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December 22, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Trading with the Enemy

by R.J. Anderson

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National League

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Acquired LHP Travis Wood and two minor leaguers from the Reds for LHP Sean Marshall. [12/21]
Signed OF-R Reed Johnson to a one-year deal. [12/21]

Invariably, the decision to trade Wood to an intra-division rival will raise questions about his value. A glance at Wood’s player page reveals that he is a 24-year-old with a hair over 200 major-league innings and more than three Wins Above Replacement Player under his belt. Based on that information and nothing more, it would seem the Cubs are getting a number two or three starter early in his earning cycle.

Reality isn’t as rosy. Wood’s career numbers are comprised of two 100-inning stints, and those 100-inning stints bear little resemblance to each other. A surprisingly superb virginal experience in 2010 buoys his career numbers, balancing out an otherwise anchoring 2011 campaign. Part of what made Wood’s initial success so shocking is that his strikeout and walk numbers eclipsed his rates in the upper minors. Pitchers are expected to decline bit-by-bit as they head through the minors, not hit the majors and improve. The step back Wood took in 2011 understates his ability, as he allowed nearly a run more per nine innings pitched and saw his strikeout-to-walk ratio lose a full point.

Selecting one of the two 100-inning segments and declaring it to be representative of the real Wood would be a fruitless, exercise. More likely than not, Wood’s true talent level rests somewhere between yielding 3.94 and 4.84 runs per nine innings pitched. Of course, that is a sizeable gap, but there is information available about Wood beyond his statistics. His stuff—a 90-mile-per-hour sinker, newish cutter, and above-average changeup—can get major-league hitters out, but most scouting reports label him a number four or five starter.

There are worse fates than becoming a back-of-the-rotation starter, and Wood happens to fit the Cubs well. Ryan Dempster will return, but beyond that, the future is unclear for Carlos Zambrano, Matt Garza, Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, and Jeff Samardzija. Should all of those pitchers remain with the Cubs, or remain in the rotation, Wood—who has an option remaining—could slide to Iowa until his services are required. For a team that used the likes of Rodrigo Lopez, Doug Davis, Ramon Ortiz, and Casey Coleman in the rotation last season, having depth like Wood is a welcome sight.

As for the Cubs’ auxiliary signing, Johnson figures to reprise his role as the club’s fourth outfielder. No word on whether Dale Sveum will treat Johnson with the tenderness that previous Chicago skippers have, though if Sveum expects Johnson to repeat his 2011 numbers, then their relationship might remind Cubs fans of Tender Is The Night.

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Acquired LHP Sean Marshall from the Cubs for LHP Travis Wood and two minor leaguers. [12/21]

For the second time this week, the Reds have used organizational depth to upgrade their major-league pitching staff. Marshall is the prize, and while his value does not equal Mat Latos’s, he is still a mighty fine addition.

Marshall is a sturdy lefty who came up as a starter but failed to stick after four seasons of attempting to break into the Cubs’ rotation. Those aspirations were dashed again in 2010, as the organization made Marshall a full-time reliever, but he bloomed in the bullpen. Two seasons, 150 1/3 innings pitched, a 2.45 earned run average, and 4.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio later, Marshall is among the finest left-handed relievers in baseball.

Sometimes, “left-handed reliever” is taken as a fancy way of saying “specialist.” Marshall’s only specialty is retiring batters, and he holds no handedness prejudice on the mound. A fastball that sits in the upper-80s to low-90s may not cause velocity lovers to swoon. Still, Marshall’s tall frame helps him maintain good downward plane on the pitch, which—along with a proverbial cornucopia of off-speed pitches—helps generate impressive groundball rates.

Adding to Marshall’s value is the cost certainty that a contract extension signed in January adds. It expires after the 2012 season, true, but in light of free agent costs, adding a pitcher of Marshall’s quality for an assured $3.1 million at this point in his career is a win. In addition, the Reds will have almost a year to negotiate a longer engagement if they so choose.

With the Cardinals and Brewers both losing key pieces, Walt Jocketty is doing his best to put the Reds in a position to take the division crown. But by adding Marshall now, Jocketty has unspooled a thread of questions, such as: are the Reds now out of the closer’s market? If so, would it be Marshall or Nick Masset receiving the ninth-inning reps? Will they attempt to convert Aroldis Chapman into a starter? And on, and on, and on. For now, fans of the Reds have to be pleased with the idea of Marshall relieving Latos during a pennant chase.

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

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