August 9, 2011
Johnny (Finally) on the Spot
Giavotella hit a home run in his 11th major-league plate appearance, accomplishing a feat his predecessor at second base, Chris Getz, has failed to do in his last 782 plate appearances (a period spanning the whole of his Royals career). Not only has Giavotella already gone yard, but he’s also stolen a base, drawn a walk, doubled twice, and made a nice play in the field (though the replay suggests a certain lack of awareness of Casey Kotchman’s footspeed). He’s not known as a strong defender, though he’s committed errors less frequently this season, but Getz’s superior glove doesn’t make him the superior player. In his first three games of the season, Giavotella surpassed Getz’s WARP total in his first 95 contests (not to mention the -0.9 he earned in 2010).
Like most young players, Giavotella will experience his struggles, but his arrival represents a major upgrade at second base (for all the good it does the cellar-dwelling Royals in the short term), since the 2008 second-rounder is a legitimate prospect. The compact righty entered the season ranked ninth on the stacked Royals top 11, but he improved that standing with a .338/.390/.481 showing in his first exposure to Triple-A at age 23, including an average that hovered near .400 in June and July. It’s anyone’s guess as to why it took this long for Giavotella’s promotion to come through; his last three appearances in Kevin Goldstein’s Minor League Update have been accompanied by the notes, “Royals quickly running out of excuses,” “I can’t explain why he’s still here either,” and finally, “It’s almost annoying that he’s still at Triple-A.”
Now that that wrong has been righted, the Royals’ infield of the future has taken shape, with Alcides Escobar at shortstop, Mike Moustakas at third, and Eric Hosmer at first. Only Matt Treanor’s regular appearances behind the plate have spoiled the prospect fun. Keep in mind that manager Ned Yost described Giavotella during spring training earlier this year as “a scrap iron, he's a little, freakin' gamer, dirt bag-type player,” thereby breaking the record for consecutive clichés used to describe Caucasian infielders of a certain size. Yes, ladies and gentleman, we might have another Eckstein on our hands, but like Eck—and unlike, say, Willie Bloomquist—this one actually deserves a starting job. Giavotella’s belated arrival comes as another signal to the AL Central that Storm (Chaser) clouds are gathering in Kansas City.
Placed RHP Chris Ray on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to July 30 (strained right shoulder—latisimus dorsi). [8/1]
With David Pauley having been dumped on Detroit at the deadline, the Mariners called up another reliever to replace him: David Pauley. Okay, so Pauley and Laffey aren’t exactly the same—Pauley is right-handed, while Laffey is a lefty. Pauley also has a couple extra ticks on his fastball, though as a righty, he needs those extra miles per hour to survive. However, both pitchers rely heavily on the fielders behind them to record outs: Laffey has a 5.2 K/9 this season to Pauley’s 5.5, so it's safe to say that neither has strikeout stuff.
Seattle has baseball’s third-highest defensive efficiency, which makes the Mariners a particularly hospitable home to pitch-to-contact types like Pauley and Laffey; with Detroit near the bottom of the AL defensively, Pauley might have a tougher time of it in his new uniform. The sample sizes are small, but it’s not entirely a fluke that Laffey’s ERA has fallen by a run since his stint with the less sure-handed Indians last season, while his FIP has actually climbed by roughly the same margin.
While the blueprint for the Mariners’ season hasn’t led them to on-field success, it has allowed them to convert some fairly fungible assets into ones that could offer more lasting value. Defense can translate to wins with a competent staff and some decent offensive support, but even without those elements, it still has its uses. In one of my first articles for BP, I wrote that “procuring pitching without addressing underlying defensive woes is like using an HDTV to display SD sources: you simply won’t end up with the pretty picture you thought you were paying for.” That also works the other way—doubling down on defense without procuring quality pitching can give you a prettier picture than you paid to have, like one of those devices that promises to upscale an input without actually increasing the resolution of the source. Seattle’s greatest strength hasn’t helped them conquer their greatest weakness, but if that strong fielding helps make the likes of David Pauley appear more attractive to contenders, it could shorten the M’s winding path to becoming buyers.
A different deadline trade may have helped remove one obstacle standing between Seattle and respectability, at least. The following reads like a roll call from a modern-day M’s fan’s nightmares: Bill Hall. Ronny Cedeno. Wladimir Balentien. Eric Byrnes. Mike Carp. Greg Halman. Matt Tuiasosopo. Milton Bradley. Mike Wilson. Carlos Peguero. These are just a few of the names that have graced the “left field” portion of Seattle’s lineup cards since 2008, the last season in which the team could claim to have fielded a productive player at that position (Raul Ibanez). This sorry collection of veterans on their last major-league legs and youngsters with holes in their games wide enough to drive one of the trains outside Safeco Field through, highlighted by Michael Saunders’ annual will-he-or-won’t-he (answer: he won’t) flirtation with hitting major-league pitching, produced collective lines of .219/.376/.333 (2009), .218/.318/.375 (2010), and .210/.265/.360 (2011) over the last three campaigns, which had something to do with Seattle’s less-than-impressive team-wide offensive performances over the same period.
That positional black hole may finally have been filled by switch-hitter Trayvon Robinson, who was called up on Friday. Robinson came to the Mariners courtesy of Ned Colletti, whose curious actions at the deadline suggested that the Dodgers were a mere minor-league catcher away from contention. Robinson, whom Kevin Goldstein rated as LA’s fourth-best prospect in the most recent Dodgers Top 11, was the most promising prospect to change teams in the three-way trade that brought Erik Bedard to Boston, and the Mariners hope to reap the rewards. The outfielder hit .289/.374/.552 with 26 homers, but he benefited from a favorable hitting environment in Albuquerque, and despite his superficial success, significant concerns remain.
As Jeff Sullivan observed, Robinson had considerable trouble making contact in the minors. The rookie isn’t a hacker—he walks, and while he also whiffs, he doesn’t strike out to a prohibitive degree. When he does swing, though, he very often comes up empty, resulting in the ninth-lowest contact rate (just over 65 percent) in Triple-A this season, below those of many a player regarded as a Quadruple-A filler, or worse. Robinson has plenty going for him—he’s only 23, he’s made more contact at lower levels, and he’s capable of making catches like this one—but there is some justifiable concern that a tendency to miss pitches in the minors will only be exacerbated by a move to the majors, where pitches are generally harder to hit. Even so, there’s every reason to expect that Robinson might be the one to bring the outfield revolving door to a halt in the coming seasons.
Signed RHP Kevin Millwood to a minor league contract. [8/8]
Having tried and failed to crack the rosters of baseball’s elite, the Yankees and Red Sox, in whose minor-league systems he labored before subsequently being released, Millwood went mile-high in search of his next gig. The Sox have used 10 different pitchers as starters this season, but they wouldn’t give Millwood a chance, despite 13 passable starts at Pawtucket, which saw him record a 4.28 ERA with 66 strikeouts and 25 walks in 73 2/3 innings. That doesn’t bode well for his prospects for success in Coors Field, which Millwood said he’s always considered “an interesting place,” perhaps in the same way that cockroaches consider roach hotels an intriguing solution to their overnight needs. With Juan Nicasio sidelined for the rest of the season with a fractured neck and Clay Mortensen struggling in Triple-A, the Rockies need rotation help, and there isn’t much riding on where they get it, but Rockies fans might sustain a few neck injuries of their own as they crane to keep an eye on his batted balls allowed.