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July 29, 2008

Prospectus Today

Trading Tex

by Joe Sheehan

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Monday afternoon, the Braves put Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson on the disabled list, and having done so, followed by putting Mark Teixeira on the trade block. The moves followed a disastrous weekend in Philadelphia in which the team blew leads of 9-3 and 5-0 on consecutive days, losses that, combined with the injuries to their two best players, led them to pull the plug on 2008.

I've argued for much of the season, and as recently as last week, that the Braves could win the NL wild card, possibly even the NL East. Their performance profile isn't all that different from that of the Brewers, America's darlings of the moment:

                   Braves       Brewers
Run differential      +23           +28
Third-order W-L     55-50         57-49
Record              49-56         60-46

OK, it's a little different. The Braves have not only been a bad joke in one-run games by going 6-23 (with a streak of 26 consecutive one-run losses on the road), they have also suffered some of the worst losses in the game this year. This weekend's disasters, which had they been won could have completely changed their season's narrative, get thrown on the pile with the Kelly Johnson game, a nightmare in Cincinnati, and a host of other winnable games gone by the wayside.

Injuries have played their part in the destruction of the Braves. Their four best players are unavailable at the moment. Their three best relievers have been intermittently available all season long, a contributing factor to that 6-23 mark in one-run contests. Still, when you look at the games that the Braves have, excuse me, simply pissed away in 2008, it's hard to not see them as the single-biggest team disappointment of the season. This team was infinitely better than the Mariners at the start of the year, and they simply found a million ways to lose.

So Frank Wren steps into Jon Daniels' shoes. He has three days to trade Mark Teixeira, or at least Teixeira's next 225 plate appearances, and try and replace some of the value that was lost a year ago in the deal that brought Teixeira and a lot of hope to Atlanta. Teixeira has played very well for the Braves. In nearly a full season (157 games) he's hit .295/.395/.565, well above his career marks, and a line that would be the best single season of his career. That the Braves have gone 77-83 since dealing for him has basically nothing to do with his performance. He remains a good first baseman defensively, and as a switch-hitter with power and patience, a near-perfect player for any team in the game. He is likely to be worth 20 runs above a league-average hitter, and save five runs over an average defensive first baseman. Keep those benchmarks in mind.

So where should he end up? Clearing out the 14 teams that can comfortably be described as "not buyers" (in some cases, such as the Rockies, perhaps also not sellers), and the eight contenders who would not be able to or do not appear likely to fit Teixeira in based on their current personnel (the Red Sox, White Sox, Mets, Phillies, Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, and Dodgers), we're left with seven potential destinations for a player who is likely to add two wins over two months to whatever team he joins. We'll list them here in order of likelihood:

  • Diamondbacks: The early-line favorites, the Diamondbacks were believed to be dangling Conor Jackson, but Will Carroll reported Monday that the offer in question is a bit less than that. Remember, the Braves are trading less than they were acquiring a year ago: two months of Teixeira, versus eight months. That's going to affect their return, and while a CC Sabathia-caliber package may be the goal, it will be hard to get that much given the perceived value of a stud pitcher versus a stud hitter.

    With a system still bouncing back from the Dan Haren trade as well as the damage done by playing fast and loose with talent such as Carlos Quentin, the D'backs won't be able to overwhelm the Braves with an offer, and Atlanta needs pitching as well as a first baseman to replace Teixeira. The Diamondbacks have some pitching depth, but won't be trading anyone like Max Scherzer or Jarrod Parker in this deal, leaving the Braves to choose from guys like Yusmeiro Petit, Brooks Brown, and perhaps Juan Gutierrez. Maybe that, with a bat, would be enough.

    If Jackson weren't included in the deal, Teixeira would replace a combination of Chad Tracy and Tony Clark at first. Both are hard to project-Tracy is coming off of a year lost to injury, and Clark has been a bench player for most of the last four seasons. Tracy does appear to picking up where he left off last season, so a .280/.340/.460 line seems within his power, with Clark platooning and batting .230/.300/.370 with him while getting less than a third of the playing time. All told, that combination would be about a league-average bat with slightly less than that defensively. Teixeira would be 10-15 runs better than that at the plate over two months, and a few runs better defensively. Call it nearly 20 runs, making the D'backs about two wins better by adding him. I suspect it may be worth more than that-Teixeira's OBP, rather than his power, would be the critical element for a Diamondbacks' offense desperately needing some.

  • Angels: The Angels have recently been alerted to the rules that allow teams to assign contracts to other teams, in exchange for having contracts assigned to them in return. This concept of the "trade" intrigues them, and the new knowledge arrives just in time for them to take a peek at Teixeira. They have a good, if somewhat disappointing, first baseman in Casey Kotchman who could be the core of a deal, along with some arms in the low minors, many of whom have lousy stats because they play in the Cal League. Kotchman would almost certainly have to go in this trade, as the Angels already have about $152 million tied up in the DH slot.

