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December 11, 2008

Prospectus Today

Seamhead Analysis

by Joe Sheehan

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The Winter Meetings aren't what they used to be, or at least that's the impression I've gotten over the eight years I've been attending them. There's so much more media, and so much less access, that the image of a bunch of GMs standing around talking trade like the guys in your fantasy league is as dated as references to "swingmen" or "pagers" or "Caribou Barbie." The meetings now largely occur out of sight, in suites packed with laptops and Blackberries and young men well versed in the use of both. It's not better or worse, it's just different, and a bit less mythic.

So when a three-team, 12-player trade comes along on the last night of the meetings, that's a lot of fun. That's a throwback to Whitey Herzog and Jack McKeon swapping everyone but the batboys, or further back to Trader Frank Lane and his fetishistic need to make moves. It brings back memories of sitting on a stoop on Post Avenue, me and Mike Sanchez and Jose Mena and David Toro with our Strat teams, 2 a.m. on a muggy July night, trying to work out crazy four-way trades that would make all our teams better at once. (It's entirely possible that there were no girls around when we were doing this.)

Omar Minaya, who would have fit right in with Whitey, Jack, and the boys a quarter-century ago, pulled off another good move by acquiring a pitcher who becomes his second-best reliever in exchange for parts that the team likely will not miss, and without giving up any of his top five prospects. It took seven players to get the deal done, but of those, only Maikel Cleto, a 20-year-old with raw stuff who didn't pitch well in the Sally League, is the kind of high-upside talent you might regret losing. This deal gives the Mets a second good reliever who can go a complete inning, freeing the remaining pitchers to throw matchup roles for which they're better suited. It's an imaginative deal, and not the kind that is normally available, so credit Minaya for finding the right situation in which to make a deal of this size. He's added 140 innings of 3.00 ERA relief this week, paying a reasonable price in both money and talent. The Mets, frankly, won the winter meetings, and they still have Fernando Martinez, Wilmer Flores, Jon Niese, and Daniel Murphy in their pockets.

This deal signals that the Mariners will not be making a run at the 2009 AL West crown, although the actual impact of the deal could be lessened should Heilman or Smith have a strong year in the pen. By trading Putz, though, Jack Zdurencik signals that this offseason is about acquiring as much talent as possible and using next year to evaluate it. There's nothing wrong with that; the Mariners are off track, and while my go-for-it notion has merit, when you hire a player-development guy like Zdurencik, you expect a different approach. With the Mariners having a middling system at the moment, mass acquisition of talent, even low-upside talent, is a reasonable way of tackling the problem.

If the grand plan doesn't match what I laid out for the M's last week, two key elements of it are present in this deal: outfield defense and pitchers who could succeed in Safeco. Gutierrez was the best corner outfielder in the AL in 2008, while Chavez had tremendous defensive seasons in 2006 and 2007. The latter is a marginal starter, but if the Mariners put Ichiro Suzuki, Chavez, and Gutierrez on the field at the same time, they'd have the best defensive outfield in baseball by far. Remember, the best Mariners team in recent years had great defenses, the kind that lop 50-80 runs off of a year's total and account for a half-dozen wins all by themselves. The potential for that kind of outfield defense is now present in Seattle.

That defense could turn Heilman and Smith [Just Heilman, Smith went to Cleveland.-Ed.] into valuable assets. Remember that it was 18 months ago that no one would have considered trading Heilman for Putz. Now, that trade needs a lot more on the Mets' side for it to happen. On the other hand, Heilman misses bats and gets ground balls, and whether as a starter or a reliever-it's not clear at this point what he'll be-he should have an ERA well under 4.00 and be a valuable pitcher. He won't have Putz's upside, but he will throw more innings, even as a reliever.

Zduriencik downgraded, but not by very much, and what he traded-a good short reliever-is the most common asset in MLB. He significantly upgraded the team's run prevention-the gap between Ibanez and Gutierrez in terms of defensive performance last year was the widest among any two corner outfielders-and gave the M's options at a number of spots. Vargas has been bouncing around for a while, and is certainly better than last year's inspired idea, Horacio Ramirez. Mike Carp is an OBP/doubles first baseman-not a corner outfielder, though he tried-who could be a $400,000 contributor from 2010-2012, maybe a Mike Hargrove/off-peak John Olerud-type of player. It's a solid return in Zduriencik's first trade as Mariners GM.

The Indians' role in this seems largely to have been to get rid of Gutierrez, a vexing decision given the team's lack of good outfielders and the player's performance on defense last season. Smith pitches from the side and gets righties out better than lefties, which makes him a lesser version of Jensen Lewis. He's unlikely to grow into a large role, but as a proto-Steve Reed he will have some value. Valbuena, who had a .382 OBP in the minors this season-he was slightly hit-lucky-can draw walks and has speed and good hands. He's not the prospect Luis Castillo was-Castillo was a better hitter though with less power-but if you think of the player Castillo is now, that's not a bad comp. With that said, he's not as good a player as Asdrubal Cabrera is. One possibility is for the Tribe to put Valbuena at second, Cabrera at shortstop, and Jhonny Peralta at third base, upgrading the defense at shortstop for sure, and possibly at the other two spots as well. This would give them a young, fast, OBP-centric middle infield, helping a staff that has become very heavy on balls in play-12th in the AL in strikeouts last year-and a lineup that could use some baserunners. In a market with few answers for third base, this is an internal solution that could solve a number of problems.

The deal was fun. It was old-fashioned baseball fun, a dozen guys, and three teams, and three GMs and their staffs working through the available options. The trade looks, in a full-screen summary or over the wire or in the italics of TA, like a mess. When you sort through it, though, you can see the logic, the tracks, and the way that each team gets what it needs and deals away parts that they won't miss quite so much as they'll like the guys they're getting. The Mets won the trade, but no one lost it; each team changed the shape of its talent, and only the Indians are left looking around for more help. This trade may free them to bring in one of the corner outfielders getting increasingly nervous about their lot in life, and the longer the Indians wait, the better the deal they'll reach.

For one night, it was cigar smoke and scotch and cursing as an art form, a vision of the Winter Meetings in the days when instant messages were scrawled on paper napkins and things that happened after 9 p.m. didn't reach the East Coast until January. It was a reminder that it isn't all about the payroll or the revenues, but about imagination and evaluation, and always finding a way to make your team better.

Indianapolis, you're on the clock. Top a 12-player trade being analyzed 12 feet away from a craps pit by 300 seamheads as free alcohol runs like water. Go.

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

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