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August 26, 2009

Transaction Action

Operatic Wagner, or Soap-Operatic?

by Christina Kahrl

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BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Optioned RHP Michael Bowden to Pawtucket (Triple-A); purchased the contract of RHP Enrique Gonzalez from Pawtucket. [8/22]
Acquired LHP Billy Wagner from the Mets for two PTBNL. [8/25]
Activated RHP Tim Wakefield from the 15-day DL; designated RHP Enrique Gonzalez for assignment. [8/26]

First off, as a mere matter of adding talent, consider it added. As much as the Sox pen might seem full stocked, it leans a bit to the right with Hideki Okajima as the unit's sole lefty. That doesn't mean Wagner's necessarily going to be employed in a situational role; guys like Manny Delcarmen and Takashi Saito have been exceptionally effective against lefties. Instead, I think it's an addition more simply suggested by the divisions in performance between Boston's best relievers and their other guys; by FRA alone, you can see that the real stars of the pen have been Jonathan Papelbon, Ramon Ramirez, and Okajima, all giving up less than three runs per nine, while Daniel Bard, Saito, and Delcarmen are all in the high threes. That's still good, but what's wrong with gunning to get even better?

Moreover, they already seem to be working around any concerns with Saito's durability by avoiding pitching him on consecutive nights (he's done so just four times all season). So, while Wagner's durability might be in question, it's fair to suggest that the Red Sox have made up quality by acquiring in quantity, and then making sure to spread the work around carefully. Projecting towards what that might mean in a post-season series (let alone trying to neutralize the Yankees in their lefty love nest), that seems to suggest that the Sox might never be short-handed in terms of being able to turn to a quality reliever. Since you only carry four starters in the postseason, the guy who gets squeezed out of the picture by Wagner shouldn't be any one of the other six relievers, it stands to be Brad Penny or the like.

So, as a provision of this deal, Wagner's off the hook for his option getting picked up, but is still at risk for the Sox to offer him arbitration? That sounds like a general win for the Red Sox, since they can still cut Wagner's pay from this year's $10.5 million by 20 percent (not too mean-spirited given his missing most of the year), stand to potentially gain draft picks should he reject the offer, and if he accepts, then they have the freedom to consider shopping the potentially even more expensive Jonathan Papelbon before he gets a big raise via arbitration. Since the team might also stand to lose Hideki Okajima to free agency this winter (his deal allows him to become a free agent if he doesn't receive a contract by November 20), but they do control Daniel Bard, Manny Delcarmen, and Ramon Ramirez, and they have an option on Takashi Saito, the Sox may just have simplified their winter shopping.

Set against this is the whole dilemma of the move's impact on morale and general crankiness, especially since Papelbon seems to have elected to use the opportunity to ventilate his opinions on the addition, while Wagner's stated frankly his unwillingess to finish his career setting somebody else up. I can see how Wagner feels, what with the lefty saves record almost in reach, while Papelbon seems to have reaped the downside benefit of his unwillingness to sign a long-term deal. Count me out of either man's pity party. If this ends up being a way to bring Papelbon to the table in November before having to go to arbitration with him afterwards, this will have been a worthwhile exercise of general managerial discretion, while ratcheting up the pen from very good to excellent. With everything at stake and modest prospects to burn, why not flex financial muscle and take this sort of risk?


CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Activated RHP Carlos Zambrano from the 15-day DL; optioned RHP Esmailin Caridad to Iowa (Triple-A). [8/25]

As things worked out since the the last time I commented on Cubby rotation woes, while Ted Lilly came back on time (and gave he team a pair of quality starts, although the Cubs lost both games), the Big Z did not make it back in time to face the Dodgers in LA, which put Tom Gorzelanny on the spot. Like Lilly, Gorzo gave them a good spin, surrendering just two runs in five frames. So what does his Largitude do against the Nats last night? Get into trouble early and often, and then put five in a row aboard in the fifth to earn an early exit. (Aaron Heilman promptly plated the leftovers, proving again that it's important to read to the end of another story involving another large person of substance to get the full important of warnings related to Domers.*)

