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July 29, 2010

Transaction Action

Texas Fold 'Em

by Christina Kahrl and Kevin Goldstein

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired CF-L Anthony Gose from the Astros for 1B-L Brett Wallace. [7/29]

KG: Gose offers plenty to dream on, but also has a high bust factor, so he's not without risk. Combining plus-plus speed with excellent defensive instincts, he covers a tremendous amount of ground in center field, and his arm is a cannon, giving him true Gold Glove potential. Offensively at High-A Clearwater, he's learned that he can't get by on speed alone, as he's stolen 36 bases but been caught 27 times. He leaves the Threshers with an unimpressive line of .263/.325/.385, and he has two main things to work on, mostly related to an inability to accept what he is. He's not a speedy water bug as much as he's a sizeable athlete (standing 6-foot-1 and 190), and the fact that he has a little bit of power has been his undoing at the plate. Trying far too often to pull balls, he has amassed 103 strikeouts in 103 games while walking just 32 times. At some point, he needs to realize that his future lies far better as a table setter, and by focusing merely on contact, he could become a dynamic player. There's a lot of risk here, but considerable upside as well.

CK: I guess I just find this a fascinating exercise in re-gifting, as Alex Anthopolous went from having Michael Taylor, to trading Taylor to the A's for Wallace, to acquiring the 19-year-old Gose. If Wallace was a stathead's sort of older prospect who was going to go as far as his bat takes him, Gose is just about his opposite, a younger upside player who could become a major coup if he lives up to what scouts are saying. For those who'd want to pidgeonhole Anthopolous one way or another, this makes for another interesting move to load up on tools. Of course, between Gose's risky possibilities and the fact that Wallace has been a big disappointment so far (as has Taylor), in a few years we could be left with three briefly famous prospects who didn't quite live up to their billing. For now, I'd simply note that this somewhat reminds me of the Brandon Morrow trade, in that it's an exciting gamble on upside risk, where Wallace was seen as a safer bet a year ago.


HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded RHP Roy Oswalt and $11 million to the Phillies for LHP J.A. Happ, CF-L Anthony Gose, and SS-S Jonathan Villar; traded CF-L Anthony Gose to the Blue Jays for 1B-L Brett Wallace. [7/29]

CK: Dumb, ill-conceived plans litter history, not just the history of burgling or baseball, or baseball burgling. But surely the Astros' failure to launch an acquisition campaign with their most valuable asset should be held up as a cautionary tale of the risks that come when an owner decides to get some hands-on experience and make something happen. If Drayton McLane wanted to acquire top prospects or payroll relief, he (or whoever gets to be blamed in this situation) managed to swing a deal that achieved neither.

Certainly, you would expect that reducing Oswalt to this level of affordability for a trading partner should have engendered better offers. Both prospects going to the Astros in the deal are toolsy but distant, and swapping for Wallace doesn't really boost the team's near-term picture as much as provide it with a potentially adequate starter at Lance Berkman's position. That's important because the $11 million spent to make Oswalt a Phillie means the owner's only saved $12 million between now and the end of 2011 on that side of this proposition. Add the potential of slotting in Wallace for Berkman, and you save another $13 million while fielding a team that was already doomed to take a heavy hit in terms of ticket sales.

Put in those terms, with a 2011 Astros team that might only have achieved a $25 million deduction from its payroll and the fig leaf of plausible prospects acquired, if there's a message to take it's that the rumors about McLane's interest in selling have to be true. Reducing the club's payroll commitments this steeply and this long after the Astros had a realistic shot at contending might be a case of the piper at long last being paid for the mad dash of the 2008 kamikaze run. At that point, it was obvious to most of the aspirants to replace Tim Purpura in the GM's chair that the Astros were doomed to bottom out in the near future. Instead, Ed Wade made a sale on the chances of a successful final run with a team built around Oswalt, Berkman, and Carlos Lee, McLane bought it, and Wade's services to let the man make it so.

Now that those ambitions have been so decisively thwarted with little achieved beyond expense, it's apparently time to break this team down to parts decisively enough to create hope in Pittsburgh for easily achieved fifth-place finishes for the next few years. Next year's Astros team will be unwatchably bad, but this simply sets up the next owner or ownership group of the franchise for an automatic role as the white knight who might end the madness of one of the game's last "inspired" owner/operators.

KG: While the Astros somehow dealt their ace without getting any kind of top prospect from the Phillies, they at least got a pair of players with upside. Gose is now with Toronto, but staying with Houston will be shortstop Jonathan Villar, who like Gose, offers far more upside than his statistics might suggest. The 19-year-old Dominican was hitting just .272/.332/.358 for Low-A Lakewood with 42 errors, but his name was coming up in nearly every trade discussion the Phillies had. He's long-limbed with silky-smooth actions afield, and possesses one of the better shortstop arms at the lower levels, but he has trouble harnessing it at times. He's also an above-average runner with 38 stolen bases this year, and many think he'll develop true gap power as his body fills out. Like Gose, he needs to work on his approach, as he's an overly aggressive hitter who hacks at too many bad pitches, but the tools and athleticism are there for a big-league projection.

