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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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24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Keith Law
(13)

But ... but ... K-Rod had 62 SAVES!!!

/BBRAA'd

Nov 16, 2008 11:47 AM
rating: 4
 
wrightfan5

I know, I know, everyone loves to hate on K-Rod these days, at least when it comes to discussing the merits of the free agents in this current class. For what its worth, his agent swears that he still has his fastball, but that he prefers to pitch in the low 90's in order to set up his change-up. It could just be agent-speak--and to be honest, I don't watch the Angels often enough to know if there's some merit to it or if it's complete horse puckey.* But I'd take a dip in the K line of his stats if it meant making him a more effective pitcher (and if it meant dropping the derivative nickname too, so much the better).

*: Of course, if there's someone on this board who watches the Angels regularly and has a better read of the situation than I would, it would be greatly appreciated. Especially since my team, the Mets, is looking like the front-runner for Mr. Rod's services at the moment...

Nov 16, 2008 15:21 PM
rating: -1
 
nblascak

I'm going to agree with Joe on this Gregg/Ceda deal - its almost completely inexplicable. Even if you through out his last few appearances in August when he was probably battling injury, Gregg is merely average at best. Ceda is bother cheaper and has a higher ceiling. Henry is a good GM, but chalk this one up in the ??? category.

Nov 16, 2008 11:56 AM
rating: 1
 
jibs

Sean Gallagher was not a middling prospect by any stretch of the imagination, and it's also wrong to say that Donaldson was "failing" low A considering his preposterously low BABIP during the "cold" half of the MWL season.

Nov 16, 2008 12:19 PM
rating: 1
 
saucyjack88

"two toned"??? wtf??

Nov 16, 2008 14:12 PM
rating: -3
 
ScottyB

I think he means that Fields is white and Betemit is black- put the two together in a platoon and you get the equivalent of one two-toned guy.

Nov 16, 2008 20:24 PM
rating: 0
 
outdoorminer

Perhaps Fields and Betemit will be joining the Specials or (English) Beat.

Nov 18, 2008 09:18 AM
rating: 0
 
jlefty

Hey Joe, in your last chat I wondered if melky, melancon, and humberto sanchez were enough to pry away swisher. how does that compare to what they ended up giving?

Nov 16, 2008 14:41 PM
rating: 0
 
wrightfan5

"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."

Not sure what you mean here, Joe...are you saying CC is as much a risk as Johan and therefore you wouldn't give him a similar contract, or that Johan isn't as much of a risk to break down as CC?

My other thing about signing Tex if you're the Yankees: if you have a 6-7 yr. commitment at 1B, where do you put the other aging players at the skill positions (Posada, A-Rod, Jeter to a lesser extent) when it becomes clear that they don't have the skill to play those positions? And while I recognize that everyday players generally age well than pitchers, is it really necessary for the Yanks to sign either of the two big-ticket items when that will just lead them further down the road of payroll entropy? To paraphrase your thought about Steve Avery, Tex is about to exit his 20's and thus has probably left his best years behind him (in a baseball sense, at any rate). Sure, he'll look good in pinstripes for the next few seasons, but I don't see how he still won't wind up looking like Jason Giambi when its all said and done.

Nov 16, 2008 15:06 PM
rating: -1
 
ScottyB

I've been thinking that Posada should be the Yanks' 1B now through the end of his contract (3 years?) and then Jeter slides over there for the duration of his career.

Nov 16, 2008 20:26 PM
rating: 0
 
MikeFetters

It figures that the Cubs would make this trade right after the prospect rankings came out on BP. I was OK with them picking up Gregg...until I saw what they gave up. I'll also be sad to see Wood go. One thing that skews his stats, though, is his propensity to hit a disproportionately high number of batters (usually a slider to the knees of lefties). How does this affect the comparison between him and K-Rod? Anyways, if a reliever isn't truly lights-out, why should the Cubs bother? It's as though the legacy of failed free agent closers Dough Jones, Dave Smith, and Mel Rojas have faded from memory.

