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July 30, 2006

Prospectus Today

D-Train...Out of Town?

by Joe Sheehan

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Will Carroll has it easy. He can just report on the things that might happen, whereas Christina Kahrl and I generally need actual trades to happen to give us things to analyze. I was asked once if I'd do an article breaking down the effects of the deals that might happen, and I declined. At that point, you're just writing fiction, and I don't have the imagination for it.

So BP's daily coverage of trade-deadline happenings is a bit lacking today, because there were exactly zero trades made Saturday. Will will keep the rumors coming, and when something does happen, Christina will crank out the best analysis column going.

The lack of trade action does give me a chance to write about a player who we've been hearing just a little bit about as a possible trade target, the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis. As one of the two Marlins making any money, it's been assumed that the team would look for an opportunity to trade him this year. Willis is in line to make upwards of seven million dollars next season, a figure that would make his salary about 25-30% of the team's projected payroll. The Marlins' trades last winter have left them flush with young starting pitching, so they could trade Willis for something they really need-like a center fielder-and not feel the loss much.

Of course, it's that same young starting pitching that has fueled the Marlins' surprising performance this season. Assumed in some quarters to be the worst team in the NL, the Marlins have played just under .500 ball and find themselves a fringe wild-card contender with two months left to play. They're not likely to leapfrog all the teams ahead of them, but they've played well enough to make trading Willis a bit more difficult proposition.

My question is, why? If successful trading is leveraging the gap between perceived value and actual value, then trading Dontrelle Willis sooner rather than later seems like the way to go. Despite boatloads of hype that trail him, Willis has had just two stretches in which his pitching has been well above average: his first few months in the majors, and the entirety of 2005. His peripherals have been good, but not great: Willis' strikeout rate peaked in his rookie season at 7.95 K/9 and is down to 5.82 this year, an alarming drop for a 24-year-old. His walk rate has spiked and his home-run rate is way up. A peek at Willis' translated stats shows that this is clearly his worst season; Clay Davenport's Stuff score, a quick-and-dirty check on a pitchers' performance, confirms this: Willis' 8 is the lowest of his career and well below par for someone who's supposed to be an ace.

It's the decline this season that has me concerned. Willis reached the majors at 21 years and four months, and has yet to miss a start in the majors, throwing 739 innings and more than 11,000 pitches in the 3 years since he made his debut. Last season's success led to him throwing 236 innings and 3558 pitches at 23, one of the heaviest workloads in the game. Willis' usage doesn't rise to the level of "abuse," of course; it's just notable for a young pitcher with complex mechanics.

The visuals don't work very well, but Willis' track record reminds me for all the world of Steve Avery's. Avery was 20 when he reached the majors, and like Willis, was an effective starting pitcher from 21 through 23, having his best season at 23 in 1993: 2.94 ERA in 223 1/3 innings, 125/43 K/BB, just 14 home runs allowed. Let's compare the two pitchers' translated lines by age. (Translations are important here, because of the differences between the league run environments and the two pitchers' home parks.)

Age 21

             IP   ERA   K/9  BB/9  K/BB   HR/9
Avery     238.1  3.81   6.5   2.3   2.8    1.0
Willis    196.0  3.08   6.8   3.0   2.3    0.7

Age 22

             IP   ERA   K/9  BB/9  K/BB   HR/9
Avery     258.0  4.01   5.3   2.5   2.1    0.8
Willis    225.2  3.95   5.3   2.6   2.0    0.8

Age 23

             IP   ERA   K/9  BB/9  K/BB   HR/9
Avery     246.2  3.32   5.1   1.3   3.9    0.7
Willis    271.2  2.95   5.7   1.8   3.2    0.5

Age 24

             IP   ERA   K/9  BB/9  K/BB   HR/9
Avery     231.0  3.86   6.9   3.0   2.3    0.9
Willis    266.1  4.26   5.2   2.8   1.9    0.8

A couple of notes about those last lines: Avery's age-24 season was truncated by the players' strike, and Willis' translation is, as all of Clay's lines are, based on a full season of work. The two factors even out in this case; we're basically dealing with 2/3 of a season for each pitcher.

After 1994, Avery never posted a translated ERA below 4.00, and he never approached 200 innings. In those four years, he had an ERA of 3.33. After that, 5.06, and his career was effectively over at 29. As I mentioned, the visuals don't work. Willis is 6'4", 240, and would seem to be a better candidate to sustain his career. However, his weight isn't really in his legs, where you like to see it in high-workload pitchers, and his complicated delivery seems to expose him to greater injury risk. Even if Steve Avery is the low-end cautionary tale, what we've seen from Willis in '06 is enough to establish concern that he may have had his best season, at least his best for some time.

Willis is not one of the best starting pitchers in the game. He's only been that in one season, and in the follow-up to that effort, he's shown sharp declines across the board. He's been worked very hard at a young age, and even if he sustains his non-2005 level, he's likely going to be overpaid for that performance. The Marlins have pitching coming out of their ears; trading Willis-and simultaneously committing to their actual star, Miguel Cabrera--is the quickest path to contention in a division that should be wide open for the next few years.

--

Just before I put this up, the news broke that the Yankees and Phillies had agreed on a deal for Bobby Abreu. If Buster Olney's report is correct, the Yankees are sending C.J. Henry, Matt Smith and a player to be named to Philadelphia for Abreu and Cory Lidle. If true, this deal would shake up the AL East, giving the Yankees the high-impact bat they've been missing since Gary Sheffield hit the DL. The marginal gain over Bernie Williams is huge, maybe six wins over a full season, and about two over two months. I suspect the Yankees might get more bounce than that; adding a monster OBP to a good lineup should have a non-linear effect on run scoring. Lidle isn't a star, but the Yankees have used everyone but Doug Bird in the #5 spot this year, and Lidle is better than the other available options.

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

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