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August 1, 2006

Prospectus Today

Aftermath

by Joe Sheehan

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Bobby Abreu went, Alfonso Soriano stayed, the Yankees and Rangers won, the Pirates lost, and the rumor-to-activity ratio stayed up around the temperatures here in Southern California.

With the trade deadline behind us, here's a look at the top ten stories from the extended weekend:

#1: The Nationals hold on to Alfonso Soriano.

In an environment of constant change-the MLB rumor mills-the one thing I held to throughout July is that Soriano would be dealt. He was one of the top three hitters available, playing out his contract for a team that isn't contending or currently in danger of doing so in the next two years. That Jim Bowden wouldn't get this deal done, despite having the last top-tier hitter available and at least four teams actively pursuing him, is a terrific argument for replacing him in the Nats front office.

One of the hardest things to analyze from the informed-outsider position is deals that don't happen. You hear and read all kinds of rumors, but only Bowden knows what offers were actually put on the table. It's well-established that Bowden, perhaps emboldened by his steal from the Reds, was asking for a lot for Soriano, and that factor appears to have driven the end result. But what also played into it was the Nationals' apparent desire to negotiate a long-term deal with Soriano to keep him in D.C. after this season.

Let's look at that option. At 30, Soriano is having what may be the best year of his career, with his highest EqA and on pace to post his highest WARP. He's shown definite improvement in his plate discipline and has hit for more power than ever before. His defense, in his first year in left field, has been passable. He'll be one of the top free agents this offseason; as a WAG, let's say he gets slightly less than Johnny Damon money: four years, $48 million, for his ages 31-34 seasons, the early decline phase. I think that's conservative.

Soriano was a great player at his peak in New York and something less than that with the Rangers. In deciding they want to keep him, the Nats are making the fundamental mistake of evaluating a player entirely on his most-recent work and deciding that that's his level. Year in and year out, hundreds of millions of dollars-no, I'm not exaggerating-are committed to players who have their best year at the best time and have little hope of repeating it. The most likely scenario is that Soriano doesn't match his age-30 performance again, while being paid for it through 2010. If he signs with the Nationals, his ages 31 and 32 seasons will almost certainly be spent on teams that are fringe contenders, rather than true ones. Signing him makes less sense for them, from a projected return standpoint, than it does a number of other teams who might leverage his performance, his marginal revenue product, into playoff spots.

Now look at the other path. As I said, it's hard to know what was actually rejected, but let's consider a fairly low-end, quite reasonable offer that made the rounds. The Twins reportedly offered Scott Baker and Jason Kubel for Soriano. Kubel won't be arbitration-eligible until 2007 at least, Baker not until 2008 at least. Both are solid B prospects, and Kubel has a higher upside than that. Bowden wanted prospect Matt Garza instead, and no deal was reached.

Let me simplify this choice: Bowden decided that he'd rather have Alfonso Soriano from ages 31-34 than Jason Kubel from 25-28, Scott Baker from 25-28…and $35 million! Unless Soriano is suddenly going to morph into Albert Pujols--hell, even if he is-you have to pull the trigger on this trade. The gap in production for the cost is far too great. You can make this deal and then use the money on Jason Schmidt and think seriously about the 2007 wild card.

Even that's not really the choice. There's nothing stopping Bowden from trading two months of performance that do nothing but hurt his team's draft position next year and maybe drive some small amount of money into the team's coffers, then chasing Soriano this winter! You're betting the small chance that he'll sign with his new team before hitting the market, but you're getting back two pre-arb players, one who bats third and the other who could be your #2 starter right now.

Run the numbers with the other offer that was widely reported, the Angels' Ervin Santana and Erick Aybar, and the results are the same. Bowden had multiple ways to make the Nationals a much better team from 2007-2010 and he didn't get the job done. He overplayed his hand and set the Nationals back this weekend. Coming off of years of mishandling, they couldn't afford that kind of loss. Unless Soriano somehow clears waivers, this is the biggest story, and biggest mistake, of deadline 2006.

#2: The Yankees reload and move into a favored position in the AL East.

The Abreu/Cory Lidle deal wasn't necessarily topped Monday, but Brian Cashman did manage to get something for nothing, sending one of his top run producers, Shawn Chacon, to Pittsburgh in exchange for Craig Wilson. Wilson's right-handed power bat is a terrific fit for the Yankees' lefty-heavy lineup, and he comes at a low cost with no commitment past the end of the year. Chacon was about to lose his roster spot, and turning him into not just a player, but a player of considerable value, is larceny. When you combine it with Sunday's trade, you have the Yankees upgrading three roster spots from complete waiver bait to average, average and star. No team did a better job this weekend; you'd be hard-pressed to name one that's done better in the last five years.

