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November 16, 2008

Prospectus Today

Trading Up and Trading Down

by Joe Sheehan

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This is becoming a trend. For the third highly notable time in five months, a trade has happened in which one team has acquired a player who comes with some risk, with that risk being mitigated by the low price they paid for the player. Or, to exaggerate the point slightly, they got something for nothing. In July, the Cubs acquired Rich Harden for a price so low-three middling prospects and a 2007 draft pick failing in Low-A-that they had to pull the trigger despite Harden's sensitivity to light and air. Last week, the A's paid a price for Matt Holliday that will make sense even if Holliday leaves at the end of next season, or even if he retires in mid-August.

Now the Yankees have acquired Nick Swisher while giving up nothing that they'll miss: Jeff Marquez, a 24-year-old finesse pitcher who has yet to succeed at Triple-A; Wilson Betemit, a longtime stathead favorite with a .260/.325/.437 career line and a 314/98 K/BB ratio; and Jhonny Nunez, a 22-year-old right-hander who could eventually end up as a high-leverage reliever. Then again, Nunez was traded for Alberto Gonzalez-no, the other one-about 15 minutes ago, which speaks against the idea that he's about to go all Carlos Marmol on the world. The package, in toto, is nothing; you can make a case for each of the players individually, but you can't make the three of them add up to a switch-hitter with plate discipline, power, and his peak in front of him.

The White Sox can fit all three of these pieces in, but they've traded a five for three singles to do so. Betemit can play third base in a platoon situation, perhaps with Josh Fields, which would look a bit like a two-toned switch-hitting Jim Presley. Given the success they've had with John Danks and Gavin Floyd, I'm sure they look at Marquez and think "well, we'll get him to cut everything" and make him a league-average starter. And Nunez has to look good to a team that was down to two effective relievers by season's end. Of course, the White Sox put a Double-A arm into the deal as well, Kanekoa Texeira, more or less canceling Nunez's presence. The problem is that you could add these kinds of parts without trading the player who, in the worst year of his life, was sixth on your team in OBP and projected to be second in 2008. Kenny Williams, who has made a long string of very good decisions, appears to have made a mistake here by trading low on an asset.

Swisher may not be the perfect solution to the Yankees' offensive woes, but he brings upside, a plate approach that they missed last year, and positional flexibility that leaves a range of off-season options open to them. His lost 2008 season-hitting just .219/.332/.410, for a career-low .259 EqA-was largely the product of a down year on balls in play. He hit .249 on them, after marks of .301 in 2007 and .283 in 2006. There was a slight uptick in his strikeout rate, but nothing alarming. What's missing from his season are 15 singles and 15 doubles, and there's not much reason to believe those won't come back in 2009. When they do, his contract, which pays him $21 million through 2011 with a $10 million option for '12, is going to look like an absolute bargain.

I got an e-mail from a friend who said that I wouldn't like the deal because it meant the Yankees now wouldn't need Mark Teixeira. That's not the case at all. The Yankees didn't have a right fielder or a first baseman before this trade, nor an actual center fielder. Swisher can play right or center, and while he's not great defensively at the latter, Melky Cabrera is still around to play good defense for him late in games. At the moment, the Yankees have Swisher, Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Xavier Nady, and Brett Gardner lying around. That looks to me like a team that can still bring in one of the best first basemen in baseball and fit everything in around him. (Aside: Xavier Nady is not an everyday player, and efforts to make him one will result in a lesser lineup against right-handed pitching. It was a career year built on a balls-in-play spike over four months in Pittsburgh, and should be treated as such. What he hit as a Yankee-.268/.320/.474-is what he is.)

For the moment the Yankees are focused elsewhere, having apparently made a six-year, $140 million offer to CC Sabathia. I'm on the record as being wary of Sabathia, despite both his durability and his mid-career development into a strike thrower; he scares me because of his size and his overall workload. He has never been abused, but he is 28 and has thrown 1,659 innings in the majors since starting at age 20, and I worry about the cumulative effects. I remember talking about Steve Avery a few years back-not predictively, but after he'd collapsed-and speculating that there are pitchers who are as good as they ever are in their twenties. When you combine Sabathia's workload with his size, there are so many reasons to wonder if he can make the next 180 starts and throw the next 1,200 innings, and at $23 million per season, a lost year could be crippling to a team. His arm might tire due to the innings, or his back or knees could become problematic due to his weight. It's a huge-no pun intended-bet to make on someone with these risk factors.

I'd like to be wrong about Sabathia, who from the little I know of him seems like a likable guy, and whose development into one of the game's best pitchers has been fun to watch. From the outside, however, I look at him, and I look at Johan Santana, and I cannot see how the risk profile is remotely similar enough to pay Sabathia the same or more money as the Mets' lefty is getting. When you consider that the Yankees' strength, organizationally, is in pitching, and that they have a clear need for a two-way first baseman, a big push for Teixeira rather than Sabathia, and a secondary effort to sign Derek Lowe, would seem like a better combination of decisions.

In other news, the Cubs made it clear that they will not compete for Kerry Wood's services, trading Jose Ceda, their third-best prospect, to the Marlins for a pitcher who Ceda might already be better than in Kevin Gregg. The deal makes no sense whatsoever; right-handed relievers below the level of "star" are a dime a dozen, and Gregg falls well below that level. Throw out the saves; Gregg's career-best ERA came in 2003, a 3.28 mark with the Angels in 24 2/3 innings. Despite being used in a protected role in the weaker league for the past two seasons, Gregg has an ERA of 3.48, and a K/BB just a tick above 2/1. He actually got worse last year, posting poor rates, for his role, of 7.6 K/9 and 1.76 K/BB. An uptick in his ground-ball rate and a silly 4.9 percent HR/FB rate saved him from an ERA in the mid-4.00s, and neither number is likely to stick in '09.

For the Cubs, depth in the bullpen is a strength, so much so that Gregg looks like the team's third- or fourth-best right-handed reliever, even at the moment. Dealing for him because he racked up saves in Miami is simply a waste of a resource in Ceda, who at worst will probably be better than Gregg starting in 2010. This deal smells like the Braves' acquisition of Dan Kolb in 2005, a team getting a pitcher whose save total belies the fact that he's just not nearly as good as that statistic, and having a front-row seat for the end of his career.

I can understand the Cubs cutting Wood loose, but let me make this statement: I'd rather have Kerry Wood's next three seasons than Francisco Rodriguez's next three, without even considering the difference in the money they'll make. Wood, having been through the surgeries and the comebacks and having adapted quite well to relief pitching, seems ready to be a high-strikeout, great-peripherals high-leverage reliever in his thirties, and because he's new to the role and hasn't pitched very much of late, I'd rather take a chance on him than on Rodriguez, whose command problems scare the heck out of me. Just compare the two pitchers' 2008 seasons outside of the context of their usage:


Pitcher       IP     RA    K/9   BB/9   HR/FB     GB%
Wood        66.1   3.26   11.4    1.9    4.6%   39.4%
Rodriguez   68.1   2.77   10.1    4.0    7.1%   42.4%

The biggest difference between the two is in their walk rates. Wood went to the bullpen and pounded the strike zone. Rodriguez hasn't been that guy in a few years, and is getting worse instead of better. There's a league gap here that favors Rodriguez, but that's in the past; I'm signing the guy's future, and I'd rather pay for Wood's future than Rodriguez's.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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