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June 12, 2009

Transaction Analysis

AL East and Central Updates

by Christina Kahrl


IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Outrighted C-R Chad Moeller to Norfolk (Triple-A). [6/3]
Placed SS-S Cesar Izturis on the 15-day DL (appendectomy. [6/4]
Released LHP Jamie Walker; purchased the contract of LHP Alberto Castillo from Norfolk. [6/5]
Purchased the contract of UT-R Oscar Salazar from Norfolk. [6/7]
Activated RHP Koji Uehara from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP David Hernandez to Norfolk. [6/12]

Losing Izturis for just a few weeks may be a bit of a shock, but the relevant news here is that it shouldn't radically affect the team's fortunes-either Robert Andino will take the balance of June to reward Andy MacPhail's scroungy instincts in nabbing the slick-fielding middle infielder, or he'll join the Shuffle of Infinitely Fungible Talent (or SIFT, were I Will-ing when it came to inventive non-statistical acronyms), ā la Luis Hernandez. The danger is that, with his gifts and dubious upside, he'll do both simultaneously, with that wee dose of pop bubbling up to remind you that he's not entirely flat. Still, he showed enough in Albuquerque that he could at least be a latter-day Dave Anderson, which sets him apart from the Hernandez or Tony Peņa Jr. types.

In the meantime, it's above replacement-level cool to see Salazar get the call. Signed by the A's out of Venezuela back in 1994 (i.e., before BP even existed), he's been up before, in 2002 with the Tigers, and resurfacing with the Orioles last year. In some ways, he's symptomatic of the organization's weakness in the upper levels, sort of like a version of Lou Montanez that's a little longer in the tooth. It's hard to figure what exactly he's for; while he used to be a middle infielder, those days are effectively gone, as he's put in just one appearance at second base in the last two seasons since getting back from a stint in Mexico, and he struggles at third base, so he's not really a true four-corners reserve. Even then, because he's under six feet, it's hard to see anyone ever taking him seriously as anything more than a bit player at first base, and you can wonder how well he'd adapt to a bench-y role spotting at first, DH, and the outfield corners. Still, at 31 years old, and after having ripped the International League for a .300 Equivalent Average, he's at least earned a chance to knock around. If he affords the Orioles the opportunity to shop Ty Wigginton to a roster and role where he might be happier (the Mets, perhaps, in another one of baseball's prodigal son stories?), there's no harm in that.

Speaking of Wigginton and free-agent expenses subsequently regretted, the decision to release Walker can't really be called over- or underdone. It doesn't really close the book on that ugly November of '06, when Mike Flanagan and whoever else was semi-notionally in charge during the final moments of pre-MacPhail front-office failure flailed in the direction of relief pitching and binge-shopped their way into a bullpen unworthy of the expense. Signing Walker for three years and $12 million was only cheap compared to Danys Baez (three seasons and $19 million), and the club spent another $10.5 million for three years of Chad Bradford that same month. If ever there was a bullpen-category indictment of an American business culture that suggested that mass and mass expense equaled adequate solutions, this was probably it. Add up the contributions of the three during their time as Orioles, and you get a combined WXRL of 2.4 or so; maybe Baez adds to that in the next three or four months, and maybe he doesn't, but if spending more than $40 million on relief pitchers resulted in less than a win above replacement per season, you can see how this represented a first-order clutterbuck in terms of talent identification and acquisition.

Finally, Uehara came back pretty much on schedule, and while it seems a shame to send Hernandez back down after doing creditably, they decided not to hold Jason Berken's recent drubbing against him, and letting Berken join Brad Bergesen to see which one will succeed in his quest to be the NextGen Orioles' Bob Milacki to somebody else's Ben McDonald or Pete Harnisch. Hernandez has the advantages of time and talent in his favor, and having cut his teeth, saying that he'll be back merely repeats the obvious.

