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December 12, 2012

Transaction Analysis

The Diamondbacks Deal Bauer to Cleveland, and the Reds Get Choo

by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Traded OF-R Shin-Soo Choo, LHP Tony Sipp, and 1B-L Lars Anderson in exchange for RHP Trevor Bauer, CF-R Drew Stubbs, RHP Bryan Shaw and RHP Matt Albers. [12/11]

For Cleveland and Chris Antonetti, the deal comes down to this uncomplicated calculus: the Indians traded one year of Shin-Soo Choo and three years of Tony Sipp for six years of Bauer, three years of Stubbs (non-tender potential aside), and five years of Shaw. (The years of Anderson and Albers don’t much matter.) Team control-wise, this is a blowout. And in Cleveland’s case, team control is mostly what matters.

It’s not inconceivable that the one year of Choo control Cleveland surrendered could be the most valuable single season any player involved in the deal will have from this point forward. Early PECOTAs project him for close to four wins, and he’ll be paid at a reasonable rate, even in his second year of arbitration. But that single valuable season would be 2013, when the Indians (who closed out 2012 with a 24-53 second half) wouldn’t contend for a playoff spot even if Choo hit like he did in his first few full seasons. Given the recent bad blood between Cleveland ownership and Choo’s agent Scott Boras, who resisted all of the Indians’ past overtures about an extension, Choo was as good as gone at the end of next year. He’s been one of the best bargains in baseball for the past several seasons—the Indians have paid him just over $10 million for roughly 20 wins—but trading him now was the best way for the Indians to maximize his remaining value. And on his way out, Choo might have brought back as many wins for the future as he’s provided in the past.

It probably would have been worth pulling the trigger on this trade if Bauer had been the only player coming back to Cleveland, but the other returns (Albers aside) aren’t without value. As Sam mentioned above and R.J. Anderson covered in greater detail elsewhere today, Stubbs has fallen on hard times at the plate in recent years, but his glove and legs have been valuable enough to make him something close to an average player despite a .236 TAv over the past two seasons. His FRAA doesn’t support his reputation for standout defense (though other defensive systems do), but assuming that reputation reflects reality, he’ll be at worst a decent stopgap until he gets expensive and at best a bargain if his bat bounces back. Shaw is a right-handed reliever who doesn’t strike out many batters or profile as a late-inning option—be still your beating hearts—but he’s young, inexpensive, and fairly effective, so he’s well worth having. The 25-year-old relies almost exclusively on a cutter that sits around 93 miles per hour, and he gets a ton of grounders, so he’ll fit in well on the Indians’ staff.

This isn’t Colon for Lee, Phillips, and Sizemore, but it might be one of the best swaps the Indians—who have a somewhat spotty recent trade record—have made since. It’s rare that I have no reservations about pronouncing a trade an unqualified win for one team—there’s so much info we’re missing about most transactions that I get twitchy just typing that—but this is one of those times. Cleveland just made the kind of move that should help shorten the dry spell between competitive Indians teams. —Ben Lindbergh

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
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Traded RHP Trevor Bauer, CF-R Drew Stubbs, RHP Bryan Shaw and RHP Matt Albers in exchange for SS-L Didi Gregorius, LHP Tony Sipp, and 1B-L Lars Anderson. [12/11]

Dayton Moore doesn’t care what you think about the moves he makes (unless you accuse him of acting out of self-interest), but he probably wasn’t upset to see the baseball spotlight shift somewhere else on Tuesday. Just two days after the mostly maligned Royals trade that sent Wil Myers to Tampa Bay, we already have another “[team] traded [top prospect] for what?” deal to discuss. So much for that fetishization of prospects.

This time, the team is Arizona, the prospect is 21-year-old Trevor Bauer, and the “what?” is even more incredulous. But before we get to Bauer, let’s talk about what the Diamondbacks got back. Gregorius, the centerpiece of the package and a product of the Netherlands who debuted in the big leagues late last season, is a nice piece: he’s 22, he plays shortstop, and he’s under team control for the next several seasons. His glove is good enough to project him as a starting player over that span—despite Kevin Towers’ unintentionally terrifying “compliment” that he has Derek Jeter-esque range—but his bat is bad enough that he won’t be better than average overall. The good-field, no-hit shortstop is a time-honored archetype, and if Gregorius’ glove delivers, he can be another entry in the mold of Brendan Ryan, Brandon Crawford, and Cliff Pennington (whom Arizona already has), a player you can pencil in for 2 WARP and then do your best to ignore when he's not in the field. The Diamondbacks needed a shortstop, and now they have one for the foreseeable future, so that’s something for D-Backs fans to celebrate, albeit in a somewhat subdued way.

Here's some more scouting detail on Gregorius, courtesy of BP prospect person Mark Anderson:

Gregorius moves well to both sides, displaying good instincts and first-step quickness and making his range a strong positive. His hands are soft and he reads hops well, allowing him to make plays cleanly. He adds in plus arm strength, giving him an above-average overall defensive profile.

