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April 4, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Second-Sack Stopgaps, and Other Opening Day Shuffles

by Ben Lindbergh

By my count (or more accurately, Rob McQuown’s), Christina Kahrl has devoted 952 articles to analyzing transactions, and that’s probably selling her short, since our database doesn’t go back quite as far as her byline. In the first Transaction Analysis entry that I could find, Ozzie Guillen appears not as a manager, but as a shortstop and the owner of an exceedingly low OBP; given that Guillen has just entered his eighth season at the helm of the White Sox, it’s clear that Christina has been at this for some time, and unlike Guillen, she didn’t overstay her welcome before shifting to a new role.

I’ll be taking over transaction coverage at BP, and with Christina’s blessing, I’m going to be doing this a little differently (and not only because I’m a little iffy on archdukes). For the time being, I’ll be writing weekly about the bigger moves, as well as some minor ones that might offer the opportunity for a teaching moment, a deep question, or a corny joke. Sometimes that will mean a discussion of a move’s implications in terms of WARP differentials and wins, but at least as often, I’ll aim to leave you with something that will stick in your head a little longer than the numbers alone. Meanwhile, R.J. Anderson will continue to keep you updated on the latest developments on the blog side, tackling transaction news as it hits Twitter. Even as Christina turns her gaze elsewhere, transaction coverage will remain well-represented at BP, though I’ll have to get used to wearing bigger shoes than I’m used to. With cap tipped, let’s get to some of the moves that have been made since Christina’s last entry, which predated Opening Day.

St. Louis Cardinals did not place Matt Holliday on the DL. [4/1]

Holliday hasn’t been part of an official transaction as of yet. The Cardinals are hoping that this will continue to be the case—Holliday underwent an appendectomy a day after hitting a home run on Opening Day, but rather than place him on the DL, the team will take a wait-and-see approach, hoping that he can return quickly enough to make a move unnecessary. There is some precedent to suggest that he can, since this wasn’t the emergency, help-me-my-insides-are-exploding type of appendectomy, and at least one other player in our injury database (Andres Torres) has returned from a similar operation within the DL window. The potential payoff is a few extra games from Holliday, who could be ready to return faster than a 15-day DL stint would permit, while the downside is having to play shorthanded until a determination is made.

As Christina observed elsewhere, the Cardinals are well-stocked with organizational players in the outfield, and Tony La Russa has shown the necessary nimbleness to juggle multi-position players to good effect in the past, although he’s also exhibited a disturbing tendency to fixate on them to the exclusion of superior options. The latter isn’t likely a concern here—while La Russa might have let Jon Jay blind him to Colby Rasmus’ many charms last season, Holliday is above being Pipped. A platoon arrangement of the lefty Jay (who brings the better glove) and the righty Allen Craig (who brings the better bat) will make for a moderately productive stopgap, so the Cardinals are about as well-equipped to weather the star’s absence as a team can be, although ensuring his speedy return may require offering up Lance Berkman’s late-inning defense as a sacrifice to the baseball gods, since a 24-man roster permits only so many moving parts.

Triple-A speedster Adron Chambers is the only outfielder on the 40-man who isn’t already on the active roster, and since there is no room at the Red Roster Inn, it’s unlikely that outfield assistance will be forthcoming in the event that Holliday can’t return. Instead, La Russa might take the kid-in-the-candy-store approach, going with the 13-man pitching staff he’s always wanted. I said Holliday was above being Pipped by Jon Jay, but maybe not by Mitchell Boggs. The first time La Russa makes five pitching changes and still has three relievers left, all bets are off.

Even though the Cards are equipped with obvious substitutes in the field, the offensive underachievers in the middle infield make this lineup look unimposing without Holliday protecting Albert Pujols. When Wainwright went down, the Cardinals’ playoff hopes bent, but they didn’t break. The same can be said about Holliday’s temporary absence—in the big picture, it could cost the Cards less than a win—but losing Wainwright left St. Louis with little margin for error, and every game David Freese starts in the cleanup slot eats further into that margin. Sometimes tight division races can be decided by the training staffs, and it could be that the Reds’ and Brewers’ own injury issues are the only thing keeping the Cardinals out of a hole too deep for Pujols to dig them out of.

Philadelphia Phillies signed free agent 2B Ronnie Belliard. [4/1]

Released by the Yankees a week ago, Belliard becomes the latest marginal middle infielder to walk through what’s shaping up to be a revolving door at second base in the Phillies organization. Belliard could be excused if, like the newly promoted Admiral Piett (not to be confused with Adam Piatt) in The Empire Strikes Back, his enthusiasm for his new position is tempered by his just having witnessed the unfortunate end of his predecessor. Will Belliard succeed where Admiral Ozzel and Luis Castillo failed, proving to be neither clumsy nor stupid? Having reported on time, he’s off to a good start in the latter department, but since he’ll never be described as graceful in the field, the former is still in question.