    Teixeira wouldn't be a defensive upgrade on Kotchman, but he would be a significant improvement offensively, between 20 and 25 runs. The Angels could play a fan at first base in every game between now and October and not blow the AL West. With an eye towards the fall, however, it's worth noting that when they won the World Series, they blasted the snot out of the ball all month, and in their postseason appearances since, they haven't. Teixeira addresses that problem.

  • Yankees: The Yankees came out of nowhere to get Bobby Abreu two years ago. They have already cashed in one major chip in Jose Tabata, so they're not likely to make an additional deal, but Teixeira would fit nicely in New York. Over just two months, he would be a 10-run improvement on Jason Giambi defensively.

    Offensively, it's harder to say; he'd end Richie Sexson's Yankee career, of course, but whether he cut into Xavier Nady's playing time, or whether he'd replace Melky Cabrera with Johnny Damon playing more center field, isn't clear. The latter would involved a significant defensive tradeoff, so the former is more likely, but because the Yankees just acquired Nady, it doesn't seem likely that they'd make a move that marginalized him, even if the price were right. Assuming they did, Teixeira would add 15 runs more than Nady in two months, making more more than a two-win upgrade all told.

    To get Teixeira, the Yankees would have to throw pitching at the Braves, probably some combination of Ian Kennedy and Alan Horne, and perhaps a higher-upside arm. This doesn't seem like a likely path for the Yankees, so call this destination a longshot.

  • Rays: Adding Teixeira would make more sense than, say, adding Ken Griffey Jr. would have; Teixeira is a true impact bat, rather than a past-prime star. The problem for the Rays is twofold: they already have an excellent defensive first baseman, arguably one better than Teixeira, in Carlos Pena, so they'd get no defensive bounce in this deal. Pena has not followed up his career year with a comparable performance, and it isn't likely he'd be attractive to the Braves in a trade. Using either player as a DH is a significant waste of value.

    Moreover, you're effectively upgrading the DH spot with this deal, and that spot is always the easiest in which to find bats. The Rays have received good work from Eric Hinske, and Cliff Floyd is a league-average hitter when healthy. If Rocco Baldelli comes back (yes, and if you had a pony...) there would be a real roster logjam.

    Arguing for the deal is that the Rays could trade pitching without missing it much, they do need to add offense (even if it's just 15-20 runs), and this may be a bellwether moment for them, in that making a deal like this might let them see if the fans in Tampa really will come out for a winner. The Rays are likely to have something like nine legitimate starting pitchers in camp next spring; using two of them right now may actually be their best use of resources. The presence of Pena likely moots all of this, but really, this would probably be the most entertaining location for Teixeria.

  • Tigers: The Tigers have the need and the fit-they've been moving guys around on the corners all season long-just not the talent. The one chip they have that many of the other teams don't is a first-base prospect in Jeff Larish, but with Larish already 25 years old, he's not going to be enough of a prospect to carry a deal, and the Tigers are very thin behind him. There are good reasons for the Tigers to make the call, because they would benefit on both sides of the ball, but realistically, they'd be better off finding a left fielder for a lower price than a first baseman at this one.

  • Twins: This is a similar argument to the Rays' case. The Twins have pitchers coming out of their ears, they don't often make a deal like this, and they could use the offense. Unfortunately, they have a great first baseman, so they'd have to DH Teixeira or create some hubbub by moving former MVP Justin Morneau off of first. It's not clear whose playing time Teixeira would cut into, especially with Denard Span playing well. Some combination of Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer (when healthy), and Carlos Gomez would lose time, most likely in that order, which is almost the reverse of how it should happen. The best guess would be a 20-run bump, with a slight loss in defense as Teixeira pushes Kubel onto the field. This would be a cool trade, but it is also a very, very unlikely one.

  • Marlins: Mike Jacobs makes an out 71 percent of the time. Mark Teixeira makes an out 61 percent of the time. Do you see?... Where I am going?... With this? Throw in defense, and Teixeira could well be worth 30-35 runs over Jacobs in just two short months. That would be a three-win improvement for the Marlins, who are kind of the anti-Braves: they have been outscored, they don't look like they should be anywhere near a race, and I've been burying them for three months. If they were to add Teixeira for a whole lot of pitching and Jacobs, though, you'd have to take them seriously. It's not likely, but it is intriguing.

You could make a case for including the Dodgers here. They need a shortstop or an outfielder more than they need Teixeira, but since he's the biggest name on the market, it's possible you might see them package James Loney with an arm to bring him in, or keep Loney and move him to the outfield while adding Teixeira using other chips. Doing that kind of position switch to a player at midseason is fairly suboptimal, but at this point, little about the Dodgers is optimal.

Frank Wren isn't going to get the package that his predecessor gave up a year ago, but he has to get as close to it as he can. He has the one player left on the market who could be worth three wins in the right situation. Now it's just a matter of squeezing every last bit of value out of him.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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