Impact of Hernandez trade; infield shuffle

December, 10, 2008

The No. 1 prospect in baseball is going to get his chance sooner rather than later.

The impact of the Orioles' trade of Ramon Hernandez to the Reds for Ryan Freel and two minor leaguers is not as much about the players involved as it is about the path it clears, as Matt Wieters is now firmly in line to receive a lot of playing time in 2009.

Even before the deal, it was still expected that Wieters would play a good amount of big-league ball next season and ascend to a starting job when Hernandez was dealt sometime around midseason. Instead, the Orioles decided to pull the trigger on a deal now.

Ramon HernandezG Fiume/Getty ImagesRamon Hernandez hit .285 after the All-Star break last season.
As of this writing, the Orioles don't have a catcher on their 40-man roster, so they are expected to sign a veteran to pair with Wieters. As Jerry Crasnick reported in our Winter Meetings blog, Michael Barrett and Gregg Zaun are on their radar screen, but it seems clear that the majority of at-bats are ticketed for Wieters. Right now, the team is saying this deal doesn't necessarily mean Wieters may start right away. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said Wieters may spend the first few weeks of the season at Triple-A. MacPhail told "It had been our goal to make sure we could introduce Matt into the Major League scene somewhere over the course of the '09 season. Not necessarily to start right away, but we thought he could handle it eventually after a little time in Triple-A possibly under his belt." But that could change if Wieters has a big spring.

If he does somehow start the year in the minors, I don't expect him to be down there for long. Geovany Soto had no problems with his offense in his rookie season in the big leagues, and I don't expect Wieters will, either. I don't think I'd let him slide out of the top-10 at the position for me, and I expect he'll be in that range in most drafts.

Ramon Hernandez quietly rebounded from a slow start to rank in the top 15 at the position, and a player with a career .263 average and the potential for 15-plus homers is a useful player at a position without a lot of offensive depth. Camden Yards was the No. 1 park for homers last year, according to ESPN's Park Factor. Cincy's Great American Ballpark was fourth, so don't read too much into his change of home venue. Hernandez should remain a solid option when you need to fill that second catcher slot.

As for Freel, if he's healthy and his speed hasn't been diminished too much by surgery to repair a torn hamstring -- big ifs for someone who has played a total of 123 games the past two seasons -- he should continue to be a utility man who brings some speed and multiple position eligibility to his fantasy owners. His potential playing time will depend on the other moves the Orioles make this offseason, but expect him to be a fourth outfielder and a backup at second and third base, squeezing out enough at-bats to make him a solid asset again in single-league play.

Does either of the prospects the Orioles received in the deal have a chance to be a decent fantasy player? Most likely not. Second baseman Justin Turner doesn't profile as a regular, but more of a utility guy, and even if he did get some starting at-bats, he wouldn't produce much more than an empty batting average. Third baseman Brandon Waring brings some big-power potential, leading all short-season leagues in homers in his pro debut in 2007 and adding another 20 in the Midwest League this past season. However, he has 239 strikeouts in his first 188 professional games despite not advancing past low Class A. That's not a good sign for his ability to keep his production going as he moves up the ladder.

• You pretty much know what you're getting when it comes to Casey Blake. When you've needed to fill that third base or corner slot toward the end of the draft, Blake has been a solid option over the last six seasons by virtue of having a lock on a starting job, and his three-year contract with the Dodgers ensures that he will continue to have one, at least for 2009. Sometimes when filling out your roster you're looking not for the player with upside, but for someone with steady production, and Blake has been able to provide that.

That said, Blake is 35 years old, and even putting up one of the better seasons of his career last year still ranked him only 18th among third basemen in our Player Rater. It's reasonable to assume that his advancing age and spending a full season in one of the worst hitting parks (according to Park Factor) will mean a decline in his numbers and likely push him out of the top 20 at the hot corner next season. Essentially, Blake remains that endgame corner guy you can take when you're looking for someone with some guaranteed at-bats, but his production is not as safe as it used to be.

The fallout from Blake's return to the Dodgers means that Blake DeWitt will shift over from third to grab at least a share of the second base job. The Dodgers also signed Mark Loretta on Tuesday, with the idea that the useful veteran will fill Nomar Garciaparra's role as the utility player who can play all over the infield. However, it wouldn't surprise me if the right-handed-hitting Loretta eventually works his way into a platoon with the left-handed-hitting DeWitt, despite DeWitt's reverse platoon splits in his rookie season. Loretta has hit lefties at a .300 clip with an OPS more than 120 points higher over the last three seasons. DeWitt is still the player you want out of the two, but Loretta's presence will eat into his at-bats and make DeWitt a less viable play in mixed leagues.

• Another third baseman inked a new deal Tuesday, as Mike Lamb re-signed with the Brewers. He's currently ticketed for a platoon role with Bill Hall. Hall's struggles against right-handed pitching have been well documented. He's hit just .235 with a .731 OPS against them over the last three seasons, including an anemic .174 last year.

Lamb can post a decent batting average and hit 10-15 homers in a platoon role, making him moderately useful as a spot starter and fill-in player when injuries strike your squad, while Hall's diminished playing time makes him far less likely to post a comeback season. Hall did undergo LASIK surgery in October, which means he can get rid of the contacts he's worn since he started playing baseball and might help him out a bit at the plate, but he's still just a cheap NL-only endgame play until he gets a few more at-bats.

What does this mean for left-handed-hitting third base prospect Mat Gamel? He will be given a chance to win some at-bats, but is likely ticketed for a good portion of time at Triple-A this year to continue to work on his defense. He needs to show that he can bounce back from a slow finish to 2008, as well as right elbow tendinitis that sidelined him late in the season (and was affecting him well before that). Gamel hit just .243 in July and .205 in August after batting .381 for the first three months of the season at Double-A. He's still a premier prospect, and this signing allows the Brewers the luxury of not having to rush him.

Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.



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