May 26, 2011
Return of the Prodigal Sluggers
Activated DH Jim Thome from the 15-day disabled list. [5/23]
The Twins aren’t in good shape in the Central, but at least their roster no longer resembles the cast of The Walking Dead. Jim Thome’s march to 600 homers should offer some opiate for the masses of Minnesota fans distraught over the team’s last-place start, and Jason Repko’s return allows Ben Revere to go back for more Triple-A seasoning. This might be a good time to discuss the accomplishments of Glen Perkins, whom the Twins will have to do without for a while. The southpaw entered this season with a career ERA over five and had spent most of his career as just another in the series of soft-tossing control artists whom the Twins have minted en masse in recent years. Perkins had a prospect pedigree and a St. Paul birthplace going for him, but he wasn’t shaping up to be one of the more successful Radke clones, so the Twins decided to try something different, making him into a reliever late last season.
Pitching out of the bullpen in September, he added a couple of ticks to his heater and struck out a batter per inning, transforming himself into an asset, albeit one with a lower ceiling. Used exclusively in relief for the first time this season, he’s continued to fan roughly a batter per inning while maintaining an average fastball speed around 92. It’s always best to make sure a pitcher can’t hack it as a more valuable starter before settling for another bullpen arm, but the Twins did well to cut their losses and get a viable late-inning reliever out of a rotation retread.
Signing DiNardo is a depth move for the Athletics, whose rotation has been decimated by injuries to Dallas Braden, Rich Harden, Brandon McCarthy, and Tyson Ross. The southpaw was released by the Red Sox in spring training, and he hasn’t seen any major-league action since 2009. DiNardo is the owner of a combined 4.23 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, a 5.36 ERA in the majors, and a 5.09 ERA for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, for whom he was pitching before the A’s snapped him up, so there really isn’t much in his record to recommend him—you’d have to go back to his age-23 season in High-A to find something nice to say about his statistics.
Having witnessed DiNardo'spitching firsthand in 2007-2008, the A’s might be expected to be among the last teams to sign him up for another tour of duty, but sometimes it’s difficult to resist the sight of a familiar face in times of need. More likely than any scenario that has Billy Beane harboring any lingering fondness for a man who walked 63 and struck out 71 in 154 1/3 innings as an Athletic is one in which DiNardo won’t throw a pitch in anger for the A’s unless a few more major-league starters are added to the scrap pile. DiNardo is depth that the A’s hope they won’t have to draw upon, but his presence does save them from having to rush someone more promising to fill a hole in Triple-A. Once that purpose is served, Beane can sit down beside Lenny and remind him about how they’re going to live off the fatta the lan’ and tend rabbits before tenderly designating him for assignment.
Outrighted Dan Johnson to Durham Bulls (Triple-A). [5/24]
By the time PECOTA darling Dan Johnson reached the end of his string with the Rays, he likely would have been thrilled to boost his batting line up to its 10th-percentile projection. PECOTA produced a rosy .245/.367/.464 weighted-mean forecast for Johnson, which would have given him a .297 TAv and helped the Rays forget Carlos Pena fairly quickly. That seemed overly optimistic even before the season started, but Johnson had managed to turn in a .254/.343/.559 performance as the Rays DH from August 1 of last year onward, so between that and some respectable stickwork with the A’s earlier in the decade, there was at least some precedent to suggest that the Rays might have the makings of a respectable replacement for Pena.
