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July 14, 2006

Transaction of the Day

The Nats Go Red, and the Reds Go Nuts

by Christina Kahrl


IN THIS ISSUE

National League

CINCINNATI REDS
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Acquired RHP Gary Majewski, LHP Bill Bray, SS-R Royce Clayton, INF-R Brendan Harris, and RHP Daryl Thompson from the Nationals for OF-R Austin Kearns, SS-B Felipe Lopez, and RHP Ryan Wagner; recalled OF-R Chris Denorfia and 2B/SS-R William Bergolla from Louisville (Triple-A). [7/13]

After so much careful pruning and adding onto a club from which so little was expected, it's with considerable disappointment that we have to recognize that now is the moment at which Reds GM Wayne Krivsky is every bit as desperate as a dog for his bone, beyond the point of rational decision-making. What is it that's made him go begging? Was it just this club's catching a scent of contention, and, after recovering from the surprise, a choice to do the utmost to exploit it? If so, it's akin to the same debilitating, indiscrete predilection that preyed upon the minds of GMs like Steve Phillips or Ed Wade or, dare we say it, Lou Gorman. All of them felt there was a bullpen-building move or moves that would fix entire seasons, and that with postseason greatness at stake, some big move had to be made to fix everything. Sadly, that weakness, that absolute insensibility to the costs outweighing the benefits, is what led to some of the signature acts of stupidity in those men's careers, acts which subsequently ruined each of them.

Much has been made of the fact that the Reds' bullpen ERA is second-worst in baseball. That's a fact, but it's one that doesn't address that the Reds' pen has to pitch in a bandbox. It doesn't address the number of baserunners the Reds' relievers have inherited, or the better-than-29th place position they hold in terms of keeping them from scoring. The Reds pen may not be an asset, but it's 25th in Fair Runs Allowed, barely behind that pricey Cubs pen. The lineup-adjusted Win Expectation above Replacement (WXRL) of their pen rates them 23rd, better than that group that Jim Hendry spent so much on this winter.. Their 13 blown saves isn't a good total, but it's tied for 18th, and better than five clubs. It's a below-average pen, yes. It also isn't the iceberg upon which their season has been wrecked.

I bring up the Cubs pen because it illustrates the foolishness of getting too wrapped up in spending high on relief help. By interesting contrast, consider how Larry Beinfest put together his bullpen in Florida down the stretch in 2003. He did make one major deal, for an established closer, Ugueth Urbina. It cost him first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and two destiny-challenged prospects, lefty Ryan Snare and outfielder Will Smith. Gonzalez has gone on to better things in San Diego. Beyond that one exchange, of a top prospect for a top reliever, Beinfest went dumpster diving. Maybe you can consider him fortunate to have scraped up Rick Helling and to have lucked into Chad Fox's last stretch of health, but those two key relief additions arrived via two August moves, after the deadline: claiming Helling off of waivers from the Orioles, and signing the discarded Fox to a minor league contract. Sometimes, it pays to not be the "big market" team with the ability to take on salary, sometimes it just helps to be just desperate enough to rely on simple scouting and a willingness to look around and see who's available. The key components of his bullpen beyond the overrated Braden Looper cost him one top prospect, no regulars, and two throw-ins.

The argument is that Krivsky's shopping in a much tougher market than Beinfest was then, but he did just get Eddie Guardado for a merely okay, semi-interesting young hurler in Travis Chick. Here, he didn't merely overpay, he overtipped with a largesse that gets most waitresses to ask what he's doing after dinner. Bill Bray is an outstanding talent, a lefty with outstanding velocity and a plus slider. He very well could be the next Norm Charlton--the Nasty Boy, not the broken-down situational character of latter days. He's got the stuff to be a true high-leverage reliever, lefty or no, and should not be relegated to mere situational use. However, there's very little guarantee that the former William & Mary closer will be that pitcher right now, when the Reds absolutely need him to be, both to make this trade work, and to keep the club in the race.

