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July 18, 2008

Prospectus Today

Bubble Boys

by Joe Sheehan

CC Sabathia, Rich Harden, and Joe Blanton have already been dealt in a flurry of early activity, leaving many contenders playing from behind in the race to improve their team by the trade deadline. With three of the top arms off of the market, the list of trade targets is hitter-heavy. For pitching, there's really only Erik Bedard; everyone else you can think of is either on a good team or not an impact pitcher. Then again, the A's are 51-44 and have dealt away 40 percent of their rotation in the last 10 days, so maybe they'll move a third. Read on.

One of the critical points to remember is that what we're doing here is making best estimates as to the impact of an acquisition. Player performance varies wildly, and over nine or 10 weeks, nearly any player can dominate the game or be a complete write-off. All you can do is determine what the most likely level of performance is, compare that to the most likely level of performance the acquiring team would get otherwise, and calculate the difference. No one can predict the short-term performance of baseball players. A peek at the All-Star rosters can tell you that much.

So what's left out there? A lot of left fielders. It's a bat-heavy market, which is a partial explanation for Billy Beane's moves of late—he's been leveraging the value of starting pitching at a time of high demand for it. Here are eight trade targets, six of them hitters, who will be changing locations or who are strongly rumored to do so over the next two weeks:

1. Jason Bay, Pirates: What a difference a few months makes. Bay played through a knee injury last year that helped ruin his numbers, but has returned to form in 2008. He is one of the best hitters in the league, with a .288/.388/.529 line that puts him fourth in the NL in Equivalent Average. The Pirates don't have to deal him—he's signed to a great contract that pays him $7.5 million in 2009—but their need to focus on long-term rebuilding makes them likely to do so.

Bay's bat would help any contender, and his favorable contract means he's not just a rental, although that value will show up in his price. Bay's defensive performance has slipped dramatically since 2006, a decline that shows up in both his Baseball Prospectus numbers and zone-based ones. He cannot move to right field, and a team trading for him would be well-served to have a strong defensive outfield already in place. Contenders in the worst shape in left field include the Braves, Mets, and Diamondbacks—the latter reduced to playing Conor Jackson, a poor first baseman, out in that part of the pasture.

With the Diamondbacks in more need of a lefty bat and having Eric Byrnes' contract on the books through 2010, and the Mets still hoping for a return from Moises Alou, the Braves are the best fit for Bay. While they aren't going to trade Jason Heyward or Jordan Schafer in a deal of this sort, they could provide an immediate replacement for Bay in Brandon Jones, a low-upside player who would be a serviceable regular right now. As always, the Braves have young arms to move, led by Tommy Hanson, but backed up by considerable depth. We've seen teams take packages of second-tier prospects at the deadline, so could the Braves get Bay from the Pirates without moving any of their top three?

If they do, it'll have quite an impact. Matt Diaz and Greg Norton failed to extend their late-career surges into '08, leaving left field to the effective, if unexciting, Gregor Blanco. Whether Bay replaces Blanco or Mark Kotsay (with Blanco playing center) doesn't matter; you can expect him to generate 20 to 25 additional runs down the stretch as compared to either player, while giving back five or so on defense. Adding Bay would be worth about two wins to the Braves, closing the gap on the Mets and Phillies by a third. As long as they can get him without dealing Heyward, Hanson, or Schafer, it's worth the move.

2. Erik Bedard, Mariners: Bedard's failure to be the Mariners' second ace behind Felix Hernandez was a small part of why that team has been such a disappointment. On a per-inning basis, Bedard has been a great pitcher, but he has in-game and in-season durability issues that keep him from being one of the best in the game, and those issues have frustrated the Mariners, who are in position to make a number of trades over the next two weeks.

The state of Bedard's shoulder is a confounding factor. He's been on the DL with "soreness," hasn't pitched in two weeks and isn't expected to pitch until at least Tuesday, with even that in doubt. Any team acquiring him is assuming considerable risk, as opposed to, say, trading for Joe Blanton, who isn't as good as Bedard but never misses a start. The Yankees have a healthy appetite for risk—they have both Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner in the rotation, after all—would seem ready to take a chance on Bedard. Even discounting Bedard to 12 starts and maybe 75 innings, he'd be expected to allow a 3.75 RA/9, or about 31 runs. Ponson and Rasner are replacement-level talents, five-inning starters who have allowed five runs per nine innings and who can be expected to be worse than that going forward, closer to 6 RA/9. Even if the Yankees get Philip Hughes and Chien-Ming Wang back down the stretch, Bedard will have a positive impact on their run prevention on the order of 20 runs. That's worth two wins.

Can the Yankees get Bedard? Assuming the Mariners aren't looking for the package they traded away six months ago, yes. With Bedard not eligible for free agency until after 2009, the Yankees could better justify including an Ian Kennedy-but not Philip Hughes-in a trade, and they may be ready to give up on Melky Cabrera. The Yankees' top trade chits over the winter have mostly had lousy years, which means a package that would have looked great not long ago isn't as attractive now. Then again, the same can be said of Bedard.

