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July 5, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Once and Future Prospects

by Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Released RHP Carlos Silva. [7/2]

Silva threw 36 innings in the Yankees’ minor-league system this system, recording a 2.75 ERA with seven strikeouts per nine innings and his customary pinpoint control (1.5 BB/9). That’s about all an organization could ask of a veteran retread acquired as rotation insurance, but Silva reportedly developed shoulder problems that led to his release.

Even if Silva’s health had held up, the Yankees might not have had the need for him that was anticipated in what appeared to be a swiss-cheese starting staff entering the season. Thanks to the unlikely success of fellow veteran reclamation projects Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, the Yankees suddenly have more starters than they know what to do with, forcing them to send down Ivan Nova, who had pitched to a 3.68 ERA over his 11 starts, to make room for the returning Phil Hughes. Silva did enough before his injury to make himself interesting to other employers, so expect him to catch on somewhere else if his shoulder woes aren’t serious.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Activated RHP Rich Harden from the 60-day disabled list. [7/1]
Designated LHP Bobby Cramer for assignment. [7/1]

Early Friday morning, Rob McQuown informed me that Rich Harden was scheduled to start that night, then asked me for an over/under on his number of pitches thrown in the outing. I set the over/under at zero, since Harden starts have long since entered “believe it when I see it” territory. In this instance, I was wrong to doubt him—Harden not only made it to the mound for his first pitch, but delivered 75 more without incident, shutting down the D’backs by recording six strikeouts over six economical innings and allowing only a second-inning solo shot to Wily Mo Pena and a run-scoring Stephen Drew single in the sixth. Until last year, Harden had always been effective in his sporadic bouts of health between DL stints, so while it was somewhat surprising to see him take the mound at all, it wasn’t unexpected that he did well once he got there.

Billy Beane couldn’t have asked for a better time for Harden to return: The July 31 trade deadline is far enough off that the righty could still make enough starts to convince a contender that he’s capable of assisting down the stretch, but not so far off that Harden is bound to break down again before then. This is Harden’s ninth major-league season, and he hasn’t approached the 200-inning mark since his second one, so it’s not as if Beane is about to take some unsuspecting team for a ride; rival executives are well aware that even if Harden isn’t currently damaged goods, he’s almost certainly about to be. Still, if Beane could extract a single viable prospect in return for the oft-injured arm, he’ll have gotten good value on his $1.5 million investment even without many actual innings from Harden.

The man whom Harden replaced, Bobby Cramer, could also find himself on his way out of the Oakland organization before long. The 31-year-old southpaw was effective in limited duty for the A’s this season, retiring eight of the nine same-handed batters he faced. With his left hand. I mentioned that he throws left-handed, right? The A’s plucked Cramer, a 38th-round pick in the 2001 amateur draft, out of the independent leagues in 2008, and since then he’s generally done well enough to merit a spot in most bullpens. Unfortunately, the A’s haven’t had most bullpens—Cramer is the fifth lefty who’s seen time in their pen this season, so a change of scenery wouldn’t hurt his chances of holding a job.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Released LHP Royce Ring. [7/1]
Optioned LF-L Mike Carp to Tacoma Rainiers (Triple-A). [7/3]
Called up RHP Blake Beavan from Tacoma Rainiers. [7/3]

Ring joins Cramer on the list of lefty relievers without a home, but he’s never homeless for long. Seattle was the 29-year-old’s seventh stop on a whirlwind tour of the upper minors and majors, and organization number eight will come calling before long, despite his 6.08 ERA at Triple-A Tacoma. Ring did considerably better against same-handed batters, against whom he recorded 22 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings, though he also awarded them nine of his 11 free passes. There’s not much to see here, but some team will take a peek anyway.

As I mentioned when I wrote about Carp’s callup a couple weeks ago, the failure of Mike Wilson, who preceded Carp as an ineffective Band-Aid placed on Seattle’s gaping wound in left field, might be a foreshadowing of Carp’s future. Wilson hit .367/.427/.684 in Tacoma before bombing at the major-league level, and Carp carried a similar .348/.409/.661 line to Seattle before turning in a .200/.333/.257 performance over 42 plate appearances and going the way of the Wilson.

