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December 17, 2009

Transaction Analysis

Threesome or Foursome?

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Signed LHP Cedrick Bowers, RHPs Matt Wright, Marcus McBeth, and Fernando Hernandez, and 1B-R Matt Whitney to minor-league contracts. [12/13]
Acquired OF-R Michael Taylor from the Blue Jays for 3B-L Brett Wallace. [12/16]

For the A's, a Taylor-for-Wallace exchange makes for an interesting upside play, not an exchange of "equal talents," but a challenge trade where the challenge isn't about swapping like for like, but that what comes out of the wrapping on your side of the exchange turns into something more than what's in the other box. The Jays get presumed certainty while the A's get considerably greater upside possibilities, and the real mystery, given the two teams' irrelevance in their respective division standings, is why the Jays would prefer certainty.

Wallace might have reached Triple-A sooner and be nine months younger, but Taylor's development curve has been arcing upwards as he's come into his own as a pro, producing projected peaks in Equivalent Average around .320 in both his Double- and Triple-A stints, significantly higher than Wallace's projections from the Texas League (.278) or the PCL (around the same, between his work at Memphis and Sacramento). Position scarcity might help Wallace's case for career value some if he can stay at third base for a good chunk of his career, and certainly moving Wallace does put the A's in the odd position of really having to count on Eric Chavez at third base (at least on paper) while also clearly putting Chris Carter on the spot, either as Daric Barton's rival (at first) or teammate (with one of them DHing).

Given that last place in the short stack seems unavoidable for the immediate future, and that so much of the longer term depends on how well the rotation shakes down over the next several seasons, it makes much more sense to bet on Taylor's potential to become a new Jermaine Dye-level offensive force in a lineup missing that sort of impact hitter, than it does to bank on Wallace's shot at being a pretty good third baseman now and later, and then, before his six years are up, a potentially pedestrian first baseman. Add in that you're potentially swapping in Taylor for placeholding talents like Ryan Sweeney and/or Scott Hairston, and it's potentially a net gain this year as well, and a Scoan Sweenston platoon in an outfield corner by the end of 2010 could wind up as a two-way asset, helping convert a present problem into a temporary virtue.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Acquired LHP Cliff Lee from the Phillies for RHPs J.C. Ramirez and Phillippe Aumont and CF-L Tyson Gillies; signed SS-L Pedro Okuda to a minor-league contract. [12/16]

As genius moves go, I'm not sure it gets better than this. One year of Lee and the draft picks he'll bring if they don't re-sign him, for three age-20 talents who, impressively enough, are all poised to graduate to Double-A, but none of whom is so magnificent that you're in Bagwell-for-Andersen territory. This is exactly the sort of win-now move you like to see a team in this position make. Winning now and during the remaining time left on Felix Hernandez's service-time clock seems like an entirely doable proposition. The Angels' '09 season is very much starting to look like the last big push, the Rangers' burgeoning greatness is still very much as-yet unrealized, and if Jack Zduriencik's sweetest skill as a GM was supposed to be his eye for player development, as sweet as that might be, it'll take years to overhaul the system to his design.

So, taking all of that into consideration, while not scrimping on the long-term goal of improving the entire organization, why not go for it in the meantime, if you have the means and a few of the elements to do it with? For all of talk from general managers as different as J.P. Ricciardi or Ed Wade, Bill Bavasi, or Paul DePodesta, all of whom came in with win-now or win-soon agendas, it's fascinating to see someone who came into the job with a career in player development trying to build a worthy foe for the AL East's titans by hitting the two highest notes in the performance-analysis songbook:

  • Add premium talent. The more in-depth arguments for how many wins you add by putting Lee into an equation-five, six, plenty-are compelling enough. You've got King Felix, and you just added an obvious short-lister for somebody else who's likely to rank among the 10 best starters in whatever league he's in. This gives you an incredible shot at leveraging that nice regular-season wins tally into a run of dominating postseason matchups very much in your favor. Just make sure to discourage changing that Entish post-season schedule, since those long pauses can come in handy. Leave middle-class acquisitions to teams with middle-class ambitions. "That guy" wasn't on the market, so the Mariners had to be creative to find him, and by getting themselves invited to this dance, they wound up with a tremendous prize.

