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March 18, 2009

Transaction Analysis

Central Obsessions

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart
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Optioned RHP Lucas Harrell to Birmingham (Double-A). [3/11]

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart
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Optioned LHP Rich Rundles to Columbus (Triple-A). [3/15]

Thus removing another obstacle from Tony Sipp's path on the comeback trail, though I guess properly speaking a former prospect can't come back when his arm got hurt before he'd properly arrived. Nevertheless, Sipp was a rather interesting prospect in 2005 or 2006, he seems healthy, he's pitching well, and whereas the Tribe has a small horde of lefties to choose from for the back end of the rotation-with southpaws Aaron Laffey, Scott Lewis, Jeremy Sowers, and Zach Jackson all fighting for the fifth slot, and also the title of designated Pavano replacement come the perhaps inevitable-beyond Rafael Perez they lack an established second lefty-designate.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Optioned RHP Chris Lambert, 2B-S Mike Hollimon, and OF-R Casper Wells to Toledo (Triple-A); optioned RHP Zach Simons to Erie (Double-A). [3/16]

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Noted that LHP Neal Musser cleared waivers and released him. [2/27]>br /> Signed RHP Juan Cruz to a two-year, $5.5 million contract with a 2011 club option for $4 million ($500,000 buyout); designated UT-R Esteban German for assignment. [2/28]
Signed LHP Bruce Chen to a minor league contract. [3/1]
Released UT-R Esteban German. [3/9
Optioned RHP Carlos Rosa and INF-L Tug Hulett to Omaha; optioned SS-R Mario Lisson to Northwest Arkansas (Double-A). [3/14]
Optioned RHPs Henry Barrera and Julio Pimentel to Northwest Arkansas; signed RHP Sidney Ponson to a minor league deal with a spring training NRI. [3/17]

Well, kudos to the Royals for being the team that climbed down off of its high horse and said, yes, one of the best relievers on this winter's market was worth some amount of change. It seems strange that Cruz is getting so much less than Kyle Farnsworth, but it was that kind of winter, where leaping before looking came with some additional financial penalties (beyond of course the punishing risks of employing Kyle Farnsworth). To Dayton Moore's credit, he didn't look at his pen and say, "good enough," so when you field a unit fronted by the Mexicutioner supported by Cruz, Farnsworth, and Ron Mahay, it becomes interesting to speculate about how effectively the Royals may or may not protect leads, because where a team like the Brewers has been snapping up waiver bait, the Royals spent good money on their front-rank relief quartet, having given Joakim Soria a multi-year, multi-million dollar extension beyond signing up the three free agents.

Meanwhile, from the "where are they now?" files, the same team signed up Bruce Chen and Sidney Ponson? Talk about dialing the wayback machine to Baltimore circa 2005, when it seemed like the Orioles had a bunch of young pitching talent-not that Chen and Ponson were young, but Daniel Cabrera was full of promise and vinegar, Erik Bedard was in his second season, and John Maine was getting his first serious look-see. The only guy who started a game for that edition of the Birds still with the organization is the ill-starred Hayden Penn. In the intervening time, Chen saw his career go off the rails (again) shortly after his reintroduction to Leo Mazzone, while Sir Sidney's long and labored history as another example of aristocratic waste has taken it's latest turn to deposit him here after doing his best as one of Queen Beatrix's diamond myrmidons. Like Ponson, Chen managed to fall back into major league favor by doing his best for Panama in the WBC after warming up with some work in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Signed RHP Scott Baker to a four-year, $15.25 million contract with a $9.25 million club option for 2013. [3/7]
Optioned RHPs Armando Gabino and Anthony Swarzak and INF-Rs Steven Tolleson and Trevor Plouffe to Rochester (Triple-A); optioned 3B-R Deibinson Romero to Fort Myers (High-A). [3/17]

CHICAGO CUBS
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Signed UT-R Esteban German to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI; optioned OF-L Richie Robnett to Iowa (Triple-A). [3/13]
Optioned RHPs Mitch Atkins, Jeff Stevens, and Justin Berg to Iowa; optioned RHP Marcos Mateo to Tennessee (Double-A). [3/17]

It seems strange that the Cubs are collecting Royals castoffs and that we might call this a good thing, but adding German to the previous decision to sign up Joey Gathright is a nifty enough move. The downside is that it only makes the decision to give seven large to the likes of Aaron Miles that much more lamentable. However, German doesn't really fit in neatly with the team's off-season acquisition campaign to add some speed and some lineup balance-German's speed isn't much to write home about, having rated negative in EqBRR despite the promise of potentially better work, and he bats righty. While he might make a nice OBP-oriented platoon partner for Mike Fontenot at second base, that's purportedly Miles' utility, so it seems more likely that he'll land in Iowa and be the first guy up if any infielder gets hurt. That's not so terrible-in a way, he's sort of the latter-day Jose Macias as multi-positional scrubs go, but he's a version that gets on base.

