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January 10, 2007

Prospectus Today

Two Fortysomething Ex-Yankees

by Joe Sheehan

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When I was in New York over the Christmas holidays, I went out for a night with Derek Jacques and his brother, Jeff. I've known them for 20 years, and they're the two biggest Yankee fans I know, so the conversation naturally turned to the Bombers and the potential Randy Johnson deal. I was pretty enthusiastic about it, as long as trading Johnson gave the Yankees access to the Diamondbacks' deep reserve of talent. Even if the top-tier guys, players like Chris Young and Carlos Quentin and Conor Jackson, would be unavailable, that still left a bevy of A-/B+ prospects to choose from.

The primary focus of our pool-hall debate was whether to do a deal that saved money or brought in talent. I came down firmly on the side of the latter; it would mean more to the Yankees in the long run to pick up a lot of Johnson's remaining salary if doing so allowed a greater return in the trade. If leveraging the organization's revenue advantage in the market had shown mixed results, doing so to replenish the farm system seemed like an approach with merit.

In the end, the Yankees and Brian Cashman went the other way, dealing away much of their financial obligation to Johnson-they'll pay just $2 million to the D'backs-but not getting a very attractive package in return. Of the four players acquired in the deal, exactly zero were in Kevin Goldstein's list of the D'backs' top ten prospects. In a deep system like that of the Diamondbacks, even that might not be damning, but a look at the players headed east shows that the Yankees simply didn't get much back for the tall lefty.

Luis Vizcaino is a serviceable reliever, a good #3 man in a contender's bullpen. There's not that much difference between him and Kyle Farnsworth, and he's been more consistent over the past few years. The two pitching prospects in the deal are largely of a kind, college righthanders who are longer on command and skills than raw stuff, and who project as back-end guys in the majors. Both Russ Ohlendorf and Steven Jackson were '04 draftees, and both put up strong strikeout-to-walk ratios and low home-run rates at Double-A Tennessee last year, but mediocre strikeout rates for that level. That's not a combination that bodes well for 2007 at Triple-A or any kind of MLB future. The infielder, Alberto Gonzalez, is a poor man's Erick Aybar, a contact-hitting shortstop without much power. Suffice to say that Derek Jeter's job-hell, Miguel Cairo's job-is safe.

It's not easy to make a deal with the Diamondbacks and not come out of it with some upside, but that's what the Yankees have done. They've added to their stash of college-draftee pitchers-remember, they took Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain in last year's draft-who don't project as stars, and added a utility-infield prospect and some relief help.

This wasn't even the best package of guys you've never heard of; the Yankees, staring at a hole at first base, would have been better off working Scott Hairston, Chris Carter or Brian Barden into this deal than taking Vizcaino or Gonzalez. The Diamondbacks have no room for any of them, they can all hit and all are better short-term fixes than Rule 5 pick Josh Phelps.

This deal is a good win for the Diamondbacks, who are closer to contention in the NL West than most people realize. By adding a good starting pitcher-remember, PECOTA projects Johnson to have a 3.52 ERA this season-in exchange for four guys they'll never miss and some cash, they've improved the 2007 team for, essentially, nothing. They didn't trade any of their top ten prospects, not even guys down the list like Micah Owings or Dustin Nippert. This deal closes the gap between them and the Padres and Dodgers, and pretty much ensures at least a three-team race in the West.

--

Congratulations to Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., who yesterday got the news-not really a surprise-that they had been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Regardless of the issues with process or questions about the pool of players in the Hall, being named as one of the honorees is one of the greatest moments you can have as a baseball player. Both are fully-qualified, deserving candidates who fit the bill on the metrics and who have a lot of other things going for them.

Looking past the honorees down the ballot, we see that the election of Rich Gossage becomes a virtual certainty. Just as Bruce Sutter did two years ago, Gossage received the most votes of any player not elected, and will be returning next season in a fairly weak ballot year. Sutter's election, while frustrating for Gossage, may have been the best thing to happen to his candidacy. It's impossible to consider Sutter a Hall of Famer and Gossage not one. He'll go in next season.

The presence of three overwhelmingly qualified new candidates-two of whom even received fair treatment from the electorate-pushed down the vote totals for some returning guys. Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven all received a lower percentage of votes this year, although Blyleven's absolute number stayed the same. In fact, of the 15 players who appeared on both the 2006 and 2007 ballots, only Gossage and, oddly, Davey Concepcion moved closer to election this year, and Concepcion isn't getting elected.

The lesson of Sutter's election is that being well-positioned going into an off-year for new candidates is as important as anything you did during your playing career. Gossage will certainly go in next season, while it's an important year for Rice, Dawson and Blyleven, who need to regain momentum as just one certain Hall of Famer, Rickey Henderson, comes onto the ballot over the next three years. It's not entirely rational, but the caliber of new players is a critical factor in making votes available for carryovers. Look for Rice to get in on the 2009 ballot, and Dawson the 2010 one. Blyleven, whose case has become a cause celebre for analysts, may have maxed out his support, however. If Jack Morris passes him in the next couple of seasons, it will be a travesty.

Now, about those weak classes coming up. By far, the best player entering the ballot next year is Tim Raines. Now, the actual pool of Hall of Fame voters isn't likely to see Raines as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, or perhaps not a serious candidate at all. This, of course, is ridiculous. Just to steal Jay Jaffe's methodology one final time…

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Rice        .295   648   379   -16    89.3   58.2   73.8
Raines      .308   893   596    37   131.8   72.3  102.1
AVG HOF LF         752   477     7   111.1   62.6   86.8
Raines isn't just qualified for the Hall of Fame. He's an above-average Hall of Famer. He's one of the 120 or so best players in baseball history. His comparables aren't the guys on the ballot like Rice and Dawson and Dale Murphy; his comps are recent inductees like Gwynn and Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor. Raines has nearly 40 wins on Kirby Puckett, who was a first-ballot selection. Sentimental value can't possibly be worth that much.

If you go beyond the numbers, you see that Raines was arguably the best player in baseball for a time at his peak, a ten-win player for five straight years from 1983 through 1987. He was at the forefront of the game's speed renaissance, stealing 70 or more bases in six straight seasons, and finishing his career with 808 steals and an 84% success rate. He's second only to Rickey Henderson in career net steals (SB-2*CS), with 516. He was an OBP machine and a superior defender, albeit with a weak arm, in left field. He would go on to be a key contributor to two World Championship Yankee teams at the end of his career.

Raines, of course, has a black mark on his record, that being his use of cocaine in the 1980s. I would argue vociferously, however, that the BBWAA has made it clear that it doesn't believe that to be a serious offense. My evidence? Paul Molitor, who also used coke in that period, appeared on one ballot and was swept into the Hall with 85% of the vote. If Raines' use becomes an issue in his candidacy after that experience, I would strongly suggest simply ending the process of electing players to the Hall.

It's instructive, in the current environment, to remember how big a deal it was in the mid-1980s to learn that all these baseball players were doing cocaine, and how little it mattered when one of them came up for Hall of Fame consideration.

Folks, Tim Raines is the new Bert Blyleven. He's overwhelmingly qualified for the Hall of Fame, and in a just world, would be elected next year, when he'll be the best player on the ballot other than Blyleven. The analyst campaign to get him elected to the Hall of Fame is going to make the campaign for Blyleven look like the fight for Associate Dogcatcher in a two-streetlight town outside of Glendive, Montana.

We can only hope that it doesn't last nearly as long as the Blyleven argument.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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