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May 3, 2011
Called up RHP Alex White from Columbus Clippers (Triple-A). [4/30]
The 19-8 Indians’ offense might be for real, but their pitching staff is primed for regression. One way to forestall a return to earth by overperforming pitchers is to replace them with new and better pitchers before the old ones blow up. Carlos Carrasco, whose place in the rotation White inherited, didn’t meet the description of an overperforming pitcher, but he had been one of the few hurlers on the roster actually allowing runs, so it might appear that jettisoning him would achieve the same end. However, Carrasco wasn’t the weak link he appeared to be; if he can come back healthy, he should produce better results. The good news is that if White—who’s merely an emergency call-up now, if a highly touted one—manages to establish himself by then, he’ll stick around at the expense of someone like Jeanmar Gomez (or the injured Mitch Talbot, whom Gomez replaced), which really could make a weak rotation stronger and allow the Indians to cling to some fragment of their early double-digit lead in a race that’s likely to be a war of attrition the rest of the way.
At the very least, White’s promotion gave the Indians an opportunity to try out another approach to generating fan interest, since their major-league-last average attendance suggests that merely winning games isn’t working. The announcement that the righty would be replacing Carrasco inspired a plaintive appeal on Twitter from Indians president Mark Shapiro, who boldly hinted that it “could be fun to see his ML debut.” One can only hope that the Tribe’s marketing department took notice. (Come on out to Progressive Field and support your 2011 Cleveland Indians! It could be fun!)
Snark aside, White is a person of interest, so his debut was an event worth promoting by any means possible. He was the Indians’ first pick in 2009 and the system’s top pitcher last year, but despite that pedigree, don’t confuse him for an ace in the making: Kevin Goldstein called him a “mid-rotation innings-eater” in a perfect world. In this one, even that vision of his future isn’t assured; White gets grounders, but he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher (sinking fastball and split-fingered fastball) with a vestigial slider. His lack of a breaking pitch cost him Ks once he hit Double-A last year, though he struck out 28 batters in 23 2/3 frames at Triple-A Columbus to start this season. All told, the 22-year-old has thrown only 174 1/3 minor-league innings, so it would be wise to expect some hiccups, but as his 2.37 ERA would indicate, those innings couldn’t have gone much better.
White’s first big-league start, which came against Detroit on Saturday, went smoothly, as he held the Tigers to two runs over six innings, walking four (two intentionally) and striking out four. That performance started not only the game, but White’s arbitration clock, which tells us one thing: the Indians believe in their own hot start. It would have been easy for the Tribe to call upon White’s Triple-A rotationmate David Huff, who’s currently sporting a fluky 3.19 ERA, rather than pop White’s major-league cherry, but they went with White’s upside in spite of the potential financial repercussions. While it may not have been their plan before the season began, they’re going for it now.
What do you do when you lose a light-hitting utility infielder who’s off to an uncharacteristically and unsustainably hot start? Call up another one, of course. Bloomquist was hitting an empty .300 when his hamstring went pop, but disaster was averted when the Diamondbacks dug deep and summoned Josh Wilson from Triple-A Reno. Wilson’s main claim to fame is being an even worse hitter than Willie Bloomquist, but he was off to a .351/.406/.561 start with a home run in 16 games and 64 plate appearances. (Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Pacific Coast League.)
Like Bloomquist, Wilson is valued for his versatility, regardless of how he actually performs while he’s playing musical positions; he’s spent time at every position in the infield except catcher. He even pitched a scoreless inning for Arizona in 2009 and another frame for the Friars later that season, so we can’t entirely discount the possibility that he’s part of Kevin Towers’ continuing efforts to revamp the bullpen. Wherever he’s stationed, he can really pick it—I almost wrote, “It’s no coincidence that Wilson shares a name with a major glove manufacturer,” but if that’s not a coincidence, what is?—but he brings the same weak bat to every position he plays.
