Friday, June 10, 2005

Fried Ohka

Okay, enough of that sentimental junk. There was a trade today, as well as a signing:

---> Hello: Junior Spivey (acquired from Brewers); Ryan Drese (had been designated for assignment by the Rangers).
---> Goodbye: Tomo Ohka (traded to Brewers).

I can't possibly add any value to the analyses that have already been provided in the Nats blogosphere; as I noted in my previous, sappy post, they were all over the moves like ego on Rickey.

Instead, I guess I'll just ask a few inevitable questions that arise from these moves. I'll provide an answer or a couple of possibilities in response, but don't necessarily take them seriously. This is more of a thought exercise:

1. What really happened to Ohka?

Well, way to go; my first question, and it's both loaded and ambiguous. It suggests that there's a root cause and a cover story. In reality, though, Farid of the Beltway Boys helps dispel any ambiguity. He was listening to XM Home Plate this afternoon, when Jim Bowden discussed Ohka:

"We had to make a move with Ohka. He told us May 9th that he didn't want to be a part of the team anymore, and we certainly don't want any player who has a problem playing for a first place club. I'm sure he'll be happy in Milwaukee."

I don't you about you, but I sensed a touch of sarcasm in that last sentence.

Anyway, there you go. Bowden says Ohka was traded because of an attitude problem. No cover story about doing what's best for the team or finding a player too good to pass up; he says he just felt he had to get rid of the guy.

2. Should Okha have brought in a greater haul?

According to the Brewers' fans on Baseball Primer, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Maybe they are right, and maybe they aren't. The question begs another one from me, though: did the organization drive down Ohka's trade value by publicizing the problems between Ohka and Frank Robinson?

No one can answer that question for sure, but I wonder how much the Brewers considered the back-turning incident before pulling the trigger. I also wonder how much English Ohka knows and whether customs concerning the removal of pitchers are different in Japan. I realize that he's pitched professional ball in America for quite awhile, but I don't know enough to foreclose the thought that Robinson and Ohka never successfully communicated.

Whether these factors branded Ohka as a problem player, I don't know---but I suspect so. These guys aren't usually acquired for full dollar value.

3. What about Ohka's pitching? Did it justify a trade?

Superficially, no; he had a winning record and a fine earned run average. Historically, Ohka has a better-than-break-even ERA+.

On the other hand, although the notion proved somewhat controversial at Yuda's chat today, it's worth discussing whether Ohka's performance is about to fall off a rather large cliff. Note that I am talking about a possibility, not a certainty. Nevertheless, look at his peripheral statistics, namely his walk and strikeout rates:

IP . . . BB . . . SO
54 . . . 27 . . . 17

That's seriously ugly. But that's just 2005, right? It must be a fluke.

It might be a fluke, particularly the walk rate. But his strikeout rate dropped last year, too. This might be a slightly bogus way of doing it, but consider his strikeout rate over 2004-05:

IP . . .SO . . . K/9IP
139 . . 55 . . . 3.56

Ohka has never been tremendously reliant on the whiff or the backwards-k; nevertheless, it is possible that he is now reaching a point of debilitating weakness in that regard. I know it sounds silly to say such a thing for a guy with a) a winning record, b) an ERA in the threes, and c) a consistent record of an adjusted ERA better than league average. On the other hand, years ago Bill James noted a fairly bright-line point of viability at 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, and Ohka's strikeout rate is falling far below that measure.

It could still be a fluke, though; we could be looking at the sum of two small samples, where Ohka became comfortable in neither case. Perhaps once he pitches more, the strikeouts will rise close to his historic levels. Yet, I don't think we can disregard evidence, over the span of two seasons now, that indicates the possibility that he must adjust or face severe ineffectiveness.

4. Junior Spivey, eh? Wasn't he an all-star? Is he any good?

Spivey was an all-star in 2002; he is not an "all-star player" by any stretch, though.

He's a decent player, though. He possesses some decent secondary offensive skills, and he has earned a reputation as a heady player.

