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July 9, 2008
Transaction of the Day
Acquired RHP Sean Gallagher, 2B/OF-L Eric Patterson, OF-R Matt Murton, and C-R Josh Donaldson from the Cubs for RHPs Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. [7/8]
We knew all the answers
I'm as big a Billy Beane fan as any person who prefers to stop short of going all fanboy or fangirl over the man-that's for real genius, not canny baseball executives-but it's really, really hard to see what it is that the A's got that would compel them to accept this offer, as opposed to treat it as a conversational cul-de-sac to head back out of and see whether a real deal might be struck. Why make a deal with the Cubs, who just don't have all that much to offer? As Kevin Goldstein noted in January, theirs isn't a great farm system, and even if you're landing three of their eight best pre-season prospects, that's relative. Put it this way-who is the best player that the A's received in the deal? We'll try and answer that in a second, but there's a second question that has to be asked in conjunction with the first: How likely is the best player received in the deal to have a significant role with the club in 2010 (when Harden would have been a free agent signed by somebody else) or 2011 (when Gaudin would have expended his salary arbitration seasons and potentially also left for a team and contract of his choosing)?
Let's start with the guy I'm willing to label the best in the deal, Gallagher. Perhaps he's an undervalued commodity in the same way that Dana Eveland was, because in a uniform he doesn't fulfill any Greek ideals of the human form any better than Eveland does. So, a Sir Mix-a-Lot acquisition strategy might mean you're not competing with nearly as many other people, while still finding just as much joy. That's swell. The problem is that there isn't a whole lot of projectability here-he's a guy who throws strikes and has solid command of low-90s heat and good breaking and off-speed stuff. Good, but not great, those pitches. If you really want to depress yourself, A's fans, sign up for the suggestion that the Cubs are cheating in their home park, and look at Gallager's road performance, where opposing hitters have pasted him at a .271/.341/.472 clip. Sure, it's not a lot of work (35 2/3 IP), and sure, that involves bad days in Houston and Bridgeport, parks where fly balls find seats instead of leather that much more easily. Maybe this is an overly elaborate concern, since he'll be pitching in Al Davis' Mausoleum, but it's going to be in the DH league, and it just doesn't seem like he's a lock to be a good one-for-one replacement of Gaudin on the staff, let alone Harden in the rotation. Since nobody mentions Gallagher and projectability in the same sentence, as WYSIWYG propositions go, we're in danger of getting into Gertrude Stein territory, where there's just not much there there.
Sounds great, right? Well, maybe the best player is Matt Murton. Lots of my fellow statheads love Matt Murton. He's a redhead, so that's a good start, but I would think A's fans would be better off taking that visual cue and remembering Bobby Kielty, who we also got all worked up about, and who presented many of the same benefits and hazards. We're not talking about a young player here-Murton is already 26, and already has a thousand plate appearances in the majors, so we know quite a bit about what he's good for. Like Kielty was, Murton is pretty dangerous against lefties, having hit .316/.389/.494 against them, and he's pretty patient, having walked in 8.5 percent of his PAs. Like Kielty, he may not be good for a lot of power against right-handed pitching, having hit only .282/.346/.422 against them; that's better than more than 6.7 billion people on the planet, and pretty weak for a major league left fielder. Unlike Kielty, he can't really play anywhere but left, and not all that well there. Again, at 26, he's ready now, and as good as he's going to get now. I've left off mentioning how poorly he's hit in Iowa this year (.298/.397/.382), hoping it's a case of the mopes over spending too much time in the cornfields. If it isn't, I guess the River Cats can always use another hitter. Right now, this looks like an upgrade-on Emil Brown, and on who you're platooning Jack Cust with. Gee, that's swell.
OK, so maybe Eric Patterson's the best player. He's already 25 and in his second full season at Triple-A (or higher), so he's also a relatively finished product. As an offensive contributor, there aren't any real questions-he has fine plate coverage, good enough patience, solid power, and he contributes a useful dose of speed on the bases. This year, he's hitting .320/.358/.517 in Iowa, which boils down into an unimpressive .269 EqA. Past concerns over how well he'll hit lefties seem to be have been addressed a bit, in that he's slugging over .600 against them, but that's in 49 PA, which doesn't mean you can't still be concerned. The real problem with Patterson is the question of his position. Call him a second baseman, and he's one of the best prospects at the position, and that would be swell for the A's, because Mark Ellis is a free agent after the season. The trouble is that he's not really a good second baseman-scouts feel he lacks the reactions and instincts to be an asset at the position, and performance metrics like Clay Davenport's Fielding Runs and Dan Fox's both see him as pretty lousy at the keystone. Hence the Cubs' interest in moving him to the outfield, where he's not one of the best prospects, just a guy who runs well and hits right-handers, and maybe his athleticism makes him into a good center fielder someday, and maybe it doesn't and you've got... another underpowered left fielder. Maybe he platoons with Murton for a year or two, maybe that puts Cust at DH, and maybe that sounds like a formula for a pretty mediocre offense. Fundamentally, the problem with Patterson is that his perceived value is higher than his actual utility. If the A's decide to damn the spreadsheets and the scouts and plow Patterson into the second-base slot, that's sort of admirably brazen in its indifference to defense, certainly the best way to make his offensive contributions valuable (position-relative), and not something the pitching staff will thank management for later.