BOSTON RED SOX
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Activated OF-L Mark Kotsay from the 15-day DL; optioned 1B-R Jeff Bailey to Pawtucket (Triple-A). [6/2]

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Outrighted C-R Corky Miller to Charlotte (Triple-A). [6/3]
Purchased the contract of INF-R Gordon Beckham from Charlotte; designated INF-S Wilson Betemit for assignment. [6/4]
Outrighted RHP Kelvin Jimenez to Charlotte. [6/5]
Optioned LHP Wes Whisler to Charlotte; recalled RHP Jose Contreras from Charlotte. [6/8]
Placed RHP Bartolo Colon on the 15-day DL (knee), retroactive to 6/8; purchased the contract of LHP Aaron Poreda from Birmingham (Double-A). [6/9]

Now, things get interesting. The Sox may not have all the coolest toys-there can be only one, and I have it on good authority from the dingo which one it is-but whatever their straitened circumstances might be absent Carlos Quentin from their lineup or Colon from their rotation, they do have more than their share, highlighting in very short order the virtues of going with a high-risk/high-yield strategy in the previous two drafts, now that both of their first-rounders from the last two years are up and in The Show inside of a week.

Beckham went straight to third to cap what was clearly an accelerated timetable for his arrival to the majors, less than a year since being picked in the first round of the 2008 draft, and while the .261 EqA he put up in Double-A and the .273 he managed in his brief intro to Triple-A don't speak to any particular readiness, his projected EqA peak still manages to rank among the Southern League's leaders in terms of upside. As for the man he's bumped (for the moment), Josh Fields' tentative play afield and even more diffident stroke at the plate has fallen well out of favor with an organization that had to see something from the former prospect after an equally uneven season in 2008. What Fields is for if not the hot corner is something of an open question. Platoon caddy for Jim Thome at DH? That seems a lot less than advertised, and Fields has yet to reproduce his terrorizing of southpaws from '07. A return to the left-field duties he fulfilled in that season, perhaps? Well, maybe, but he's not in favor, and even if it's clear that Scott Podsednik's notional utility will endure as long as he's bobbing around .300 for an average (and wane as soon as it doesn't), this is still very much Ozzie Guillen's club to run as he sees fit. Fields' failures mean he'll get nothing and like it, at least until somebody else excuses himself.

As for Poreda, he's up, but it won't be in the rotation that he makes his debut, instead going straight to the pen for long-relief work. That seems reasonable enough to me-it's what they've done with Clayton Richard before him, and even what they did with Mark Buehrle back in the day. Poreda's already said that he's made progress with his off-speed stuff, enjoying better consistency from a slider that can be a plus pitch, as well as throwing a better change. He didn't have a whole lot more to prove in the Southern League, even pitching with the benefit of a pitcher-friendly home park: 69 strikeouts against 88 baserunners (35 of them walks, six of them hit batsmen) in 64 1/3 IP, 20 runs allowed, a single homer, a decent ratio of 1.4 ground-ball outs to flies. I'm sure having a high-velocity southpaw in the pen isn't going to hurt Ozzie's feelings any, and add in the questions over how deep into their starts Richard or Contreras or Gavin Floyd or John Danks can go, and it's clear that there will be multi-inning chores that will need doing, especially now that Richard's in the rotation. Whether or not this means that Poreda earns a chance to stick just as Richard did last season, we'll have to see, but I'd hope they avoid limiting him to situational work. Consider his splits from Birmingham: he held right-handers to just .217/.317/.291, while lefties batted .171/.353/.189. That performance against southpaws is the product of walking almost 20 percent of them, while striking out 30 percent of the rest, and though that's entertaining from a statistical point of view, it's also Maalox material if you slot that sort of stuff into high-leverage situational work.