Wilson hit .231/.333/.269 in his first stint with the Snakes two years ago (which came to an end when he was claimed off waivers by Towers, then in San Diego), and he’ll likely have worn out his welcome again by the time Bloomquist gets back and hears his own clock start ticking. If you’re amused by small, scrappy white guys who get by without bats, you’ll find a lot to like about the players on both ends of this transaction, especially since the pickings have been relatively slim since David Eckstein skipped off into the sunset. The scary thing is that Eckstein has accrued more than eight times as many WARP as Bloomquist and Wilson have put together.
Everyone enjoys a good pitcher-to-position-player conversion, but there’s little reason to think that there’s even an Ankiel-caliber career renaissance in the cards for Bogusevic. (Of course, Bogusevic was never the pitcher Ankiel was, either.) The lefty hit .271/.342/.365 in his first crack at Triple-A in 2009, then upped those rates to .277/.364/.414 in an encore 2010 performance. This season, he got off to a .241/.392/.362 start, and while it’s clear that the power isn’t coming, he did improve his K:BB ratio to 13:11 after two straight seasons of more than a hundred whiffs, which could indicate a lasting improvement. (It could also indicate that we’ve only reached the first week of May.)
There’s more to Bogusevic than underwhelming triple-slash stats: the southpaw is certified at all three outfield spots, and while he doesn’t run all that often, he picks his spots remarkably well, getting caught only six times in 68 professional attempts. That probably wouldn’t have been enough to usurp Houston’s fourth-outfielder spot from a healthy Jason Michaels, but to Bogusevic’s benefit, healthy Jason Michaelses are suddenly in short supply. Normally, we wouldn’t forecast much growth potential for a player in his age-27 season, but since this will be only his third complete season as a full-time position player, it’s fair to wonder whether Bogusevic may have some strides left to make. Even if he succeeds only in standing still for the next few seasons, he’ll have some major-league life as an extra outfielder and pinch-runner. With 24 big-league games under his belt, it’s not too early to proclaim his position swap a success, since even that extent of major-league service didn’t seem likely when he still made his living on the mound.
If A.J. Ellis saw Scream 4 in theaters, he probably pictured Dioner Navarro’s face behind the ubiquitous murderer’s mask; much like Ghostface, Navarro keeps turning up right behind him and stabbing his career in the back. When the Dodgers acquired Navarro for the first time as part of the three-way Randy Johnson deal in January of 2005, Ellis was 24 years old and about to repeat High-A. Navarro was (and is) nearly three years younger, so his arrival seemed to relegate Ellis to a future backup role at best. Navarro played fairly well in L.A. but was shipped to Tampa Bay a year and a half later to fuel an unsuccessful stretch drive, bringing Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson in return. Of Hendrickson, then-Dodgers manager Grady Little was quoted as saying, “He’s continually gotten better and we think he’ll keep getting better and better.” You know, because that’s what 32-year-old pitchers do. (He would post a 5.01 ERA in two-plus seasons in L.A.)
Navarro went on to have one successful season in his four-plus years in the Tampa Bay organization, helping to fuel the team’s 2008 turnaround. Meanwhile, Ellis slowly climbed the Dodgers’ organizational ranks, repeating Double-A just as he’d repeated the previous level. After a .321/.436/.456 showing in Triple-A Las Vegas, Ellis earned a cup of coffee in 2008 and a refill in the following year. Last season, he served as the club’s primary backup, first to an overworked Russell Martin and later to Rod Barajas, who took over the starting role after being acquired from the Mets when Martin went down with a hip fracture. In his first extended exposure to the big leagues, Ellis was what we thought he was—a solid defensive catcher and a highly selective hitter with decent contact skills and no power to speak of. (He went deep just four times in nearly 200 Triple-A games and has yet to go yard in the majors.)
With Martin departed for the Bronx and 35-year-old Rod Barajas the incumbent starter, Ellis seemed to stand a chance of inheriting a hefty helping of at-bats, but in mid-December, the Dodgers reacquired Navarro. This time, their roles seemed like they should be reversed; Ellis was the incumbent, while Navarro had spent most of the prior season’s second half in the minors after clearing waivers, then ended his Rays career in disgrace after failing to travel with the team during the playoffs as requested. Nonetheless, manager Don Mattingly announced in January that Navarro would compete with Barajas for playing time, making it clear that Ellis was right back where he started: looking up at the younger Navarro.