One wonders how long it can be before the Phillies run through the rest of the unsigned free agent options, though they’ve thus far refrained from adding another ex-Met to the pile in Anderson Hernandez. Still, only the most jaded GM could resist the sight of David Eckstein jumping up and down on the sidelines with his hand in the air. Maybe Mark Grudzielanek is having second thoughts about retirement. Willy Aybar is perhaps just 30 pounds away from playing a competent second base; given that the Phillies found Belliard to their liking, they’re clearly of the opinion that weight is no obstacle, and it’s hard to blame them, given that Charlie Manuel’s Nutrisystem diet succeeded in making even Matt Stairs svelte.

It’s hard to see how Belliard is any better than Wilson Valdez, whose defense evens the imbalance between his and Belliard’s bat, so he’ll remain in Lehigh Valley unless another injury strikes. There’s no secret stash of productive second basemen out there waiting to rescue the Phillies from Utley’s infirmity, and unfortunately the Phillies can’t keep playing the Astros until Utley returns, but Valdez should play good enough defense to keep him from becoming the worst disaster to be known by that name.

Chicago Cubs called up LF Reed Johnson from Iowa Cubs. [4/1]

Johnson is the sort of player who seems like the ideal bench option from a distance: he plays a good outfield corner and a passable center, and he crushes lefties. Look more closely, and the warts on this superficially practically perfect fourth outfielder become apparent: he can’t hit righties to save his life, and even worse, he can’t stay healthy. The Yankees chose Marcus Thames over Johnson as their fourth outfielder last season despite the former’s obvious shortcomings in the field, and the decision paid off, as Thames hit and Johnson got hurt.

Jim Hendry has already suffered through a trio of Johnson DL stints during the outfielder’s last tour of duty with the Cubs, two of them for lower back spasms and the third for a foot fracture, so you can’t say he’s not going into this with his eyes open. Johnson’s limitations make him a stretch as a fourth outfielder, but he’ll do as a fifth, which is all the Cubs will ask of him. If Johnson doesn’t take to a swing rebuilt this spring by Rudy Jaramillo or—much more likely—gets hurt, Fernando Perez will be waiting in the Triple-A wings.

San Francisco Giants called up 1B Brandon Belt from Fresno Grizzlies. [3/31]
San Francisco
Giants designated 1B Travis Ishikawa for assignment. [3/31]

If a World Series parade didn’t completely wipe away the wounds of their financially motivated slow reveal of Buster Posey last season—which nearly proved more costly than an early start to his arbitration clock could have been—the Giants have made amends by deciding not to beat around the bush with Belt. The decision came down to more than mere penance, as Belt was also the best man for the job, but it shows that the Giants have embraced the idea that early-season wins are their own reward, an investment that can pay off just as surely as the more miserly approach.

Maybe I’m giving them too much credit for a Christmas Carol-like epiphany; it could be that the Giants are convinced the super-two system won’t survive the new CBA, in which case they have little to fear from an early callup other than the risk of substituting a disappointing campaign from a not-quite-ready Belt for a potential prime year down the road. Then again, all indications are that the 23-year-old is ready to make the transition with a minimum of growing pains, and there are no guarantees that the team will be as well-positioned to make the playoffs when Belt is pushing 30, so Brian Sabean was wise to say, “Gentlemen, start your service time.”

It’s nice when good process puts the best personnel in place, but even better when the results provide immediate positive reinforcement, since a string of early 0-fers can plant the seeds of doubt in more minds than just the struggling player’s. Fortunately, the Giants were rewarded for their faith with a quick payoff, as Belt launched his first career home run to straightaway center in Dodger Stadium—no mean feat—in his second big-league start at first base, though the team’s sloppy play in the field kept the blow from being decisive. He’ll add a good deal more to his total before the season is out.

Had the Giants decided to keep Belt in the minors for a spell, their decision might have been more defensible than the one that delayed Posey's arrival. Belt doesn’t come with quite the same prospect cachet: despite having been drafted no fewer than three times, he never went earlier than the fifth round, while Posey went fifth overall. What’s more, Belt had only one minor-league season under his, well, you know, while Posey had seen parts of two. But while Posey was ostensibly blocked by a Molina, Belt faced much lighter competition.

