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June 16, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Evil Imperialism

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Los Angeles Angels released LHP Scott Kazmir. [6/16]

At the risk—well, maybe more like the certainty—of repeating myself, allow me to reproduce my blurb on Kazmir from Baseball Prospectus 2011, since little about his situation has changed:

Though he only just concluded his age-26 season, little seems to remain of the “Kid K” who earned two All-Star berths and a strikeout title at a tender age while with the Rays. Talented young pitchers don’t always go out in a blaze of glory, their career-ending (or career-diminishing) troubles easily pinned to one fateful moment; sometimes they fade away incrementally. Kazmir has always been fragile, and after repeated injuries, the lefty has surrendered a few miles per hour from his fastball, slider, and changeup, losing his ability to miss bats in the process. Worse still, his control regressed to levels that were barely acceptable when he was still striking out over 10 batters per nine; as a result, Kazmir’s strikeout-walk ratio barely topped one, and his 5.94 ERA was the highest of any pitcher permitted to throw as many as 150 innings last season. As a southpaw with a history of success, Kazmir will keep getting his chances, though he might find them coming in the bullpen before long.

Since then, Kaz has gotten hurt again and walked 20 batters in 15 Triple-A innings while looking way out of whack mechanically, prompting the Angels to condemn him as a sunk cost and cut him loose with the remainder of his $14.5 million salary for this season still owed. At the ripe old age of 27, he’s likely to get a shot with some other organization, but a longshot to regain anything like his former success. Between the block quote above and my TA entry about his hitting the DL this April, I’ve said my piece about Kazmir, except for this: beware of Rays bearing gifts. The way the Rays handled the acquisition and divestiture of Kazmir was a textbook example of buying low (or at least undervalued) and selling high. Rarely is a player’s time with a team bookended by lopsided trades, but Kazmir made the Rays look good both coming and going.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Transferred RHP Rafael Soriano from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day disabled list. [6/15]
Optioned RHP Kevin Whelan to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (Triple-A). [6/15]
RHP Cory Wade assigned to New York Yankees. [6/15]
Called up RHP Cory Wade from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. [6/15]
Signed free agent RHP Brian Gordon. [6/16]

With their own pitchers dropping like flies, the Yankees indulged their imperialist tendencies by reaching deep into other organizations to replenish their ranks. June 15 is the most popular date for opt-out clauses, though not a universal one, something I couldn’t have told you before today. (I don’t yet have an answer for what makes June 15 so special, other than its being Tim Lincecum’s birthday.) Snapping up arms as they opt out of the bushes seems like a smart play, given the comparative obstacles to obtaining players in trade, although the ceilings on such moves tend to be low.

The Yankees may not have stolen a march on the rest of the majors in taking advantage of the 6/15 bounty to liberate Cory Wade from the Rays and Brian Gordon from the Phillies, but they do appear to have obtained a couple of cheap, mildly effective alternatives to the likes of Buddy Carlyle and Amauri Sanit, fringy retreads whom even a low-payroll team would blush about employing. Wade is the less interesting, if not necessarily the less effective, of the two. The 28-year-old righty had a solid season for the Dodgers in 2008, pitching to a 2.27 ERA in 71 1/3 innings, but the wheels came off the following year, when his ERA ballooned by over three runs and he found himself exiled to Albuquerque and thence to an operating table, where he underwent surgery for a frayed labrum and rotator cuff. Such was the fate of many a reliever who pitched his way into Joe Torre’s lethal late-inning circle of trust.