At the plate, Gregorius makes easy contact but lacks the strength to impact the ball and consistently drive it to the outfield. He is an aggressive swinger who won’t work deep into counts or take many walks, and he would be well-served to develop a better plan at the plate. There is very little power projection in Gregorius’ game.

Gregorius may be able to hit only at the bottom of the order, leaving some scouts to project him as a second-division starter and possibly only a utility player. He shouldn’t be viewed as a frontline player with impact potential.

In addition to Gregorius, the Diamondbacks got Sipp, a 29-year-old, left-handed, arbitration-eligible reliever. He’s a fastball-slider guy who throws on the hard side for a southpaw, but he doesn’t dominate lefties enough for LOOGY duty or hold his own against right-handers enough to be a late-inning equal-opportunity option. Sipp's weaknesses are obvious: he has the highest home-run rate and the fourth-highest walk rate of any reliever who’s thrown at least 200 innings over the past four seasons. Walks and home runs don’t go together well, and while Sipp has managed a league-average-ish ERA for a reliever, he has a .241 career BABIP to thank for it. He’s probably not any better than the homer-prone lefty reliever Arizona already had (Matt Reynolds), and he’s also probably not any better than the best reliever who went the other way in the trade (Bryan Shaw). Sipp has a career -0.3 WARP, and that’s as good a guess as any about what he’ll be worth next season.

Arizona also got Lars Anderson, a 25-year-old first baseman who’s hit a combined .259/.355/.416 over the past three seasons in the International League. At one time, Anderson was a top prospect too, but now he’s a replacement-level player even by Triple-A standards. Reno Aces manager Brett Butler’s reaction to the trade must have been, “Geez, at least last year they gave me Mike Jacobs.”

So Gregorius is good, but not great, and the other players Arizona received don’t make them any better. And no, that doesn’t seem like a lot to get back for a guy who was drafted third overall in 2011, entered the season as Arizona’s top-ranked prospect and the 11th-best overall, then went on to win the organization’s Pitcher of the Year award.

But that award was deceptive: while Bauer did post a 2.42 ERA across two minor-league levels and made his major-league debut, by the end of the season, it was Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin in Arizona’s rotation, not Bauer. That reversal reflected the new pecking order among Arizona pitching prospects, since Bauer failed to develop in the way the organization hoped. His major-league sample (for most of which he was saddled with a groin strain) was vanishingly small, but Bauer’s struggles within that sample reinforced pre-existing concerns: he walked 13 batters in 16 1/3 innings, “clashed” with Miguel Montero over his pitching approach, and lasted four innings or fewer in three of his four starts.

Bauer has several (some might say too many) weapons at his disposal. He throws a fastball that sits around 93 mph and plays up due to a deep release point, a curve that can be devastating but has a tendency to drift out of the strike zone, a good changeup, a slider that lags a bit behind the other pitches, and a fringy sort of screwball that he might be better off ditching or dialing down in his repertoire.

Bauer’s unorthodox mechanics don’t cause many concerns among the open-minded, but his difficulties in repeating them do: in October, Doug Thorburn gave most aspects of his delivery good grades but slammed him with 30 ratings in balance, posture, and repetition. As a result of those shortcomings, his command and control are inconsistent, and his training regimen and hyperawareness of his own approach rub some traditional baseball types the wrong way. (You won’t see many other prospects dispensing in-depth mechanical tips and dropping “Inverted Ws” on Twitter.) Whether he’s overconfident or justifiably confident differs depending on whom you talk to, as does the verdict on whether his analytical mind is a help or a hindrance.

The common refrain among Arizona sources (and not just Ken Kendrick) is that Bauer, who’s shown some reluctance to take instruction, has the physical tools to succeed but needs to adjust his approach to pitch more efficiently. Fortunately, that problem is fixable. The hope was that Bauer’s introduction to the majors might encourage him to make those adjustments, and there were some indications that it did, which prompted Kevin Goldstein to rank him as the favorite for a 2013 Rookie of the Year award at the end of August. For what it's worth, Towers claimed that makeup concerns about Bauer had nothing to do with the deal ( which means that they may or may not have).

Towers, whose comments suggest he really had a thing for Gregorius, became a major-league general manager before Baseball Prospectus was born. He’s made many trades, most of them good. (And he’s talked about making many more.) It’s tough to find an example of a deal in which he gave up and dealt a young pitcher too soon, and he and his staff know Bauer better than anyone else—listen to Kevin Goldstein talk about an organization’s firsthand knowledge of its own prospects on the podcast today, and you’ll know how much that can mean.