In part, the problem for German is that the Cubs are currently at 39 on their 40-man, which makes things semi-interesting as far as how viable non-roster players like German, Corey Koskie, So Taguchi, and Chad Fox fit into the picture. Rule 5 pick David Patton might stick the way he's pitching, so that doesn't open things up any for more than one of these guys to get his contract purchased. Add in that Micah Hoffpauir is bopping, and the idea of carrying Koskie takes a bit of a hit, because the recovering veteran's chief advantage is that he's a third baseman... which notionally German or Aaron Miles might be able to do just as well. Backing up Aramis Ramirez isn't something that keeps people employed all that often; last year, non-A-Rams started just 14 games for the Cubs-ten by the departed Mark DeRosa-and fielded a little more than 11 percent of the total defensive innings.

What Koskie (and Hoffpauir) will offer Lou Piniella is some lefty pop on the bench to compensate for losing Mike Fontenot to the everyday lineup, and perhaps also give the skipper an alternative or two for Derrek Lee; last year's .286/.344/.441 against right-handers-not to hot for a first baseman-was the start of a slide as he heads into his age-33 season. But can you really squeeze in both of them and still keep Gathright? Possibly, but it means forgoing a twelfth pitcher (insert perfunctory hurrah here), and it also challenges Piniella with creating player usage patterns that keep everybody sharp, which isn't so easy when you don't have the DH.

It isn't getting a ton of play, but Fox' latest comeback from his career-long case of bad elbowitis is humming along. While most Wrigleyvillians are fretting over the lasting psychic damage to Carlos Marmol from his nation-excusing blow-up pitching for the Dominican Republic against the mighty Dutchmen in the WBC, and taking solace in Kevin Gregg's good camp, and getting reacquainted with the fact that Jeff Samardzija's bound to break their hearts a few times, Fox has simply been taking his turns in Cactus action, notching five strikeout in six innings. There's already thought being given to taking a $4 million loss by cutting Luis Vizcaino, which is a simple recognition of the numbers game involved. We can take Gregg and Marmol and Neal Cotts (as token lefty, as real life imitates sitcom casting of token ethnic friends in its way) as locks. Aaron Heilman will probably lose his fight with Sean Marshall for the fifth slot, and wind up in the pen-that's four relievers. Chad Gaudin? Five. And then, for the last spot (or two), there's the mishmash of Vizcaino, Patton, Fox, Kevin Hart, Samardzija, Angel Guzman, Jose Ascanio, Randy Wells, and Mike Stanton's bid to become the bullpen's second lefty while keeping his career going in his age-42 season. Guzman is out of options, and while his track record for repeatedly getting injured borders on the heroic, he'll probably be claimed by somebody if he doesn't make the team and has to go through waivers.

It would seem safe to say that Ascanio, Wells, and Hart will be taken back out to the cornfields, which still leaves the team with five or six guys to pick from. Vizcaino's utility as a middle reliever should be enough to find a team willing to trade for him if the Cubs offer to eat some share of the cost of employing him, but in general, you have to think that this sort of depth and the absence of any explicit need on the team could add up to a minor deal or two between now and Opening Day.

CINCINNATI REDS
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Optioned 1B-L Yonder Alonso to Carolina (Double-A). [3/10]
Optioned LHP Matt Maloney and RHPs Robert Manuel and Sam LeCure to Louisville (Triple-A); optioned 3B-L Juan Francisco to Carolina. [3/17]

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Signed LHP Neal Musser to a minor league contract with a spring training NRI. [3/5]
Optioned RHP Brad James to Round Rock (Triple-A). [3/10]
Noted the loss of RHP Fernando Nieve on a waiver claim by the Mets. [3/14]
Optioned RHP Samuel Gervacio, LHPs Tyler Lumsden and Polin Trinidad, OF-R Yordany Ramirez, and 2B-S Drew Sutton to Round Rock (Triple-A). [3/15]
Optioned RHP Felipe Paulino to Round Rock. [3/17]

It seems strange for the Astros to be shedding talent when they have so little to spare, but Nieve was out of options and pitched horrendously in camp, and the Astros take themselves seriously enough that they're watching raptly as a number of formerly famous non-roster pitchers fight their way onto the roster. Russ Ortiz-no, really-and Jose Capellan are battling for rotation time, and while that probably requires a spit-take, at least Capellan has had enough non-performance setbacks during his career to perhaps benefit from an argument that maybe he just needed to find the right place to settle in. Chad Paronto seems like a lock to win one spot in the pen, and Danny Graves-no, really-seems to have dug his way back out of retirement long enough to be taken seriously. So of course the Astros cut somebody young, and why not when you've got the salt of the earth to sort through? Have I mentioned Jeff Fulchino's on the 40-man? And Tim Byrdak? For reals.