The rotation remains something of a source of strength, ranking sixth in the league and eighth in the majors with a SNWP of .520. Certainly, Randy Wells has proven remarkable in not just curling up and going away, Rich Harden's been solid lately, and Lou Piniella's leaned hard on Ryan Dempster since he came back from the DL. Zambrano's not been that much less of a major part of that success this year; he ranks third of the five most-regular starters with a .531 SNWP this year. The problem is how that's part of a nice, steady slope headed in the wrong direction; he delivered at a .542 clip last season, a .546 in 2007, a .567 in 2006, .577 in 2005, and .607 in 2004. In his first full season as a rotation, in 2003, he "only" delivered a .576 SNWP, so it isn't a career-long pattern, just a documentable decline stretching back six seasons. Say what you will about paychecks and pants sizes, that's cause for concern, and punctuating that decline with trips to the DL only adds to the sense of menace.

*: In regaling us with Kubla Khan's decree on keeping company with Domers, Coleridge tells us to beware, and what was good enough for the 18th century really ought to still apply. As is, the circling three times bit sounds a lot like another one of Turk Wendell's gimmicks, but somehow I doubt that Old Style's the 'milk of Paradise.'


COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed CF-S Dexter Fowler on the 15-day DL (bruised knee); optioned RHP Adam Eaton to Colorado Springs (Triple-A); recalled OF/2B-S Eric Young Jr. and OF-R Matt Murton from Colorado Springs (Triple-A). [8/25]

Losing Fowler hurts, especially considering his improvement as an OBP machine (he's been hitting .299/.422/.482 since July 1), but the good news is that it's expected to be a transient injury, and it's one incurred at one of the team's strongest points, its outfield depth. A couple of weeks without Fowler does make the outfield even more of a bunch of puzzle pieces, but with Carlos Gonzalez, EY2, and Ryan Spilborghs available for center field, Murton added to the platoon options in the corners, and Seth Smith generating runs whenever he plays, it isn't like they're short of viable outfield options beyond Brad Hawpe's everyday play in right field. Indeed, the weakest spot in the lineup remains the choice between Ian Stewart and Garrett Atkins at third base; Rockies third basemen have generated just a .245 EqA, and I don't expect that to have changed any with Fowler absent a couple of weeks.

As for Young Jr., while he did get the first start in Fowler's absence in center last night, the one thing I'd worry about in all of this is if Jim Tracy made a snap judgment to make him the most-regular center fielder. With a lefty on the mound (the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw), it made sense (Spilborghs started in left), but Young's only recently moved back to regular work in center, having spent most of the season at second base for the Sky Sox. His season, while good, hasn't been that good, as he's hit .299/.387/.430 in a great place to be a hitter; let the air out and that comes down to a much less impressive .240/.326/.360. Swiping 58 bases in 72 attempts obviously makes some fantheads' hearts go pitter-pat, but he's not going to be a quality regular in center. His play in center in the AFL last winter suggested he has the range for the position, but he's hampered with an especially weak arm; given his wooden play in the infield, he may end up a utilityman.


LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Hiroki Kuroda on the 15-day DL (concussion), retroactive to 8/16; recalled INF-S Tony Abreu from Albuquerque (Triple-A). [8/19]
Signed RHP Vicente Padilla. [8/20]

I'll disagree with the suggestion made by Joe today that the Dodgers are looking for two starting pitchers to paper over the holes notionally populated by Hiroki Kuroda and Jason Schmidt; Schmidt was a surprise cameo, if anything, not a matter of a design they hadn't already discarded years ago, while Kuroda's an accident that happened.

