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January 29, 2009

Transaction of the Day

Heilman-a-Go-Go

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Acquired MI-R Ronny Cedeno and LHP Garrett Olson from the Cubs for RHP Aaron Heilman. [1/28]

As far as converting some of the talent received from the Putz deal, this only makes Jack Zduriencik's first big exchange that much more rewarding, because as bits to bring into the Mariners' particular puzzle, I'd definitely rather have Cedeņo than any other player in this trade, and the suggestion that it took Olson to get the deal done just speaks well to the man's ability to wring out some additional value when mere amiability might have argued for a Cedeņo/Heilman exchange. Simply in terms of service time, getting three years of a quality middle-infield prospect and five years of a guy who might be able to stick in the back end of a rotation is a great swap when you're giving up someone who might be a pig in a poke (even if Heilman might be some pig) who's under control for two seasons.

More fundamentally, however, Cedeņo represents a nice break from three and a half years of tolerance for sporadic promise from the starters in the middle infield, Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt. Admittedly, Lopez finally showed some progress in delivering power in his age-24 season, and if he can continue to head in that general direction as he moves into his peak seasons, he'll firmly move into the category of worthwhile asset. That said, he's also the guy who fell flat on his face in 2007 after seemingly establishing himself the year before. It's also important to not go too far and consider Lopez someone who broke out last year; while 41 doubles and 17 homers are nice, when they're spread across almost 700 plate appearances, you can see how Lopez wound up with a much more modest-looking .146 ISO. That's a good thing for a middle infielder at 24, to be sure, but he needs to improve from there, especially if his defense is a bit uncertain.* As for Betancourt, as a player a couple of years older and already midway through what's supposed to be his peak period, his remarkably reliable adequacy can be a bit frustrating if you harbored any ambitions for his doing something more than getting on base at around a .300 clip, or slugging better than .400. The problem with him is more that he's failed to make any progress, and while he's not a bad ballplayer, he's also very obviously settling into his status as a second-division starter. Add in that Betancourt's a player who bedevils statistical models for coming up reliably among the worse gloves, while scouts still see him as a gifted shortstop, and it's hard to say what he really represents. Barring a move in the right direction and now in his age-27 season, Betancourt becomes less and less intriguing, and more just a sphinx without a secret.

So, several years into the experiment of relying on Lopez and Betancourt as their regulars, the GM goes out and gets a player who represents a defensive upgrade on either one of them. While Cedeņo probably isn't a notably better hitter than Betancourt-indeed, they're very similar in terms of what you might expect from either going forward-and landing between the two in terms of age means that he's essentially at the same point of his career that he needs to put up and start or shut up and transition permanently into utility work, the more basic message is that Lopez and Betancourt don't have automatic job security on the new regime's watch after three years of farting around.

That's a good thing in itself, but it also gives Zduriencik some flexibility in terms of being able to make yet another trade up in the weeks and months to come-assuming Lopez pans out, for instance, somebody's going to want an under-contractual-control shortstop, whether that's Cedeņo through arbitration, or Betancourt because of the deal that will cost his employer either $11 million the next three years or $15 million over the next four. Sure, that might sound rich, but the Red Sox are out $18-27 million over the next three years on Julio Lugo, we don't know what Orlando Cabrera's going to cost just yet, Rafael Furcal cost $30 million over the next three seasons, and Edgar Renteria $18.5 million over the next two. If a contender decides it needs somebody playable instead of some glovely offensive zero, or suffers an early-season injury at short, either Betancourt or Cedeņo might fit the bill affordably and well, allowing Zduriencik to flip a marketable bit for something this franchise will need down the road.

