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January 30, 2008

Prospectus Today

The Trade

by Joe Sheehan

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Our long national nightmare is over. Maybe. Pending a physical and negotiations over a contract extension, the Mets have reached agreement with the Twins on a trade for left-hander Johan Santana. After a winter of rumors that had Santana going to the Yankees or Red Sox on alternate days for 12 weeks, the Mets appear to have closed the deal with a package that includes four of their top eight prospects, but not their #1, outfielder Fernando Martinez.

As it stands, this is just a great trade for the Mets, who deal four players who weren't going to be on their 25-man roster-maybe Philip Humber would have been their fifth starter-for the best pitcher in baseball. The gap between Santana and, say, Humber, is on the order of four wins, and could be close to six wins. This trade, in one move, makes them the favorite in a jammed-up NL East, and for that matter, a jammed-up NL. Should Pedro Martinez return reasonably healthy nearly two years removed from surgery, it's not unreasonable to think the Mets could go 40-20 or even 45-15 in 60 starts from their top two guys. That's a very big edge on the competition. Brandon Webb and Dan Haren will likely throw more innings, but I'm not sure which pair of starters I'd rather have.

Even though the trade does package four top prospects, it's hard to see where any of them will be missed, at least in 2008. Humber and Carlos Gomez were closest to the majors, each spending time with the major league club in '07. Humber's first complete season as a pro-he missed time in 2005 and 2006 to Tommy John surgery-was a mild success, with a 120/44 K/BB in 139 innings (5 2/3 per start), but a high home-run rate (21 allowed) led to an unimpressive ERA at Triple-A (4.27). He's not the future ace he was projected to be when the Mets made him the third overall pick in the 2004 draft, looking instead like a number four or five guy.

Gomez has incredible raw speed and a body considered "projectable," with tools that bring all the scouts to the yard. The Mets did him no favors this year, calling him up from Triple-A after a month to cover for some outfield injuries. He wasn't ready, hitting .255/.303/.333 in near-full-time play through July 4, and would have been much better served with a full season at New Orleans. A broken bone in his left hand, suffered while checking his swing, effectively ended his season. He was lousy in September and not playing well in winter ball, so despite the great tools, right now he looks like a fourth outfielder in the making. Like most young players, he needs to become better about pitch recognition and plate discipline.

Kevin Mulvey, the Mets' top pick in the 2006 draft, is a command guy with plus stuff, and pitched well at Double-A in 2007. As with the current version of Humber, he projects as a mid-rotation starter at best, and is more likely an innings muncher, the kind of pitcher the Mets could have used in 2006 and 2007, actually.

The upside in the trade belongs to Deolis Guerra, the nine-year-old-OK, he's 19-right-hander who was one of the youngest players at High-A this season. Guerra signed at 17 out of Venezuela, and has been babied in two pro seasons, averaging less than five innings a start. Despite the hype, his performances haven't been that good: just 135 strikeouts in 178 2/3 innings and a 2-1 K/BB. The 6'5" Guerra is expected to gain velocity as he gets older, but right now, he's a teenage finesse pitcher. Quite frankly, it's hard to say what we're dealing with here: there's not much track record for 18-year-olds in the Florida State League, and most of those guys breathed fire.

The Mets simply weren't going to need any of these guys in '08. Humber would have gotten some starts, Gomez might have reprised his fill-in role, but the two players wouldn't have combined to be worth more than a win or so. It's fair to say that this deal could weaken the organization going forward, making 2008 a must-win season; on the other hand, flags fly forever, and if the Mets do sign Santana, a core of David Wright, Jose Reyes, Johan Santana, and Carlos Beltran is enough to build around in '08 and beyond.

As you might surmise from the evaluations above, this trade doesn't change the conversation about the Twins. In trading Johan Santana, they needed to fill organizational holes up the middle and at third base. Six of their top seven prospects are pitchers, and just one of their top 11 is an infielder. Carlos Gomez might fill their center-field hole, or he might end up a toolsy disappointment. As with the Marlins' trade for Cameron Maybin, much will depend on how the team handles the player; if the Twins let Gomez play 2008 at Rochester, let him work on the holes in his game, they'll have a better chance of eventually having a major league-caliber center fielder. Rushing him because he's a true center fielder and they need that will not help the player or the team. Even at that, I'm not convinced that Gomez is that great a prospect; there's a wide gap between him and Fernando Martinez, and the Twins not getting Martinez instead of Gomez is the key to this deal.

The pitchers…Humber and Mulvey just add to the organization's depth. I'm not going to pretend I know more than Kevin Goldstein does, but I fail to see where these guys move the needle, slotting in with a group that includes Jeff Manship and Tyler Robertson. Unless the Twins know they can package a couple of these guys for comparable shortstop or outfield prospects, they haven't improved their organization by making this deal. Guerra is a lottery ticket, and if the Twins wanted one of those, they should have made it a hitter.

The package just wasn't the right one. I'm not going to compare this trade to the long-rumored and varying offers that were reportedly on the table at varying times this winter, because I've come around to the idea that what's actually offered and what gets reported are two wildly different things. We can't compare an actual trade to rumors. However, evaluating this deal in a vacuum, we see that it adds just one position player of note, one with some major flaws and who wouldn't be one of the top ten prospects at his position in the game. The rest of the deal is mid-rotation pitching prospects.

There are mitigating circumstances here that must be noted. Santana forced Bill Smith's hand by threatening to invoke his no-trade clause, which would have ended all talks and forced the Twins to either sign Santana or lose him at the end of the year for nothing. With the Twins looking up at the Tigers and Indians in the division, and the Red Sox and Yankees in the league, it didn't seem reasonable to keep him in a push for success in 2008, and the Twins have never acted like signing Santana was a reasonable option for them. With Santana pointing the gun, apparently wishing to have his 2008 status settled right now, Smith had little choice but to make a deal. This trade does little for me, but when positioned as "one year of Johan Santana or this trade," it's a bit more defensible.

Could Smith have done better? We don't know. Teams have never come around to the idea that it's better to get one great prospect than four good ones, so suggesting that trading Santana straight up for Adam Jones, or Matt Kemp, or Jay Bruce is a non-starter. All of those one-for-one deals would have been better for the Twins, and I would suggest that all would have been available to them. On the other hand, you have to go back to Santana holding all the leverage; his goal in this is to advance his free agency by a season, by forcing a trade to a team that will accede to his contract demands. Could the Mariners or Dodgers or Reds have done that? Perhaps, but not as willingly as the Mets can.

Blame Bill Smith for the deal that he did make, but save a little ire for Terry Ryan, whose decision three years ago set these events in motion.

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

Related Content:  Trade,  The Who,  Philip Humber,  Humber,  Trade To Dodgers

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