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October 21, 2016

Retro Transaction Analysis

Tex-Sized Blockbuster

by Bryan Grosnick


ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired 1B-S Mark Teixeira and LHP Ron Mahay from Texas Rangers in exchange for C-S Jarrod Saltalamacchia, SS-R Elvis Andrus, RHP Neftali Feliz, LHP Matt Harrison, and LHP Beau Jones.

This season was a year of flashy retirements. And although it didn’t earn the most fanfare–that award goes to David Ortiz’s final hurrah–nor was he the best player to retire this season--teammate Alex Rodriguez was--Mark Teixeira’s retirement was noted and notable. Among switch-hitters, Tex has the eighth-highest OPS+ and the fourth-highest slugging percentage. For his career, he was a better hitter than Yankees teammates Carlos Beltran and Jorge Posada, and roughly as good as Yankees stalwart Bernie Williams. He was undeniably great.

Another thing about Teixeira that was undeniably great was the trade that moved him off the team that drafted him, a deadline deal back in 2007 that was a true blockbuster destined to change the destiny of two franchises ... or so we thought at the time. One of the game’s mighty superstar-for-prospects deals, it’s a worthy study for a Retro Transaction Analysis.

Background

The fifth overall draft pick in 2001, Tex broke into the majors in 2003 and quickly cemented himself as an offensive force. In his first four seasons with the Rangers he hit 140 homers, won two Gold Gloves, made an All-Star team, received MVP votes twice, won two Silver Sluggers, and even ripped off two consecutive seasons in which he played every game. By the time 2007 rolled around, he was widely considered one of the game’s premier talents.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, Tex was also represented by Scott Boras. During the ’07 season, the Rangers were struggling despite Teixeira’s offensive prowess; the team’s lineup was solid and featured a few upcoming stars in Teixeira, Ian Kinsler, and Nelson Cruz, but their pitching staff was an unmitigated disaster of the highest order. (Who can forget the vaunted rotation of Kevin Millwood, Kameron Loe, Vicente Padilla, Brandon McCarthy, and Robinson Tejeda?) So, when Boras and Teixeira turned down Texas’ eight-year, $140 million contract extension offer in July, Jon Daniels moved to deal his superstar and begin the long process of rebuilding.

On the other side of the ledger were the Braves, who needed another cog in their machine in order to bring down the twin strivers at the top of the NL East: the loaded Phillies and the Wright-and-Reyes-led Mets. With stars like Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, and the rising Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann, the team appeared to be loaded and ready to vault to the upper echelon of the National League. Perhaps the team’s biggest hole was first base, where they employed Scott Thorman, a forgettable career .222/.260/.407 hitter who posted -1.4 career WARP with the Braves. They, perhaps as much as any team in baseball, could use Teixeira.

The Deal

The Braves had a strong farm system at the time, and opened it up in order to acquire Tex just before the July 31 deadline. In exchange for Teixeira and journeyman left-handed reliever Ron Mahay, Atlanta coughed up a princely sum in young talent and prospects. To start, the team parted ways with their own up-and-coming switch-hitter, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. BP’s Kevin Goldstein had marked Salty as the Braves’ no. 1 prospect. In addition to Salty, the Rangers also picked up the Braves’ no. 2 prospect (southpaw Matt Harrison), no. 3 prospect (hard-throwing righty Neftali Feliz), and no. 5 prospect (slick-fielding shortstop Elvis Andrus), as well as a hard-throwing righty with a wildly Texas name in Beau Jones. Saltalamacchia, Harrison, and Feliz all turned up on the back half of Goldstein’s top-100 list for the year.

If this sounds like a big deal, that’s because it was. The Braves cleaned out the cupboard in order to get this huge star on board. The Rangers sold an extraordinarily valuable asset with a year and a half left on a reasonable contract. Did either team get what they needed out of the deal? We can figure this out by looking at each player involved in the move from both a process and results standpoint, but also by looking back on Christina Kahrl's Transaction Analysis article from August 1, 2007.

Mark Teixeira

Obviously the most important player in the deal, let’s look at how Kahrl viewed Teixeira at the time of the deal:

Getting Teixeira for this year's stretch and next season gives the Braves an immediate high-end solution that is this decade's variation on a Fred McGriff theme, and if that allows them to coax him into a multi-year deal, an arbitration year or two, or a decision to go fish after 2008, it's a worthwhile win-now gamble.

