June 16, 2009
NL East Roundup
Optioned OF-R Brian Barton to Gwinnett (Triple-A); added OF-L Nate McLouth to the active roster. [6/4]
I figure I'm going to be referring to these numbers, so let's just drop them in for each of the five teams. Consider it a complicated minimalist's snapshot of each team. Suffice to say the Braves may drive old-school baseball fundies nuts with terrible play afield and on the bases, and given that they're handicapped with an offense not even Lake Wobegone might elevate to above-average before losing the likes of Casey Kotchman, they're going to need resurrections in the form of their reinforcement (McLouth) and warm-weather resurrections (Garret Anderson, and Jeff Francoeur if there's anything left to resurrect) beyond the usual fare from Chipper Jones, Kelly Johnson, and Brian McCann.
Losing Norton so soon after losing Kotchman while also dealing with a groin injury to Martin Prado exposes how little a word like "depth" can mean; in the meantime, the Braves have been reduced to Cuban defector Canizares at first base. Now, sure, they technically have a first baseman on the roster, so there's no blind spot when it comes to filling out the lineup card where first base is concerned. But let's face it, from Kotchman on down through Canizares, none of the Braves' options at first base have been all that valuable, not when they're generating a .261 EqA collectively, not when the average in MLB is .293. Canizares won't move this in the right direction in any phase of the game; he's a hacker not unlike the game's other Barbaro, but with perhaps less power, and like Barbaro Garbey, his best defensive position is DH. As far as readiness, I guess the appropriate thing to say is that he's as ready as he'll ever be; with almost a thousand plate appearances for the organization at Triple-A spread across the last three seasons, he's hit .319/.375/.469 at the level, with a near-adequate unintentional walk rate (7.7 percent). While he can rake, first base is a position where you want to employ power tools. If this is supposed to be the cavalry, it's riding in on one of the wee ponies of the apocalypse.
Now, I guess the good news is that Kotchman's expected to be back in action for Tuesday's game, but just typing that gets me to thinking that, to some extent, this goes back to the schizophrenia implicit in a decision to go for it by rebuilding the rotation but winging it by hoping that Kotchman was a survivable evil with maybe-somehow-something upside still in play after a good number of years playing peekaboo with his own prospect status. Set up to be in win-now mode after the expenses in blood and money to add Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, and Kenshin Kawakami, the Braves can't afford to just hope this all works out well in the end. I'm still standing by the arguments I made for Garret Anderson's being left alone for a while yet, but since I wrote about the McLouth deal, Frenchy's batted all of .242/.324/.273, and that OBP includes his first/only intentional pass in an extra-inning melee with the Pirates, which was issued to set up an inning-ending double play that Prado obligingly ground into.
So, it's beginning to look a lot like that sort of season for the Braves, not unlike the last several, and while it will be interesting to see what they're capable of if/when they begin firing on all cylinders, the promotion of Hanson, whether rushed or a simple acknowledgment of the eventual fact that he will be the one who rounds out this rotation, does not and cannot make up for the number of things wrong with the team as currently comprised. However much adding McLouth was progress, maybe it's time to go to the well again, and see what the Pirates might want for Adam LaRoche-assuming that Steel City sans culottes aren't geared up to break out the guillotines and go Nutting cutting.
Recalled RHP Carlos Martinez from New Orleans; optioned LHP Graham Taylor to Jacksonville (Double-A). [5/7]
For all of the shuffling and reshuffling on the pitching staff, much of it boils down to the basic problem of what to do in the rotation when confronted with the twin problems of the Nolasco Kid's deepening fugue and the Anibal Sanchez's latest shoulder-related setback. The two-start punitive demotion seems to have helped Nolasco right his particular ship, as he's delivered a pair of quality starts since his recall, while his absence and Sanchez's breakdown created space for first Miller and later West to enter the rotation. In each case, that has meant good things. In his six starts since returning, Miller's allowed 17 runs in 34
As for the decision to turn to one of the organization's other premium prospects, straight off of the assembly line, West hasn't been quite so good as his 3.00 ERA through five starts would suggest-he's managed two quality starts, one of them his no-hit flirtation while dancing with the Giants, and while he's supposed to be able to get some sink on his mid-90s velocity in no small part because of his stature as a 6'8" southpaw, in his initial spins through The Show the results have been more Chris Young-like, in terms of generating twice as many balls in the air as grounders. Whether or not the league will catch up to him, or if he'll be able to skirt an especially fierce correction as a matter of his being an unusual pitcher, the Marlins can afford to take several more spins with him while (or if) Sanchez recovers, and then ship out whoever's looking grim once they're back to being able to pick their best five of six starters, not a one of them older than Nolasco's 26 years. In short, it won't be surprising to see that rotation's support-neutral performance improve a bit, because if Nolasco is back and Miller's set, there's only so much damage any hiccups from West might do.