Majewski is a handy enough relief talent, but he's also been worked very hard in the early going, ranking second in all of baseball in relief innings pitched, and tied for fifth in games. For all that, he hasn't really been all that effective, pitching less well in a high-leverage role than Bray, Jon Rauch, or even the deathless Mike Stanton. Among the seven active Nats relievers, Majewski ranked seventh in WXRL. Where would that put him among Reds relievers? Behind the already-cut Chris Hammond, and behind such luminaries as Mike Burns and Brian Shackelford. From a scouting perspective, there's reason to hope for better, in that Majewski can beat lefties with a sharp slider, and he'll go inside on anybody with heat that gets into the mid-90s. But that's what you get if he isn't worn out. Perhaps Reds manager Jerry Narron will manage his workload more carefully than Frank Robinson, but the danger is that the Reds' sense of desperation will drive them to lean just as heavily on Majewski, creating that much more potential for a meltdown.

Then there's the matter of "fixing" this team's infield defense, which Krivsky and company have been quick to play up as a major motivator in the deal. Whatever Felipe Lopez's virtues, reliable-enough fielding isn't considered to be one of them, and after a brief experience with Juan Castro as the slick-fielding alternative to Lopez, Krivsky had reached that inevitable truth, that he needs to find a better player than Juan Castro. But instead of settling for an offense-defense platoon of Castro and Lopez, he had to go out and get himself a bona fide major league shortstop. Unfortunately, he may feel 'bona fide' might have something to do with ossification, because to replace Lopez (and Castro), he's added an unrepentently bad old shortstop. There are a few nice things to say about Royce Clayton: he's always been considered a steady defender and a gamer. He's a fine bunter, and a solid baserunner. He's also somebody Krivsky should have remembered as part of the reason why the White Sox fell behind the Twins team he was working for in 2001-02, because he's a effectively a zero at the plate, especially nowadays:

Season  AVG/ OBP/ SLG  TrAVG/ OBP/ SLG  EqA   VORP
2003   .228/.301/.333   .226/.301/.333  .227  -4.1
2004   .279/.338/.337   .261/.320/.370  .245  10.1
2005   .270/.320/.351   .263/.315/.345  .238   6.7
2006   .269/.315/.348   .270/.319/.348  .240   3.0

TrAVG/OBP/SLG is translated averages for all time. For more on this, go here. So, what those numbers tell us is that despite playing in three of the games best places to hit in the previous three seasons--Milwaukee, Colorado, and Arizona--Clayton isn't a hitter who's doing to do much with his environment, however friendly. There isn't any reason to expect him to suddenly bust out as a result of his leaving the thick air of RFK for the toybox dimensions of the GA(B)P. Since Lopez had a Value Over Replacement of 16.7 this season, you're talking about the difference of maybe three wins lost in the standings to Clayton's bat over the course of a full season.

So whatever good he's supposed to do should all be on defense, and that's where Clayton shines, right? Except even there, there isn't much of a suggestion that Clayton's the defensive asset he once was. Looking at his Runs Above Average, and you've got a player who hasn't been helping much: -20 in three years spread across 352 "Adjusted Games", against Lopez's -25 spread across 260 similarly-adjusted games in the last three sesaons. Better, but still not good, and this year, it's down to Clayton's -7 runs in 81 Adjusted Games to Lopez's -8 in 82. Given that Lopez might be worth thirty runs or more at the plate, you've given up three wins in this portion of the deal. Also keep in mind that our metrics aren't the only ones that suggest that Clayton's not a defensive asset--Relative Range, Revised Zone Rating, Plus/Minus, Range Factor, they all suggest the same thing, which is that Clayton's not a valuable defender. Castro, though, probably is. Even while acknowledging that there is no perfect metric to evaluate defense, when they all suggest a guy's not very good, and even scouts will acknowledge the guy's lost a step, that's more than enough smoke to suggest that the house is on fire. So what's the point of acquiring an offensive zero who needs a defensive replacement, when you had an offensive asset who needed a defensive replacement? None of the Reds' starting pitchers is an extreme groundball pitcher, so they don't depend on a quality shortstop the way that groundball-reliant aces like Brandon Webb or Derek Lowe might.