It's not all perfect: it's apparent that the Yankees will cut loose Aaron Guiel, by far the most useful of their bench options, in favor of keeping Andy Phillips on the roster. With Phillips no longer used outside of first base and DH, Wilson makes him completely redundant. He'd be worth keeping if it meant losing Miguel Cairo, but that's a non-starter in the friendliest environment for lousy middle infielders east of Chicago. Choosing Phillips over Guiel is one of those teeth-grinding decisions MLB teams make on a near-daily basis. I'm not convinced that I couldn't pull 30 people from my address book to do a better job at roster construction than the 30 people entrusted with the job.

#3: David Littlefield mails it in.

There's just no polite way to discuss the job Littlefield did, work that was really the end product of years of value destruction. The Wilson trade was a joke, the kind of thing you wouldn't try and do with the slow guy in your Yahoo! league. The Pirates whittled and whittled and whittled away at Wilson's value over the years, rarely entrusting him with a job and constantly bringing in lousy older players to block his way. He's not a star, and yet dealing him away for a guy who might be the Pirates' seventh starter and fourth-best right-handed reliever, a pitcher who's had ERAs above 7.00 twice in three years, whose career K/BB is 460/359, a guy who would have been available for free in 36 hours…seriously, who does this?

That was just the worst of it. Littlefield also traded for a guy who is essentially Craig Wilson Lite in Xavier Nady, a 27-year-old right-handed-hitting corner outfielder with some power who doesn't walk and needs to be platooned. The organization that put roadblocks in front of Wilson for years is now looking to a street-corner knockoff version for value? Littlefield traded Oliver Perez for Nady, and while I've heard nothing but bad things about Perez of late, can you really just give away a guy who was that good two years ago and is still just 24 years old?

Littlefield saved money by dealing these guys, as well as moving Sean Casey and Kip Wells for a pair of Double-A relievers. That's important, because the Marlins shouldn't be the only NL team that gets more in revenue sharing than it spends on payroll. If the American League really is better than the National League, the work of Littlefield and Kevin McClatchy in dragging down this franchise is part of the reason why.

#4 The Rangers stand alone in the West.

The Mariners made their moves earlier, the A's tried to make theirs late, and the Angels were in on everybody, but the only AL West team to step up over the weekend was the Rangers. Like the Yankees with Abreu, they got an impact bat in Carlos Lee while keeping their farm system intact. They also made some solid minor pickups yesterday in Kip Wells and Matt Stairs, sacrificing nothing they won't miss and potentially making the one-win improvements that could make all the difference in their race. Wells is a gamble, but no more of one than the guys currently getting slapped around in the back of the Rangers' rotation. I still think we're going to have to see at least one member of the vaunted DVD trio make an impact before the year is out.

#5: The deafening silence in the rest of the AL.

The work done by the Yankees and Rangers looked even more impressive when compared to how little their competition was able to do. The Tigers added Casey, who isn't that great an upgrade over the slumping Chris Shelton. The Angels, A's, Mariners, Twins, Blue Jays and various Sox all sat this one out, though, in some cases the victim of Bowden's poor judgment, in others just unable to make the minor deals they were aiming for.

It's not like any of them are playing pat hands. The A's and Angels desperately need offensive help, while the Red Sox and Blue Jays could use starting pitching. All four lost ground by standing pat, and in the Red Sox' case, by losing Trot Nixon to injury. It's not unreasonable to think that the first-place team in each division is no longer the favorite due to work done by Cashman and Daniels.

#6: The Dodgers cash in more chips.

Consistent with his training under Brian Sabean and his work to date, Ned Colletti used more of Logan White's work product to bolster the roster, sending away Joel Guzman in exchange for two months of Julio Lugo, while also adding one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived.

Breaking it down, the two deals couldn't be more disparate. The Dodgers got Greg Maddux for free, dealing away the wildly overrated and overpaid Cesar Izturis. Correlation isn't causation, but you can trace the Dodgers' descent in the NL West to Izturis' arrival from the disabled list: they were 14-21 between his debut June 21 and Sunday, the last game he played for them, as he batted .252/.302/.353 and got a ridiculous 30-odd plate appearances in the top two lineup spots. Every game he played that Willy Aybar didn't pushed the Dodgers further back in the NL West. If the Dodgers got nothing back for him they would have been fine. Getting the current version of Maddux is a minor help. Losing Izturis, who's just a glove playing out of position on the Dodgers, is a major one.

