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May 11, 2009

Transaction Analysis

AL Central Update

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Designated RHP Mike MacDougal for assignment; recalled RHP Jack Egbert from Charlotte (Triple-A). [4/21]
Optioned RHP Jack Egbert to Charlotte; recalled RHP Lance Broadway from Charlotte. [4/25]
Activated 2B-R Jayson Nix from the 15-day DL; placed CF-R Brian Anderson on the 15-day DL (strained oblique), retroactive to 4/30; purchased the contract of OF-L Scott Podsednik from Charlotte; outrighted OF-L Jerry Owens to Charlotte. [5/1]

The problems that the White Sox have had with being able to consistently field the same lineup have gone beyond frustrating and now begin to reach desperation. Their initial creativity with what they wanted to do in center field with the platoon of Anderson and DeWayne Wise and also with Chris Getz getting his shot at second (at least before and until Gordon Beckham advances his own timetable) is in tatters, with both halves of the center-field platoon disabled and with Getz playing through a broken fingertip. Add in Jermaine Dye's transitory hand injury, Josh Fields' wrist issue, and Ozzie Guillen's mounting frustration with Alexei Ramirez, and you get a lineup that features not just the joy-free return of Podzilla, but also far too much Brent Lillibridge on your scorecard.

Perhaps the most surprising development is the response to Ramirez's cold start and his struggles with a steady diet of breaking balls, as the club tabbed Nix for some playing time at shortstop. In such a circumstance, it's interesting that Ozzie Guillen hasn't given Wilson Betemit starting assignments at second or short, but Betemit didn't look good at short in camp, and he didn't get any reps at second during spring training games, so he's been reduced to infrequent play at the infield corners.

Happily, with Anderson expected back in little more than two weeks and Wise due back before the end of the month, the problem in center shouldn't last too much longer. If Podsednik proves he has anything left to offer, he could stick as an echo of '05, but he's more likely in danger of being crowded out given his feeble production in his last several seasons. In the meantime, the offense is struggling, as you might expect, and a Podzillibridge platoon isn't really going to fix that.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Optioned LHP Zach Jackson to Columbus; recalled LHP Tony Sipp from Columbus. [4/22]
Placed DH-L Travis Hafner on the 15-day DL (shoulder soreness); recalled LHP Rich Rundles from Columbus. [4/29]
Activated OF-L David Dellucci from the 15-day DL; optioned LHP Rich Rundles to Columbus. [5/1]
Placed RHP Joe Smith on the 15-day DL; optioned OF-S Trevor Crowe to Columbus; designated INF-R Tony Graffanino for assignment; recalled OF-R Matt LaPorta, 2B-L Luis Valbuena, and UT-R Josh Barfield from Columbus. [5/2]
Optioned LHP Rafael Perez to Columbus; released RHP Juan Salas; purchased the contract of RHP Matt Herges from Columbus. [5/6]
Designated RHP Vinny Chulk for assignment; recalled LHP Jeremy Sowers from Columbus; outrighted INF-R Tony Graffanino to Columbus. [5/7]

While it's cool to see the Indians jump all over their early-season struggles, and while in the broad strokes it would seem to make perfect sense to take the opportunity created by Pronk's latest breakdown to take a look at LaPorta, what's the point of hauling LaPorta up if he's only going to play part-time? Four starts in nine games with the team does not represent a genuine change of gears or a real trial, and LaPorta was hammering the ball in Columbus, hitting .333/.414/.640 in 87 at-bats. Getting overly egalitarian and ladling out at-bats to Dellucci or Ben Francisco in the wake of calling up LaPorta is more than a little surprising when the team has simultaneously been aggressive in sitting Jhonny Peralta as a reward for his slump. At least working Valbuena into the mix was something I was enthusiastic about back when the Tribe made the deal that brought him into the organization, and doing so also has the virtue of exploiting Asdrubal Cabrera's slick gifts at short while they're giving Peralta punitive pine time. During his work with the Clippers, the Tribe had Valbuena start at third and short as well as his more usual second, perhaps in hopes of finding a lefty-batting OBP machine who could echo the Mark DeRosa skill set.

