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August 1, 2004

Prospectus Today

Getting Separation

by Joe Sheehan

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Like it did Friday, all of the action happened in a short period of time yesterday. As the trade deadline passed, Rudy Seanez-for-Abraham Nunez was the only trade that had been made.

Then it got fun.

Let me start before that, and go back to a deal made Friday. As it turns out, the Dodgers weren't able to complete the big trade for Randy Johnson. For all the breathless speculation-hey, I did it, too-about whether Johnson would accept a trade, in the end, the deal with the Diamondbacks fell through because the two sides couldn't agree on the price. It's refreshing, actually, although I don't think Johnson comes out of the month of July looking all that good. Regardless of how it ended up, his implied or expressed preferences affected the Diamondbacks' maneuverability in getting the most for the big left-hander.

With no big Johnson to show off, the hysterics over the Blue Crew's six-player trade with the Marlins reached a peak Saturday. I was, and remain, absolutely astounded over the reaction to what was an excellent deal for the Dodgers. They traded away two players who have already peaked--Guillermo Mota in '03, Paul Lo Duca in '01--who are rapidly becoming expensive, whose perceived value far outstrips their actual value, and whose in-season trends are downward. In exchange, they upgraded their rotation and acquired a young left-handed hitter with monster upside who is already a productive player.

The major-media response has been to focus on what the Dodgers gave up, and not what they got in return. Well, what they gave up pales in comparison. Mota is a good pitcher, but he's not now the same guy who ran an ERA in the 1.00s for a year and a half. Like Octavio Dotel's 2002 or Felix Rodriguez's '01--my favorite comp, given the converted-infielder and Dodger angles--Mota had his monster year and is starting a slow slide in which he'll be effective, but not dominant. Brad Penny will provide a bit less quality in a lot more innings, and moving Wilson Alvarez into a high-leverage relief role will make up for a big part of what they lose in Mota.

The real objections are to the trade of Lo Duca, and they have nothing to do with baseball. What some people can't get over is the idea that the Dodgers would mess with their blessed "chemistry" by trading a "team leader" at this point in the season. The entire L.A. media is up in arms, and the national coverage hasn't been much more rational.

The way in which Lo Duca has been held up as some kind of star is insane. He's been league-average catcher for two seasons, and he has a demonstrated capacity for collapse in the second half. Calling him an All-Star--he made the team in 2003 as the #2 guy in the player voting, and this year as injury replacement--clouds the fact that he's just an average player, an All-Star by the worst definition: guy having a good first half. If they played the game in November, he'd be sitting in Section 14 and paying for parking.

Paul DePodesta gets it, though. Chemistry is a three-game winning streak. Chemistry will come when Penny tosses eight strong innings and leaves with the sound of the Dodger crowd in his ears, or when Hee Seop Choi hits a home run like he did on Wednesday night in Florida, a three-run game-winning jack. He knows that chemistry is easier to create than runs, easier to find than a 26-year-old with power, plate discipline and a low price.

The Dodgers are unquestionably a better team today than they were on Thursday, and they were better even before getting Steve Finley. They have more ability to score, and they're at worst about the same in their ability to prevent runs. They'll be much better in 2005 because of it, too. This was a tremendous trade for the Dodgers, and might be the deal that pushed them into the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

While they didn't get Johnson, the Dodgers did add Finley, in what was one of the more even swaps of the weekend. They sent Reggie Abercrombie, Koyie Hill and Billy Murphy--just over from the Marlins-to Arizona for Finley and Brent Mayne. The D'backs got a decent return for two months' worth of veterans with nothing to give to a .340 team. Hill looked better a year ago, but is still a B catching prospect. Abercrombie is a tools guy who can't play baseball, a non-entity in a system with this many guys who can hit. Murphy, as he was yesterday, is probably on his way to a swingman role, but bolsters a Diamondbacks' system that is much deeper in bats than in arms.

In yesterday's column, I treated the Dodgers' acquisition of Charles Johnson as if it was sure to happen. As if to make sure someone named Johnson did, the catcher exercised his no-trade clause to block the deal. I should have written this yesterday, but one of the reasons I didn't mind trading Lo Duca is that I knew the Dodgers could get someone to join Dave Ross in filling Lo Duca's playing time. I was thinking Gregg Zaun at the time, but Brent Mayne fits. To be honest, the Dodgers are much better off with Mayne and the money they would have had to pay Johnson than with Johnson himself. I wouldn't be surprised if the Dodger catchers out-hit the Lo Duca the rest of the way.

With Randy Johnson staying in Arizona, the day lacked a blockbuster as 1 p.m. came and went. About an hour past the deadline, however, the word came out that the long-rumored trade of Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs had happened. I was disappointed, in that I felt the competitive advantage of Garciaparra greatly outweighed whatever they'd get by replacing Derek Lowe with Matt Clement.

The deal they actually did make was far, far worse.

