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December 18, 2012

Western Front

An Almost Defense of Kevin Towers

by Geoff Young

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When the Diamondbacks traded right-hander Trevor Bauer and change in a three-way trade with the Reds and Indians for Didi Gregorius and other change last week, it raised an interesting question: Dude, seriously?

Bauer, taken with the third pick overall in 2011, was being swapped for an athletic shortstop who, according to BP's Mark Anderson, “may be able to hit only at the bottom of the order, leaving some scouts to project him as a second-division starter and possibly only a utility player.” Acknowledging that Gregorius made a favorable impression in the Arizona Fall League, it's easy to see why some folks are scratching their heads and/or grabbing their pitchforks.

Let's leave those people with their heads and pitchforks, and turn instead to some unpopular trades made by current Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers when he held the same position with the Padres. I've studied these a lot over the years:

There's more in books I've published and sheets I've spread, but this gives a general idea of Towers' track record. Most of the analysis uses Win Shares because that's what we had back in the day and we liked it. The important point is that he did very well with the Padres, although not all of his trades were well-received at the time.

We won't rehash seemingly trivial moves (Andy Sheets and Gus Kennedy for Phil Nevin and Keith Volkman was nothing for nothing, same with Steve Reed and Jason Middlebrook for Josh Reynolds, Jason Bay, and Bobby Jones, as well as Brian Sikorski for Mike Adams) that turned out great. Neither shall we concern ourselves with ones that were obvious when made (Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka, and Billy Killian for Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Young, and Terrmel Sledge).

Rather, our focus will be on trades that seemed curious to outside observers but which served Towers and the Padres well. Towers never dealt away a talent like Bauer during his stay in San Diego, but he did make his share of unpopular moves. Here are a few of them.

December 6, 1996: Traded Scott Sanders to the Mariners for Sterling Hitchcock
This was a straight-up challenge trade near the beginning of Towers' tenure that I thought he blew. My opinion of Sanders was higher than it should have been, although there were defensible reasons for holding that opinion. Consider his and Hitchcock's performances in the season immediately preceding this trade:

Player

Age

IP

ERA

FRA

WARP

Scott Sanders

27

144.0

3.38

3.73

2.9

Sterling Hitchcock

25

196.2

5.35

5.25

3.0

One season does not a career make, but all else being equal, which would you rather have (remember, we didn't have WARP)? If you answered, “All else is never equal,” you get a gold star. Bonus points if you called out the author for talking like some wannabe Yoda.

According to reports announcing the trade, Towers projected Hitchcock's ERA to drop a full point in the NL (it dropped by 0.15). Mariners GM Woody Woodward called the move an attempt to balance his team's rotation, which would have had four left-handers in it.

The San Diego Union-Tribune's Bill Center reported that six teams had expressed interest in Sanders. One possibility had Sanders, Chris Gomez, and Rickey Henderson going to Boston for John Valentin. That deal fell through, wrote the Boston Herald's Tony Massarotti, because Red Sox GM Dan Duquette wanted to talk to his new manager, Jimy Williams, before pulling the trigger. Unfortunately, Williams' arrival at the Winter Meetings had been delayed by snowfall.

Sanders served up three homers in his Mariners debut against the Yankees (I remember watching on television and being shocked). He allowed two more in each of his next two starts, lost his spot in the rotation before the end of April, and was shipped to Detroit in July. Of all possible outcomes for Sanders, this is one I had not envisioned.

Hitchcock, meanwhile, had a lackluster 1997. He came within one inning of notching the highest single-season ERA in Padres history among qualifiers for the title. The following year was better, and of course he dominated in the postseason. He pitched well again in 1999 before a series of arm injuries forced him down a slow and painful path to eventual retirement in 2004. Still, the Padres got three full seasons of rotation innings for a guy who couldn't keep the ball in American League parks.

March 22, 1997: Traded Jody Reed to the Tigers for Mike Darr and Matt Skrmetta
Reed was made expendable by the acquisition of Quilvio Veras four months earlier. Reed's departure did not sit well with teammates. Steve Finley called him “the better second baseman, period” and opined that “everyone else in the clubhouse feels the same way.”

His popularity with teammates and fans alike notwithstanding, Reed had passed his prime. After four strong seasons with the Red Sox and one that hinted at things to come, he put the “journey” in journeyman, playing for four teams in his final five years.

