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July 27, 2011

Transaction Analysis

The Rasmus-Jackson Shuffle UPDATED

by R.J. Anderson and Ben Lindbergh

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Traded RHP Edwin Jackson and 3B-L Mark Teahen to the Blue Jays for RHP Jason Frasor and RHP Zach Stewart. [7/27]

General Managers may lack quantifiable statistics, but like players, you get a sense of what they’re all about after a while. The more comfortable you become with their tendencies, the less they can do to surprise you. With Kenny Williams, the expectation is always that he will do the unpredictable. You never know when Williams is going to pull off an impressive blockbuster or do something zany that leaves the online baseball community scratching its collective head. Williams has done the latter before, and he did it again today.

Entering the day, our Postseason Odds Report gave the White Sox an 18.6 percent chance at making the postseason. Those reports update every morning, but by lunch time, they felt dated beyond their hours* as Williams had traded starter Edwin Jackson and third baseman Mark Teahen to the Blue Jays for reliever Jason Frasor and prospect Zach Stewart.

There were murmurs over the last week that Williams would attempt to turn over his roster and shed payroll in the process. The whole thing began with a public tirade from Ozzie Guillen about how his team is underperforming and ended with a phone call to Alex Anthopoulos.

The trade comes just hours after the White Sox announced their intention to return to a six-man rotation. If Williams’s post-trade comments are any indication, however, that plan will be scratched and the Sox will go with five starters. Prospectus’s Bradford Doolittle reports that Williams said during the post-trade presser, “I'm sending a message to everyone.” Everyone includes Alex Rios, who has been benched in favor of Alejandro De Aza in the aftermath.

In Jackson, the White Sox lose a pitcher who will qualify for free agency at the end of the season. Jackson projects to earn a Type B designation, thus costing the White Sox a chance at a draft pick. Williams had just acquired Jackson about a year ago, and Jackson pitched well in his year in Chicago, earning a 3.14 FIP last season and 3.18 FIP this season. Whereas folks were praising Don Cooper for unlocking Jackson’s inner ace last season, conventional wisdom is that he took a step back in 2011, largely stemming from an increased earned run average (up to 3.92 from 3.24).

Teahen’s inclusion is all about salary. Acquired from the Royals in winter 2009, Teahen finishes his White Sox career with -0.1 Wins Above Replacement Player. If playing poorly wasn’t bad enough, Teahen is also due $5.5 million next season, so it appears the Jays decided to take on a sunk cost rather than give up players of better quality. Along with the cash relief, the Sox gained two pitchers, one of which should help now and another that could help later.

Frasor is a nice enough reliever with a modest price tag for next season that comes in the form of a club option. Being the prospect in the deal, Stewart’s perceived upside is higher. Stewart has what you’d want in a starting pitcher. He throws hard (reaching the mid-90s with his fastball) and has a vicious slider. The problem, though, is that he lacks a third pitch, and his statistical track record in the minor leagues is underwhelming for a pitcher with his profile.  At 24, Stewart has appeared in 20 Triple-A games (all in relief) and has spent this season back in the rotation at Double-A New Hampshire, striking out seven batters per nine innings pitched while allowing more than a hit per inning pitched and holding a 4.20 earned run average. The cons have led some, like Kevin Goldstein, to believe his upside might be limited to that of a number four starter or set-up man.

Make no mistake, the White Sox look bad in this trade because of what the Jays proceeded to do. Give Alex Anthopoulos credit. Once again, he proves to be a creative thinker and persistent worker. However, Anthopoulos’ cleverness leaves White Sox fans wondering whether Williams could have acquired Rasmus for himself, and that dream trade (which may not have been possible) detracts from the trade Williams made. It’s possible that trading Jackson blows up in Williams’s face as he now has to rely on Phil Humber and Jake Peavy remaining worthwhile and healthy in order to sustain the team's chances of winning the division. Yet, if Williams had to move a starter, he had little choice due to Jackson's perceived value and contract status. Otherwise, they may have sold low (John Danks, Gavin Floyd) or not received a worthwhile return (Mark Buerhle, Philip Humber) for their troubles. Still, it does add another weapon to the bullpen, a project to Cooper’s stash, and money to the wallet for this and next year, and they did all that without killing their playoff chances. —R.J. Anderson

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Traded RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Octavio Dotel, LHP Marc Rzepczynski, OF-L Corey Patterson and three PTBNL or cash to the Cardinals for OF-L Colby Rasmus, LHP Brian Tallet, LHP Trever Miller, and RHP P.J. Walters [7/27]

As noted in the Cardinals section, Rasmus is a player with an attractive profile.