I was watching Theo Epstein's press conference about 90 minutes after the news broke, and it called to mind Billy Beane's comments in the wake of the Jeremy Giambi trade in 2002. At the time, I wrote:

Did anyone else think of "The Stepford Wives" when they read Billy Beane's quotes? "Jeremy was off to a good start but we were concerned he was too one-dimensional." "It was apparent we needed to improve our defense, and we wanted to give [Adam] Piatt some at-bats." Really, all that was missing was a shot of him holding that day's paper up to the camera and saying, "I am fine, and they are treating me well. Please listen to their demands so I can go home again."

That's the same sense I had watching Epstein, who repeatedly cited defense and depth and flexibility and the need to make a change and how they'd been unlucky but that they couldn't wait for their luck to change. He looked like he didn't want to be there, and like he wasn't quite convinced of the veracity of what he was saying.

I don't believe any of it. Well, I do believe the Red Sox will be better defensively, but that's a side point. I don't think the Sox are a better team today than they were Friday, and it's not close. I think they made this trade not because it makes them better, but because they didn't have it in them to stand up to Garciaparra, who by most accounts had been a jackass since the Alex Rodriguez trade fell through. I rarely-perhaps never-factor non-performance issues in to my analysis, because they tend to be filtered through the press and tailored to create the best story. In this case, I'm convinced that this trade happened because Garciaparra wasn't going to come out of his full pout until he was dealt or filed for free agency.

I still wouldn't have done it. I might have encouraged a blanket party for the shortstop, but I never would have made such a bad baseball move just for the sake of harmony. In the same way that I like that Joe Garagiola Jr. tried to make the best baseball move he could, Randy Johnson's preferences be damned, I dislike the way Epstein made a bad baseball move with an eye on emotional issues.

First of all, let's get something clear: Doug Mientkiewicz was free with purchase. The Twins swapped him for a left-hander with an ERA of 3.78 in his second year in the Midwest League, a high-school draftee who hasn't been able to stay healthy in either of his two professional seasons. Justin Jones is a prospect in the sense that anyone under the age of 23 with a professional contract is a prospect, but he's not as valuable to the Twins as the money they don't have to pay Mientkiewicz, or the at-bats they don't have to give him that will now go to Justin Morneau.

(Jones was the Cubs' #2 prospect according to Baseball America. Obviously, we disagree on his merits. John Sickels, in his Prospect Handbook, writes: "The Cubs drafted Justin Jones in the second round in '02, out of high school in Virginia. A tall, thin, projectable lefty, he already throws 90-91 MPH and his velocity will increase as he gets stronger. He also has an outstanding curveball, plus a deceptive delivery. He needs to improve his command, but his K/IP and H/IP marks were quite impressive at Lansing. Caveat: he was shut down early with a tired arm, and his workload will have to be monitored very closely. I want to see better control and consistent health from him, but he's one of the better southpaw prospects in the minors. Grade B.")

The Red Sox didn't have to trade Garciaparra to get Mientkiewicz. They could have had him, yesterday or today, for whatever version of Justin Jones haunts the lowest levels of their minors.

The Red Sox downgraded from Garciaparra to Orlando Cabrera, and they threw in a good hitting prospect (Matt Murton) for the privilege. That's not just a bad trade, it's an awful one. Cabrera has been one of the worst hitters in MLB this year, and his superior defense has slipped a notch, in part due to a bad back. There's still a big difference between him and Garciaparra defensively, it's just dwarfed by the offensive difference between the two:

So far in '04:

PA AVG OBP SLG EqA VORP MLVR FRAR WARP N-Gar 169 .321 .367 .500 .297 15.8 .179 2 1.3 O-Cab 425 .246 .298 .336 .233 -2.2 -.229 23 2.0

(Note: the DT cards now have current-season raw and sabermetric stats. This makes them unique on the Web, and part of our continuing improvement in data presentation.)

Even granting Cabrera's defensive superiority, Garciaparra has been nearly as valuable a player as he has in about 40% of the playing time. There's no question that Garciaparra is, and will continue to be, a better player than Orlando Cabrera. Raw projections of WARP/PA put the difference at about eight-tenths of a win for the rest of the season I think the defensive difference above is overstated because of pitching-staff effects, and expect it to be closer to two wins over two months.

In Cabrera's two best seasons, he's been worth 7.5 and 6.7 wins above replacement. That's almost a dead match for Garciaparra's 2002 and 2003 seasons, the early part of his decline phase, and Garciaparra was basically playing at that same level or better in '04. To project this trade as a win for the Sox, you have to assume that not only will Cabrera return to his established level at the plate, but that Garciaparra will continue to post career-low fielding numbers.

And even if that were to happen, it still might not be enough. On the field, Cabrera can't help this team as much as he helped the Expos, because the Sox pitching staff doesn't get ground balls. Four of their five starters are strikeout and/or flyball guys, and Derek Lowe is the only true groundball pitcher they have. It's the same reason why Mark Bellhorn should play second base four days out of five instead of Pokey Reese.

