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July 13, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Get Me Rewrite!

by Joe Sheehan

"Stop the presses," has such a quaint sound these days, what with newspapers and magazines mostly produced digitally and Web publishing allowing changes up to the second of--and even after--publication of an article. But yesterday's big trades made today's column--a look at the NL in the second half--obsolete before it ever made it off my hard drive, and had me scrambling. So we'll push back the second-half previews to Friday, and take a look at Wednesday's fun and games.

The first big deal, Denny Neagle to the Yankees for "four minor leaguers," was an inspired bit of theft by Jim Bowden. Bowden turned 15 Neagle starts into five years of Ed Yarnall, a pretty good comp for a young Neagle. In addition, he got a lottery ticket in Drew Henson, who has All-Star ability but continues to play football at Michigan. This hampers his development as a baseball player and dramatically increases his injury risk.

On top of that, the Yankees gave up Jackson Melian, who has been playing professionally since 1996 and is still just 21. His performance has been something of a disappointment at Double-A, so he's not the A prospect he appeared to be two years ago, and he'll have a hard time holding off the quality outfielders the Reds have coming up behind him, guys like Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. Finally, they threw in Brian Reith, an A-ball arm with potential.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that the last two players alone, Melian and Reith, plus the money saved on Neagle the next few months, would have been a good return for Bowden. But the deal he did make, with Yarnall and Henson included, is a phenomenal one. Bowden's trading record is one of the best in the game, and this deal fits right in with the rest of his work.

For the Yankees, the deal helps their bullpen. Neagle bumps Ramiro Mendoza to his swingman role once Mendoza returns, shoring up the middle innings that have been a problem. This also may give Joe Torre the flexibility to baby David Cone, skipping starts and granting Cone long rest in an attempt to get him back to his established performance level, while using Mendoza to fill the gap. The trade does help the Yankees, but the cost was dear. They overpaid.

Nevertheless, it was the best trade of the day, because what the Braves did was just this side of stupid. Bruce Chen-for-Andy Ashby wouldn't be a particularly good idea if Ashby was the pitcher he'd been for years. But he's not, and there is no reason to believe that Ashby will be that much better than Chen would have been if you'd simply dropped him into the rotation:

                  ERA     IP    BA/ OBP/ SLG   BB/SO
2000 Andy Ashby: 5.68  101.1  .288/.351/.480   38/51
2000 Bruce Chen: 2.50   39.2  .232/.318/.397   19/32

This isn't entirely fair to Ashby, who has pitched a little better of late, but he's still not someone I want to be betting on:

          K/9
1997:     6.5
1998:     6.0
1999:     5.8
2000:     4.5

The really amusing thing is the idea that Chen is somehow a failed prospect. The AP story used the words "former top prospect" and said that Chen "has never established himself as a major league starter."

Chen got seven starts last year between Odalis Perez injuries. He struggled to keep the ball in the park and allowed a 5.47 ERA in 1999, but opposing batters hit just .208/.315/.410 against him. This year, he's been effective in middle relief, and has been denied a rotation spot due to poor decisionmaking. He's already a good major-league pitcher, and the only thing between him and some All-Star appearances is Terry Francona.

The Braves needed to add a starting pitcher, because this John Burkett/Terry Mulholland thing is way past its usefulness, but the cost here doesn't justify the benefit, and unlike the Yankee deal, there is a reasonable chance it doesn't even help them in 2000.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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