Finally, there's also Olson, and if he's something less than an exceptional prospect, he's also worth taking a chance on when you're long overdue on a rotation makeover. While it would be foolhardy to get overly worked up over Olson's mediocre assortment; he gets caught in bad patterns because of it; right-handers in particular can load up on their cookies without feeling at all guilty as long as Olson can't snap off sharper sliders or work in a still-developing changeup with any sort of effectiveness. Certainly, eight quality starts in 26 wasn't a good sign that he's really ready to stick around, and as your standard-issue lefty who isn't going to overpower people, moving from a bad defensive ballclub to one that was worse last year isn't very encouraging either. However, the good news is that he's coming to a slightly different Mariners club than the one that had Raul Ibaņez and Richie Sexson planted in a couple of corners, and as noted, his coming over with Cedeņo might make for a better infield than last year's. If there's any hope of flipping Jarrod Washburn or Erik Bedard in their walk years (or Calos Silva with three years to go, if Zduriencik has a miracle up a sleeve TBNL), even if it involves eating some cash, there will be an opportunity for Olson at some point during the season. In the meantime, he'll have to wait and see how the planned conversions of Ryan Rowland-Smith and Brandon Morrow to rotation regularity pan out in camp. Don't be surprised when he's in Tacoma in April, and in Safeco by August, regardless of whether or not he improves any.

*: In this, Lopez is especially interesting as a case study in how the varying play-by-play metrics can see a player having wildly different defensive value-Plus/Minus hates him, Ultimate Zone Rating isn't wild, Revised Zone Rating puts him more solidly in the realm of adequacy, and Clay Davenport's new metric from this year's book loves him. As ever, if you can draw any conclusion at all, the best might be that he's not among the game's best or worst at the keystone.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Acquired RHP Aaron Heilman from the Mariners for MI-R Ronny Cedeno and LHP Garrett Olson. [1/28]

Apparently you can see Touchdown Jesus from the Holy City, because Jim Hendry apparently swung this deal for a Domer all the way from Rome. It's never been one of the more attractive features of the Midwest, the ready over-fascination with all things Notre Dame, but Heilman's a product of the program, a live arm, and the Cubs weren't quite sure what they were going to be able to do with Cede˜o (who was out of options) after signing up Aaron Miles for middle infield work, or if they'd ever have need of Olson's brand of southpaw inadequacy in a contending team's rotation. So, credit Hendry for flipping two roster oddments to acquire... well, what exactly? The thing about Heilman is that he apparently really wants to start, and while that's an admirable enough ambition, it also reflects Steven Goldman's quip that he's rarely seen "a pitcher so eager to rise to the level of his own incompetence."

It might be reasonable to entertain the hope that Heilman might be less sulky in a relief role pitching for his hometown team, because there really shouldn't be much question of his getting anything more than cursory consideration for a rotation that already needs to pick between Sean Marshall and Chad Gaudin. I suppose you can invert the proposition easily enough: strand Gaudin in the long reliever's role, and pick between Marshall and Heilman for the fifth slot. Again, we're talking fifth starters here, and Marshall could mark time in Iowa until the experiment with Heilman succeeds or fails; you could even hand-cuff Gaudin to Heilman to make sure the former has a regular role on the staff until Heilman proves he can log more innings and go deeper into ballgames. If that works out, Hendry looks brilliant, and if it doesn't, maybe Heilman accepts relieving in Wrigleyville if he has to live with it anywhere. He can always turn to Ryan Dempster and ask how the former closer turned rotation front man coped with marking time in the pen.

The best-case conspiracy theory that Cubs fans might want to conjure up around this deal is that the Padres really, really want Heilman, or that getting Heilman somehow makes it easier for Hendry to put together a package to get Jake Peavy. Failing that, it's an interesting question of preference that might yield some recouped value if Heilman thrives in a set-up or swing role, and it gets them a spot back on their 40-man roster. Although the team hasn't assembled a particularly strong group of non-roster invitees, I suppose I could envision a scenario where So Taguchi makes the team as Milton Bradley's legs or suitably inscrutable Asian clubhouse spokesperson.


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

Related Content:  Yuniesky Betancourt,  The Who

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