As I write this Thursday morning, there are just two shopping days left until the non-waiver trading deadline falls and every deal essentially requires the approval of 29 other teams. Several deals dropped on Wednesday, though none had the participation of the Yankees (their sole transaction line was the release of the ungrateful Brett Tomko).
The Phillies picked up Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco (I hear Jeannette McDonald sing, “Ben Francisco, open your golden gates” every time I think of that guy, and it never fails to disturb me) from the Indians, the Tribe picking up several players who could be useful contributors in the near future but almost certainly won’t be stars, with the possible exception of New Jersey native Jason Knapp, a teenaged righty whose fastball reaches atmospheric escape velocity.
The Phillies now get another reliable, top of the order type who can not only help them maintain their current lead but can get them through the playoffs — Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, and Joe Blanton seemed like less than sure bet to get them through Round 1, let alone to the World Series. Lee, Hamels, and Happ seem like a much better bet, and a real threat to an opponent with too left-handed a batting order. The Phillies still have a problem too address, and solving it doesn’t involve blowing their remaining prospects on Roy Halladay, but finding someone who can supplant Brad Lidge at the end of games.
As good as Lidge was last year, the Phillies can’t blow their season on sentimentality. A reliever who is giving up two homers per nine innings pitched isn’t worthy of his job (just ask Edwar Ramirez). I’ve seen some commentary on the deal worrying about how the Phillies are going to accommodate their current rotation plus Rodrigo Lopez and Pedro Martinez. This is much ado about nothing; in the case of the former, the Phillies can thank their various gods that they got some good work out of junk pile pickup, and as for Martinez, his utility is purely theoretical at this point. If he can pitch, perhaps he can add some depth to the bullpen.
The Giants tried to bolster their slim wild card lead by pulling second baseman Freddy Sanchez away from the Pirates. It cost them their No. 2 pitching prospect, righty Tim Alderson. While I am not completely sold on Alderson’s future as an ace (his control is of the finest quality; his stuff isn’t), the Giants might have picked the wrong spot to fix — Sanchez will upgrade their production at second base if he hits at all, but in the grand scheme of things he’s not a big generator of offense (his current .334 on-base percentage is about league average), not even at his batting title best (back in 2006), and he’s just an average glove. The Giants could have tried to live with what Juan Uribe was giving them at second while addressing themselves to left field or even shortstop, where the five-time All-Star Edgar Renteria is having a miserable year. Parenthetically, if Renteria has a couple of decent years left in his bag, he’s going to finish his career with somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 career hits and make for a really annoying Hall of Fame argument.
The Mariners acquired Ian Snell and Jack Wilson from the Pirates for reasons that are sort of hard to figure. They gave up five, count ’em, five players in the deal. Wilson has a superb glove, but while he should give the M’s more offense than they’ve gotten from their shortstops this year (.222/.249/.320, numbers that deserve a double-take and a whispered prayer), he’s only a career .269/.311/.376 hitter himself and the difference won’t be enough to make a real dent in the Mariners’ major problem, which is that the league-average offense is scoring 4.8 runs a game and they average 3.9.
For their trouble, the Pirates pick up quite a bit of depth. They get a futile shortstop placeholder in Ronny Cedeno, but the real haul is 25-year-old Jeff Clement, a former No. 1 pick who still has a lot of offensive potential (his .288/.366/.505 at Tacoma translates to .255/ .329/.462 in the Majors), especially if the Pirates can live with his defense at catcher. The three pitchers the Buccos got in the deal are lower echelon prospects, but when you’re the Pirates, depth is not a bad thing, as you need a lot of pieces to sort through if you’re ever going to build a competitive roster with the kind of budget that their city requires.
Finally, the Reds picked up outfielder Wladamir Balentien from the Mariners, who had designated him for assignment last week. Balentien looked like he might be a solid prospect a over the last couple of years, hitting for real power in the minors, but his plate judgment is so bad he may never be able to be a regular contributor. Still, he’s only 24 and has a career slugging percentage of .526 in the minors. The Reds, who suffer from the worst outfield production in the bigs, have a much better chance of gaining a lasting asset by playing Balentien than they do by giving more playing time to Laynce Nix — or Willy Taveras, though Balentien can’t play center field. Tavaras’ current .240/.279/.290 would qualify as among the bottom five seasons turned in by a regular outfielder in the history of the game were he to carry those rates through to the end.
In his last 20 games, not counting appearances as a defensive substitute, Melky Cabrera has batted .317/.403/.444, numbers which include five doubles, one home run, nine walks, and only one double play hit into. Much like his running mate Robinson Cano, Cabrera’s hot and cold streaks can make him a frustrating player to watch; he’s seemingly at his best or his worst, with little in between. Last year that divide broke down as best in April, worst the rest of the year. At the very least, Cabrera is mixing it up a bit more this season, and you can’t fault his timing — his first hot streak this year came when Brett Gardner struggled out of the gate, the second after Gardner broke his thumb. Perhaps Cabrera is the kind of player who needs to be in fear of his job to play well. After all, had he continued to slump with Gardner on the shelf, Austin Jackson was just a phone call away.