  • Deal from strength. Franklin Gutierrez is under club control for at least the next three years, and having enjoyed the benefit of getting him, it isn't inconceivable they'll strike a deal that takes away his first year of free agency. With other outfield talents already in the organization to consider for the corners in the seasons to come, and the need to add a more potent bat for left in the present, Gillies was tantalizing, but also entirely worth including. The arms are both promising, but place your faith in Jack Z., and you can expect more of the same. That's easier to say than do, of course, and I'm not suggesting that Zduriencik can conjure them prospects out of thin air; he's not about to stand hundreds of years of research proving spontaneous generation isn't true on its head. However, if the man has reasonable confidence in his acumen, betting on his own ability to replace prospects with other prospects, can you blame him?

Here again, there won't be a bestseller in the offing written about this activity, but there should be, because it speaks to Zduriencik's operating on a level as an executive that delivers on what really needs to be harped on: decision-making informed by performance analysis and scouting, not handicapped by a reductionist choice between them. Zduriencik's ambitions for what he can do to shore up this year's bid are by no means fully realized, of course. They may get Jason Bay, fulfilling their need for right-handed power now while benefiting from the eventual end of Ken Griffey Jr.'s career as an avenue to escape from Bay's unglovely contributions as a left fielder. They can continue to play chicken with Russell Branyan, until either he accepts a short deal or they find the free-agent first baseman who will. A utility infielder of the Jamey Carroll stamp and a veteran catcher wouldn't be bad things to get, but they're also more on the optional side of the shopping list at this point. Both kinds of commodities are available in this market, and will cost less than $2 million to get per year per player.

As for the player development side of the equation, while it's a slower, more sub-rosa process easily overlooked while the organization's busy playing for high stakes at the highest level, signing the Brazilian-Japanese Okuda demonstrates they're keeping themselves busy with the farm system. Whether he pans out is no sure thing, but the 19-year-old has the benefit of playing some high school ball in Japan after a childhood in Brazil. He should wind up assigned to the organization's Venezuelan academy for summer-league action, and as that MLB.com report indicates, they've been following Okuda for almost four years. Since Portuguese and Japanese aren't exactly common languages in pro leagues in this hemisphere, it makes for a potentially interesting problem as far as instruction. Somehow, I suspect the solution does not depend on locating Jose Pett's translator.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Signed C-R Raul Chavez and OF-L Joey Gathright to minor-league contracts. [12/13]
Traded RHP Roy Halladay and $6 million to the Phillies for RHP Kyle Drabek, OF-R Michael Taylor, and C-R Travis D'Arnaud; signed C-R John Buck to a one-year deal for $2 million; signed RHP Lance Broadway to a minor-league contract. [12/16]

Credit Alex Anthopolous for doing what his predecessor could not, and landing an interesting, variegated group of prospects when he was dealing with something of a distressed property. Joe Sheehan noted earlier today how this looks a lot better than the deal for Johan Santana did two years ago. (And believe me, that trade looked terrible then.) But frankly, I think this deal looks great in comparison to the deal that put Lee in Philadelphia in the first place.

Consider the merits of the packages. Drabek's a tremendous pitching prospect, and as much as you hate to say this about anyone on the way up, someone with a better shot than most to become, if not the guy he's replacing, at least a front-end rotation regular of quality. The Jays have done a fine job of finding a number of people who can round out a rotation; Drabek becomes the hoped-for eventual center piece you can groom to put in front of them. He's a better prospect than Carlos Carrasco or Jason Knapp. Or Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp.

Maybe because we're talking about Kid Drabek and the Walrus being Blue Jays, it almost seems as if the addition of D'Arnaud has gotten undersold. He's not Buster Posey, but he's on the short list for best catching prospects in the game; J.P. Arencibia is not. For catching prospects, I'd rather take my chances on D'Arnaud, a smooth receiver with more pop than Lou Marson, and one with worthwhile full-season experience at 20. And to complete the Tribe's trade back in July, no, utility infield aspirant Jason Donald for utility outfielder Ben Francisco does not make up the difference, and that's without getting to the third element of the deal.

