MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Catcher

Good lord, is this really the 4th time I’ve done end-of-season reviews already? It’s terrifying to think how much time I’ve spent writing this thing over the last three-plus years, and here we are again, needing to wrap a bow on the season by reviewing each player. Following in the footsteps of 2007, 2008, and 2009, each player gets a mention, meaning I’ll be deeply regretting that around the time I have to try to come up with something to say about Nick Green or Jack Taschner.

As usual, the letter grades here are completely arbitrary, and based only on what was a reasonable expectation of the player before the season began, not as a comparison to anyone else. That means that even though Carlos Monasterios is probably going to get an A as a Rule 5 pick who made it through the season without embarrassing himself, it certainly doesn’t mean I think he’s the best pitcher on the staff. Less than 10 IP or 50 plate appearances gets you an “incomplete”.

Special thanks should be noted here for M.Brown of the wonderful Left Field Pavilion, who lent me a hand with the baseball card templates. I’m also using the baseball-reference flavor of WAR, rather than FanGraphs, for no particular reason other than that I had to pick one.

Russell Martin (D-)
.248/.337/.332 .679 5hr 1.9 WAR

Since I happened to have the previous three years of reviews open for the links above, I figured I’d see just how far Martin has fallen. In 2007, it was “Amotherf***ingplus”. In 2008, it was C-, and last year it was an F. Ugh.

The fact that I’m bumping Martin back up from an F to a D- this year isn’t really an indication that he improved in 2010, unfortunately. It’s just that after two years of watching him decline, expectations for him had dropped far enough that basically repeating his mediocre 2009 wasn’t as disappointing as it was a year ago.

I’m not kidding when I say that his 2010 was more or less a repeat of his 2009, as his OPS (.680/.679), wOBA (.307/.306), and oWAR (1.4/1.5) were nearly identical over the two years. There a small positive in that both the numbers and the smell test indicated that his defense improved from 2009 to 2010, which is nice, but it was overshadowed by the continued lousy offense, the groin injury which cost him most of the spring, and the broken hip which cost him the last two months.

Despite all that, you’ll notice that his 1.9 WAR isn’t awful, and that’s directly due to the sorry state of catching in the big leagues right now; it actually put him 15th in MLB among C, which is squarely middle-of-the-road. However disappointed you were in Martin this year, half the league had to put up with even less production from behind the plate, particularly those who foolishly employed Bengie Molina, Jason Kendall, and Ronny Paulino.

If Martin weren’t coming off such a serious injury, you might be able to get past the dreadful lack of power (208th of 225 in SLG, ahead of Pierres, Figginses, Theriots, and Izturises) and accept average-ish catcher production. If he wasn’t going to make over $6m in arbitration this winter, you might be able to rationalize the risk of his rehab.

But the injury, plus the cost, plus the uncertain production, on a team with a tight payroll and subpar offense? Sorry, Russell. Smells like a non-tender to me.

A.J. Ellis (B)
.278/.363/.324 .687 0hr 0.6 WAR

I’ll be honest and say that I still have absolutely no idea what to make of A.J. Ellis. He started off the spring looking to be ABQ’s starter once again, until Martin hurt his groin and was expected to miss the first few weeks of the season. Ellis was then preparing to start the year as the Dodgers’ main backstop. In March, I put down some thoughts on how that would go:

Now, I like a guy who can take a walk, and for his career Ellis has shown that ability, walking 273 times against just 248 strikeouts. Here’s the problem he’s going to run into in the bigs, though: he has no power. Zero. Juan Pierre levels. Ellis has just 17 homers to his name over 7 years, which would be bad enough, except that he played the last two seasons in the hitter’s havens of Las Vegas and Albuquerque. ABQ turned Hector Luna into a .610 slugger last year, when he’d never been over .417 before, and it allowed Dee Brown to hit 19 HR, a number he hadn’t approached in nearly ten years. Ellis somehow didn’t hit a single homer down there last year, which seems absolutely impossible from a man who got 360 total plate appearances.

