July 24, 2014
Painting the Black
The Selling-the-Closer Myth
Among the lessons taught in Moneyball, the one that crops up every July is what Michael Lewis designated "Selling the Closer."
The idea is simple: acquire a reliever, any above-average one will do, drop him into the ninth inning, allow him to tally saves, trade him to a sucker for more than he's worth at the deadline, and then start the process anew. To quote Lewis: "You could, in essence, buy a stock, pump it up with false publicity, and sell it off for much more than you'd paid for it." That thinking no doubt influenced reactions last weekend, when the Angels acquired Huston Street in a trade that cost them three of their top-10 prospects. Folks across the internet have since concluded that the Angels overpaid.
Between Jerry Dipoto's interest in sabermetrics and past reluctance to overpay for a closer, the Street trade bears some resemblance to the one Theo Epstein made in 2007, when he traded three prospects for Eric Gagne. Whether Street turns into the new Gagne, or any of the moved players into the new David Murphy, is to be determined; for now, all the analysis is based on theory rather than results.
As such, this is as good a time as any to wonder: just how often does this Selling the Closer thing work?The famous examples of teams overpaying for closers in July—Gagne, Heathcliff Slocumb, Billy Taylor, etc.—tend to stick around longer than the players themselves. But how common are those trades? And how often does a good-looking return fulfill its promise? To provide answers, here's a rundown of all the July trades over the past six deadlines that involved a closer.
The Diamondbacks traded 2B Emilio Bonifacio to the Nationals for RHP Jon Rauch
Date: July 22, 2008
Was it considered an overpay at the time? If anything, it looked like an underpay. Rauch had been terrific for the lousy Nationals, and was signed through the following season, with an inexpensive club option in place for 2010. Because Bonifacio's perfect-world projection resembled Tony Womack, Christina Kahrl wrote, "There's little rational explanation for why you would dump a cheaply-signed Rauch for a dubious middle infield prospect."
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Not so much. Both players were traded again within 13 months, which undoubtedly soothed whatever anger existed. Rauch struggled in Arizona, only to regain his form in Minnesota. Bonifacio accomplished nothing during his brief stay in Washington, but was included as part of a package to acquire Josh Willingham from the Marlins.
Dodgers traded 3B Josh Bell and RHP Steve Johnson to the Orioles for LHP George Sherrill
Date: July 30, 2009
Was it considered an overpay at the time? Yes. Bell and Johnson were regarded as two of the top dozen prospects in the Dodgers system, with the former thought of as the gem. Concerns about Bell's hit tool and conditioning were disregarded due to his impressive upside. Grabbing a switch-hitting third baseman with good power in exchange for a non-elite reliever is a win; getting another player on top of that? No wonder Kahrl reacted to the Dodgers' side with, "Ouch, ouch, and ouch."
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Nope. Sherrill only provided the Dodgers with a half-season worth of quality before he faded and was non-tendered. Yet that success, however fleeting it might have been, was more than what the Orioles received from Bell and Johnson.
Twins traded C Wilson Ramos and LHP Joe Testa to the Nationals for RHP Matt Capps
Date: July 22, 2010
Was it considered an overpay at the time? Yes, though not to the degree everyone remembers. Capps solidified an already-good Twins bullpen for their playoff push. In exchange, Bill Smith sacrificed Ramos, a quality catching prospect who had nonetheless disappointed with his first-half performance. Factor in injury and skill set concerns, and Kevin Goldstein concluded that Ramos's "perceived value was far greater than the reality."
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Yeppers. Capps pitched well for the Twins in 2010 (and acceptably at other times) before his career was derailed by injuries. In hindsight, Ramos would have come in handy during Joe Mauer's various absences, but he's struggled to stay on the field himself. For perspective: Capps pitched in 126 games with the Twins, while Ramos has appeared in 271 with the Nats. When Ramos is healthy, he's a quality player; that caveat keeps this deal from grand heist status.
Dodgers traded RHP James McDonald and OF Andrew Lambo to the Pirates for RHP Octavio Dotel
Date: July 31, 2010
Was it considered an overpay at the time? Yes. Dotel made sense for a contender (or a fringe-contender, in the Dodgers' case), while McDonald and Lambo made sense for the rebuilding Pirates. The trade shifted in Pittsburgh's favor because the upside provided by the pair outweighed both the questions surrounding them (role for McDonald, makeup for Lambo) and the utility the platoon-limited Dotel could offer. As Kahrl put it: "Neal Huntington managed to purvey a lot of his trash into other people's treasures, with treasure being a relative term."
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? It is, but not to the extent that it could have been. The Dodgers ensured the Pirates would have the long-term edge by trading Dotel for a player to be named later after 19 appearances. (The PTBNL, Anthony Jackson, hasn't played since 2012.) Even though McDonald and Lambo never hit their ceilings—in fact, McDonald provided the most value of anyone in the deal by being a no. 4 type for a few seasons—you have to give the Pirates the easy nod here.
Rays traded RHP Matt Gorgen to the Diamondbacks for RHP Chad Qualls
Date: July 31, 2010
Was it considered an overpay at the time? No sir. Although Qualls was replaced earlier in the season as Arizona's closer, it's hard to overpay when the cost is a middle-relief prospect.