3. Adrian Beltre, Mariners: If you look at Beltre's career without the 2004 season, he appears to be one of the most consistent players in the game. That one year, in which he hit 47 homers for the Dodgers before signing a $65 million contract, skews the perception of him. Add in that he has played his entire career in two great pitchers' parks and that his defense is legitimately great, and you have a player who has become a bit undervalued. Given where the market has gone, the $19 million or so left on his deal through 2009 isn't a daunting commitment for a contender to take on right now.

The league-wide depth at third base is impressive, but one contender has spent the year trying to patch a gaping hole there. The Twins have used seven players at the hot corner, and only the empty .300 average of Brian Buscher has been of much use. Their third-base defense has been terrible as well. Beltre would add value on both sides of the ball, one of the few trade-deadline targets who can make that claim. His .272 EqA would make him one of the better hitters in the Twins lineup, at least a 15-run upgrade over running Buscher out there the rest of the season. His glove would save five runs, and perhaps a bit more, over the last 70 games. That's a gain of 20-25 runs by trading for Beltre.

For the Twins, the best part is that they might be able to get him for just a willingness to assume the contract obligation. The Twins have a raft of pitching prospects in the minors to go with their homegrown major league rotation. Two second-tier prospects and, effectively, $19 million would probably be enough to get Beltre. It is unlike the Twins to make that kind of trade, but they can certainly afford it—every team can afford that kind of investment—and it's a move that would go right to their win column. That Beltre is such a good defensive player, the kind of player the Twins have always wanted around, could be the deciding factor.

The Twins can't count on an anomalous performance with runners in scoring position to continue. To win the AL Central, they have to improve the roster. Trading for Beltre and swapping out Livan Hit-nandez for Francisco Liriano would change the story in the division immediately.

4. Milton Bradley, Rangers: On a per at-bat basis, Bradley has been the best hitter in the AL this year, leading the circuit with a .345 EqA. Making just 19 appearances in the field has no doubt helped him stay in the lineup, so the list of teams to which he could be dealt is fairly short.

Would Jon Daniels make this move, trading one of his All-Stars, one of his great off-season acquisitions? It seems like a no-brainer; Bradley is 30 and has had considerable problems staying healthy. The Rangers have a flood of hitters in their system, and will need their DH slot available soon, even now. Daniels has to know that this is a peak for Bradley, and that he's not a player to get invested in over the long term, and that his team, while a pleasant surprise, is not likely to make a postseason push. Dealing Bradley at his peak fits with the Rangers' organizational needs.

The news that Hideki Matsui is going to miss most of the season opens up a huge hole in the Yankees' lineup. However, the Yankees appear set to sign Richie Sexson to be part of their first base/DH mix, so perhaps they are not a destination for Bradley. The Tigers, however, have disappointed at the plate in part because their left fielders and DHs have been so unproductive. Gary Sheffield has been alternately hurt and unable to hit. Jacque Jones was a disaster before being released. Bradley, a switch-hitter with a complete offensive game, could decline from his first-half numbers and still be an upgrade, taking some DH at-bats away from Sheffield, pushing Marcus Thames to the bench against right-handers, and even playing center occasionally against southpaws so that Curtis Granderson doesn't have to.

It's not easy to calculate the gain the Tigers would get by adding Bradley, because his playing time would come from a number of sources, and it's not easy to peg Bradley's expected level. We can say that adding a high-OBP switch-hitter would have value for a team that is SLG-heavy and a bit right-handed, adding a few runs on the margins. A 15-20 run boost is a reasonable expectation.

The Tigers' top-heavy farm system, depleted by the winter's moves, is a barrier to a deal, although Daniels would be well served to add quantity in a Bradley deal, especially pitchers, rather than a top-tier prospect that is unlikely to be on offer.

5. Justin Duchscherer, Athletics: Sure, why not? If Beane can deal Rich Harden at the peak of his market value, can the AL's ERA leader be far behind? Duchscherer will simply not be better than he was in the first half, when he benefited from some exceptional defense behind him to post an ERA below 2.00. An effective reliever before he was injured, Duchscherer is likely going to see some performance degradation as he passes innings markers he hasn't approached since he was a prospect back in 2003. He would be in line for a massive raise in arbitration, and a free agent after 2009. All things considered, there are more reasons to deal him than to keep him.

