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May 28, 2013

Overthinking It

The Montero-Pineda Trade in 2013

by Ben Lindbergh

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(If you listened to last Friday’s episode of Effectively Wild, you’ve already heard me and Sam Miller discussing this topic. You’ve also heard me threatening to write about it. This is me making good on that threat.)

One year, four months, and five days ago, the Yankees traded Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. It was an unusually exciting trade, in that we hadn’t heard much about it before it went down, and it involved two of baseball’s most promising young players. As the internet scrambled to write up responses, a consensus emerged: both teams had done well to address an area of need. The Mariners, who hadn’t hit much since Edgar Martinez retired, had more trouble attracting hitters than pitchers to their big ballpark, and had just batted Miguel Olivo cleanup 43 times, and thus needed someone who wouldn’t look out of place in the middle of a major league lineup. The Yankees, who had a surplus of 1B/DH types signed to long-term contracts, needed a young starter to slot into their rotation behind CC Sabathia. If either team was believed to have “won” the trade, it may have been the Mariners, who wound up with the position player, generally the less risky part of any pitcher-for-position-player swap. But neither team was widely believed to have lost.

Since then, the stock of every player involved in the trade—three of whom have made news lately—has dropped dramatically. The players the Mariners acquired have cost them -0.8 WARP (which probably undersells the extent to which they’ve hurt the team); the players the Yankees acquired have yet to make any contribution at the big-league level. This isn’t an attempt to reevaluate the trade based on what we know now, since it wouldn’t be fair to apply those results retroactively. It’s an attempt to figure out whose stock has fallen farthest, and which team wishes there were backsies. And it’s a reflection of how quickly even sure things can start to look shaky.

Shortly after news of the trade broke, we broke it down at BP. R.J. Anderson wrote about the Pineda part of the trade, and Kevin Goldstein covered everything else. I’m going to go player by player, picking out some of what we said then and recapping what the last 16 months have revealed.

Montero

It's the plus-plus hit tools that trump all others, but as a pure hitter who is also in the neighborhood of 235 pounds, the power just comes naturally, giving him the ability to hit for a .300 average with 20-30 home runs annually, depending on just how much Safeco robs him of long balls and how well he adjusts.

Montero hit four homers for the Yankees in his September 2011 debut. Three of them were to the opposite field, which boded well for his future at Safeco, traditionally a tough park for right-handed pull power. But he hit only .227/.268/.337 at home last season, when Safeco played particularly tough. On the road, Montero hit .295/.330/.438, not bad at all for a 22-year-old backstop, though his campaign was perceived to be disappointing.

This season, Montero hit very poorly both at home and on the road, albeit in only 110 plate appearances. To make matters worse, he was linked to Biogenesis over the offseason, and it was revealed that he doesn’t really know how to run—as in he literally doesn’t know how to do it, not as in he’s not fast (which he isn’t). The Mariners recently gave up on the hope that he’d figure everything out in the majors and sent him back down to Triple-A.

Kevin wrote, “It will be interesting to see if the Mariners replace the Yankees as the only team that believes in his ability to catch in the big leagues.” They did, with predictably poor results. Montero has rated as one of the worst receivers in baseball, allowed more than his share of passed balls, and caught only 13.5 percent of attempted basestealers in Seattle. Since being sent down, he’s played first base exclusively, and will likely continue to play first and DH if and when he makes it back to the majors.

The high offensive bar at first base is no obstacle for what Montero’s bat was supposed to be. When Cashman traded Montero, he called it a “huge risk,” saying, “To me, Montero is Mike Piazza. He’s Miguel Cabrera.” He hasn’t looked like those players yet. Maybe he will, now that he’s free of the developmental demands of catcher. Montero is 23, so it’s too soon to say that he won’t become a valuable player. But it’s probably not too soon to say that he won’t be Miguel Cabrera—by the time Cabrera’s age-23 season was over, he had 104 homers. Both Montero’s worst- and best-case scenarios have gotten a little uglier since he left New York.

Pineda

Under team control for the next five seasons, Pineda will have to adapt to the Bronx and further develop his tertiary pitch. Should he do those things, he could form arguably the nastiest one-two punch in the majors with CC Sabathia.

