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June 6, 2003

Prospectus Today

Where Credit is Due

by Joe Sheehan

Last week, Joe Garagiola Jr. made the latest in a long series of heavily-criticized trades in which he gave up young players developed by the Diamondbacks for older talent. While the Byung-Hyun Kim-for-Shea Hillenbrand deal doesn't quite fit the pattern of his other swaps, it does share one important characteristic: it was largely panned by outside performance analysts.

I'm with them. While I can see a scenario in which the Diamondbacks win the deal, I think that they gave up too much talent for a player who is likely to be average or maybe a little above. The deal is especially problematic because the Snakes have third-base prospect Chad Tracy available, and Tracy is a comparable player to Hillenbrand right now, and comes with a lower price tag and a higher upside.

What keeps me from emptying both barrels on the deal is Garagiola's track record. This isn't the first time he's made a trade that left me shaking my head, and yet, the Diamondbacks have been one of the most successful franchises in baseball since they entered the league. From 1998-2002:

Team                Record     Pct.     Playoffs       Titles

Yankees            497-309    .617         5              3
Braves             493-315    .610         5              0
A's                457-352    .565         3              0
Giants             457-353    .564         2              0
Mariners           455-354    .562         2              0
Astros             448-362    .553         3              0
Red Sox            446-363    .551         2              0
Cardinals          443-366    .548         3              0
Indians            441-369    .544         3              0
Diamondbacks       440-370    .543         3              1

Keep in mind that you're looking at the first five years in Diamondbacks history. They've had by far the best opening run of any expansion team:

Team                Record     Pct.     Playoffs       Titles

Diamondbacks       440-370    .543         3              1
Rockies            363-384    .486         1              0
Royals             383-418    .478         0              0
Marlins            354-390    .476         1              1
Angels             383-425    .474         0              0
Expos              345-458    .430         0              0
Pilots/Brewers     337-466    .420         0              0
Astros             333-475    .412         0              0
Devil Rays         318-490    .394         0              0
Mariners           290-465    .384         0              0
Senators/Rangers   309-499    .382         0              0
Padres             294-506    .368         0              0
Blue Jays          270-482    .359         0              0
Mets               260-547    .322         0              0

(That's not entirely a fair comparison; MLB changed the rules for the last couple of expansions, allowing the new teams access to better players in the Expansion Draft. Additionally, no new teams prior to 1977 had access to a thriving free-agent market. That's why three of the top four teams in the above list come from the 1990s. Nevertheless, the Snakes have outdone even recent expansion teams by a considerable amount.)

One of the reasons the Diamondbacks have done so well is the trades that Garagiola has made, and more specifically, his willingness to sacrifice the future for short-term gain. For all the criticism I and others have heaped on that willingness, the fact is, he has given up very little in his deals.

Traded IF Joe Randa, 3B Gabe Alvarez, and LHP Matt Drews to Detroit for 3B Travis Fryman. [11/18/97]

Traded 3B Travis Fryman, LHP Tom Martin, and $3 million to Cleveland for 3B Matt Williams. [12/1/97]

These two deals are a unit, and together were the first sign that the Diamondbacks were not going to be a typical expansion team. While signing Williams to a five-year extension would be a regrettable move, trading Alvarez and Drews wouldn't be; the former played in 92 games in his career, the latter none. (Randa was not a young player, but rather a 28-year-old coming off back-to-back .300 batting averages for the Pirates and Royals.)

Traded OF Karim Garcia to the Detroit Tigers for OF Luis Gonzalez. [12/28/98]

The pinnacle of Garagiola's deal-making, this deal set the stage for three division titles in four years, as Gonzalez immediately became a .300/.400/.500 hitter upon arriving in Phoenix. Garcia, expected to be a great left-handed power source, washed out of Detroit and had a good half-season with the Indians in 2002, his only good year at the major-league level. He's hit .248/.284/.474 since the deal.

Traded OF Paul Weichard and a PTNBL [RHP Jason Boyd] to the Pirates for 2B Tony Womack. [2/26/99]

Weichard wasn't much of a prospect at the time (the Pirates were eager to trade Womack to make room for Pat Meares and Mike Benjamin in their infield), and never played in the majors. Now 30, Boyd has a career ERA of 6.16 in 87 2/3 innings.

Acquired LHP Dan Plesac from the Blue Jays for SS Tony Batista and RHP John Frascatore. [6/12/99]

This is the one that stands out. Of all the young players Garagiola has dealt, only Batista has gone on to have an extended, successful career. While he's never posted impressive OBPs, his power has made him an above-average third baseman in most seasons. He's hit .256/.304/.482 for the Blue Jays and Orioles since the trade while playing average-plus defense.

Traded RHPs Vladimir Nunez and Brad Penny and a PTBNL [OF Abraham Nunez] to the Marlins for RHP Matt Mantei. [7/8/99]

Coming on the heels of the Batista deal, this trade was also battered from pillar to post, largely because of the expectations for Penny. While both he and Vlad Nunez have had stretches of success, neither has approached projections, and both have spent some time either on the DL or in the minors. Now 25, Penny has a career ERA of 4.15 in 528 2/3 innings, and is on his way to his best year ever in 2003 (3.50 ERA in 12 starts). Either he or Felix Rodriguez (traded in the winter of 1998 for Dante Powell) is behind Batista as the second-best career dealt away by Garagiola.

Vladimir Nunez spent most of 2002 as the Marlins' closer, but threw just 9 2/3 innings in 2003 before being sent to the minors. Now 28, he has a career ERA of 4.62 in 381 2/3 innings.