In essence, that’s true. In order for the Braves to succeed with this gamble, they needed to win. Now. (Then?)

In his first game with the Braves, the team’s new superstar went yard, part of an Atlanta win that pushed the team into second place. For at least one day, it seemed like this was the perfect deal for a team ready to make the leap. Actually, for at least three days, it was pretty perfect--he hit homers in each of his first three games. In August, Teixeira hit .315/.403/.640 with 10 home runs. In September, he was almost as good, hitting .320/.405/.588. In the moments that mattered most, Teixeira was electric–he had a .557 OBP and a 1.333 slugging percentage with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Did it matter? Nope.

The Braves never managed to escape third place for long, and settled in behind both the Phillies and the Mets. The onus on the team’s collapse certainly wasn’t on Teixeira or Chipper Jones, as each of the team’s superstar switch-hitters absolutely clobbered the ball over the second half. Pitching appears to be the lion’s share of the problem, with Smoltz and Hudson pitching well and the rest of the staff hovering somewhere around replacement level. The team missed out on the playoffs in disappointing fashion.

But the great thing about the Tex acquisition was that it wasn’t a true rental–with another year left on his contract, the Braves had another season to try and hit their marks. Again, they didn’t. Again, it was no real fault of Teixeira’s. While not the same quality of hitter in his second season with Atlanta, Tex posted a powerful .310 True Average with 20 homers until–for the second straight season–he was shipped to another contender before the deadline.

The Braves had individual contributors like Chipper Jones and Jair Jurrjens putting up solid numbers in 2008, but out of the running and faced with Tex’s free agency, they decided to flip him to the Angels for a first baseman they hoped could be a long term cog. By swapping Tex for Casey Kotchman, they gave the Halos an incredible burst–Teixeira hit .358/.449/.632 with Anaheim and actually earned AL MVP votes despite only playing in 54 games–and themselves an incredible bust. Kotchman would play only one disappointing season before being traded to Boston.

If you want to fault the Braves with a process problem, it may be that they spent their prospect capital on a power hitter instead of another starting pitcher that could shore up their weak staff, but runs are runs and improving a team in any way can help your run differential. The other minor process issue might be misidentifying Kotchman as the return on Teixeira when they decided to get out of the switch-hitting first baseman business. Kotchman begat Adam LaRoche, who gave the Braves half a season of solid hitting at the tail end of 2009, but ultimately the Tex-for-Kotch deal was a failure.

As for the greater Teixeira deal, well, it wasn’t a failure from an immediate results standpoint, since Tex did everything he could to lift his new team. The end result desired by the Braves was a playoff run, but that didn’t happen. And from a process standpoint, while you might fault the Braves for not going after a pitcher, they certainly were smart to improve their team considerably in the short term. Tex brought 5.2 WARP to Atlanta in about a season’s worth of games, an All-Star level of performance.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia

From Kahrl's Transaction Analysis: “Saltalamacchia really must be a catcher for the Teixeira deal to really pay off ...”

Well, he was, and it didn’t cause the deal to pay off. Saltalamacchia surprised everyone in baseball, I think, by not hitting right away after coming to Texas. In his first crack with the team in ’07, he couldn’t reach base, but he hit for some power (.290 OBP, .431 SLG), but in 2008 during a longer look he did the opposite (.352 OBP, .364 SLG). In 2009, presented with the Opening Day start and a long leash, he posted a .221 True Average over 310 plate appearances and “earned” his team -0.6 WARP. Despite coming to Arlington with all the pedigree and talent in the world, he could not make it work.

It isn’t surprising to see why the Rangers gave up on Salty during the 2010 season. While he was toiling away, Texas had a bumper crop of talented young backstops. Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez were among the other developed catchers that the team was trying to work in during his tenure, and his inadequate performance caused the team to eventually add veteran Bengie Molina as a steadier replacement. Texas shipped him off to the Red Sox at the deadline, getting back a troika of completely fungible pieces in the process. The return was minimal, and ultimately had no real effect on the team’s fortunes–sorry Roman Mendez–which meant that the highly-touted catcher ended up being a net negative on the Rangers’ on-field performance thanks to his -0.7 WARP.

