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December 11, 2008

Transaction of the Day

Three-Way Mayhem

by Christina Kahrl


IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Acquired RHP Joe Smith from the Mets and 2B-L Luis Valbuena from the Mariners, and sent OF-R Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners. [12/11]

Getting invited to the dance is half the trick, but credit the Indians for getting to the table and then walking away with goodies in exchange for offering up a bit they could afford to let go. A team that has Grady Sizemore bouncing around between the gaps didn't really need Gutierrez for his best feature (playing center), and as nice as a platoon between Shin-Soo Choo and Gutierrez might have been in right field, having a perfect platoon partner for Choo isn't really as valuable as what the Tribe got in the trade, especially when finding someone else to fulfill the role shouldn't be that difficult. A bounce-back season from David Dellucci would come in handy as far as giving the Indians a nice threesome to stock the outfield corners (Dellucci, Choo, and Ben Francisco), but we'll see who else they scare up, and whether or not they make the roster space for a fifth outfielder. Travis Hafner's recovery from shoulder surgery will play a major factor, because if he's still broken, the Tribe's going to have to add a bat from somewhere. As is, if Hafner's back and bad, this isn't a gaggle of outfield cornermen so good that they will easily overcome that kind of lineup handicap.

What will help, however, is getting Valbuena, because he's a second-base prospect good enough across the boards to allow the team to make its long-anticipated infield realignment, with Asdrubal Cabrera going across the bag to short, and with Jhonny Peralta moving to his right as well and taking over at third. This should involve an improvement on defense, especially at short, where Cabrera should rank among the game's best fielders, but it also offers the possibility that the strong-armed Peralta might turn into an asset at the hot corner instead of a source of frustration at short. Offensively, it's not that much of a hit, either; setting aside an argument about the virtues of Valbuena over Casey Blake (or Andy Marte) for the moment, if Peralta's seasonal performance can hang around a .270 EqA-as it has in three of his four years as a regular-then he makes an entirely adequate third baseman, since that's around where you'll find the positional average for EqA the last several seasons, and costing $15 million over the next three years (counting a team option for 2011) for his age-27 through age-29 seasons seems like it could turn out much better than that.

So, a worthwhile third baseman and a quality shortstop-these are things the Indians already had, of course. The question is whether Valbuena's going to wind up giving the club that additional infielder who helps the unit improve from being below average offensively at two positions and stuck with a defensive liability at the third, to one that might be better than average at second, short, and third. The answer's an easy "yes," in that Valbuena is coming off of an excellent age-22 season in which he tore through the Southern League (.304/.381/.483), followed by a fine two months with Tacoma (.302/.383/.373), which led to a cup of coffee in Seattle where he didn't embarrass himself. Combined, he drew a walk in 11.3 percent of his PA in the minors, he swiped 18 bags in 26 attempts, and while I don't think he'll repeat his slugging .524 against Double-A right-handers at the major league level, he's not just some slappy master of the little man's offensive game. Whether he ends up platooned with Jamey Carroll, or relegating the veteran to a utility role, this was a worthwhile deal for the Indians straight up, given the shape of the rest of the roster, if all they'd gotten was Valbuena for Gutierrez.

They didn't, though, they got Smith as well, which really makes the Indians the small stakes winner of this exchange. While he's a side-armer and therefore (almost automatically) a ROOGY, he was the Mets' best reliever last season, leading the team in 2008 in both Fair Runs Allowed and Adjusted Runs Prevented, and second on the team in WXRL. Add in the steep ground-ball tendencies, put him in a division where you have the right-leaning White Sox in their house of horrors, not to mention a Tigers' lineup stocked with Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez in the middle of the order, and yeah, I think we can make a case that Smith's going to be an incredibly useful set-up asset for this team and in this division.

That the Indians received the two of them for a player who was not nearly as useful in their eyes as the Mariners seem to believe Gutierrez will be to them really makes this just a lovely little deal for Cleveland. As handy as Gutierrez is, when you're offered a younger starting second baseman, a guy who might be your primary set-up man, winding up with a better all-around infield and a stronger bullpen, and all the other guy wants is a platoon outfielder and defensive replacement, you don't get wrapped up asking why you were so lucky, you just make the deal.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Acquired RHPs Aaron Heilman and RHP Maikel Cleto, LHP Jason Vargas, OF-Ls Endy Chavez and Ezequiel Carrera, and 1B-L Mike Carp from the Mets, and OF-R Franklin Gutierrez from the Indians, and sent RHPs J.J. Putz and Sean Green and OF-L Jeremy Reed to the Mets, and 2B-L Luis Valbuena to the Indians. [12/11]

Well, if nothing else, the deal was big, and in several instances, it might provide all sorts of useful stuff, but any expectations of immediate payoffs should be ramped down. That said, let's go over the guys who will be on the team come Opening Day first, and work our way to the bottom.

