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Received RHP Yohan Pino from the Twins to complete the Pavano trade. [8/28]

Pino’s a command-dependent finesse right-hander Venezuelan who, while not exactly old (he’s 25) isn’t exactly young and full of promise. He started the year repeating Double-A but demoted to the bullpen, but eventually got swapped into the rotation, allowing just four runs in 20 1/3 to earn a mid-July promotion to Triple-A. Eight more turns with the Red Wings led to just 49 baserunners and 3.2 R/9 in 51 IP. All of which is swell, but short, low-velocity right-handers need to be exceptional at something beyond throwing strikes to stick in the majors, and where Pino’s concerned, we’ll have to see if there’s anything else beyond the performance record to suggest he’ll be all that much different.

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Acquired LHP Scott Kazmir from the Rays for LHP Alex Torres, 3B-L Matt Sweeney, and a PTBNL; outrighted RHP Shane Loux to Salt Lake (Triple-A). [8/29]
Optioned RHP Rafael Rodriguez to Salt Lake; activated LHP Scott Kazmir. [8/30]

Tony Reagins adds another feather in his cap as one of the game’s more underrated executives by making an entirely worthwhile trade to address an obvious need: filling out his team’s rotation. You can pick nits and complain about the the Angels not adding a more highly regarded present-day performer, but in terms of being willing to buying low to take on a premium talent already under contract well into the future, and risking the futures of two or three mid-list prospects, that’s a right-now win as worthwhile exchanges go. It would be hard to suggest that the Angels could have gotten an even better balance of risk and potential reward for this kind of package if they’d been offering it around at the end of July, so this was really an exceptionally happy outcome for them. One month ago, you would not get Kazmir for this kind of package, and you certainly don’t get any young quality starter with an extended track record of success for this kind of package any other way than the happily coinciding impacts of timing, outreach, and inventory.

Even if you only take this as a case of Scott Kazmir’s performance this season alone, this looks like a solid deal for the Angels. Kazmir’s generated a Support-Neutral Winning Percentage of .450, which doesn’t sound like much (and it isn’t), but it’s as good as Joe Saunders‘ performance (.451), it’s better than Ervin Santana‘s (.430), and it comes attached to a 25-year-old power lefty already under contract through 2011 (with a club option for 2012). In his 11 turns since coming off of the DL at the end of June, he has seven quality starts, and he’s struck out 56 (against 21 walks) in 65 1/3 IP. That’s Scott Kazmir, not the full seasonal line, and that’s what the Angels have added to the rotation down the stretch. Could he be even more than that, however, and realize the potential so many believe and have believed in for so long? Maybe. He has managed quality starts in five of his last six turns, heating up at exactly that point in time when first the Rays and now the Angels could use the help. While he might be every bit as exasperating as Santana has been in terms of being something less than the ace people that expected him to be, the promise is still there.

Having added a starter already inked into the future is another key component to the deal, because with John Lackey possibly leaving as a free agent this winter. This was an exchange as much about stocking the rotations of the future as well as the present. If the Angels were willing to be patient with Santana, they can afford to be every bit as patient with Kazmir, on the off chance that they wind up with young veteran rotation next year that, even if it’s lacking Lackey, would have three good starters under 27 years old, plus Saunders in his age-29 season. It’s the foundation of a bid to remain in front of the even younger and equally talented Rangers team they’ll be dogfighting the next several seasons.

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Acquired RHP Jon Rauch from the Diamondbacks; traded RHP Yohan Pino to the Indians as the PTBNL in the Pavano deal; outrighted RHP Philip Humber to Rochester (Triple-A). [8/28]
Placed 3B-R Joe Crede on the 15-day DL (strained lower back), retroactive to 8/22; optioned RHP Armando Gabino to Rochester; recalled C-S Jose Morales from Rochester; signed LHP Ron Mahay; designated RHP R.A. Dickey for assignment. [8/29]

If you want to try to foist the Twins’ bullpen tweaks as some sort of latter-day riff on the Marlins‘ stretch-winning retool of their bullpen in 2003 en route to a World Series win, you might medal in interpretive dance, but you’d leave me entirely unconvinced. Mahay’s been horrible with the Royals this season, delivering little in the way of high-leverage or situational usefulness. Rauch’s been a comparatively modest disappointment, producing 0.5 in WXRL, but has also done better while pitching away from Banky Bank Bandbox (West Campus) in Phoenix, giving up nine runs in 23 road innings. While we’re talking about a pitcher coming from the easier league to the stronger, it isn’t like set-up men get to see a lot of pitchers at the plate; this year, he gotten to see Carlos Zambrano and Russ Ortiz, and one of those two doesn’t really count. Basically, I don’t see that as a reason to count anything against Rauch, just acknowledging his fundamental mediocrity of late.