If there's a misstep, it's arguably there, turning around and trading Taylor for Wallace. Not that Wallace isn't a good prospect, but as I noted in the A's segment, whatever virtues you get with Wallace as a third baseman who's worked hard at staying on third base probably get lost to you in time. Sort of like asking "why" as far as the Phillies adding the Lee deal to their getting Halladay, I wonder about the value of adding Wallace as the second half of the Jays' side of the Halladay exchange. If the Jays are out of it (and they are) and have an immediate future colored by whether or not they can keep ahead of the Orioles, why go for the safety school choice of prospects in Wallace, when you might be better off employing the upside risk Taylor has going for him? As cool as it is to have Wallace join Aaron Hill and Adam Lind and Travis Snider in the near future, giving you a core four in a lineup that should score runs a'plenty, you could swap in Michael Taylor into that Fab Four a la Stuart Sutcliffe and have something equally wonderful.

Not that Wallace is the new Eric Hinske, of course, but it's generally taken for granted that he's a prospect whose eventual future will be at first base. I don't expect that to be now, of course-in the near term I'd expect it's more likely that Edwin Encarnacion's going to be invited to move to another lineup slot (if not another franchise) than Wallace will be. Snider might be a future DH, creating the odd medium-term problem of having young veterans at the old men's positions. Adding Wallace exacerbates an issue already anticipated with Snider, and already added to by trading for Encarnacion. In contrast, Taylor seems like a relative lock as a quality defender in an outfield corner.

Still, it's not that sour a note to finish on. Anthopolous got good stuff for the one year of Halladay he had to work with, and the page has been successfully turned. It won't help ticket sales, of course, but the negative publicity that the club risked by bartering with a popular player all summer long figured to hurt those already, and the matter would only be worsened by any ill-will spill over into 2011 by stretching the drama out to the last moment. Instead, the organization's made a clean break with one of the last major bits of unfinished business from the old regime, and can sort out its priorities as far as the immediate future.

To that end, add Buck to the list of "people employed to fill out the roster," no differently than the decisions to retain John McDonald or sign Alex Gonzalez. Not that he'll get the Jays to 80 wins, but he'll provide some pop, and we'll see how much of his flagging performance against stolen-base attempts was a product of the unbearable burden of being a Royal.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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Signed 1B/OF-L Ross Gload to a two-year, $2.6 million contract. [12/15]
Acquired RHP Roy Halladay and $6 million from the Blue Jays for RHP Kyle Drabek, OF-R Michael Taylor, and C-R Travis d'Arnaud; traded LHP Cliff Lee to the Mariners for RHPs J.C. Ramirez and Phillippe Aumont and CF-L Tyson Gillies. [12/16]

As much as I almost reflexively like to go against the grain to avoid a charge of groupthink (cussedness is a virtue for some), there's less here to like than you might expect. Taylor's a tremendous upside play, as is Drabek, and d'Arnaud's a catching talent whose position-relative ceiling puts him among the top 10 prospects behind the plate. That's a lot to give up, but getting an exclusive opportunity to get Roy Halladay at $9.75 million (since the Jays are paying the balance of his 2010 pay) and the equally exclusive opportunity to lock him in for three more years for a less-than-market rate, with health-dependent options determining whether you got one or two more years of him beyond... well, that's just a thing of beauty. Given Lee's odd career path, it's not an unreasonable suggestion that Ruben Amaro Jr. chose well in preferring Halladay.

Less certain is the necessity of coupling this trade with the deal that put Lee in Seattle. Even if you accept for the sake of argument the suggestion that Amaro had to work within a budget, and that he had to have one or the other, this seems to suggest that the Phillies just blew it by being active early and, true to form, acted fast. If payroll's a problem, then the money spent on Placido Polanco or Ross Gload or Juan Castro or Brian Schneider-in short, the entire pack of elective add-ons, these veteran talents barely above the free-talent alternatives or players making close to the minimum-deserves to be seen collectively as needlessly spent money on players who don't significantly alter the Phillies' chances at a third pennant, not nearly so much as having a rotation with Doc and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels gives you a rotation that might have been able to handily beat the best the AL might throw at you, and start a case for elevating the Phillies to dynastydom.

