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American League

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Placed OF-S Milton Bradley on the 15-day DL (strained hamstring); placed RHP Rich Harden on the 15-day disabled list (shoulder irritation), retroactive to 4/16; purchased the contract of OF-L Danny Putnam from Midland (Double-A); purchased the contract of LHP Dallas Braden from Sacramento (Triple-A); transferred CF-L Mark Kotsay from the 15- to the 60-day DL; released RHP Scott Dunn. [4/23]

Okay, the outfield situation is obviously bad and getting worse. Already down Bradley and Kotsay, the A’s are left with Travis Buck trying to play through a wrist injury, Bobby Kielty recuperating from a procedure on his knee, and Shannon Stewart‘s difficulties trying to come back from a perhaps terminally broken bat. Nick Swisher is flying around from position to position, now landing back at his minor-league position, center field. Buck has been entertaining in the early going, especially for those of us who relish the Three True Outcomes: he’s generated 30 in 59 plate appearances, almost all walks and strikeouts, with only one homer, reflecting the concerns that he might not actually have the power you expect from a corner outfielder.

While it’s cool to see him come up, Putnam is not going to improve matters. Another one of the A’s decisively untoolsy college picks (2004 vintage, and a supplementary first-rounder), he’s not going to win high marks for his play in the field or on the bases. So he can hit, right? Despite a Stanford pedigree, his bat hasn’t been awe-inspiring; his 2005 full-season debut saw him hit .307/.388/.479 in the hitter-friendly Cal League. That’s nice for a 22-year-old, but with Pac-10 experience and in that league, that’s not a ton of power, and 65 unintentional walks in almost 600 PAs is good, but not great, a reflection of someone with a good approach. As a center fielder, that’s a prospect, but as a left fielder who might play right if you have someone even worse for left (enter Shannon Stewart), that’s not a big upside guy. Putnam tried to make the difficult jump to Double-A last year, but his season was marred by a knee injury that shelved him for half the season. He was off to a hot start this spring repeating the level (.327/.386/.615). He won’t get cheated, but I guess I fear he’s only going to be a minor-league edition of a professional hitter. Barring something like picking up a big platoon split and hammering righties (which he hasn’t shown so far), he looks like someone who’s more likely to get stuck contributing to some PCL and International League champs in the years to come.

So what does this all mean? That the least-productive lineup in the American League isn’t about to get much better. Nearly-done journeymen like Stewart and Todd Walker have been deathly cold in the early going, Mike Piazza is not doing much to quell my initial skepticism over the decision to sign him, and Eric Chavez still isn’t slugging. It’s enough to resurrect memories of the infamously feeble 1985 Giants for those of us who were following Bay Area ball back then. At least Bobby Crosby has gotten hot in the last week, but when you’re left hoping for Dan Johnson‘s speedy return and for Kotsay to really come back in June, it’s easy to see why you might think the coming five- or six-week stretch isn’t going to see the offense break out.

In the rotation, given the news you might think that the situation is equally grim. I’d have originally considered Joe Blanton the club’s fifth starter, but with Harden and Esteban Loaiza on the DL, his reliable ability to take the ball every fifth day suddenly becomes an appreciated commodity. However, even down two rotation starters, things really haven’t been that bleak in terms of performance. The A’s have gotten 12 quality starts in their first 19 games, good for the best SNLVAR in the majors. Ponder what the A’s have gotten from all of their starting hurlers in the early going:

Pitcher    GS   QS    IP   SNLVAR
Haren       5   3     32   1.2
Gaudin      4   2     241  1.1
Blanton     4   3     24   0.4
Harden      3   3     19   1.0
Kennedy     3   1     16   0.7

The quality starts don’t count a couple of decent five-inning outings, which you’d expect with a couple of starters turned into relievers turned back into starters again in Chad Gaudin and Joe Kennedy. Even with that, losing Harden–however well-managed his absence should be–hurts, especially for a team that’s been so obviously dependent on its rotation to keep its head above water.