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Nope. Qualls left the Rays after the season, but not until he declined their arbitration offer, thereby gifting Tampa Bay a draft pick. (The pick was used on James Harris, who hasn't hit and is languishing in Single-A.) Gorgen underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the subsequent season. He's since appeared in more games for the Camden Riversharks than the Diamondbacks (or any other big-league team).
Yankees traded RHP Andrew Shive and INF Matt Cusick to the Indians for RHP Kerry Wood
Date: July 31, 2010
Was it considered an overpay at the time? As with the Qualls deal, it's hard to overpay when the cost is so low. Wood, who was activated off the disabled list right before the trade, had saved eight games with the Indians despite battling his command throughout.
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? No. Wood's control issues continued to plague him in New York, though he somehow kept runs off the scoreboard. Shive and Cusick were released before they appeared in a regular-season game for the Indians organization.
Brewers traded LHP Danny Herrera and RHP Adrian Rosario to the Mets for RHP Francisco Rodriguez
Date: July 12, 2011
Was it considered an overpay at the time? Nope. The Brewers boosted their bullpen by adding Rodriguez to the late innings. In exchange, the Mets received the screwball-throwing Herrera and the big-bodied Rosario.
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Not at all. Rodriguez contributed to the Brewers more in a half season than Herrera and Rosario did in multiple years with the Mets. Three years later, Rodriguez is still with the Brewers (albeit on a different stint) while Herrera is in the indy leagues and Rosario, who was released last summer, is no longer in professional baseball.
White Sox traded LHP Matt Heidenreich, LHP Blair Walters, and RHP Chris Devenski to the Astros for RHP Brett Myers
Date: July 21, 2012
Was it considered an overpay at the time? Nah. Say what you will about Myers's character and facial hair, but he was in the midst of a solid season when the White Sox acquired him to help the bullpen. None of the three arms the Astros received had impact possibilities.
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Nope. Myers posted a better ERA with the White Sox than the Astros, while Devenski is the only part on Houston's side who still has a chance at the bigs.
Reds traded LHP Donnie Joseph and RHP J.C. Sulbaran to the Royals for RHP Jonathan Broxton
Date: July 31, 2012
Was it considered an overpay at the time? Sort of. Walt Jocketty acquired Broxton to help a bullpen that was doing without Ryan Madson and Nick Masset. The cost of doing business was two interesting arms: Joseph, a quality left-handed relief prospect, and Sulbaran, a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter. Kevin Goldstein, writing about the K.C. side, called the deal a coup.
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? No. Broxton pitched well for the Reds down the stretch, re-signed with Cincy after the season, and has since alternated between good and bad. Neither of the arms have worked out for the Royals. Joseph is now with the Marlins, having appeared seven times with Kansas City, and Sulbaran hasn't lived up to his promise.
Dodgers traded RHP Logan Bawcom and OF Leon Landry to the Mariners for RHP Brandon League
Date: July 30, 2012
Was it considered an overpay at the time? Nope. League had lost his closer's job in Seattle at the time of the trade, but went down the coast and took over the ninth inning there. The Mariners, for their efforts, netted a potential middle reliever and spare outfielder.
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Nada. League, like Broxton, dominated after the trade, re-signed with the team, then struggled in 2013 before recovering thus far in 2014. Neither Bawcom nor Landry has reached the majors yet, and their chances of doing so have worsened. Advantage Dodgers.
Tigers traded RHP David Paulino and OF Danry Vasquez to the Astros for RHP Jose Veras
Date: July 29, 2013
Was it considered an overpay at the time? By some. Dave Dombrowski, in need of relief help, found Veras's versatility as difficult to pass on as alliteration. Thus, Jeff Luhnow snagged Vasquez, the Tigers' no. 4 prospect and a potential starter in left field, and Paulino, a lottery ticket disguised as a right-handed pitcher.
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Too soon to tell. Veras was effective for Detroit, but still had his club option declined. Vasquez, just 20 years old, has a good bat that is the key to his future. He'll need to hit to start. Paulino, meanwhile, hasn't pitched since undergoing Tommy John surgery last summer.
Orioles traded INF-L Nick Delmonico to the Brewers for RHP Francisco Rodriguez
Date: July 23, 2013
Was it considered an overpay at the time? Not quite. The Brewers signed Rodriguez to a minor-league deal in April, installed him as their closer for a stretch, then spun him for a top-10 prospect. Not bad. Delmonico was a polarizing prospect, however, whose bat, glove, and durability faced questions.
Is it considered an overpay after the fact? Nah. While Rodriguez wasn't great for the Orioles, Delmonico hasn't hit since joining the Brewers. True, he's only 22, and he wouldn't be the first to struggle in the Florida State League, it's hard to see him becoming more than a bench bat at this point.
So what did we learn? Of those 12 trades, five looked like possible overpays at the time. It's too early to judge one of those deals, but half of the remaining four fulfilled their promise to some degree (those being the Ramos-for-Capps and McDonald-and-Lambo-for-Dotel swaps).
That means those idyllic Selling the Closer trades, where a team lands something golden for their closer, just don't happen that often at the deadline anymore. Ascribe it to a number of things—the save losing value, teams hoarding prospects, maybe even general managers gaining more say than managers—or whatever you want, just don't buy into the myth that every July trade involving a closer is golden for the seller. Not when it appears the team acquiring the closer has gotten the better end of the deal most of the time over the past six years.
All trades found by using MLB Trade Rumors' Transaction Tracker.
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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