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November 8, 2007

Transaction of the Day

The Lidge Deal, and a Re-signed Sock

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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Re-signed SS-R Juan Uribe to a one-year, $4.5 million contract. [11/7]

As much as the market for shortstops is more than a little thin, this is exactly the sort of the thing that the White Sox should not be doing. If you want to settle for a glove guy who might pop a couple down the lines because he's in Comiskellular Field, that's all well and good, but Uribe's production was all park effect-he hit an adequate .257/.300/.457 at home, and an execrable .225/.278/.355 elsewhere. Some defensive metrics also reflect that he may not be the shortstop that he used to be; Ozzie Guillen's in-season sniping about Uribe's conditioning might be seen as a pointed reference. The problems are the same as those the Jays had to confront in their decision to pay a premium to keep John McDonald-there aren't a lot of experienced shortstops floating around, and where the Royals and perhaps the Orioles have figured out that fishing a no-hit glove guy out of the minors is a cheaper if similar solution, the Sox still fancy themselves a team with possibilities. Keeping Uribe should help squelch such thinking; for what he does at the price he does it, he could have been replaced by some other variation on the Tony Pena Jr. theme for a tenth of the cost, and the money spent is that much less than the Sox can add to their bids on free agent outfield help.

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Acquired CF-L Michael Bourn, RHP Geoff Geary, and 3B-L Mike Costanzo from the Phillies for RHP Brad Lidge and UT-S Eric Bruntlett. [11/7]

In almost every phase of the game, the Astros need talent, because they haven't drafted or generated much of their own of late. So they need to busily swap out whatever veteran bits they can for the competitive Astros team of the future, and as first steps go, it doesn't get much better than this. Swapping Lidge's last year before free agency for a leadoff man with the on-base skills to fulfill the role, someone who also plays a good center and runs well... that would make sense straight up. Bourn's a very solid add, the sort of player whose upside might be that he becomes the new Dave Roberts, only better-suited for everyday play up the middle. In contrast, the downside would be that he's an inexpensive OBP source for a couple of years, covering ground enough in center to give the young hurlers a break on long flies to the gaps, and subsequently affordably non-tenderable. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a Bourn believer (from the start, no 'again' about it), so I see this as a particularly tasty pickup. In terms of ripple effects on the roster, this should also mean that Hunter Pence is going to see time in right field, and that Luke Scott might be on the block-not the worst idea, since he's going to turn 30 next season, and his interesting bass-ackwards home/road split might make him all that much more attractive to a team that fancies itself a contender but feels short in one outfield corner or the other.

Then there's the other prospect in the deal, which is what really makes it an easily accepted proposition for Ed Wade and his new masters. Costanzo isn't a blue-chip prospect at third, but he's a very solid one, a guy who hit .270/.368/.490 in his age-23 season, which was also his jump up into Double-A. Past concerns that he struggles with left-handed pitching weren't really silenced by his hitting .262/.329/.372 against them, but progress is progress, and the flip side of that is that he took a big step forward against righties, smacking the Eastern League's cohort around at a .273/.383/.537 clip. Some of that was due to a friendly home park, but it's still a strong step forward for the young pull hitter. Is it enough to encourage the Astros into perhaps pushing Ty Wigginton over to second base at some point during 2008? Perhaps, or it might make Wigginton available, and a lot depends on whether or not Chris Burke gets around to panning out or not. Whichever combination of events happens, Costanzo's one of the organization's best prospects just by arriving in it, and if you can pity him (he's apparently a Phillies fan), this remains an addition that provides the Astros with considerable flexibility.

Geary's not the worst guy to have, but until he shows an ability to adapt to pitching regularly in Houston, I'd consider him a good candidate for re-flipping. Right-handed offspeed guys don't seem like the kinds of people you want on the mound in front of that particular left field, especially when they're not big-time groundballers. However, to his credit, Geary came up big for the Phillies in September after a pretty rough season, and that might make him interesting enough as a moving piece in a spring exchange. That's because as good as this move was, and as limited the options that the Astros have-Woody Williams ain't gonna get you much-if they get any feelers on guys like Wigginton or Scott, every bit they can add to the scale helps.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Acquired RHP Brad Lidge and UT-S Eric Bruntlett from the Astros for CF-L Michael Bourn, RHP Geoff Geary, and 3B-L Mike Costanzo. [11/7]

How much do you want to believe that a change of scenery will make a big difference for Lidge? I'm not buying it, not when that change of scenery is from one corporate-monikered bandbox to an even less friendly bandbox. It would be easy to put everything involving Lidge's struggles on Phil Garner's capricious handling; a manager with a so-easily revoked vote of confidence can't be a lot of fun to work for in a role where absolute confidence and an ability to forget your yesterdays are widely considered absolute necessities. That gives Garner a lot of credit for delivering a few too many Crawford Box specials, but that's not why he's out of a job.

