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January 27, 2010

Transaction Action

Senior Circuitry

by Christina Kahrl

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CHICAGO CUBS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed 1B/3B-L Chad Tracy to a minor-league contract. [1/26]

Signing Tracy's a nice move made on the appropriate level of (non)commitment. Because of the flexibility the roster's afforded by having multi-positional regulars or semi-regulars like Jeff Baker and Mike Fontenot on the roster, he'll have to contend with Micah Hoffpauir for a spot on the bench as a lefty power source. He'll need to completely outshine Hoffpauir, and even then, they're not both guaranteed jobs, because there's always the danger of a twelfth pitcher getting carried.

Tracy's calling card, power against righties, is more than a little banged up, not unlike his knees: in his last two seasons since trying to come back from knee surgery, he has hit just .265/.319/.402 against right-handers, and that's with the benefit of the Phoenix bandbox. Because of his knees, even his relative positional value as a first and third baseman is less than a sure thing, and he's played just 63 innings at the hot corner the last two years.* Against that resumé, Hoffpauir's hit .273/.336/.461 against big-league righties in 2008-09, and can be planted in either outfield corner when he isn't spotting Derrek Lee at first base. Since both are really just first basemen who have to settle for somewhat dubious claims of value at other slots, it may well wind up being a slug-off.

A decision to carry a twelfth pitcher could kill both of their chances, or force the winner between the two to fight other likely bench bits for retention, and I wouldn't like either man's odds. I'd expect Andres Blanco should be safe, because none of the alternatives on the bench or the staring lineup can play short. Not to mention his glove work seems to have made him a low-end favorite for Piniella, and since neither Baker or Fontenot seem likely to be award-winning second basemen, he'll wind up spotting for Theriot at short and getting a defensive replacement's playing time at second. Similarly, Sam Fuld has a fine shot at sticking as the team's fifth outfielder, since he would provide Marlon Byrd with a lefty-hitting backup in center, a defensive replacement for Alfonso Soriano in left, and an OBP-situation pinch-hitter from the bench, or basically all of the things Joey Gathright was supposed to be but wasn't.

*: As is, not even that slim claim of utility's much help, because if Baker becomes the most regularly used second baseman, Fontenot would be available as a lefty-batting backup to Aramis Ramirez.


CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Jon Adkins to a minor-league contract. [1/26]

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Re-signed 2B-R Ronnie Belliard to a one-year, $825,000 base contract. [1/26]
Re-signed C-R Brad Ausmus to a one-year, $850,000 contract with a mutual $1 million option for 2011 ($150,000 buyout). [1/27]

I guess I'm just not sufficiently down on Belliard or enthusiastic about Blake DeWitt, but this seems like a sensible little bit of re-uppery. Even if this seems like just keeping another one of "Joe's guys" to keep the skipper happy, DeWitt has yet to make the sale that he's a good everyday player in the majors, let alone a reliable second baseman. If he can, swell, the Dodgers didn't exactly pay Belliard a big-time deal, and his experience at other positions will make him a useful infield reserve.

I guess my endorsement of Belliard relies upon the same fact that suggested to me that rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated: before the All-Star break, he'd gotten just 20 starts in the first 86 games for the Nats, and hit .184/.234/.282 in 112 PAs. Hitting well in that sort of playing time isn't easy for anybody, and once Belliard was placed into more regular rotation, his bat came back, as he hit .318/.370/.482 while starting 19 of their next 45 games and getting 92 PAs. Fun and mayhem with small samples, sure, but then Belliard upped his post-All-Star performance to .333/.383/.556 in 175 combined PAs after he found his way into Joe Torre's heart. Do I think he'll do that for the Dodgers? Of course not, but he makes a fine potential placeholder or job-share partner with the lefty-batting DeWitt.

Because I don't see DeWitt and Belliard and Jamey Carroll as a roster combination the Dodgers can't afford the space to carry, I don't really see DeWitt as screwed; he'll have to earn his job, but that's just as well. If anyone's out of luck, it's more probably Chin-Lung Hu (who has an option anyway), and perhaps non-roster invites like the stupendous Nick Green of Fenway fame, or Angel Berroa, or Doug Mientkiewicz. This is not such a bad thing.

Speaking of the screwed, we can probably number A.J. Ellis among them with Ausmus' latest decision to not call it quits. Ausmus still gets points for working well in a battery, he's still got some life in his arm behind the plate, and if starting 25-30 games over the season is all that's at stake, Ausmus can fall into utility in that role as easily as easily as Ellis. Since Ellis is already on the cusp of turning 29, this has be an especially bitter pill, since he's not a prospect, and if he doesn't fall into a backup gig soon, he may never.


MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Agreed to terms with RHP Carlos Villanueva on a one-year, $950,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/26]

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Claimed SS-R Brian Bocock via waivers from the Blue Jays. [1/26]

Bocock still hasn't proven he can master High-A pitching and he's headed into his age-25 season, so claiming him when they're already stuck with Freddie Galvis and Ozzie Chavez for dead-end minor-league middle infield suspects seems more a matter of potentially doing the IronPigs' rotation a kindness after subjecting them to the atrocity of Miguel Cairo as their most-regular Triple-A shortstop. They could then leave Chavez and Galvis lower down in the system, to see if either has a Juan Castro-like career in him. Plus, if injury strikes anybody, Bocock's not the sort you'll miss if he's claimed on waivers after he's designated for assignment to make space for Andy Tracy or Dewayne Wise or Chris Duffy.