While most relievers make for radically volatile commodities, and Rauch and Mahay might be worth something, it’s not worth getting worked up over, certainly no more (or less) than losing Crede, except in the contrast of adding versus losing flexibility in making choices between sub-mediocre options. Crede’s value might be more in the defense he’s added, but swapping in Brendan Harris for him at third won’t radically alter the team’s fortunes. Since his call-back to play second, Alexi Casilla‘s been producing at a rate (.216/.325/.289) that’s almost a perfect match for Nick Punto‘s stylings with wood, so the basic problem isn’t the quantity of options the Twins have in their infield, it’s their relative lack of quality.

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Traded LHP Scott Kazmir to the Angels for LHP Alex Torres, 3B-L Matt Sweeney, and a PTBNL; activated 2B-L Akinori Iwamura from the 60-day DL. [8/29]

It may seem as if the Rays have been busily populating the rest of baseball with starting pitching. Edwin Jackson‘s doing nice work for the Tigers, what with his ranking among the 10 best starters in baseball when it comes to helping them win games, while Matt Joyce enjoys a merely OK season for Durham. Jason Hammel‘s doing less well with the Rockies, but his .463 SNWP at altitude has been worth more to Colorado than the performances of Kazmir (.450) or Andy Sonnanstine (.398) have been to the Rays. Hammel, Kazmir, and Jackson might all end up in the playoffs, which might be cause for all sorts of complaining.

Some of that reflects the nicer side of possessing considerable depth, of course; they placed their faith in former top pick Jeff Niemann, and he’s been excellent (.565 SNWP) despite some previous concerns his development track seemed set in slo-mo. David Price had to earn his way into the rotation, and he’s similarly been worth the wait. Matt Garza remains the gift that keeps on giving, and James Shields is a building block as well. As far as talent, picking that foursome, Garza/Shields/Price/Niemann, to be your Rays rotation now and into the future, makes sense, allowing for Jackson’s far surpassing the expectations of any of his pre-season boosters (myself included) had for him, probably Dave Dombrowski included.

The problem comes when we get into who was expected to be behind door number five (in terms of spots, not slots or status) for the rotation. That answer was supposed to be Kazmir, and now it’s not, and while the answers for why that is move into areas of injury and general dissatisfaction, the way this has played out leads to a larger problem. The question is less one of whether the Rays have done a good job of picking quality pitchers and perhaps not even whether they’ve picked the right quality pitchers to count on, it’s whether or not they’re doing well in flipping the ones they decide not to keep. Replacing Kazmir with Sonnanstine for now and Jeremy Hellickson or Wade Davis later is besides the point; dealing from depth isn’t just about picking the right guys, it’s about getting a good return on what you’ve given up. Moving guys because you’ve decided who to move is fine, but getting value is critical, otherwise you’re just doing what the Rays might rightfully be accused of, and seeding other people’s rotations while getting less than full value in return.

Consider the package received for Kazmir. Torres is an excellent prospect, and Sweeney’s interesting, certainly. Torres is a short Venezuelan lefty with low-90s heat and a nice curve; in his age-21 season he’s not merely survived the challenge of pitching at Rancho Cucamonga (a charnel house for moundsmen), he’s virtually created his own personal Kobayashi Maru-level solution by simply burning through bats, striking out 124 in 121 1/3 IP, allowing just four home runs total and 3.2 runs per nine, although walking 63. (To get a sense of how differentiated that is from the performance of his Quake(-ing) teammates on the bump, take Torres out of the team line, and you’ve got a staff that gives up 5.6 runs per nine and has allowed 120 homers in 1046 IP.) This was Torres’ full-season debut; naturally it led to a promotion to Double-A. He’s been wild in his five turns for Arkansas, striking out 25 while walking 17 in 26 IP; he’s also allowed just 3.5 R/9 and won three games, really only getting into trouble once so far. He’s clearly made himself into a comer, perhaps even one who might become a latter-day Kazmir, given the power assortment and the wildness. But there’s a goodly amount of time between then and now, and lots of things that might go wrong. If he pans out, it’s an exchange that boils down to timing and to a lesser extent money (more on that in a moment); if he doesn’t, this deal may not look good.

