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July 9, 2008

Prospectus Today

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by Joe Sheehan

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Tuesdays are known around my apartment as "radio day." I talk regularly to Brad and Craig in Houston, Brad and Greg in Indianapolis, Bernie and Randy in St. Louis, and I usually have one or two non-regular hits that day, such as yesterday's with Jeff Erickson on XM. The topics vary a bit, although there's always a heavy NL Central flavor to the day. Yesterday, there was an amusing uniformity-every single host asked me if the Cubs needed to make a big move to counter the Brewers' acquisition of CC Sabathia. And every single host got pretty much the same answer:

The Cubs are the best team in the NL, and the last thing they need to do is make a reactive move. With their depth-including a good rotation-and the quality players they have at just about every spot, they're a hard team to improve. They certainly don't need another starting pitcher the way the Brewers did.

I got the e-mail about the Rich Harden deal with about 90 seconds to go in the last spot of the day. That was fun.

The thing is, I stand by everything I said yesterday…and this trade still makes sense for the Cubs. They didn't need to make it, they do have the best team and a difficult roster to improve upon, and the last thing any team needs is to make a move because someone else made a move. Yet with all that, well, this is basically a free Rich Harden. If you're the Cubs, the risk involved in making this trade is so low as to make it a no-brainer. The package of players they gave up will not be missed. Sure, Sean Gallagher might have become a mid-rotation starter in the Jason Marquis mold, and Josh Donaldson could find his way out of the woods and eventually have a career. It doesn't really matter; the Cubs didn't trade anything with enough value to make them regret this deal. There's no Matt LaPorta in here, no Carlos Gomez, no top-50 prospect or high-upside player who could rack up 2000 hits or 200 wins and torment them for 15 years.

That invites the question: What were the A's thinking? If they didn't get back anything of significant value for Harden, why did they trade him? Why did they move him with three weeks to go until the trade deadline, just as the Indians dealt Sabathia? Why didn't they target one very good player instead of getting four guys, none of whom are great prospects?

The only reasonable answer is that this is selling high. That's because while the Cubs look at Rich Harden and see a 2.34 ERA with 92 strikeouts in 77 innings and just five homers allowed, the A's no doubt see 2005 and 2006, in which Harden threw 72 1/3 innings. Total. They see a pitcher who has never thrown 200 innings in a season, and who hasn't made it through a season healthy since 2004. They see a pitcher who is owed $7 million next year. They see a pitcher who just made 13 straight starts for the first time in nearly four years. They see three years of waiting and disappointment

This is not to say that Harden is damaged goods, that he's going to get hurt, that the Cubs got Sirotka'd. This is to say that no one in this deal, and no one breaking it down on the internet, has a firm grip on what Rich Harden is. He could be one of the 10 best pitchers in the National League. He could also be to the 2008 Cubs what Mark Prior was to the last two editions-a potentially great pitcher who never takes the mound. Anyone who says with certainty what Harden will be over the next 12 weeks is just kidding themselves, because he's already doing things he hasn't done in three years, things he has very little experience doing for a full season.

The package of players received for him is unimpressive. However, if anyone is qualified to make a decision on the risks involved in keeping Rich Harden versus trading him, it's the A's. I don't think, even granting that point, that they got enough back in the deal-why not grab some upside in Felix Pie or whatever is left of Rich Hill?-but the motivation seems clear: trade Harden at the peak of his value before he pulls up lame and you can't even get four "eh" guys for him. That's the rationale behind a deal that, 18 hours later, still looks odd.

