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November 6, 2008

Transaction Analysis

AL Addenda

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Signed RHP Sergio Mitre to a one-year minor league deal with a team option for 2010. [11/3]
Officially declined to pick up their 2009 options on RHP Carl Pavano and DH-L Jason Giambi, making both free agents. [11/4]

Mitre's deal is a split contract, where his compensation will be $1.25 million if he's on the big-league team; since he'll be on the DL until sometime in June or July recuperating from Tommy John surgery, the real key here is the club option, making this sort of similar to the decision to sign Jon Lieber in February 2003, knowing that his real value to the team would be in 2004. Add in the personal familiarity that comes from Mitre's pitching for skipper Joe Girardi's Marlins in 2006, and it adds up to a decent minor gamble for a filler pitcher for the back end of the rotation down the stretch next year, and potentially earning that role with the 2010 team. It isn't often that you see the Yankees go down-market, but it's as sensible for them as it is for anybody else.

As for Giambi and Pavano, neither became ex-Yankees cheaply, as it cost $5 million to make Giambi go away, and $1.95 million to bring to an end their initial four-year engagement with the pitching mound's answer to Amy Winehouse (at least in terms of a remarkable capacity to miss appearances).

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Outrighted INF-R Donnie Murphy and RHP Kirk Saarloos to Sacramento (Triple-A). [10/3]
Re-signed 2B-R Mark Ellis to a two-year, $10.5 million contract with a $6 million club option (or $500,000 buyout) for 2011. [10/20]
Declined to pick up their 2009 club option on LHP Alan Embree; claimed 4C-R Joe Dillon off of waivers from the Brewers. [10/31]
Duly noted the loss of LHP Dan Meyer on a waiver claim by the Marlins. [11/3]

Ellis' career has been blighted by what I like to call Saberhagen's Arrhythmia, a plight where the guy's performance veers from one extreme to the next, going from valuable asset to problem from year to year. In Ellis' case, the peaks and valleys seem to have been dialed back down to a teen-points decline, not as severe as the nearly 50-point drop-off that made the 2006 hangover from his comeback season in 2005 that much more nasty. Inconsistent second basemen might seem something of an organizational norm for the A's: going all the way back to the slick-fielding Dick Green and the disappointments that followed his career year in 1969, A's fans have also had to ride out the occasional brilliance and more frequent frustrations of their keystone crop over the years. The erratic fragility of Tony Phillips provided the team with flashes of defensive gifts afield and leadoff ability at the plate, a spread of skills marred by an inability to stay healthy playing up the middle on an everyday basis; to make things a little more interesting, there was also some hopscotching by the nimble Mike Gallego from utility to flailing despair and back again to make even the alternatives exciting. (Gallego's lovely little '91 season took him to the Bronx for Bomber bucks a-plenty, but who could begrudge him that? He'd be back, as he is yet again as the team's new third-base coach; sadly, he's just not as acrobatic in the coach's box as he was around the bag.) The brief, embittering wishcasts of the "Brent Gates Era" certainly didn't provide an answer.

All of which brings me to this perhaps-surprising proposition, that to some extent Ellis might rank as the best second baseman in Oakland A's history, not too shabby for a guy who was the throw-in on the deal that made Ben Grieve and Angel Berroa other people's problems. Admittedly, it's a field populated by the only occasionally effective, sort of a rogue's gallery no different than similar lists of Cubs third basemen between Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez (to use another team with a problem that's spanned a similar length of time). Since we're "only" talking four decades, I guess it's not that surprising.

None of which addresses the more basic question of whether Ellis is worth this many pennies. He should be recovered from the labrum surgery that shut him down early in plenty of time for spring training, and I suppose it isn't unreasonable, even in the face of his performance swings-a review of last year's long-term forecast suggests performance parameters that are worth it financially, and if he has one more year like 2005 or 2007 in him in the next two, it's that much more worthwhile. In the near term, if he proves that he's healthy and productive next year or in 2010, he'll be an affordable commodity in barter, enough so that I'm not really worried about his standing in the way of Adrian Cardenas or eventually Jemile Weeks. This also keeps things simple as far as what Cliff Pennington or Gregorio Petit are for-to fill in at short after the next Bobby Crosby injury, and to challenge Crosby if he afflicts the organization with more of the same punchlessness.

The other move to like here is nabbing the current reigning underutilized professional hitter capable of doing his team some good; face it, if you were going to name a team likely to take a chance on Dillon, the A's would almost certainly rank towards the top of the list. That said, let's stop short of ranking this with the initial rescue of Matt Stairs-the Wonder Hamster was 28 when Beane "discovered" him, while Dillon is already 33-but even so this is an especially nifty little move because of what it does to address multiple needs simultaneously. Dillon isn't a good third baseman, for example, but he can play the position, and for any team employing Eric Chavez, that kind of flexibility comes in handy. Whether as a right-handed alternative to Chavez at third, Daric Barton at first, Jack Hannahan when- and wherever, or as an upgrade on Emil Brown to mix and match with the team's squad of lefty-batting outfielders, Dillon represents a sometime platoon hero, an effective roster space-saver, and thus the likely guarantor of the roster spot for some 12th pitcher TBD. On the other hand, his positional flexibility probably means a Sacramento summer for Matt Murton, among others, especially if Bob Geren decides to retain both Dillon and Hannahan.