Losing Kearns is the biggest issue, and although Kearns has performed less than projected--making it perhaps easier than his expected replacements, Denorfia and Ryan Freel, to equal his performance--Freel's been hitting over his projection for this season (.298/.383/.440 versus .261/.346/.356), and seems more likely to drop off than keep it up. Denorfia's only two months younger than Kearns, so it isn't like he has anything like Kearns' upside; we projected him to .263/.337/.419, significantly less than Kearns' actual .274/.351/.492, and far behind his .276/.368/.517 projection. Add up the differences, and a back-of-the-envelope estimate on the runs lost might add up to just as much as the difference between Clayton and Lopez, which means something like three wins' difference at the plate in the season's second half. That's a lot of ground for those two relievers to have to make up.

Which leaves the odds and ends: Harris and Thompson. Thompson's a promising arm, throws hard with a useful enough curve, but he's currently getting over "non-serious" shoulder trouble. Only 20, he's got a lot of development time to look forward to, but pegging minor league pitchers who haven't even survived the jump to High A-ball yet is like betting on a particular tadpole to make it to frog--but sure, there's potential. Harris played shortstop in college at William & Mary, but was tried out at third and second after being initially seen as not enough of a fielder to handle short on an everyday basis by both the Cubs and later the Expos/Nats. Like so many other minor league infielders, he's been willing to take up the utilityman's trade. He hasn't been much of a second baseman, and spent much of his minor league career playing a good third, but his best tool is his bat, which might make him a reserve with a little more sock and a little less glove than you normally find among reserve infielders. With Castro in his way on the big league roster, there's no place for him here, although he would make for a nice alternative to Castro on a Clayton-free roster. But again, that just begs the question of why this deal was made.

Clayton for Lopez is a loss. Although the Reds have a decent pair of alternatives to Kearns in the outfield in Denorfia and Freel, that's still a net loss at the plate, a lost opportunity if Kearns blossoms as much as he can and should, and also costs the Reds the flexibility of having Kearns around to play center after Ken Griffey Jr.'s next breakdown. Will the relievers make up for those losses within this season? No. Career value? Even if both Bray and Majewski are far from eligibility for free agency, two relievers are not as valuable as a quality outfielder and a quality shortstop who, although arbitration-eligible, are also both not about to be free agents. Do the spare bits make up the difference? Absolutely not, not unless Thompson does something more than just pan out. This deal shouldn't have been made by the Reds if it was Kearns without Lopez in the package going to Washington, it's a bit of a toss-up if it's just Lopez without Kearns, and with both in the deal, it's a massive mistake with potentially crippling consequences for the Reds' playoff bid now, as well as to their ability to field a quality lineup in the future.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
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Acquired OF-R Austin Kearns, SS-B Felipe Lopez, and RHP Ryan Wagner from the Reds for RHP Gary Majewski, LHP Bill Bray, INF-R Brendan Harris, SS-R Royce Clayton, and RHP Daryl Thompson; purchased the contract of RHP Roy Corcoran from New Orleans (Triple-A). [7/13]

There's nothing to offer but congratulations to Nats GM Jim Bowden, because he didn't merely pull off a major deal that helps his team far into the future, he did it without giving up anything more valuable than Bill Bray's potential. Considerable though that may be, the old thumbnail sketch on who won a trade is who got the best player, and what do you call a deal where it's plausible that a team got the three best players in a deal? Admittedly, Wagner's a mess, and was flailing at Louisville, allowing almost seven runs per nine, and neither his plus heat nor his slider are breaking with anything like the movement that made him a top prospect. He's been having extreme problems repeating his delivery since injuring his shoulder last summer, and whether that's his problem or the Reds' tinkering, it seems clear that a change of scenery will do him some good. He'll only just turn 24 tomorrow, and with some patience and with the benefit of RFK's friendliness to all pitchers, he could pan out to be as valuable as either Bray or Majewski.