Nov 16, 2008 15:24 PM
rating: 0
 
Lou Doench

What I want to know is this, did Williams even shop Swisher around at all? Or did Brian Cashman use his Jedi Mind tricks on him at the GM meetings? "These ARE the prospects you are looking for... You don't need to call Walt Jocketty... You can move along now..."

There has to be some reason for teams to continue giving players to the Yankee for nothing.

Nov 16, 2008 15:34 PM
rating: 0
 
jlefty

when was the last time the yankees got an everyday major leaguer for nothing... you can just as easily say that teams like the twins or a's expect the world from the yanks and won't give them anything until the yanks fork over half their farm system.

Nov 16, 2008 19:53 PM
rating: 0
 
nickles05

...Bobby Abreu

Nov 16, 2008 20:10 PM
rating: 2
 
Lou Doench

Ditto...

Nov 17, 2008 10:35 AM
rating: 0
 
scareduck

Joe -- I really enjoy most of your work, but speaking as an Angels fan, I have to point out that you missed the boat on K-Rod. His 2008 walk rate problems you point out have been thoroughly dissected on Angels fan boards, and really amount to April and May, when he was recovering from an ankle injury. His K/BB rates outside those months have been in line with his career numbers. (There is a case for letting him walk based entirely on his AB/HR rate, but it's not one you made...) Failing to note this makes me wonder how closely you researched this piece.

Nov 16, 2008 22:19 PM
rating: 1
 
ZeusIsLoose

A couple things, first I completely agree on the gregg/ceda trade. Completely indefensible for a GM to overvalue the saves stat and give up 6 years of a live arm for 1 year of a not so live arm, just for the saves column.

Second, while I agree that K-rod's control problems last year are worrisome, I think it exaggerates Kerry Wood's virtues to only show the walk rate and ignore the 7 guys he hit with a pitch in only 66 innings.

Nov 17, 2008 06:58 AM
rating: 0
 
cdamon

I am questioning your comment of Swisher's peak being in front of him. He turns 28 next week. He could bounce back to his age 25 and 26 seasons and we could look at his career line and see 2008 as a down year.

On the other hand, this is a player with 4 full time years so far where 2 have been good (not great) and 2 have been mediocre. I could easily imagine looking back 3 years from now and seeing someone whose peak was age 25-26 instead of 26-27. His batting now reminds me of an aging Jack Clark, some power, good plate discipline, low BA. The problem is that once pitchers realized that Clark no longer had plus power, they started throwing him strikes and he was worthless fairly quickly. Swisher's 24 HR last year were the second highest of his career, so it is hard to ascribe plus power to him, despite his reputation.

Betemit is just over a year younger player who may not be much worse offensively. If 2008 represents reality going forward for Swisher, they are essentially interchangeable (EQA of 267 for Swisher vs 264 career for Betemit.)

Nov 17, 2008 07:45 AM
rating: 0
 
Matthew Avery

"If you compare the worst year of this guy's career with the best year of this other guy's, they're basically the same!"

This move might be defensibly for Williams if you think Betemit's power will just play off the charts in that stadium, but I don't buy the precipitous drop in Swisher's BABIP as being indicative of his future.

And, sorry, but a guy with ISOs around (or over) .200 for his career does have plus power. 24 HRs not plus power? What, are you living in 1998 or something?

Nov 17, 2008 09:00 AM
rating: 0
 
cdamon

First off, I compared Swisher's most recent year to Betemit's career numbers. Swisher has had two years basically similar value to Betemit's average and two years significantly more valuable. Which is the real Swisher? I can easily imagine either.

Two things about the 24. Maybe plus was a bad term, but low 20's HR is not particularly special. And 3 of his 4 years have been in the low 20's. On a typical team, that is the 3rd best HR hitter, useful but not especially notable.

