Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Rarely does a team’s future hang in the balance at the trading deadline quite like the Diamondbacks’ this week. They are the worst team in baseball, yet have two of the most tantalizing veterans available in Randy Johnson and Steve Finley. Compounding the uncertainty is the power both Johnson and Finley wield in the form of no-trade clauses.

    It is more important than ever that the Snakes grasp that having a plan for who you trade for is more important than having a plan for who you trade away. Consequently, as the clock ticks down it is instructive to look at the positions where the D-Backs need the most help going forward.

    Surprisingly, the Diamondbacks’ projected 2006 lineup contains few holes for a team whose 2004 incarnation is so unspeakably bad. Chad Tracy and Scott Hairston have been intermittently impressive as 24-year-old rookies (they were born just three days apart) at third and second base, respectively. While Robby Hammock has been a disappointment behind the plate in his sophomore year, the starting catchers for their top three minor-league affiliates each have an OPS above 850. (Although Peter Gammons reports the Diamondbacks are targeting a catcher in trade talks.) And any organization that employs both Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin certainly doesn’t lack for potentially productive corner outfielders.

    Nevertheless, the Diamondbacks do have a few pressing needs on offense, not surprising for a team ranked 29th in the majors in runs per game. Start at shortstop, where Alex Cintron, bless his heart, hit .317/.359/.489 in 2003; that remains the only year of his professional career in which he has given any indication of being a quality major-league hitter. Currently, Cintron is hitting .246/.294/.366, while playing the kind of defense you would expect from the organization that moved Tony Womack here from right field. According to Clay Davenport’s defensive metrics, since the start of the 2003 season Cintron has been 18 runs worse than average at shortstop, in less than 180 full games at the position.

    The Diamondbacks do have a fine prospect in Sergio Santos, who’s hitting .282/.332/.461 in Double-A, but few observers think Santos will make it to the major leagues without changing positions. And with the defensive reputations of Hairston and Tracy already in question, the Diamondbacks can’t afford to place another statuesque fielder between the two.

    Staying with an up-the-middle theme, the Diamondbacks have precious few center field prospects who can hit (or put another way, precious few hitters who can man center field). Color us unimpressed by Luis Terrero‘s .317/.369/.537 performance in Triple-A, numbers skewed by a favorable ballpark and posted in defiance of lousy plate discipline (a strikeout-to-walk ratio of greater than three). Having been spoiled by Finley’s remarkable consistency in center for all but the team’s first season–not to mention a nifty season by Devon White to inaugurate the franchise–the Rhombus-Rears may find that it’s not as easy to find a center fielder as they have been led to believe.

    Finally, the Diamondbacks could use a masher at first base, or at least one that can mash with more authority than Shea Hillenbrand, who is what he is: a slightly below-average hitter for a first baseman, and one who, having turned 29 yesterday, is unlikely to elevate his status significantly. Arizona may be tempted to try to re-sign Richie Sexson (who is, after all, only seven months older than Hillenbrand), as focusing on players at the bottom of the defensive spectrum is not generally a winning trade philosophy.

    With Johnson and Finley having usurped the authority over deciding which team they’ll be traded to, it would be understandable if the Diamondbacks’ swag at the deadline didn’t fit their needs precisely. Just know that if they end up with Dioner Navarro and Robinson Cano for Johnson, the haul will be less than ideal from a talent distribution standpoint.

Detroit Tigers

  • So Close, So Far: It was barely a week ago that the Tigers not only passed last year’s win total (doing so on July 18, believed to be the earliest a team had done that since the 1936 Boston Braves surpassed their 1935 win total on July 13), they moved to within 4.5 games of the division lead. A team that lost 119 games last season was poised to contend for a playoff spot down the stretch; this was going to be the best baseball story of the year.

    And then reality set in. With an opportunity to close in on the division leaders in head-to-head matchups, the Tigers came up short. They lost a pair to the Twins, then after splitting a pair with the hapless Royals, lost their first two games in Chicago. The four losses to the teams ahead of them were by the combined margin of six runs, and included a game in which the Tigers held the lead entering the seventh inning; a game lost on a sacrifice fly in the 10th; and a loss on a walk-off homer to Joe Crede after the Tigers blew a four-run lead with nine outs to go.

    Even after rebounding with impressive wins on Sunday and Monday–going into last night’s games, they still had a more impressive run differential (+22) than the Twins (+20)–the Tigers find themselves eight games out and needing intervention of an unearthly persuasion to get back in the race.

  • Buy or Sell: As the deadline approaches, then, do the Tigers find themselves buyers or sellers? Realistically, there is nothing this team could acquire that could be expected to overcome an eight-game lead with 60 to play. On the other hand, the Tigers have surprisingly few players who could be flipped with the expectations of strengthening this team for 2005 and beyond.

