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December 3, 2004

Prospectus Today

Catching a Good Deal

by Joe Sheehan

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I haven't had a chance to opine on the biggest trade of the off-season to date, the three-player swap between the A's and Pirates. My initial reaction was that the A's did very well for themselves, trading talent they wouldn't miss for a player who I think is one of the more underappreciated ones in the game.

The Pirates simply weren't able to get past Jason Kendall's contract. One of the last big deals signed before the so-called "market correction," the six-year, $60-million package looked outsized when Kendall's power disappeared after 2000. His career slugging average when he signed the deal was .451. Since then, it's .380. Combined with the stagnation in salaries since 2002, Kendall's performance-for-the-money was the focus, rather than just his performance, which was very good. He hits for average, and while his walk rate is only OK, he gets hit by 20 pitches in most years, giving him a very good OBP. He's a six-win player, and those aren't easy to find.

There are some reasons to be concerned. The lack of power isn't going to be helped by moving to cavernous Network Associates Park, a place that will also hurt Kendall's batting average. Also, Kendall has been catching nearly every day the past five seasons, and is already up to 1,205 games caught in his career. He'll turn 31 during the '05 season; catchers who come up young and play that much are prone to losing a lot of value in their early 30s. Kendall's body type--more wiry than stocky--hopefully provides a buffer against this, and the A's having Adam Melhuse and Mike Rose around allows them to ratchet down Kendall's workload to a more manageable 130 games a year behind the plate, along with some time at DH.

The key for the A's is that the trade largely only costs them money, and not all that much of it. Kendall will make $34 million over the next three seasons; he'll likely account for between 15% and 20% of the A's payroll in that time. Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes' contracts are worth $21 million in 2005 and 2006, and according the Associated Press, the A's will send a million bucks a year over to help pay for them. In '07, the Pirates send the A's about $5 million to cover the last year's of Kendall's deal.

Net it all out, and the A's win the talent portion of the deal handily at a cost of about $4 million a year for the next two seasons, and $8 million in 2007. That's a nice trade for a player who will give them a real OBP boost at the top of the lineup and at a position where it's hard to find offense.

Redman is a #4 starter, not as good as he looked in '03, when he had his best year for the World Champion Marlins. That season looks like a fluke, as his strikeout rate, and every other peripheral, slipped back to his career norms in '04. There's some chance of implosion here, as Redman is a flyball pitcher who has been protected in good pitcher's parks for three years and by good defensive outfields for two. Neither will be the case in Pittsburgh.

Rhodes was a strange signing by the A's to begin with, given their budget constraints. A three-year, $15-million deal for a short reliever, even one as dominant as Rhodes had been, was a bad allocation of resources. He ended up having a terrible season, allowing nine home runs in just 38 2/3 innings, missing part of the year with back problems. I'm higher on him than I should be given that every performance trend is downward.

It's instructive to see Dave Littlefield's comment on the deal, which basically parroted one of the more egregious myths of 21st-century baseball. From the AP story: "The formula of one player eating up a significant portion of the payroll just doesn't work. The easiest example and most recent is (Alex Rodriguez) in Texas."

As we've pointed out many times, Alex Rodriguez was never, for any moment, the Texas Rangers' problem. While the market did shift after he signed his deal, he was the best player in the American League, or close enough to it, in all three years in which he played for the Rangers. It was the tens of millions wasted on underperforming or injured players around Rodriguez, as well the team's inability to produce quality pitchers from within, that doomed the team while he was gone. His absence hurt them this season; it's entirely possible that having him instead of Alfonso Soriano would have won them the division. Their improvement in 2004 was due to the development of Mark Teixeira, the assembly of a good bullpen on the cheap, and Orel Hershiser, and all of those pieces were in place on the day of the trade.

One of two things is true: Dave Littlefield doesn't understand this, or Dave Littlefield understands this all too well and knows it's in his best interest to perpetuate the myth. Neither bodes well for the Pirates.

