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March 29, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Trading Up from Dickerson to Morgan

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Claimed LHP Jose Ortegano off waivers from the Braves, and optioned him to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Triple-A); optioned OF-R Greg Golson to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. [3/23]
Traded RHP Sergio Mitre to the Brewers for OF-L Chris Dickerson; signed RHP Kevin Millwood to a minor-league contract. [3/25]
Reclaimed Rule 5 pick RHP Lance Pendleton from the Astros. [3/27]

Marcel Proust observes: All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.

Getting rid of Mitre doesn't save the Yankees from their rotation problem, but it does save them from Joe Girardi's nostalgia for the once and former Marlin LAIM-o, if you want to go so far as to credit Mitre with Munching Innings in a League-Average sort of way. Brian Cashman did this gently, with a roster intervention that at least spares the Bombers—and especially Girardi—the indignity of pretending that Mitre could pitch in NuYankee's bandboxy dimensions, in the toughest division in baseball, for a contender.

We all have our weak spots, the things we like but should probably enjoy less of. Joltless Joe's faith in Mitre, dating as it does from his early days as a skipper, was a vice the Yankees could no longer afford. Conveniently enough, Mitre's six-figure salary made him a commodity where, while too large a paycheck might have forced Cashman to cut him, that combination of cheap and purportedly useful instead made him something Cashman could swap out for a better back-end bit for the bench in Dickerson.

Even if Dickerson is potentially as much of a roster transient for the Yankees as Mitre will be for the Brewers, as a necessary fifth outfielder—at least until we know if Curtis Granderson will be able to play on Opening Day—he can be a source of spot-start OBP while also providing value as a pinch-runner, making for a fairly nifty asset to cart around for a club already employing Andruw Jones for reserve duties. But on this team, injury insurance and spot starts is about the full extent of his utility, because it isn't like there's anyone in the lineup he'd pinch-hit for.

Not that the possession of a Mitre covered things up, but the rotation's still a graying combover, even with Ivan Nova winning a slot for the time being. How tenuous that Opening Day endorsement will be is obvious when, given a choice between Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, the Yankees retained both while going off-menu to add Millwood to the mix. Define that as gluttony, greed, or more frankly need, but it's clear that the Yankees have made no commitment they won't promptly break at the first sign of trouble.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Optioned RHP Justin Berg and LHP Scott Maine to Iowa (Triple-A). [3/23]
Optioned OF-S Fernando Perez to Iowa. [3/24]
Released RHP Braden Looper. [3/25]
Optioned RHPs Jeff Stevens and Casey Coleman to Iowa. [3/26]
Released RHP Carlos Silva. [3/27]

Marcel Proust opines: If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.

With these moves and the reassignment to the minor leagues of infield hopefuls Bobby Scales and Scott Moore, the Cubs' major roster conundrums have been resolved, generally in the most predictable ways. Even after watching Blake DeWitt do exactly what Mike Quade quailed about as far as blowing a tough pivot on the deuce against the Dodgers, he's some or all of the answer at second base. Veteran Reed Johnson got kept as the fifth outfielder, and you might read into that the possibility that Jeff Baker plays a lot more second base, and thus won't be available for outfield duties—or not.

Even the pitching staff played out rather neatly. Randy Wells came to camp and handily "won” (or defended) his claim to one rotation slot. For the other, the Cubs clearly wanted Andrew Cashner to reward their draft-day investment and subsequent faith in his upside potential as a starting pitcher, and now they'll get the opportunity to see how well it works out in the majors, understandably preferring his swing-and-miss stuff to Silva's oft-battered junk. As a qualitative decision it made sense, as a talent decision it's cause for inspiration, and as a logistical challenge—managing Cashner's workload—it'll tell us a lot about the care Quade commits to in managing his youngest rotational charge.

As for Silva, eating the last $8 million—or a bit less, once Silva's signed at the minimum by his next team—might seem expensive. However, this situation was not unlike the fate of the protagonists of Dan O'Neill's Odd Bodkins comic strip: having died and gone to Hell, their first task for eternity was to have to eat their way out of a sea of tapioca pudding, an exercise which understandably took a long time, at considerable cost to their dignity and girth in the afterlife. But remember, having put themselves in a hell of their own making, the Cubs were already committed to the indignity of eating the expense of employing Milton Bradley, and now, beyond the point at which Bradley appears to have a useful career as an outfielder or perhaps even as a hitter, they instead got the benefit of cutting that expense while also getting two-thirds of a surprisingly useful season from Silva before heart trouble effectively ended his season. Medals understandably don't get handed out for self-inflicted damage control, but this wasn't the worst possible denouement to the original sin of signing up for a spin with Milton Bradley.