Of course, after he landed in Boston, the bat started to come around. The other, less-pleasant side to Saltalamacchia’s long and solid career as a catcher is the way modern framing metrics caused us to, ahem, re-frame the way we’ve examined his defense. He is downright terrible at capturing extra strikes for his pitchers, the Neifi Perez of presentation. Catchers, you can’t live with ‘em, and you literally cannot play baseball without ‘em.

Matt Harrison

The Cliffs Notes version of Harrison’s career is such: talented pitcher wracked by injuries posts two very good seasons in 2011 and 2012. Otherwise, taking the mound was as difficult as linear algebra. Despite spending parts of eight seasons in Texas' rotation, Harrison was only able to ever post 668 innings and earned a grand total of 3.6 WARP in a Rangers uniform. It’s a shame too, because Harrison had high marks coming out of the Braves’ system. As Kahrl put it:

Harrison hasn't embarrassed himself in his first full season at Double-A, but he also hasn't exactly excelled, allowing nearly four runs per nine innings and a hit for every frame, but striking out six per nine, keeping the ball in the yard (only six souvenirs in 116 2/3 IP) and walking fewer than three batters per nine. He's a lefty with reliable low-90s heat, a plus curve, and a plus change, so it's easy to want him.

In essence, he was posited not as a future ace, but as a pitcher capable of coming in soon and providing a steady, solid performance in the middle or back of a rotation. If it weren’t for injury, this may have been the truth rather than the potential.

Elvis Andrus

Finally, we’ve come to our smoking gun; Andrus is the player who best makes the case that the Braves lost this trade. First, I want you to guess–without looking–how old Andrus is today. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Andrus just turned 28 about a month ago, meaning 2016 was his age-27 season. He is younger than Brandon Belt and Kyle Seager and J.D. Martinez and Kole Calhoun. Andrus also has eight major-league seasons under his belt. He has more career plate appearances (5,203) than Nelson Cruz, Troy Tulowitzki, Shane Victorino, and even Rickie Weeks. Over those eight seasons he has been the picture of consistency–never worth less than 1.5 WARP, reaching as high as 3.8 WARP.

And every ounce of that value (22.2 WARP) has been picked up by the Rangers. In Andrus, the Rangers have one of the steadiest shortstops in the game at one of the scarcest positions in the league (new rush of young shortstop talent notwithstanding). Best of all, he is coming off his most outstanding offensive season, where he posted a .277 True Average. On Andrus, Kahrl wrote:

Similarly, you have to give Andrus some benefit of the doubt because of his age despite his generally weak performance in the High-A Carolina League (.244/.330/.335, with 25 steals in 32 attempts). He's walking in ~10 percent of his plate appearances, not something you see from every young Venezuelan. His range afield and an arm that can make the plays from deep in the hole make him one of the more interesting shortstop-as-a-shortstop prospects in the game. But the danger is that he may not get all that much better at the plate, at which point, you've got... what, Royce Clayton? That's a useful player, but not a star.

The Clayton comparison could be apt, aside from the fact that Andrus has hit slightly better and perhaps been a better fielder. However, it’s Andrus’ exceptional value on the basepaths that moves him from average to above average; he’s been worth 41.8 runs per BP’s BRR metric–almost half a win per season–just on his feet.

If you simply look at WARP numbers, it’s not hard to unpack the comparison between Andrus’ WARP (22.2) and Teixeira’s WARP with the Braves (5.4) and declare unconditional victory for the Rangers. Hell, Andrus’ 2016 numbers (3.2 WARP) as part of a playoff team make a compelling argument on their own. But it’s also fair to look at the deal from the Braves’ perspective and especially look at the run of shortstop talent the Braves have had even without Andrus in the fold.

In 2007, when they made the trade, the Braves had Edgar Renteria and Yunel Escobar on the come up. After a stopgap season-and-a-half of Alex Gonzalez, the Braves transitioned in 2012 to Andrelton Simmons, who turned into the most exceptional defensive shortstop in baseball. While they dealt him last offseason, Dansby Swanson has taken over, giving the team a wonderful crop of shortstops who held the position without Andrus ever taking the field for Atlanta. While he’s been an All-Star and excellent, the Braves have perhaps needed a player like Andrus less than 20 other MLB teams, so his loss hurts them less than it might without context.