There is also an absolute as well as relative value to HRs. If someone like Swisher hits a HR every 25 PA or so, pitchers are not nearly as fearful as when facing someone who hit one every 15 PA. Changing sea level for HR power changes the relative value for other skills. High walks, moderate power is very valuable when HRs are plentiful. Much less so in a diminished HR era like we are in now.

If he returns to mid 30's HR power, that is a completely different scenario. I am just arguing that he could have just as easily seen his peak as having his peak in front of him.

For the Yankees, it was a reasonable move, spending little to get the possibility of more. But it also may leave them no better off than they were and if Betemit blossoms (he has never had full time to see how he will do), it could look very bad for the Yankees in a few years.

Nov 17, 2008 10:02 AM
rating: 0
 
ClubberLang

Swisher's BABIP was low, but I've seen more than one scouty type say that they thought his bat looked slow this year too. Maybe he bounces way back, maybe not at all, maybe somewhere between what he's done in the past and what he did this year - hard for any of us to know at this point. I have an odd trust in Kenny Williams though -- after a horrid start to his career, over the last 5 years he's had good ideas that didn't work but didn't hurt them in what they gave up (e.g., the Sisco and Aardsma trades), trades where people wondered what he was doing and he was clearly right (Danks, Floyd, the original Garcia trade where they gave up Jeremy Reed - KW was just killed on this site and some others for that one), etc. The only ones that are iffy at all right now are the Vazquez/Young trade (Young hasn't really developed to anything beyond a poor-man's Mike Cameron, but Vazquez hasn't been much better than average in the seasons where they really needed him to be better) and the trade for Swisher, but of course in that one they gave up a 4th outfielder, a pitcher that was a horrid fit for US Cellular Field, and the hot prospect they gave up already blew out his elbow. The trade was another of those "nice ideas that didn't work" and it's iffy whether it will really come back to haunt them. I won't really be surprised if the Sox end up winning this trade also, or at least coming out about even.

I 100% agree about the Ceda/Gregg trade -- the idea that Ceda might do about as well as Gregg if put into the pen this season was the first thing that popped into my mind as well. I really don't get it. I suppose Hendry might be thinking that he knows what he'll get from Gregg while there would be risk in putting Ceda in the pen in that you don't know for sure how good he'll be, but even in a year where you expect to contend for a title, the risk is probably worth it, since it's not THAT great a risk - they could always have made a trade during the season if it wasn't working since as you say, non-dominating righty relievers are a dime a dozen.

Nov 17, 2008 09:01 AM
rating: 0
 
Dan

Joe,

I'm curious why you dismiss Gregg's 4.9% HR/FB number as not repeatable, but it seems you use Kerry Wood's 4.6% HR/FB number as an argument in his favor.

Is it that Gregg's number is not in line with his career rate but Wood's is?

Is HR/FB rate a repeatable skill, or is it mostly just randomness (like "clutch hitting")?

Nov 17, 2008 10:26 AM
rating: 1
 
edanddom

Generally, HR/FB stabilizes for pitchers between 10% and 11%. Similar to BABIP, HR/FB for pitchers tends to revert to the mean from year to year. Pitchers CAN control their HR/9, but that is mostly based on their groundball rate.

NOTE: Hitters HR/FB rates do NOT revert to the 10-11% level. Hitters establish their own HR/FB rates over time, so those trends are actually interesting to watch vs. the pitchers, where you are really just looking for statistical outliers.

Nov 17, 2008 21:52 PM
rating: 0
 
brucegilsen
(999)

It's not really fair to compare Gregg to Dan Kolb. Gregg is a completely serviceable middle reliever, though certainly no star and not worth surrendering Ceda for. Kolb struck out 21 in 57.1 innings in 2004 so you didn't have to be Nostradamus to see the collapse coming.

Nov 30, 2008 21:19 PM
rating: 0
 
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