The problem is, if anything, far more complicated than that. They've had Chad Billingsley's hamstring to work around this month, for one. For another, there are the concerns over Clayton Kershaw's workload as a 21-year-old to address. As a result, adding Padilla, bad citizenship awards and all, makes sense. They're really not in a bad way, just in a somewhat fragile position; Charlie Haeger's been outstanding in his two turns, so it would be hard to say that he's a problem as much as a promising, if uncertain, quantity. Jeff Weaver's been adequate as a spot-starter, but is best utilized in that role, as a spacer to let Joe Torre line up his better starters against the team's tougher opponents. This all works out reasonably well over 162 games, and is a credit to how well Torre and his staff and mixed and matched during the season's course so far. If Padilla falters, or Haeger starts to struggle, Kuroda will be back by early September, so we're talking about an elective decision being in the offing in another week or two, not the sort of thing that, in itself, should be a make-or-break choice as far as whether they make the playoffs.

The real problems might instead be reflected in the proposition that Billingsley, while good, isn't that good; a .524 SNWP is not ace-level performance. Looking at likely playoff opponents, he's not about to get an all-righty lineup in the LDS like he did with the Cubs last season. Kershaw, with a .597 SNWP, is their best rotation regular, easily. But after a couple of bad outings this month, it's worth worrying about what he'll do down the stretch, and what he might have left in October.

That's why I wonder about their employing Haeger, Padilla, Weaver, and Kuroda in September, to afford themselves the odd additional offday for Kershaw, perhaps line up Billingsley against the appropriate foemen, and make what stands to be a tough choice over who starts the fourth game of any playoff series. I'm not going to suggest that any of them represents, right now, a great choice, or that it wil be easy, but that's why they play the games. Whoever shines in the next five weeks-plus of baseball could earn a playoff start. That's sort of fun and interesting, but if Kershaw isn't ship-shape in October, it's also somewhat academic.

Addendum: For the curious, Padilla's SNWP with the Rangers this season was .491, or worse than Weaver and Kuroda, let alone Haeger. We'll see how much difference a league makes in his case, but it's a given that he's not exactly joining a collection of impressionable youngsters, but will instead have to settle for being a minor personage in the Mannyverse.


NEW YORK METS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed LHP Johan Santana on the 15-day DL (bone chips - elbow), retroactive to 8/21; traded LHP Billy Wagner to the Red Sox for two PTBNL; recalled LHP Pat Misch and 1B/LF-R Nick Evans from Buffalo (Triple-A). [8/25]

How many times can a coup de grace be applied to a single team in a single season, anyway? I suppose it's as if every ballgame must involve it's own curtain call, as every night out, some new Met gets voted off the island and gets to leave the squalor of what's left here, at the bitter end. The Bisons were a lousy team in the International League; you can expect them to achieve outstanding draft position for the Mets as the season winds down.

We'll have to see who the two minor league players to be named will be, but considering that the Red Sox are picking up the balance of Wagner's tab this year, and had to agree to not pick up Wagner's option for 2010, we'll have to see what this really boils down to where the Mets are concerned. Since they're already dead in the water, there's no harm done to saving a few pennies, not to mention getting farmhands given their own relative shortage of minor league talent.

What they've lost here beyond this season is the possibility to have offered Wagner arbitration while not picking up Wagner's option (a choice the Sox decisively and perhaps significantly retained), so they had to forgo the possibility of the odd draft pick, but also the possibility that, should they have picked up Wagner's option for 2010, they'd have gotten a healthy year from Wagner to help along next year's pennant push, or the opportunity to deal a healthy Wagner at some point in 2010 for more than whatever they get from Boston. That's not quite as outlandish a proposition as it sounds; they could just as easily have elected to not pick up J.J. Putz's option this winter, since Putz is more expensive ($8.6 million to Wagner's $8 million), both club options cost $1 million to buy out, Putz's elbow was more recently injured, and a combo of the left-handed Wagner plus the right-handed K-Rod arguably might make for a more effective late-game tandem.