Given the Tribe's mid-pack rank in terms of offensive effectiveness, and for as much as there are things to like about how they're manipulating their lineup and their player usage patterns-such as the decision to spread Victor Martinez's starts relatively evenly between first and catcher, as well as the flexibility evident in how they're employing Cabrera-the multiplicity of options begins to more closely resemble flailing for a fix than a plan in action. Considering the big financial commitments to Peralta and Dellucci, I suspect the more likely solution should the Indians still be dead in the water in June will be to start shopping DeRosa, a free agent-to-be who might fix any contender's second- or third-base problems. Whether that prefigures the long-anticipated shift of Peralta's move to third and Cabrera's takeover at short remains to be seen.

As for the real disaster, that's to be found in the bullpen. There's not much to be said when Perez, expected to be a key component, puts half of the batters he faces on base, but Japanese import Masahide Kobayashi has been bad news, Jensen Lewis has flopped in a high-leverage role, and Rafael Betancourt is making 2008 look like the level he's moving down to, not an aberration. In such a circumstance, Sipp and Herges have their uses and can help, but too many important relievers are flailing. Since that the Shapiro regime has spent more than a little money over the years and seen repeated relief disasters unfold on its watch, there has to be some accountability beyond just noting that these guys aren't pitching well. Whether that's putting part of the problem down to long-standing questions about Eric Wedge's bullpen management skills, or on the front office's unfortunate commitments to a mixed group of veterans, or some combination thereof, Cleveland's got another bullpen mess, with the additional danger that they might not matter in the standings by the time they get it sorted out in-season, assuming they can do even that.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Placed OF-R Marcus Thames on the 15-day DL (strained rib cage), retroactive to 4/19; recalled UT-R Ryan Raburn from Toledo (Triple-A). [4/22]
Activated RHP Joel Zumaya from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Eddie Bonine to Toledo. [4/25]
Placed C-R Matt Treanor on the 15-day DL (torn labrum, hip), retroactive to 4/24; recalled C-R Dane Sardinha from Toledo. [4/26]
Optioned 4C-L Jeff Larish to Toledo; recalled LHP Clay Rapada from Toledo. [4/28]
Transferred C-R Matt Treanor from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/4]
Placed LF-S Carlos Guillen on the 15-day DL (shoulder); optioned LHP Clay Rapada to Toledo; recalled 4C-L Jeff Larish and OF-L Clete Thomas from Toledo. [5/5]

Losing Thames to injury was a whole lot less predictable than Larish's odds of being a Mudhen again, but the Tigers are basically confronted with the possibility that, whether we're talking about their DHs or their left fielders, the lineup is going to be undermanned. When healthy, Caros Guillen was more a placeholder than a great answer as a bat at either lineup slot, and the Tigers' tepid attack was already a matter of design after they elaborately made the point of trying to adopt the latest fashion and getting defensive. They may lean even further in that direction by employing Josh Anderson and Leyland fave Thomas (in a predictably scrappy vein), but Raburn's also getting some playing time after getting out to a slugly start in Toledo (.255/.357/.638). Since Thames probably won't be back before June, this isn't the sort of problem that is just going to go away, nor was it entirely clear that Thames was a solution as much as a good-enough proposition for a lineup that needs all the help it can get.

At least getting Zumaya back should be good news; while the Tigers can console themselves with the observation that their bullpen must not be doing all that badly if it ranks eighth in the AL in Fair Runs Allowed (and ninth in WXRL), that's a product of the conflagrations the Forest Service is letting burn unchecked in Cleveland, Baltimore, the Bronx, Anaheim, and Texas, as the five bullpens found there are all allowing more than six runs per nine to score. The bad news is that Brandon Lyon has joined Juan Rincon to give the club a pair of disastrous veteran imports, but at least with Lyon there's some reason to believe better things are ahead. Maybe slotting Zumaya into the primary set-up role lets Lyon get his bearings in the AL, and helps the Tigers protect leads more effectively. One can hope, at least.