To couch this trade as being about defense is ridiculous. The Sox are a poor defensive team, and it's hurt them so much that they're sixth in the league in runs allowed and seventh in run allowed per game. How many fewer runs should the Red Sox give up? How many fewer runs will Cabrera save as opposed to just putting Reese at shortstop when he gets healthy and moving Garciaparra to first base? How many of the runs saved in the infield will be given back by having to play Manny Ramirez in left field full-time and, when he returns, a hobbling Trot Nixon in right?

Focusing on unearned runs or individual incidents is a sports-radio mentality that a major-league front office has to be above. The Red Sox have been making a series of odd moves, adding brutal players like Jimmy Anderson and Ricky Gutierrez. Those decisions didn't blast a hole in the team, though. This one does.

The Red Sox essentially gave their playoff spot to the Cubs. Quite frankly, I have no idea how Jim Hendry pulled it off, but he made a massive upgrade to his lineup without giving up anything more than some his second-tier--albeit pretty good--prospects. Given that prospects have less value to the Cubs now that Dusty Baker is their manager, that's just an excellent use of resources. The Cubs, who had been playing better for a couple of weeks, become the favorite for the NL wild card. That's very impressive for a team that looked done just before the All-Star break.

Meanwhile, the Expos did well or themselves, getting two prospects in Brendan Harris and Francis Beltran who could assume roles on the team immediately. Harris might soon be the best third baseman the Expos have had since Tim Wallach. For two months of a player they weren't going to sign, the Expos got a cheap substitute-they're being paid to take Alex Gonzalez--and some help for the future. Like Allard Baird and Chuck LaMar, Omar Minaya did well for himself by making himself available to contenders.

The real thing I'll take from this weekend is how quickly Paul DePodesta separated himself from the pack of young 'n' smart GMs. Displaying confidence in his ability to evaluate talent, he made a gutsy move that made his team better, even if no one else sees it. DePodesta earned his stripes this weekend, and clearly has to be considered a notch above Epstein and J.P. Ricciardi right now. (In fairness to the latter, we've yet to see what the Jays might do in a race. We're likely to learn next year.)

The Sox did get Dave Roberts, who had no place to play with the Dodgers. He doesn't have a role in Boston, either, as the right-field logjam is nasty even before Nixon comes back. He is a good bench player who, as a great percentage base stealer, can be a tactical weapon late in games, pinch-running for the many slow Red Sox who are good at getting on base. Adding him really does improve the team, but like Mientkiewicz, Roberts was a giveaway from a team with better options.

In other trades:

  • The Yankees found a taker for Jose Contreras, sending him to the White Sox for Esteban Loaiza.

    I can't be rational about this. Even though Loaiza has reverted to being an innings sponge this year, any trade that sends Contreras away is a good one. He can't pitch to good teams; lay off the splitter low, get ahead in the count, and it's over. He might be a good two-inning reliever, and I think there's a good chance he'll save 30 games some year, but he's a lousy starting pitcher and an absolute nightmare to watch. Loaiza is, at least, better than that. More importantly, he can be cut loose after this season.

    I'm not sure what Kenny Williams was thinking here. His window for winning with this team is the next two months, and he made a trade that will make the Sox worse in the short term, and saddles him with a mediocre pitcher for $14 million over two more seasons. He needed to be aggressive about adding OBP and perhaps a reliever, and instead he let the offensive problems fester while adding a headache.

    And he gave the Yankees payroll relief. Remember that $14 million when the Yankees sign somebody good this winter.

  • As expected, the Marlins got some pitching, picking up Ismael Valdes and Seanez for C prospects.

    Baseball is weird; can you imagine that Rudy Seanez had trade value?

    Valdes will be replaced quite easily by Dennis Tankersley or perhaps Justin Germano. The Padres won't miss him, and he serves-along with Carlos Silva--as a reminder to not get hot and bothered over the first five starts of a pitcher's season, especially when the wins come with non-matching peripherals.

  • The Mets, flush with mediocre starting pitching, traded Scott Erickson to the Rangers. If this doesn't work out, the Rangers have their eye on either Bill Wegman or Kevin Tapani.

  • The Braves needed a left-handed reliever enough that they picked up Tom Martin from the Dodgers. Martin leveraged a huge 2003 into a two-year contract, then immediately set out to prove why two-year deals for relievers outside the top 5% are dumb. Martin was one of two legacy mistakes that DePodesta rid himself of over the weekend, Juan Encarnacion being the other.

    I'm actually not that down on Martin, who fills a need for the Braves and came cheap.

Tomorrow, I'll look at what didn't happen over the weekend.

--

I hope Greg Maddux throws a three-hit shutout today. He'll hate the attention, but I want a chance to see one of my favorite players ever take one big bow for doing something historic.

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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