The other major move has been to effectively swap out Maybin for Coghlan, with Cody Ross returning to his old haunt in center field. This might reflect "flexibility," but I wouldn't necessarily call it a virtue, just another symptom of the mindset that makes Emilio Bonifacio a starting third baseman when he's not good enough to start for anything beyond defensive reasons at second base on a team that's second baseman-less-which the Fish aren't. But hey, if you can play Position Twister with the pros, who needs the home edition? So Coghlan, who can play a decent second base while hitting about like you would expect a decent second-base prospect might, gets hauled up from Triple-A because Maybin's a disappointment a month into earning the job in center while Bonifacio's... getting face time, I guess. The upshot is that you then get a team equipped with the presumed benefits that footspeed fanciers expected of Bonifacio, only they're getting it from an actual ballplayer, Coghlan-only they're getting that by putting Coghlan in left field while taking the twin hits of Ross playing center while Bonifacio still starts some/anywhere.
Now, it's admittedly easier to do all of this for the sake of argument, but Coghlan as a starting left fielder is not an adaptive end point, it's a bad habit you fall into, no different than playing make-believe on Bonifacio's upside. I'd suggest that this scenario is entirely the product of a failure to come to a reckoning as to Dan Uggla's future as a second baseman, since apparently everyone else on the diamond can be moved around but Uggla. So you get the benefits of multiple disconnects in terms of production at multiple positions, with perhaps only Hanley Ramirez and Jeremy Hermida lining up where they might be in some perfect abstraction. You still field a below-average offense. And, as a dose of indignity dished up on the side, having punished Maybin a month into his season for not being perfect while letting yourself think Bonifacio's first week meant something, you now get the additional wee bit of bad news that Maybin dislocated a pinkie on a stolen-base attempt for the Zephyrs' benefit. That's just swell.
I guess I don't know what's more amusing, that this sort of reinvention of defensive indifference (to assignments) has involved so few penalties-sure Uggla's bad, and so is Ross in center, but it's survivable-or that you wind up with a bad offensive team despite that indifference. Or that they're bobbing around .500, while the Braves do no better, but that has to be more maddening to folks in Atlanta.
Placed LHP Oliver Perez on the 15-day DL (knee tendonitis), retroactive to 5/3; recalled RHP Jonathon Niese from Buffalo (Triple-A). [5/7]
So, for those of you keeping score at home, let's deal with the lineup first. Taking it from the top, that's scratch your starting shortstop (until sometime in July) and first baseman (until later still), solving the latter problem by moving the available four-corner platoon solution of Danny Murphy and Fernando Tatis (Danando Murtis?) to first, and thus getting the benefit of Gary Sheffield's latest comeback coming to fruition. You then get the additive virtue of having Church back after already hauling up the franchise's bluest of blue-chip prospects in Martinez. Then, conveniently enough, because of interleague play you have places to play everyone. Once Bud's scheduling self-amusement runs its course and gets credited for being another "triumph" (one that's never at risk for being tested in, say, April action), that may change, but in the meantime Martinez is up with the benefit of an impressive initial .291/.337/.552 run as a 20-year-old with Buffalo. (Beyond giving Martinez an affiliate to play for, it appears that the Bisons' sole purpose this season is to fill out the International League schedule; at 20-40, they're bad with little or no potential for better.)
Now sure, there's the hit of having to lean on Cora as their regular at shortstop instead of Reyes for the time being. The inconvenience caused by Cora's injury and their having to temporarily employ Wilson Valdez and Ramon Martinez aside, credit Omar Minaya for lining up a better infield reserve in Cora. In talking about a lineup that is presently the league's and the majors' best, it's not offense that has put the Mets in second place, however many tantrums Steve Phillips wants to throw on the subject of Carlos Beltran, and however much sports-radio shrieking there is on the subject of David Wright's failure to cure cancer or single-handedly power the Eastern Seaboard's energy needs. Trading for a first baseman of note isn't really that necessary, and while I'd like to see the team do something creative with a multi-positional pick-up (like Aubrey Huff), I also don't think there's need to give up on Murphy right now this instant, just because he isn't going to hit like Carlos Delgado (ever) or his previous '08 incarnation over a full season.