To make room for Belt’s arrival, Aubrey Huff slides to right field and Ishikawa sets off for parts unknown. Ishikawa was the pilot fish to Huff’s shark last season, eating up all those annoying grounders Huff couldn’t reach in exchange for roster protection. As we noted in this year’s annual, Ishikawa excelled at the plate (in a relative sense) when entering games already in progress last season, but Belt doesn’t require a caddy, so his promotion has the added benefit of allowing the Giants to trim some fat from their roster. A DFA might seem like a bitter end for Ishikawa, a Giants lifer who’s put in 10 years with the organization, but first basemen with Casey Kotchman’s skill set are always a hotshot prospect away from unemployment.   

Belt's tears upon learning he'd made the team prompted Huff to say, "Why you crying? I'm the one who's gotta play right field every day." Perhaps that was why Belt was crying. In yesterday's game, Huff played two catchable balls into run-scoring triples, which accounted for the Giants' margin of defeat in their 7-5 loss to the Dodgers. Even Andres Torres can't cover enough ground in center to make an outfield with Burrell and Huff in the corners presentable, which should make Nate Schierholtz and Aaron Rowand popular fellows this season. Even with Ishikawa looking for work, Huff's one-dimensional play continues to create major-league jobs. If only he could harness that power to stimulate the economy.

This isn’t strictly related to Belt, but before we move on, it’s worth pausing to take in the lineup the Dodgers ran out against the Giants on Saturday:

Aaron Miles, 3B
Ivan De Jesus, 2B
Andre Ethier, RF
Matt Kemp, CF
James Loney, 1B
Hector Gimenez, C
Xavier Paul, LF
Jamey Carroll, SS
Ted Lilly, P

Don Mattingly’s hiring provoked plenty of concerns about his inexperience and occasional strategic gaffes in his rare turns as acting manager, so he and the Dodgers were surely hoping for a smooth start to the season. After taking a look at this lineup, however, one could be forgiven for thinking the Dodgers were scheduled for a spring training “B” game or had already clinched a playoff berth. There’s nothing wrong with handling veterans delicately, but with two off days scheduled for this week, the third game of the season seems premature to start stacking day games off after night games against a division rival, especially with Juan Uribe already unavailable. Matt Cain held this motley crew scoreless, and as the game drew to a close, Dodgers backup catcher A.J. Ellis was warming on a bullpen mound in case things got even more lopsided.

Mattingly’s handling of Rafael Furcal’s balky back will bear careful watching; having surrendered much of his own ability as a player to back problems, Mattingly should be uniquely suited to get the most out of Furcal, but it’s equally possible that remembrances of things past will make him overcautious with his shortstop. The skipper’s assurance that “whatever lineup we put out there, I expect to win that game” doesn’t suggest that such anemic attacks are a thing of the past.

Boston Red Sox called up LHP Dennys Reyes from Pawtucket Red Sox. [3/31]
Boston Red
Sox optioned LHP Hideki Okajima to Pawtucket Red Sox. [3/31]

How to get from Nippon Professional Baseball to Triple-A in four easy steps:


Dennys Reyes beat out Okajima largely by virtue of having no minor-league options (which also explains how Matt Albers bested Alfredo Aceves), allowing the Sox to maintain access to four relievers rather than two. Still, Okajima earned the demotion, even if Kei Igawa thinks he took his sweet time going about it.

Texas Rangers called up RHP Dave Bush from Round Rock Express. [3/31]

There was a time, not so long ago—let’s call it “2007”—when an astute fantasy owner in one of my leagues could have extracted a terrible price by drafting Dave Bush and dangling him in front of me. In 2006, Bush led the NL with a 4.4 K/BB ratio, and I fancied him on the verge of a breakout—if that season were repeated today, I’d make eyes at his 3.57 SIERA, sit back, and wait for him to lop a run off his ERA.

That didn’t happen, as Bush’s Maddux-like control regressed the following season, followed shortly by his strikeout rate, which had been only passable to begin with. Worse still, he’s become more fly-ball-oriented in recent seasons, and his results have predictably suffered. Bush serves as a reminder that sometimes being on the verge of a breakout isn’t far from being broken.

It’s clear that Bush’s moment has come and gone, but the Rangers still think him worthy of long relief and have reunited him with his pitching coach from those almost-glory days, Mike Maddux. His surroundings in Texas won’t treat him well, but he’ll cling to life as a stopgap solution to pair with Alexi Ogando in the latter’s sure-to-be-short starts. When Tommy Hunter returns, Bush’s usefulness will be at an end, but he and I will always have that 1.14 WHIP.

New York Mets outrighted Luis Hernandez to Buffalo Bisons. [3/31]

Every so often, a previously obscure player becomes mired in a maelstrom of media attention for a week or two of spring training before sinking back into relative anonymity. Even in the Mets’ wide-open keystone competition coming into camp, Hernandez was generally believed to rank lower in the pecking order than incumbent Luis Castillo, Rule 5 find Brad Emaus, and Dan Murphy, who hadn’t seen any action in the majors last season. Then, midway through the exhibition schedule, reports surfaced that Collins was leaning toward Hernandez, pending approval from upstairs. Among Hernandez’s positive attributes, Collins listed enthusiasm, the ability to switch-hit (in that he makes outs from both sides of the plate), and the fact that “he’s a baseball player,” which is hard to deny, if not particularly persuasive.

