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November 12, 2008

Prospectus Today

Taking Advantage

by Joe Sheehan

It's only just become official, now that physicals and medical histories and the like have been handled, but the Rockies' trade of Matt Holliday to the A's has finally become a real boy today. I can't say that the delay hasn't been a good thing for me, because had I written something up on the deal in the immediate aftermath of the news breaking, it would have looked completely different that what follows. The A's trading youth for a player likely to become an unsignable free agent? The Rockies converting their lame-duck left fielder into 14-or-so years worth of performance? What a deal.

Not so much. Upon further review, this trade is a very good deal for the A's, who gave up a minimum of talent, not much that they will miss, in exchange for a player who's a great fit for their lineup. Moreover, the Rockies got less back in return than they would have had they simply dealt Holliday for, say, Ryan Ludwick, and I'm no Ludwick fan.

The deal on the table is Holliday for Carlos Gonzalez, Greg Smith, and Huston Street. Street is a known quantity, a sidearming right-hander with a significant platoon split (75 points of OBP, 129 of SLG in his career) who generates fewer ground balls than a pitcher of his type should. He may have looked better than he ought to have in the early part of his career thanks to a fluky HR/FB rate, one that has since meandered back to normal:


Year   HR/FB
2005    4.5%
2006    5.2%
2007   11.3%
2008    9.5%

(Thanks, Hardball Times.)

With the A's having so much depth in the bullpen, Street was just a guy for them, maybe their third- or fourth-best right-handed reliever come March, and likely to lose ground rather than gain it given the arms coming up behind him. He was never going to regain the closer role or have more trade value than he did right now, and I imagine that Billy Beane's only regret is not cashing in this chip sooner.

Greg Smith's mildly impressive 2008 season was a stone fluke. His 111/82 K/BB is poor, and he got away with it largely because the A's played ridiculous defense behind him, allowing just a .258 batting average on Smith's balls in play. He also picked off 15 runners-an actual skill, though getting 15 outs with it is a bit much. His season wasn't out of line, either; Smith doesn't have impressive stuff, and he wasn't exactly blowing people away in the Southern League. You can get away with that if you throw nothing but strikes, but walking four men per nine innings and not getting strikeouts is going to get you killed. Moving from Oakland to Denver is going to be a problem for Smith who is, loosely speaking, Jeff Francis Lite. I'd be surprised if he makes another 50 starts in his career, and stunned if he ever has an ERA below last year's 4.16 as a starter.

Carlos Gonzalez should carry the deal, except that Gonzalez has yet to play well above the Cal League. He's got all the tools, but the only one that has translated so far is his speed, which has enabled him to be a very good defensive center fielder. Since coming to pro ball at the age of 17, Gonzalez has generally been younger than his leagues, and has generally shown off terrific tools. Outside of a two-year stretch in 2005 and 2006 though, he's been a disappointment. Gonzalez hit .300/.356/.563 for Lancaster in '06 as a 20-year-old, confirming the longstanding notion that he was a coming star. Since then, however, he's hit .277/.326/.468 at Double-A (119/37 K/BB), .288/.354/.433 in Triple-A (41/18 K/BB), and .242/.273/.361 in the majors (81/12 K/BB). Give him credit for being young for his leagues, and there's still no way to explain how he's moved to the majors with those performances. He's not learning at the plate, and his speed has done nothing for him on the bases: he's 52/27 SB/CS in his entire career.

I fail to see how this trade makes the Rockies better over any time frame. They got an arm for the bullpen in Street who's much better-suited to two-inning work or Steve Reed's old job than one in which he'll be asked to face every lefty in the world in the ninth inning with the game on the line. They got Smith, who'll be a middle reliever in two years. They got Gonzalez, who isn't as good as Dexter Fowler, and who might well be the next Juan Encarnacion.

This was the kind of deal that you make at the trade deadline, when you know you're not signing the player, you know you're not contending, and getting something back is better than losing him for the draft picks. To make this deal on November 10, when you have all offseason to strike a better one, when you can go to Las Vegas next month with a left fielder who plays both ways-unlike all the free agents-and find at least half the industry interested, is just a bad move. If this was the best offer available, Dan O'Dowd needed to turn it down and pocket his asset. He's dealt away Matt Holliday without getting enough in return, and that's the kind of mistake you just can't make.

For the A's, Holliday fits like a glove. In addition to getting him for a reasonable price, they slide a hitter into their lineup who does exactly what they need. The A's draw walks; that pretty much sums up their offensive skill set. They don't hit for average (last), they don't hit doubles (last), they don't hit triples (tenth). Even the walks they draw (fourth) don't lead to a high OBP (13th and not last, thanks to the Royals) because they hit so poorly. I lost track of the number of times they had two runners on with no one out and didn't score. The shape of an offense can draw too much attention, but there's no question that what the A's needed last year, and needed this winter, was someone who could hit for a high average with some power, even if he didn't draw a ton of walks. Holliday is exactly that guy. They could probably use another guy like him to play third base or shortstop.

Whether the A's sign Holliday for the long term is almost irrelevant. If you look at it solely as a trade for one year of Holliday, it's a win for them. They won't miss anything they gave up, and Holliday's impact on their offense will be considerable. There are concerns about how well Holliday will hit outside of a good hitters' park in the weaker league, but consider that the translation of his 2008 season puts him at .311/.401/.553, with a .317 EqA. Holliday, in his career on the road, is a .280/.348/.455 hitter, a line that almost certainly underestimates his talent level, and would-even at that clip-be a huge help to the A's. Realistically, you can expect him to take a hit on his batting average because of the park switch and hit something like .300/.370/.500, and remember that his defense in left field is above average. He'll be the A's best player since Miguel Tejada went away.

This is a very good deal for the A's, and an inexplicable one for the Rockies, for whom October 2007 seems a lifetime ago.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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