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August 1, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Padres Trade for Ian Kennedy

by R.J. Anderson

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National League

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Acquired LHP Joe Thatcher, RHP Matt Stites, and a compensatory draft pick from the Padres for RHP Ian Kennedy. [7/31]

Kevin Towers does a few things better than most other general managers, including—though not limited to—making surprise trades, drawing strong reactions, and piecing together good bullpens. By trading Kennedy to a division rival, Towers has accomplished those three things and more.

In basketball the rule of thumb is to never trade big for small. Baseball prefers unwritten rules, and while none legislate against trading starters for relievers, those who follow the game do. There are exceptions, of course. From above, Towers' bullpen appears to be in good shape: Arizona entered the deadline ranked 11th in ERA and FIP, and should welcome back Matt Reynolds in short time. But at ground level there are signs of trouble. J.J. Putz has walked too many batters for comfort; David Hernandez and Heath Bell have been homer prone; Brad Ziegler has thrown in more than half of the D'Backs games; Tony Sipp has not been effective against left-handed batters; and Will Harris went on waivers twice in April—is he likely to be this good?

You trust Towers knows about those potential red flags. You know Towers is aware of how much starting pitching depth resides in his system. He traded Kennedy and in effect made room for Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy without impacting Randall Delgado. If one of those starters suffers an injury Towers can bring up Tyler Skaggs, Zeke Spruill, or Charles Brewer; or, should he dig deeper, Archie Bradley or David Holmberg. There is a lot of starting depth here; not all of it is frontline material, nor will all of it mature into big-league contributions. Still, Arizona's comfort in trading a starter to address a perceived area of need is understandable. Add in some budget savings—whatever remains of Kennedy's $4.27 million salary—and Towers may have flexibility to add another piece through August's waiver-trade period.

With so much else to discuss on Arizona's side of this deal, the relievers are almost backburner material. It's unfortunate because Thatcher and Stites are useful arms.

In addition to this being Thatcher's second time joining a Towers-run team, he becomes the third left-handed reliever acquired by Towers through trade since the end of last season, joining the aforementioned Reynolds and Sipp. Thatcher might be the best of the bunch. Over the past two seasons Thatcher has allowed a .203 True Average against left-handed batters. That's better than Matt Thornton (who was also traded this July), Josh Outman, and Oliver Perez (two hot names at the deadline), Randy Choate, and Charlie Furbush.

Thatcher gets the job done thanks to a fastball-slider combination and abnormal mechanics. He drops and drives and uses a closed-off landing with a sidearm slot, but that's not where the oddness stops. Most pitchers keep the ball tucked in their glove until breaking their hands around their midsection. Not Thatcher. He takes the ball out of his glove almost from the get-go, shielding it from the plate with his body instead. None of the weirdness distracts righties from thumping Thatcher, and he's a left-handed specialist through and through. He is a good one, however, and is under team control through the end of next season.

Stites has not pitched in the majors yet, but that may soon change. Jason Cole provided details earlier in the week about the smallish right-hander, and noted that he "is close to being a finished product." Additionally, Stites is a hard thrower with a high arm slot and two worthwhile secondary offerings. Factor in other aspects, like command, and Cole concluded that Stites is "a no-doubt big-league relief arm—most likely a seventh-inning guy with the ability to work the eighth if the total package comes together."

For the cost of a starter they no longer needed—whom they may have non-tendered in two months' time—the Diamondbacks added two arms who could shore up a shakier-than-its-appearance bullpen. This is not Towers' most popular trade—then again, it seems like few of his trades are popular—but it does improve the bullpen without harming the rotation or putting the D'Backs in a situation where they'll be worse off for the long haul.

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Acquired RHP Ian Kennedy from the Diamondbacks for LHP Joe Thatcher, RHP Matt Stites, and a compensatory draft pick. [7/31]

The other part of this trade is about Kennedy, the pitcher and the stock. Buying low and selling high are popular trading philosophies nowadays, but are often misapplied toward statistical performance alone.

Jack Moore put it well, when discussing Marlon Byrd:

This is the reality of the trade deadline. Every team in “sell” mode has its obvious “sell high” players, but trade dynamics are never quite so simple. Sometimes, there are reasons to believe the perceived high is the new normal. Sometimes, the new low looks like it’s here to stay. Sometimes, no amount of great play in one season can convince the trade market a player is a new man, and this is likely the case with Byrd.

Using those terms: One GM sold low (Towers) while another bought low (Josh Byrnes). The points and the deal go to Byrnes. Discussion over. Except it's not that easy. There are instances where expected performance have shifted, and selling on a statistical low, so to speak, is a prudent strategy. Often these cases involve pitchers and injuries. There is no reason to think Kennedy is hurt—San Diego presumably checked his meds out, after all—but that alone doesn't make this an amazing deal for the Padres, nor a terrible one for the D'Backs.

Instead Byrnes and the Padres—who, it should be noted, acquired Kennedy while with the D'Backs—are getting Kennedy with the hopes he pitches like a middle-of-the-rotation starter. It could happen. Petco Park is a nice place for a command-and-control right-hander with home-run issues to pitch. These next two months the Padres can tinker and observe up close before making a decision on whether to tender Kennedy—and likely pay him more than $5 million—or not, and cut their losses at two spare relievers and a draft pick. At worst it's a worthwhile gamble to acquire one of the league's most expensive commodities. At best it's a trade with a positive impact on the Padres' rotation for the next two years.

But let's not paint this as a massive rip off or anything of the sort. If Arizona didn't trade Kennedy they likely would've non-tendered in two months' time. By trading him now they were able to recoup two useful arms and a draft pick that they otherwise wouldn't have had. Perhaps the D'Backs should've done better on the return, but how much can be expected in exchange for a pitcher posting career worsts in most statistical categories? Not a lot—not if GMs appreciate the limits of the buy-low philosophy.


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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