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August 1, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Ned Zone

by Jay Jaffe

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It's fair to say the Dodgers aren't accustomed to selling at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. The last time they were lousy enough to go into the deadline far enough removed from a playoff spot to be sellers was 19 years ago when they were en route to 99 losses: their worst season in 83 years. Not that they hadn't failed to recognize the need to do so last summer when they were seven games back in the NL West and 5 1/2 games back in the Wild Card; a more honest assessment of their chances would have had general manager Ned Colletti selling off parts in exchange for prospects. This week, the Dodgers finally got a chance to see Colletti doing just that, and the sum of his moves and non-moves was enough to make a fan pine for the days of Octavio Dotel.

Though they came into the year forecasted to win 87 games, the 2011 Dodgers have been irrelevant to the races since mid-May. They were last at .500 on May 2—when they were 15-15—last within five games of first place in the NL West on May 31—when they were 26-30—and last within five games of the Wild Card…  well, sometime in between those two dates; it hardly matters at this point. They've long since been done in by a combination of bad luck in the form of injuries, bad planning in the form of Colletti's winter 2010-2011 work, and bad finances in the form of owner Frank McCourt's irresponsible financial stewardship, which has bled the team of money to finance the lavish lifestyle he and now-divorced wife, Jamie, lead, ultimately pushing the team into bankruptcy.

What once looked like a stacked rotation has lost its fifth and sixth starters—the durable Jon Garland and the sporadically available Vicente Padilla—to season-ending surgeries. The bullpen has been decimated by the long absences of Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Padilla. In the lineup, just six Dodgers have played in at least three-quarters of the team's games; three of them—James Loney, Tony Gwynn Jr., and Aaron Miles—are slugging less than .360, which is still higher than what "marquee" free agent Juan Uribe has provided. Given the collection of "talent" at rookie manager Don Mattingly's disposal, it's not terribly surprising the Dodgers are 14th in the National League in scoring.

It's been clear for awhile that the Dodgers would be dealing. Quite rightly, there's been reason to fear what they might do in that case, given Colletti's track record. Not that he hasn't added pieces that have helped the team's cause when they were legitimate contenders; Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake, George Sherrill, Ronnie Belliard, and Garland all made their impacts when the Dodgers were in the running. However, McCourt's penny-pinching ways have forced the Dodgers to surrender better prospects than they might normally have needed to in exchange for remaining more or less payroll-neutral in order to avoid taking on the bulk of the remaining salary of those acquired. Blake cost the Dodgers catcher Carlos Santana, now the Indians' starting catcher. Ramirez cost them third base prospect Andy LaRoche and former first-round pick Bryan Morris. Garland cost them Tony Abreu, who once appeared to be their second baseman of the future. Sherrill cost them slugger Josh Bell, who reached the majors with the Orioles in 2010. When combined with McCourt's continued skimping on signing bonuses for draft picks and international players, the team's minor league system has fallen to the lower-middle of the pack in the organizational rankings.

On top of that, the Dodgers further depleted their system last year when Colletti put on his rose-tinted glasses and shipped off James McDonald, Blake DeWitt, Andrew Lambo, Brett Wallach, Kyle Smit, Lucas May, and Elisaul Pimental in various deals for Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, Dotel, and Scott Podsenik. Unsurprisingly, the Dodgers played .500ish ball for the next three weeks and kept sinking in the standings. McDonald is now starting for the Pirates, and while most of the rest of what they gave up has flopped—Lambo's in minor league misery, DeWitt's a bench player with the Cubs, Smit and Wallach have ERAs above 5.00 in Chicago's system, May's now a Diamondback—there's still the opportunity cost of using those players to fund go-nowhere deals.

While McCourt's financial woes have led others to salivate over the prospect of liberating Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier—the offense's two most productive players—both are under contract through next year at affordable prices, and the hope is that when the ownership situation is resolved, they'll be amenable to extensions. As such, the team only had so much in the way of players who might appeal to contenders at the deadline. Here's a look at how Colletti fared.