It's almost certain that the one semi-productive regular under 30, in the lineup or on the pitching staff, will be Hunter Pence. The Astros will double their count of under-30s among all regulars by sticking with Michael Bourn, but that's the sort of commitment that seems likely to engender regret. As much as I loathe the idle jabbering about contraction-and the self-centered kleptomaniacal grabbery among fandom that it represents, as people bleat over how much they covet the players on other fans' teams, to the point of extermination-it's hard to argue that the Astros are involved in seriously operating a competitive team as opposed to giving Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt (and Lee, and Pence, and then we start getting in trouble) a full slate of teammates to play with. As easy as it is to bash Ed Wade about the state of the present-and to perhaps be irked by some of his preferences-keep in mind that it was going to get really ugly very fast no matter who replaced Tim Purpura, and that the real measure by which to keep score following the Astros isn't what happens among the expendables on the big-league roster in the present, but how effectively they turn things around on the player development side of the equation. It's far too early to say much beyond what Kevin Goldstein noted yesterday, that there's nowhere to go but up.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Optioned LHPs Victor Garate and Brent Leach, RHPs Jesus Castillo and Travis Schlichting, C-R Lucas May, MI-R Ivan De Jesus Jr., and INF-S Tony Abreu to their minor league camp. [3/17]

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Released RHP Eric Gagne from his minor league contract. [3/8]
Optioned RHPs Tim Dillard and Nick Green to Nashville (Triple-A); optioned RHPs Omar Aguilar and Alex Periard to Huntsville (Double-A); optioned RHP Mark Rogers to Brevard County (High-A); optioned RHP Cody Scarpetta to Wisconsin (A-ball). [3/15]
Optioned LHPs R.J. Swindle and Chase Wright to Nashville. [3/16]
Claimed RHP Wes Littleton off of waivers from the Red Sox; designated RHP Eduardo Morlan for assignment. [3/17]

The Brewers' bullpen options appear to be narrowing. Gagne's shoulder is still apparently a mess, which took him out of the mix quickly enough. Swindle is a story anybody could love- Canadian indy league vet makes it to The Show in his third organization-but the Brewers decided that they're set for situational lefty help with organizational soldier Mitch Stetter, himself a tough-luck story of sorts, as a 2003 16th-rounder out of that powerhouse program, Indiana State. Some of the other slots should be relatively set, with Trevor Hoffman closing, Todd Coffey and Carlos Villanueva setting him up, and Seth McClung presumably working in long relief.

That makes five relievers, and as with a lot of teams, that's about where things begin to get interesting, as people are going to be fighting it out to the last bullet for that last slot or two. There's a good chance that Omar Aguilar (a 2005 draft-and-follow) could slip onto the roster as quietly as he was added to the 40-man after last season. That might be the last time you see "quiet" and Aguilar in the same sentence-he's a chunky kid who cooks with gas with a violent delivery, consistently dialing it up into the mid-90s. With only 28 games of experience above A-ball-and only 95 games' worth of experience at all-he might represent an important reminder that not every pitcher's timetable runs at the same pace. For another flame-throwing alternative, there's the permanently combustible Jorge Julio, flaming on when he isn't flaming out. Then there's the decision to grab Littleton, because as a side-arming ground-ball generator, he has his uses. And then there are minor league vets like Lindsay Gulin and Mark DiFelice, command guys all the way, guys who could handle middle-innings roles on several teams; DiFelice did well in the WBC for Italy. Looking past that crowd, it's no wonder that an OK org soldier like Dillard has to settle for a return to Triple-A, but he'll be waiting in the wings as soon as somebody else disappoints or breaks down.

Reliever fungibility is seldom so readily illustrated, because it isn't like the Brewers have made major commitments to bring in any of these guys besides Hoffman, and many of them were waiver bait relatively recently. And yet Ken Macha stands a pretty good chance of putting together a relatively decent unit, however much Hoffman might struggle.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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Optioned RHP Romulo Sanchez to Indianapolis (Triple-A). [3/9]
Optioned RHP Jimmy Barthmaier to Indianapolis; optioned RHP Jeff Sues and C-L Steve Lerud to Altoona (Double-A); optioned RHP Ronald Uviedo and 3B-L Pedro Alvarez to Lynchburg (High-A). [3/16]
Optioned LHP Tom Gorzelanny and OF-R Jose Tabata to Indianapolis. [3/18]

I know, most people might be a little shocked by the news that Gorzo's down, but his broken-ness doesn't seem like that much of a news item as much as one of the lingering legacies of the Littlefield era of misrule and misplaced priorities. The rotation should still end up being stocked with swag from last season's trade with the Yankees, surprising nobody.

