Ziegler for Allen, Norberto; Wuertz out, Blevins up (transactions)

By Jason Wojciechowski on August 1, 2011 at 8:35 PM

With the A's roster now settled in after a semi-active trade period (if you figure nearly trading away Rich Harden and then instead sending out Brad Ziegler active, which I do, given that the chance the A's would trade free-agent-to-be Josh Willingham always seemed pretty low) and a Disabled List move in the last two days of July, we can look at what it means.

First, the minor move, with Michael Wuertz hitting the DL after struggling in his previous outing. Some on Athletics Nation thought his fastball velocity was down in his last appearance, but that's not right -- it was exactly where it's been all season. His location wasn't right, though, causing his sliders to get hammered a couple of times, and apparently, velocity or not, something was indeed wrong enough with his right thumb that the A's decided to give him a few weeks to get well.

Up comes International Man of Transaction Mystery Jerry Blevins. Blevins's ERA (3.86) masks how poorly he's pitched this year, as his 5.30 FIP points you to his awful walk rate (13 in 77 PAs). His strikeouts are right around 20%, but that's far, far too many walks. If his season ended today, it would be his third straight year of seeing his FIP just by a full run. He's never shown this kind of wildness before, though, in either the majors or the minors, so it's likely just a bad 16 innings that he can overcome if given the chance. He's at best the third lefty in the 'pen, though, and the A's insist on continuing to trot out the eight-man bullpen, so chances may be few and far between.

I'm sorry to see Brad Ziegler go so soon after I dropped him in at #12 on my list of all-time favorite A's pitchers. (Rich Harden is #7.) He's 31 years old, though, and going into his second arbitration season. He's worth the money, make no mistake -- he's making $1.25M this year, which is in the range of 1/4 of a WAR(P) player on the open market -- but Billy Beane, like any decent general manager, knows you can scare up solid relief pitchers out of thin air.

The A's did just that, in fact, in the Ziegler trade, getting lefty Jordan Norberto back from Arizona. They called him up immediately, though he hasn't pitched in the majors yet this season. Norberto's 24 and spent enough time in the majors last year to throw 423 pitches for the PITCHf/x machines. A shocking 313 of those were four-seam fastballs. Even for a reliever, that seems rather extreme. That fastball comes in 91-95 and has above-average "rise". It looks like his other pitch is a sort of slurvy breaker at 78-82, and he also threw what looks like a handful of changeups.

While he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2010, making him ineligible for Baseball America's 2011 book, Norberto was rated Arizona's 29th best prospect in 2010, unlisted (even in the depth chart section) in 2009, and unrated but listed as the third-best LHP starting prospect in 2008 (behind Brett Anderson and Greg Smith). His 2010 writeup says that his fastball was an 89-95 offering with "late, sinking life" and that his curve (which was called a "hard curve") was fringe-average. Ken Arneson called Norberto "another Jerry Blevins" and I'm inclined to agree. Norberto throws harder but both look basically like useful lefty relievers who'll never be anyone's idea of a star. There's a gap between Brad Ziegler and Jordan Norberto, of course (Kevin Towers isn't a dummy), but it's not the biggest one in the world.

The guy everyone's excited about, though, is Brandon Allen. Allen's a big guy, if not quite Chris Carter-sized, a lefty swinger who, at 25, has spent parts of the last three years in the majors. Small parts, I should note, as his PA total stands at 209. He's struggled to make contact so far, with 73 whiffs, but he has popped eight homers and ten doubles when he's managed to get the bat on the ball, and he's walked 29 times, too. His minor league numbers are all about power (.528 SLG at Reno last year, .527 in high-A in 2008, .483 at A-ball in 2007 -- I'd quote his other lines, but he hasn't been left at a level to hit a significant number of times outside of those three years), with a secondary emphasis on walking.

Taking a look at his Davenport Translations, you essentially see steady improvement from 2004 to 2009, with a year-long scuffle at Kannapolis in 2006. Unfortunately, his 2010 and 2011 Reno numbers don't translate all that well and represent a step back. I don't do the Jesus Montero "he's frustrated with being blocked" stuff, so, while I'd love to give that pat (and hopeful -- it allows us to say "Just give him the job and he'll hit like we know he can!") explanation, I can't do it.

Baseball America has been writing about Allen since 2006, when he was the White Sox's 13th best prospect. He was left out of the 2007 book and was placed third on the White Sox 1B depth chart behind Chris Carter and the immortal Casey Ragowski. (Ryan Sweeney was the team's #1 prospect that year -- the A's are just collecting these guys.) In 2008, he was back on the White Sox top 30, slotting in at #27 -- Christian Marrero was ahead of him at first base (and Gio Gonzalez was the #1 prospect). In 2009, he shot all the way to sixth before moving to Arizona in the Tony Pena deal -- he was the #4 prospect for the Diamondbacks.

That's all trivia, though. What do the books actually say? The 2006 book noted his raw power (emphasis on both words), his linebacker past, and a rep for being a decent athlete, good enough that he should be able to handle first and might even learn the outfield. The 2008 book was nearly a copy-and-paste of 2006, despite two professional seasons with which to evaluate Allen. The one notable piece is that "pitches low in the zone" were cited as a particular weakness, in addition to the offspeed stuff that gives so many young power prospects trouble. The 2009 edition stated that Allen had focused on diet and conditioning and had emerged a much better athlete for it, able to steal bases (17!) and play a passable first, though throws still gave him trouble. His contact hitting was also improving. The 2010 book added the additional information that Allen doesn't have a long swing and "has some snap in his bat" (whatever that means). The overall tone of the 2009 and 2010 reviews says to me that BA believes Allen will absolutely hit in the major leagues, perhaps not at a star level (2010 makes a rather unfortunate "Mike Jacobs with better discipline" comparison), but enough, with adequate defense, to stick around.

The conclusion of all this should be clear: don't get too excited. Allen is a legitimate prospect, and more than A's fans should have hoped to be able to get for someone like Brad Ziegler, and Jordan Norberto could be a decent middle reliever, but this isn't a coup and we shouldn't put Allen's name in ink as the first baseman of the future. Between Daric Barton, Chris Carter, and Allen, though, the A's have some intriguing options of different sorts for the first base and DH spots in 2012, and I'd certainly hope that September, 2011 is given over to seeing what Carter and Allen can do at those spots. It's lovely that Hideki Matsui is scorching hot, but he's doing it for a team that can't even beat the Mariners. There's no point seeing just how far his Jekyll/Hyde act can go -- if he can be dealt on a waiver deal, or even if the A's just give him away to clear the space and make September less awkward for everyone involved, it should probably be done. Some fans won't like it, of course, but I would hope they could understand the situation and be excited about the pair of (relative) youngsters with serious power potential waiting for their shot in AAA.