Instead, I think the clear indication of what's needed and what's amiss can be inferred from the Castro deal, because Lance Broadway doesn't even do the Bisons much good, but the need for arms to start games with is becoming the more fundamental issue to the Mets actually making a run at the Phillies this year. But let's face it, with Oliver Perez's knee working no better than his sense of where the strike zone might be, and now with Maine sunk for some stretch, a rotation that was supposed to have a choice between Tim Redding and Livan Hernandez for the fifth slot instead has to count on both beyond Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey. Hernandez has been a revelation, ranking 46th in the majors among starters with five or more turns with a .559 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage; he's also been owning the Nationals to keep his overall numbers looking lovely. In contrast, Pelfrey's been a mild disappointment (.494), and has seen his nice five-start run of consecutive quality outings short-circuited by a pair of rough goes. Redding has been about as expected (.465) since his return to action.
In their hour of need, the latest patch wasn't Nelson Figueroa or an unready Niese, but is instead Nieve. As such desperation dives into the free-talent pool go, I like it. I don't know if he has that much more upside than a fellow former Astros prospect like Redding, but he is still somebody with a live arm capable of dealing heat. As someone who deserves to be remembered for the prospect he was before a Tommy John surgery (among other issues) got in the way and the happiness of escaping that organization, I could see his turning into a modest success now that he's been liberated. Put him in a big ballpark, as Citi Field appears to be, and give him the benefit of all sorts of run support, and he could make a case for staying in the rotation ahead of the Reddings or Livans down the stretch.
Unfortunately, there's the larger issue of upside, and whether or not this team has a legitimate third starter, let alone a number two. What the team really needs is for Perez and Maine to be the talents the Mets thought they'd invested in; failing that, the Mets' shot at the division race may descend into wishful thinking that the similarly hobbled Phillies won't open up a lead, and this division race instead becomes a bit of a gong show, as each offensive powerhouse trades blows until somebody's left standing when the clock chimes "162." Not that it wouldn't be fun, but it won't have the same sense of majesty as the AL East fight, by way of comparison.
Activated C-R Carlos Ruiz from the 15-day DL; optioned C-R Lou Marson to Lehigh Valley (Triple-A). [5/2]
To reduce this to its elements, they're out Myers and Lidge; exchanging Romero for Eyre is a net gain, and however combustible Lidge has been of late, the pen as a unit was doing good work, despite how worked up some might get over the odd noisily blown save. Tyler Walker won't have to help much, not when the team has a decent group of veteran relievers beyond Lidge in Romero, Ryan Madson, Clay Condrey, and Chad Durbin, and with the unit shored up by the demotion of Chan Ho Park to a middle relief role he's much better suited for.
No, instead of getting carried away by relief-related worries, I'm still troubled by this rotation, as I was before Myers broke down. While I'm glad to see them turn to J.A. Happ, that's just one move when I'd argue that they ought to be making at least one more. That's even after acknowledging that there's reason to believe that Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton will both revert fully to more usable forms; after all, Moyer's delivered four quality starts in his last five, while Blanton has thrown four straight. But absent Myers, I'd argue they'll need something more atop this rotation than whatever modest promise they expect from a live-armed lefty like Bastardo from its bottom; he lacks a good breaking pitch, and could wind up as the latest lefty who can crack 90 but doesn't really have the assortment for a career as a starting pitcher; and where baseball might once have had use for the Bob Shirley southpaw swing types, that was then, and these days you're either a starter who sticks, or you're on the Tony Fossas/Blaise Ilsley career track to wealth and/or ignominy.
Finally, as for the team's 25th slot and its bouncing from Cairo to Mayberry to pitching to Bako, none of which has really helped all that much, keep in mind that this isn't an especially deep organization in terms of who it might employ in the slot. Perhaps the organization's making a case for a bottom-line cutback to 24 men, although I guess I find the possibilities of a roster with a dozen pitchers and hitters each more than a bit sad. Let's face it, though-more than a third of the way into the season, and the Phillies have gotten 27 plate appearances from their 13th position player du jour. When you have a good lineup backed up by good-hitting reserves like Chris Coste, Matt Stairs, and Greg Dobbs, plus a play-everywhere utilityman like Eric Bruntlett, you wind up with a somewhat theoretical exercise in what a 13th position player can do. Cairo is nobody's idea of a professional hitter, and his defensive utility at second is a good decade out of date. Mayberry shouldn't be up to rot on the bench. The Phillies' team baserunning mark is at present execrable, but their recent past as one of baseball's best ballclubs on the bases doesn't suggest they're crying out for Herb Washington. It's a conundrum not asking for a solution, but the sort of thing that affords the team the freedom to wait on placing a position player from among the regulars on the DL; if someone's going to be out a week, they can turn to that bench and fish one of the professional reserves they have knocking around with the Iron Pigs for some service time-say, David Newhan, or Pablo Ozuna, or Mike Cervenak. You may remember them from such box scores as, "Why didn't they put that one out of its misery after the 17th inning?" or "My goodness, that's how much thiamine's in my Fruit Loops!"
