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January 16, 2008

Transaction Analysis

Challenges and Carousels

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Dealt CF-L Mark Kotsay and lots of cash to the Braves for RHPs Joey Devine and Jamie Richmond.

A nice little exchange, in that the A's had to consider Kotsay a very sunk cost. Like ditching Jason Kendall last summer, they were better off exchanging him for anything that freed up the playing time, some small amount of the already-committed money, and ideally brought in some extra talent. Just as stealing Jerry Blevins from the Cubs while creating time for Kurt Suzuki worked out quite nicely in that regard during the season's final third, this deal has every bit as good a likelihood of delivering. Setting aside what they get back from the Braves, just by making the exchange, Billy Beane got back something like $2.6 million that would have otherwise been part of Kotsay's $8 million salary for 2008. If you start off with the assumption that Kotsay's useless-not an implausible suggestion-that borders on found money, although admittedly found money that had previously fallen out of the A's collective pocket.

Then there's the goodies received from the Braves, and it's very similar to that Blevins pickup, in that the club has a ready-now reliever to add to their mix in camp. Devine needed a change of scenery, and his basic package of gifts-a sweet sinker and functional breaking stuff-is all still there. It's very believable that he could step right into camp and win a high-leverage set-up role in the A's pen. Richmond's your basic strike-throwing machine with low or average velocity on his fastball, supplementing what he lacks in Juggs action with a nice curve and change. The A's were apparently initially after Kris Medlen as the second pitcher in the deal, but the Braves wisely didn't entertain that suggestion.

Finally, there's the opportunity generated by getting Kotsay out of the way. Carlos Gonzalez still looks like an easy choice to win the job in center field, but he'd be making the jump from Double-A, and the A's might decide to take the edge off of his coming up by taking their time or leaving him alone as a right fielder. There's also the team's already one-year-old investment in Chris Denorfia should his recovery from knee surgery leave him still relatively able to handle the middle pasture. There's also the question of whether or not Ryan Sweeney might be able to cover enough ground in center. I guess I don't see a scenario where the A's keep all three of them up, add the trio to Travis Buck and Emil Brown, and say "good enough" for an initial 2008 Oakland A's outfield where there's some position overlap, a couple of good throwing arms, and a few obvious exploitable platoon possibilities. The potential wild-card Cust wannabe among the NRIs is Todd Linden, but I was convinced he was a Fresno fiction back in the day, and I see no reason to change directions now that he's closing in on 28.

TEXAS RANGERS
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Finalized signing RHP Kazuo Fukumori; designated 1B-R Chris Shelton for assignment.

It's possible that the Rangers might lose Shelton on a waiver claim, but that would hardly be debilitating. They're not going to win the division, and having picked up Ben Broussard as well, it isn't like picking one or the other offers all that much upside. Shelton is cheap, an uncertain proposition, and disposable, even more so with Nate Gold likely to start pushing for playing time at first base at some point early on during the 2008 season. The problem there is that the Rangers' 40-man roster is already fully stocked, and Gold's not yet on it. That should make for some interesting decision-making, certainly.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Traded 3B-R Troy Glaus to the Cardinals for 3B-R Scott Rolen.

Starting snarkily, Rolen might be the perfect Blue Jay. He's making a very large amount of money, he's not really guaranteed to be that much better than average when he can play, and he's fragile enough to join A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan as big-ticket sometimers. Add in that he's older than Glaus, and that he's hit decidedly worse than Glaus in seasons like 2005 and 2007 than Glaus has done in any season in the last eight, and that the Jays get him for an extra year besides, and I'm not sure what this deal is for, besides getting onto John Mozeliak's Christmas card list.

