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July 10, 2009

Transaction Action

NL Central Moves

by Christina Kahrl

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CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Ryan Dempster on the 15-day DL (broken big toe), retroactive to 7/3; recalled RHP Kevin Hart from Iowa (Triple-A). [7/7]
Optioned RHP Kevin Hart to Iowa; activated LHP Jason Waddell from the 15-day DL, and optioned him to Iowa. [7/9]
Recalled RHP Jeff Stevens from Iowa; placed C-R Geovany Soto on the 15-day DL (strained oblique), retroactive to 7/7. [7/10]

What a difference a few days and mishaps make, because the Cubs are now in a pretty bad spot with two positions they really couldn't afford to take hits at. In the rotation, losing Dempster for a month or so on something as dumb as an accident is nothing short of a disaster. While I know he was fourth on the team in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage, rating below .500, I guess my concern is that it's going to be hard to anticipate that Randy Wells can continue to lead the way by providing his club a .638 SNWP, and with Rich Harden struggling badly (.433), this rotation begins to look like Ted Lilly, Carlos Zambrano, and the power of wishcasting.

Rather than upset the ducks they've so carefully lined up in the pen and do something like push Sean Marshall back out of his relief role (and possibly revisit the horror of relying on Neal Cotts as their lefty in the pen), or haul Jeff Samardzija back out of the middle-relief role they've had him in, they tabbed Hart for Wednesday's start, and he responded well enough, going five frames and allowing a single run, although walking five to suggest (sotto voce, perhaps) that the case of the nibblies that has some seeing him as an eventual reliever is still with us. Between Hart's problems with finding a reliable off-speed pitch and Samardzija's straight fastball and inconsistent slider, it isn't as if either one of them represents a great choice, but having gotten what they've gotten from Wells so far, and hoping to get something better from Harden, they're basically picking a fifth starter from a pair of fifth-starter types.

(For the curious, if it isn't between just Hart or Samardzija, things get a bit more desperate in terms of who else they might turn to. At Iowa, Mitch Atkins is giving up more than seven runs per nine with a jacktastic 15 bombs allowed in 93 IP, while Esmailin Caridad has been inconsistent. Go down a rung to Double-A Tennessee, and Jay Jackson's been up and down, Casey Coleman's a strike-throwing 15th-round right-hander without an overpowering assortment, and Andrew Cashner only just got there.)

Losing Soto for as much as a month as well is an even more dire situation, in that he'd finally gotten on track at the plate, cranking at a .250/.336/.565 clip since the calendar flipped to June, but I guess there's some solace to be taken in this happening after Aramis Ramirez's return to the lineup. The real problem is that they're tapped out in terms of depth in-house. Their notional veteran journeyman reserve at Iowa, long-ago White Sox prospect Mark Johnson, is already out of action, so they couldn't fish him up. They've apparently left the roster spot open heading into today's ballgame, so you might expect that Jim Hendry's working the phones, sending out a search party for your Ken Huckaby types, or whatever.

They could of course make do in the interim, and just rely on Koyie Hill day-in and day-out, and not sweat who they carry as a reserve, but sorting out who else to have around to catch becomes somewhat pressing in light of this Sunday's doubleheader. So that puts them in a position that weren't looking forward to, which is to have to consider Jake Fox as a player who can, among so many other things, don the tools of ignorance. I say "can" because he can also do other things too, when he puts his mind to it; climb Mount Everest, for example. Or stand on his head and play the kazoo at the same time. But invariably when a situation such as this arises, I guess I'm willing to say that if Matt Nokes or John Russell could hack it for stretches of various duration, why not roll with it? Looking at his last extended shot at catching, back in 2006, he tied for the league lead in passed balls despite only catching less than a third of the time. He was also below-average in throwing out baserunners, nabbing 31 percent, which isn't the end of the world; there's solace to be taken in the fact that they won't ever have to have him catch against the Rays, and that's good enough that you can hope he doesn't encourage every opponent to try and be the Rays for a day.


CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned INF-R Adam Rosales to Louisville (Triple-A); recalled RHP Homer Bailey from Louisville. [6/27]
Optioned RHP Jared Burton to Louisville; recalled INF-S Drew Sutton from Louisville. [7/1]
Activated 3B-R Edwin Encarnacion from the 60-day DL; placed 2B-L Danny Richar on the 15-day DL (torn labrum); transferred C/UT-S Wilkin Castillo from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [7/3]
Optioned INF-S Drew Sutton to Louisville; recalled RHP Robert Manuel from Louisville. [7/7]

So, Encarnacion at long last comes back, the Reds finally have another quality bat in their lineup, he goes into an immediate tear by hitting .286/.319/.571 in seven games... and the team still can't do much better than score three runs per game. They're still trying to get by with Jerry Hairston Jr. at shortstop and Ramon Hernandez behind the plate and Willy Taveras in center, so their hollow offensive production up the middle is still somewhat self-inflicted; creating more regular roles for Ryan Hanigan at catcher and Chris Dickerson in center would help some. Some, but also not so much that the Reds would overcome their other, perhaps more deeply troubling offensive issues, namely the absence of an established top-shelf hitter beyond Joey Votto. The stalled career of Jay Bruce is alarming; it might be survivable if the club had a stronger overall lineup, but the Reds don't. Puttering around with Laynce Nix and Jonny Gomes in left, the hope that it makes up for their overal weakness instead becomes somewhat symptomatic; a Nixmes platoon can help a club that has a solid collection of regulars, but that team isn't the Reds.

While it's interesting to speculate about acquiring Scott Rolen, the only place you can put Encarnacion in such a scenario is left field, and unless they send down Bruce and move Nixmes to right field, they wouldn't end up netting all that many runs, because they'd still be playing Taveras, Hernandez, and Hairston up the middle. Here again, playing Dickerson and Hanigan more often can help, but there's no demonstration that they'd cross that bridge, let alone find it while beachcombing and pondering how neat it would be if they just, y'know, magically started scoring lots and lots of runs.

At least there's some solace to be taken in the fact that, while they're carrying 13 pitchers, at least one of them is Micah Owings, so they can still pinch-hit and such as if they had 13 position players, and once Alex Gonzalez comes back later in the month, their using Hairston as more of a utility player might help. But it's not going to help enough, not when we're talking about the National League's 15th-ranked offense. The goal here cannot be to improve to, say, 12th; if the Reds are going to make a play at contention, they have to have a number of things change to propel them into mid-pack territory as far as their attack is concerned.


HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Activated RHP Felipe Paulino from the 15-day DL; designated RHP Brandon Backe for assignment. [6/27]
Activated INF-S Geoff Blum from the 15-day DL; optioned INF-R Edwin Maysonet to Round Rock. [6/28]
Outrighted LHP Tyler Lumsden to Round Rock. [6/29]
Activated LHP Mike Hampton from the 15-day DL; optioned LHP Wesley Wright to Round Rock. [6/30]
Claim INF-R German Duran off of waivers from the Rangers, and placed him on the 15-day DL. [7/1]

Now that Hampton and Paulino are both back from injury, the Astros have a rotation dilemma of their own to resolve. They've obviously had the benefit of Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt up front, while Hampton's proven to be an adequate LAIM-o, generating a .496 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage for them. And then things get complicated, because between Paulino, Scuffy Moehler, and fill-in Russ Ortiz, they have three interchangeably mediocre options for the last two slots. Initially, rather than choose, Cecil Cooper gave a six-man rotation a shot, buying time off for the good guys while leaving rope out there for the bottom trio to sort it out among themselves.

It's an interesting strategy of indecision, I guess, but the man had his reasons. Moehler's managed four quality starts in his last five (one blown after the sixth), so you wouldn't just haul him out. Paulino threw a great game against the Tigers his first game back (7 3 1 1 0 9), but got bombed the next time out. Russ Ortiz followed up two quality starts with two bad ones, and worked himself up into some sort of dudgeon after getting hooked from the latter. It's easy to snicker at such things, but the guy's a competitor, and if you were Russ Ortiz, you'd probably be the star of your own show in your own mind too; you can't blame him for getting upset; it's just up to him to pitch better and take that decision out of Cooper's hands. That said, it would seem as if it's going to be between the retreaded Ortiz and Paulino, that rarest of commodities, an Astros prospect.