Because he doesn't have a high strikeout rate, the best fits for Duchscherer are contenders with strong defenses and weak rotations. The Braves, third in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, have supported Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens well, and both are similar in type to Duchscherer. Charlie Morton has been rushed to the majors and is allowing 6.5 runs per nine innings and five innings per start. If Tom Glavine gets healthy, he might be better than that, but I wouldn't bet on it. A very conservative estimate for Duchscherer down the stretch is six innings a start with a 3.75 RA. Adding Duchscherer would save the Braves at least 20 runs, and that's being extremely pessimistic about Duchscherer. The back of the Braves' rotation is just that bad; the Duke could be worth 25-30 runs, up to three wins, if he keeps pitching as well as he has.

As mentioned above, the Braves have three top prospects and some depth behind that. The A's have been trading for quantity; if that trend continues, the Braves could work something out. If the A's shift gears and focus in on Hanson or Schafer—I can't see Heyward being dealt—that will make things harder. The Braves are in a very tough spot, likely to lose Mark Teixeira and watching a career year from Chipper Jones, but also owning a relatively young core that makes planning for the future a good idea. It's not impossible to play for now and the future at the same time, but most trade partners—especially good ones—force you to choose.

6. Adam Dunn, Reds: The subject of more trade rumors than that Colombia bill, Dunn remains a Red just a few short months from free agency. His perceived value isn't great—J.P. Ricciardi's opinions are shared by a number of people within the game—but few players bring the bat Dunn does, and his defense has improved to the point where he's not giving back half the runs he creates. He hasn't been as productive as Bradley or Bay, but he's been more consistent at a high level, and is therefore a better bet to sustain his performance.

The Diamondbacks have a number of reasons to pursue Dunn. He's a free agent at the end of the season, so they won't have a commitment that blocks Eric Byrnes' contract. With Chris Young and Justin Upton, they have a good outfield defense, enabling them to mix in Dunn. (Given that Conor Jackson has been playing left, Dunn may well be an upgrade on their outfield defense.) They have the kind of mid-level depth in prospects that could be used to acquire a rental.

Oh, yeah, and the Diamondbacks offense has been awful, and they desperately need Dunn's bat. His low-contact approach doesn't make him the best fit, as they could use a .315/.360/.470 guy who hits doubles, but his .388 OBP from the left side would be a godsend for a team reaching base at a .323 clip, and that lists a bit to the right. Adding Dunn to this lineup would add 20 runs to the team total, re-establish the D'backs as the team to beat in the NL West, and help assure that the division winner finishes above .500.

7. Matt Holliday, Rockies: Unlike a number of the players above, Holliday's perceived value is extremely high, as he's coming off a near-MVP season and a homer in the All-Star Game. Holliday is a complete player who hits for average and power and plays good defense in left field, good enough that he routinely plays right in the Midsummer Classic. The Rockies are looking for a monster package for Holliday, who won't reach free agency until after 2009.

Just about every contender can use a player of Holliday's caliber. The ones with the greatest needs are probably the teams covered above like the Braves and Diamondbacks, and the two New York squads. Getting Holliday will require at least one top-tier prospect, however; for the Braves that means Schafer or Heyward, for the Mets, Fernando Martinez. The Diamondbacks might have to include Max Scherzer. For this reason, it is unlikely that Holliday will be traded over the next couple of weeks. That caliber of prospect rarely changes hands any more, which is one reason why Matt LaPorta being dealt was such big news.

Any of these teams would gain three wins with Holliday replacing their left fielder, or in some cases their right fielder. Holliday's home/road splits have drawn some attention, but those are a poor way to evaluate a player. It's information, just potentially misleading. Holliday would be a productive hitter anywhere, and his defense would be worth five to 10 runs over many of the players he'd be replacing. That's both a good reason to trade for him, and a good reason for the Rockies to ask for the moon. Unless the Mets elect to move Fernando Martinez, or the Cardinals put Colby Rasmus into a deal, I don't think Holliday goes anywhere.

8. Brian Roberts, Orioles: Roberts was rumored to be on the cusp of becoming a Cub for most of the offseason. The Orioles refused to move him, and seem unlikely to do so now, as they have him under contract through next year. That's shortsighted, because a staggering number of contenders could use a leadoff or #2 hitter. Foremost among them is the White Sox, who have gotten a reasonable .344 OBP from their leadoff hitters, but just .302 from the #2 spot. While Alexei Ramirez has turned heads at second base, his seven walks this season are an execrable total, and leave him with a .312 average and a .332 OBP.

Roberts isn't just an upgrade—he's one of the top 10 players in the AL, with a .294 EqA and plus defense at second base. A team with the power core the White Sox have needs high OBPs batting in front of it, so while the numbers say that Roberts would add 15-20 runs as compared to Ramirez, plus a few on defense, the real-world results would be a little better than that.

The White Sox have a terrible farm system, which will make it hard for them to pry Roberts away from a reluctant Orioles team. Still, he may be the one player on the market who makes enough of a difference to them to be worth pursuing. Three years ago, a lack of OBP atop the lineup nearly killed them in August and September; they're being chased by teams good enough that they should try to avoid a similar problem this year.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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