Now with his fourth organization since being selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2008 draft, scouts continue to wonder exactly what was so great about Brett Wallace in the first place. He's a first base-only prospect who offers absolutely nothing after his bat, and while his bat is good, and will lead him to a big-league career, nothing about it is special. Wallace has long had a reputation for being some kind of on-base machine, but that was based on his college years-always a dangerous thing. As a pro, that simply has not been the case: In 246 games at the upper levels, Wallace has drawn 76 walks in 1080 plate appearances, and even his .301/.359/.509 line this year is bolstered by getting to hit in Las Vegas' launching pad, as he's hitting just .291/.342/.467 on the road.

This is not to totally kill the guy's prospect rep. He certainly can hit, but for a first baseman, he'll rank no more than average. He never got called up this year by Toronto to replace Lyle Overbay, and that might be because in the end that's exactly the player he's going to be like when all is said and done. That is a good player, and a player with a career, someone who earns some good salaries and a pension, but it's not somebody who ever makes a real impact in the lineup.


PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded LHP J.A. Happ, CF-L Anthony Gose, and SS-S Jonathan Villar to the Astros for RHP Roy Oswalt and $11 million. [7/29]

CK: For those of you keeping score on your calendar instead of your scorecard, the way this adds up is that the Phillies dealt one year of Cliff Lee to re-stock the system, thinking they were good enough for 2010, but then they weren't good enough, so they traded for Oswalt four months into the season. So, they had six months of Lee, one of the four or five best pitchers in baseball, locked in for six months at $9 million, but they gave that up for a package of talent of decent quality and re-upping Joe Blanton for a subsequent three-year, $24 million package. That wound up being double-dumb, which was anticipated back in December:

Would you rather have these three prospects and a year of Joe Blanton and all those mostly-harmless expensive veterans Amaro so speedily signed? Or would you rather have a year of Cliff Lee, the draft pick or picks you'd get in the 2011 draft once he leaves (and you offer arbitration), whatever middling prospect you get in trade for a year of Joe Blanton, and maybe take a few chances on whatever equally fungible fun you stock the last four or five slots of your roster with to help control costs? The money the Jays added to the deal minimized the expense of employing Roy Halladay in 2010, and while I'd accept in the abstract that Amaro got decent value for a year of Lee (and the picks the Mariners might now get instead), that abstraction depends on the suggestion that the Phillies were in something like the same position as the Jays, and not where they are, gunning for another pennant.

We can argue that [Amaro] might have been able to get a better package for Lee than the one he received from the Mariners, but prospect exchanges aren't easily achieved, so there's an element of unrealistic wishcasting attached to such a proposition. Instead, the real shame here is the path not taken, keeping Lee as part of going for it now, taking that post-Halladay priority to restock the farm system and doing so via the draft (which letting Lee leave next winter helps), trading Blanton sometime between now and Opening Day, and skipping some of the needless veteran frippery stocking the bottom of this roster, as old-timers sign on for a shot at playoff shares and dogpiling they won't substantively contribute to...

So here again, you've got Lee at $9 million for six months, plus draft picks when you offer him arbitration, but instead you end up with those prospects*, plus Blanton at almost as much money per year and for two more of them besides and predictably delivering a lot less value, and that puts you back in the market for a starting pitcher because the pennant, the division, hell, even a playoff slot are all at risk. As miscalculations go, this dwarfs the decision to dump Bobby Abreu at the deadline in 2006, only to notice two weeks later they still had a pulse as far as the post-season picture.

Enter a July miracle-the Astros are dumb and desperate, and they've worked themselves up into a tizzy that demands they put Roy Oswalt on somebody else's team now. Not this winter, not before 2011, but now. And despite being a motivated seller shopping the best starting pitcher left on the market, the 'Stros are willing to settle for a nice little fourth starter and a pair of prospects of lower stature than what the Phillies got from the Mariners for six months of Lee to pawn off eight months of Oswalt.

Now, to make this that much tastier for Philly, Oswalt's cost over the eight months he'll be on the team is less than $12 million. That's considering the $5 million he's due for the balance of this season, the $16 million he'll be paid in 2011, and the $2 million his 2012 option for $16 million will cost to buy out. That's $23 million, less the Astros' payment of $11 million, less J.A. Happ's near-minimum salary between the balance of this year and all of next, before he becomes arbitration-eligible in 2012. Of course, the decisions to pay plenty for Oswalt and Blanton makes nonsense of any suggestion that Lee was an expense the organization couldn't afford.

So that's your proposition: keep Lee for $9 million plus still having Happ, versus Oswalt for more after you've slipped behind the Braves, and the absence of Happ-iness. Me, I'd find a lot more joy in never finding yourself in the position of needing the Astros to rocket to the rescue, but the Phillies do get the benefit of having Oswalt now and next season in a rotation that will have Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Kentucky Joe joining him to comprise a front four.

It might redeem this year's bid for the playoffs, of course. However, it might have been much more in hand had they never surrendered Lee in the first place. It helps next year without inflicting any major damage to the organization beyond the payroll, and if Oswalt can deliver something like this year's .563 SNWP now and then. That's not an unlikely proposition-his SIERA is within 10 points of his actual ERA. However, it's worth remembering that Oswalt's performance this season is lower than Happ's rookie season (.602 SNWP).

*: Let's not get into the fact that all three of those Mariners prospects have been disappointing in their first seasons as Phillies; it's early yet, at least J.C. Ramirez is in Double-A, and Tyson Gillies has been down with a bad hammy for a while yet.)


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

31 comments have been left for this article.

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