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November 28, 2005

Prospectus Today

The Deals

by Joe Sheehan

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Let's get caught up with some reaction to the four big trades that have taken place so far this offseason:

Padres/Mets

I loved the acquisition of Mike Cameron by the Padres in a deal that really just cost them money. The Padres, from now until they tear down Petco Park, are going to need outfielders who can go get the ball. It's 404 feet to the alleys at Pads' home games, and those dimensions make having a good defensive center fielder essential. The Padres tried to address this by trading for Dave Roberts last year, but Roberts' body didn't hold up to everyday work. Cameron, whose injuries have been more of the traumatic than chronic kind, should do as much to ratchet down the Pads' runs allowed this year as any pitching additions will. I don't think Cameron's shaky 2005 fielding numbers reflect a loss of skill so much as a fractured season playing a new position, but I will concede that trading for a 33-year-old to play center field is not without its risks.

Giving up Xavier Nady wasn't a great loss. The big right-handed hitter is 26 and projects as a lefty-masher on the corners, the kind of player who can contribute, who has value on a team with Ryan Klesko, but whose type is available in the free-talent market. Nady will have to work for playing time in New York after the addition of Carlos Delgado. It remains likely that he'll be used in another deal before the year is out. The Mets made this deal to free up some money and to end their relationship with Cameron, who never cottoned to right field. That they lost in the talent department was a secondary concern.

Marlins/Red Sox

If it's possible to not like a trade for either team, this is that trade.

The Marlins, of course, have reasons beyond the ballfield for trading away their #2 starter, and as Nate Silver argued, they may well be justified in doing so. Nevertheless, the centerpiece of the return package, Hanley Ramirez, is an overrated prospect, a tools guy who has yet to convince me that he's going to become a baseball player. Ramirez' speed hasn't translated well on the field so far--he's 112/45 on the bases in five seasons, he doesn't get a ton of speed hits or triples, and he didn't adapt well when the Sox tried him in center field. His bat stagnated at Double-A this year, and while you can point to his age (just 21) as a factor, .271/.335/.385 with 26/13 on the bases doesn't leave much to be excited about.

All things considered, I'm probably more enthused about Anibal Sanchez, and consider how I feel about pitching prospects in evaluating that opinion. Sanchez, a 21-year-old righty, has already been through one major surgery in '03, and returned from it to post terrific numbers the past two seasons in the Sox' system, including 158 strikeouts and 40 walks in 136 innings at high-A and Double-A in 2005. He's the most advanced and the best of the three arms the Marlins picked up in the trade, and could well join Jason Vargas and Dontrelle Willis to form a youth-heavy rotation in Miami as early as mid-2006. Even accounting for the injury risk and development risk attendant to pitchers, I think Sanchez is the Marlins' best chance for getting something out of this deal.

For this package, the Sox got back a highly-regarded right arm who has yet to hold up over a full major-league season. Josh Beckett has had blister problems that have held him to a career high of 180 innings, and while his peripherals have been solid, he's shown slippage in his strikeout rate and K/BB since 2003, and he's never been anything special outside of Pro Player Stadium. Since 2002, his road ERA is 4.15, a figure that better reflects his performance than his overall mark of 3.54 in that time.

Beckett resembles, in many ways, last winter's big right-handed acquisition, Matt Clement. Both pitchers have excellent raw stuff that impresses and excites scouts, but for reasons of command (Clement) or health (Beckett), neither has had results to match the skills. Beckett's upside is that of a #1 or #2 starter, but until he stays in the rotation for a full season and pitches well outside of Miami, it's hard to bridge the gap between the hype surrounding him and what the Sox have actually acquired.

To get Beckett, the Sox also had to take Mike Lowell, who fell off a cliff in 2005, but whose contract runs through 2007, guaranteeing him $18 million over the next two years. Lowell versus Kevin Youkilis is going to be an interesting battle come March, with statheads likely lining up to question why the Greek God of Walks has to battle a guy who hit .236/.298/.360 for playing time. Lowell should bounce back some, but it is an open question whether he's a better player than Youkilis right now. His edge is his work with the glove.

I think the player in this deal who will make the largest impact on the Sox in '06 is actually Guillermo Mota. One of the best middle relievers in baseball in 2002-03, Mota was inffective, then injured, for the Marlins in '05. While his ERA spiked to 4.70, his rates didn't jump as sharply; he had a bad year with runners on base, which can ruin your ERA in a 70-inning sample. I think Mota's 100-inning, 2.00-ERA days are behind him, but he can be a strikeout right-hander in the seventh inning, a role the Sox had trouble filling in '05. Having him, Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke around gives Terry Francona three good right-handed relievers who can throw multiple innings and get Ks, making a bullpen built around situations, and not the save rule, a strong possibility.

The Red Sox will likely win this trade, because they have a very short-term horizon, and Beckett and Mota are more prepared to help than Sanchez and Ramirez would be in 2006 and 2007. However, the expectations that Beckett will be an ace are misguided. Game Six of the 2003 World Series was a fantastic night, but it was one start. Beckett isn't an ace, may never be one, and no radar gun or highlight clip can change that.