5. What does Spivey's acquisition mean for Jose Vidro?

It could mean that Vidro's condition is worse than we think. Inquiring minds want to know.

6. What does Spivey's acquisition mean for Cristian Guzman?

It could mean that Guzman is effectively (or ineffectively, ha!) done facing lefty pitchers---who have treated Guzman roughly as well as Walmart treats its employees. A perceptive commenter at Yuda's place---"D," I believe---pointed out that the press release of Spivey's acquisition referenced Spivey's statistics versus lefties. To say that Spivey's numbers would be better than Guzman's in this regard is probably understating things; Millard Filmore is closer to Franklin Pierce on the list of "most handsome U.S. Presidents," if that means anything to you.

So, Spivey is probably the regular second baseman until Vidro returns. At that point, what? Maybe Spivey fills in at shortstop from time to time.

7. What of Jamey Carroll?

Utility guy, spot starter. Doing what he does best. It's been fun, though.

8. What about Brendan Harris?

He's screwed, of course. But I don't think the trade affects his standing much, if at all.

As others have noted, Harris was an Omar Minaya acquisition, and one gets the distinct feeling that the current regime thinks little of him. At the very least, the organization seems not to trust Harris as a second baseman; thus, assuming that dye has been cast, the trade for a second baseman means little to his position on the organizational depth chart.

The selection of Dutch Zimmerman with the team's first pick the other day was more damning to Harris, whose window of opportunity with the organization now essentially is dependent on Vinny Castilla missing serious time with an injury.

9. Is Ryan Drese the answer?

Eventually, Drese could establish himself as the team's fourth or fifth starter. Farid also noted Bowden's comments that Drese has perceived mechanical problem and Randy St. Claire can sort it out.

Well, maybe. For the sake of consistency, though, I should point up that Drese---at least in terms of stathead convention K/IP wisdom---pitched to precarious success last season:

IP . . . SO . . . K/9IP
207 . . 98 . . . 4.36

The repo man dropped by early this season, and was he ever vicious. (Unlike the repo guy on The Simpsons, who noted, "Repossessing stuff is the hardest part of [his] job.")

As others have pointed out, Drese is a sinker ball pitcher with a healthy groundball-to-flyball ratio. Maybe he'll find success with the roomier comfines of RFK Stadium. I'm guessing we'll eventually see a Drese, Zack Day, Sunny Kim love triangle for that last rotation spot---assuming, of course, Tony Armas the Younger can be trusted with the next-to-last spot.

10. Bring it all back home, brother: are we fans of a better team?

Better than when? Better than we were this morning? I don't know.

I think so, though. Spivey provides a legitimate starting second baseman---not a great one, of course, but one who can contribute both offensively and defensively. While Carroll comes close on occasion (Baerga, clearly, doesn't), we are more secure at the keystone now. What is more, we now have a utility infielder. Never again will we be forced to cringe in horror as Baerga's lack of athleticism allows a team to remain alive. (Baerga has to be the least capable starter at second base since the Tigers kicked a washed-up Gregg Jeffries around there about five years ago.)

This doesn't necessarily mean that the Nats got the better of the trade, though. Perhaps they didn't; perhaps Bowden could have gotten more value for Ohka, and perhaps the public disclosure of Ohka's apparent disrespect reduced Ohka's standing. (Then again, maybe a public disclosure is not necessary---anyone can observe a sign of disrespect on the mound.)

But Bowden reinforced a tremendously weak area, then replaced Ohka with a pitcher---this year's traditional stats notwithstanding---who might not be appreciably worse. At the end of the day, I think the team is stronger, and it certainly is deeper.


As noted previously, I will be at Sunday's game. Hopefully, a 12-1 homestand will be on the line when I walk through RFK's ancient gates. This will be my last post before then; a new Rueckel Report will appear upon my return to Richmond, as will a new book review. In the meantime, swing by and say hello; I'll be in Section 311, if I remember correctly.

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