Not even the bullpen provided that much of a surprise, in the end. Jeff Samardzija, out of options and the beneficiary of a football-dodging deal, was granted one middle-relief slot. He'll be sure to provide lots of noise and mayhem, on the field and in your morning box score, with crooked-number potential in every category in every ballgame. Lefty James Russell might seem like something of a surprise given a lousy Cactus League campaign (with 23 hits and 15 runs allowed in 12 1/3 IP), but the Cubs were aggressive in evaluating the candidacies of their prospective pen men on the basis of their major- and minor-league performances. Mateo was the last right-hander left standing after Looper self-destructed against the Padres and Todd Wellemeyer broke down.

If there's a tangible frustration to any of this, it's personal, in that my two weeks in Arizona wound up feeling like there should have been a third. Watching how this played out on the spot, and listening to how it was explained by the garrulous Quade, would have made for a better closing moment than watching the Shark combust and take a loss in extras after Baker's game-tying ninth-inning blast against the Dodgers last Tuesday, and then racing away to return the rental car.

In a nutshell, that was the "problem” with going to Arizona—the stories really were just beginning, and beyond the pleasure in following them up close, it was just a segment of a prelude to the six-month march to come. In the end, my sense of loss isn't that this is the roster the Cubs came up with, but that I enjoyed watching the day-to-day of it unfold so much that I hated to see it interrupted for anything. Friday cannot come too soon.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Optioned 4C-L Mat Gamel to Nashville (Triple-A). [3/22]
Returned Rule 5 pick RHP Pat Egan to the Orioles. [3/24]
Traded OF-L Chris Dickerson to the Yankees for RHP Sergio Mitre; optioned RHP Wily Peralta to Huntsville (Double-A); optioned C-R Martin Maldonado to Nashville. [3/25]
Placed RHP Zack Greinke on the 15-day DL (broken rib), retroactive to 3/22; placed LHP Manny Parra on the 15-day DL (facet joint injury, back), retroactive to 3/22. [3/26]
Acquired CF-L Nyjer Morgan from the Nationals for 3B-R Cutter Dykstra; placed RHP LaTroy Hawkins on the 15-day DL (recovery from shoulder surgery), retroactive to 3/22. [3/27]

Marcel Proust notes: Like everybody who is not in love, he thought one chose the person to be loved after endless deliberations and on the basis of particular qualities or advantages.

So, would you really rather have Mitre and Morgan than Dickerson and Dykstra? Picking M&Ms over Double-Ds? What's this country coming to?

For all that, I think the Brewers did very nicely for themselves by addressing two immediate needs: on the one hand, their need for a utility arm on the staff to help tide them over and soak up frames until Greinke is back in action, and on the other, their absolute need for an actual center fielder who can do things related to playing baseball with greater frequency than Carlos Gomez is ever likely to. No, not simply the ubiquitous little things, like run when he's on base, although Morgan will do that; instead it's that and hit some pitchers some of the time and play an entirely good center field all of the time. You know, stuff related to the scoring and prevention of runs. Good stuff.

Admittedly, I've been a critic, because Morgan might have briefly been one of the most overrated sabermetric favorites in 2009. That was perhaps thanks almost entirely to accepting the interpretive values for his defensive contributions via UZR as absolute facts, on the same confidence level that hitting stats are generally accepted as facts. Nevertheless, it's worth pointing out that Colin Wyers' newfangled FRAA rates Morgan at least as a very good center fielder, worth 19 runs above average in 2010 after 2009's 14 runs above. That may not mound up to value higher than a full Dunn heap, but it does suggest pretty convincingly that he's an asset afield, one sure to help the Brewers' pitching staff and generally flabby defense. Morgan may have to cover everything between the foul poles not hit directly at Ryan Braun and Corey Hart, but he is one of the few outfielders with the credentials to suggest that he can.

As for adding Mitre as a staff transient, while it's a pity that it cost Dickerson to get him, if Doug Melvin already knew he was going to get Morgan, let's face it, there are only so many roster spots to go around, and the Brewers need (purportedly) ready-now help on the big-league staff to fuel that bid for NL Central dominance. Dickerson isn't a defender of the same grade in center as Morgan, so you can see this proposition as mutually exclusive: if not Dickerson, then Morgan, and either way, less Gomez. That it cost the positionally indeterminate Dykstra makes this somewhat tough, but bringing Morgan to Milwaukee might just be a case of putting the right flawed player on the right contender.