Wade's results didn’t get much better in the minors either before surgery in 2009 or immediately after surgery in 2010, but he did improve toward the end of last season and maintained his Mujica-esque control throughout his struggles (career 1.6 BB/9 in Triple-A). The Rays found something in his scouting reports or stat lines to their liking, signing him last November. This season, Wade was legitimately excellent for Triple-A Durham, recording a 1.23 ERA that wasn’t built on either unsustainable home run suppression or a BABIP shortfall. The Rays couldn’t find room for him, so the Yankees pounced, likely looking at both his results this season and the fact that the Rays sought him out in the first place, which—given Tampa Bay’s proclivity for building successful bullpens—qualifies as the kind of good reference that most employers look for. Wade made a successful debut for the Yankees, pitching a 1-2-3 eighth in last night’s game.

Gordon took a far more circuitous route to the Bronx, though his recent results have been as impressive as Wade’s. The 32-year-old was drafted as an outfielder by the Diamondbacks in the seventh round of the 1997 draft, and he remained a full-time position player through 2006, his age-27 season and his fourth crack at Triple-A (with his third organization). At that point, he realized that a batting average in the mid-.200s and an on-base percentage in the low-.300s weren’t going to earn him any more than a lifetime pass to the level he'd already reached, despite decent power, so he decided to return to pitching, which he hadn’t done since high school—a gutsy move, when you think about it, since even though he’d reached his top as an outfielder, he remained an injury stack away from the Show.

The position switch worked, and Gordon made a few relief appearances for the Rangers the following season. He’s labored in minor-league obscurity since then, but he upped his strikeout rate dramatically last season and has sustained most of the gain this year. Gordon’s Lehigh Valley was green—he allowed only seven walks and recorded 56 strikeouts in 12 games and 55 1/3 innings—though he didn't give the IronPigs much length in his starts. The only man standing between Gordon (who will be on his regular turn) and a start for the Yankees this afternoon was Hector Noesi, who was removed from consideration when he warmed up during yesterday’s game. Gordon’s rise to the Yankees rotation is no stranger than that of Bartolo Colon, the pitcher he’s replacing, and there’s some reason to believe that he might experience a measure of success, though Yankee Stadium is a long way from the International League.   

Credit the Yankees for stealing from the rich to make themselves richer; in robbing the Phillies—the owners of a veritable rotation Mt. Rushmore—of starting depth and the Rays of bullpen depth, they plundered two teams who have more pitching than they know what to do with in order to apply another patch to their own staff (though some Rays relievers’ shaky peripherals suggest that Wade might have been called upon before long even had he remained with Tampa Bay).

I sat in on an interesting discussion with my BP colleagues Steven Goldman, Jay Jaffe, Emma Span, and Steph Bee at lunch yesterday, during which the subject of Gordon came up. As Steve noted, toiling at Triple-A (or below) for the Yankees has to be a demoralizing proposition these days. Brian Cashman had initially hinted that David Phelps might be called up to make today's start, and other Triple-A arms such as Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell had also been mentioned as candidates. Phelps, a 24-year-old righty, has been the best of the bunch; after an iffy April, he’s posted a combined 2.15 ERA in May and June, and he’s coming off of two consecutive stellar starts.

None of these players causes much salivating among prospect watchers or is believed to be more than back-of-the-rotation material, but conveniently, the back of the rotation is where the big club’s current vacancy lies. As Steve asked, what message does it send to a player like Phelps, who has done everything possible to prove his mettle in Scranton, when the brass bypasses him in favor of a veteran from another organization? There’s no way to quantify the toll that might be taken on a player’s performance if he believes he’s no longer pitching for a promotion, but one would think that it might subtract some motivation. Of course, as Jay noted, the promotions of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy were anything but Bombers business as usual; grooming young arms generally hasn’t been deemed compatible with pursuing pennants in the Steinbrenner era. What’s more, Gordon’s recent track record suggests that he might be the better choice for tomorrow’s game, which is and should be the team’s primary concern.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Optioned RHP Kyle Drabek to Las Vegas 51s (Triple-A). [6/14]
Called up RHP Zach Stewart from New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Double-A). [6/14]              

Doug Drabek didn’t become  an excellent pitcher until a few years after his debut, but he was league-average from the get-go, which is more than his son can say after washing out of the AL East this season. Drabek looked fine in three September starts for Toronto in 2010, but he lost the strike zone in 2011, leading the league in walks and sporting a sub-1.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s become clear that Drabek isn’t going to be a wizard at whiffing batters, despite his filthy stuff and expectations of acehood (he entered the season as the most talented of Toronto’s top 11), so it’s imperative that he avoid putting them on, something he couldn't do after making the club out of spring training.