To look at this from the Phillies' perspective, they wanted a closer, someone who probably lets them realize the value of returning Brett Myers to the rotation. There aren't a lot of them out there this winter, not with fully vetted bona fides, and they might have understandably not wanted to pay market price for a multi-year deal for a guy like Francisco Cordero or Eric Gagne, and while going down-market for a guy like Scott Linebrink might seem like a good idea, this early in the winter he might harbor some pretty high expectations that people will overlook his more recent mediocrity and pay him for what he did in 2004-05. Maybe you wait him out, and see about getting him for half or less of whatever some lucky GM shells out for Cordero or Gagne; maybe he doesn't want to wait, and finds the proverbial greater fool. Maybe you take a chance on Shawn Chacon, but there again, that probably involves waiting until late in January, and maybe you don't want to wait.

So, it's early, and the market's a scary place without a lot of guarantees. Unfortunately, there also aren't a lot of people who own a closer that are willing to part with him. Beyond Lidge, you might count Chad Cordero, but he's someone with perhaps even more daunting issues with deep flies. Making a pitch for Joe Nathan would be pretty interesting, but it's also another bit of wishcasting; a newly-minted general manager like Bill Smith might not want to be seen as the tear-down GM when he's already going to take a hit on Torii Hunter's defection, and when he's already got suitors calling to ask after Johan Santana. Me, I'd still call Smith and ask after Juan Rincon while bidding low-certainly lower than what it cost to get Lidge-and recognizing that like Lidge, Rincon's a year out from free agency. Playing make-believe that such a proposition is even possible, though, it still represents taking a risk, and the Phillies might not be willing to stomach risks after so much bullpen uncertainty this past season. Would calling the Marlins to ask about Kevin Gregg go anywhere, since he's going to get an arbitration-related raise, one way or another? Maybe, and maybe not, but as much of a Gregg fan as I am, I'd be the first to concede Lidge has more talent.

In terms of performance, in what represents a bounceback season from his 2006 trainwreck, Lidge ranked 56th in the majors in WXRL, which is perhaps obviously "second rank" in a 30-team league, and was second on the Astros, behind the significantly less famous Chad Qualls. While always being johnny-on-the-spot as far as learning to loathe the Crawford boxes, Lidge had trouble with lefties in 2006 (.286/.400/.468), and improved against them in 2007 (.184/.280/.379), but to borrow an observation from Marc Normandin, a big difference was BABIP-lefties landed safeties at a .400 clip against him in '06, which dropped to .239 in 2007. That's all well and good; maybe he'll stay good against them and keep snapping off enough sliders to make them look bad. However, he's going from Houston's more lefty-neutral ballpark to the easiest place in baseball for a lefty to go yard, and while Corporate Fruit Beverage Park is famously friendly to righty pull hitters, Lidge's new home is even better, rating first in right-handed home run park factor-Philly rates ahead of everywhere here as well, including Coors Field and Cincinnati's sad, ugly new home.

So, you get a year of Lidge before he's eligible for free agency. You're taking him away from an ill-starred past, but putting him into an even more hostile environment. Talk about nature/nurture debates-will some care and consideration that Scrap Iron probably didn't have in him make up for Lidge's propensity towards creating a few souvenirs too many? From a scouting perspective as well as in terms of performance, Lidge still has much of what has made him great. He's still a power pitcher, still throws hard, still has that slider; you can still see the guy who could be one of the game's best relievers. If ever you wanted to see a high-stakes bid in the belief that a closer's mentality can be radically affected by his manager, this is it, and you're betting that Charlie Manuel isn't going to get as goggle-eyed and desperate as Jim Fregosi was with another Phillies closer back in the day.

That's all neat and daring in its way. The problem is that you only get one year to find out, and then you're either ponying up major money to keep him beyond 2008 or you're hoping his Elias karma counts enough to generate meaningful draft picks in 2009. For that, you just gave up your best homegrown third base option-meaning you have to be a serious bidder for a multi-year solution in the months to come-and your best homegrown center field option-again, meaning you have to be a serious bidder for a multi-year solution in the months to come-and a generic right-handed ball-throwing-type person. And you get Bruntlett, a solidly useful, arguably underrated utilityman, but just that. In terms of treasure-counted in cash, opportunity costs, pounds of flesh, or service time-that's a huge gamble, and one I think the park will make sure doesn't pan out.

The other benefit realized from adding Lidge is that this should presumably get Brett Myers back into the rotation, joining Cole Hamels to provide an improved front-end duo ahead of Adam Eaton and Jamie Moyer. This isn't an insignificant boost, and more than adding Lidge, represents the real area of improvement by adding a "name" to close. Assuming that the Phillies are serious about resolving their question marks in center and at third, getting Myers back into the rotation represents a critical element in the team's successful defense of its division title. This might sound paradoxical, given my dislike for the trade itself, but this is presumably the larger strategic picture for the Phillies, and if you can criticize them appropriately for making an over-large bid for a closer, you have to credit them for the trade's full roster implications. Lidge is a risk, and not really a good one, but with the runs the lineup should put on the board, and with the leads a Myers-enhanced rotation should be able to hold, I can see Lidge having an almost Borowski-like season that represents something close enough to success for Pat Gillick to feel he did alright by his latest team in this particular deal.


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

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