TERROR IN A TINY TOWN
Yesterday, electrical storms rolled through the obscure village in which I lived and disrupted Internet service for a good chunk of the day; I couldn’t even get on line with my phone. I was quite fearful that the Yankees would acquire Babe Ruth in exchange for $100,000 and the mortgage on Fenway Park and I wouldn’t know about it, but Brian Cashman was good enough to hold off on making any moves. I just want to thank him publicly and let him know that I am back on line and he is free to proceed with any acquisitions he would like to make … as long as they don’t involve dealing Jesus Montero.
WHAT IS THIS, RED LOBSTER?
I understand that it was Memorial Day, but red caps? Red is a patriotic color? You go whisper that at Joe McCarthy’s grave and see if his rotted hands don’t shoot up out of the ground and drag you down under the dirt. Besides, the Yankees just looked plain undignified.
… On the other hand, if you win all your red-cap games by 10 runs, maybe red caps can be fashionable.
PHIL HUGHES, SO NEAR AND YET SO NEAR
Assuming the Yankees don’t use Thursday’s day of rest to skip a rotation spot — and Joe Girardi hasn’t done that so far this year — Mr. Hughes will next pitch Sunday at Cleveland. He’s made one career start at Jacobs Field and did very well, throwing six innings of one-run baseball back on August 10, 2007. The Indians don’t have quite the same roster now — Hughes won’t be striking out Kenny Lofton twice this time around — but the meat is the same. Cleveland has one of the league’s most strikeout-prone lineups this year, something that could play into Hughes’ hands. Parenthetically, they also sent down Matt LaPorta, one of the top power prospects in baseball, who had mostly rented space on their bench over the last few weeks. Very wasteful, especially when the players currently in his positions, Ryan Garko and Ben Francisco, are not current or future world-beaters …
Back to Hughes: Monday in Texas was just a taste of his abilities, and the trick for the Yankees and Hughes himself will be to exploit his talents more consistently. I know that seems obvious, but Hughes has been either all or nothing in his brief career. When Hughes is on, he’s been dominant. In his eight career wins, his ERA is 1.44. In his losses, it’s 11.53. Now, all pitchers have this sort of split between their best days and their worst, but Hughes has been particularly extreme. The difference has largely been one of control: On the bad days, Hughes can’t get his pitches over, his walk rate shoots up, and the home runs follow. That said, when it works it really works; a more typical ERA in winning games is something in the 2.00s. The Right Stuff Hughes is overwhelming. On yet another hand, part of a starting pitcher’s job is to give his team to win whether he has the stuff to pitch a no-hitter or not. Hughes isn’t there yet.
Hughes should eventually have fewer days when he’s just a glorified batting practice pitcher, but it’s difficult to say when things will click into place, or if further Minor League experience would be a help or a hindrance. The only thing that’s certain is that the upside is huge and there’s no sure way to get at it except to keep trying. Right now, bad days have actually outnumbered the good (with “in between” outnumbering both). American League pitchers make a quality start just under half the time this year — the rate has stayed fairly constant since 2005. For his career, Hughes’ rate is 33 percent. When he’s good he’s very good, when he’s bad he’s worse, and if he could just shift a few of those bad ones onto the good or even “Mr. In-Between” pile (the guy Johnny Mercer said you don’t mess with), the Yankees would have a star on their hands.
It could be that Texas was the beginning of the shift, and that Cleveland will be continuation of it, or maybe Hughes struggles again and the counter resets. Patience is obviously warranted.
BRIAN BRUNEY HEADS BACK TO THE DL …
… Another stay for Brett Tomko. The battle for relief help as the trade deadline nears is going to be intense. Many of the teams that have dropped out of their division races have done so in large part because of their lack of quality relievers. Sure, the Nationals will trade you one of their relievers, but do you want one? (Nightmare scenario: Ron Villone’s scoreless 11.1 innings this season suddenly makes him attractive trade-bait.) Sure, the Rockies may want to move Huston Street, and there might be a couple of other semi-attractive hurlers out there, but it’s definitely going to be a seller’s market. As I stated in a previous entry, the Yankees would be best off if they aggressively sorted through the David Roberstsons (welcome back, Dave) and Mark Melancons of the world now so they know whether they have to go hard after relief help or they can save their chips for bigger game. Thus my minor-key carping about Tomko: he’s not part of the solution set, and he’s taking up the roster spot of someone who very well may be. Who better to spend trash time innings on, a 99-year-old vet or a kid who might show you something?
MORE FROM ME
? For those with access to Baseball Prospectus, I’ve got a bit up on the worst offenses of all time, springboarding from the current Giants. No Yankees on the list, though I could have dragged in the 1913 team, I guess …
? Wholesome Reading has been updated, with more to come on the evolving Supreme Court and Prop 8 situations. Warning: Politics!