Still, given that they signed Francisco Rodriguez to get saves, Billy Wagner's noisily made it plain he sees his lot in life is to get saves, and given the inflexible, stupid determinism involved with deciding who a closer is (or isn't), kicking this possibility around quickly runs up against the same problem the Sox will have putting Wagner in the same corral as Jonathan Papelbon. It's an age-old rule from the ranch: two studs in one pen equal a lot of biting, kicking, and a good chance somebody catches a hoof in the teeth. (Putz, himself a former closer, by contrast seemed quite amiable about the whole thing last winter. I'd suggest this has less to do with gelding than a frank appreciation that some people have chances at the Hall of Fame, and J.J. Putz, happily liberated from a career spent in Seattle-related irrelevance, isn't one of them. Perhaps some are just more willing to take things one game at a time, and truly were just happy to be here, when 'here' wasn't Seattle.)


SAN DIEGO PADRES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Mike Adams on the 15-day DL (strained shoulder), retroactive to 8/22; recalled OF-L Drew Macias from Portland (Triple-A). [8/26]

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed 2B-R Freddy Sanchez on the 15-day DL (strained shoulder), retroactive to 8/18; recalled 3B-R Ryan Rohlinger from Fresno (Triple-A). [8/25]

Losing Sanchez is a setback, but replacing him with Rohlinger isn't a one-for-one exchange, it's a reflection of the additional problem of dealing with Pablo Sandoval's strained calf. While Rohlinger's been trying to spice up his prospectus with some play at second base and short for the Grizzlies, he's mostly a third baseman still, and arrives having hit .281/.351/.468 for Fresno. That sounds good, and it is, if the standard is somebody like Rich Aurilia; translating his performance leaves you with Rohlinger at .247/.313/.423, with a projected peak EqA of .254. Happily, between the expanded positional repertoire and some heavy hitting against lefties (.328/.434/.546), he might have his discrete uses, but he's not a prospect.

Meanwhile, in Sanchez's absence, the Giants get to run with the daily excitement of picking between Eugenio Velez and Juan Uribe for who's at the keystone. There's no clean platoon choice to be made; Velez has been better against right-handers now and forever, but remains something short of good, while Uribe's going against a career-long trend and doing everything against right-handers, even slugging .495 against them, while doing absolutely nothing against lefties. Given how little confidence they should have in Uribe's being able to slug .500 against right-handers (however much fun it is to enjoy while it has lasted), it's not exactly an easy choice to make, but it does help get Velez out of the outfield picture somewhat, where you'd think they'd be able to help themselves. Indeed, you'd like to think this would inspire some renewed faith in Fred Lewis and reaching for some much-needed OBP in this lineup, but, the Giants being the Giants, they're instead elevating Randy Winn back up from his earned wallflowerment while generally leaving Nate Schierholtz be in right. With those sorts of choices on tap, absent more trips to Coors Field they'll have a hard time getting more than 20 runs per week, and an equally hard time keeping up with the Braves and Marlins, let alone the Rockies.


ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Placed RHP Kyle Lohse on the 15-day DL (strained groin); recalled RHP Mitchell Boggs from Memphis (Triple-A). [8/22]

As much as the Cardinals might be in the driver's seat as far as their division title's concerned, I'm worried that losing Lohse is the sort of thing that might snowball on them. Losing any one of the front four means that they can no longer afford to give John Smoltz any additional rest between turns, not when they're back to having to trust (and skip) Boggs in the fifth slot in Lohse's absence. So now we'll get to see if Smoltz can build on his debut with the Cardinals on Sunday come Friday's game. Boggs stands to get Saturday starts this week and next, while Smoltz will still get at least an extra day of rest before his third turn next week against the Brewers. Since the injury to Lohse is considered mild enough that he'll be back in September, and Todd Wellemeyer was cleared to throw last week, the Cardinals can certainly afford to upset this increasingly rickety applecart easily enough if they start seeing any problems with anybody, but it's the sort of situation that should make them grateful for the lead they've built up.


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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