Abraham Nunez suffered a shoulder injury in 2001 that limited him to DH duty that season. Injured again this year, he's hanging on to prospect status by a thread, and has just 17 major-league at-bats to his credit.

Traded 1B Travis Lee, LHP Omar Daal and RHPs Vicente Padilla and Nelson Figueroa to the Phillies for RHP Curt Schilling. [7/26/00]

Probably the best example of what Garagiola has done, this trade was directly responsible for the Diamondbacks' championship in 2001. Like many of the players the Snakes have traded, Daal and Padilla have had good stretches, even good seasons, but haven't had sustained positive value. Daal has been a decent innings sponge, with ERAs of 4.69 (after the trade in 2000), 4.46, 3.91 (in Dodger Stadium) and 4.52 this year with the Orioles. Padilla pitched very well for the Phillies in 2002 (3.28 ERA in 32 starts, 206 innings), but has just a 4.48 ERA so far this year.

Lee and Figueroa haven't even had that level of success. Lee is one of the biggest disappointments in baseball in the last decade, an empty .260 hitter who plays a nice first base. Figueroa has a career ERA of 4.74 in 197 2/3 innings.

Traded LHP Nick Bierbrodt, OF Jason Conti, and cash to the Devil Rays for RHP Albie Lopez and C Mike DiFelice. [7/25/01]

Conti was 26 at the time, more a Quadruple-A guy than a prospect. He hit .257/.315/.383 in 222 at-bats for the 2002 Devil Rays. Bierbrodt's career took a bizarre turn last winter when he was shot in a late-night altercation. Still just 25, he has an ERA of 5.86 since the deal, and 8.13 in 34 1/3 innings this year. (He's back in the rotation tonight.)

Traded DH Jack Cust and C J.D. Closser to the Rockies for LHP Mike Myers. [1/8/02]

At the time, this looked like an even worse version of the Plesac deal, with Garagiola swapping two of his system's top hitting prospects for a lefty specialist. Cust has been a disappointment, however, hitting .265/.409/.524 in the friendly confines of Colorado Springs last year, .169/.299/.246 in 65 at-bats with the Rockies, and .266/.423/.370 with Ottawa this year. His defense remains awful, limiting what a team can do with him, and it's fair to say that his status as a prospect is in danger.

Despite a good year with the bat at Double-A Carolina (.283/.370/.498), the Rockies had Closser open the 2003 season in the Texas League. He's still hitting (.268/.358/.452), but the questions about his defense (no better than seven runs below average over the past three seasons, per Clay Davenport's evaluations) are hindering his progress. Like Ben Petrick before him, he may find a promising career derailed by his inadequate glovework.

It's early, but both players fall into the pattern established by so many prospects traded away by Garagiola: They never again looked as good as they did on the day they were dealt.

Traded 1B Erubiel Durazo to the A's as part of a four-way deal in which they received RHP Elmer Dessens and cash from the Reds. [12/15/02]

It's too early to completely evaluate this deal. As expected, Durazo has been a significant contributor to the A's offense, hitting .290/.389/.485. He's already nearing his career high in at-bats, having avoided the nagging injuries that plagued him in Arizona. If Durazo plays as expected and stays healthy, he will likely end up the best player that Garagiola has ever dealt away...but there are a half-dozen guys on the list above who you would have expected to claim that crown.

Counting a host of minor deals not included here, Garagiola has traded 32 prospects, 21 of whom had no career after the deal. Some of the remaining 11 players had good seasons here and there, but the best career of the bunch belongs to a guy with a .304 OBP since the deal. The second-best? A starter with a 4.15 ERA or a set-up man--Felix Rodriguez--with two notable seasons. It's a tremendous track record that demands respect; whatever those of us on the outside may have thought about the price Garagiola paid to improve his ballclub, the fact is that he hasn't traded away much. He was right more often than not, and you can't just hand-wave that away with talk of luck or injuries or how players were mishandled by subsequent organizations.

A few years back, I attempted to distill the differences between what we do and what scouts do by categorizing the two as "performance analysis" and "skills analysis." I wonder if those same principles can't be applied to the evaluation of front-office personnel.

It may be that the skills we so admire in some executives--such as the understanding of how an offense works, the appreciation of sunk costs, the application of performance analysis--are paralleled by the attributes scouts find so enticing in young men who play baseball: speed, strength, and an impressive physique. And just as players who do not possess those skills can be excellent players, so too can GMs who eschew, or marginalize, the ideas we embrace rise to the top of their profession.

Are Billy Beane and Theo Epstein the GM equivalent of "tools" players, while Brian Sabean, Joe Garagiola Jr. and John Schuerholz are the Billy McMillons and Warren Newsons and Roberto Petagines, the guys who don't get respect but who put runs and wins on the board? Are the blind spots scouts and other baseball people have when it comes to players who don't look like much but produce mirrored by blind spots analysts have toward GMs who don't adhere to stathead credos but, nevertheless, also produce?

Performance matters. Garagiola took an expansion team and won a World Series in four years, making three playoff appearances in that time. Has money been a factor? Yes, but as we've seen in Baltimore, in Texas and in New York, just throwing money at a roster is not nearly enough to ensure success. Garagiola's performance record as GM--not his skills, but his performance--is better than all but a few of his peers. Whether I like how he's gotten the job done or not, I have to respect that he has gotten it done.

If I don't, I'm no better than the people who laugh at Jeremy Brown.

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

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