As for potentially losing Treanor for the season and being reduced to replacing him with Sardinha, I wouldn't consider this that much of a setback for anyone beyond Treanor. He wasn't going to hit any, and Sardinha can't, but Treanor had guaranteed money coming to him, probably eliminating any perception that the Motor City Kitties needed to do anything that would involve an alternative to the light-hitting Gerald Laird. Very probably, Sardinha does something not very substantively different from what Treanor would have over the next five months, and they effectively get what they thought the wanted in the first place, but at least with this scenario there is the off chance that Sardinha does so badly that the Tigers consider taking a spin with Dusty Ryan, an idea they almost certainly wouldn't have entertained before September if Treanor was healthy.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Placed 3B-L Alex Gordon on the 15-day DL (hip, labral cartilage tear); recalled CF-L Mitch Maier from Omaha (Triple-A). [4/16]
Placed RHP Doug Waechter on the 15-day DL (strained elbow), retroactive to 4/18; recalled RHP Brian Bannister from Omaha. [4/21]
Activated OF-R Jose Guillen from the 15-day DL; designated C-S Brayan Pena for assignment. [4/25]
Placed SS-R Tony Pena Jr. on the 15-day DL (fractured hamate); purchased the contract of SS-R Luis Hernandez from Omaha. [5/3]
Outrighted C-S Brayan Pena to Omaha. [5/6]
Placed RHP Joakim Soria on the 15-day DL (sore shoulder); recalled RHP Luke Hochevar from Omaha. [5/10]

With Gordon out until late June or so, and now with Soria belatedly disabled with the shoulder soreness that's been hampering him for weeks, you might think the situation's rather dire, but if anything, the Royals have made enough early-season course corrections that they can feel pretty good about how they've ironed out their roster, even with their best young hitter and their best reliever on the shelf.

Consider how things have played out in the rotation, where for all of the hue and cry we've made over the initial, odd, and unfortunate decisions to pick Horacio Ramirez and Sidney Ponson, they didn't go more than five weeks into the season. The commitment to Ramirez as a starting pitcher lasted all of one start, against the Yankees in their new left-leaning homer haven, no less; that didn't go well. Bannister went into that rotation slot the next time around, and having had to sing for his supper to stick as a starter, the sabermetric fave has done well in three of his four starts. I'm not wild about the long-term prognosis; not that Bannister isn't an automatic improvement, but he's doing a lot of painting on the margins and walking people, and absent his developing a new out pitch or mastering a sinker enough that he can reliably have it at his disposal, I think we're still talking about a brainy fourth or fifth starter with no upside beyond that-which is exactly his role with the Royals at present.

The commitment to Ponson may have been more worthy of the term, and he even responded to some extent by providing three quality starts in six, but the decision to bring up Hochevar in time for the next time the fourth slot's turn comes up-this Tuesday-reflects how much the initial gambit was driven by the organization's sense of what Hochevar's timetable was, and not a reflection of some deeply rooted faith in Sir Sidney. Hochevar delivered five quality starts in six for Omaha-the one that wasn't was his very first of the year, as he settled for two runs allowed in five-leading to a 0.90 ERA, 38 baserunners in 40 IP, 30 strikeouts against just 10 walks, and an especially impressive ratio of 3.6 ground-ball outs to every caught fly, including seven double plays induced. That last is especially key to his success going forward-if he's doing a better job of keeping his sinker humming, last year's problems pitching from the stretch may well be erased, which will also help him as he sorts through which off-speed pitches might get him some consistency against lefties. It's a reflection of a young pitcher with a learning curve proving that he's learning, and having done as much in the early going-when there's not a lot of reason to argue that he'd have done significantly better than Ponson in a half-dozen starts-the job's now his for good cause.

Losing Gordon might put off the concern over whether or when he's going to turn the corner as a hitting prospect, and that's a disappointing thing in itself, but his absence does create an easy excuse to do the pitching staff a favor and kill off the Mark Teahen experiment at second base. Maybe Teahen is a better solution at third base now than he would have been without the obvious confidence the organization has in him as a hitter, to want to go so far as to plug him in at second to keep his bat in the mix, even when Alberto Callaspo was and is the obvious choice at the keystone. In Gordon's absence, having Teahen doing good things at the plate while the Royals matter in the standings makes for a nice situation indeed: if they continue to matter beyond Gordon's return, they can start mulling whether or not to keep Teahen's bat in the lineup at Guillen's expense. By then, I'd more readily believe that Guillen's bat will be the one doing the club less good, and with the decision to put Billy Butler at first base and DH Mike Jacobs, the opportunity to slot Guillen as the right-handed half of a DH platoon when he isn't spotting for Teahen or David DeJesus later this season seems reasonable, assuming you can hang the expense instead of getting hung up on it.