The deal with the Devil Rays doesn't look as good. Lugo will improve the infield, and his arrival signals that the health concerns of Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra are more than trivial. Giving up on Guzman seems premature, however. He's still just 21, and while he's had a rough year, it's been one spent floating among levels and positions. His Triple-A line isn't awful, although it's inflated by a good offensive environment. I see no reason to dump him so readily for two months of a non-superstar who you'll need to play out of position.

It's not that there would never be justification for dealing away a Guzman or a Dioner Navarro. If you're going to move a guy like that, though, it needs to be for impact players. Mark Hendrickson and Julio Lugo don't rise to that level, don't come close, and both are rentals. That Colletti is being so cavalier with the products of the Dodgers farm system in a year when their postseason hopes aren't strong is a worrisome sign. This isn't the Giants; this system has high-upside position-player talent that should be used as building blocks rather than bait for short-term fixes.

#7: The Devil Rays add yet another top prospect.

Despite making noises about holding on to Lugo, that never made sense for the Devil Rays, who don't need to spend a quarter of their payroll on a past-prime shortstop, no matter how good he's been for them. It wasn't the right year to be shopping a shortstop, however, as most contenders were set at the position, and the ones who weren't were chasing Tejada. The deal with the Dodgers happened very close to the deadline, and enabled the Rays to pick up yet another very young, very raw prospect.

Tonight, the Devil Rays could conceivably start Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, Jorge Cantu, Guzman, Navarro and Jonny Gomes or Elijah Dukes. That's a complete lineup--we'll put Guzman at first base for now--all 25 and younger, and probably good for more than five runs a game at cost of, what, $7 million?

If that was their Opening Day lineup next year, how excited would you be about them?

#8: Miguel Tejada stays in Baltimore.

The most non-Soriano drama played out on the Chesapeake, where the Orioles were apparently bombarded with what may have been extremely strong offers from Anaheim and Houston at the least. The specifics varied, but it's clear that those two teams were willing to assemble big packages to get at the durable All-Star shortstop. In the end, Tejada didn't go anywhere.

It's not clear what role Peter Angelos played in Tejada staying. There are conflicting reports about how involved he got and whether he was the deciding factor in the lack of a deal. There's also the idea that Tejada was only willing to go to a team that would allow him to stay at shortstop, which would have been a problem in Anaheim.

Regardless, this outcome isn't a bad one for the Orioles. They have Tejada, quietly still one of the top dozen or so players in baseball, signed to what is practically a bargain deal, $12 million a year through 2009. (Would you rather have Tejada or Paul Konerko?) A player like that is one you can build around, not someone who has to be traded. The Orioles are in a tough spot in the AL East, but their problems are reparable, largely on the corners of the field rather than the middle. One good offseason could be worth 15 wins to this team.

(Does anyone know why "Tejada" autocorrects to "Tehama" in Word 2003? It's incredibly annoying.)

#9: Owners interject themselves into the market.

This is another area where the informed outsider is relying on others, but Will Carroll pointed out that it seemed like we heard more about the opinions of team owners than we had in previous years. Angelos was reportedly part of the Tejada talks, Arte Moreno was supposedly pushing Bill Stoneman to get the shortstop. Drayton McLane may or may not have ordered Tim Purpura to make a deal, perhaps specifically one including Brad Lidge. In the end teams like the Angels and Astros ended up empty-handed, but we certainly knew what the guys signing the checks thought about thiings this time around.

All this, and not a peep from George Steinbrenner.

#10: The Mets shuffle well.

Barry Zito didn't come east, but the Mets managed to help themselves anyway, adding Roberto Hernandez and a lottery ticket in Oliver Perez for Xavier Nady, a very replaceable part. Hernandez had some success in New York, and he'll fill the role left by Duaner Sanchez, who may be done for the year after suffering a shoulder injury in a car accident. Hernandez will get the play, but adding Perez is a great gamble. The power lefty needed a new organization, and Shea Stadium is a great park for strikeout pitchers. Perez could be the new Sid Fernandez in 2007, if you can picture Sid after an extended stint on "Survivor: Salad Aisle".

The Mets were rumored to have flipped Perez and Heath Bell to the Padres for Scott Linebrink, a trade that actually was reported in some places. It didn't happen, which may be for the best. Linebrink just isn't that much better than Bell, for one, and that deal would have given the Mets three right-handed set-up men, crowded even given their six-inning rotation.

--

I'm certainly leaving out some storylines here, and Christina Kahrl will catch you up on all of these trades plus things like the Padres' pickup of Todd Walker, the Rockies/Royals exchange and the Reds' pitching additions.

Thanks to everyone who checked out our coverage of the trade deadline over the weekend. It's a lot of fun writing this stuff for passionate, informed baseball fans, and the readers of BP are nothing less that that.

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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