    This isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s testimony to how remarkable the Tigers’ renaissance is that their resurgence owes little to one-year rentals or veterans on their last legs. The Tigers have jumped to sixth in MLB in runs scored on the bats of the young (Omar Infante?!), the prime-of-career (Carlos Guillen, Brandon Inge), and the possessing-a-long-term-contract (Ivan Rodriguez). Dmitri Young is probably the Tigers’ closest approximation of trade bait, but he’s only 30, still under contract for another season, and the market for DHs is predictably tepid.

    It would have been neat if the Tigers could have tested the Bigger Fool theory with Alex Sanchez, but alas, Alex’s hamstrings refused to cooperate.

    The Tigers do have some pitching to trade. They would probably love to rid themselves of Ugueth Urbina after U-Cubed lost two of the aforementioned games above. Urbina does have 47 strikeouts in just 39 innings this year. Unfortunately, those whiffs are accompanied by 27 walks and five homers on the stat ledger, the kind of numbers that ought to frighten away those contenders not blessed with large and airy domiciles to house one of the game’s most extreme flyball pitchers. The Tigers would do well to note that this restriction does not disqualify any of the three NL West contenders.

    The same teams that kick Urbina in the tires might also be interested in Jamie Walker as a discount model; Walker is working on his third straight excellent season as a lefty middle reliever despite surrendering 22 homers in just 146 innings in that span.

    But as with the offense, in general the Tigers’ best pitchers are also the ones they’ll want to build around. No sense in punting Nate Robertson when he’s just 26 and barely overqualified for rookie status.

    If the Tigers want to get creative, they really ought to consider establishing Jason Johnson‘s value in a market that seems willing to treat Kris Benson as a prize. Consider the following numbers:

    Pitcher   IP    H  HR  BB   K W-L ERA
    Johnson  131.1 133 15  34  85 7-8 4.32
    Benson   132.1 137  7  44  83 8-8 4.22

    Their numbers are almost identical; Benson has given up significantly fewer homers, but given that Johnson’s G/F ratio is actually the higher of the two (1.58 to 1.23), that’s of dubious significance.

    The Tigers only have Johnson under contract for one more season, and the opportunity to cash him in for some much-needed minor league depth should be awfully tempting. Then again, he is under contract for another season, and given how well 2004 has gone for the Tigers, why shouldn’t they be thinking about winning it all in 2005?

Kansas City Royals

  • Trading Deadline Past: Thanks to a start of historic ineptitude–the Royals’ 35-63 record is their worst ever at this point in the season, which is saying something given this franchise’s recent history–the Royals were able to get a head-start on their annual summer sale. The Royals moved Carlos Beltran over a month ago, a few days after kicking off the festivities by punting Jason Grimsley over to Baltimore.

    A month later, the first impressions of the booty acquired in each trade are decidedly different. The triumvirate of Mark Teahen, John Buck, and Mike Wood for Beltran was met with resounding apathy at the time, and since then, Buck’s .155/.231/.211 performance as the Royals’ starting catcher has excited only fans of Bill Bergen.

    On the other hand, swapping Grimsley for Denny Bautista ranks as the heist of the season. Grimsley was a middle reliever of small repute when Baltimore acquired him, and has fallen into ill-repute since, having surrendered 13 runs in 9.2 innings as an Oriole. Bautista, already a well-regarded prospect before the trade, has since struck out 45 batters, against only 50 baserunners, in 41 innings in Double-A. John Sickels, who has just published his mid-season ranking of top prospects in his newsletter (and still has a few copies of The Baseball Prospect Book available to ship), ranks Bautista as the 13th-best pitching prospect in the game.

    So while the Beltran trade looks shaky on its own, make it Beltran and Grimsley for Teahen, Buck, Wood, and Bautista and suddenly Allard Baird’s rebuilding performance to date looks awfully solid.

  • Trading Deadline Present: There’s more where that came from. The Royals have a seemingly inexhaustible variety of marginal veterans reaching the end of their contracts. As long as the Royals don’t expect more Bautista from Heaven, they might even be able to convert some of them into marginal prospects:

    • Joe Randa: It looked like The Joker was off the table after he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on June 29, but after a surprisingly quick recovery, he’s back in the Royals’ lineup and even homered last night. Randa does have a no-trade clause in his contract, but with only two months left on his contract, there’s little for Randa to gain by refusing a move to another team–particularly one that plays major league baseball.

    • Matt Stairs: The good news is that he’s cheap (a $1 million contract for the whole season) and still wields a useful lefty stick. The bad news is that said stick has started to lose its potency. Stairs’ current line of .256/.328/.436 is the second-worst of his career, which at age 36 is more trend than aberration. There will always be teams in contention that need an extra bat off the bench, but then extra bats off the bench will always need teams in contention.

    • Scott Sullivan: One of the game’s most consistent middle relievers, Sullivan is on pace to finish with an ERA in the threes for the sixth time in his eight full seasons. Sullivan, unlike the others on this list, is under contract for another season at $2.6 million (plus a $300,000 buyout for 2006), numbers likely to dampen interest significantly. But in a relief market so overheated that Terry Adams just changed teams, Sullivan still has his appeal.

    • Juan Gonzalez: Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Sometimes I crack myself up.
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