Reed was coming off a .244/.325/.297 campaign for San Diego but hit .323 with two homers in spring training before being dealt for minor leaguers Darr and Skrmetta. He would hit .196/.278/.214 in 129 plate appearances for the Tigers. When he struck out against Milwaukee's Alberto Reyes on August 22, it was Reed's final trip to the plate in the big leagues, as Detroit released him three weeks later.

Veras, for his part, served as a top-of-the-order catalyst for the 1998 NL champion Padres. After a second season in San Diego, he headed to Atlanta in a trade that netted Ryan Klesko, among others.

As for the prospects received in the Reed deal, Skrmetta spent three seasons in the Padres system but never surfaced with the big club. He eventually made 14 relief appearances for two teams in 2000, posting a stratospheric 11.66 ERA.

Darr, son of a former big-league pitcher sharing his name, became a highly-regarded prospect. Following a .310/.385/.438 season at Double-A Mobile at age 22, Baseball America ranked him no. 94 heading into 1999. Darr had begun to establish himself with the Padres in 2001 but was killed in an automobile accident the following February just before spring training opened.

The tragedy overshadows any attempts at analysis. But we attempt anyway and find that Towers had made a trade that, while unpopular, helped his team.

December 12, 1998: Traded Joey Hamilton to the Blue Jays for Carlos Almanzar, Woody Williams, and Peter Tucci
This was similar to Sanders for Hitchcock. Let's run that same table for the principals:

Player

Age

IP

ERA

FRA

WARP

Joey Hamilton

27

217.1

4.27

5.17

-0.7

Woody Williams

31

209.2

4.46

5.31

1.1

Now I remember why records are kept. My memory has Hamilton being better than this. My memory betrays me in many ways.

Hamilton had been a 1991 first-round pick and a monster prospect. Baseball America ranked him no. 36 before 1992, no. 58 the following season, and no. 57 the year after that. Williams, taken in the 28th round of the 1988 draft, played Sir Not Appearing on This Prospect List.

The perceived difference probably helps explain why San Diego received Almanzar and Tucci as well, although even that didn't seem like enough. The former was a generic right-handed middle reliever, while the latter was a Quadruple-A corner outfielder with a porn star name.

In Toronto, Hamilton alternated between injured and ineffective. His career 5.83 ERA for the Blue Jays is the highest in franchise history among pitchers who have worked at least 200 innings. Williams, meanwhile, turned out to be one of those freaks who improves with age. Sort of like me. (That's a joke for my wife; you don't have to laugh.)

In BP 1997, we called Williams “a useful spare part.” In BP 1999, we upgraded him to “a fifth starter.” And yet, here he is with better numbers over a longer career than Hamilton, about whom BP 1996 said, “We'll still be discussing him in 2010.” Hey, it's two years after that and we're still discussing him, albeit in the context of his inferiority to the former “spare part.”

There probably are lessons to be learned here. Let me know if you find them.

March 2003: Traded Bubba Trammell, Mark Phillips, and cash to the Yankees for Rondell White
I hated this trade. No, I really hated it. The idea of swapping roughly equivalent outfielders while shipping a former first-round pick to the Yankees along with some much-needed money to help fund that financially-strapped organization offended my sensibilities on more levels than I knew existed.

Phillips was not Bauer, but he was a darned good prospect (Baseball America ranked San Diego's 2000 first-round pick at no. 54 before 2002 and no. 84 before 2003). Here's part of my rant from 9 ½ years ago that may bear relevance to the current situation:

If you believe in your scouts enough to fork over $2.2M for a high school pitcher, don't give up on the kid after 265 minor-league innings, particularly when he has very good stuff and shows flashes of dominance.

My confidence seems quaint now. Phillips pitched 70 1/3 innings in the Yankees organization, all at High-A Tampa, where he posted a 5.76 ERA before disappearing (he made a few appearances in the Atlantic League four years later). One possibility—which never occurred to me at the time because I was too busy being indignant—is that Towers knew his guy better than I did. It's a strange concept but one that might apply more often than we care to admit.

