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June 18, 2009
NL Central Roundup
Optioned RHP Jeff Samardzija to Iowa (Triple-A); purchased the contract of RHP Chad Fox from Iowa. [5/6]
I'm sure some folks are outraged that Jake Fox has barely been given time to settle in after some hot hitting in the cornfields (.409/.495/.841, which translates to a .366 EqA), but that's part of the same group that was praying for more Micah Hoffpauir, only to mute their enthusiasm once they got what they wanted and realized it wasn't quite so cool once you took him out of the wrapper and learned he doesn't slug .500 all day every day for years on end. The point isn't that Hoffpauir or Fox can't help a team score runs—of course they can. But in the age of the 12-man pitching staff (or worse yet, 13), how many first basemen can a club already employing Derrek Lee—and shelling out oodles of cash for the privilege—carry? That they've squeezed in Hoffpauir yet avoided putting him on the spot too often in the outfield is a lovely move as is—this is a club that needed the lefty power bat on the bench, and having someone to sub for Lee who offers something different in spot starts is worthwhile. Fox bats righty, however, and while he's willing to play where he's told to stand, he's already washed out behind the plate, and is the sort of outfielder or third baseman who might conjure up unfavorable comparisons to the leatherly stylings of Keith Moreland or Dave Kingman.
Now sure, if we want to get into theoreticals, you could open up left field for a Hoffpauir/Fox platoon by getting serious about putting Alfonso Soriano at second base, but once Aramis Ramirez returns, you're back to asking if you'd rather have Fontenot at second than Hoffpauir in left, and since PECOTA projected both to deliver at about the same clip (median forecasts of a .273 EqA for both), it's easy to see how the Cubs would prefer to field a better defense if the offense is a wash. That's without getting into the mayhem that inevitably attends Soriano at second; why do it when you know you're going to undo it once Ramirez returns? If you're going to make this kind of move, it has to be something you undertake for the duration, to at least give Soriano enough reps at second that he's not a handicap. If this was going to have happened, it would have been done with an immediate decision that Miles couldn't play, and that if A-Ram was out, this was the way to go. Given the investment in Miles, that wasn't going to happen then; now that A-Ram's return is around the corner, it shouldn't happen now.
In the meantime, I was amused when a term like "clairvoyant" was employed to describe the deep wisdom some see in the acquisition of Freel in light of A-Ram's breakdown, but let's face it, beyond not coming close to adequately replacing Ramirez in the lineup, this was a move made in the belated realization that getting Gathright in the first place wasn't especially sound, and that thinking that Miles was a worthwhile utility infielder was downright blinkered. If there's a more substantial silver lining to the exchange, it's that the Orioles are paying Freel's $4 million salary, which nets the Cubs the money to help defray the expense of employing Miles ($4.9 million) and Gathright ($800,000, which the Cubs will pay, and which no doubt helped Gathright pass through waivers unclaimed, because only the Cubs would pay that price for him in the first place). It's enough to make you wonder why they really felt the need to ditch Felix Pie and Ronny Cedeno. Not that either have been tremendous in their new homes in the tougher league, but their veteran replacements barely represented more than notional handedness alternates with a modicum of (mostly bad) major league experience from the moment of their acquisitions.
The team's elaborate plan to make themselves more left-handed and a little faster can thus be termed a spectacular failure. At the plate, that's come in the form of Milton Bradley's slow start, but also Mike Fontenot's implosion upon over-exposure. Employing people like Miles, Gathright, or Freel hasn't kept the Cubs from being one of the worst baserunning teams in baseball. As far as fixes, they'd be better off ditching Miles and sticking with Scales as Mike Fontenot's aspiring platoon partner at the keystone. It's a minor fix, but it makes more sense than goofing around with Miles, Freel, or Blanco.
Which brings me to my suggestion about what to do as far as Fox-y fun—put the man at third base, switch Fontenot to second, and take the defensive hit at the hot corner because otherwise you've got baseball's best defense. It'll punch up the lineup, and perhaps we'll get to see just how bad that hit on defense could be. A-Ram's going to be back, so it isn't like this is something that, if it's terrible, you'll have to endure indefinitely if it's that terrible, and if something else bad happens to Ramirez after he returns, you know you won't contend with the solutions you've attempted during his absence. Can Fox's fielding really be worse than Miles' hitting? Third basemen generally see three plays or less per game, and I find it unlikely that Fox can wreak as much damage in those opportunities on defense than Miles will create in his three or four at-bats.