But here’s the thing: even though the Diamondbacks were dealing from strength to pave over a weakness, and even if they were right to sour on Bauer to the extent that they evidently did, we have to judge their return in trade not against what Bauer is worth, but against what he’s perceived to be worth by 29 other teams. Unless the rest of baseball is as down on Bauer as the D-Backs were (which seems unlikely) or were scared away by his availability (less unlikely, but still), it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Towers didn’t get good value for a young pitcher who still projects as a durable starter slated for a spot closer to the top of a rotation than the bottom. Sometimes familiarity breeds a little too much contempt.  —Ben Lindbergh

CINCINNATI REDS
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Acquired OF-R Shin-Soo Choo and UT-R Jason Donald in exchange for Didi Gregorius and Drew Stubbs [12/11]

Back in August, a Reds fan who goes by the handle RijoSaboCaseyWKRP suggested, perhaps in a sense of desperation caused by the previous 1,000 Drew Stubbs at-bats, that the Reds might like to consider Jay Bruce in center field. The defensive shuffle would get a much better bat in the lineup, and if Bruce couldn’t handle the defensive demands of the position, well... and that’s where it broke down. “This isn't going to happen,” RijoSaboCaseyWKRP concluded. “The Bruce-to-CF part or the rearranging the lineup part. So do yourself a favor and don't read this post.”

Drew Stubbs can make a lot of people desperate, and so perhaps it is that Walt Jocketty read that post and got distracted before he reached the end. After adding Shin-Soo Choo,* the Reds now have Choo, Bruce, and Ryan Ludwick under contract. That’s three good ballplayers for two spots, and nobody for another. Unlessssssss.

There are actually at least five sort of possibilities, none perfect:

1. Choo plays center. Choo has played exactly one game in center since he left Seattle, and even as a Mariners farmhand he was mostly moved to a corner after he turned 20. He has generally been an above-average defender in a corner, but the numbers got worse this year.

2. Billy Hamilton gets promoted to play center field. That would certainly be a, ahem, fast promotion, and given the Reds’ reluctance to give him a September call-up, and given Hamilton’s very, very limited experience in center field, you’d have to think it’s at least a half-season and maybe a full season away, which make’s Choo’s limited contract status (one more year before free agency) not a bummer to the Reds but a benefit.

3. Chris Heisey plays center field. Heisey is coming off a replacement-level age-27 season and is better suited at a corner, and this plan would leave a Ludwick out.

4. Bruce plays center. Bruce played center in the minors, but even back in 2007 we were casting doubt on his ability to stay there; since appearing in the middle 35 times as a rookie, he hasn’t returned, and some of the advanced metrics see him dissolving even in right field. Like Choo, he shows some ability to run but isn’t a burner.

5. There’s another move to come.

The word now is that it’ll be option no. 1 (“We’ve haven’t seen him out there,” Jocketty said. “But he runs well. He goes left to right and right to left well. We think he can make the transition.”) which isn’t going to be pretty on defense—the Reds’ pitching staff is around league-average for fly-ball rates, if you’re wondering—and it’ll be hard not to notice the drop off from elite flychaser Stubbs. But the Reds simply weren’t a very good offensive team last season, and they were particularly poor against right-handers, who held them to a .246/.311/.399 line. (Reds hitters gained 60 points of OPS against lefties.) Choo crushes righties, with a platoon split much larger than the typical hitter. They were particularly poor in the leadoff spot; the Reds’ men on top combined for a .254 OBP, which, hold on for a second. Is that right? 

Yes! The Reds’ leadoff hitters had a .254 OBP. In a hitter’s park, no less. The Reds’ leadoff hitters had a .254 OBP, and no other NL team had an OBP lower than .280 at any other position in the batting order. And it wasn’t even Stubbs' fault! Mostly it was Zack Cozart (who can move down to eighth now), with plenty of support from Heisey and Phillips. Now, it’ll be Choo’s spot.

Defense is important—really important, though a bit less every year we move deeper into the strikeout era—but Choo’s offense was around 50 runs better than Stubbs’ last year without accounting for the spot in the order and without accounting for any potential “balancing of the lineup” benefit, which may or may not exist and probably doesn’t. Choo is a very good hitter. He had that lousy 2011 season, and there’s certainly a tilt downward in his stats, but he’s a very good hitter. Since 2008, for instance, he has the same OPS+ as Josh Hamilton. Choo is two years younger.

It’s nice when every part of a move fits into every other part, like Pangea coming back together and all the world’s people living in peace and harmony. That’s not the case here. The Reds get a center fielder who isn’t. If that doesn’t work, they have overlap on the corners. If Choo gets hurt—he’s dealt with minor hamstring and less-minor oblique issues, as well as getting-hit-by-Jonathan-Sanchez-repeatedly issues, and a position switch might not help—then the Reds have to replace a center fielder, not a corner man. And the move puts pressure on Billy Hamilton not just to hit like a major leaguer by 2014 but to field a new position like a major leaguer by 2014. But when a team has a chance to upgrade by 50 runs at a position, it’s understandable if they worry about those details later.

Jason Donald played five positions, including the three important infield ones, in 2012, and he’s been a bit better than average against left-handers in his career. He’s not a super utility guy, exactly, but this was a Reds team that took Wilson Valdez (.206/.236/.227) and Miguel Cairo (.187/.212/.280) onto its postseason roster last year. —Sam Miller

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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