1. Not trading Hiroki Kuroda

The 36-year-old Kuroda has been the Dodgers' second-best starter this year after Clayton Kershaw, posting a 3.11 ERA supported by good peripherals (0.9 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 7.0 K/9). He's averaged 6.3 innings per turn while delivering a quality start two-thirds of the time—good for 16th among NL ERA qualifiers—but he has just a 6-13 won-loss record because he's received worse run support (2.8 per game) than any qualified NL starter save for Padre Dustin Moseley.

Kuroda's working on a one-year, $12 million deal, but one-third of that is in the form of a signing bonus. He would have been a quality mid-rotation addition for most contenders; unsurprisingly, the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Indians, and Rangers all expressed interest. The hitch was that his contract contained a full no-trade clause, and whereas for some players that's simply a bargaining chip, for Kuroda it meant what it said. When his initial three-year deal was up last fall, he considered returning to Japan, but the Dodgers' willingness to go year-to-year left him the option of returning to his home country in 2012, and the no-trade further guaranteed him some stability.

A little over a week before the deadline, Kuroda said (through an interpreter) that the idea of being traded hadn't crossed his mind, and he declined to submit a list of teams to which he would accept a trade; instead he would consider moving only on a case-by-case basis if the Dodgers could agree to a swap. No deal ever made it to that point, and on Saturday, Kuroda told the team he would not waive the clause, saying that he felt obligated to remain with the Dodgers. "I recalled what I was feeling when I decided to re-sign here and pitch for this team this season," he told the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez. "Those feelings are important to me, and I wanted them to remain important. I wanted to see this through until the end."

It's possible that the Dodgers could have been more proactive about discussing a trade with Kuroda, but it's tough to begrudge the man his desire to stay in place. One can't really knock Colletti too hard here.

2. Not trading Casey Blake

The 37-year-old Blake is a versatile veteran who can play third base, first base, and even the outfield corners, if need be. Just two years ago, he hit .280/.363/.468 and set a career high with 4.6 WARP. While this year's .236/.335/.375 line isn't all that impressive, his .250 True Average is basically par for the course in what's been a particularly down year for third basemen. He's fairly affordable, making just $5.25 million plus incentives. Alas, Blake has been completely unable to stay healthy, making three trips to the disabled list while playing just 45 games between lower back inflammation, an elbow problem, and neck stiffness. On Saturday, he played his first game in four weeks, which wasn't enough time to showcase him for a contender; if he's to be dealt, it will have to come during the waiver period. Again, one can't ding Colletti too badly, except to remind him that the Dodgers shouldn't have surrendered Santana back in 2008.

3. Trading Rafael Furcal

Furcal is capable of reeling off MVP-caliber stretches when healthy, but he's made Blake look like the Iron Horse by comparison. Already with a history of back woes, the 33-year-old shortstop has been limited to 37 games thanks to two stints on the DL—one for a broken left thumb, the other for an oblique strain. When he's been in the lineup, he's been dreadful, wheezing along at a .197/.272/.248 clip, and his defense has suffered as well. Given that he's headed towards his third sub-100 game season out of four, there's no chance that the Dodgers would pick up his $12 million 2012 option, and unloading Furcal to save some money while taking a long look at prospect Dee Gordon makes some sense.

Colletti found a taker for Furcal in the Cardinals, who have been playing the aforementioned Theriot at shortstop and getting a fairly typical .275/.320/.342, which when combined with subpar defense (-6 FRAA) and awful baserunning (-3 EqBRR)—this is the man for whom the acronym TOOTBLAN (Thrown Out on the Bases Like a Nincompoop) was coined—makes for a replacement level ballplayer. In return, the Dodgers get Alex Castellanos, not the Republican operative but a 24-year-old righty-swinging outfielder hitting a robust .319/.379/.562 at Double-A Springfield. Alas, Castellanos is 5-foot-10, old for his level (25 this week), completely hacktastic—he owns 94/21 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio in 391 plate appearances—and with mediocre tools otherwise. He's a future bench bat at best, which is about par for the course in such deals. The Cardinals will also pay $1.4 million of the remaining $4 million owed to Furcal—enough to fund 1/25th of the McCourts' divorce. Given such a damaged asset, it's almost a miracle Colletti got anything.