The pitching staff has had its share of turnover as well, of course, but with Zambrano and Harden both back in action in baseball's best rotation, somebody had to be bumped from the back end, and it wasn't going to be Randy Wells when he was running off quality start after quality start. (He eventually reached six in a row before getting thumped by the Twins on June 12.) While Wells was over his head and probably won't be more than a back-end rotation piece given a merely decent blend of pitches, and while the increasing fly-ball tendency from his most recent starts suggests he's not going to be able to cheat his career rates for ground-ball outs indefinitely, it's worth riding the hot hand in one slot, especially when having him allowed the Cubs to apply an on-hand talent to address a different problem. Bumping Sean Marshall to the pen may seem to be a waste of the potential people have been anticipating from him for a while now, but he's been excellent in the role, and he's not your average situational southpaw you have to hook fast before some opposite-handed hitter punishes him for existing. In a pen that had initial problems sorting out who should be doing what, adding Marshall to the mix gave the Cubs the freedom to decide they'd seen enough (again) from Neal Cotts (again). Ascanio and Angel Guzman have turned out to be the useful additional bits beyond Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg among the right-handers, and while Aaron Heilman's still struggling, with Cotts and the Samadzija fetishes both dispensed with for the time being, it's a better unit overall heading toward the second half.
Placed RHP Nick Masset on the 15-day DL (strained oblique), retroactive to 5/11; recalled RHP Ramon Ramirez from Louisville (Triple-A). [5/19]
Even with Volquez out of action, the Reds have become a relatively entertaining proposition as a club—they're a pitching-and-defense team in a hitter's park. But even in the thicket of absences, there's silver linings to be found—losing Votto has created an opportunity for Ryan Hanigan to show that he's a little more productive than Ramon Hernandez, so that when Votto returns to active duty, they should favor a more even distribution of playing time or favor Hanigan outright over Hernandez. (The way Hernandez is hitting, he ought to lose the at-bats he's getting at first base to Micah Owings.) Encarnacion is back to swinging a bat in anticipation of a rehab assignment, so the real question will be what his position might be upon his return. Left field, with Nix getting added to the center-field mix at Taveras' expense? That still leaves Jerry Hairston Jr. or Adam Rosales at third, which wouldn't help the offense any, and I'd rather see them stick with a Nix/Gomes/Dickerson/Taveras rotation in center and left and take their chances with Encarnacion at third. That quartet of outfielders would still be vulnerable to job-loss should the team turn to Drew Stubbs or Todd Frazier, as Jay suggested yesterday, because I think we all hold some measure of anticipation that Laynce Nix's date with his latent pumpkinosity will come 'round sometime soon
The interesting development in the rotation is that a cumulative mark gives them too much credit for having Johnny Cueto atop the unit. His .630 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage ranks 11th in baseball among rotation regulars, while Aaron Harang's .574 is a fine 33rd. Behind them, Bronson Arroyo (.487) and Owings (.476) haven't been all that good, save for their taking their turns regularly. It's interesting that, with Volquez (.527) disabled, they've not turned to Homer Bailey, preferring to look at Maloney instead. Maloney's had an exceptional couple of months with Louisville, striking out 58 against nine walks in 67
All of which shouldn't detract from a less-celebrated contributor to the team's early success, that bullpen that's riding high. Losing Lincoln is not really a loss, as he's the one reliever not making a positive contribution, but the trio that's really making a difference is closer Francisco Cordero, supported by a veteran set-up duo in David Weathers and Arthur Lee Rhodes. However, the club's also getting good work out of a younger pair of helpmates. Journeyman Nick Masset is providing a nice reminder in middle relief work that quality relievers don't always spring to the majors fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus' brow, or Francisco Rodriguez from the Angels'. In the same way as it took Weathers a long time to find his place and make a career for himself, not really getting his career going in a happy direction until he landed in Milwaukee a little shy of 30, Masset's been good enough to bounce around and briefly impress people, and maybe this is his place. The diminutive Daniel Ray Herrera is also doing good things from the second lefty's chair, which may help spare Rhodes from any overwork. With that much to rely on, it'll be interesting to see if Roenicke carves out a role for himself after closing with Louisville; with high-90s gas, he's cooked his share of right-handers, but his power slider hasn't fooled enough lefties enough of the time this season, so expectations that he'll inherit Cordero's role may have to wait a bit.