That is why I love the decision to bring up Braden instead of Bull Halsey. Halsey’s not the worst guy to turn to if you’re looking for a fifth-starter type whose upside is fulfillment of your expectations for a fifth starter. The Admiral’s just not a great prospect. I’m not sure that Braden is, especially as he tries to bounce back from a shoulder injury that limited him to just 10 starts last season, but he’s also building off of a good AFL, a good stint in Puerto Rico in the winter leagues, and he made a good impression in camp. What’s particularly cool is that he’s a screwball pitcher, and given their relative rarity, maybe he’ll be more able than Halsey to put up a couple of winnable starts for a club with a weak offense. Although he was the organization’s Pitcher of the Year in 2005, before the injury he really just had the scroogie and a few different flavors of junk, but maybe we get a minor case of Fernandomania! in Green ‘n Gold instead of Dodgers blue. Like Putnam, Braden was off to a good start, striking out 20 while walking just four in 18 innings across three starts for Midland and Sacramento while allowing just eight hits.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Placed RHP Felix Hernandez on the 15-day DL (strained forearm), retroactive to 4/19; recalled RHP Cha Seung Baek from Tacoma (Triple-A). [4/23]

As the Rangers settled in against him in his season debut last night, Baek got banged around, but that’s pretty much been the story of the Mariners rotation all month–going back to the sortable table I put up in the A’s segment, you’ll see that the Mariners starters are giving up nearly seven runs per nine (worst in the majors) and the lowest SNLVAR in the American League. Although their MLB-low 15 games played lowers their IP totals, they’re still barely cracking five frames per start. And that was all with King Felix doing great things in his first two starts. Hernandez’s two quality starts are half of the team’s total so far–Jarrod Washburn hass given them one (and had another blown in the seventh), Miguel Batista another, and that’s it for the staff. Jeff Weaver is pitching like he wants to get his walking papers and luck into a gig with another contender, a la 2006, while Horacio Ramirez has been as ugly as anticipated in his first pair of outings. Now admittedly, this isn’t a lot of data, but it does seem to be confirming some of the low expectations a lot of us harbored for the Mariners rotation.

Baek can’t fix that by himself. Hell, a fully-operable King Felix wouldn’t do that. He’s not a great prospect, but he can pitch well enough as a defense-dependent strike-thrower to perhaps plant the idea in Mike Hargrove‘s and Bill Bavasi’s beans that maybe he’s a better choice for the rotation than Ramirez. That would involve changing gears and still getting something worthwhile out of Ramirez pitching out of the pen, and that might even make him a worthwhile commodity by the deadline, but teams might understandably feel they don’t want to take a chance on him given his spotty health record and equally spotty performance record. However, if he did do well in the role, the Mariners could afford to deal from depth and instead peddle George Sherrill before arbitration makes him expensive; in time, it’s Eric O’Flaherty who’s going to be the pen’s top gun from the port side, and if Ramirez can give them a solid long-relief alternative to kids like Brandon Morrow and Sean White, with this rotation, that’s not a bad thing.

Anyway, that’s all looking forward to life after May 4, when Hernandez stands to be reactivated. Ideally, Batista and Weaver will have done some better work by then, at which point the Mariners might at least have enough starting pitching to keep up in a division where all four teams have been handicapped in the early going.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Placed RHP Eric Gagné on the 15-day DL (strained hip); recalled RHP Frank Francisco from Oklahoma (Triple-A). [4/23]

Compared to Oakland and Seattle’s predicaments in losing aces, losing an ace reliever instead of an ace starter is pretty minor, especially since Gagné’s hitting the DL seems to be a matter of proactive talent management, and not a matter of merely wishcasting his problems away. That’s particularly admirable because the Rangers pen has already had to carry a pretty heavy load in the early going, but to the credit of both GM Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington, they’re not overly worried about the “C” on Gagné’s cape. They know what they have in Akinori Otsuka, there’s some decent talent to set him up in Joaquin Benoit and lefty specialist C.J. Wilson. Francisco has been insanely good with Oklahoma in the early going, striking out 14 of the 22 batters he’s faced, walking three, hitting one and not allowing a single hit. While that’s fun with silly samples, it looks like he’s finally back from the Tommy John surgery that basically kept him out of action in both 2005 and 2006. If he’s back to dialing up high-90s heat and a plus splitter, Francisco has the power assortment to push past guys like Scott Feldman or Bruce Chen and stick after Gagné comes back.