As for the breakdowns of Quentin and Colon-or Contreras' latest comeback for that matter-these moves somewhat reflect the wages of fear-some risks. One of the fun things to come out of Sabermetrics Night at the Cell was to hear Assistant GM Rick Hahn describe how the Sox accept certain risks, armed as they are with the benefit of a superior training staff, but also an institutional willingness to play for the upside. That worked out exceptionally well with Quentin last season, obviously, Colon has already pitched better than some might have expected, and the Sox are the organization that essentially took Contreras off of the Yankees' hands because they saw something they could fix where the Bombers had nothin'. That said, some of the guys with this kind of upside come with a Janus-like capacity to send you pitching into the odd chasm now and again. Contreras slips into Colon's slot in the rotation and may have some feeling he's all the way back; the skeptic would note that he came back to face a Tigers lineup that had Clete Thomas batting third and Brad Inge sixth-and that seems about right, given what little else the Kitties had in the lineup. A believer would note that the big Cuban might heat up once the weather does; this has been a cold spring in Chicago, and Contreras likes to work slow. Unfortunately for the faithful, Contreras has been at his worst on his career during the summer, and at his best in the spring.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Placed MI-S Asdrubal Cabrera on the 15-day DL (sprained shoulder); recalled INF-R Josh Barfield from Columbus (Triple-A). [6/4]
Activated DH-L Travis Hafner from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Fausto Carmona to the AZL Indians (Rookie). [6/5]
Activated RHP Joe Smith from the 15-day DL; optioned LHP Tony Sipp to Columbus. [6/9]

Now, I know, there's something to be said for the near-term future as far as not counting the Indians out already; the schedule is their friend, after all. Losing Cabrera for a good stretch, and so soon after they finally moved him back to shortstop to improve their defense, is not the sort of thing that's going to help matters much either. And while it's eminently sensible for the Tribe to do with Carmona what they had to do with Cliff Lee as recently as 2007, and ship him out for schooling, do you think a rotation that has Carl Pavano set in their second slot sounds like a winner, and that in a unit that's also reduced to Tomo Ohka? Yes, Jake Westbrook is on the way back, having made his first rehab start just last weekend-has he a twin brother knocking around, perchance? Ideally, Carmona gets magically fixed, but setting that to a schedule would be madness.

There is some silver lining to be found here, though. Hafner's back, and if he can still keep doing anything from the DH slot, it helps the Tribe compensate for a lineup whose latest lurches have to involve Luis Valbuena playing shortstop during Cabrera's absence. It's funny how a seven-man pen forces some defensive-assignment pretzels, even with Mark DeRosa and Jamey Carroll in the mix; when you carry a third catcher because Victor Martinez apparently shouldn't be asked to catch and play first base in the same ballgame in any but the rarest circumstance, it's no wonder that Ryan Garko's stomping around in the outfield. For all the talk of depth on hand, the Tribe's still effectively limited to a choice between Garko and Kelly Shoppach; Chris Gimenez and Barfield won't get to play much regardless, which really leaves their lineup options limited in the meantime to whether or not Trevor Crowe plays center, and what that means for which position Mark DeRosa plays. It sounds busy, but it isn't-it's still basically just a nightly choice between Shoppach or Garko, with Shoppach winning more often than not. Crowe is a variable thrown in because of Grady Sizemore's injury. It's less clever than a matter of desperation.

DETROIT TIGERS
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Activated OF-R Marcus Thames from the 15-day DL; optioned 4C-L Jeff Larish to Toledo (Triple-A). [6/7]
Activated RHP Jeremy Bonderman from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Ryan Perry to Toledo. [6/8]

As a pair of situations that require fixing, you can get worked up over Thames' return to the outfield and DH rotation. In practical terms, this has meant a good measure of Magglio Ordonez back out in right field during a week in which the Tigers have been seeing a lot of lefties; we'll find out if Jim Leyland sticks with Thames and Ryan Raburn against some right-handers, or if Clete Thomas and Josh Anderson get at-bats in their stead. Some might wonder why Larish was the one who got sent down, and while it's frustrating that he's been squeezed out by the team's multiplicity of already bumped starters (more on that in a second), it bears repeating that his present and long-term future aren't really all that promising in the first place. Then there's the news that Carlos Guillen isn't close to coming back, and you begin to wonder if the Tigers might not want to deal for some offensive help. That would be in normal times; with the Tigers' attendance down more than 10,000 per game, it's reasonable to ask if they really can afford to do something more than place their faith in the likes of Anderson and Thomas and Raburn.