However, referring to that chart in the Cardinals' section, take note that Rolen's upside puts Glaus comfortably in the shade. Yes, it'll mean assuming he can still deliver on turf, in the tougher league, and facing two of the best teams in baseball with a perhaps-frustrating regularity because they're division rivals. But let's face it, the Jays are doomed to another season of time-wasting limbo if they don't take a big risk or two, and as often as they've crapped out in recent years in terms of mounting a real challenge to the dominance of the Yankees and Red Sox, they're still absolutely dependent on something coming up big their way if they want to achieve something more than their feeble 2006 bragging right of, "We're number two! For now!" If Rolen comes back with a chip on a fully-working shoulder, maybe he returns to being a mid-ballot MVP talent. That's a big if, of course, but it's the sort of thing the Jays' ambitions have to rest upon. It's not a bet I'd really like to take, but pretty much everything else they do or could have done was a losing proposition. It's only a matter of time before that comfortable perch in third place becomes a more-regular fourth-place finish behind the ever-improving Rays, and what self-respecting adult brags about finishing ahead of the Orioles?

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Acquired CF-L Mark Kotsay from the Athletics for RHPs Joey Devine and Jamie Richmond.

It would be fair to say that there's some upside here. For roughly $2.7 million, the Braves are really only committing to a single-season look-see at the broken-down former center-field power source. It's easy to draw a comparison to the Padres' pickup of Jim Edmonds last month-an expensive formerly great player on his last legs in a contract's last year, picked up for something summoned up out of the minor leagues. However, there's a significant difference between the two-the Padres picked up more salary, so they yielded a lesser prospect, where the A's were willing to absorb more of the expense, which yielded a better grade of kids in the deal.

However, Devine really did need the change of scenery, and it doesn't seem likely that Richmond will come back to haunt them, so the real costs here are the money spent and the opportunity Kotsay is getting at the expense of Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco. As I noted before, Anderson was hard to take seriously as an option, so the real question is whether this just totally screws Blanco, because Kotsay's reign, however effective or ineffective it may be, will only last until Jordan Schafer's ready, which may well be August.

In that context, acquiring Kotsay came at some real cost; if the Braves really didn't want to trust in Blanco or Anderson, they could have signed somebody like Corey Patterson to a one-year deal for something in the $2-3 million range, and they'd still have Devine, and they'd still be observing their pre-booked journey to the Age of Schafer in the very near future. The difference between that option and this plan of action is whether you have some faith in Kotsay's upside and ability to contribute to a contender this season, accepting for the sake of argument for the moment that Patterson doesn't even have another 2006 in him.

Healthy, Kotsay's an adequate center fielder, equally mediocre in covering the gaps and deterring baserunners with his arm. That's not a slight-mediocrity at a key defensive position has value. If healthy, that's one thing Kotsay brings to the table, but ideally, you'd also want this notionally healthy Kotsay to be able to contribute at the plate as well, and that's possible-again, as something of a mediocrity. In his last five years, he's produced three EqAs in the .260s-the definition of adequacy-one above that in 2004 (.288), and one well below (.214), in last year's bad back-shortened season. You know where this is going: a healthy Kotsay might put up an EqA in the .260s. That's definitely worth spending a couple of million on if you're an aspiring contender, but it probably isn't worth a couple of million and a worthwhile reliever. That's the upside; the downside is that you're left naked with a broke-back center fielder, no protection at the position, down a few million you might have used to buy an in-season fix, and still counting the days until Schafer's ready.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Signed CF-R Mike Cameron to a one-year, pro-rated $7 million contract with a $10 million club option for 2009; designated OF-L Drew Anderson for assignment.

Considering the flavor of the day, if there's supposed to be some moral indignation attached to signing a suspended player like Cameron, I don't see any reason to. It's not a straight $7 million, it's a $5 million base (which is what gets affected by his suspension) with a $1.25 million signing bonus and a $750,000 buyout clause on that pretty pricey 2009 option. Add in his reachable playing time incentive, and he'll get another $750,000 if he essentially plays regularly during the 137 games he won't be in the penalty box; that doesn't look like Cameron took much of a hit at all. Which, frankly, he shouldn't have to. The industry can suspend people; such is within their power, and is one of the charges of the commissioner's office. This is pretty much another incidence of what Joe Sheehan's already brought up, noting the many other contracts that turn a blind eye on the question of banned substances (whether purported performance enhancers or stimulants in general), and observing that there isn't really a financial penalty being assessed by the game's administrators and owners who claim how very, very much this matter means to them. Nothing like a bit of bloviating nonsense to keep those voter/consumer types feeling good about the people in suits, I guess.