In January, Kevin Goldstein indicated that Drabek had put some earlier makeup concerns behind him, but the righty seemed to unravel when faced with his failings on the mound once the season started, making emotional displays in the field and post-game comments in the clubhouse that raised red flags for the Blue Jays’ brass. He’ll have ample opportunities to confront failure in Las Vegas, even if he stays away from the casinos, since Toronto’s Triple-A environment is a punishing environment for pitchers.

Rather than choose a familiar face like Brett Cecil or Brad Mills, the Jays dug deep to replace on prospect and trade centerpiece with another, calling up eighth-ranked Zach Stewart, a product of the Scott Rolen trade, from Double-A. Stewart, who is not a star in the making, had spent most of his minor-league career in the bullpen before last season, but he made a moderately successful reverse conversion in 2010. Kevin called his campaign “good-not-great,” and his results didn’t improve any in his second exposure to the level, so it’s a bit curious that the Jays would throw him into the fire now. Mills, at least, has pitched much better than Stewart, and at a higher level to boot, so we can only conclude that the Jays picked Stewart so as to avoid the confusion of having multiple Brad Millses in the majors so soon after the Cubs called up the NL’s second Christopher John Carpenter.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Activated 3B-S Pablo Sandoval from the 15-day disabled list. [6/14]
Optioned 3B-L Conor Gillaspie to Fresno Grizzlies (Triple-A). [6/14]

Our long transactional nightmare is over. Since Sandoval last saw action on April 29, the Giants have suffered injuries to Buster Posey, Mike Fontenot, Mark DeRosa, Freddy Sanchez, and Brandon Belt, and their attempts to assemble a starting infield in the midst of adversity—including acquiring Bill Hall—have made them a Transaction Analysis staple. Miguel Tejada, the team’s primary replacement for Sandoval, hit an Alcides Escobar-like .218/.229/.257 without an Escobarian glove in May, though his bat has shown some stirrings in June. With Sandoval back in the fold, Bruce Bochy can consider at least one of his team’s suppurating wounds on the diamond sealed.

Now the Giants have to decide what to do with Miguel Tejada. Brandon Crawford has been flashing a lot of leather but (as expected) little lumber at shortstop, and Tejada returned to short last night. His stature and salary will likely conspire to keep him there, with Crawford subbing in for defense whenever possible. If he struggles there and new second baseman Hall succeeds in replacing Sanchez—who faces the prospect of season-ending surgery—with the aid of an (allegedly) miraculously rebuilt swing, it’s not out of the question that Tejada could end the season (and quite possibly his career) as a glorified utility guy.

Sandoval isn’t the only prominent player to return from injury in the last couple of days—Jason Heyward rejoined the Braves, Alfonso Soriano came back to the Cubs, Hanley Ramirez returned to the Marlins, the Cardinals reclaimed Kyle McLellan, and Washington welcomed back Ryan Zimmerman, a player who has somewhat quietly accumulated nearly 12 WARP since 2009 and whose return will rescue one of the league’s worst offenses from Jerry Hairston—but the end of Sandoval’s DL stint closes the book on an extended and unpleasant chapter in the defending champs’ season.


For further reading, check out R.J. Anderson’s Transaction Analysis Blog entry since the last installment of TA, as well as Joey Matschulat's reaction to the arrival of Dustin Ackley:

Kazmir released, Cantu designated (6/15)

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

Related Content:  A's,  The Who,  Triple-A,  Year Of The Injury

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