It’s unclear whether Terry Collins truly fell hard for Hernandez, only to be talked out of his infatuation by cooler heads in the Mets’ front office (there’s a phrase we haven’t heard much in the last few seasons), or whether the light-hitting middle infielder was just an unlikely stalking horse (or Bison) whom Collins was using to instill a sense of urgency into his slightly more talented options. Either way, he proved a passing fad. Hernandez cleared waivers—no surprise there—so he’ll stick around, but that’s likely as close as he’ll ever come to a starting job in the majors.

New York Yankees called up RHP Bartolo Colon from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. [3/30]
New York
Yankees called up RHP Luis Ayala from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. [3/30]
New York
Yankees placed LHP Pedro Feliciano on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22, 2011. Left rotator cuff strain. [3/30]

New York’s late-inning relief unit is the class of the division, but the Yankees are getting creative with the back end of their bullpen, calling all available Expos to fill out the last two spots. The Bombers wisely passed on Colon for the fifth-starter position, but he made the team as a long reliever and rotation insurance. In his first outing, the husky hurler allowed four runs through four innings in relief of Phil Hughes, although he did strike out five while walking only one when he wasn’t surrendering a home run to Brennan Boesch that may still be traveling. Odds are he’ll get hurt before he can pitch his way out of the job, but the Yankees still did better in the swingman department than Texas did with Dave Bush.

Ayala was a non-roster invite who won the last spot after an effective spring and the injury to Feliciano. He came up with the Expos as an effective groundballer with exceptional control, but his sinker induced fewer grounders after his first two seasons, and he hasn’t been worth rostering since losing 2006 to Tommy John surgery. Despite his strong spring, that’s unlikely to change, but he’ll sop up some low-leverage innings until Feliciano returns.

Admitting to being held hostage by circumstance qualifies as conduct unbecoming a GM, but Brian Cashman wasted little time in blaming the Mets for abusing his injured lefty during his time in Queens, and in admitting that the Yankees signed Feliciano for lack of a better option. It comes as no surprise that someone nicknamed “Perpetual Pedro” may come with a bit of mileage on his arm; as we noted in BP2011, “the Yankees run the risk of obtaining no more than his post-Mets hangover years,” which looks a little more likely in light of this injury.

Cashman was aware of the risk when he signed the lefty, and since in this case he can’t claim that he was just following orders, he’ll take the blame if he turns out to have signed damaged goods. Overpaying for past performance reflects a certain lack of creativity; you probably won’t catch Andrew Friedman defending his ill-advised decisions by pointing to a “thin market.” Then again, the Yankees are a special case; the Rays don’t have the financial wherewithal to eat three-year contracts, which the Yankees can do if Feliciano never gets off the mat.

Baltimore Orioles released CF Randy Winn. [3/28]

Winn read the writing on the wall in Baltimore and called it a career after requesting and receiving his release last Monday. Most of the farewells to Winn focused on his failure to make the playoffs—Winn did surprisingly little winning over his 13-year career, leading all active players in games played without a playoff appearance. (The new active leader is Adam Dunn, who probably doesn’t mind the distinction, given that he doesn’t really like baseball that much anyway.)

Winn wasn’t the only veteran outfielder to hang them up in the past week—Jermaine Dye also declared his official retirement after a couple of seasons out of the game, just as he was beginning to border on Bernie Williams denial territory. The two  provide an interesting study in contrasting playing styles. Dye's is the bigger name, with a couple of All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove, and a season of serious MVP consideration to his credit, while Winn for the most part labored in obscurity, his only trip to the midsummer classic coming courtesy of an awful 2002 Rays team on which a bench-bound Huff was his only competition. Dye launched 44 homers in 2006 and topped 30 in three other years; Winn never hit more than 20.

However, the two wound up providing their teams with roughly equivalent value, even though they went about it in different ways: Winn finished with 29.1 WARP in 13 seasons, while Dye managed 25.6 WARP in 14 seasons. Dye was easily the superior offensive player, retiring with a career .281 TAv, compared to Winn’s .269, but Winn made up the deficit (and then some) in the field and on the basepaths, posting 62- and 27.5-run advantages in FRAA and BRR, respectively. Perhaps we’re not at the point where chicks dig going first to third as much as they dig the longball, but viewing Dye as a star and Winn as a role player because they came by their three four-plus WARP seasons differently reflects an outdated understanding of where wins actually come from. 

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

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