If there's a player I wouldn't call the best player in the deal, it's the guy Kevin rated as the best prospect before the season, the catcher, Josh Donaldson. Hitting only .217/.276/.349 for Peoria in the Low-A Midwest League, the nicest things you can say are that he's 21, and you can never have too much catching. Did I mention that he's 21? The bad news is that as a product of Auburn and as someone who was expected to be an offense-oriented catcher, he's supposed to be hitting, and he isn't. Maybe that gets turned around at Kane County; maybe a coach or scout has seen something they can fix. Maybe he's just not all that.
On some level, I segregate this deal into two segments, because I'm merely human and I create patterns where none might exist. First, I put Gaudin for Gallagher to one side as something of a push, where the benefits are pretty straightforward: Gaudin's getting expensive through arbitration, where Gallagher's five years removed from free agency and three years younger. Consider it an exchange of an established fourth starter for a potential fourth starter, with the attendant cost savings. The problem is that this leaves you with Patterson, Murton, and Donaldson for Harden. Somebody would bite on that? Billy Beane would bite on that? Where's Felix Pie? Where's Rich Hill? Where's... well, something or somebody with real upside? This is it?
Naturally, people are already scrambling to credit Beane with the sort of inside information that led him to dump Jeremy Giambi for John Mabry. No doubt they'll genuflect should Harden hurt himself (again) and assure themselves that Billy must have known-he's all-knowing and wise, donchaknow. It is not Beane's fault that people are ready to home-brew their Kool-Aid so quickly, but no special brand of genius is required to recognize that Harden's a property whose value could go to nil in the next month, the next start, perhaps even the next pitch. But there is also the concern that this team, having already surprised people so very nicely three months into the season, had done all it needed to do where Beane's legend is concerned, and that converting Harden and Gaudin for new commodities comes across as especially cold-blooded.
Again, I doubt he cares, nor should he. Pushing past the atmospherics that must have some people muttering into their coffee this morning, the real problem is with what he got for Harden and Gaudin. In terms of the talent acquired, it looks and feels more like a salary dump than a deal that should be ranked with the winter deals made with the D'backs or the White Sox that refurbished the farm system. Except even then, Harden's deal wasn't guaranteed for next year, so if he's about to explode, the A's were really only out the rest of this year's salary, plus Gaudin's arbitrations to come. What does that add up to, $10-12 million above baseline expenditures over three years? That's not a whole lot of money, not in baseball. If you can nevertheless accept it on that level, that's probably eminently sensible of you, and better that than getting overly worked up over Murton or Patterson. Gallagher fills out a rotation at a pretty low cost, but the pitching staff on the next A's contender becomes that much more dependent on being all about the Inoas or the Cahills or winding up wherever a Gio (Gonzalez) quiz takes them.
This year's hot start was nice. It was also gratuitously unnecessary, because the focus remains not on this year, or next, but on the big picture: finding a path to Fremont, and the more distant future. This deal doesn't get them any closer to it, because it expended the potential value of two major league starting pitchers, and converted them into a group of cheap players whose value in a few pre-season rankings or in some subsets of fandom have been more than a little exaggerated. If you wanted to call that a setback, you'd be right.
Perhaps like Dallas Green or Jim Frey or Gene Michael, Jim Hendry is never going to be accused of any particular genius, but that's not especially fair or unfair-at the end of the day, he's made his share of sensible baseball moves, a few bad ones (perils of the job), and sometimes he puts together something that just works. This isn't a deal without risks, but at the price that he's paying, there's no reason for him not to take them, and in light of the Brewers' move to add CC Sabathia, making a trade to forestall any Milwaukee move towards second-half glory without hurting the Cubs' bid for a division title now (or next year, or ever) was nothing less than inspired.