First, there's the solution to the center-field problem, which I'm glad they addressed-Reed obviously wasn't working out as a center fielder. Now, Franklin Gutierrez has already been anointed as the team's new everyday center fielder, and while the pitching staff ought to toast its good fortune, that's not going to work out all that well for the team's offense in the near term, not when Gutierrez has managed to hit just .246/.298/.378 against right-handers in the majors. Maybe a sort-of platoon of Gutierrez and Endy Chavez in center would work, where Gutierrez gets 75 percent of the defensive innings in center, but he's not going to help them as an offensive regular, any more than Chavez would. On a good team, they're redundant: how many plus defenders who run well but don't hit enough to be everyday players in the outfield do you really need? Perhaps it's a matter of the new environment; getting wound up on the park's bigness strikes me as an overreaction, something that might be moderated with time and exposure, but in the meantime, the Mariners have a guy who can't hit right-handed pitching well enough to help a lineup that needs help.

The more interesting question is what they have in Heilman's case. Here, you pretty much have to take your chances on him as a scouting- and coaching-driven recovery job; the performance record last season is ghastly, and the hope is that there's something to fix as opposed to acquiring a pitcher so broken that there's nothing to be done. I say pitcher instead of reliever because that's a key issue here: Heilman was unhappy in a relief role and unhappy as a Met, he wants to start, and the Mariners may well let him. He has the assortment and the desire, and while controlling the ramp-up of his workload will matter a lot, if Don Wakamatsu likes what he sees in the spring, who's to say the Mariners don't wind up with a rotation regular as well as their choice for starting center fielder?

The next group is the trio of could-be usefuls, Chavez, Carp, and Vargas, in roughly that order. I've already touched on Chavez's virtues, but there isn't really any upside-he's a useful fourth outfielder and might make for a nice left-handed caddy to spot for Gutierrez in center and Wladimir Balentien in left. That's not going to win a pennant, but it's a nice thing to have, and the skill sets might dovetail nicely if Chavez gets 250-300 PA. Carp's next not because he doesn't have more upside but because, as a first baseman, he really simply has to keep on improving at the plate to pan out as a prospect at a position where offensive responsibilities trump all other considerations. I'm an optimist on the subject on the basis of his hitting .299/.403/.471 at Double-A in his age-22 season, since I figure a guy who could hit .300/.400/.500 against right-handed pitching in the majors is going to have value, but he's going to have to continue to make progress as a slugger, and Tacoma isn't a great place to hit. There's a real danger that he might just wind up being a younger version of the man he's currently behind, Brian LaHair, but it's worth looking at LaHair in the meantime, and Carp's relative youth can and should inspire the anticipation of future development. As for Vargas, he's left-handed, and there's concern that the hip injury that cost him last season has permanently sapped what little velocity he had and leaves him nothing more than just an arm. Maybe he fits in, maybe he comes back well, and maybe he becomes the person in this trade you forget about first.

Which leaves us with the toolsy tantalizing pair at the tail end of the deal, the kids fished out of the bottom of the Mets organization, and the guys who might give Mariners some very long-term delayed gratification. Kevin Goldstein had already made space on the Mets' Top 11 prospects list.* He's a very projectable pure power-pitching prospect, a 19-year-old kid who can dial his fastball up to 97, although if there's one source of concern, it's his violent delivery. Despite only turning 19 a month into the season, he spent almost the entire year in the full-season Sally League, getting a single-game taste of High-A in his last start of the year. He didn't overpower people (only 5.4 K/9), and the 26 wild pitches in 135 2/3 IP speaks to a good amount of work to be done, but 2.3 BB/9 illustrates that he does throw strikes. Carrera has less upside but perhaps a more certain future; he's a Venezuelan center fielder (and a plus defender) who will be 22 next year, and already managed to hit .263/.344/.393 in the Florida State League. Slappy and speedy, he might pan out as the next Endy Chavez, but you shouldn't get overly worked up about him. He's a body in an organization that needed them.