You might be saying, “well, he’s an emergency fill-in, we’re not looking for him to hit cleanup.” I’d agree with that. It’s just that it’s all well and good that Ellis can lay off the pitches of AAA retreads who are terrified of serving up a fat pitch at high altitude to rack up those OBP numbers. But what’s going to happen in the bigs? If he can’t hit a ball out of Albuquerque, pitchers at the big-league level are going to have nothing to fear from him. That means he’s going to be seeing a lot of strikes, and he’s shown no reason to think that he can do a lot of damage to those pitches in the zone.

Martin ended up making it back in time for Opening Day, and while Ellis ended up starting the year in the minors, that only lasted for about a week until he came up to replace the injured Brad Ausmus as Martin’s backup. By the time Ausmus returned in July, Ellis had done basically exactly what you’d expect: .208/.286/.224, with just one extra-base hit, a double. Of course, as I noted several times throughout the year, it’s hard to fault him too much because Joe Torre refused to ever play him, despite Martin hardly earning the right to play 110% of the time. Ellis got just four starts in April, and two in May. How are you supposed to get anything going with such inconsistent time like that?

When Ausmus returned, Ellis was sent back down once again, only to return two weeks later with Martin was injured. His August was much the same, going .217/.217/.261, before being sent back down yet again when Rod Barajas was acquired. But in his last game before being shipped out, on August 22, Ellis went 3-3 in a loss against the Reds. It was just his second multihit game of the year, but it was hardly his last.

When rosters expanded in September, Ellis came back up and immediately became the hottest Dodger hitter among a collection of ice-cold contemporaries, hitting .417/.533/.500 in 15 September games (12 starts). Most encouragingly, his trademark plate control returned, walking eight times against five walks.

This is why I have no idea what to make of him. Was this just a well-timed hot streak? A case of a guy merely needing some sustained playing time? It’s hard to think that a man with zero power (and clearly without the speed that sustains other punchless hitters, like Juan Pierre) can possibly be successful, though again the bar for catchers is set exceedingly low.

Ellis may have made a case to stick on next year’s roster with his hot September, but he does have (I believe) one more option remaining. You can never have too much catching depth, so having him as the #3 option down in AAA waiting for an opportunity wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. He has the most to gain or lose from a Martin tender or non-tender.

Brad Ausmus (D)
.222/.310/.254 .564 0hr -0.2 WAR

Well, this is easy enough. I wasn’t really enthused when Ausmus signed again for 2010, though I was resigned to it happening and didn’t think it was really worth getting all that upset over. Of course, he lasted all of one April game before heading to the DL to undergo back surgery.

To his credit, Ausmus took an injury that was supposed to keep him out for nearly the entire season and made it back to the bigs by July, though I wasn’t entirely thrilled by the idea of adding yet another lousy offensive catcher to the Dodger collection:

I have all the respect in the world for Ausmus, who’s known as a solid teammate and a future managerial candidate, but is that really going to be a good thing for the Dodgers? Ausmus (career .670 OPS) was obviously never much of an offensive force even in his prime, so you can imagine what he’s going to be like at 41 and coming off major back surgery.

That’s about what happened. Ausmus was predictably terrible (.551 OPS after returning), and actually admitted at the end of the year that he didn’t feel like he could play in the bigs anymore, a feeling he’d had in spring training before the injury.

Ausmus rides into the sunset with a solid career behind him, and a bright future ahead of him should he choose to pursue coaching or managing. I’d love to see him in a Dodger uniform again one day on the coaching staff, but I can’t act as though I’m not pretty happy that he won’t be on the active roster next year.

Rod Barajas (A)
.297/.361/.578 .939 5hr 0.9 WAR

Barajas is the first example of “letter grades are based upon what we thought the guy would do when the season started”, or in his case, upon his acquisition. As you might remember, I wasn’t exactly a big fan when he was claimed off waivers in August, though I did think he was a slight upgrade…

…and that should tell you a lot, because Rod Barajas is horrendous. He’ll be 35 in two weeks, and his laughably bad .263 OBP this year is actually not that far off his amazingly poor .284 career mark. He just missed a month with an oblique strain, and he’s hitting .163/.223/.221 since the end of May.