Toronto’s Rogers Centre is far friendlier to lefty power than Busch Stadium, so a home run boost is in store for Rasmus through the power of park factors alone. Whether getting out of the Cards’ clubhouse will raise Rasmus’s game in other ways is impossible to say, though it’s certain that any incidental improvement on the center fielder’s part will be tied to a narrative about his release from La Russian bonds. On the Jays’ end, the addition of Rasmus brings a merciful end to the low-OBP shenanigans of Corey Patterson and Rajai Davis and gives the team an enviable under-25 outfield with Rasmus flanked by Travis Snider in left and Eric Thames in right for years to come.

This marks the second time in two deadlines that Alex Anthopoulos has acquired a player who may have been undervalued as a result of being less than popular in his former clubhouse, suggesting that while the young GM has remade his organization into an old-school scouting machine, he isn’t overly hamstrung by concerns with chemistry. What’s more, he may have had to surrender more talent for Yunel Escobar—who seemingly shed his bad-boy label as well as his weak performance at the plate as soon as he arrived in Toronto—last July than he did for Rasmus in his latest swap. Credit Anthopoulous for spotting and exploiting another inefficiency, another stolen march in his uphill battle against the AL East’s financial titans. —Ben Lindbergh

When Ben alluded to Rasmus being an offensive upgrade in center field, he was not lying. The incumbent center fielders hit for an aggregate .237/.274/.368 in 2011, a mark that looks even more miserable when stacked up against Rasmus’ .246/.332/.420 line. Toronto already has the league’s fourth-most runs scored, and with Rasmus, the top of the Jays’ lineup could become even more dangerous. John Farrell could choose to bat Rasmus second, the spot ahead of Jose Bautista and one recently occupied by Eric Thames. Such a move would allow for a nice pattern of righty-lefty on down through the lineup, making it more difficult for teams to play platoon matchups late in the game.

Regardless of where Rasmus bats, he should be a part of Toronto’s lineup through at least the 2014 season, after which he qualifies for free agency. Toronto is a sleeping giant of sorts, and they could have the capacity to keep Rasmus beyond his arbitration years, which begin after this season. The Jays now have a core in place through the 2013 season that may include Jose Bautista, Rasmus, Adam Lind, Travis Snider, Yunel Escobar, and J.P. Arencibia. That’s without mentioning top prospects Brett Lawrie or Travis d’Arnaud, and ignores potential role players like Thames and Edwin Encarnacion.

The three pitchers coming Toronto’s way aren’t as sexy as Rasmus, but they could be of some use this season. Tallet and Miller are former Blue Jays and left-handers. Tallet’s ability to get southpaws out is less consistent and his earned run averages are ugly, but he can grow some nice facial hair and knows the environment well. Miller’s strikeout rate has plummeted these last two seasons, but he can still trick a lefty into making an out more often than not. Walters is the lone righty and the only one who figures to have much of a future. At 6-foor-4, you would expect some good velocity, but Walters attacks with a high-80s fastball and relies on his changeup to put batters down. In 50 major-league innings, he has a 7.38 earned run average and 5.90 FIP.

