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July 29, 2006

Prospectus Today

Right Idea, Lousy Execution

by Joe Sheehan

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Well, thanks to Doug Melvin for letting me get yesterday's column posted before pulling the trigger on a Carlos Lee trade. Unfortunately for Melvin and the Brewers, the deal he made didn't quite achieve the necessary goals. In dealing Lee for established major leaguers while including a prospect in the trade, Melvin split the baby, acknowledging the Brewers needed to get some value for the probably departing Lee but unable to make a move that would signal the obvious: that he needs to worry about 2007, not 2006.

The trade just doesn't make the 2007 team much better, if at all. They'll have the opportunity to retain Kevin Mench through the arbitration process, and Mench looks for all the world like a non-tender candidate, a corner outfielder who hasn't hit all that well outside of Arlington. Francisco Cordero--who other than Thursday's meltdown against the Yankees has pitched very well for three months--is an upgrade in the bullpen with a cheap contract option for '07. The other two pieces are of little value: a failed center-field prospect in Laynce Nix, and a possibly live left arm--but one who's 21 years old in low-A ball-in Julian Cordero.

Judging whether a trade is good or not in the absence of specific information about what offers were not accepted is a dangerous game. It is possible that this package from the Rangers was the best Melvin could do, and therefore represents the maximum return on Lee. Given that there were still 72 hours to go until the deadline, and there are 20-odd teams out there trying to make the postseason, I'm inclined to believe that this wasn't. Melvin wanted to have it both ways: be free of the possibility that Lee could leave, while avoiding the perception that he was giving up on the chance of a 2006 playoff run.

While an easier sell to a long-suffering fan base, the trade doesn't accomplish any goal beyond public relations. The Brewers aren't any better today-the downgrade from Lee to Mench (who arguably shouldn't even play ahead of Corey Hart) is significant, and the presence of Cordero doesn't make up for it-and won't be better in '07. Giving up Nelson Cruz in the swap is hard to explain. Cruz himself might be a better player than Mench; the two are at least of a type, right-handed power bats with middling OBPs and moderate defensive value, and Cruz would make just six figures for at least the next 2˝ seasons.

With Hart and Cruz around, there was no need to acquire a right-handed corner-outfield bat to replace Lee. Mench is just fodder, acquired to sustain the illusion that the Brewers are contenders rather than actually make the team one. This was a terrible deal by Doug Melvin, really his first clunker since he took over the team.

As bad a job as Melvin did, that's how good this deal look for the Rangers, who basically dealt Cordero to upgrade from Mench to Lee in their lineup. Unless you're Wayne Krivsky, you always trade set-up relievers for everyday players. It was a mild surprise to see the Rangers trading pitching for hitting, but this deal is good enough to justify their doing so. There's still time for them to pick up a pitcher or two to fill out the bullpen in front of Akinori Otsuka, even if they have to do so in August. I don't know if this deal makes the Rangers the favorite in the AL West, but it closes the small gap between them and the two teams above them in the standings.

--

Elsewhere yesterday…

  • Melvin also added David Bell from the Phillies for a low-minors pitching suspect. The spate of injuries in the Brewers infield, as well as the team's defensive struggles, motivated this deal. It doesn't hurt them, but I wonder why you'd spend anything to acquire Bell rather than just use Jeff Cirillo at the spot. Again, if the Brewers had a realistic chance of winning the wild card, the additions of Bell and Tony Graffanino would be more justifiable. As it stands, all they really do is keep the team from moving up in next year's draft.

  • The Braves and Dodgers got together on what looks like a pretty good deal for both teams, the Dodgers dealing away Danys Baez and Willy Aybar for Wilson Betemit. I'm a big Betemit fan, and see him as a starter at either shortstop or third base, with the likelihood that he becomes a .290/.350/.510 guy at the corner. Not to be overly flip, but Betemit could very well be the player the Dodgers thought Adrian Beltre was going to be.

    Aybar is about 16 months younger than Betemit. He's a comparable player and prospect, although he's not likely to develop the same kind of power, which limits his upside. The key for the Braves, of course, is Baez, who represents the same marginal upgrade in their bullpen than Bob Wickman did. These are not dominant relievers the Braves are adding, but they do make the team better because of the poor quality of the incumbents. Downgrading from Betemit to Aybar is worth it for that kind of upgrade, especially in a winnable NL wild-card race.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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