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July 11, 2009

Transaction of the Day

Double Deals

by Christina Kahrl

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American League
National League

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Activated UT-R Ryan Freel; designated SS-R Luis Hernandez for assignment; transferred SS-R Mike Aviles from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [7/7]
Traded RHP Dan Cortes and LHP Derrick Saito to the Mariners for SS-R Yuniesky Betancourt. [7/10]

This is supposed to be the solution to their shortstop problem? They acquire the most grandly disappointing Cuban import at short since Rey Ordonez? Perhaps the Royals aren't quite clear on the standards in play here. Bad-hitting shortstops can be seen as something of an acquired taste, sort of like my enjoyment of salted dried lemon rinds.* The question shouldn't be whether or not you go out and find the best possible example of the type and congratulate yourself on your Pellinorean instincts in pursuit of your odd quarry, it's whether or not you might want to get around to reaching an understanding that there are better ways to spend your time, especially if you have an eye on the larger picture.

The marginal difference between Betancourt (once he heals up and can be activated) and Tony Pena Jr. in a bold quest to finish as high as third in the AL Central may or may not be worth the nascent talent of Cortes. It's even less likely that he's worth the $7 million the Royals will have to pay to employ Betancourt over the next two years, let alone the $11 million over the next three. Put in those terms, the effort expended has to make you wonder what the point of it all was in the first place. They acquired somebody who will lose his job to Mike Aviles next spring if Aviles is simply healthy enough to play, and who, if Aviles is not, might nevertheless struggle to fend off Tony Pena Jr. And they'll pay seven large for the privilege, come what may? Dayton Moore's been doing things his way, certainly, but this was one pickup which has the twin misfortunes of not improving a bad unit in a meaningful way while costing more than enough to engender regret. Yippee.

*: No, really, I get them down in Chinatown, and they're all that. What, you thought this was South Park?)

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Activated LHP Erik Bedard from the 15-day DL; placed DH-R Mike Sweeney on the 15-day DL (back spasms), retroactive to 7/6. [7/7]
Optioned LHP Jason Vargas to Tacoma (Triple-A); purchased the contract of 1B/3B-R Chris Shelton from Tacoma. [7/9]
Traded SS-R Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals for RHP Dan Cortes and LHP Derrick Saito. [7/10]

First, the truly important development. Coming back from a month away, Bedard did nicely enough, striking out eight in four frames. We'll see how he does this weekend, and then the question is whether the Mariners manage to squeeze in four more starts between the resumption of play and the July 31 deadline, all the more to keep shoppers happy and informed about what they might be getting themselves into. As for Vargas, even after managing just one quality start in his last seven, he's above .500 in his SNWP and still deserves his leg up on someone like Garrett Olson for the fifth slot, but he's also regretfully regressing; he does at least do so with the entertaining advantage of having been a bit bass-ackwards in his work. In the meantime, he's simply down because of the break and to keep in turn for the resumption of play.

Meanwhile, bringing Shelton up helps, within limits. Even though, as noted before, he's been a disaster as an erstwhile third baseman down at Tacoma, he can at least be employed at either infield corner, whereas Sweeney's utility for anything beyond charming company has to be called into question. What use is a short-side platoon DH who can't hit or stay healthy? It's like these people never had Richie Zisk at the bitter end of his career. To get back to Shelton, his hitting .319/.385/.522 for the Rainiers boils down to a translated .261/.322/.440 and a .262 Equivalent Average, which doesn't sound like much, but it's better than Sweeney (or Adrian Beltre), and certainly a massive upgrade on Chris Woodward if the M's decide to damn hot-corner defense and go with the best bat available.