Which leaves the question of whether the Mariners needed the bodies this badly. I can't say I'm overly impressed with the swag, even though I accept that Gutierrez's glove will have an impact in center on an everyday basis, even while I optimistically look forward to how Heilman might pan out in a return to rotation work, and even given my past and present endorsements of Carp. Perhaps it's merely visceral, but it seems like Putz should have fetched something more substantive, and Green and Valbuena were worthwhile players to have on hand. While this was certainly a change, there are a lot of bets that have been placed on the upside of the talent brought in, and while the Mariners also managed to cut costs, this really looks like a deal that didn't bring in value as much it brings change.

*: Speaking of delayed gratification, that might be up on the site come Sunday or Monday.

NEW YORK METS
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Acquired RHPs J.J. Putz and Sean Green and OF-L Jeremy Reed from the Mariners for RHPs Aaron Heilman and Maikel Cleto, LHP Jason Vargas, OF-Ls Endy Chavez and Ezequiel Carrera, and 1B-L Mike Carp, and sent RHP Joe Smith to the Indians. [12/11]

Well, if last year's swap for Johan Santana didn't make the case already, if Omar Minaya wanted to make it plain he was going to reach for the stars while blasting the foundations, it may well be this deal that does it. Mets fans may wonder what's left in the farm system, but to Minaya's credit, it boils down to the still-right answer: Fernando Martinez (with props to Francisco Pena and Jon Niese as well). That Minaya managed to make this deal, a deal he really did have to make to finally, completely, and thoroughly address the team's end-game issues-and not simply in the ninth inning-is a tribute to the man's creativity. With so much of the lineup already set, what else should we have expected? Well, another starting pitcher, but it's not even mid-December.

There's not a lot to say as far as Putz's value that isn't relatively automatic. Moving to the weaker league, he'll shine-perhaps even outshining K-Rod-and this ought to give Jerry Manuel a late-game chokehold. It won't help the Mets get back their past lost opportunities, of course, but it does make for a team that should be ready to leverage late-game leads into almost-automatic wins. Putz may not like being something less than the glory stat-generator, but he's under team control for two years, and if he shines this year and next, it isn't like the decision-makers around the game are going to forget what he's capable of.

While it has nothing like the same impact, getting Green in the deal was a slyly elegant solution to the problem of having to give up Smith to get Gutierrez to the Mariners. The big right-handed sinkerballer fits in nicely with situational southpaws Scott Schoeneweis and Pedro Feliciano to give the Mets the freedom to play matchups in the sixth and seventh innings, and though his arbitration clock will start at least a year earlier than Smith, the money doesn't really matter on the scale the Mets are doing things. (The addition of side-armer Darren O'Day and Rocky Cherry via the Rule 5 draft today also provides Green with a bit of competition.) It would be nice to see them add a true middle reliever, but maybe that's where Bobby Parnell fits in if Duaner Sanchez or Brian Stokes don't pan out.

To review the final bit from the goodie bag, Reed's not an especially valuable replacement for Chavez as the primary outfield reserve. He's useful enough as a reserve you can really only spot against weaker right-handed pitching, but he's not a plus defender the way Chavez is, and he can be over-powered at the plate (making him a poor pinch-hitting option). His career numbers against right-handers in the majors are barely adequate (.275/.330/.392), and barring his somehow being a newfound favorite, he's not a great bet to beat out someone like Angel Pagan, and not even automatically a safe bet to keep his spot on the 40-man once the Mets sort through any potentially keep-worthy non-roster invites. In short, I'm not sure if the Mets took him as much as the Mariners stuck him into the deal while insisting upon Endy-ing up with the outfield reserve they preferred.

As for what's been lost, let's be clear, Heilman and Vargas didn't have big futures in Mets uniforms, and Chavez's utility as an outfield reserve was relatively limited on a team with Carlos Beltran in center, so moving them isn't really of major import. They might all do very nicely as non-Mets, and that's not really the point. Dealing Carp could hurt if his power potential continues to blossom, but first-base prospects aren't generally the kind of asset you regret dealing; if they pan out for the other guy, swell, but you can always go in another direction in the position, and the Mets made their commitment to Carlos Delgado, and for this team's duration, that'll do. (Again, most everyone doesn't do this as badly as the Yankees. Losing Smith hurts, but Green or the Rule 5 options should work out just fine. Cleto and Carrerra are a pair of the Mets' extremely young Latin maybes that they've made a big effort at collecting, and just as readily peddled; either or both could engender regret five or six years from now, but five or six years from now, if the Mets don't have a pennant, that won't be Minaya's problem, and if the Mets do have a pennant by then, it still won't be Minaya's problem.


Next up: A review of the other, less complicated exchanges.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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