He’s also your new Dodger starting catcher, since they claimed him off waivers from the Mets today. That should tell you something as well; even though he’s got less than half of his paltry $500k salary coming to him, the Mets didn’t even work out a deal with the Dodgers. They just said, “fine. Take him.”

Of course, Barajas made a phenomenal impression as a Dodger, hitting three homers in his first five games. That includes one in his first home game as a Dodger, setting off a thousand human-interest stories delving into how Barajas was a lifelong Dodger fan and had always wanted to play for his hometown team.

This is all well and good – even I’m not going to be against a nice personal story, especially in the dying days of a lost season – and his hot bat was appreciated, coming as it did after two years of little from Martin and weeks of nothing from Ausmus. The problem here is that I can already see that casual fans have been fooled by Barajas’ debut into thinking that he’s an above average catcher, and he’s just not.

In his first five games as a Dodger, Barajas hit those three homers, and he had a .526 OBP. That’s a great start by a player looking to make a good impression on a new employer, but five games is hardly enough to overcome 11+ years of sustained mediocrity. True to form, in his next 20 games, he hit .250/.302/.396, which is a lot more like it.

Barajas turned 35 last month. He’s just not that good, and an incredibly well-timed week-long hot streak doesn’t change that. Now, it’s hard enough to find one decent catcher, much less two, so if you want to bring him back at the veteran minimum to back up Martin (or whomever) to add some much-needed pop off the bench, I can live with that. But if his nice week fooled people into thinking he can be the starting catcher on the 2011 club, then we’re all in big trouble.

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Next up, James Loney‘s infuriating mediocrity! John Lindsey‘s heartwarming story! It’s first base!

Rod Barajas Is Actually Somehow an Upgrade

…and that should tell you a lot, because Rod Barajas is horrendous. He’ll be 35 in two weeks, and his laughably bad .263 OBP this year is actually not that far off his amazingly poor .284 career mark. He just missed a month with an oblique strain, and he’s hitting .163/.223/.221 since the end of May.

He’s also your new Dodger starting catcher, since they claimed him off waivers from the Mets today. That should tell you something as well; even though he’s got less than half of his paltry $500k salary coming to him, the Mets didn’t even work out a deal with the Dodgers. They just said, “fine. Take him.”

There’s definitely an air of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” to this move, but the sad truth is… A.J. Ellis and Brad Ausmus are so unbelievably bad, that getting Barajas for free is actually a small step up. Does Barajas’ OBP suck? Sure, it does. But it’s not like Ellis (.237) or Ausmus (.275) are doing any better, and Barajas at least offers one thing that neither Ausmus or Ellis can even dream about: power. Ausmus has one homer in the last two years, while Ellis hasn’t hit one since 2008 despite spending time in high-altitude Albuquerque in each of the last few years. Barajas hit 19 last year, and 12 in just 267 plate appearances this year.

So the trade, in itself, is not a problem. For about $150k, they acquired a pretty bad catcher to replace their amazingly bad catchers, so fine. The problem here may be a larger issue, though; as I’ve mentioned about a billion times lately, the team needs to sell. They need to sell Ted Lilly. They need to sell Manny Ramirez. They need to sell anyone who’s not signed for next year, but once again, they’re buying.

If this deal is just a free way to make an embarrassing position slightly less embarrassing, then fine. If they still fancy themselves contenders… that’s just a complete organizational failure which will have repercussions into the future.

Not a Good Night For Management

Geez, where to start? For all the blame we’ve heaped on guys like Matt Kemp, Russell Martin, Manny Ramirez, and Jonathan Broxton – much of it deserved, some of it less so - last night was the culimination of about twenty different poor management decisions.

Perhaps we’ll go with the obvious, and that’s that the Octavio Dotel deal looks more horrific with every terrible Dotel appearance and every quality James McDonald start for the Pirates. I hated this deal from the moment it was made, but that was because I thought the pricetag was far too high. I’ll admit that I thought that Dotel would be a decent addition to the pen, yet he’s been horrendous; last night’s meltdown was painful to watch, made bearable only by the knowledge that the playoff hunt is over and one more brutal loss doesn’t make much of a difference at this point.