Sweeney’s a promising hitter, but he’s also a third baseman in name only, having made no better progress afield since last season. Injuries can be partially blamed for any delay, as he’s missed more than half the year with hip woes. However, he’s only 21, this was his full-season debut (delayed since he missed all of 2008 with an ankle injury), and enjoying some of the benefits of hitting at Rancho Cucamonga, he’s been raking at a .299/.379/.517 clip. Good stuff, certainly, but he has yet to play third since coming back to the Quakes, and if he doesn’t play third, he goes into that pile of first-base prospects who need to perform at such an extreme level as to actually make it. Given his defense has been seen as execrable from the get-go, it’s hard to expect he’ll have a shot at a future at third, so he gets lumped into the semi-interesting morass of maybe-something first-base types. He’s young enough that, even with the setbacks because of injury, he can recast his future at the position, but he’ll have to improve upon his hitting, beat a platoon rep, and stay healthy.

Taken together, that’s not a bad package, but here again, Joyce looked interesting enough nine months ago. To some extent, the Rays are giving up the best possible and most desirable big-league commodities: young major league veterans who are still under club control for several seasons. That looks bad with Jackson, like a dispensation with Hammel, and figures to look bad in the short term with Kazmir as well. It isn’t fair to say that Torres has to make good on what Joyce was supposed to be, but to some extent, the Rays need a win on the ledger in these sorts of deals, however well the big-league rotation turns out in the meantime. It’s perhaps something of an understated blessing if Torres’ opportunity might not come until 2011 or so, putting off til later any question of a reckoning over their failure to acquire perceived full value for big league-ready starting pitching.

Which brings us to the other factor, which I’ve left for last because I think it’s not quite as important as others would make it: money. Was some element of this deal about getting out from under the financial obligation to Kazmir? Sure, even though that commitment wasn’t that odious as such things go; owing Scott Kazmir $22.5 million over the next two seasons hurts a lot less than owing Jeff Suppan $14.5 million for 2010 alone.* Certainly the limitations of their market’s potential payout might come into play as well, but the calculus of maximizing their balance of payouts to performance received seems more likely to be the determining factor here, rather than just a “Kazmir’s expensive” bleat. Kazmir’s expensive and not necessarily better than Hellickson, or Davis. If that’s the case, why employ Kazmir? The era of good feelings is already over, so deciding to turn the page on any mutually held loyalties is probably for the best; the money’s just a noteworthy element, not a determining factor.

*: Counting buyouts of team options in each instance.

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Traded RHP Jon Rauch to the Twins for a PTBNL; purchased the contract of C-R John Hester from Reno (Triple-A). [8/28]
Placed C-R Chris Snyder on the 15-day DL (lower back inflammation), retroactive to 8/23; optioned OF-L Trent Oeltjen to Reno; recalled CF-R Chris Young and LHP Daniel Schlereth from Reno. [8/29]

Ending the demotion of Young makes sense, assuming that the lesson’s been learned and he’s ready to step in and deliver at something closer to the repeatedly lofty expectations we’ve held for him. His going 0-for-6 might not be what they had in mind, of course, but perhaps the fact of the message sent by having demoted him will have both he and they thinking in terms of an offseason where he continues to work on his limitations as a hitter, and perhaps deliver on more of the promise you’d expect from a guy with plenty of power, considerable defensive value, and a splash of speed. Failing that, he’s going to be some sort of awful combination of the virtues of Glen Braggs and Henry Cotto, where you don’t get to pick which virtues.

It’s been something of a lost season for Snyder, who may or may not be back for the last couple of weeks of the season, but Miguel Montero‘s had an even better season this year than Snyder did in the last two, reflecting the benefit of having two young backstops. As for Hester, while you might think a guy who comes up hitting .328/.375/.535 is a prospect, think again. Reno’s altitude overinflates everybody’s performances, and the 25-year-old Stanford product has gotten his share of the benefit, hitting .385/.435/.663 at home against .269/.310/.400 in the rest of the hitter-friendly PCL. So it’s no surprise that translating that performance whittles him down to .238/.285/.413.