Ellis held off the switch-hitter despite an awful spring training, as Navarro injured an oblique and hit the DL, but after five unproductive rehab games for Navarro at Double-A Chattanooga, the two switched places, and Ellis took his .421 OBP back to Triple-A. In many cases, players without any extra-base ability prove unable to maintain their walk rates once major-league pitchers find out that they have nothing to fear from throwing them strikes (see Willits, Reggie), but batting in front of the pitcher is the ideal position for a hitter of Ellis’ offensive talents: he has the patience to take advantage of opposing hurlers’ inclination to pitch around him, which is more than some backstops in the NL—Barajas among them—can claim. Navarro actually bettered Ellis’ walk rate in his last tour of duty with the Dodgers, so it’s not like this move is cause for outrage. You’d just like to see Ellis succeed with the organization for which he’s toiled so long, or at the very least renew his membership with some other chapter of the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers. For now, though, the next time he picks up the phone it’s more likely to lead to a masked Navarro leaping out of his closet than to another call-up to Chavez Ravine.
Last week I mentioned the impending return of Corey Hart, which threatened to spell the end of Erick Almonte’s unlikely Brewers career. Hart returned as expected, and while he’s off to a slow start, his presence has nonetheless restored respectability to a right field arrangement that had previously featured an unholy alliance of Almonte, Mark Kotsay, Nyjer Morgan, and Brandon Boggs. In light of those names, it comes as no surprise that right field has been nothing short of a black hole for the Brew Crew in the early going, producing a .230/.294/.350 line (a far cry from the .275/.349/.449 NL positional average).
The timing and circumstances of Almonte’s injury—which occurred during batting practice—might have seemed somewhat suspicious because he was out of options and would have been exposed to waivers had he been sent down to make room for Hart (not that Almonte would make for juicy enough waiver bait to start a feeding frenzy). However, thanks to the reporting of Corey Dawkins and Marc Normandin, we know that concussions can’t be faked and that concussion-related stints on the 7-day DL can’t be orchestrated in order to resolve roster crunches (unlike the phantom injuries that occasionally put players away for the same length of time in the minors). Sure, we can picture someone saying, “Okay, Erick, hold still…”, but unless Almonte comes back from the 7-day DL sporting a pair of black eyes and insisting that he walked into a door, we can rule out the battered ballplayer theory.
That said, Almonte isn’t likely to find a roster spot waiting for him when he’s no longer concussed. Although he’s eligible to be activated today, he’s not close to returning, and after 15 days, he’ll most likely hit the big-boy DL. Brandon Boggs may be cast adrift when Nyjer Morgan returns today, so Almonte’s only hope is that Ron Roenicke decides to stop carrying 13 pitchers by the time he recovers. Otherwise, he’ll hope to catch on with another team, but he may have to resign himself to once more being Triple-A insurance.
Optioned LF Kyle Blanks to San Antonio Missions (Double-A). [4/26]
Even after park adjustments, Brad Hawpe has been the worst hitter in baseball this season, and it’s not particularly close—Magglio Ordonez and his .015 ISO are roughly 30 points of TAv closer to competency. The only thing saving Hawpe from a quick hook thus far has been that the lone potential replacement on the Padres’ current roster, Jorge Cantu, has been almost as bad. As devoted Padres booster Marc Normandin said to me yesterday, “There is unlucky and there is bad, and [Hawpe] has been both.”
Players can’t hit .169/.211/.211 in the majors for long—either they start playing better, or their teams find someone else who will. Hawpe will almost certainly play better, if only because of a dead-first-baseman bounce, but he’s started slowly enough that he’d have to be extremely lucky going forward to last the season (and he can kiss that $6 million team option for 2012 goodbye). The roster move listed above didn’t require any actual movement, since Blanks was already assigned to San Antonio for a rehab assignment to complete his recovery from Tommy John surgery—he was merely removed from the major-league DL last week and optioned to Double-A on paper. Still, it serves as a worthwhile reminder that Hawpe’s days are numbered. Blanks is hitting .281/.329/.422, which doesn’t exactly scream “Promote me!”, but even an insistent whisper could drown out the soft clunks emanating from Hawpe’s bat.
