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November 17, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

The NL CYA and the Uggla Trade

by Christina Kahrl

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Let's start with the perfunctory big news item: Roy Halladay won the National League Cy Young Award. You can't really call the announcement anti-climactic, but the only drama was whether he'd get all of the first-place votes. He did, and deserved it utterly, ranking almost a full win's worth of difference over second-place finisher Adam Wainwright with an MLB-leading 8.8 SNLVAR to the Cardinal's 8.0.

It's Wainwright's equally handy victory in winning the non-extant silver medal in Cy voting that I found interesting, as he wound up with exactly half as many points in the voting, thanks to 28 second-place votes, three third-place tallies, and a newly-minted fifth-place listing to get him onto every ballot. I found the separation interesting in a couple of ways.

First, in terms of a counting stat like SNLVAR, the difference between Wainwright and the league's fifth-best pitcher, Roy Oswalt, was just slightly wider than the distinction between the Cards' hurler and Doc. In between Oswalt's 7.2 and Wainwright you had the Braves' Tim Hudson (7.8) and the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez (7.5). Either as an acknowledgement of the difficulty of pitching in Denver or because of his hot start to the season (15-1 with a 2.20 ERA at the All-Star break), Jimenez wound up being the third man to show up on every ballot, not Hudson. Maybe that's also attached to his getting to start the All-Star Game for the senior circuit, but we'll never know how much starting off the second half with two of his worst games of the year (via Game Score) knocked him immediately off people's radars. But since Wainwright wound up just a lone win ahead of Jimenez but handily outpointed him, it's fair to wonder.

Which brings us to the second reason why the outcome is a bit interesting. With a top-five finish in 2010 Cy Young voting, Wainwright virtually clinched his 2012 and 2013 options, per one of the conditions of his contract—to cinch that money, he'll need to avoid finishing 2011 on the DL.. Last year, much was made of Javier Vazquez getting a bonus for finishing “top five” in Cy Young voting; thanks to the oddity of a ballot with three obvious candidates and two individual votes not going to any of the three, that boiled down to BP alum Keith Law of ESPN essentially garnering Vazquez a bonus by virtue of Law's lone vote for the (then) Braves' right-hander.

After the fact, many were the hands wrung over an expressed desire among the BBWAA's electors to avoid this sort of  responsibility, not for voting, but for essentially being charged with the possibility of achieving a huge payday for a ballplayer, something which might theoretically have made it potentially easy for a lone voter to sell his vote in a season where, as in 2009, there was a short list of obvious candidates. Happily, we live in the present and not a century ago, which was a time when you might expect a writer to make that sale, but this was one of the reasons for then expanding every ballot from placing three pitchers to five.

But as a function of Wainwright's contract, the stakes were much higher, and the voters didn't seem to quail over their responsibilities for voting for their consciences. Regardless, Wainwright is now—completely, absolutely deservingly—$21 million richer, which is a lot more than Vazquez made thanks to a lone, defensible ballot cast in his behalf the year before. Because Wainwright's deal demanded that he finish among the top five, he was similarly subject to a lower standard, like Vazquez after 2009, but with much more at stake. However, with five slots on the ballot, achieving a top-five finish is going to be much more difficult. This year, Josh Johnson finished fifth; he had to wind up on 19 different ballots to get there. I'd see this as a happy case of polishing up the process, while coping with the unavoidability of Wainwright's earning his options via the vote. Whatever else there is to say, his agents are to be commended.

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That was the hardware story of the day, but the really big news was the Marlins consummating their third trade in five days, this latest putting Dan Uggla in Atlanta for super utilityman Omar Infante and power left-handed reliever Michael Dunn. This came on the heels of their ditching former blue-chip center-field prospect Cameron Maybin to the Padres for right-hander relievers Ed Mujica and Ryan Webb, and sending the similarly disappointing Andrew Miller to the Red Sox for aspiring situational lefty Dustin Richardson.

Obviously, these are very different kinds of deals. Trading away Uggla's last season's worth of service time before he hits free agency isn't quite as unreasonable as it might seem at first glance. Uggla is already 30 and heading into his age-31 season, after all, so inking a bad-glove second baseman for his age-32 season and beyond isn't automatically the move you want to fall all over yourself to make. If the Lorians and Uggla couldn't come to a deal, making a quick, clean break of it isn't the worst idea in the world.

The question is really one of whether they got value, because all they had to sell was Uggla's 2011 season. They took Infante's single season in exchange, with the reasonable expectation that their defense will better for it—Colin Wyers' nFRAA suggests there was a full win's difference between their play at the keystone in 2010, when Infante played only a partial season at second, and BIS' Plus/Minus metrics are similarly uncharitable to Uggla's leather work. And then there's the few million saved, since Infante was already locked in for $2.5 million, whereas Uggla's arbitration-impacted compensation was going to push toward $10 million.

The difference is offense, and, to be charitable, whether the next several years of Dunn's career are worth the difference. I'm just not buying that. If you turn to MLVr to calculate the difference between Uggla's very normal (for him) 2010, and Infante's career year, you're still talking about a tenth of a run per game in difference. Take that out on your cocktail napkin to 140 games, and the Braves more than net the difference of their hit on defense and then some—and that's operating on the unreasonable assumption that Infante stays this good.

So of course the Braves come out looking good, although they do have the interesting problem of sorting out who plays where—if Uggla is a bad second baseman, so too is Martin Prado. Thus, the Braves say Prado is moving to left field, a position where is seeing action in winter ball this offseason. They still have to figure out what to do in center fielder with Prado and Jason Heyward on the outfield corners, but to “spend” a nice lefty arm to get a much stronger mid-order hitter while casting around for outfield solutions, and cashing in Infante's big season? That's all just sound practice, and another feather in Frank Wren's cap. Not shabby for the guy some were criticizing for last season's preference for Hudson over Vazquez in his rotation.