SAN DIEGO PADRES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Jon Garland to a one-year, $4.7 million deal, with a $6.75 million mutual option for 2011; designated RHP Mike Ekstrom for assignment. [1/26]

Credit Garland for picking one of the best possible places for him to pitch in 2010, in a move that's interesting because it isn't as if the Pads are short of options for their rotation. Presumably Chris Young remains the headliner, but they also have Kevin Correia locked in for back-end rotation utility. Clayton Richard, Mat Latos, and Tim Stauffer all earned their keep last season, so that makes a seemingly ready five, with Wade LeBlanc about as ready as he's going to get representing a sixth option. But running through the alternatives, it's worth keeping in mind that none of those front five are sure things. Perhaps this will put Latos back in the minors or make managing his early-season workload easier (or, a cynic might suggest, controlling his service time). Young's ability to stay healthy is in question, Stauffer's track record runs into more than a few scary apparent cul-de-sacs, Latos could probably use the development time, Correia's pretty much filler, and Richard's wildness could prove exasperating.

So going with the man some saw as robotically reliable seems like an ideal fit, not least because he's on an eight-year streak of making a fifth of his club's starts. For all that, he's only 30 this season. Besides, for a player who gets more than three-quarters of his matchups resulting in balls in play (76 percent career and in 2009, against the MLB average of 69 percent), what better place for him to be than Petco? Since the Padres take their chances in the NL West for 2010 somewhat seriously, Garland's the entirely unsexy bit of rotational shoring up they probably needed to make that a doable proposition.

One interesting tidbit is that Garland's mutual option for 2011 comes with a variable buyout: it's for $600,000 if the club declines to retain him, but $300,000 if Garland declines to return. Since it's all still for less than, say, the market saw fit to throw at Brad Penny for a year or Joel Pineiro for two, that may prove the best guarantee that Garland doesn't wind up with his sixth team in four or five years. Naturally, the affordable option doesn't make him less attractive as a swap option at the end of July, should a contender decide that it needs a bit of reliability.


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

Signed LHPs Rich Hill and Evan MacLane and RHPs Charlie Zink, Pete Parise, and Oneli Perez to minor-league contracts. [1/26]

Rich Hill, meet Dave Duncan, the man who might save your career. If not, well, that's OK, it beats not having any chance whatsoever. Since reports indicate Hill's supposed to be completely healthy heading into camp, this should be especially interesting, because the Cardinals really still just have Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and a hope chest in their rotation; Kyle Lohse might be healthy and effective, and Brad Penny might be useful, but neither are locks. The fifth spot's wide open, so if Hill's arm is sound after last season's labrum surgery and he can resume snapping off the fierce curves that got him to the majors, this would be an especially worthwhile low-end risk.

What's interesting about this is that one of the frequently whispered things about Hill is that he's had a confidence problem during the course of his career. Make what you will out of Tony La Russa's sillier statements, but he and Duncan have a good history working with pitchers subjected to that sort of accusation, perhaps most famously Storm Davis, but similar comments were made about Floyd Bannister or Joel Pineiro. If the talent's still there, this could end up being a huge pickup, because I don't think it's improbable to suggest that a scenario in which Hill becomes their third-best starter is all that unlikely. It doesn't have to happen for the Cardinals to win the division, but it's the sort of low-stakes flyer that could add another notch in Duncan's belt for successful resurrections. As with so many others, it starts with picking up a former top prospect; it's the former blue-chippers that seem to get their careers back, as opposed to a bunch of Jason Simontacchi types. Hill's past success puts him squarely in that profile.

The other name sure to elicit spasms of joy in some sectors is, of course, Zink. This is sort of interesting, because it doesn't appear that Duncan's ever had the opportunity to work with a full-time knuckleballer during his major-league coaching career. His spin with Gaylord Perry on the '82 Mariners doesn't really count (save for his exposure to the dark arts), Charlie Hough didn't join the White Sox until after Tony La Russa and Duncan were long gone, and it's the same story with Tom Candiotti's spin with Oakland. Duncan got to see all of these guys and the Niekros, not to mention Steve Sparks or Denis Springer, but it'll be interesting to see if there's anything in particular he has to say or do with Zink that might help transform the perhaps appropriately super slo-mo Godot-like wait for the knuckleballer to finally pan out. He is finally 30, after all. Me, my bet's on Charlie Haeger as the next knuckleballer to matter, but here's hoping Zink finally gets going.


WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed LHP Chuck James, RHP Tyler Walker, and 1B/LF-L Chris Duncan to minor-league contracts. [1/25]

An interesting gaggle of low-end explorations for the Nats. Duncan may never be right again since the surgery on his neck that endangered his career, but why not take a look and see if there's anything there? James is working his way back from the rotator cuff repair that kept him shelved for all of 2009, and represents a mildly interesting gamble for a back-end rotation addition.


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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