Activated LHP Joe Beimel from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Saul Rivera to Syracuse. [5/6]
It's become bad enough that you'd expect the Nationals to fax Fiat and claim to be a car manufacturer, because when you've got this many dysfunctions, it might just be better to throw the mess into somebody else's lap. Unfortunately, the Lerners just got here, and appear to be making like distaff cousins of Clan Angelos, so the franchise that began as the carelessly operated ward of the game may actually have to deal with the misfortune of taking a step backwards from that status. Maybe it's something in the Anacostia's brackish muck, but finding owners worthy of the sordid examples set by the Griffiths or Bob Short is not a thing to brag about.
In the meantime, with Jim Bowden ejected and the hunt for new scapegoats afoot, Nats fans haven't received much of a payoff in the way of the potential pleasures of seeing Lastings Milledge or Elijah Dukes blossom; there's the nagging suspension they may instead be weeds, which was understood from the moment both were acquired in moments no doubt inspired by Al Davis. At least Dukes is back, though he's been shunted into a time-sharing arrangement with Willie Harris in center. Then there's the bad news that Flores is out for three months and probably the year, leaving whatever's to be gotten from behind the plate to an exercise in retreading Josh Bard or perhaps later learning if Luke Montz can stick as a backup someday. At least folks are worked up that Anderson Hernandez has finally proven that, yes, when healthy, he's a replacement-level middle infielder in the majors. That's a scientific finding of some sort, no?
But enough about the good news, because it's the live-action disaster of the pitching staff that could make for a story for the ages. To be fair, some of what's here may last. Top prospect Jordan Zimmerman is striking people out well enough to stick, now and into 2010. Detwiler hasn't embarrassed himself since his promotion, somewhat redeeming the decision to draft him with the sixth overall pick in the first round in '07. John Lannan's ground-ball ratio may have dropped some, but he's a solid rotation regular as well. The problems have been with the veteran add-ons who were supposed to round out the quintet, as you'll find Scott Olsen and the lamentable Cabrera among baseball's four worst starting pitchers this season.
Both having broken down, either physically or mechanically (or terminally), there isn't much to do but buckle in and keep taking chances with Shairon Martis' capacity to survive his limitations. I'll admit to an odd affection for Martis; it's fun to watch a guy who knows he doesn't have that one 'out' pitch and keeps finding ways to work around it, and you don't often get to see right-handed junkballers of any age, let alone one who's only 22. He's not quite as unarmed as all that, but for a guy who keeps his outfield busy while not fooling many people at the plate, it's also hard to see him as somebody who's still going to be here in a few seasons, should things go right with the other pitching prodigies. Rounding out the current five, Stammen is a pistol in terms of firing strikes, and having starred in college both starting and relieving, so his future might more properly be as a utility pitcher, if not simply as a reliever. The hope with him has been that his sinker would be a good enough pitch to let him get in some rotation work, which it did to some effect in Triple-A (a ratio of grounders to flies over two), but a 14/8 split of strikeouts to walks in 40 IP and the advantage of facing the ghastly Bisons twice in seven turns combine to suggest that sinker wasn't going to be enough, and he's been barely better than Olsen or Cabrera in his turns, posting a .360 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage to their marks of .357 and .313. Clearly, not all of the kids are alright.
Finally, there's the disaster of the bullpen to ponder. What's more remarkable, that they rank as the 25th-worst pen in recorded history in terms of FRA, or that they're better than somebody this season? What might make matters worse is that it isn't a young group with promise-we're talking about a newly added cadre of vets older than Colome, barely warm bodies like Wells or Villone or MacDougal or Julian Tavarez, and those are the men who represent the solutions once erstwhile scrapheap finds like Joel Hanrahan or Saul Rivera imploded. It is exactly the kind of situation where MacDougal would get his last best chance to close for somebody. While I was impressed by Manny Acta's ability to get decent work in 2007 out of a pen that relied on a rubber-armed Rivera and Jon Rauch to set up Chad Cordero, and that also had the benefit of Ray King and Colome used as a functional situational tandem, he didn't repeat the trick as well in '08 while weaving in Hanrahan after Cordero broke down and Rauch got dealt, and this year's crew has the unhappy benefit of being both more famous and infamous. Given that stocking the relief crew has been something of a free-form exercise, it's hard to say if there's a setup that will work with the talent on hand. While getting Joe Beimel late and relatively cheap was the one redeeming stroke on this score, this collection begs the question of who felt bringing them in made sense. It's easy to throw all of the garbage at Bowden's door, but in an organization where the decision-making process appears muddled where it isn't simply meddled with, that might also be too easy.