Instead, what, you mean to tell me this is a game with no Romulos? Well, rats, because one less in the major league galaxy just means the complete eradication of any opportunity to make cracks about an ill-spent youth playing Star Fleet Battles.* I guess if there's a real surprise here, it's the dispatch of Alvarez to the Carolina League, but this won't be so very different from the path taken by Matt Wieters in the Orioles organization-signing late, playing in a winter league, starting out in High-A, and after the impressions already made in camp, seemingly likely to rocket through the farm system in a year or less. It's a nice problem to have, though it does put Andy LaRoche on notice that, when it comes to establishing himself as a big-league regular, there's no time like the present.

*: Everybody else almost always wanted the KR Cruiser, but I usually went with the Gorn, because let's face it, nothing beats that one-two punch of plasma torpedoes and man-eating boarding parties moving with sleestak-like swiftness. I mean, c'mon, the Kzinti-missile-toting space cats? Gimme a break.

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Optioned LHP Wade LeBlanc, RHPs Mike Ekstrom and Cesar Carrillo, and 2B-R Travis Denker to Portland (Triple-A); optioned RHP Jackson Quezada and OF-S Luis Durango to Lake Elsinore (High-A). [3/17]

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed LHP Dennys Reyes to a two-year, $3 million contract. [3/5]
Reassigned 3B-R David Freese and 3B-L Brett Wallace (among others) to their minor league camp. [3/8]
Optioned 2B-R Jarrett Hoffpauir and OF-R Nick Stavinoha to Memphis (Triple-A). [3/15]
Optioned RHPs Mitchell Boggs and Matthew Scherer, LHP Charlie Manning, and OF-R Brian Barton to Memphis. [3/16]

Generally speaking, I'm keeping my focus on the players who get optioned out; non-roster invites are being shed in their legions, of course, and the more important stuff in terms of near-term impact on any individual ballclub involves how they're managing their 40-man rosters. But in the instances of Freese and Wallace I'm making an exception, and this only to note that the Cards made a pretty quick call on how to handle their situation at third base in Troy Glaus' absence: they're turning to Joe Mather at the hot corner. That's not quite as elaborately bizarre as the experiment with making Skip Schumaker a second baseman, because Mather was drafted as a third baseman, and was playing third in more than token appearances as recently as 2004, when he was in the Midwest League. Now, I know and you know that it probably won't go exceptionally well, but Mather should at least be plausible and playable at the position; nobody's asking for Terry Pendleton. I like the move for what it represents in terms of being responsible with Wallace's future and pragmatic about Freese's relative upside and utility compared to Mather's. Where Mather risked being crowded out of a crowded outfield-which is what forced a perfectly decent outfield reserve like Barton out of camp already-by adding some infield corner utility to his menu of options, he potentially becomes a nice weapon to carry on the roster even after Glaus' return.

Where things get weird is how this seems to be part of a roster-wide super-flexibility, where Schumaker's a second baseman as a matter of organizational wishcasting, while the club also makes space for Sloppy Joe Thurston as an infield/outfield reserve. The challenge that's been thrown down to Mather and Schumaker is sort of like last year's decision to play Brian Barden at shortstop at Memphis; the team now seems to take Barden seriously as a utility infielder, and add in that he's a switch-hitter, and you've got another interesting bench player. It's easy to be skeptical about these choices-indeed, it's relatively likely that the Cardinals will see some ugly defense, and decide for themselves how much of it they can stomach-but I'm a little intrigued by the outside-the-box solutions, where it's as if Tony La Russa was trying to turn everybody into Tony Phillips. Sometimes, presenting a new challenge to a player leads to surprising breakthroughs; Phillips went from being an injury-prone disappointment as a middle infielder to a multi-positional leadoff terror (perhaps in too many senses of the word).

I'm not giving an endorsement to moving Schumaker against the grain of the defensive spectrum-perhaps the other statheads might vote me out of our wifi-enabled treehouse-but I can't help but wonder: what if it works, and what would that teach us? Lest we set the world too much on edge, at least La Russa's still a creature of some of his other habits-I mean, c'mon, Dennys Reyes and TLR, we knew that the day they danced had to come, right? Especially now that Reyes has been aged longer than most scotches, thereby elevating the hefty lefty to suitability for La Russa's refined palate where situational lefties are concerned. Whoever wins the closer's role, between Reyes and Trever Miller Cardinals fans can rest assured that, for their viewing pleasure, they will as ever be guaranteed the pre-ninth tedium of reflexive situational swappery, executed with a practiced dexterity rivalling that of, say, Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich.


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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