That might seem left-handed faint praise with a side order of damnation, but as I wrote in the annual, "He's spent his career in exactly the right place, whether in Washington or in Pittsburgh, commensurate with his skills—marking time as a second-division starter, providing some value, and helping the Nats' younger pitchers survive their growing pains. He's not any better than that.” In Milwaukee, he'll be the sixth-best batter in their lineup—I suppose that depends on how you feel about Yuniesky Betancourt—and he'll be immediate cause for grief as a leadoff man with limited OBP, but between the defensive value he'll add and the admittedly fuzzier tactical value he'll bring by forcing defenses to defend against his baserunning, he may be the right player in exactly the right place... with it meaning something positive.

There's a lot less positive to say about getting Mitre in isolation, but a month from now he may be reduced to garbage time, if he's retained at all. Disposability isn't very sexy, but if Mitre earns his keep, he'll get retained as a swing man at the back of the staff. If he doesn't, the limited expense of employing him also means there's no real cost to ditching him—other than the opportunity to have employed Dickerson. As shallow as Milwaukee's staff may be at present, they needed a temp, and now they've got one.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Optioned RHP Cole Kimball, 1B-R Chris Marrero, and CF-L Corey Brown to Syracuse (Triple-A). [3/17]
Released 1B-L Kevin Barker. [3/19]
Placed RHP Stephen Strasburg on the 60-day DL; claimed LHP Lee Hyde off waivers from the Braves, and optioned him to Syracuse. [3/23]
Optioned RHP Craig Stammen and C-R Jesus Flores to Syracuse. [3/24]
Optioned RHP Yunesky Maya to Syracuse. [3/25]
Traded CF-L Nyjer Morgan to the Brewers for 3B-R Cutter Dykstra. [3/27]

Marcel Proust comments: We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes.

If other teams' decisions seem somewhat scripted or inevitable, envy the Nats their willingness to mix things up a bit—with so little to lose, they can afford to make decisions with a lasting impact when they want to. Early-spring speculation that Flores might be on the block amounted to very little—instead, they'll get to prove that he's healthy, potentially boosting his value, to themselves or others, while also getting to see how much Wilson Ramos is in the picture in the post-Pudge program.

Similarly, coming to the abrupt decision to be done with Morgan—especially after last year's drama—to add a bat makes perfect sense for them as an organization, even if their pitching might have been narrowly better off with Morgan's glove in center field instead of Rick Ankiel's. Dykstra, though, may not develop the sort of top-tier power that will carry him to a starting job in one of the other corner slots if he can't cut it at the hot corner.

The more interesting development is that ditching Morgan isn't simply a direct choice between him and Ankiel, but also a decision to prefer Mike Morse starting in a corner—perhaps sharing time with Roger Bernadina to some extent—to platooning him with Ankiel. Jim Riggleman isn't really a little-ball skipper, and finding out if Morse's incredible late-season power surge is something with staying power makes sense—if it is, they might have Mr. Mini-Werth in left, and if not, it isn't like they'll wind up in sixth place.

The other decisions of interest were the perhaps surprising cuts of both Stammen and Maya—the former seemed a likely member of the Opening Day bullpen, the latter was given a fair shot at winning the fifth man's slot in the rotation. In each case, neither has enough history for them to lean on, so spring performances, however irrelevant they might have been in the absolute sense—at least in terms of the stats—had to matter as far as showing Jim Riggleman something one way or another. They were both bubble guys coming in, and they didn't do anything to alter that impression, losing out to the likes of Todd Coffey and Gorzo the Magnificent.

The question for me about the Nats staff is not whether it represents "actual" replacement level but something more closely approximating a functional, real-world version of what replacement level might resemble. In this, I'm not thinking in terms of the expense or even really the performances of the pitchers sent to the mound—season-to-season variability is such, especially with relievers, that nine times out of 10, we probably shouldn't get too caught up over any one pitcher's last 200 or 300 batters faced, especially when you get into variables like usage patterns, ballparks, or health.

Instead, I'd redefine replacement in terms of ready availability. Starters like Jason Marquis or Livan Hernandez have spent most of the last five or six years as fifth starters on other clubs. Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen are prospects of note, of course, but everyone gets to play in that pool, whatever their budget. Organizational "success" stories like John Lannan or Collin Balester demonstrate that, where player development is concerned, success is relative—cranking out people you can use is nice, but it doesn't automatically propel you towards a better place in the standings. Tyler Clippard or Coffey or Sean Burnett or Doug Slaten weren't hard to get and won't be hard to retain—or discard, should they flop. And Tom Gorzelanny, however magnificent he may be, wasn't especially hard to pry away from the Cubs. These are not the guys you want when you conjure up your wish list for your perfect pitching staff—in almost every case, they are instead the guys you get, especially when you're the Nationals.

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

Related Content:  A's,  Nyjer Morgan,  Triple-A,  Joe Morgan,  Corey Dickerson

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