Given that they're back up around .500, I guess that I worry that they'll give Paulino short shrift when they've got no reason to invest much in Ortiz, who owes them his near-adequate comeback in the first place. If anyone from among the last three starters is going to be a worthwhile part of a genuinely good Astros team, it'll be Paulino, and while the division is weak, I don't think it's so weak that we need to start getting carried away with the Astros' chances, which are somewhere around five percent if you're talking playoffs, and not just "successful completion of their schedule."

Finally, I like their grabbing Duran. Handicapped by a lingering injury in his ribs, a healthy Duran could be a nifty fill-in utility type at second and third base in relatively short order, and possibly graduate to a solid enough starting second baseman considering a seven-year forecast that has him capable of producing at around a .260 EqA clip. On team that relies on Kaz Matsui and has settle for placeholders at third, he'll come in handy once healed.


MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP David Bush on the 15-day DL (arm fatigue), retroactive to 6/21. [6/23]
Recalled RHP Mike Burns from Nashville (Triple-A). [6/24]
Recalled LHP Manny Parra from Nashville; designated LHP Chris Narveson for assignment. [7/9]

So, as I said at the time, despite some optimistic initial assertions to the contrary, demoting Manny Parra after his June 13 start did not lead to the Brewers going to a four-man rotation. They kept everyone on their turns every fifth day, and no sooner were a pair of conveniently-timed offdays were out of the way than Bush was breaking down. They hauled up Burns, an entirely hittable journeyman with permissive home-run tendencies, still keeping everyone on turn every fifth day, and by the time they needed to maintain that rest pattern for the other four and put somebody into the fifth slot because of the schedule, they pushed Seth McClung into the rotation. That's something more teams should do in terms of exploiting the schedule to skip the slot, especially when it's one that lacks a worthwhile fifth man. That's the Brewers to a tee, with or without Bush.

So now Parra's back as the devil they know, having delivered three quality starts in four for Nashville, and thus re-Brewed, he spun seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in his first time out once back. As bad as Parra was, pitching badly enough that his club has gotten a .398 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage from his turns if you include his new good start, Burns (.351) and McClung (.265) were somewhat predictably even worse. Now, maybe the demotion was worth it if Parra delivers at a better level from here on out, but running Burns and McClung against some pretty weak lineups got them one quality start in five turns; at least they managed to win two of those games. The Brewers are hoping that this weekend's Burns start will be his last, as the break will afford them a long enough window-ten days-until they need a fifth starter again, by which point they hope to have Bush back from the DL.

If Parra looks good in his next turn after the break, and Bush makes that timetable, it'll be interesting to see if that takes the wind out of the sails of any rumored pickups on the rotational front. To some extent, the problem isn't Parra specifically as much as the fact that all of their non-Gallardo starters are low-end mediocrities with SNWP marks under .450. None of them should be safe, not if the Brewers wish to contend, but should the team make a deal, the tough decision from there is knowing which starter to bump. A new-and-improved Parra? Either of the expensive veterans, Braden Looper or Jeff Suppan? A burning Bush? If Parra's bounced back to the form he had last year, he'd be better than Suppan, again. This is why they pay Doug Melvin and Gord Ash and Ken Macha the big bucks, but if they worked up the nerve to pull Suppan after the club acquired a starting pitcher TBNL, we'd have a pretty impressive demonstration of why. Otherwise, it's just letting paychecks drive decision-making, and what's the point of all that scouty stuff if you make the classic shopping blunder of mistaking price for quality?


PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Purchased the contract of OF-L Jeff Salazar from Indianapolis (Triple-A). [7/1]
Optioned OF-R Steven Pearce and RHP Steven Jackson to Indianapolis. [7/8]
Activated LHP Donald Veal from the 15-day DL. [7/9]
Activated C-S Ryan Doumit from the 15-day DL; recalled INF-R Luis Cruz from Indianapolis; optioned C-R Robinzon Diaz to Indianapolis. [7/10]

It's a pity for Pearce, but when the skipper seems to favor even Jeff Salazar over you, is there a more compelling way of being told that you're not welcome?


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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