To keep sifting through the little bit of black lining in an impossibly silver cloud, financially, the move isn't a slam dunk for the Nats. Both Lopez and Kearns stand to make a good amount of money through arbitration or through negotiations inspired by a desire to buy out that eligibility for arbitration. Presumably, new club president Stan Kasten and the Lerner family are aware of the financial obligations that are being assumed. Also, they presumably understand that having Lopez just means that the cost of having Cristian Guzman around is entirely sunk, preferably in a Delmarva bog to be named later. But that's just other people's money, and what really matters in this trade is the ridiculous amount of talent that's been brought aboard in D.C.

First, there's the virtue of having Kearns. He's only just turned 26, early on in the usual peak seasons a hitter normally enjoys, from age 25 to 29. He's finally healthy, and apparently none the worse for wear for his years of getting nicked up. If his hitting has been somewhat slightly less than projected, he's a tremendous offensive asset as a center fielder, where the Nats plan on moving him now that they have him, thereby filling one of their lineup's biggest holes. Offensively, hitting as well as he has this season, if you plug him in as a center fielder, his VORP--his value over a replacement center fielder, not right--jumps up to 24.2, or sixth-best in baseball, just behind Johnny Damon. Can he handle the position? In terms of defensive ability, he has the range, the instincts, and the arm to be good in center, so it shouldn't really be a concern, although Bowden is saying that they eventually anticipate returning him to right. However, it's easier to find a right fielder who can help you at the plate than a center fielder, so I wouldn't infer from this a master plan to replace Jose Guillen (after he leaves as a free agent, presumably) with Brandon Watson next year.

Then there's exchanging their one-year rental of Clayton for a couple of years or more of Lopez. Defensively, we've already dealt with how this is closer to a push than some people will want to admit, and offensively, it's a win-now, win-later, keep winning exchange that gives the Nats a shortstop who can lead off, get on base well enough, slug a bit, and run well. Among current shortstops, his VORP ranks twelfth, not as good as a budding star like Jose Reyes, but not a huge step down, and in a division where the other four teams are fielding some of the better hitters at short, an effective response in kind. Like Kearns, he's a May of '80 baby, so he's just now entering his prime as a hitter. Even if he's not an asset afield, he's playing in a park that gives pitchers plenty of space to make mistakes yet survive unscathed, and that makes his occasional boot that much more affordable.

A brief chalkboard exercise, if you will. Kearns and Lopez both have two more years to go before they're eligigle for free agency. That means that beyond this season, the Nats really only control these guys for the next two years, after which they might leave and turn into whatever type free agents Elias labels them as through their archaic system. What did PECOTA initially project for them without any adjustment for ballpark-they won't be calling the GAP home, after all-in 2007 and 2008?

Season      AVG/ OBP/ SLG  EqA   VORP
Kearns '07 .276/.370/.515  .292  22.5 (RF)
Lopez '07  .272/.345/.441  .265  23.7
Kearns '08 .278/.375/.525  .298  24.6 (RF)
Lopez '08  .267/.342/.430  .261  21.3

For Kearns, that's his projected VORP as a right fielder--put him in center, and that value goes up, and you wind up with two of the best offensive performers at their positions in the two seasons to come, and their value remains about that high into their subsequent futures, considering that they'd still only be 28 after 2008. Now, to get all that, you give up two talented relievers, a rented shortstop of the almost used-up variety, and one each of your garden varieties of utility infielder and minor-league-arm-with-promise? Can I have seconds? This is a rip-off for the ages--less humiliatingly bad than the infamous Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Andersen deal, but not by that much.


Kevin Goldstein contributed his insights into all things in the minors to this article.

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

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