Designated INF-L Jason Smith for assignment; recalled RHP Alberto Arias from Round Rock (Triple-A). [5/6]
So, here we are a couple of months in, and the team's a mess, but it's not quite a diasterpiece, making the team's choices about what to do that much more important. Beyond the anticipated reliance on Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence, the lineup's had it's fair share of happy surprises, with Michael Bourn finally rewarding Ed Wade's cross-organizational faith in him, and Miguel Tejada discovering the fountain of youth. Equally predictably, tthe infield isn't helping them much offensively in terms of what they're getting from the non-Tejadas, so even with the turnover as Matsui goes and comes and Blum goes, it's not really going to get much better. The defense is handicapped by its triangle of death to the left side, as the ancient Blum and Tejada don't cover much ground any more, and Lee's immobility guarantees that balls that get past that pair of fence posts get to rattle around a bit.
Whether that's going to encourage the team to do its pitchers any favors and, say, move Tejada off of short (or strike a deal), we'll have to see, but it's sorting out what to do with the rotation in the second half that's going to require the most attention. A non-contender shouldn't be relying on the likes of Scuffy Moehler, Hampton, and Russ Ortiz, and while Hampton's absence is supposed to create a temporary opportunity for Backe, it's important to recognize that Backe's also on the wrong side of 30 and has yet to establish himself as a rotation asset if healthy, which has been almost never. Sadly, none of them are likely to have much value in barter, which illustrates the depth of the problem. They don't have a ton of alternatives beyond this crew, perhaps a healthy Paulino, Bud Norris eventually, but then we get into an organization that has to take oft-ditched young journeyman Yorman Bazardo seriously for want of alternatives. That's not to say it won't be cool if Bazardo pans out—he's only just about to turn 25, and if he's found a way to get some extra movement on a low-90s fastball that's been too straight, or any added savvy with his off-speed stuff, they'll have a find worth bragging about, instead of Russ Ortiz.
If there's any solace to be taken, it's in the performance of the pen, even with Valverde gone for a stretch. LaTroy Hawkins did a nice job in converting nine of 11 opportunities as a closer (and one of the two blown saves came in the eighth inning of a game against the Pads in which he was the fourth pitcher), which might at least represent some form of revenge against those who've argued Hawkins was one of the people who "can't" close. Chris Sampson's pitched well enough to merit consideration as an All-Star, were the selection process more fair to the game's middle relievers; he's currently 10th in the majors in WXRL. Arias and Fulchino have both done OK in low-leverage roles, while Wright and Tim Byrdak haven't been able to give manager Cecil Cooper a reliable situational southpaw. Perhaps that will matter less with Valverde back in the fold and sure to resume closing at some point, as many leads as that rotation might be able to hand off in the first place.
Activated C-R Mike Rivera from the 15-day DL; optioned C-S Carlos Corporan to Nashville; outrighted 4C-L Brad Nelson to Nashville (but he rejected the assignment and left for the Mariners as a free agent); recalled 3B-L Mat Gamel from Nashville. [5/14]
I'm delighted to see Gamel up, but there's something very LaPorta-like in their bringing him up and then given him a good staredown. There's nothing to be done about his defense at third—he's not good. But with Bill Hall and Casey McGehee around, can't you adapt to that when Jeff Suppan's starting, while placing your faith in the unlikelihood Gamel's going to be tested overmuch when a fly ball-generating starter like Dave Bush is on the bump? There's something fundamentally goofy about having Bill Hall play third and McGehee second—the latter's a plus defender at third, where Hall's an ex-shortstop—so this isn't the only odd thing going on with the Brewers' infield assignments. Given that they're one of the better defensive teams in baseball, it would be nice to see them take the occasional risk with their defense, and given that they still need lefty bats to balance out that lineup, Gamel ought to be out there.
But here again, consider the decision to go get Jody Gerut for nothing of real value—if they just want him around as insurance and to pinch-hit, that's sort of a shame, because whether you assign that roster spot to Gerut or Chris Duffy and/or Brad Nelson or Catalanotto, it's a lousy job to have. It would be advisable for Ken Macha to mix it up a bit and at least keep his bench outfielders more fresh than he has so far, especially since it might be a good way to keep Mike Cameron fresh down the stretch, as well as challenge Corey Hart to see if he can take it back up a notch and more closely resemble the guy they sensibly got excited about back in 2007.