4. Not trading Jamey Carroll

Another 37-year-old infielder, the pint-sized Carroll has been one of the few bright spots this season, hitting .294/.364/.358 while splitting time between shortstop and second base. He has no power to speak of—he last homered in 2009—but he can take a walk, run the bases, and play solid defense. He's cheap, too, making just $1.8 million in the second year of a two-year, $3.85 million deal. The Indians and Brewers were said to be interested, but both teams went in other directions. Carroll wouldn't have netted a whole lot, but his minimal salary should have helped net a return at least as good as Furcal's. Perhaps Colletti wanted to be certain somebody stuck around to fill in for Blake and Uribe when they shuttle to and from the disabled list.

5. Trading Trayvon Robinson to the Mariners for three Red Sox prospects

Whatever minimal goodwill Colletti might have merited for moving Furcal was instantly undone with this gobsmacker, whose details weren't clear until well after the 4 PM Eastern deadline, and even today they still look wrong. As part of the three-team deal that sent Mariners lefty Erik Bedard to Boston, the Dodgers somehow got roped into sending Robinson, their top hitting prospect after Gordon, to Seattle in exchange for three magic beans organizational players.

A 23-year-old center fielder, Robinson came into the year ranked 99th on our Top 101 Prospects list, and he'd enjoyed the benefits of hitter-friendly Albuquerque's high altitude this season, hitting .293/.375/.563 with 26 homers but just nine doubles. Let the air out of that and you still have a player who projects as an everyday outfielder. Indeed, the possibility of a Kemp-Robinson-Ethier outfield taking shape in 2012 was a prospect worth salivating over, because there's virtually no way Robinson could give the team less than the .244/.315/.342 that Phony Gwynn, Jerry Sands, Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons, and friends have put up as the Dodgers' left fielders. Instead, the Dodgers traded Robinson and received a 23-year-old Double-A catch-and-throw receiver who has gunned down 36 percent of stolen base attempts in Tim Federowicz, a 23-year-old righty starter whiffing just 6.1 per nine in Double-A in Stephen Fife, and a 22-year-old righty reliever whiffing 13.4 per nine in Low-A in Juan Rodriguez. None of the trio ranked among Boston's top 20 prospects on Kevin Goldstein's list, and only Federowicz was among their top 30 on Baseball America's list. They're C-grade prospects at best.

What the… excuse me… whiskey tango foxtrot? A deal sending a good prospect such as Robinson in one direction and a possible stretch-run helper such as Bedard in the other is the stuff deadline deals are made of, but what business did the Dodgers have for throwing their good prospect into this deal in order to enable somebody else's stretch run acquisition without something to make it especially worth their while? Is Colletti expecting a playoff share from the Red Sox? A future job with the Mariners? Is this being written off as a charitable donation? Is it a cry for help from a man about to jump out the window? Is there somebody out there who will post bail if I fly to Los Angeles myself and extract a few teeth in search of the real truth?

If the talent drain out of the Dodgers' organization on this mystifying transaction isn't maddening enough, consider Colletti's justification for the deal:

"We needed catching. You can move somebody to the outfield. You can move somebody to the infield. You can move guys around the outfield, you can move guys around the infield. But you can't move somebody behind the plate who has not been behind the plate or is not going to take a long time behind the plate. And we were in a tough spot and needed catching and feel we got a good one with Federowicz."

