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ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Acquired RHP Livan Hernandez and cash from the Nationals
for RHP Garrett Mock and LHP Matt Chico.
[8/7]

Arizona’s managed to shake up observers already, because of its
willingness to play to win through trusting to its kids. Whether
it’s been cutting loose Russ Ortiz, or pushing past the ineffectiveness of
veterans like Shawn Green to get Carlos
Quentin
up and starting, or just letting injuries to
Craig Counsell and Tony Clark serve as
reason enough to play Stephen Drew and Conor
Jackson
, GM Josh Byrnes has been ready to take advantage of the
farm system that former scouting director (and newly-minted Nats Assistant
GM) Mike Rizzo has assembled. But given that the Snakes are in the hunt
for both the wild card and the NL West, it was probably time that Byrnes
also put some of that talent to use to shore up a specific weakness, and
potentially two.

Livan’s a name starter, going back to his playoff performances as a
Marlins rookie, and he arrives with an incomparable track record as a
staff workhorse. Although it’s been an ugly season for him in total, the
key consideration is that Hernandez has cranked out seven quality starts
in his last eight, a good indication that he’s worked his way through the
knee troubles that have hobbled him all season. His SNLVA in that
eight-game stretch is 0.1, not great, but solid. Of course, we could
nit-nat about those eight starts, in that while exactly half of them were
in pitcher-friendly RFK, he also got the benefit of pitching in San Diego
and San Francisco on the road, and one of his other road opponents was the
light-hitting Pirates. But that’s where we’re probably getting too
invested in parsing smaller and smaller bits of data.

The question isn’t who Bob Melvin will replace in the rotation with
Hernandez, but who he should. Consider the performance of the
Snakes’ five horsemen (as starting pitchers only):

Pitcher           GS   ERA    FRA    QS/BQS  BR/9   SNLVA
Brandon Webb      23   2.74   3.16   16/2    10.3    3.5
Miguel Batista    23   4.87   5.59    9/1    14.6   -0.5
Claudio Vargas    21   5.40   6.13   10/1    13.6   -0.8
Juan Cruz         13   4.95   4.64    4/0    14.0    0.5
Enrique Gonzalez  12   5.37   5.45    6/0    12.1   -0.1
Livan             24   5.34   5.89   13/1    13.9   -0.8

FRA: “fair” runs against average; runs allowed with inherited/bequeathed
runners included.
QS: quality starts, defined by six-plus innings, and three or fewer runs
(not earned runs)
BQS: A quality start that was subsequently blown by runs allowed after six
innings
BR/9: counting HBPs but not IBBs
SNLVA: Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added, adjusted for the
ability of the performance of each batter the pitcher faced.

Now, there’s some goofy stuff going on there, in terms of who’s doing well
and why. Cruz’s name ranking second by SNLVA might surprise some, but
after re-gilding his promise as a starter with a 13-start stint in
Sacramento in the A’s organization last summer, he wound up being the best
man to take Ortiz’s place in the rotation; the Snakes moved him in at the
end of April. It’s not clear that he’s more than a five-inning starter
after a trip to the DL in June, since he hasn’t gotten past the sixth more
than once in his seven starts since. He and Gonzalez both have up-side,
but they also have the shortest track records as major league starters in
the organization. Vargas is your basic fifth starter and journeyman, and
has given the team a decent proportion of winnable ballgames in his starts
despite a generally poor performance. Fifth starters may be a necessary
evil in today’s day and age, but remember, they’re also not people you end
up using, and certainly not starting, in the postseason.

Which leaves us with Batista, the self-described utility pitcher. Although
he hasn’t been all that special in the rotation, he is somebody with a
solid resume as a major league reliever, counting last season’s stint as
the Blue Jays’ closer. Now, that said, he wasn’t an outstanding reliever
last year, ranking 91st out of 653 major league relievers in lineup-adjusted
Wins Expectation above Replacement
, or WXRL. The team’s pen isn’t a
serious weakness, but at 16th in WXRL, it also isn’t a strength. Arizona
lost last night’s game in no small part because Bob Melvin’s not wild
about what he’s getting out of Brandon Medders or
Greg Aquino lately-Medders has been struggling of late,
while Aquino seems reserved for blowouts. The pen’s problems get worse
when you consider that Cruz, Vargas, and Gonzalez aren’t the sorts of
guys who can consistently give you more than five innings in a night,
which puts a heavier workload on the pen, something that might become even
more telling as we get deeper into the stretch drive. Adding Hernandez
helps address that problem in part as an innings eater in the rotatioin,
but the Snakes have the opportunity to double their benefits in the deal
by pushing Batista into the pen to help them compensate for the questions
about the durability of their other starters. They’d be improving the pen
while also doing something about their
relative shortage of innings from their rotation
.