Still, add in that he’s throwing out 30 percent of opponent’s stolen-base attempts, and that’s roughly equivalent to 0.8 on the Molina employability scale for a backstop, so you could certainly see him hang around enough to caddy for either Snyder or Miguel Montero if Josh Byrnes elected to use one of his two start-worthy backstops to go shopping with this winter. Montero’s higher upside as a hitter might be the deciding factor, but the two make for a constantly compelling contrast: both boast plenty of secondary offensive skills, with Snyder’s ranges of possibility perhaps leaning more towards the Dave Valle types than Chris Hoiles, while Montero’s switch-hitting provides an interesting contrast that makes clean comparisons a bit more difficult. Shopping both to see which one strikes somebody’s fancy so much that it engenders an outlandish offer would be sensibility itself.

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Acquired INF-R Ronnie Belliard from the Nationals for RHP Luis Garcia and a PTBNL; designated RHP Jesus Castillo for assignment. [8/30]

Credit Ned Colletti for adding a worthwhile back-end bit to round out his post-season roster. Belliard certainly fits right into a team that has carried a quartet of veteran garbage-time kings all season. What Belliard has that Mark Loretta lacks is a relatively hot bat; he’s hit .317/.373/.465 in the last two months, having gotten more playing in July and August than he did in April, May, and June combined. He’s not a great option at the infield corners as a fielder, but he’ll man them when asked, and it isn’t like the bench had outstanding alternatives already should anything happen to Casey Blake or James Loney. Perhaps the more likely scenario would involve anything bad happening to Orlando Hudson, like yet another season-ending injury to the keystoner; there, Belliard’s definitely better than a replacement-level option as substitutes go. Add in that he offers this bench power it otherwise lacks; the four wizened, nag-riding horsemen of the Dodgers‘ bench (comprised of Loretta, Brad Ausmus, Juan Pierre, and Juan Castro) have a combined two homers in 741 PA, and seem likely to have exactly that many by season’s end given their respective talents. Belliard also has a good amount of experience as a pinch-hitter, never the easiest of chores, and he’s had some success in the role, hitting .248/.320/.381; that might be especially worth noting in light of Loretta’s potentially career-ending collapse against right-handed pitching; dudes delivering .221/.291/.254 had better be really valuable defensive specialists or have speed or something else to add to the mix, and Loretta has none of those things going for him.

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Signed RHP Livan Hernandez; optioned RHP Collin Balester to Syracuse (Triple-A); transferred 1B-S Dmitri Young from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [8/26]
Placed CF-L Nyjer Morgan on the 15-day DL (fractured hand); purchased the contract of INF-R Pete Orr from Syracuse; transferred RHP Jordan Zimmermann from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [8/28]
Traded INF-R Ronnie Belliard to the Dodgers for RHP Luis Garcia and a PTBNL. [8/30]
Recalled CF-R Justin Maxwell from Syracuse. [8/31]

Well, I’d been speculating for a couple of months now that Belliard would wind up with somebody somewhere to serve some higher purpose beyond just playing out the string with the hapless Nats to assist them in their quest to finish with something better than the 30th-best record in baseball. Garcia’s a worthwhile arm to have added to the stockpile, having pitched effectively for Great Lakes in Low-A in his full-season debut. The 22-year-old Dominican’s been generating a lot of ground-ball outs (1.8 for every fly), which isn’t easy with the suspect fields and fielding in the minors, while also striking out 55 in 73 IP against just 14 walks. Getting that plus something else for a few weeks of Ronnie Belliard’s time seems entirely worthwhile.

Segue to scenes from the upcoming classic bound to be the first-ever joint production from ESPN and LOGO: Brokeback Rotation. It’s the story of a man and his team daring to live together, resolutely apart from the judgments of a cruel, unfair world where certain relentless standards of what constitutes acceptable performance come into play. Losing ballgames? Who are we to judge, as long as you’ve got a shortage of alternatives and a willing workhorse to saddle up and ride to the bitter end? You’re sure to shed a tear when Teddy Roosevelt says to Livan Hernandez, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

On a more practical level, reduced to seeing what they’ve got in Garrett Mock, Craig Stammen, and J.D. Martin while John Lannan‘s beginning to look like he’s pitching on fumes, employing Hernandez as an innings muncher, even if the term “again” has to be utilized, has its virtues. Mock’s showing some promise as a starter, striking out a man per inning in his turns, Martin’s a decent placedholder. Stammen had a brief run of utility in July, but he’s busily squelching that. As much as Livan large ends up leaving you feeling down in the standings, his .461 SNWP with the Mets this year was better than, say Brad Penny‘s was with Boston (.421), and would also rank second on the Nats’ staff.