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July 30, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Hurt When it Hurts the Most

by Eric Seidman

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Injuries are never fun, even when they take their toll on teams you root against. There exists something unfair with regards to when they occur, as best-laid plans set forth at the onset of the season can spiral out of control if players counted on to contribute are literally unable to play the game. They can also come out of nowhere, a statement to which the Phillies will easily attest; arguably the healthiest team in the sport over the last two years, they have experienced situations this season when their backup shortstop needed his backup to play. Injuries can also have a compounding effect on team resources, especially if the bug-bitten player is costly; not only does the team lose his production and on the field, but his salary requirements could prevent them from acquiring an impactful replacement.

But I’m not going to wax poetic on the Phillies' strife today, nor will I touch on what happened to the Mets of yesteryear. Instead, what piqued my interest is how two players—Ben Sheets of the Athletics and David DeJesus of the Royals—suffered season-ending injuries over the last week and a half that could not have come at a worse time for their employers, a time when both teams were as gung-ho as teams can be about trading talented players. Both players arrived at this position in different fashions, but each represents the type of risk associated with transactions and gauging value.

Ben Sheets

When Billy Beane signed Sheets to a one-year deal worth $10 million with incentives based on an innings pitched threshold, he essentially did everything he possibly could to make his ulterior motive known without actually speaking the words. The signing was made in the hopes that Sheets would pitch like he did in the middle of the decade, at which point it was believed that one of two things could happen: either the Athletics would be good enough to compete for a playoff berth, in some part due to Sheets’ performance, or the team would struggle in spite of his solid performance and he could be flipped for prospects. Both of these scenarios were contingent upon Sheets pitching well, which was not at all a given since he missed the end of the 2008 season and all of last year.

Essentially, Sheets represented several forms of risk to the Athletics. First, he proved quite costly, as $10 million might be middle of the pack for teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Phillies, but it represents about a fifth of the Athletics' total team payroll. Second, there was always the possibility that he would not perform, at which point the team would be paying a hefty salary to a sub-par starter that would be tough to flip. Third, it was also eminently possible that Sheets would pitch fairly well, but at a level far from his days in Milwaukee. This latter scenario could be described as falling in between the two previous forms of risk, as in that case he would not have been sought after as heavily and the Athletics would likely have to kick in money to get the return they originally imagined.

And then we have the fourth type of risk—injury risk—which realistically should have been the most expected even if he spent the entire year rehabbing and getting back into game shape. It was highly likely given his history and the circumstances under which he signed with the Athletics that Sheets would simply get hurt again, miss time, and cause any value attached to his name to drastically diminish. The third and fourth risks were realized this season, as not only did Sheets relatively underperform to the tune of a 4.53 ERA belied by poor-for-Ben-Sheets peripherals, but he tore the flexor tendon in his elbow and will need to undergo season-ending surgery.

What makes matters worse for the Athletics is that, in spite of his less-than-desired performance, Sheets had his fair share of suitors over the last couple of weeks. In fact, intern Jesse Behr was kind enough to immerse himself in the rumor mill in order to tell me that no fewer than nine teams were linked to Sheets at one point or another over the last month, with the Phillies and Twins charging hardest. Sheets certainly wasn’t pitching as well as Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt, or even pitchers of the Ted Lilly and Jeremy Guthrie ilk, but his numbers had improved over his final handful of starts and he was likely viewed as some type of consolation prize for the contenders that missed out on Lee or Oswalt. On the year, Sheets made 20 starts and pitched in 119 1/3 innings, producing a 4.53 ERA with underwhelming peripherals. Over his last four starts, however, Sheets put up a 2.88 ERA in 25 innings.

Beane was quoted recently as saying, “it would behoove us to hold onto Ben Sheets,” but his hand was forced. The team likely needed to wait until his performance turned a corner over the last couple of weeks in order to drum up more interest, but by waiting they now assure themselves of getting virtually nothing back on their investment. They will end up paying $10 million this year to get an overall performance similar to what one might expect from fourth or fifth starters, with no chance of getting any compensation draft picks if he signs elsewhere following the season or prospects via a deadline deal.

