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June 18, 2004

Prospectus Today

Summer Trade Season

by Joe Sheehan

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Just as it did last year, trade season kicked off well before the July 31 deadline, with three teams making acquisitions designed to get them into October, while another made perhaps the biggest gain of the day by trading away a player.

The Mets and Astros started the day by swapping veterans. Houston traded right fielder Richard Hidalgo to New York for right-handers David Weathers and Jeremy Griffiths. The 'stros have been trying to deal Hidalgo almost since the day they signed him to a four-year, $32-million contract after his monster 2000 season. For their money, they got one comparable season (2003), one mediocre one (2001) and one disaster (2002). This year, Hidalgo had a big April (.341/.364/.622) and then fell apart, dropping to .256/.309/.412 at the time of the deal.

The wire report of the trade clinched that Hidalgo had already lost his Astros job to Jason Lane, after Jimy Williams' announcement. Lane, of course, is a big part of why the Astros felt they could make this deal. He's been ready for a regular major league job since 2002, and in parts of three seasons has a career line of .281/.352/.550. The guy can hit, and you can expect him to step in and give the Astros production consistent with what they could have expected from Hidalgo. The Astros will lose a lot defensively--Hidalgo is one the better right fielders in the game, while Lane is an average corner outfielder at best. That's not a minor concern; with Craig Biggio in center field, the Astros now have a poor overall outfield defense and a pitching staff that gives up its share of fly balls (tied for 10th in the NL in G/F ratio).

Moreover, subbing in Lane doesn't address the Astros' overwhelming right-handedness, although it may make them more likely to add a corner outfielder--Matt Stairs? Frank Catalanotto?--who bats from the left side and can platoon.

Weathers is the forgotten man in this deal, which is consistent with his career profile. He's posted an ERA of 3.08 or better in each of the past three seasons, although he was off to a 4.28 start in 33 2/3 innings so far this year, largely due to a spike in home runs and walks. Weathers is durable, has become very good at holding runners over the past few years, and generally keeps the ball down. He'll help the Astros, who have an abundance of strikeout guys in their pen but no one who's likely to come in and get a ground ball.

While one analyst referred to Hidalgo privately as an "albatross," this trade saves the Astros very little money. The $4 million they sent to the Mets in the deal covers more than half of the difference between the remaining obligations to Hidalgo and Weathers. (Hidalgo has a $15-million option for 2005 that has less chance of being picked up than Bud Selig at Hedonism II.) The deal saves them $1.5 million this year and the $2 million buyout of Hidalgo's contract.

The Mets have assumed more risk in the deal, but they're also the team with a chance to win big. While Hidalgo's EqA is a dead match for Karim Garcia's (.241), it's reasonable to expect him to hit better than that from here on out. The Mets have taken a $3.5 million gamble that he will, which isn't really a large bet. Given that he's completely outside the range of performance that PECOTA projected for him (his tenth percentile forecast? .250/.327/.427, for a .262 EqA), it seems like a good one. Shane Spencer, who actually had been playing well, is the biggest loser in the trade, as there's no longer a role on the Mets for a corner outfielder who crushes lefties.

They won't miss Weathers much, with Orber Moreno and Ricky Bottalico pitching well and the possibility that Scott Strickland could return after the All-Star break (the lesson, of course, is that bullpens can be assembled cheaply). Griffiths is just roster filler, someone who'll give the Astros depth at Triple-A.

Even without the $4 million coming back, this deal would have made a lot of sense for the Mets, and is the kind of low-risk gamble that teams should take more often. The trade isn't a terrible one for the Astros, who align their talent a little bit better and save a few bucks, but it's certainly not a move that makes them much more likely to stay with the Cubs and Cardinals in the NL Central.

The other trade will have less impact. The White Sox gave Billy Koch to the Marlins for their willingness to assume the $4 million or so owed to him for the remainder of this season. It was really that simple; the Fish sent back a non-prospect infielder by the name of Wilson Valdez.

Valdez is 26 and aspires to be to shortstop what Alex Sanchez is to center field. He's currently batting .319 at Albuquerque, with 16 walks in more than 300 plate appearances. He's stolen 19 bases…and been caught 12 times. At this moment, he's slugging .400, which is something he's never done before. He's a prospect in the same way that all fast guys who slap singles in good hitting environments are prospects.

I still like the trade for the White Sox. Koch has been overrated by dint of garnering the "closer" label early in his career and growing the appropriately strange facial hair and strikeout rates. Strip away the role, and he's just another hard thrower with poor command. His good years have never really been that good--one ERA below 3.00 in a role where everyone gets under than mark--and he's only had three of them. The Sox are better off taking the four million bucks and adding it to the Beltran Fund. Let me reiterate that: by trading Koch, the Sox have freed up enough money to add Carlos Beltran without changing the payroll by more than a million bucks or so.

They won't miss Koch. Shingo Takatsu has already assumed the closer role, although you can expect Damaso Marte to start picking up saves, the way he seems to in the second half of every season. I'll be very interested in seeing how Guillen handles his personnel; without the high-priced closer, will he run a more free-form bullpen, or will he just make Takatsu his ninth-inning guy and Marte the set-up man? I think we'll learn a lot about Guillen's actual managerial skills--as opposed to his media savvy and personality--over the rest of the season.

The Fish get a live arm for cash. Like the Mets did in adding Hidalgo, they shore up a weak position with a player who could do almost anything for the next 14 weeks, and it only costs them money. How weak is the Marlins' pen? Armando Benitez is the only right-handed reliever with an ERA under 4.76. The team had just signed Josias Manzanillo to help Matt Perisho set up Benitez. (Go back and re-read that. I did so a half-dozen times.) Benitez's great performance so far skews the overall numbers; without him, the Fish have one of the five worst pens in the game. Koch doesn't have to be very good to help them out.

The best part about these deals is that they kick off the summer trade season. I think we're going to see a lot of player movement this year, as nearly every team in baseball has some type of talent imbalance they have to rectify, and 19 of them are within 5 ½ games of a playoff spot. It's going to be a fun six weeks!

--

I'll be on the road for most of the next 11 days, hitting Petco Park for the BP Ballpark Feed on Saturday with Kevin Towers and Jonah Keri, then on to Boston for next Thursday's event with Nathan Fox. I'm looking forward to the seeing the game's newest and oldest parks, as well as the chance to talk baseball with so many of BP's readers.

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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