Even Blanks is under some pressure to perform, since Padres number-three prospect Anthony Rizzo is tearing up Tucson—a level about Blanks—with a .389/.458/.716 line and seven dingers through his first 23 games. GM Jed Hoyer won’t rush Rizzo to the majors given his team’s financial constraints, but if the young first baseman stays hot, Hoyer probably wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to prove to his fan base that the Adrian Gonzalez trade can pay dividends beyond Eric Patterson’s .074 batting average. Even if Blanks isn’t about to lay waste to the Texas League like he did in 2008, all is not lost: he could still stand to inherit left field later this season, provided Ryan Ludwick puts some distance between his own batting average and the Mendoza Line, which might allow the Padres to move him at the deadline.
Placed 3B Pablo Sandoval on the 15-day disabled list (broken hamate bone in his right hand). [4/30]
As Corey Dawkins and Marc Normandin observed yesterday, these are dark days for third basemen. Scott Rolen won’t return from the DL when eligible on Friday, forcing the Reds to make do with an impotent pairing of Miguel Cairo (who had started eight straight games at the hot corner before Sunday) and Chris Valaika. Ryan Zimmerman’s abdominal injury could keep him out until the All-Star break, leaving Alex Cora in charge of the hot corner in Washington. Cora is hitting .175/.233/.225, and the Nats’ collective .229/.308/.353 performance makes them look bad in comparison to anyone but the Pirates and the Padres—and the Padres, who set the gold standard for non-excellence in offense, actually boast a better road line. Yesterday, the Cardinals made fantasy owners in leagues with one-game positional eligibility requirements happy by moving Albert Pujols to third for the first time since 2002, after starter David Freese fractured his hand and replacement Nick Punto was subsequently removed with a tight hamstring.
The defending champs also discovered that injury stacks are no fun over the weekend, losing the bat of a resurgent Pablo Sandoval, the only Giant who hadn’t been a pygmy at the plate. Sandoval suffered a broken hamate bone and initially took to the internet to proclaim that he’d be back in four weeks, but a presumably chastened Panda tweeted an hour later that the prognosis was more like seven weeks, suggesting that his doctor might be one of his 26,000-plus Twitter followers. Complicating matters for San Francisco is Mark DeRosa’s own pesky wrist, which once again sent him to the DL last week after robbing him of most of last season.
In the absence of Sandoval and DeRosa, the Giants shifted zombie Miguel Tejada to third and installed Mike Fontenot as the everyday shortstop. Tejada is a better fit in the field at third, but only in a relative sense; immediate embalming might make him look presentable in his advanced stage of decomposition, but not a mere position change. In the words of Grant Brisbee, Tejada “fields like the ball is covered in cholera,” and his bat is doing its best to contribute to another league-wide decline in scoring. Tejada is a recent entrant to the sub-replacement realm, but Fontenot has played at replacement level since 2008, so seeing more of him at short is hardly an ideal solution.
The Giants recalled Emmanuel Burriss and Ryan Rohlinger to fill a need for warm bodies capable of playing the infield, but neither will make San Francisco forget Sandoval. Burriss has ridden the San Francisco-Fresno shuttle in each of the last four seasons and has been reduced to plugging temporary holes in the last two. He’s unlikely to buck that trend in 2011. Rohlinger, a natural third baseman who took well to shortstop in a rare right-to-left shift along the defensive spectrum in 2009, is supposed to be an offense-first option, though you wouldn’t know it from his .136/.186/.197 line in limited major-league action. He might be capable of outhitting Tejada, but given the disparity in salary size between the two, he probably won’t get the chance. Other than turning back to Fresno for another flawed player in Conor Gillaspie, the Giants have little recourse but to hope that Sandoval recovers quickly and doesn’t rediscover his taste for colossal sundaes while prevented from playing baseball. Then again, if the Rockies continue to play .600 ball, the win or so that the Giants might surrender in Sandoval’s absence won’t matter much.