavin Floyd, and Jeff Niemann have plenty of pitching ahead of them.

At any rate, Grilli had been a bit of a disappointment, being selected by the Giants out of Seton Hall in 1997, then getting swapped to the Marlins in 1999 as the prospect of note in their exchange for Livan Hernandez. Grilli never could stick with the Fish, getting swamped by their wave of better homegrown talent, and washed up with the White Sox as a 2003 Rule 5 pick, a few short months after he'd come back from a 2002 TJS. Nevertheless, he fared no better in Chicago, managing a .322 SNWP in eight starts, a figure worsted by just five pitchers with more than one start in 2004—one of them being Nate Bump, the other guy dealt to the Marlins in the Livan salary dump.

For all that, Grilli still threw a wee bit harder than the average bear, so his arrival in the Tigers organization in 2005—thanks to Dave Dombrowski, the same GM who had traded Livan Hernandez for him—was fortuitous. At Toledo, Grilli put up his best year to that point, notching a career-high dozen wins while striking out 6.5 batters per nine, his best mark since his elbow surgery. That was enough to win friends and influence people in Detroit, and with a new skipper, Jim Leyland, calling the shots the next spring, the fourth pick reduced to a ham-and-egger's existence in Triple-A was indulgently tucked into the middle-relief mop-up role. Grilli delivered well enough that season and next, not especially helping or hurting the cause, accumulating less than 7.0 total ARP across the two seasons but getting the benefit of pitching for a pennant winner.

For reasons perhaps more financial than anything else, Grilli fell precipitously out of the Tigers' favor in the spring of 2008. The problem appeared to spring from his failure to come to an easy agreement with the club, leading to their first renewing him and subsequently dumping him on the Rockies a month into the season rather than confront his potential for arbitration eligibility after the year. He responded with his best season (12.4 ARP, tied for 39th in the majors), and followed that up with some WBC heroics for Team Italy the subsequent spring. Then his career roller coaster headed into its next dip, as he struggled (Denver does that), got dealt to Texas, not an especially easier place to pitch, and then suffered elbow trouble. He next latched on with the Indians, and seemed a likely bet to stick in 2010 as their much-needed mid-game innings sponge—before he tore up a quad and had to undergo season-ending surgery, almost exactly a year ago.

So now Grilli is with the Phillies, albeit without a formal spring training invite. You can't exactly say he's coming home again—despite the Seton Hall association, he was born outside of Detroit and went to high school in New York. It might seem an especially unlikely destination—the Phillies' "lofty questions" might not seem to involve too many about their pitching staff, but when you look at it, they don't actually have a lot of depth in the bullpen once you get past the front-rank quartet of Brad Lidge, Jose Contreras, Ryan Madson, and situational lefty J.C. Romero. Sure, they're paying Danys Baez, but that's to little point—scenarios where they eat that pointless expense and turn to Grilli for mop-up relief aren't hard to envision. All it might take is a good month or two in the Piggery up in Lehigh Valley, after he first proves that he's healthy. You wouldn't expect a survivor of Grilli's vintage, having come this far, to just go away, would you?

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Signed LHP Randy Flores to a minor-league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/27]

Francis Picabia thinks that: Dada talks with you, it is everything, it includes everything, it belongs to all religions, can be neither victory nor defeat, it lives in space and not in time.

As sentiments go, that seems appropriate for the reappearance of Flores; the man has pitched in 350 major-league games, and has accumulated all of 16 decisions in that time—he clearly lives in (roster) space, and is neither victory or defeat. That's the lot of a situational lefty, of course, especially one tasked with being one of Tony La Russa's bullpen widgets during the best part of his career. I'm not sure why this was re-reported on the 27th when he initially inked a deal on February 10th, but since the big-league roster only has Joe Thatcher locked in for LOOGY chores, he's clearly in the right place if he's looking to add appearances to that career tally.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Signed RHP Jeff Suppan to a minor-league contract with a spring training NRI. [2/26]

Marcel Duchamp observes: I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.

Let's face it, it isn't like Suppan is going to crack this rotation, or comes anywhere close to resembling a Giants starting pitcher. However, should any one guy break down, one area where they're weak is rotation depth, especially because of their shortage of ready-ish organizational soldiers pre-ticketed for Fresno. Admittedly, if they do lose any of the front five, having Soup behind glass probably puts out that fire no more effectively than a can of Campbell's. In case of that emergency, you can bet their first action will be to pick up the phone and start calling everywhere but Fresno to find a replacement for anything more than an emergency start against the Snakes on a getaway day.


If you're not a Dada fan, I can accept that; it's a tough-love art form that embraced all forms of expression, visual and aural and oral, from collages to concepts, paintings to puppetry. (Consider this BP's first and probably last shoutout to the underappreciated Sophie Taüber.) At its most fundamental, Dada was the product of a time when not just art but communications and their uses and abuses had come into question, because all media had been enlisted in the self-destructive excesses of the Great War at the same time that it had become mass media, ubiquitous and oppressive.

The experience left many of the survivors from that generation questioning meaning. They didn't need Marshall McLuhan to tell them that media was the message, instead busily bringing that notion to light in their work. If they combined despair and hope in equal measure, that reflected a world in which all that they had ever known had been sundered, stranding them on the shore of an undiscovered future. Almost a century later, is that experience really that alien to us today, in our own media-saturated existence?

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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