FanGraphs sums up my frustrations:

Ned Coletti and Joe Torre are living in a world where James McDonald (20 K, 4 BB, 0 HR in 17.2 IP with Pittsburgh) and Andrew Lambo are an acceptable price to add a middling reliever to a team six games out of the playoffs and then turn him into the relief ace over two superior pitchers. The Dodgers are now 12 games out of the NL West lead and 8 games out of the Wild Card. I don’t know what the Dodgers’ endgame was with Octavio Dotel, but there’s no doubt that Coletti and the Los Angeles front office missed big on this one.

Basically, yes. I still can’t believe there were people who liked that deal at the time. In fact, let’s take a quick comparison at the performance of the veterans the Dodgers acquired at the deadline as compared to those who were shipped out. Yes, I know that three weeks is hardly a fair sample size, but this will be a useful comparison tool when I repeat this exercise in the months and years to come.

Coming to LA:
Scott Podsednik – .724 OPS, and surprisingly lousy defense.
Ryan Theriot – .663 OPS, which doesn’t make up for surprisingly good D.
Octavio Dotel – 1.765 WHIP, 7 BB in 5 IP, 2 blown games.
Ted Lilly – 4 ER in 19 IP. No argument that he’s been excellent, but it hasn’t mattered.

Leaving LA:
Blake DeWitt – .783 OPS, 120 points higher than Theriot, and who could have predicted that?
James McDonald – 20/4 K/BB in three Pirate starts.
Andrew Lambo – .904 OPS in 61 PA for AA Altoona.
Brett Wallach – 13/9 K/BB in 3 games for A Peoria.
Kyle Smit – 9/3 K/BB in 8.1 IP for AA Tennessee.
Lucas May – .848 OPS and 4 HR in 62 PA for AAA Omaha.
Elisaul Pimentel – 2.053 WHIP in 4 games for A Burlington.

So the only Dodger who’s really done well is Lilly, but he was added to the part of the team that needed a boost less than anywhere else, and the only prospects who haven’t gotten off to a good start are the two still in Low-A ball. That’s without even considering the implications in salary (Theriot, for example, costs far more than DeWitt) or team control (about 40 years out the window).

This team would have been so much better off making zero of those three trades that it’s scary.

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Front office issue #2: not having a backup catcher should Martin get hurt, which he did. A.J. Ellis had another oh-fer last night (including looking horrible on a suicide squeeze, and more on that in a second). Ellis is down to a .440 OPS on the season, which is laughable only in that it’s somehow better than Ausmus’ .433. To put that in perspective, Garret Anderson was at least at .475. Chad at MOKM did a good job recently of pointing out just how good these two are making Martin look, but I don’t consider this a new issue.

Really, how was going into the season with a guy we all knew couldn’t hit (Ellis) and a guy we knew couldn’t hit and was over 40 (Ausmus) a smart idea? Back on March 7, when Martin was injured in camp and Ellis looked like he’d be the Opening Day catcher, I looked at Ellis and said that his total lack of offense meant I had no hopes for him as a major leaguer. In December, I said the idea of getting into a bidding war over Ausmus was ludicrous.

In fact, this goes all the way back to last October, and my 2010 plan, where I was resigned to the fact that you had to stick with Martin (look for a repeat of that in the 2011 plan), but that you had to sign a better backup. I suggested Ramon Hernandez. All he ended up doing this year is hit  .303/.367/.437/.804 for the Reds.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, and now the team is paying for it.

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Speaking of the Ellis bunt, I never thought he’d figure out a way to look worse at the plate than he usually does, but he sure did it. I actually didn’t hate the idea of bunting in that situation, because Ellis isn’t any better of a hitter than your average pitcher; but why did Torre need to wait until there were two strikes to make the call?

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I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it: there is no rational reason that Ryan Theriot should be hitting higher in the lineup than Jamey Carroll. Carroll gets on base more often, and even hits for a bit more power. I said it before last night’s game, and look what happened: Carroll got on twice, Theriot just once. There’s no question that this offense needs a shake-up; isn’t this an easy and obvious way to do it?