Similarly, if payroll's a problem, as Matt Swartz pointed out today, there are also the arbitration-related considerations involving Chad Durbin and Joe Blanton to consider; non-tendering Durbin's an obvious missed opportunity, of course. But just as holding onto Lee into February to haggle over the best-possible package of prospects from the neediest possible bidder would have been smarter than doing this now to get it done, then holding Blanton out there to the winter's increasingly unhappy shoppers who didn't get a Halladay or a Cliff Lee or a John Lackey in their stocking becomes more and more plausible. If the argument that you can't have Halladay, Lee, and Blanton on the payroll on Opening Day, 2010 is true, that does not mean that you can't have them all on your roster now, or next month, or in March, while taking the time to help yourself the best way possible. Fighting and losing or winning or winning and losing Blanton's arbitration case is simply not that odious a mid-winter chore that it compels you to pick between he and Lee right now.

Which leaves us with the other line of defense for the unhappy dependent clause appended to the positive action of adding Doc: "re-stocking the farm system." If that's a major right-now priority, that's fine, but was this the best way of achieving that? Aumont might wind up a reliever, both are 20, and if standard rates of spoilage apply, you could end up with only one of them panning out; that's the nature of pitching prospects, where survival's part of the job description. Nevertheless, it's worth remembering that Kevin Goldstein rated the pair as the sytem's best starting arms before 2009, as did Baseball America. Is that worth a year of Cliff Lee? If not, Gillies may well make up a large amount of the difference; he could be a premium center fielder if his walk rate can get up to 10 percent in the higher levels and on into the pros, and if he develops any power that isn't just park- and league-aided. If not, he might be a premium defender with speed, the sort of player you can carry in a great lineup; he could simultaneously be someone who becomes part of the problem in something less than a great lineup. Given that he's only heading in his age-21 season as well, and that all three should be in Double-A next season, and it makes for a fine trio of entirely desirable prospects. All three are very young, and while I'd rate them further behind what they surrendered to achieve this deal, it's somewhat amusing that this lot seems a lot more interesting as prospects than what the Phillies gave up to get Lee from the Indians in the first place. To give Amaro further credit along this line, in an industry where flipping prospects might be harder now than it used to be to get Gussie Busch to spend an extra nickel, he managed to add three worthy of the label.

Which brings us back to the problem: would you rather have these three prospects and a year of Joe Blanton and all those mostly-harmless expensive veterans Amaro so speedily signed? Or would you rather have a year of Cliff Lee, the draft pick or picks you'd get in the 2011 draft once he leaves (and you offer arbitration), whatever middling prospect you get in trade for a year of Joe Blanton, and maybe take a few chances on whatever equally fungible fun you stock the last four or five slots of your roster with to help control costs? The money the Jays added to the deal minimized the expense of employing Halladay in 2010, and while I'd accept in the abstract that Amaro got decent value for a year of Lee (and the picks the Mariners might now get instead), that abstraction depends on the suggestion that the Phillies were in something like the same position as the Jays, and not where they are, gunning for another pennant.

We can argue that he might have been able to get a better package for Lee than the one he received from the Mariners, but prospect exchanges aren't easily achieved, so there's an element of unrealistic wishcasting attached to such a proposition. Instead, the real shame here is the path not taken, keeping Lee as part of going for it now, taking that post-Halladay priority to restock the farm system and doing so via the draft (which letting Lee leave next winter helps), trading Blanton sometime between now and Opening Day, and skipping some of the needless veteran frippery stocking the bottom of this roster, as old-timers sign on for a shot at playoff shares and dogpiling they won't substantively contribute to. Here as with last winter, I wonder if the story here isn't that Amaro made a move to achieve something big, it's that he moves fast, and this time around lost out on a chance to do something even bigger. After all, if payroll's a problem, spending top dollar on Raul Ibanez then, in a market where corner outfielders were taking big pay cuts, cut into their ability to afford a truly magnificent rotation now, and into the future.

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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