As for Bonderman's reactivation, ugly initial outing, and subsequent assignment to the pen, haven't we already seen this show? Nate Robertson's also cooling his jets in the pen; so is Zach Miner. Meanwhile, Dontrelle Willis is up to three bad starts in a row, and Perry is rated among the Kitties' effective relievers. Now, having one of these three ride tandem with Willis makes sense, sure. Having another ride tandem with Armando Galarraga? That makes sense too, I guess, as long as the Tigers insist on running Galarraga and Willis out on consecutive nights. But having a third long reliever around for that other three-night window, when offense is an issue, and when Miner has options?

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Activated SS-R Tony Pena Jr. from the 15-day DL; placed RHP Sidney Ponson on the 15-day DL (strained elbow), retroactive to 5/30; activated RHP Joakim Soria from the 15-day DL. [6/2]
Activated CF-S Coco Crisp from the Bereavement List; optioned INF-L Tug Hulett to Omaha (Triple-A). [6/4]
Designated LHP Horacio Ramirez for assignment; recalled RHP Luke Hochevar from Omaha. [6/6]

Give the Royals enough time, and they'll eventually morph into the type of team fielding the level of pitching we kind of hoped they would. (Well, aside from you haters, but if you're still resenting the Royals for something Willie Wilson did, stop being such gluttons.) Ponson was a predictable disaster, but he hasn't cost them that much money. Ramirez was an equally predictable disaster in anything outside of a straight LOOGY role, and will cost the Royals seven large to go away, but you can still hope a lesson was learned. A third of the season was spent fooling around with their ilk, but to look on the bright side, the season's little more than a third done, they're not really dead yet, the rotation features their best five, and Soria's back in action. Taken on that level, things aren't so bad, and while I'm sure everyone lives in fear of a return to other silly spring notions-Mark Teahen, second baseman, say, or Kyle Farnsworth, eighth-inning hero-in a division still short an obvious winner, it's not a bad lot of youngsters to make a run with and see what happens.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Optioned RHP Bryan Bullington and LHP Brian Burres to Las Vegas. [4/30]
Optioned LHP David Purcey to Las Vegas; recalled LHP Brett Cecil and RHPs Robert Ray and Brian Wolfe from Las Vegas. [5/1]
Outrighted LHP Brian Burres to Las Vegas. [5/6]
Outrighted RHP Bryan Bullington to Las Vegas. [5/7]
Activated LHP B.J. Ryan from the 15-day DL; optioned LHPs Ricky Romero and Bill Murphy to Las Vegas. [5/15] Optioned RHP Robert Ray, LHP Brett Cecil, and LF-L Travis Snider to Las Vegas; recalled RHP Casey Janssen and UT-L Joe Inglett from Las Vegas. [5/22]
Recalled LHP Ricky Romero from Las Vegas. [5/25]
Optioned RHP Brian Wolfe to Las Vegas. [6/1]
Recalled RHP Dirk Hayhurst from Las Vegas. [6/2]

So, the Jays are faltering in the AL East, and it would be easy to tap-dance on their already-dug grave and wave them off to that battle with the Orioles over who finishes fourth that we all expected at the start of the season. It took them longer than April's other darlings down in Miami did, and it'll go deeper still as long as their lineup suffers from such conceits as the expectation that, with Snider singled out for not having a hot start, the offense won't continue to come down a few pegs as players such as Lyle Overbay or Marco Scutaro take unhappy turns. Certainly the suggestion that Kevin Millar has any value left as an everyday player isn't going to help; while the lefty-mashing half of a DH platoon might seem a strange leftover from rosters past, that's Millar's sole use these days, but with Snyder in Vegas, that's not what he's being limited to.