Looking deeper at what the A's received, Gallagher is 22, with slightly above-average stuff and command of it. Though just 22, there's not much development left in him, and his next 400 innings may be the best he ever throws in the majors. He'll take Harden's place in the rotation, although it's not clear that he'll be one of the A's five best starters a month from now, much less a year from now. If you think of him more as a Joe Blanton replacement-assuming Blanton is also on his way out-that gives you an idea of his value. Eric Patterson is Ray Durham Lite; his strikeout rates in the minors combined with his so-so defense at second base make projecting a major league career an iffy thing. He could have bench value in a Willie Harris way, which isn't that bad a thing when teams carry 12 or more pitchers. Matt Murton is still just 26 and has a career line of .294/.362/.448. His production wouldn't be shaped quite the same way, but there are some similarities here between his pickup and the A's signing of Matt Stairs, when Stairs was 28, back in 1996. We can say with some certainty that Murton is the biggest winner in the trade, given that the Cubs have done everything but sign Andre Dawson and exhume Hack Wilson to play in front of him.

The mystery man in the deal is Donaldson, who was the Cubs' fifth-best prospect over the winter, but who has stumbled to a .223/.282/.385 line in the Midwest League at 22. It's not unreasonable to say that his career, even as a second-year pro, is in jeopardy. Kevin Goldstein calls Donaldson's season a "mystery," saying, "his track record offensively was just outstanding coming in from college and the short-season debut, but he's been awful and it's not like scouts are seeing something else and liking him-he's just been bad. He's also below average defensively." There's not a lot to like at the moment.

So while you can see the A's getting some low-cost value out of the deal-Gallagher could provide innings, Murton some pop from left field, Patterson bench help-they didn't get the kind of talent they acquired in their offseason trades of Dan Haren and Nick Swisher. This trade seems to be more about divesting a high-risk asset rather than being concerned with the return.

Even if Harden is healthy, which is a big "if," he'll have less impact on the Cubs than Sabathia has on the Brewers. The primary differences are that Harden is replacing better pitchers than Sabathia is-Gallagher for the Cubs versus Seth McClung or Jeff Suppan with the Brewers-and Sabathia throws an inning more per start than Harden does. There's also the question of which pitcher is better, but for the purposes of this discussion, let's call them even, giving them both expected RA of 3.00.

Gallagher has a 4.77 RA as a Cubs starter, and he's averaged a bit more than 5 1/3 IP per start. Project that out for 15 starts, and you get 80 innings and 42.5 runs allowed. If you call Harden a 3.00 RA pitcher and give him six innings a start over 15 starts, that's 30 runs allowed in 90 innings. The Cubs have a pretty deep and effective bullpen, to which they've added Chad Gaudin, but we'll use the same assumption from yesterday's analysis and call it six runs allowed in the 10 marginal innings Gallagher doesn't throw for 48.5 runs allowed.

That's a difference of 18.5 runs, or less than two wins. Sabathia, just to save you looking, saved the Brewers a projected 25-30 runs. Harden's projected impact, even if he stays in the rotation the rest of the season, is about 2/3 of Sabathia's. To some extent, getting Gaudin in the deal is an included insurance policy. He would be in line to pick up any starts Harden leaves on the table. The hard-throwing, command-challenged Gaudin is about as good a pitcher as Gallagher, and in changing leagues could end up as a third starter or a Heath Bell-level set-up reliever. There's an argument that the Cubs didn't just get the best player in the deal-they got the two best players.

The trade ends up looking like one that made sense for both teams, given the expectations on each and each organization's relative focus. The A's are trying to build for 2010, while the Cubs are trying to not go 101 years without a championship. The A's didn't have much reason to bet on Harden's upside, given the money owed to him and their chances of winning this year, while the Cubs not only have reason to, they were offered the pitcher for a price they could happily pay. Neither team is likely to lose this trade, and it seems clear that both could win it. That's the definition of a good deal.

--

For more about the Harden deal, you can see me not only on my regular ESPNews appearance at 3:50 ET today, but also on ESPN's Outside the Lines at 3:30 ET. If you make a sandwich in between the two, you can almost pretend that we've launched Baseball Prospectus Television.

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:  Cubs,  Trade,  Deal,  The Who,  The Call-up,  Impact Trade

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