In all of this, it's losing Soria for two weeks, or more, or less, that is the most troubling development. Perhaps the Royals should have been more cautious with their closer in the first place-what, you mean to say that committing a bunch of money to Kyle Farnswoth, Ron Mahay, and Juan Cruz didn't buy you a sense of complete confidence that you were well set for relief help beyond the steal of the Mexicutioner in the Rule 5 draft? Hopefully, this won't be a problem; hopefully, Soria rests up and comes back before the end of the month, with little or no harm done in terms of late leads lost or Soria's golden arm losing anything. Getting Farnsworth and Mahay going-if the former can get going-and trusting that Cruz will build on last year's break from his past problems with left-handed hitters isn't the most horrifying bullpen proposition to be found, and it's worth recognizing that the Royals are second in the AL in FRA while also throwing the second-most innings of any pen in the league. (Props to Jamey Wright for being a classic middle-relief sponge; Gene Nelson would be proud.) Also, keep in mind that Ramirez is an employable second lefty in a pen that already has Ron Mahay for late-game role playing, which is already working out nicely enough. To some extent this means that Waechter is boxed out as he recovers from his elbow strain, but that's a nice problem to have in a Royals pen that seems reasonably well-stocked despite losing two pitchers to the DL.

MINNESOTA TWINS
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Claimed RHP Juan Morillo off of waivers from the Rockies; designated RHP Philip Humber for assignment, and subsequently outrighted him to Rochester (Triple-A). [4/17]
Placed RHP Jesse Crain on the 15-day DL (shoulder inflammation), retroactive to 4/18. [4/20]
Recalled LHP Jose Mijares from Rochester. [4/21]
Activated C-L Joe Mauer from the 15-day DL; outrighted RHP Juan Morillo to Rochester. [5/1]
Optioned C-S Jose Morales to Rochester. [5/3]
Activated RHP Jesse Crain from the 15-day DL. [5/4]
Optioned 2B-S Alexi Casilla to Rochester; recalled UT-S Matt Tolbert from Rochester. [5/6]

For as much obvious good that getting the team's best player back does them, a lot depends on how well they keep him in working order. Not that Morales and Mike Redmond didn't do good things as far as getting on base in his absence, but that's the best-case scenario with how this particular insurance policy delivers, and there's no upside beyond what they got. Absent Mauer from this lineup, and you have a rather thin collection of talent when it comes to actual production versus perceived virtue.

Take the demotion of Casilla. Forging a weak platoon or job-sharing arrangement between Brendan Harris and Tolbert at the keystone should represent an improvement over what Casilla's done (as opposed to what he's supposed to be able to do), but this strikes me as a relatively pathetic contrast to the Indians' self-overhaul. Consider this a case of making an example out of someone who has options and the misfortune of playing a position where notionally adequate alternatives are usually readily available. Of a piece with such tepid reshuffling is the recent tendency to write in Harris at short instead of Nick Punto; sure, it's a matter of riding the hot hand, and perhaps it's a case of investor's remorse after enriching Punto's quality of life with cash and multi-year job security, but Harris isn't really a long-term fix as much as he's a throw of the dice in a bad spot. Unlike reshuffling the middle infield, other fixes in the lineup aren't quite so easily made. Carlos Gomez has been riding pine and threatened with a demotion of his own; that's in part because Denard Span is a better alternative for everyday play in center field right now, but the real problem in the outfield remains figuring out how much rope Delmon Young needs to hang himself. The club still isn't getting the old, slugging version of Michael Cuddyer, and expecting too much from Joe Crede as the winter's token veteran add-on would be fruitless.

Where a greater portion of the club's improvement will have to come from is on the pitching and defense side of the equation, because it's there where mediocrity is still an unachieved ideal. Their vaunted home-grown rotation ranks 24th in the majors in Support-Neutral rate per start (SNLVA_R), and their pen rates no better, with almost everyone not named Nathan or Guerrier struggling to contribute in any role. For all their confident talk about good fundamentals and playing baseball the right way, the defense can hardly be considered a strength when it rates 21st in PADE. They might try to shake things up in the rotation by giving Anthony Swarzak a shot after his hot start at Rochester, but it isn't as if any of the front five are people you want to give up on. Fixing the pen in-house isn't any easier, beyond waiting for people to do better (with Luis Ayala, that might be a while), and they sort of already started the process by getting Mijares up. It's appropriate to give guys like Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama a little more time on the vine down at Double-A in the meantime; the organization effectively doesn't really have a lot of options at the upper levels for in-season fixes of the pen, so ideally they'll be open to grabbing somebody off of the wire on the off chance that he might erase Ayala at the very least.


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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