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August 4, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • Feel Like I'm Winning When I'm Losing Again: If you're reading this PTP--or anything else at Baseball Prospectus--you're likely aware that the Los Angeles Dodgers and Florida Marlins consummated a deal last Friday, where the former sent Heart & Soul™ Paul Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota, and Juan Encarnacion to the latter for Hee Seop Choi, Brad Penny, and minor-league lefty Bill Murphy. You're also probably aware of the conflicting perceptions of who won the deal, with a majority of the mainstream media thumbing their noses at the Dodgers, while statheads genuflect at the growing altar of Paul DePodesta.

    But was the trade that clear cut?

    To a certain degree it was. After all, Choi is already in the top half of the league at his position, and is young enough to make some improvements. Penny is a great middle-of-the-rotation starter (or decent top-of-the-rotation starter), whose addition allows Wilson Alvarez (or Darren Dreifort) to slip into the role formerly inhabited by Mota. And Murphy is a former A's farmhand, part of the infamous "Moneyball draft," who's struck out more than a batter per inning at Double-A Carolina.

    And the Marlins got...a 32-year-old catcher who has a history of collapsing in the second half, a 31-year-old reliever who's appeared in 170 innings over the past 16 months, more than any setup man in the game, and a worthless outfielder who the Fish themselves dealt last December for a PTBNL, and is now owed more than $5 million through 2005.

    In straight-ahead 2004 terms, the breakdown looks a little something like this...

    
                             2004
    Player            Age    VORP   Contract Status
    Brad Penny         26    33.3   FA in '05
    Hee Seop Choi      25    27.9   Arb in '06
    Bill Murphy        23     --    n/a
    
    Paul Lo Duca       32    22.6   FA in '05
    Guillermo Mota     31    24.4   Arb in '05
    Juan Encarnacion   28     0.4   Owed $2 MM in '05
    
    

    That being said, the Dodgers' advantage in this deal is somewhat lessened when you focus on its impact over the next eight weeks, and also consider the acquisitions in light of which players they're displacing in the real world. Paul Lo Duca and His Amazing Technicolor Clubhouse Presence, for instance, replaces this mess behind the plate...

    
    2004                 PA     VORP
    Mike Redmond        232      0.6
    Ramon Castro        108     -7.2
    Matt Treanor         57     -0.2
    Josh Willingham      29     -0.5
    TOTAL               426     -7.3
    
    

    As you can see, Marlins' catchers have been awful this season, to the tune of a win below replacement level. So even if Lo Duca does suffer through one of his patented stretch-drive declines, chances are he'll be a win or two better than his predecessors. Like it or not, there wasn't a team in baseball that needed to upgrade at catcher more than the Marlins at the deadline, and they addressed the problem by acquiring a player who's currently the fourth-best backstop in the league.

    As for Mota, he immediately steps in for the injured Armando Benitez as closer--the only significant positive in the Marlin bullpen this season--taking appearances that would have gone to Josias Manzanillo or Billy Koch instead. The Fish ranked 10th in the National League in Adjusted Runs Prevented leading into the trading deadline; by adding the sixth-best reliever in the league to their pen, the Marlins just didn't give themself another option, they avoided handing one- and two-run leads to a group that would rank 24th in baseball in ARP without Benitez's help.

    Of course, all of this is ignoring the hole created by the loss of Choi, which will be indirectly filled by Encarnacion--a difference that more than negates the gains Lo Duca makes behind the plate. Factor in the loss of Penny from the rotation, and thus the increased reliance on a healing A.J. Burnett and a blistered Josh Beckett, and you begin to see limits of sugar-coating this deal from a Florida perspective. It's a loss, even in the short term, and there's really no other way to spin it, unless you believe Lo Duca's experience catching a bunch of 83-win Dodger squads will help the defending champions wade through the dog days of summer.

New York Yankees

  • No Way, Jose: And so it goes. After weeks of intense rumor-mongering, the most talked-about deal in baseball didn't happen, as five-time Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson remained in Arizona, leaving the Yankees--the only team the Big Unit initially indicated he'd like to be traded to--with visions of what could have been.

    Of course, it's not as if The Boss' Bombers stood pat. Finishing the deal "just one minute" before the trading deadline on Saturday, the Yanks flipped right-hander Jose Contreras and $3 million in cash for the White Sox's Esteban Loaiza, who just one year ago was among the best pitchers in all of baseball.

    On the surface this almost looks like a lateral move for the Yankees, who won the rights to bid on Contreras when he defected from Cuba in late-2002. Loaiza has predictably regressed in a number of key areas from his 2003 performance, and has been essentially a league-average pitcher for the White Sox. Contreras, meanwhile, has posted slightly better fielding-independent numbers, but on balance has been about 1.5 wins worse than Loaiza, according to VORP.

    
    Pitcher              IP   H/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9  BABIP  ERA
    --------------------------------------------------------
    Esteban Loaiza    140.7  10.0  2.9  5.3  1.5  .298  4.86
    Jose Contreras     95.7   8.7  4.0  7.7  2.1  .265  5.64
    
    

    That being said, there are a number of ways in which Loaiza distinguishes himself from his Cuban couterpart, making the Yankees clear winners in this deal.