There's no reason to think that the Pirates can or will use whatever savings they'll see from this trade to make themselves a contender. A glance at the probable Opening Day lineup shows exactly one player, Jason Bay, likely to be above the league average in OBP. (No, I'm not forgetting Craig Wilson, who hit .264 with an unintentional walk every 13 or so PAs, and, at 28, would make much better trade bait than anything else.) The Pirates won't sign great players; they'll sign three or four guys who might be worth four wins at their peak and hope to get lucky.

Then a year from now, they'll do it again.

--

  • Everybody's wondering where Pedro Martinez will end up. If current reports are true, I don't see how he doesn't sign with the Mets. The Red Sox are--correctly in my mind--holding the line on guaranteeing a third year, while the Mets are guaranteeing three and adding an option for '08. That's a lot of guaranteed money to pass up for a pitcher who has to know that his longevity is in question.

    I don't know that there's a better place in baseball for Martinez to pitch than Shea Stadium. It's a great park for strikeout pitchers, has been for 40 years. It's a low-offense environment in the pitcher's league, which means that he'd likely be able to stretch his 100 pitches over more innings. I still think he has to be managed by days as well, getting five days' rest rather than four as often as the schedule allows, but everything else points to this offer from the Mets being one that Martinez cannot refuse.

    The deal doesn't do much for the Mets. Even if you put Martinez at the front of their rotation, and he has a good year, there's little behind it that doesn't make a ticking sound. Adding him to replace Al Leiter--not a bad idea--would likely just about cancel the expected declines from Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel. You can expect the offense to be a bit better next year, but that's largely predicated on full seasons from Mike Piazza and David Wright. I'm still convinced that Jose Reyes (92 strikeouts, 33 walks in 654 AB above Double-A) needs a half-season at Norfolk, and I think both Steve Henderson and Mike Jorgensen are on the depth charts at right field and first base.

    In their favor is playing in MLB's weakest division. The Nationals are going to struggle to avoid 100 losses, and I think you'll see more backsliding from the Marlins. The Phillies have the most talent and no more Larry Bowa, which will help enormously. I have no idea what the Braves will look like, but I'll tell you right now I'm picking them to win even if they show up with Michael Vick and T.J. Duckett on the outfield corners.

  • The Giants' signing of Armando Benitez is one of those that looks worse the further I get from it. The thing about Benitez is that, his high-profile failures notwithstanding, he's been a very good pitcher. In what was seemingly a lost year in 2003, when he bounced from the Mets to the Yankees to the Mariners in a span of six weeks, he had an ERA of 2.96 and struck out a man an inning. The Marlins took advantage of his low perceived value and picked up 70 good innings of relief on the cheap.

    Benitez got $21 million from the Giants for having a 1.29 ERA and a lot of saves. The thing is, he didn't pitch that much better in 2004 than he had previously, and you can argue that all he did was continue his decline:

    
             K/9    BB/9    K/BB   HR/9   BABIP
    1999   14.77    4.73    3.12   0.46   .259
    2000   12.55    4.50    2.79   1.18   .197
    2001   10.97    4.72    2.33   1.41   .275
    2002   10.56    3.34    3.16   1.06   .245
    2003    9.25    5.05    1.83   0.74   .281
    2004    8.01    2.73    2.95   0.78   .178
    
    Benitez's strikeout rate has fallen in five straight seasons, and is now just about half of what it was at its peak. (He's an object lesson in why a high strikeout rate augurs well for longevity.) He either had a peak year or a fluke year for control in '04. I lean towards the latter. His ERA last season was entirely a function of a ridiculously low batting average allowed on balls in play. Flyball pitchers--Benitez is an extreme one--have an edge here, but not enough to explain that figure. With that likely to bounce back up into the .250-.300 range, his ERA will climb with it.

    The Giants had to shore up a bullpen that just killed them all year long, and Benitez won't hurt them in that regard. But if they're expecting the guy who allowed just 11 runs all last year to show up, they might be disappointed when he reverts to his pre-'04 numbers. Benitez's 2004 season may ultimately depend on who roams the spacious Pac Bell Park outfield.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Armando Benitez,  Year-to-date

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