But such a dismissive tack would reject the remarkable number of things that have happened this season, and the things we might credit to the organization in taking steps in the right direction. And while it's anecdotal, what's wrong with suggesting that Gaston-a highly regarded hitting coach in his day-might not have a Billy Martin-like value in terms of getting some little bit extra out of the odd veteran bat?

That said, sending Snider to Triple-A after a couple of weeks of splitting playing time with the immortal Jose Bautista seems cut from the same cloth as those decisions back in the day when Gaston overlooked and then ditched Carlos Delgado, or fiddled about endlessly with Shawn Green. While both players had fine subsequent careers, Gaston's loyalties at the time to guys like Darnell Coles or Mike Huff or Juan Samuel or Jacob Brumfield were cause of caustic comment then, and his turning to Bautista (or Millar) seems of a piece with the decision-making of those times. It may have been comfortably overlooked while the Jays were getting worked up over a good first five weeks, but here we are, with the Jays' offense settling like so much sediment. That said, in just his age-21 season, Snider's got something else in common with Delgado and Green beyond a lefty power stroke and problems Gastonomical: time, either to outlast the franchise legend, or just outlast the tepid talents that represent the skipper's alternatives.

While that bit of offensive exasperation takes something from the more solid sources of happiness-Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, take your bows-there's something else worth crediting, which is how well the Jays have managed to keep something resembling a rotation out there despite an almost equal measure of in-season setbacks to match the initial, expected absences of Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, and A.J. Burnett's defection. Added to that heap of woe was the news that Jesse Litsch is out for the season with Tommy John surgery, and just like that, you could scratch Roy Halladay's full set of supporting starters in the 2008 rotation.

With that in mind, it's more than a little remarkable that the Jays' rotation nevertheless ranks fifth in the AL in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage, and the pen ranks third in Fair Runs Allowed. While Roy Halladay's presence plays a big part in it, the Jays do lead the majors in starter innings pitched, and even the non-Halladays-a group that, again, involves very little in the way of repeaters from last season's rotation-are averaging 5.7 IP per start. To what extent it's to their credit as an organization that they've done this without the speechifying that accompanied, say, the Rangers' commitment to make their moundsmen do more, for example, I'll leave to you, but in typically soft-spoken Cito fashion, they're just doing it. While I wouldn't want to bet that Brian Tallet can do this all season long, or that they'll manage to hide Scott Richmond from the lefty-heavy lineups of the AL East in the second half, or that Ricky Romero doesn't have a lot of bumps in the road ahead, there is cause for hope going forward. Where disaster would have been a reasonable expectation, the Jays have already been able to muddle through. Cecil gave them quality starts three of four times out before giving way to the recuperated Janssen, so for however much patchwork or Purcey purging they've had to resort to, they still have some depth to fall back on.

Assuming they haven't gotten carried away with their hot start, that early-season survival in the rotation should afford them the breathing space to make their choices about who's going to be in the rotation mix for 2010. Tallet's only going to be arbitration-eligible, Cecil's eventually going to be back, and any good work Romero gives them helps mute at least some of the criticism of J.P. Ricciardi on the player development front. While Richmond may have to eke out a living by being skipped-as the Jays are doing-and matched up carefully with specific opponents, that's another triumph for the scouting staff, having taken their chance on the non-drafted free agent by fishing him out of the indie leagues in the first place. Janssen will get this chance to stick in the rotation; should he fail, he could very easily revert to a career as a bullpen asset. But given that all of them are under the team's control, and that Marcum should be back before the end of this season, and McGowan and Litsch sometime next year, and for a team that was wiped out in the rotation, the Jays start looking like a team that might have some interesting questions to sort out in the next 10-12 months.


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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