Mariners left fielders have now hit .205/.266/.344 on the season after a collective .218/.318/.375 showing last season and a combined .219/.276/.333 in 2009. Given how easy it generally is to find a left fielder who can hit—although somewhat oddly, major-league center fielders are outhitting their left-field brethren this season, one would think that the M’s might have found someone who could play the position and not embarrass them with the bat by now. Which brings us to our next transaction…

TEXAS RANGERS
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Designated RHP Dave Bush for assignment. [7/1]
Activated RHP Tommy Hunter from the 15-day disabled list. [7/1]

Well, we saw that coming. Bush outlasted Brett Tomko in the race to be the longest-lasting Rangers' long man despite offering little upside, but not because he pitched any better: He kept his ERA respectable through his first seven appearances, and then the floodgates opened. The righty still keeps his walks down—though not quite to the degree that he did in 2006, his most successful full season—but he no longer misses enough bats to be dangerous.

Bush’s tenuous hold on a roster spot was broken by Tommy Hunter, whose groin strain in spring training opened up a rotation spot for Alexi Ogando. Hunter returns as a reliever after reportedly enjoying a velocity spike in the bullpen during a rehab assignment at Triple-A Round Rock in which he struck out 14 and walked three in 20 2/3 innings while throwing fastballs almost exclusively. Ron Washington plans to use Hunter, who has college relief experience, as both a long man and a late-inning power arm, though he’ll likely gravitate toward one role or another based on his results in each role. The Rangers have lacked a reliable hard-throwing righty reliever in front of Neftali Feliz, so if Hunter can maintain his plus control in the pen, he could soon displace Mark Lowe in the late innings.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Designated OF-R Juan Rivera for assignment. [7/4]
Recalled RF-L Travis Snider from Las Vegas 51s (Triple-A). [7/4]

Rivera might make some sense in Seattle, given the dearth of options there—yes, Greg Halman is hitting now and has real power, but his 13:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio augurs low averages to come. That’s not to say that Rivera is anyone’s idea of a solid starting left fielder, unless there’s a lefty on the mound, in which case he enters the nearest telephone booth (which he’s finding increasingly difficult to track down—perhaps that’s his problem), sheds his mild-mannered outfielder garb, and changes into Carlos Lee, circa 2003. Rivera is a .291/.337/501 career hitter against lefties, a close approximation of Lee’s overall career line.

Like Lee, Rivera is no great shakes defensively, so when he’s not hitting, he’s not worth playing. Unlike Lee, who has almost no career platoon split (829 OPS vs. RHP, 833 OPS vs. LHP), Rivera is reduced to a pale shadow of his platoon-advantaged self against same-handed pitchers. If we play the phone booth game with Rivera’s career line against righties, he comes out dressed as guys like Marquis Grissom, Kevin Bass, Darrin Fletcher, Ted Simmons, Brandon Phillips, Aaron Hill, Adam Jones, and Ken Harvey. Not surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of left fielders in that group. So, to summarize: Rivera against lefties=Carlos Lee. Rivera against righties=unemployed. Given that lefties are a good deal more scarce than righties, the decks are always stacked against him, so it’s difficult for him to reach the level of an average major leaguer if he’s not deployed selectively.

Rivera’s lacking leather has led to more time at first base in the last two seasons, but moving to first base only exacerbates his offensive shortcomings. Even this season, Rivera had no trouble against lefties, whom he tattooed to the tune of a .327/.400/.509 line, but that wasn’t enough to save him from an internal solution in the person of Travis Snider, a Blue Jay with a much more impressive prospect pedigree, if not more impressive results thus far in the majors.

Snider seems much older than his 23 years, since he came up at 20 and failed to build on his small-sample success over two subsequent seasons of stagnation. Snider fell out of the Jays’ nest with a .184/.276/.264 line this April that earned him a trip back to Las Vegas to retool his swing, then had a mediocre May in which he showed little power. With the help of hitting coach Chad Mottola, who—like so many other hitting coaches—never amounted to much at the plate, Snider’s new swing came together (though he could still stand to do something about that mustache). The new plate approach features a more open stance and greater trust in his hands to take the bat into the hitting zone. Changes in approach don’t always coincide with improved results (and even when they do, correlation doesn’t always equal causation), but Snider hit .367/.441/.600 in June and added two more 3-for-5s in July before ascending to a higher plane, hitting both before and after a concussion that put him out of commission for two weeks.

The home-run power still hasn’t come, but the doubles power certainly has—Snider added three more two-baggers in his return to the majors last night. His job appears secure as long as he sticks with the new swing, and he and Eric Thames should give the Jays a more balanced lineup against righties than they had with Rivera.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Placed RHP J.J. Putz on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 29 (right elbow tendinitis). [7/1]
Activated RHP Sam Demel from the 15-day disabled list. [7/1]

Well, it was fun while it lasted. Determined to rebuild a historically bad bullpen, Kevin Towers kicked off his first offseason as Arizona’s GM by signing Putz to a two-year deal last December. Given the vast sums of money handed out to mediocre relievers last winter and his own impressive peripherals last season, Putz’s $4.5 million AAV appeared reasonable, but as we wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2011, “Putz’s ERA and strikeout rate oversell his success coming back from elbow problems.” Even though Putz was effective when he was on the field, he had to be deployed sparingly in the wake of his 2009 elbow surgery, and he still spent some time on the DL with patellar tendinitis.