Financially, the deal's a solid risk, and provides the Brewers with something they could use-defensive help that doesn't cost them any offensive muscle. Cameron taking over in center generates a ripple effect that could improve the Brewers' execrable defense in more ways than one. This isn't a straight bit of plugging in Cameron and pulling out Bill Hall, it's instead an adaptive response to a series of problems that involves a series of prospective solutions. Hall has to go someplace, and it's going to be third, where Ryan Braun bordered on being a one-man disaster at the hot corner. It's already a bit of addition by subtraction, in that Hall could be merely adequate and provide a major upgrade, but there's potentially more here than that. Hall was a strong-armed infielder before, with fine range for short, so if he's got the snap reactions to handle third, the Brewers might be able to take advantage of having a pair of strong-armed infielders like Hall and J.J. Hardy on the left side by shading them deeper and perhaps helping cover ground in the direction of the less adept Rickie Weeks over at second. Maybe Weeks improves in the face of a more limited set of expectations and responsibilities at second. You don't have to be Al Capone to drive home the point that in the field, players play as a team, so I'm willing to throw a suggestion of synergistic benefits out there as a possibility.

I'm a little less wild about putting Braun out in left field, not because I wish he was still in the outfield, but because it seems like a waste of good material. Braun might have been all thumbs at third, but he's not a clod, he's a gifted athlete with a strong throwing arm that would do quite nicely in right field-not something to overlook with Matt LaPorta trying to adapt to life as a left fielder. In bringing this up, I don't mean to sell Corey Hart short-Hart's definitely earned a job, and he has considerable value right now as a regular. It's certainly a nice problem to have, but I guess I'd just like to see Braun head out to a position that fully exploits his gifts, and especially in light of Corey Hart's limitations as a deterrent from the right field corner (modest spoiler-Dan Fox's Baseball Prospectus 2008 essay and analysis on throwing arms rated Hart the third least-effective regular right fielder in baseball). I know, it would mean another change in the team's defensive alignment, but I guess I like the possibilities, especially since I don't see talk of having LaPorta play some right field being all that likely to turn out well. Of course, given the expectation that LaPorta's going to be ready to hit in the majors in the not-so-distant future, the question of whether or not the Brewers could shop Hart becomes a part of that near-term picture.

To bring this back to Cameron, it's a good pickup with a lot of obvious immediate positive ramifications, which might actually yield outsized effects in terms of the quality and strength of the team's lineup and defense.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Traded 3B-R Scott Rolen to the Blue Jays for 3B-R Troy Glaus.

I know this is seen as a challenge trade as well as an exchange of problems, but if that's the case, it's one I think the Cardinals have already won, perhaps handily. In light of Glaus' agreement to exercise his player option for 2009, it's two years of Glaus for three of Rolen. Glaus is younger by a little more than a year, and if he lacks Rolen's peaks, at least at the plate, he also lacks the former Phillie's valleys:

         Glaus          Rolen
Year   EqA  WARP3     EqA  WARP3
2003  .284   2.5     .310   9.3
2004  .306   2.4     .328  12.0
2005  .293   5.7     .246   2.7
2006  .293   8.4     .300  10.0
2007  .297   5.8     .264   5.7

Obviously, employing either of them involves some pretty complicated challenges for trainer Barry Weinberg and his crew. But even without the benefits of Weinberg's help, Glaus has been able to deliver at the plate whenever he plays, and if his value at third as a defender is well behind Rolen's, Rolen's shoulder issues might radically alter the answer to whether or not he's still a premium defensive third baseman. Maybe Rolen's initial greatness makes the age issue a wash, but that doesn't erase Glaus' relative offensive reliability, or his advantages moving to grass or the weakest division in the easier league, and as much as both players represent risks, it would seem to me you're better off betting on getting value over two years than hoping for it over three. Not only do the Cardinals part with a needless bit of in-house divisiveness, they win out in terms of offensive reliability, long-term risk, and expense.


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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