As for this latest Fishy business in Miami, while the Uggla swap was simultaneously unsentimental, pragmatic, and cheap, it comes with the additionally noisome money-minded outcome of expending any opportunity of acquiring the draft pick or picks Uggla would have generated as a free agent after the year. So scratch the threat of that possible signing-bonus payment. And dealing Uggla now, before his arbitration-fueled raise comes, strikes me as especially cheap, since they might have instead taken the time to shop him more broadly and potentially wound up with something better. Even if you know you're moving Uggla before Opening Day, swapping him this very week wasn't a must-do move. What's the point of the GM meetings if you can't work the room a bit and get a sense of your options?

Where the Marlins' infield is concerned, we also need to keep in mind that next year's infield plan with the re-association with infield coach Perry Hill already involved testing out a move of Chris Coghlan to third base now that left field belongs to former first-base prospect Logan Morrison. With top shortstop prospect Oswaldo Martinez also having already made his debut last September, the possibility is there for a lot of moving parts, although whether this involves moving Hanley Ramirez remains to be seen. Infante is certainly more flexible and useful in any scenario, but that's about as far as you can take praise with this deal that isn't purely money-minded. With Mike Stanton and Morrison playing full seasons, and with Coghlan back in action, you can see how the Marlins might not come out too badly as an offense, even absent Uggla.

The other moves seem like a two-fisted dose of overreaction, both to a bad bullpen and to a pair of prospects flopping. The pen really was terrible, finishing next-to-last in the league in WXRL and topping only the Diamondbacks' relief crew, which ranked among the worst bullpens of all time. To that end, both Mujica and Webb are both fully functional and useful arms to employ in whatever roles Edwin Rodriguez chooses to assign. Mujica will even have an arbitration case to resolve, so financial considerations weren't that big, beyond the fact that relievers acquired via trade are cheaper to employ than free agents. Similarly, Richardson should be a useful situational lefty; toss Dunn into this conversation, and you have a decent quartet of arms to work with.

Now, I can understand running out of patience with trying to get by with the next Dan Meyer for left-handed help, any more than you don't want to have to be able to count on conjuring up the next Clay Hensley or Brian Sanches out of thin air. But that said, a major motivating factor in both the Padres and the Red Sox trades was also the disgust with Miller and Maybin. It certainly makes the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Wllis deal look that much worse in retrospect, since all the Fish have to show for their troubles is the money they saved and... Burke Badenhop, and now these three new relievers. All nice, but not so nice that they'll do more than serve their sentences in Miami before becoming too arb-expensive or going the way of most relievers.

So what about the Marlins' other two trading partners, beyond the Braves? As with Wren in Atlanta, San Diego's Jed Hoyer and Boston's Theo Epstein can both feel good about lifting these disappointments out of the Marlins' clammy flippers. Since Florida lacks an easily identifiable alternative to serve in center field, ditching Maybin has everything to do with how they'd come to feel about him. He's an excellent pickup for the Padres, a toolsy gap-to-gap flyer with promising power and speed, a long list of nagging hurts, and his own liberation from an organization given to more readily endorsing the likes of Emilio Bonifacio than placing its faith in him. Petco Park isn't usually a place you like to see a young hitter wind up, but better this than nothing. Credit Hoyer for dealing interchangeable, useful excess from a tremendous bullpen made better still by that ballpark to get a tremendous upside play that might fill his club's need for an answer in center.

As for the Red Sox getting Miller, keep in mind this was the same organization that last year was willing to take a look at Rich Hill. It may just be me, but I find the similarity striking, in that in each case, you're talking about a lefty with tremendous stuff who has delivered disappointing results, and in each case, you have a guy trailed by whispers that he's been hurting himself with a lack of confidence in that same stuff. Trading away a nice organizational arm like Richardson to acquire a lefty who is, in effect, a lottery ticket, is another one of those nice upside plays Epstein affords himself now and again. If it doesn't work, and Miller can't be salvaged, no harm done—Richardson is the sort of talent a good organization can replace readily enough.

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Finally, to note the other major move on the radar, the A's grabbing Edwin Encarnacion off waivers from the Jays was a pickup worth picking. Not that Encarnacion is a good third baseman or a cheap acquisition—in light of his $4.75 million salary in 2010 and final season of arbitration eligibility, there's a larger-than-zero chance that he gets non-tendered come the deadline.

However, by snagging him, Billy Beane and/or Dave Forst have acquired a negotiating window with a power source, and that's with the given that they're a team looking for power they can afford, and a team without a good third baseman. As much noise has been made on Kevin Kouzmanoff's behalf as far as his improvement as a fielder at third, we aren't talking Brooks Robinson here, and whether you use nFRAA or Plus/Minus, statistical evaluations of their glove work seem to relegate them to a rough equivalence, in the vicinity of adequacy.

Now, that isn't to say the power doesn't come with a price beyond the expense and the fielding. Encarnacion's .288 OBP against right-handed pitching last season speaks volumes about his limitations—he's simply never going to get on base at a good clip. However, Kouzmanoff's full-season tally for the A's last year was lower still (.283), and that's without bringing up Encarnacion's .220 ISO against right-handers, let alone the lefties he hammers. Given a choice between offering arbitration to one or the other, and not both, picking the former Padre doesn't have much to recommend it.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Dan Uggla,  The Call-up,  Bad Season,  Omar Infante

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