July 31, 2008

It got very quiet for a couple of days, at least on the transaction wire. The rumor mill went nuts, but there were just three trades, two of which involved the Yankees, and just one of those affecting a contender.

Wednesday's big news was a surprising deal in which the Yankees replaced Jorge Posada -- who underwent surgery on his shoulder, ending his season-with Ivan Rodriguez, at a cost of Kyle Farnsworth. The price seemed light, given Farnsworth's "disappointment" label and his spot as about the fourth-best reliever in the Yankees' bullpen, and the name value and career accomplishment of the two players is as disparate as you'll find. Certainly, Rodriguez is an upgrade for the Yankees, for whom Jose Molina has been a hole in the lineup.

When you look deeper, though, you can see that this trade isn't quite that special for the Yankees, although the price was right, and it wasn't that bad for the Tigers, who won't miss Rodriguez and who desperately needed bullpen help. Consider that Rodriguez and Molina are very similar players in type: excellent defensive catchers with little speed, middling power and a tendency to swing at everything. Molina hasn't hit lefties very well this year, but he has a fair track record of doing so -- .268/.311/.405 career, and over .300 with good power since 2004. It is a skill he possesses, and in a platoon role, would be acceptable.

Pudge has produced nine runs above replacement this season in 328 PAs, Molina five runs below in 218. Over the last two months, the offensive upgrade for the Yankees won't be worth more than that 14-run gap, and with the defense a wash, this trade is a one-win upgrade, not nearly enough to get excited about. Rodriguez makes the No. 8 spot in the lineup a little better, especially against righties, but the idea that adding him is a coup is misguided, largely because he has a reputation and Molina doesn't. The skill sets are similar.

The Yankees didn't really need a guy like Pudge. They needed a left-handed-hitting catcher with some OBP skills. Gregg Zaun, very available, would have been a strong platoon partner for Molina, getting him out of the starting lineup four days a week against the guys he can't hit, and giving the Yankees an OBP boost at the bottom of the order, while sacrificing defense for six innings a night. Now, not only do the Yankees get just that small upgrade at catcher, they'll be wasting a roster spot on Molina -- you don't need a backup catcher who is a writ-small version of your starter. You need a backup catcher who does the things the starter doesn't do. Carrying Molina will be a wasted roster spot for a team whose bench is already pretty sad.

Farnsworth goes from a forgotten man behind Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras to a critical piece of the Tigers' puzzle. With Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney both imploding, and the ever-present danger that Joel Zumaya will turn up lame, Farnsworth moves into high-leverage innings in Detroit, quite possibly as the closer. He's the biggest winner in this trade: six weeks from hitting the market as a nobody, Farnsworth could turn 20 good innings and 15 saves into another long-term contract in an industry in which no one remembers anything but the last thing you did. He has a chance to shed the labels put on him going back to his time with the Cubs. Even if he doesn't quite cash in the chance, his ability to miss bats will make him a welcome addition in Detroit, and his struggles with the longball could be masked by a home park that reduces homers.

The Tigers replace Rodriguez with Brandon Inge, completing the cycle in which Inge moved from catcher to utility guy to third baseman to utility guy and back to catcher. Inge can throw, he's a good receiver and hits and runs well for a catcher. The gap between what he is and what Rodriguez is thought to be is wide; the gap between what the two players are, however, is tiny, and well worth taking on to gamble on an upside play for a bullpen leaking oil and dropping parts.

The Yankees also found a taker for LaTroy Hawkins, who goes to Houston in exchange for a minor-league bat. The Drive for 75 is Alive, Astros fans. Good seats still available!

I guess I took long enough in writing this for Ken Griffey Jr. to approve the trade sending him to the White Sox in exchange for two older prospects, Nick Masset and Danny Richar. Masset, 26, is a fringe righty who has some ability to keep the ball down, and with his size should be a back-end starter rather than a reliever. He doesn't have the skills to be good in the bullpen, but he can throw 180 innings in the rotation. Richar, 25, has speed, pop and absolutely no place to play in Cincinnati. He's not a shortstop, and Brandon Phillips does every single thing better than he does.

The funny thing is, you might make a similar claim about Griffey and the White Sox. Griffey, like Rodriguez, comes with the reputation as a superstar forged during the Clinton Administration. Now, though, he's an aging, fragile hitter with a slowing bat and no ability to play a big defensive role. The White Sox' three best hitters play DH, left field and right field. Nick Swisher, basically a league-average hitter, plays center. Paul Konerko, fading star, plays first base.

Now, there are a lot of permutations here, and not a single one looks attractive. Neither Dye nor Quentin is equipped to move to center field for more than an inning or so. Griffey isn't remotely a center fielder any longer, and an outfield featuring those three in any configuration, well, you probably can hear Javier Vazquez's teeth grinding as he contemplates the idea. You can't sit Thome, who's a better hitter than Griffey. If you give Konerko's playing time to Griffey, you force either Swisher to first base, Griffey to the outfield and Vazquez to a dentist, or Thome to first base. The Sox have had Thome don a glove four times in three seasons, and if they go that route, they run the risk of off-field drama as Konerko adjusts to the bench and his legions of fans in Chicago go nuts. Keep something else in mind: the only one of the five players Griffey is better than, and even this is arguable, is Konerko.

The Sox gave up so little that you can't fault them for making the deal, but it's not clear what it does for them. Griffey would make a neat pinch-hitter and occasional starter for any of the players involved, but he's inferior to almost all of them, and as such shouldn't be playing regularly over any of them. The optimal alignment here is probably a Griffey/Konerko platoon, with Griffey playing first base. Anything else, anything that takes Swisher -- who himself isn't Dwayne Murphy -- out of center field or puts a glove on Thome, could cancel out whatever small offensive boost Griffey brings. It's a fascinating situation, and like the Tigers/Yankees deal, a situation in which the analysis of a trade has to go beyond the players and take into account the context of the teams.

On Tuesday, the shortest auction in history ended when Mark Teixeira was traded to the Angels about 24 hours after the Braves made him available. The deal was more or less what I'd written about in my piece that day speculating on Teixeira suitors, which doesn't leave me a lot to add. Casey Kotchman replaces Teixeira in the Braves' lineup, bringing an excellent glove and a bat that has been disappointing so far. I've been projecting greatness for Kotchman, but at 25, he has a career line of .272/.335/.424 and a .2008 mark of .287/.327/.448. His walk rate has fallen off a cliff: just 15 unintentional passes in nearly 400 plate appearances. He doesn't have the average or power to pull that off. The figure is way out of line with his career, so it should get back into line, especially since he has shown good power this year.

Teixeira steps into the Angels' lineup and changes it considerably. He's a 20-run offensive upgrade from Kotchman, plays comparable defense to his predecessor and relegates Vladimir Guerrero to second banana and Torii Hunter to third, both more appropriate slots for those two at this point in their careers.

The pitching prospect in the deal, Stephen Marek, should eventually be a decent late-innings reliever, although he was down the the list when it comes to Angels prospects. No, this trade is about one team trying to win now, and one trying to win in 2009 and beyond. It fit both teams' needs, and can be considered a success for both-if a limited one for the Braves, whose one-year dalliance with Teixeira brought them 77 wins, no postseason appearances and the pain of watching five prospects develop in Texas.

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