Unfortunately, the Great Pumpkin failed to appear. Perhaps the Rays, like seemingly every seeker of that elusive figure but Linus van Pelt, lacked sincerity; they gave Johnson only 84 plate appearances to straighten himself out. Those 84 plate appearances were so bad, however, that the Rays almost couldn’t afford to let him try to dig his way out of the hole. Johnson hit .115/.179/.167, amassing -1.0 WARP and the dreaded 0 OPS+ in the process. To add insult to injury, Johnson lost his job to Casey Kotchman, who entered the season as the reigning worst offensive first baseman in the American League. While Kotchman is showing few signs of turning into a pumpkin himself, he’s skating by with a BABIP roughly 100 points over his career rate, and when the correction comes his output might start to resemble his 2010 more closely than his 2005. With Johnny Damon looking all of his 37 years at DH, the Rays could really use an upgrade at the power positions, where they’d hoped to get much more out of Manny Ramirez and Johnson. If there’s any consolation, it’s that simply re-signing Pena would have left them $10 million poorer but no richer in VORP.
The Rays did get some good news with the return of Howell, who now joins Andy Sonnanstine as the only members of the Rays bullpen to have predated this season in Tampa. The southpaw was a key piece of Tampa Bay’s 2008 and 2009 teams, retiring both righties and lefties with apparent ease in high-leverage spots and multi-inning outings, but he missed all of last season after experiencing shoulder weakness in spring training and undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in May. That’s the kind of injury not every pitcher comes back from, but the early returns for Howell have been fairly encouraging, as he struck out seven and allowed one earned run over seven innings in High-A and Triple-A before coughing up a couple of runs in his second big-league outing. Even better, his velocity appears to have survived his surgery.
Turning over an entire bullpen in a single offseason is a difficult task, albeit one the Rays have essentially accomplished before. In terms of ERA, the transition has gone quite smoothly, but a number of those respectable ERAs are propped up by unsavory peripherals. Juan Cruz’s and Adam Russell’s sub-one K:BB ratios belie their 3.60-ish ERAs, and Kyle Farnsworth’s apparent transformation into a control artist and master of inducing weak contact is unconvincing. The Rays currently have the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the AL, but the worst strikeout rate in relief. Tampa Bay still has the defense to make pitching to contact a workable proposition—the club leads the AL in defensive efficiency—but that disconnect still seems unlikely to persist. Fortunately, the return of Howell should help offset some impending regression among his fellow relievers.
Activated LF Josh Hamilton from the 15-day disabled list. [5/23]
At the moment that Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz were nearly simultaneously activated from the DL, here’s how the Rangers’ runs-per-game figures stood with both of them active, one of them active, and neither active:
That table exaggerates the offensive impact of the two Rangers sluggers, of course—it’s not as if either Hamilton or Cruz creates more than a run per game. Still, getting two-thirds of the Opening Day outfield back is a boon to the Rangers—the longer the third third, Julio Borbon, stays disabled, the better—even if Hamilton and Cruz don't tarry long on the active roster before returning to sample the delights of the disabled list.
The Rangers had two outfielders coming in but none going out in this flurry of moves, as they opted to keep Endy Chavez and Craig Gentry around to spell David Murphy in center and give their two fragile sluggers occasional breathers. Davis didn’t show off his lumber quite like he had in 2008, but he didn’t embarrass himself like he did in his next two attempts at the majors, so if the Rangers’ mission in bringing him up was to rehabilitate him as a trade prospect—he didn’t seem to fit their roster needs otherwise—they can consider it accomplished.
Cody Eppley wasn’t getting the job done, so the Rangers turned to Tateyama, an off-season acquisition. The 35-year-old side-armer is coming off a season in which he struck out 59 and walked 11 in 55 innings for the Nippon-Ham Fighters, and he had little trouble with Triple-A hitters in his first American action. Tateyama has a chance to follow in the footsteps of some of the other NPB imports who found major-league success in their 30s, at least until he’s been around the league once or twice. The Rangers already struck gold with one such player, Akinori Otsuka (in addition to prodigal son Colby Lewis), though they would have been better off without their prior Pacific Rim pitchers, Hideki Irabu and Kazuo Fukumori.