Putz didn’t blow his first save of the season until June 1, by which time he’d successfully preserved 16 leads, but three more blown saves soon followed, as the righty’s ERA topped six for the month after he’d posted a sub-two ERA performance through May. The diagnosis was elbow tendinitis, which isn’t believed to be severe, but in light of Putz’s history, there’s plenty of cause for concern. With Putz on the shelf, David Hernandez—a more typical Towers bullpen arm who was acquired via trade and makes little more than the major-league minimum—takes over closing duties for the D’backs.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Optioned SS-L Dee Gordon to Albuquerque Isotopes (Triple-A). [7/4]
Called up IF/OF-S Eugenio Velez from Albuquerque Isotopes
. [7/4]

The jury is still very much out on Gordon, whose prospect bubble wasn’t popped by a mere 85 major-league plate appearances, but remember the wisdom of Jason Parks, who sounded the alarm about Gordon back in February. I’ve already reproduced this excerpt once in connection with Ben Revere, but I think it’s worth repeating now that Parks’ prophecy has come true, at least in the early going:

Q: Will Dee Gordon be an above-average hitter at the major-league level?

A: No. Gordon has a good hit tool, but the strength isn’t there, and it’s hard to see where it will come from. Without adding strength, pitchers will feel more comfortable attacking Gordon over the plate, daring him to beat the pitch. With a swing more conducive for connecting to deliver balls in play, Gordon will have to rely on his contact and speed rather than his pop and power, limiting the dimensions of his offensive game. Earlier, I mentioned his approach being sound, which is true, but how many walks is he going to draw when advanced pitchers aren’t concerned about challenging him at the plate? Without more strength, Gordon isn’t going to be effective against major-league pitching. His contact ability and legs could make him a nuisance when the ball is put in play, but without the ability to punish mistakes, Gordon doesn’t offer much to dream on when it comes to offensive production.

Gordon’s game could change before he makes it back from the minors, whether due to physical maturation or a change in approach, but early returns suggest that more accurate scouting reports have rarely been written. The lefty speedster was indeed a nuisance on the bases, but his eight steals looked even more impressive in light of how infrequently he reached base. Gordon hit his way on 19 times (16 times via singles, two of them bunt hints and three more of the infield variety) and walked twice, so he had to take off in roughly half of his opportunities to accumulate that many steals.

The 23-year-old looks like a 13-year-old who’s hit his growth spurt but hasn’t yet filled out his frame, which doesn’t present the most intimidating sight to opposing pitchers. According to resident BP PITCHf/x guru Mike Fast, Gordon faced the 16th-highest percentage of pitches in the zone among lefties with at least 200 pitches seen this season (54.1 percent, compared to the 48.5 percent average), which supports the notion that major-league pitchers aren’t afraid to challenge him. Although manager Don Mattingly insisted that Gordon didn’t look overmatched, the stats say otherwise: Gordon struck out 16 times, as his strikeout-to-walk ratio ballooned to eight after holding steady around two throughout his climb up the minor-league ladder.

The writing was on the wall for Gordon when Rafael Furcal returned, and not even the disabling of Casey Blake for persistent neck pain could save him from the ignominious fate of being replaced by Eugenio Velez, last seen hitting .256/.300/.388 for the Giants over parts of the last four seasons. Velez was hitting an out-of-character .339/.371/.463 for Triple-A Albuquerque, and if you believe that that kind of performance will continue post-promotion, Frank McCourt would like to ask you for a loan. Velez has been the beneficiary of a .396 BABIP that was exactly 100 points above his career major-league average; subtract that amount from each of his triple-slash components, and you’ll have a line more reflective of his actual abilities.

Gordon will return to Triple-A, where he can play every day, but he’ll have to eat his Wheaties if he wants to prove Parks wrong.*

*Lest there be any confusion, I did not just subtly suggest that Gordon start taking steroids. I meant actual Wheaties. And maybe he could consider picking up a Shake Weight in between outs.


For further reading, check out R.J. Anderson’s Transaction Analysis Blog entry since the last installment of TA:

The Return of Brazoban (6/29)
Release Your Veterans Day (6/29)
Mark Ellis Traded to Colorado (6/30)

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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