Take a look at what this means for the rotation on paper:
Before SNLVAR After SNLVAR Carlos Zambrano 3.5 Zambrano 3.5 Ryan Dempster 2.9 Harden 3.2 Ted Lilly 2.1 Dempster 2.9 Jason Marquis 1.1 Lilly 2.1 Sean Gallagher 1.0 Marquis 1.1 Sean Marshall 0.7 Marshall 0.7 (Jon Lieber) Gaudin 0.5
That looks and feels a lot more like a playoff rotation-the workhorse and the fragile ace up top, and the more workmanlike third and fourth starters you pick your spots with, with Lilly avoiding teams that kill lefties, and Dempster perhaps sticking to starting home games. Keep in mind that Gaudin's value is cheapened by this exercise-he finished the 2007 season with a SNLVAR of 3.8, which would have been ranked fourth on last year's Cubs, ahead of Marquis. If you plug Gaudin into the Cubs' rotation as well as Harden, you're talking about adding two good starting pitchers to your front five without giving up anybody who was contributing that significantly this year. However, it sounds like the Cubs will initially reserve Gaudin to plug in once somebody struggles or should anybody get hurt.
I'm struck by the similarity between Marquis and Gaudin, in that both seem to live dangerously with more baserunners aboard than is good for their managers' digestion, but Gaudin's only 25, and brief bits of greatness like the run he enjoyed last year in the first half at least give you cause for hope that he'll outgrow this level. In getting Gaudin to plug into their rotation as their best bet for their fifth starter, whether or not you want to draw up images involving handcuffs and Harden, having the cookin' Cajun as an add-on is nothing short of inspired, perhaps even downright tasty. (Could a guest chef appearance in Andersonville be in the offing for Gaudin? Inquiring minds want to know.)
Now, to turn to the main course as far as what's been added to the menu, there's what Harden has been good for so far this season: eight quality starts in 13 (although only one in his last four), and a month-long trip to the DL with a shoulder problem. Sadly, that's the kind of scorecard you're always going to have to keep where Harden's concerned; as great as a pitcher who is striking out almost 30 percent of the batters he's seen this season can be, we're talking about a guy who's pitched something close to one full season in the majors only once in the last five years. It's easy to kid around over how the team that squandered Mark Prior's career and perhaps a good bit of Kerry Wood's might be less inclined to take another bite of this particular apple and take a chance on a commodity as notoriously fragile as Harden. It's also important to recognize that caution has played a significant part in Harden's workload; in another era, Harden might have blazed as briefly as Mark Fidrych, and already be done as an effective starting pitcher. While people both inside the A's organization and out could get frustrated with Harden, and perhaps inevitably question whether he was too high-maintenance in more than one sense of the word, he's been brilliant this season.
It's also easy to anticipate that the same Chicago sports market that played to Dusty Baker's worst instincts and routinely castigated Prior for lacking the fortitude to just get out there and pitch when he was trying to pitch through pain and injury didn't learn a thing from the experience, and will jump all over Harden when there's that first missed start, or that perhaps-inevitable trip to the DL. I admit, the prospect makes me a bit squeamish, because when it happpens, it's going to be unfair, it's going to be fed by understandably frustrated people (those always-admirable "anonymous sources") within the organization, and it'll get feral, and fast. However, it appears that the Cubs have reviewed the necessary medical reports, and that they're comfortable that Harden's as good to go as he needs to be.
That's fine, but it also shouldn't be taken as a guarantee that Harden's suddenly been recast in Chobham armor and is ready for anything. Even so, if there's an extra-perishable commodity in a major league rotation that you should be willing to risk employing, it's Harden, and it isn't as if the Cubs weren't already dealing with a large amount of assumed risk. Remember, we're talking about a rotation that was already counting on Dempster and Marquis, meaning that before this deal it was a real possibility that in a seven-game postseason series, you were looking at three of seven getting started by that pair. Whatever their value over the season's long slog, or Dempster's fine work so far, does that really sound like a good idea to anybody? Which Dempster would the team get, the guy who's given them three quality starts in eight on the road, or eight of ten at home? Would the playoff schedule cooperate? (And is this another brickbat in the burgeoning conspiracy theory that the Cubs are enjoying something extra in their home-field advantage?)
Now, consider the cost to the organization-you get a potential ace starter, albeit one who, like John Tudor in the '80s, you can't be too sure how long you have him for. Happily, Harden comes with a club option for 2009, so if he's healthy enough to want to keep for $7 million next year, that's the opportunity to retain a fragile ace at a level of compensation significantly below market pricing. Gaudin is Cubs property for at least two seasons, although he'll be arbitration-eligible the next two winters, but that's still a matter of adding a quality pitcher for two and a half years, one who would cost more than that on the open market, and one of a caliber that there were no guarantees that Gallagher was going to be able match. As for the talent surrendered, on a practical level it boils down to Gallagher-who you just replaced with two better starters-two position players you didn't like and probably couldn't use, and a Low-A catcher who wasn't doing anything to convince people he's the next Jeff Goldbach, let alone that he might become a prospect.
If there's an interesting development, it's how this effectively buries Rich Hill. We can argue over whether or not he'd already dug himself a hole he can't get out of, but with his bout of Blassitis down on the farm-two baserunners per inning, and more than a walk per? Yikes-it isn't like he's making a case for his ability to contribute this year.