Would that this were a one-for-one swap, with Owings called up to take over Branyan’s duties. Unfortunately, while Owings’ offensive exploits have inspired repeated calls for a position switch—the righty hit .250/.357/.500 in 14 plate appearances in Reno this season, so he’s still got it—he’s never played the field, so he’ll continue to stick to pitching, taking the departed Armando Galarraga’s place in the rotation. Owings’ track record on the mound is far from strong. Poor control has plagued him since his rookie season in both the minors and the majors, particularly in the last two seasons. He does seem to have relocated the strike zone this season, walking only nine in 39 Triple-A innings, and one in his first 5 1/3-inning start for the Snakes, so there is some reason to think that the results of this promotion might be better than those of the last three. At the very least, we can enjoy watching him hit and wondering what might happen if he were to get to more often.
Just as quickly as the Rays cut bait quickly on Johnson, the Diamondbacks have bid farewell to Branyan. Again, given the results, it’s not hard to see why they deemed him disposable: he hit .210/.290/.339 and went 0-for-15 as a pinch-hitter, and Juan Miranda had displaced him at first base. Both Branyan and Johnson represented $1 million commitments, so it’s not as if their releases represented writeoffs of significant investments. Still, it’s hard not to see Andrew Friedman and Kevin Towers as reprising the role of The Wire’s quick-triggered Officer Pryzbylewski here; if the Diamondbacks thought Branyan worth bringing aboard after over 3000 plate appearances, why change their minds after a mere 69 more?
Some teams have been rewarded for sticking with their slow starters. The Padres could have cut Brad Hawpe after his early struggles; instead, they’ve given him as many opportunities as Johnson and Branyan received combined, and they’ve been rewarded for lengthening their leash. Over his first 72 plate appearances, Hawpe hit .149/.194/.194 and by all accounts looked done as a big-league batter. In his 78 plate appearances since then, he’s hit .314/.385/.529, which is better than the Padres would have expected from him over the offseason, let alone after his disastrous first month. The moral of the story is that we never really know whether giving up on a player is the right course of action, even in cases where poor results are coupled with dire eyewitness reports. Perhaps a pitcher who’s replaced a low ERA and high fastball speeds with a high ERA and low fastball speeds offers some measure of certainty, although even then a revival can be as close as one start away. With position players, we lack such objective measures of talent, at least in the public domain, but it doesn’t hurt to remember that being late on a few fastballs doesn’t always mean the end.
Branyan’s particular problem is that any struggles on his part are apt to be interpreted as the death rattles of his balky back. That may be an entirely correct conclusion to draw from his power outage this season—the Diamondbacks certainly have the best idea of that. We also know that Arizona GM Kevin Towers has little tolerance for strikeouts and made it his mission to improve the team’s contact ability after taking the helm. In light of that initiative, heavy was the strikeout rate crown that passed from Mark Reynolds to Branyan over the winter—with Branyan out of the picture, Kelly Johnson now places it reluctantly on his own head.
Phillies second basemen have hit .219/.265/.269 this season, mostly courtesy of Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr. Phillies right fielders have hit .225/.323/.373, much of that Ben Francisco’s doing, with small helpings of John Mayberry and Ross Gload mixed in. Take heart, Phillies fans: like the Stones said, it’s all over now.
In the span of three days, the Phillies addressed two of their three most glaring offensive weaknesses, reclaiming Chase Utley and Domonic Brown from the DL’s clutches. (If only there were a similar replacement for Raul Ibanez waiting in the wings.) Both players more or less aced their rehab assignments: Utley hit .281/.361/.438 in nine games for High-A Clearwater, while Brown evinced no ill effects of his hamate fracture, tearing up both Clearwater and Lehigh Valley with a combined .360/.431/.600 showing in 16 games.
There are still question marks here, of course—Utley’s knee could deteriorate and will have to be managed carefully, and though there’s little reason to doubt that Brown will make it in the majors, he hasn’t done so yet. Still, the Phillies should be pleased that they weathered the absence of two important pieces without slipping out of first, and their flagging offense should get a nice boost from the cavalry’s arrival.