December 20, 2004: Traded Jay Payton, Ramon Vazquez, David Pauley, and cash to the Red Sox for Dave Roberts
Another year, another epic rant from yours truly. I thought Payton was good and Roberts was a guy who stole a base in a game. And there were the Padres giving money to another cash-starved team. From the rant:

I’ve been wracking my brains [about why the Padres would make this trade] and there are only two possibilities I can conceive:
  • Kevin Towers had grown tired of referring to Woody Williams for Ray Lankford as his worst trade ever.
  • Theo Epstein is a Jedi Master who convinced Towers those weren’t the players he was looking for.

There's also a bit at the end about how the Padres traded minor-league outfielder Henri Stanley to the Red Sox in May 2004, then Boston flipped Stanley to the Dodgers for Roberts in July before winning a World Series and shipping Roberts to San Diego for THREE WHOLE GUYS!

I wasn't happy. I thought the Padres had overpaid for a fourth or fifth outfielder. Christina Kahrl voiced my concerns more eloquently than I could:

Overcompensation has the virtue of telegraphing to everyone how very, very seriously you take a certain problem, so I guess you can consider this winter's pickups of Dave Roberts and Eric Young as proof positive that the Pads will not just be the lumbering station-to-station slugging Pad pepples of yesteryear. I'm impressed that Theo Epstein managed to acquire Roberts for little and dispatch him to San Diego for more, but that doesn't help the Pads all that much, and to be fair, Roberts was what they wound up with, not what they initially went into the Hot Stove League thinking they were going to wind up with.

Payton played 55 games with the Red Sox before being sent to Oakland for a Chad Bradford rental, Vazquez played 27 before being sent to Cleveland for 3½ years of nothing from Alex Cora, and Pauley posted a 9.53 ERA in 28 1/3 innings for Boston before embarking on a three-year whirlwind tour of the American League.

Roberts, meanwhile, gave the Padres a legitimate leadoff hitter for two seasons. Some of his best work came in San Diego, at ages (33 and 34) when he shouldn't have been improving. He also played an admittedly terrifying center field before Mike Cameron, whom the Padres had sought when they settled for Payton, came on to rescue him in 2006.

But Roberts did something else that often gets overlooked. He came home. A local kid who played high school baseball with current Cubs scouting and player development head Jason McLeod, Roberts represented the hometown well. And after his playing days, those ties brought him back as first-base coach of the Padres.

This doesn't directly relate to the trade, but for a team with such a small legacy relative to better-established franchises, there is something to be said for having local guys help run the show. People like Roberts, manager Bud Black, and hitting coach Phil Plantier represented San Diego long before they ever joined the Padres.

Anyway, the trade worked. I was wrong.

November 4, 2005: Traded Brian Lawrence to the Nationals for Vinny Castilla
Here's what I said in one of my old Ducksnorts Baseball Annuals:

My wife told me about this deal over the phone while I was attending an Arizona Fall League game. As I repeated her words, people around me—strangers—began laughing.

Lawrence had averaged 33 starts and 205 innings over the previous four seasons. He would turn 30 on May 14, 2006. Castilla was coming off a .253/.319/.403 season as a 37-year-old. Laughter seemed the appropriate response.

Castilla played just 72 games for the Padres, hitting .232/.260/.319 while fending off the legions of seagulls that kept mistaking him for a statue at third base. The punch line is that those 72 games were 72 more than Lawrence played for Washington. He missed all of 2006 due to labrum and rotator cuff surgery, made six starts for the Mets a year later, and kicked around Triple-A and Independent leagues for a while before retiring in 2011 after posting an 8.07 ERA in seven starts for Salt Lake (I saw one of those starts, at Tucson; it wasn't pretty).

What looked like one team robbing another blind turned out to be two teams flinging garbage at each other in some misguided attempt to appear busy.

* * *

An irritating truth about analysis is that often it's easier to do (albeit not well) with less information. The more you know, the more you see nuances and possibilities of alternative outcomes. Then you start qualifying everything you say because nothing is certain, and that doesn't go over well on talk radio, whose hosts and advertisers want people to REACT!

Am I saying that trading Bauer for Gregorius makes sense to me? Hell no, it looks terrible for Arizona given the information at my disposal. But the point is, the information at my disposal may not be sufficient to pass meaningful judgment. Ask me again in a decade, when all the votes have been tallied.

Thus concludes our history lesson. Pitchforks, anyone?

6 comments have been left for this article.

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