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Finally, we have the game-ending play where Reed Johnson tried to score from first on a bloop single. Yes, read that again, because it actually happened. What in the world Larry Bowa was thinking was beyond me, but for someone who’s not shy about talking about Kemp in the paper, we need to realize that he played a pretty large role in this loss as well. I can’t even accurately express to you in words how much Johnson was out by, so I’ll let Chad from MOKM‘s animated .gif do it for me:

I mean, that’s not even close to being close. I realize with a punchless offense you try to take chances where you can, but good lord, give the runner a chance there, Larry.

The worst part? Torre was completely on board:

Torre, on Bowa sending Reed Johnson: “That’s certainly what I would have done”

Of course it is. I have a lot of respect for the years Torre, Bowa, & Bob Schaefer have spent in the game, but I hardly think I’m alone when I say I can’t wait for a new regime. And I’m not…

ESPN’s Rob Neyer:

Maybe the solution here is to keep Kemp and find a new coaching staff. Because the old staff doesn’t seem to have accomplished much this summer.

LA Times’ Bill Shaikin:

But, by keeping Kemp out of the lineup until he begged forgiveness, the old-school manager and his old-school coaching staff played by old-school rules that no longer fly. If Kemp had sinned for the Angels, Mike Scioscia would have summoned him to the office, immediately after the game or before the next one, read him the riot act and moved on.

Scioscia also checks in with his players during batting practice. On the day Kemp snapped, Torre never set foot on the field during batting practice. He held court with the media, then visited with some Hollywood friends.

Torre says he won’t make his decision on 2011 until the team is eliminated from playoff contention. That ought to be any day now; I know which choice I’m hoping for.

Manny to the DL, Ausmus Returns

From the official Dodgers Twitter:

#Dodgers place Manny Ramirez on the DL and reinstate Brad Ausmus from the DL

No surprise at all that Manny returns to the DL for the third time this year. It is somewhat of a surprise to see Ausmus back so soon; he appeared in just eight games in the minors, and only one of his four games with ABQ did he catch all nine innings. I suppose the fact that A.J. Ellis remains, meaning the team has three catchers, is a sign that they’re not 100% sure about Ausmus’ back (and Martin’s thumb, probably.)

I have to think that Ellis is going to go down in the next few days for another outfielder (probably Jamie Hoffmann or Jay Gibbons), but until then, you’re looking at a bench that features Jamey Carroll, Ronnie Belliard, Garret Anderson, Ausmus, and Ellis, and other than Carroll, that may just be the worst bench I’ve ever even imagined.

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Hey, thanks to everyone who said nice things in the comments of today’s earlier post, celebrating 1000 posts over three years. It’s only fun because you all bother to care.

The Least Depressing Shutout Loss Ever

Sometimes your team gets completely shut down, and you get frustrated. You wonder why your stars look bad at the plate, you can’t figure out how the opposing pitcher is getting everyone out with his junk, and you wonder why Garret Anderson continues to exist.

Not last night, though. Despite getting about 10% of the press that Ubaldo Jimenez gets, Josh Johnson is just about indisputably the best pitcher in the NL right now, if not all of baseball. And when you run into a train like that, sometimes it’s better to just sit back and appreciate the performance, even if it’s sending your team directly to a loss.

Besides, as Jon noted, the Dodgers tossed out 8 scoreless innings of their own, so aside from a tough 2nd inning, it was hardly a disaster. Definitely one of those games where you say, “yep, that happened” and move on.

Anyway, tons of other minor notes to get to:

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Remember the other day when I mentioned that Brad Ausmus‘ recovery from back surgery was ahead of schedule and that he might be looking to begin a rehab stint after the All-Star break? Apparently, it was even closer than that, since he DH’d for Lake Elsinore last night, going one for two. He’s supposed to catch three innings today, and while 1/3 of a game after DH’ing the night before may not sound like much, not forcing a 41-year-old coming off of back surgery to take a day off after his first game back sounds like he’s in better shape than any of us anticipated.