Excuse me? Once upon a time the Dodgers had a strong-armed third baseman whom they moved behind the plate after his first year of professional ball. He went on to make a pair of All-Star appearances for the Dodgers before they wore him down to the nub by playing him 150 times a year. Perhaps you've heard of Russell Martin.

He's not the only guy the Dodgers have successfully moved behind the plate in recent years, either. Three years into his minor league career, the Dodgers shifted Santana, then an outfielder/third baseman, to the position, and within two years he was ranked 26th on Baseball America's top 100 list. Another converted infielder, the aforementioned May, didn't take to the position nearly so well, but he was still helpful as a trade chip in last summer's acquisition of Podsednik. Hell, the Dodgers have a grand tradition of converted catchers that goes back to the early 1970s, when they moved cult favorite Joe Ferguson from the outfield, and did the same with Bob Stinson as well; both enjoyed big league careers for more than a decade.

It's true the Dodgers need catching; after all, Colletti nontendered Martin last December, unwilling to pay him $4.2 million plus incentives, aka less guaranteed money than they're paying Loney to hit a pathetic .256/.301/.325 at the other extreme of the defensive spectrum. Free agent signing Rod Barajas—a real Colletti gem if there ever was one—is hitting a godawful .209/.261/.373, which sadly isn't a whole lot worse than his career line. Backup Dioner Navarro, whom Colletti traded for magic beans back in 2006 then picked up off the nontender pile this winter, is hitting .199/.278/.326. The position has been a gaping Vortex of Suck; damn right the Dodgers need a catcher, but this wasn't the way to get one, and from the reviews offered by Goldstein and other prospect experts, it doesn't sound as though Federowicz is somebody who will be able to handle a starting job in 2012.

Reportedly, the Dodgers' involvement in the deal came about as a result of Boston's failed pursuit of Kuroda. According to ESPN Boston's Gordon Edes, "Because Epstein knew what Dodgers GM Ned Colletti wanted from the Sox while discussing the right-hander, he was able to place a call to Colletti as time was winding down, strike a deal with the Dodgers, then package a Sox prospect (Portland outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang) with a Dodger prospect (outfielder Trayvon Robinson) to land Bedard and minor-league reliever Josh Fields."

A guy could injure his face and his palm connecting the two with enough force over the ridiculousness of that statement. Colletti placed an equal value on two months of a 36-year-old pending free agent starting pitcher and six years of club control of a lineup regular at a premium defensive position! At the extreme, Kuroda might be worth 2.0 WARP for the rest of the season. Robinson's PECOTA places him as worth over 2.0 WARP per year through his first six seasons. That's an epic failure.

Colletti was quoted as saying that the Dodgers feel as though Sands, who came into the year ranked just behind Robinson, is "probably a step ahead" of him at this point. A righty-swinging left fielder/first baseman, Sands has hit all of .200/.294/.328 in 144 plate appearances with the Dodgers this season. He may have a future in the majors, but he's a left-spectrum type for whom the offensive bar will always be much higher. Clearly, Colletti doesn't know his ahead from his behind.

Given the finances, the slew of injuries, and Kuroda's no-trade, Colletti didn't have a very strong hand to deal from going into the deadline. Even so, he bears some responsibility for that; divorced from the injury situations at second, short and third, he's settled for total ciphers at catcher, first base, and left field with  players in no way talented enough to help a contender; with the exception of Sands, nobody in their right minds would surrender anything of value for the dreck the Dodgers offer at those positions.

Against this bleak backdrop, the GM managed to make the situation worse by trading down in a deal he had no business butting into, punting away a future everyday player. This wasn't the Angels taking on Vernon Wells' bloated contract or the Cardinals punting the future of Colby Rasmus, but it ranks among the most shockingly inept deals of the year. In a five-and-a-half year tenure that's seen its good moments—three playoff appearances, including back-to-back trips to the NLCS—and bad ones (the Jason Schmidt contract, the Andruw Jones contract, the Juan Pierre contract, the Blake trade…), Colletti may have set a new low. That's saying something.

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

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