The package received back for Betancourt wasn't especially wonderful, but Betancourt wasn't all that special in the first place, and Cortes has some promise. Cortes has bobbled from "other guy" in the trade that put Mike MacDougal in Chicago (upon a time, at least one over-anxious colleague saw headliner Tyler Lumsden as a quality talent) to one of the Royals' top prospects to somebody whose fortunes have ebbed between control problems on and off the field. Away from the diamond, he's been arrested for public drunkeness, perhaps not all surprising for someone who's only 22; on it, he's been walking 5.6 batters per nine while surrendering 4.1 runs per down in Double-A. The good news is that nobody's hitting him all that hard, as he's allowing an ISO of .083, and between a nice curve and low-90s heat, there's something worthwhile there, even if he's gone stale in a repat campaign in Double-A. As for Saito, he's a dimunitive Hawaiian lefty, standing 5'9" and trying to get by with a deceptive delivery and not a whole lot else; just 21 and down in the Midwest League, you're talking about someone who might grow up to be a situational southpaw, nothing more.

In the broad strokes, maybe Cortes becomes something, but between the addition by subtraction element of making Betancourt go away, and getting a young live arm in exchange, credit Jack Zduriencik and company for making a clean break with somebody else's Cuban mistake. Ronny Cedeno may not be the answer either, but moving Betancourt is at least an admission that employing Betancourt wasn't much different from employing anybody at the position. Add in the $7 million from future payroll recouped in the exchange: Seattle will pay Betancourt's salary this season, plus $1 million in each of the next two years (in which he was due $7 million), and won't have to sweat paying that $2 million to buy out an option on 2012 that would otherwise involve the cost of $6 million to employ him.

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Placed RHP Jeff Bennett on the 15-day DL (fractured hand); recalled LHP Boone Logan from Gwinnett (Triple-A). [6/25]
Placed 2B-L Kelly Johnson on the 15-day DL (wrist - tendonitis); purchased the contract of INF-S Brooks Conrad from Gwinnett. [7/3]
Traded RF-R Jeff Francoeur to the Mets for OF-L Ryan Church; optioned RHP Tommy Hanson to Myrtle Beach (High-A); recalled RHP Luis Valdez from Gwinnett. [7/10]

Steven Goldman beat me to this observation on BP's internal discussion list, but there's no shame in stealing the odd gifted insight from a friend. In short, you have to like how the Braves have been willing to change gears in-season. Sure, they had a master plan, but to borrow again from genius, no plan survives contact with reality. They were supposed to have Tom Glavine to round out the rotation in a season-long celebration of one of the last active legacies of the great, famous, and quite dead Braves dynasty; Tommy Hanson proved to be ready, so they said no thanks to historical re-enactment. They gave Jordan Schafer a shot at taking over in center field, perhaps a year ahead of schedule; when he couldn't keep the role, they converted various bits of organizational jetsam for Nate McLouth less than two months into the season. Perhaps Kelly Johnson already deserved to see his job security endangered on the basis of his tepid performance over the first five months of 2008, the point at which he was only hitting .263/.332/.403; even worse production before his injury has really brought the point home. He's in his age-27 season, and he can't deliver? No way do you ride that, not when you have ambitions to fulfill, and not when a younger player in Martin Prado is swinging a hot enough bat to make you think he's a new incarnation of Freddy Sanchez. Now, perhaps Johnson's stroke comes back if his wrist is sound, and that was the root cause of his troubles; should that be the case, upon his return, it's not inconceivable that the former shortstop and outfielder could be valuable as a Figgins-like rover, spotting in both outfield corners as well as first, second, and third.

As a result, it's not really all that surprising that they decided to say enough's enough with Frenchy. The Braves have waited patiently for him to come home and resume some semblance of normalcy for more than a year and a half, or long past the point you might have expected them to call the sheriff and file a missing persons report. When the future in right field belongs to Jason Heyward and you know it, there comes a point at which you have to give up on hoping that the guy you liked three years ago might show up again, because you have an opportunity right now to do something.

So, why not do it with Church, a player who, between an ugly concussion and some questions about his inability to adapt to the Big Apple, is coming out of an unhappy situation in New York. He's someone who is at a point in his career where you might get a more certain adequacy than you would with Francoeur, and whether you do or don't, someone whose vintage and service time might let you readily let him slip away non-tendered in the offseason without being all that much cause for concern. That said, Church was doing something less than adequate work against right-handed pitching this year (.310/.360/424), although some slightly more Church-y production away from Citi Field (.326/.359/.444); while that's basically a numberical way of saying he's been hitting lots of singles but not for a lot of power, that's still more than Francoeur was doing and, given the bitterness of recent experience, more than Frenchy was likely to. Whether Church gets platooned with Matt Diaz or Garret Anderson does, eventually they'll get Omar Infante back to add to that platoon calculus. It isn't going to be a great pair of high-offense slots, but it might generate enough runs to get by, and by the end of 2010, we might have that left-to-right alignment of McLouth-Schafer-Heyward in place, dispensing with these temps.