    1. Despite an essentially neutral park factor, Loaiza wasn't particularly suited for the confines of New Comiskey, and the effect on his overall numbers was significant. Over the past season-and-a-half with the White Sox, Loaiza posted an ERA of nearly one-and-a-half runs higher at home (4.29) than on the road (2.98), with peripherals--particularly in the home runs allowed department--to match. A move to Yankee Stadium could aid his raw performance significantly, even when accounting for the fact that New York is slightly more friendly to hitters than Chicago.

    2. Contreras, for whatever reason, is one of those few pitchers who seems to beat up on weak teams, yet struggle against contenders. And needless to say, that's the last thing an already-mortal Yankees rotation needs heading down the stretch. Observe:
      
      Team  WPct     IP   BB  SO   R
      ------------------------------
      OAK   .571    8.0    3   6   8
      TEX   .558    6.0    2   7   1
      BOS   .552   11.0    8   9  16
      CWS   .524    5.1    3   5   5
      Vs. > .500   30.1   16  27  30
      
          8.90 RA, 8.0 SO/9, 4.7 BB/9
      
      Team  WPct     IP   BB  SO   R
      ------------------------------
      TBA   .472   13.2    5   6   2
      DET   .472    8.0    1   7   1
      BAL   .457   13.1    8  11  15
      KCA   .356    6.0    1   3   4
      Vs. < .500   41.0   15  27  22
      
          4.83 RA, 5.9 SO/9, 3.3 BB/9
      
      

      Of course, correlation does not equal causation, and it's not as if 70 IP is much of a sample, but a) the difference is quite striking, and b) a similar pattern can be detected in Contreras's 2003 splits as well.

    3. Loaiza is a free agent come October; Contreras is owed another $17 million through 2006. As Joe Sheehan noted in a recent "Prospectus Today", when the Yankees sign someone this off-season (Carlos Beltran?), remember that extra $14 million ($17 million that would have been owed to Contreras, minus $3 million sent to the White Sox in the deal) Kenny Williams gave them to work with.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Glamour. Fashion. Beauty.: Ending what was a wild month of speculation, the Pirates finally dealt their most high-profile bargaining chip last Friday, as Anna Benson's husband and second-base prospect Jeff Keppinger were sent to the New York Mets for third baseman Ty Wigginton, Rule 5 pick Jose Bautista, and minor league pitcher Matt Peterson.

    To call this trade a clear win for the Pirates would no doubt be an overstatement, so it's probably best to acknowledge what it was: A mediocre organization's last-ditch effort to get something in return for a soon-to-be free agent. Wigginton is a low-OBP guy with moderate power who's already 26, with a poor glove to boot. Matt Peterson is another faceless, right-handed 22-year-old with decent peripherals and an unsullied medical history. Bautista was a Rule 5 pick last December, and as a result, has appeared on four different ML rosters this season. It's doubtful that any of these players are going to be part of the next good Pirates team, whenever that might be, and most will be out of baseball by the time Revenge of the Sith is released on DVD.

    With that being said, it's worth noting that the Pirates should perhaps be thankful that they received what they did for the 29-year-old Benson, who's spent most of his career not living up to the hype.

    And my, was there plenty of hype in the beginning. Drafted No. 1 overall out of Clemson University by the Pirates in 1996, Benson spent three years in the minors where he mixed flashes of potential with occasional control and mechanical problems. He made his major league debut in 1999--the year at least one BP author, who was then much younger and more foolish, severely over-drafted Benson in his roto league--where he went 11-14 with slightly above-average peripherals. From there...well, let's have the chart do the talking.

    
                                   --- TRANSLATED FOR 2004 ---
    AGE YEAR TEAM      IP   G/F   ERA   H/9  HR/9  BB/9  SO/9
     24 1999 PIT-N  196.7  1.64  4.22   7.9   0.6   3.1   5.5
     25 2000 PIT-N  217.7  1.76  3.92   8.3   0.9   2.8   6.5
     27 2002 PIT-N  130.3  1.05  5.28  10.6   1.2   3.0   4.7
     28 2003 PIT-N  105.0  0.79  5.17  10.3   1.1   2.7   5.2
     29 2004 PIT-N  132.3  1.21  4.59   9.1   0.5   2.7   4.9
    
    

    Sure, the groundball-to-flyball ratios have been encouraging at times, but when the rubber hits the road, this is still a league-average pitcher with uninspiring fielding-independent numbers, and has been his entire career. Even since the end of June--a time when Benson saw his ERA drop by more than a full run, and some people believed that he was pitching at full strength for the first time since his 2001 Tommy John surgery--he's been just average at generating outs on his own (3.88 SO/9), despite the shiny RA of 2.33:

    
    Date        IP   R   BB   SO
    June 28    8.0   1    3    1
    July 03    7.0   2    0    3
    July 08    7.0   1    1    4
    July 16    8.3   2    1    4
    July 21    8.0   2    0    4
    July 26    6.0   4    3    4
    TOTAL     46.3  12    8   20
    
    

    In the end, it's hard to get too excited about this move, either way. Dave Littlefield got a little something in return for a player who was bound to wave sayonara come October, so it's not a total loss. Nevertheless, for all the hype that surrounded Benson heading into the deadline, you would have hoped that the Bucs could have parlayed some of that chatter into a player who has a chance of taking the field for the post-McClendon era Pirates, alongside Oliver Perez, Jason Bay, and Sean Burnett.

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