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December 6, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Rockies Trade for Wilton Lopez

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Alex White and RHP Alex Gillingham for RHP Wilton Lopez and a PTBNL. [12/5]

If the Astros think the expiration date on Lopez’ elbow is about to arrive, they were wise to get what they could; even if the arm holds up, Lopez won’t be worth as much when he starts making more money, and an expensive setup man, no matter how good, is a luxury a losing team can do without.

The haul is headlined by former first-round pick White, a sinkerballer who sits in the mid-90s and also throws a slider. Until recently, White was a well-regarded prospect, ranking 71st on Kevin Goldstein’s pre-2011 Top 101 (and 77th the year before that). After going to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, he hurt his finger and pitcher poorly in limited action in 2011, then pitched himself out of the rotation and back to Triple-A in 2012. Even now, he retains enough promise to have ranked seventh on the Rockies’ “Top 10 Talents 25 and Under” list last month, though that probably says more about the Rockies’ young talent than it does about White. Nick Faleris, who authored that list, wrote that he “could top out as a mid-rotation arm, but likely fit[s] best at the back-end of a rotation.” Jason Parks adds that White is a “potential innings-eater/reliever” with a “heavy low-90s fastball and split/slider combo” but notes that he “doesn’t miss enough bats.”

The missed bats wouldn’t be such a problem if the batted balls would stop going so far: White wasn’t homer-prone in the minors, and he gets grounders, but he’s allowed 1.7 home runs per nine innings in the majors. Nineteen of his 25 home runs allowed as a Rockie have been hit at Coors, so assuming his homer rate regresses in Houston, he can still amount to something, though he’ll likely have to have a strong spring training to start the season in the rotation.

Gillingham, a 23-year-old 11th-round pick in the 2011 draft, is sort of the starting pitcher version of Lopez, a righty without a great strikeout rate but with good control and a lofty groundball rate. He walked only two batters per nine innings, and his 63.5 percent groundball rate ranked second in A ball among pitchers who threw at least 70 innings. Dan Evans, who has seen Gillingham, says his sinker is “outstanding, a power pitch with plus command.” He made 19 starts for Asheville in the Sally League this season, posting a 3.66 ERA and allowing only five home runs in 123 innings.

COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Wilton Lopez and a PTBNL for RHP Alex White and RHP Alex Gillingham. [12/5]

In June, I wrote an article in which I listed 10 reasons why the Astros hadn’t been historically terrible. One of those reasons was Wilton Lopez. From that point on, Houston got way worse, but if anything, Lopez only improved.

Among all pitchers who threw at least 200 innings from 2010-12, Lopez had the third-lowest walk rate and the 13th-highest groundball rate, and he appeared in the 10th-most games. He doesn’t succeed with strikeouts, as almost every other reliever people have heard of does today, but his results speak for themselves. Actually, they probably don’t speak for themselves, at least not very loudly, or Wilton Lopez would be better known. But he does deserve a place in the pantheon of effective relievers who manage to maintain their results for more than one year at a time. As I wrote in June:

Lopez doesn’t throw particularly hard or strike out everyone, and he doesn’t wear goggles, so he doesn’t get many mentions as one of baseball’s best setup men. But he has good control, gets grounders, and takes the ball often. That’s also a description of a player every team would want.

Lopez, whose four-seamer can reach the 95-96-mph range, relies on a hard sinker that averages just over 92, and he mixes in some mid-80s changeups. Clearly, he can pound the zone with all of his pitches. Lopez became the Astros’ closer after Brett Myers was traded, which raised his public profile to some extent—anyone who records 10 saves in a season causes a fantasy feeding frenzy—but because he’s played only for bad Astros teams and had one measly save before this season, he’s still mostly anonymous among mainstream fans. The move to Colorado—where he’ll play for another bad team and presumably set up for Rafael Betancourt—won’t raise his Q Score, but it will help the Rockies’ relief corps. No pitcher is Coors-proof, but getting grounders and avoiding extra batters on base is as sound a strategy as there is for pitching at altitude.

We don’t know for sure that every team would want Wilton Lopez, but we know that at least two teams did: the right-hander was almost traded to the Phillies last week. According to our own Jason A. Churchill, though, the deal fell through due to an elbow issue with Lopez. That makes some sense, since Lopez has suffered from on-and-off elbow injuries over the past couple seasons. Ulnar neuritis put him on the DL in April of 2011; last season, he added spring training “forearm soreness,” a June DL stint for a UCL sprain, and day-to-day “elbow tightness” in August to his injury ledger. Either the Rockies didn’t see the same issue, or they felt the risk was worth taking.

Lopez is 29 and arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. Given his age, injury scares, and increasing earning potential, most of Lopez’ surplus value might be behind him, but if his arm holds up, he’ll be a dependable bullpen option for the Rockies and a potential closer replacement should Betancourt depart via free agency after 2013. What isn’t clear is why the Rockies are worrying about setup men or 2014 closers when they’re in essentially the same boat as the Astros, contention-wise. White is younger, cheaper, and healthier, and he has the same groundball tendencies as Lopez. While he hasn’t shown the same sort of control in the rotation, we haven’t seen what he can do in the bullpen, where some have projected him to pitch in the past. If the Rockies don’t think he can start, it might have behooved them to see whether he could approximate Lopez in short bursts rather than give up years of team control for an asset with what could be a limited life expectancy.

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

Related Content:  Alex White,  Wilton Lopez,  Alex Gillingham

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