Neftali Feliz

When the Rangers acquired Feliz, it was all about the young pitcher’s velocity. According to Kevin Goldstein, the young righty threw free and easy in the upper 90s. One line of Kahrl's Transaction Analysis seems remarkably prescient in hindsight saying:

“If he were only going to be a reliever, it wouldn't be hard to envision Feliz becoming some sort of latter-day blend of Jeff Nelson and Joel Zumaya.

The joke here is that, like Zumaya, Feliz was peppered with injury issues that hampered his effectiveness despite his crazy fastball.

Feliz was the subject of much discussion when the Rangers converted him to the bullpen. In the minors, he succeeded as a starter and plenty of stat-heads argued that he should be left to pitch in the rotation until he couldn’t any further. The Rangers plugged Feliz into the bullpen, and never looked back. In 2009 he was a late-game weapon, and by 2010 he was the team’s dynamite closer, racking up 72 saves between 2010 and 2011. However, in 2011 some warning signs began to crop up: his strikeouts decreased, his walks increased, and BP’s Deserved Runs Average model of performance shows that he was far less effective than his ERA might have you believe.

Still The Man after Texas washed out of two straight World Series, Feliz was finally transitioned to the rotation in 2012, but it appeared to be too little, too late. Despite another shiny ERA (3.16), he soon went down with injury, and Tommy John surgery was soon to follow. He had a lost 2013, came back in 2014 with a fabulous ERA (1.91), but a DRA (6.14) that told a vastly different story. After trying to get back on track in 2015, the Rangers eventually cut him loose with a midseason release, ending his tenure with the team.

The recovered righty was eventually able to recoup some value after moving to Pittsburgh this season, and appears to have settled in as a solid setup reliever, cautionary tale, and Ray Searage success story. His total worth to the Rangers was roughly a win by WARP, so he certainly didn’t have the outsized value that you might have expected given his success in 2009 and 2010. However, we might want to keep in mind that his late-game usage and runs allowed numbers belie his WARP and DRA. He filled an incredibly useful and high-leveraged role for the team at the start of the decade, including valuable postseason innings in ’10 and ’11.

In Conclusion

Much like the Mat Latos deal outlined in my previous Retro Transaction Analysis, the team that acquired the superstar for the king’s ransom in prospects received the exact kind of quality performance they wanted. In the Braves’ case, the acquisition of one of the greatest switch-hitters of all time wasn’t even enough to push them out of the middle of their division. The team’s process was good, and the results from the trade itself were good, but hindsight shows that even the right moves can end up with results that hurt your team. However, the Braves never really suffered from the deal, shoring up shortstop anyway, eventually developing first baseman Freddie Freeman, and returning to contention at the beginning of the decade. Things turned out mostly okay.

The Rangers, on the other hand, received four talented big-league regulars who teamed up to give the team 26-27 WARP, and even helped to bring back a little additional talent before their runs were done. While Feliz, Saltalamacchia, and even Harrison didn’t add much total WARP, they played integral parts on quality Rangers teams and Andrus has been a brilliant stalwart.

I’d also like to close with a note from Kahrl's TA about Jon Daniels’ reputation at the time.

… that might seem strange considering how much we have to defer to more scouty instincts than performance analysis, but there should be no doubt that the two deals brought in a ton of talent, and that it's good enough to do something to redeem Daniels' otherwise shaky reputation as a trader.”

Since the Tex deal (and the Eric Gagne deal that Kahrl was also referring to), Daniels has made some deals that boggle the mind, both in a good and a bad way. He brought in Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels in deals that all look brilliant in hindsight. But he also added Prince Fielder and Matt Garza, shipped off Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young for Adam Eaton (the pitcher), and gave away Chris Davis and Kyle Hendricks. Daniels also brought in Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Beltran this year, the long-term effects of which are yet to be fully realized.

With all of the moves he’s made, I’m not 100 percent certain that this move has done anything to really cement Daniels’ reputation as a dealer even 10 years later. It was a good result and good process, so it goes into the ledger as a net positive for the Rangers. But like the fortunes of both teams, it’s a little hard to see how this deal dramatically changes the calculus. It’s mystifying to think that such a huge blockbuster–one that includes a likely 10-year institution at shortstop and a near-MVP, near-Hall of Fame slugger–didn’t massively change the fortunes of either team or the reputation of either front office. Sometimes the biggest stones don’t make the most massive waves.

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

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  Atlanta Braves

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