Barring a setback, that means Ausmus’ 30-day rehab clock is ticking, putting his return in the first week of August at the latest. I already discussed whether that was really a good thing or not, but it’s also worth noting the domino effect that will have throughout the organization. A.J. Ellis would likely get sent back to AAA, where Lucas May has a .902 OPS that’s only partially fueled by the ABQ effect. You’d think the team would want each to play every day, but it’s hard to demote May to AA now.

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Still no news on what sent Ronald Belisario to the restricted list, but the more I hear about it the more it sounds like it’s a family emergency and not a substance abuse problem. Tony Jackson:

Kinzer also said that Belisario was still in Los Angeles, but indicated the pitcher might be heading home to Venezuela at some point.

“It’s just some personal problems, and he’s got some things he’s got to work through,” Kinzer said. “It’s just a lot of anxiety, and that is about all I want to say right now.”

 Pressed on what he meant by the word “anxiety,” Kinzer declined to offer details.

“Right now, he is [still in town], but we will have to see how things work out later,” Kinzer said. “Obviously, his family is in Venezuela. But we haven’t set up [any travel].”

If it was some sort of disciplinary action or rehab issue, you’d think that leaving the country wouldn’t be an option. The fact that he’s from Venezuela is doubly concerning, as Yorvit Torrealba, Victor Zambrano, and Ugueth Urbina have all had to deal with kidnapping situations there in recent years.

Again, we have no idea if that is the case, but the pieces all fit. For the sake of everyone involved (and while I include the Dodger bullpen on that list, they’re about 78th on it) let’s hope it’s something else entirely.

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Garret Anderson put up another 0-4 with 2 K, plummeting his line to .182/.197/.280. For once, I’m actually not trying to single him out here, because it’s no shame to go hitless against Johnson, and Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal suffered the same fate.

However, earlier this week I noted that 1,337 Dodgers in history had as many plate appearances as GA did, and his OPS+ rank was 1,318, putting him in the bottom 1.33% as far as productivity goes. The four chances last night knocked out a few of those players who now have fewer PA’s than his 138, and the four outs pushed GA’s OPS+ from 34 to 29.

That means the updated standings have Anderson at 1,322 of 1,334 seasons, or in the bottom 1%. With one more plate appearance, he’ll be able to remove Moe Berg’s 1921 and Ben Geraghty’s 136 from the cutoff point, and another out or two will probably push his OPS+ below Bill Bergen’s 1904.

And yes, I am going to keep track of this, because the historical significance is stunning. He just needs 14 more plate appearances to qualify for the worst offensive season in Los Angeles Dodger history by someone with that many chances, and that’s something worth tracking. Fortunately for him, the -4 (yes, negative) that Bergen put up in 250 PA in 1904 is probably safely out of reach.

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Albuquerque updates: Claudio Vargas got lit up for 7 earned and 10 hits in just 3.2 innings for the ‘Topes last night against the Iowa Cubs. His ERA is 7.71. It’s ah, not working out. In better news, Jay Gibbons will be taking part in the Home Run Derby, before playing in the game alongside teammates Lucas May and John Lindsey. Gibbons is somewhat a result of the ABQ air, but he’s also a lefty who can play outfield and a bit of 1B, and doesn’t have his OBP about to drop below .200, like Garret Anderson‘s is. Just sayin’.

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For the sake of completeness, let’s note that the Dodgers released Timo Perez from AAA and signed former D-Back Trent Oeltjen, who had opted out of his minor-league deal with the Brewers last week. The Australian native has had minor league OPS’s over .800 in each of the last three years, and had been on a hot streak recently. But it’s not his bat that denied him a call-up:

Oeltjen had been on an offensive tear with the Sounds, raising his batting average to .301 with 24 doubles, two triples, eight homers, 38 RBI and a .851 OPS. But his defense wasn’t considered major-league ready, so the Brewers opted not to call him up and move out one of their players.

“Our reports were that he was coming on dramatically with the bat,” said assistant general manager Gord Ash. “We liked him, obviously. That’s why we signed him. But as a defensive outfielder, he wasn’t what we were looking for.”

So after opting out of his deal, a man who clearly should have signed with an AL team in order to keep the DH option open not only stayed in the NL, but he signed with perhaps the only other team who can top Milwaukee’s level of outfield stackitude. Time for a new agent, maybe?