There are still present-day issues to sort out, of course, but the Braves currently own a one-in-four chance of getting to the playoffs, and the odds are only that long if a few things go right for the Phillies in the second half. With matters standing thus, can they indefinitely indulge themselves the limited benefits of Casey Kotchman's attempt to at least play Sid Bream in this new bid for October attendance? Or will they gear up at first base to drop the hammer on a winnable division? Given the Braves' demonstrable willingness to keep adapting to the talent on hand and make deals to improve themselves, Kotchman certainly shouldn't rest easy. The Braves are making a run, and while they've tried to do so and come up short in the last three years, the division has perhaps never been more winnable than it is right now.

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Purchased the contract of INF-S Argenis Reyes from Buffalo (Triple-A); designated LHP Jon Switzer for assignment. [6/24]
Outrighted MI-R Wilson Valdez to Buffalo. [6/25]
Outrighted LHP Jon Switzer to Buffalo. [6/26]
Activated LHP Oliver Perez from the 15-day DL; optioned INF-S Argenis Reyes to Buffalo. [7/8]
Placed OF-L Fernando Martinez on the 15-day DL (knee); recalled INF-S Argenis Reyes from Buffalo. [7/9]
Acquired RF-R Jeff Francoeur from the Braves for OF-L Ryan Church; activate OF-S Angel Pagan from the 15-day DL; option 1B/OF-R Nick Evans to Buffalo. [7/10]

The Mets' situation has gone from difficult to desperate to grim to Camerone in relatively short order, so I suppose it's appropriate that with so much gone wrong, the brass decide to take one last roll of the dice and take a chance on Frenchy. Francoeur's no savior, he's a science project. The very fact of acquiring him is a white flag waved in front a fan base liable to see red.

There's not a lot to say about Francoeur at this point that hasn't been observed: he is a broken ballplayer, and if anyone's got an idea about fixing him, it's either conceit or genius that's in play. Putting him on the Big Apple's big stage as some latter-day Ellis Valentine-like mighta-coulda-oughta-shoulda ballplayer doesn't strike me as the best way to give Francoeur a shot at regrouping, but at this point, nothing else has worked, so why not a desperate challenge to deliver or die? Because at this point, that's what is at stake: seven-figure glory after a miraculous recovery, or life on the bush beat, hoping to avoid the bus leagues or Mexico or something even more ignominious. Jerry Manuel being that paragon of patience and thoughtful consideration, I'm sure this will turn out so very, very well. < / droll>

With shoes yet to drop as far as Carlos Beltran's knee issue, the question now is whether the Mets might be able to sustain a bid for contention with Francoeur in right and Martinez-due back around the minimum-or Angel Pagan in center, plus some sort of rotation that works in Gary Sheffield and Fernando Tatis... no, no that team will not contend, not unless the best-case scenarios with Beltran's knee and Jose Reyes' hammy let them return to action before the end of the month, not to mention Carlos Delgado getting back in the lineup in mid-August. Consider the rescue-me proposition that Oliver Perez will set matters aright; he put 11 men on base in five frames against the Dodgers, and while the Dodgers are a good offensive team, the problem with Perez is that he might just as readily do that against a sad sack to be named later.

Because this is baseball, it's entirely conceivable that the active Mets play .500 or so in the next couple of weeks, and keep this thing going; the Nationals and Astros are on the schedule, after all. It's also possible they get crushed by the Braves after the break and things start to fold up from there, because what guttering hopes remain cannot be sustained by "taking it one day at a time" or some other soporific-the Mets' destiny is no more in the hands of anthropological possibility in terms of bodies' capacities to heal, and the other non-Nats teams failing to get up a head of steam.

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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