As for the financial side of the deal, it seems like a reasonable pickup.
The Nats are eating about $2 million of what Hernandez is owed, and he’s
under contract for $7 million for 2007. Given that there won’t be a lot of
free agent hurlers available at that price for one year, that’s a pretty
reasonable investment for next year’s bid for contention. Batista’s the
only significant free agent on the staff at season’s end, so if you
subtract his $4.75 million from the balance sheet for next year, Livan
becomes that much more affordable.

Basically, it’s a good move. The pitching prospects given up are pretty
tantalizing, but the Snakes have a shot now, and they’re already getting
the benefit of turning to low-cost starters like Cruz and Gonzalez. With
Webb locked in for the next several seasons as the staff ace, and with
Livan plugged in as the representative famous guy with playoff experience
between them, that’s a pretty solid foundation for the next year or so.
Beyond that, we get into talking about whenever Dustin
Nippert
will stick, another nice problem to have, so nearly-ready
minor league pitching wasn’t really a problem. If you accept the
proposition that Hernandez’s most recent work with the Nats represents
what Arizona will get for him down the stretch, and acknowledge that
Hernandez will be an important part of a contention-ready team in 2007 as
well, it’s a solid win-win move.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Acquired RHP Garrett Mock and LHP Matt
Chico
from the Diamondbacks for RHP Livan
Hernandez
and cash. [8/7]

Now that Mike Rizzo is the Assistant General Manager of the Nats, the notion
that Washington might try to add talent from the site of his scouting
exploits should surprise nobody. The Nats are out of it, they need depth
at every position in the fram system, and they’re particularly short of
worthwhile pitching above A-ball. Both pitchers are 23 and already at
Double-A. Here’s their performances this year, with Mock’s numbers all at
Tennessee in the Southern League, and Chico’s split between that level
(ten starts) and the hitter-friendly High-A Cal League (13 starts):

Pitcher     GS    IP     H    BB   K    HR   R/9
Chico       23    131.1  110  32   112  11   3.2
Mock        23    131.0  144  50   117  14   5.6

Chico’s already looking like he could be a good fourth or fifth starter in
the major leagues, but he’s had a semi-bumpy road to prospectdom. A top
amateur in high school, he passed up pro money from the Red Sox to play at
USC, couldn’t hack the coursework, drifted out of sight and into a SoCal
semi-pro league, and got rediscovered by the D-backs in 2003. They’ve
taught him how to pitch when you can’t overpower everyone the way he did
in high school, but even so, we’re talking about a lefty who can get into
the 90s; add in some guile, and you’ve got a guy who might be ready to
stick by the end of 2007. His stuff works just fine against right-handed
hitters, so he’s not a reliever in the making. I’ve
already mentioned Chico positively in passing
, which might surprise
some of you, considering he’s finally passing Double-A in his third shot
in three years after flopping the first two times. But the first time
around was an aggressive late-season promotion from the Low-A Midwest
League in only his first full season as a pro (2004), and the second, last
season, was when he started off at that level and proved he really did
need to get in some time at High-A. He’s a pretty good example of a guy
who’s been challenged by his parent organization, and the challenges have
made him a better prospect in the long haul.

Mock’s a little more difficult to project. He’s been an enormous source of
frustration not just for the Snakes in particular, but to scouts in
general. Scouts see the stocky power-pitcher’s body, that he throws into
the low/mid 90s, has a good changeup, and that he throws two breaking pitches
for strikes. Stuff, command: sounds great, right? Unfortunately, despite
that stuff that should make him easily projectable as a major league
starter, he was more hittable than you’d expect in the Cal League last
year, and he hasn’t made any real in-season progress at Double-A this
season. You might have thought he’d turned a corner with a good June, but
he’s gone flat since. Righties,
lefties, with runners on, the bases clear,
Mock just keeps getting hit
by everyone in every situation, and much more than people expect. There’s
nothing that anybody has picked up on mechanically that’s begging for an
easy correction, and no indication that he’s tipping his pitches. It
wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that he figures it out, and suddenly becomes
a potentially solid third starter in the major leagues; it also wouldn’t
be crazy to think he’ll just continue to be maddening. Either way, though,
he’s something the Nats should want a piece of, because the off chance
that he pans out is one worth risking.

Now, the temporary upshot of this is that the Nats will have to fill
Livan’s slot in the big league rotation, both down the stretch and next
season. Since both Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas
Jr.
will be free agents after the season, they’re already going
to be stuck with that problem, and there’s no guarantee that guys like
Shawn Hill or Michael O’Connor will cut
it. However, they should be able to pencil in Brian
Lawrence
and John Patterson if both recover
fully from their injuries, so the Nats aren’t really as far off from
having a viable rotation next spring as you might think. All in all, kudos
to GM Jim Bowden for making the move, and for his utilization of his new
AGM’s insight into his former organization’s talent. Like the deal with
the Reds at the end of last month, it’s another move that helps put the
Nats on the right track towards fielding a more competitive franchise.