Marlins/Mets

Nearly one year later, Omar Minaya got his man. Carlos Delgado was supposed to be the Mets' third big free-agent signing last winter, but the Marlins won the bidding for the lefty slugger. A year later, with the Marlins again tearing down their franchise, Minaya was able to pick up Delgado in exchange for three prospects, including the highly-regarded Yusmeiro Petit. The deal fills a huge lineup hole for the Mets, who were reduced to a platoon of utility infielders Marlon Anderson and Chris Woodward at one point last summer, and positions them right alongside the Phillies and Braves as co-favorites in what should again be an entertaining NL East race.

As far as the Marlins go, I have to think last week marked the effective end of baseball in Miami. They did this once, trying to extort a stadium from the locals by tearing down a championship team. It didn't work then, and it's not going to work now.

Not to get too philosophical about what is, at its core, a cutthroat business, but there is some small extent to which a professional sports team connects with a city. There's an implicit agreement--one side tries to make the city proud, the other invests time, money and a certain amount of itself in their fortunes.

The Marlins have simply shredded that agreement. Twice. The Marlins have reduced their existence to a quest for tax dollars, municipal funds to build a stadium from which they and only they will collect money. The greed is no less naked than what we've seen in so many other places, but this is the second time around in Miami, and two ownership groups have executed their threats with an eagerness that belies their words of regret.

The Marlins cannot stay in Miami, because Miami should not care one whit about the Marlins. I love baseball, but I honestly hope that not a single person attends a Marlins game next season, or watches one on television. No franchise in modern baseball history has done more to alienate its home, and they deserve to see the embarrassing fruits of their labors 81 times next season.

I am absolutely certain that the Florida Marlins will not exist in 2009. What I do not yet know is whether they will be the Las Vegas Nouns, or whether this is the first step towards contraction in 2007. It is very easy for me to see a scenario where the Marlins and the Kansas City Royals cease to exist, and quite frankly, few people care. The Royals have little to no hope of being competitive in the next five years, and are being administered in a way that calls to mind the phrase "make them as comfortable as you can."

Change is coming.

Phillies/White Sox

I'd said that I didn't like the Josh Beckett trade for either the Marlins or the Red Sox. This deal is the converse: I absolutely love it for both teams.

The entire industry knew that the Phillies had to deal away Jim Thome to make room for Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard. Thome, with a bad back, a brutal 2005 performance and four years and $60 million remaining on his contract, seemed as untradable as the Ken Clays and Jerry Narrons that were the only Yankees my eight-year-old self seemed to find in every pack of baseball cards in 1979.

Enter Pat Gillick, who less than a month into his tenure with the Phillies, put his "Stand Pat" nickname behind him with a brilliant move, snagging a true center fielder in Aaron Rowand and a couple of live arms in the package. It's a far greater return than I ever expected the Phillies to be able to get for Thome, and certainly greater than could have been expected in an offseason deal. Rowand is the Phils' first true center fielder since Doug Glanville, and even at his '05 level of offensive production, is an upgrade over the patches the Phillies have been using their the past few years. As with Cameron in San Diego, his defense will make the pitching staff better.

I'm more excited about what this deal says about the White Sox, and by extension, Kenny Williams. The biggest trap of success is an unwillingness to make changes, to become attached to the players who won for you and decide that those players are the ones with whom you must go forward. Following this line of thinking is how you become the 2003 Angels.

Williams has not only avoided that trap, sending away his starting center fielder and effectively waving good-bye to his starting first baseman in the process, but he's done so in a way that acknowledges a weakness of his championship team and assumes a considerable amount of risk. The 2005 White Sox were a triumph of run prevention, of dominant defense and good pitching and an offense that was just barely good enough to support those things. What that offense lacked was OBP and left-handed power, and in acquiring Jim Thome, Williams filled both of those holes perfectly.

I've judged Kenny Williams harshly when he's deserved it--the Todd Ritchie trade, the Carlos Lee deal, the Keith Foulke deal--and I've probably not been as loud in my praise when he's done things, like the Tadahito Iguchi signing, that warranted praise.

When you consider the balance of decisions, however, you have to acknolwedge that Williams has shown incredible development in the role of Sox GM. It's possible, maybe even probable, that Williams was dropped into a GM's role before he was ready. He had a bad start to his career, and made a lot of mistakes before he was ready to do his job. Now, however, he's doing the kinds of things--signing second-tier free agents, working the free-talent market, finding international talent making solid trades, building bullpens--that you look for in a championship-caliber GM.

I think the trade of Aaron Rowand for Jim Thome is as bold a decision as any general manager of a championship team has made in years. Beyond merely being bold, though, it's the right decision. Kenny Williams has shown that he's not going to get caught up in the hype of what the 2005 teams was or attached to the players who added a championship to his resume. That's the mark of a top-tier general manager, and it shows that Williams has developed into just that.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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