As for losing Dan Meyer to the Fish, let's just anticipate that if Brad Pitt has to do any Tim Hudson-related scenes in the screen adaptation, we'll see either his frowny-faced Achilles glumly pouting through a bad day at the office, or a flash of Chad Feldheimer ex machina by way of explanation. While the real purpose of the deal was to save money spent in other areas-all the better to afford the expanding paydays of Eric Chavez, for example-the fact that Meyer, Charles Thomas, and Juan Cruz (flipped for Brad Halsey in an equally unhappy exchange) didn't really do the A's a whole lot of good hardly helps burnish anyone's image.

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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Declined their club options for 2009 on DH-L Cliff Floyd and LHP Trever Miller; outrighted C-R Michel Hernandez to Durham (Triple-A). [11/3]

While everyone understands how Floyd and Miller were brought in to provide veteran leavening, there comes a point where you can recognize that you've already got a loaf. Between the notable lack of a regular right fielder and Floyd's persistent problems with health, there was no real incentive to keep him, not even at the relatively modest price of $2.75 million. There's not much more than a shadow of his former greatness left to him, and as Eric Hinske (also now a free agent) proved handily, you don't always have to spend seven figures to get solid production from a slugging slot. The money saved can instead be added to the money saved by letting Rocco Baldelli slip into free agency as well to better address the twin holes in the lineup, right field as well as at DH, in a more lasting manner. Pace Miller, because when you've already got a premium lefty in the pen in J.P. Howell making less than market rates, why pay $2 million for an aging, moderately effective second lefty? Whether you want to attempt to repeat the success enjoyed with Howell by taking a look at James Houser in a relief role, or betting that you can patch that slot-only if you really feel it's necessary-via some sound scouting and/or minor league free agency and/or the Rule 5 draft. Regardless, it's better to have the money in the till, because Miller, like Floyd, is the kind of player you fall into if your other plans don't pan out. This early in the winter, it's better for the Rays to have possibilities and money than to lock everything down.

As for Hernandez, the former Cuban "it-boy" must-have backstop prospect did not end up appearing in a single post-season game. Even so, credit the Rays for bringing him in at the end of August (as well as Jorge Velandia) to add insurance at a couple of skill positions up the middle, effectively as a roster prophylactic anticipating the very scenario that they ended up having to deal with-losing one of their catchers, in this case Shawn Riggans, with a knee injury that didn't heal up in time. Riggans will be fine next year, so this temporary inconvenience was really a matter of poor timing, but the front office did its job in gaming the situation, and Hernandez did his by knowing how to don the tools of ignorance.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Claimed RHP Dirk Hayhurst off of waivers from the Padres; designated 2B-L Kevin Melillo for assignment (and subsequently outrighted him to Triple-A). [10/6]
Claimed RHP Bryan Bullington off of waivers from the Indians; signed 1B/OF-L Adam Loewen to a minor league contract; designated OF-R Kevin Mench for assignment. [10/24]
Exercised their 2009 contract option on C-R Rod Barajas. [10/31]
Claimed SS-R Angel Sanchez off of waivers from the Royals; claimed RHP Kelvin Jimenez off of waivers from the Cardinals. [11/3]
Claimed LHP Les Walrond off of waivers from the Phillies. [11/4]

If you're thinking the Jays are increasingly desperate for pitching and grabbing every Quad-A hurler with decent command and modest stuff, then you and I share a command of the obvious. A staff reliant on Hayhurst and Bullington or Jimenez and Walrond isn't going to go far, but with Shaun Marcum out for most of 2009, Dustin McGowan, Jeremy Accardo, and Casey Janssen all trying to come back from injuries, and A.J. Burnett pondering the rewards of defecting, there's almost no one area of the pitching staff that isn't burdened with question marks. This could end up being an infamously ugly staff by International League standards if the Jays don't win a few rehabilitation campaigns this winter, to the point that a last-place finish might not be all that improbable.

All of which might help explain a readiness to accept Barajas' brand of adequacy as a regular catcher. Catching is one of the few areas the Jays have some talent on the way up, but spending $2.5 million for a decent placeholder isn't a bad investment, especially if J.P. Arencibia proves ready at some point next season, potentially freeing up Barajas for a deadline deal. I know that it would be more sabermetrically orthodox to lament the decision to not employ Gregg Zaun to better effect last season, but he's never really earned much respect for his work behind the plate, he'll be 38 next season, and what would be the point of keeping him? Having elected to prefer Barajas, Cito Gaston's sticking with a more transparently catch-and-throw type, and on a staff likely to suffer from more than a little turnover, I can't say I blame him. If this makes space for Curtis Thigpen to put up or shut up in the reserve role in the early going, that's not the worst use of roster space.

If there's an interesting minor pickup, it's the decision to give Loewen a shot as a hitter. The Canadian was a highly-regarded hitting prospect as an amateur, rating as a "borderline first-round talent" according to Kevin Goldstein, playing first base and batting cleanup for Chipola College, a juco powerhouse in Florida, on the days he wasn't pitching. This is also the upshot of the revelation that if Loewen had tried to continue pitching, doctors anticipated that he'd just continue to fracture his left elbow. The Jays immediately sent Loewen to Hawaii to play some winter ball and get back into the grind of hitting every day; six years is a long time, after all. It's an experiment to see if there's value there to recapture, but as Rick Ankiel signally demonstrates, it's worth taking these sorts of shots, on the off chance that you wind up with a slugger from nowhere.


Thanks to Kevin Goldstein for his insight into all things farm-related.

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

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