David DeJesus

Unlike Sheets, the Royals didn’t sign DeJesus strictly for the year nor did they necessarily expect that, come summertime, their stalwart outfielder would be one of the most heavily discussed trade candidates. Then again, DeJesus has been a solid but unspectacular player on a disaster of a team over the last few seasons, meaning his performance wasn’t so overwhelming that it would force those unfamiliar with his game to take notice, and yet those same people weren’t given a chance to take notice since the Royals have barely had any national fanfare or publicity. This season, DeJesus took matters into his own hands and produced, and produced, and produced.

Entering play on July 23 against the New York Yankees, DeJesus boasted a gaudy .320/.386/.446 line, the type that might not stick out at first glance until a second trip down OBP Way results in a double-take at the very high rate. In fact, reaching base via base hits and walks has always been his modus operandi; from 2005-09, he hit .286/.357/.427 with an average of 30 doubles, eight triples, and eight home runs. He does enough right even though nothing truly stands out. However, to a team like the Atlanta Braves, who are outfield-hungry even in the midst of Matt Diaz’s recent play, DeJesus represented a tangible upgrade. The same can be said for the Giants, who had been playing the Ghost of Pat Burrell.

But in the third inning of that fateful July 23 game, DeJesus jammed his wrist into the wall while attempting to snag down a ball off the bat of Derek Jeter, bent it at the wrong angle, and left with a sprained thumb. The injury will keep DeJesus out of action for the rest of the season, obviously ending any trade talks. Apparently the Giants were very deep in talks with the Royals, and a number of other teams were interested as well. In fact, the Nationals, Padres, Red Sox, and Rays were in on the Royals outfielder in addition to the Braves and Giants. Dayton Moore was likely holding onto DeJesus until the last possible minute, hoping that teams would try to outbid one another. Unfortunately, this plan will never come to fruition as DeJesus will not pick up a bat for the rest of the season.

But DeJesus, who is also far less expensive than Sheets at $4.7 million this year with a club option for next year at $6 million (with a $500,000 buyout), injured himself on a play that really could not have been predicted. While an injury should have been expected from Sheets, there was not much risk with DeJesus aside from the normal amount that accompanies a major-league baseball player. Many spewed vitriol in the direction of the Royals for holding onto DeJesus, due to the injury, but this seems to be much more hindsight-driven than anything else. While Athletics fans may have clamored for a Sheets trade because they knew he could break down at any moment, I can’t imagine anyone in Kansas City struggling to sleep at night because DeJesus might suffer a freak injury in his next game in the field.

Who’s Next?

With both of these players off of the board, teams have had to shift their plans over the last week and a half. And now, with Roy Oswalt heading to Philadelphia, the arms left on the market are Ted Lilly, Jeremy Guthrie, and potentially Edwin Jackson, none of whom are the type that fans will salivate over. Sheets likely would have fit into this mold, though it would have been interesting to see how the recent Oswalt and Haren trades shook out had he been healthy, especially with the Phillies so fervently interested in his services. Perhaps they don’t wait for the Oswalt situation to drag out and pull the trigger on a deal with the Athletics. Or, perhaps the availability of a former ace could reduce the asking prices—which have seemingly been incredibly low—of the Astros and Diamondbacks if other teams feel the downgrade in talent surrendered in a trade is more than the downgrade in talent from one of the two aces to Sheets.

On the other side of the baseball ledger, the DeJesus injury reshaped the outfield spectrum. The Dodgers pulled the trigger on a deal for Scott Podsednik, leaving Jose Guillen the most likely outfielder to be traded before 4 p.m. on Saturday. Regardless of what has happened or what will happen, exploring the injuries to Sheets and DeJesus proves an interesting exercise in the department of risk, as both brought with them different forms of reasons to be cautious, and yet ended up suffering similar fates in the end. Getting injured is never a positive outcome, but players getting hurt when their employers are relying on their statuses as trade baits to fuel a rebuilding session has to be one of the most frustrating feelings for a general manager.

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

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