Alex Anthopoulos has become something of a sabermetrics idol with his combination of dealings that are smooth yet bold. This trade doesn’t figure to be any different. Our adjusted standings already see the Jays as the eighth-best team in the American League, per their third-order winning percentage, and they stand to improve with this deal. If Toronto can upgrade its rotation, continue to develop its players at the major- and minor-league level, and catch a few breaks, they should give the three powers in the division even more competition for years to come. —R.J. Anderson

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Traded OF-L Colby Rasmus, LHP Brian Tallet, LHP Trever Miller, and RHP P.J. Walters to the Blue Jays for RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Octavio Dotel, LHP Marc Rzepczynski, OF-L Corey Patterson and three PTBNL or cash.  [7/27]

Colby Rasmus and his father have finally gotten their wish.  Months (if not years) of speculation about the outfielder’s less-than-privileged place in the Cardinals’ plans and an unspecified number of trade requests and clashes with Tony La Russa culminated in his crossing the border today. Rasmus is having a down year compared to his 2010 campaign, but it’s possible that his unsettled status affected his performance.  He’s still a young, above-average hitter with patience and power at a premium defensive position (though FRAA does not think highly of his defensive abilities, docking him a combined -23.8 runs in the field over the past two seasons).

Toronto’s Rogers Centre is far friendlier to lefty power than Busch Stadium, so a home run boost is in store for Rasmus through the power of park factors alone. Whether getting out of the Cards’ clubhouse will raise Rasmus’s game in other ways is impossible to say, though it’s certain that any incidental improvement on the center fielder’s part will be tied to a narrative about his release from La Russian bonds. On the Jays’ end, the addition of Rasmus brings a merciful end to the low-OBP shenanigans of Corey Patterson and Rajai Davis and gives the team an enviable under-25 outfield with Rasmus flanked by Travis Snider in left and Eric Thames in right.

This marks the second time in two deadlines that Alex Anthopoulos has acquired a player who may have been undervalued as a result of being less than popular in his former clubhouse, suggesting that while the young GM has remade his organization into an old-school scouting machine, he isn’t overly hamstrung by concerns with chemistry. What’s more, he may have had to surrender more talent for Yunel Escobar—who seemingly shed his bad-boy label as well as his weak performance at the plate as soon as he arrived in Toronto—last July than he did for Rasmus in his latest swap. Credit Anthopoulous for spotting and exploiting another inefficiency, another stolen march in his uphill battle against the AL East’s financial titans.

The St. Louis end of the trade only confirms that the Cardinals don’t think as highly of Rasmus as the rest of the world (which is easy to snark about but shouldn’t be entirely dismissed as a data point). Still, while most observers might be convinced that the Cardinals gave up the best player in the deal, they needn’t start writing their NL Central concession speech—this is still a win-now trade for the team, even if a “lose later” addendum is inevitable.

The Cards get a successful starter in Jackson, whose 3.18 FIP and 3.51 FRA outshine his 3.92 ERA.  His addition strengthens the rotation and also allows the team to move Kyle McClellan back to relief, where it’s clear he belongs since the righty’s strikeout rate has cratered since joining the rotation this year. McClellan, Dotel, and Rzepczynski (who has been death on lefties in his new role as a reliever this season, holding them to a .159/.247/.203 line) would give the Cardinals a deep bullpen where they previously had only three trustworthy arms (none of which were left-handed). The Cards also have the offense (an NL-leading .274 team TAv) and the outfield depth to absorb Rasmus’s absence, despite Lance Berkman’s day-to-day status; with Jon Jay already on the roster and Allen Craig on the comeback trail, the Cards can make up most of the difference, though the more Patterson plays, the more the team will miss Rasmus. Patterson, Tallet, Walters, and Miller (who’s expected to be flipped to the White Sox), are mostly afterthoughts in the move, warm bodies included to fill holes left by the departure of other, more talented outfielders and arms.

It’s after this season—ironically, when La Russa may no longer be at the reigns—that the Cardinals will pay the price for being short-sighted.  When Jackson hits free agency, the team will be left with little more than a pair of relievers—one of whom, Dotel, would take a $3.5 million team option to keep—to show for their former center fielder, though a playoff appearance this year (and any positive effect it might have on Albert Pujols’s off-season calculus) would help alleviate the pain, as would any Canadian pennies for the Pujols fund that change hands once the deal becomes official. —Ben Lindbergh

*An update to the Playoff Odds Report reflecting the deal will be published later this afternoon.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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