If there's something to defuse, it's the Brewers going to a four-man rotation, because it's less a matter of their suddenly deciding to take things up a notch and have guys take their turns every fourth day as much as it's a reflection that Manny Parra's struggled and the Brew Crew has a few well-timed offdays that will let them punt on using five starters. In this, there's nothing revolutionary—many teams do this in April, when there are offdays aplenty, and the White Sox did likewise down the stretch last season (leading to the modest proposal in this year's edition of the annual that more teams do this year-round). If Parra shines in Triple-A and the remaining quartet all does good work, how do you think this is going to play out? Parra sits in Indy, and people start making starts on three days' rest a couple of spins through the rotation? I'll believe it when I see it, but I don't, and you shouldn't.
As much as the McLouth deal could have been cause for in-house mutiny, I'd just suggest a reflection on these team-wide stats, and what they imply about the team's being just below .500, which is that they're a legitimately mediocre team. That may not sound all that exciting, but a decent pitching staff with so many holdovers has to be reassuring. Hauling up Morton to have something to show for the trade might have been PR, but more practically I think it was the realistic understanding that Jeff Karstens isn't much more than filler, and was never really expected to be, however much fun we all had watching him make such a nice introduction to the people of Pittsburgh. (While I've listened to arguments that Ian Snell was low man on the totem pole, here we are, three Snell quality starts later, and with no sign that the well-compensated, often frustrating right-hander is going anywhere but to his next turn.) With Morton plugged into the rotation, I think it's reasonable to suggest that the Pirates might make things interesting by making a run at .500, something that wouldn't necessarily upset any timetables for lasting improvement. The only thing that is really begging for fixing is the outfield, as Nyjer Morgan and Brandon Moss are slowly building up cases for why their opportunities need to come to an end. While there aren't really any obvious almost-ready alternatives down on the farm—at least not beyond Steven Pearce (.277/.363/.469), and he's been moved back to first base for Indianapolis—the present solution has been to work Delwyn Young into some regular work in right field. That's not necessarily going to lead to the discovery of a hidden All-Star, but Young's a reasonable bet to slug .450 or better having escaped a Dodgers organization that was never quite sure what he was for.
Placed CF-L Rick Ankiel on the 15-day DL (bruised shoulder), retroactive to 5/5; purchased the contract of OF-R Shane Robinson from Memphis (Triple-A). [5/7]
There's a lot of reason to feel relatively good about the Cards' predicament at present, because despite all that's gone wrong, they're still very much in this thing, and with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright ranking among the game's best starting pitchers, they've got a one-two punch good enough to put them in control of a short series if they win it. I guess I don't share the concerns of some colleagues in terms of the outfield's production. While Lohse's absence is lamentable, Joel Pineiro's a sound third starter, and during the duration of that absence, they can effectively let Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson duel for a bid to wind up as the fifth starter upon his return, with the other moving back into a long relief role that both are already experienced with. The problem is that carrying two aspiring fifth starter types isn't so swell when you're in a stretch of 25 games in the 25 days between now and the All-Star break, Lohse's anticipated return. While there is one offday on the schedule (but also a half-ending doubleheader going into the break), that means there won't be much juggling, and beyond the interleague nuisance, that also involves going head to head with the Reds, Brewers, and Cubs in their last three series to close out the first half.
I'm somewhat more sanguine that at least one colleague about their outfield situation. While I'm not betting that Chris Duncan's going to be able to come back to what he was, or that Ryan Ludwick's going to repeat his feats of the previous two seasons, that pair on top of blue-chipper Colby Rasmus and Rick Ankiel makes for an outfield rotation in which Tony La Russa can't really go wrong as far as having cause to start any potential trio in any one given ballgame. The bigger problem's that infield, because Brendan Ryan and Tyler Greene aren't really fixes at shortstop, making any suggestion that Khalil Greene's moving to third sort of besides the point. Whatever happens with Khalil G., I'm still hopeful that Brett Wallace will adapt and overcome at Triple-A, leaving the team with its assemblage of mediocrities to pick from among at short. In part, that's because Sloppy Joe Thurston's hitting .185/.306/.304 in the six weeks since his seasonal high-water mark in terms of OPS, which isn't really so far below what you can expect of him.