R.J. mentioned that Pineda had problems: he lacked a changeup to pair with his fastball and slider, and his fly-ball profile figured to play more poorly in the Bronx than it had in Seattle. Of course, those problems paled in comparison to the one we didn’t know he had: his shoulder was about to be busted. Pineda made six starts in spring training, showed reduced velocity, and started the season on the disabled list, where he’s been ever since. The righty had surgery to repair a torn labrum last May 1st, and to add infraction to injury, he was arrested for a DUI last August.

Pineda was supposed to be a top-of-the-rotation arm, effectively immediately. Instead, he hasn’t thrown a pitch, and his future remains uncertain. There was no damage to his rotator cuff, which improves his prognosis; Anibal Sanchez had a similar surgery in 2007, and he came back strong. Pineda threw five innings in an extended spring outing last week, with his fastball sitting around 93 miles per hour, according to Brian Cashman. One more outing like that, and he’ll begin a month-long minor league rehab assignment, with the goal of getting back to the big leagues before the All-Star break. Presumably he hasn’t picked up a changeup or learned how to keep the ball on the ground during his months away from the mound. But those now seem like minor concerns compared to the question of whether he’ll pitch, period.

Last January, Brian Cashman told Jim Bowden that if Pineda didn’t develop into a no. 1 starter, he would have made a mistake. And last April, when Pineda’s prospects looked grim, Cashman called the trade “a massive decision gone wrong right now.” Seattle’s side of the deal doesn’t look quite as good as it did then, but Pineda’s health remains the greatest unknown, and the most obvious area in which this deal could soon look different than it does today.

Noesi

Montero is not the only player who could play a significant role for the 2012 Mariners, however, as right-hander Hector Noesi, who was relegated to the bullpen in New York, will earn an opportunity to take Pineda's spot in the rotation and has a chance to beat out others like Blake Beavan for the right to stay there once 2011 first-round pick Danny Hultzen cruises through the minors. Noesi has average stuff, as his fastball sits at 90-91 mph, but he can reach back for 94 when he needs it, and the pitch has some movement. A changeup is his best secondary pitch—he's yet to find a consistent breaking ball between his curveball and slider—but everything about him plays up due to his ability to not only throw strikes, but to throw good ones, as he uses both sides of the plate and knows how to exploit hitter weaknesses. His ceiling is just a no. 4 starter, but he's already there.

Noesi had the least upside of anyone in the trade, but he was expected to reach that upside immediately. Seattle is still waiting. Noesi got an extended, unsuccessful shot as a starter, but he didn’t come close to beating out Beavan, going 2-12 with a 6.24 ERA in 18 starts and somehow allowing 21 homers in 98 innings despite the pitcher’s park. Noesi had a roughly league-average line when hitters were ahead, but he was completely incapable of putting them away, yielding a .319/.313/.702 triple-slash after going up 0-2.

Noesi was sent back to Double-A to start this season, then promoted to Tacoma, then moved up to the Mariners by mid-April. This time he did beat out Beavan, but only for a bullpen spot. (He also made a spot start, was replaced by a fresh arm, and recently returned.) Noesi still lacks a really good breaking ball, but he looks like he could be a decent swingman. So now his ceiling is probably “right-handed reliever,” which is considerably lower than it was.

Campos

Just 19 years old, Campos is a big-bodied power pitcher who already can get into the mid-90s with his fastball, and unlike many high-ceiling prospects with his kind of size and arm strength, he has no issues with repeating his delivery and throwing strikes. He's still a long way from a finished product, though, as both his breaking ball and changeup lag well behind the heater, he'll only be making his full-season debut in 2012 for Low-A Charleston, and he’s at least three years away from the Bronx, so patience will be required in order to reap the rewards.

Some analysts, figuring that Montero and Pineda would match each other punch for punch, concluded that Campos could be the difference maker. The right-handed, some said, looked like a younger version of Pineda; it was possible that he could ultimately turn out to be the best pitcher in the deal.

Campos didn’t get much closer to that goal last season, even with Pineda inactive. Just two days after the announcement that Pineda would miss the rest of the season, Campos had a disastrous fifth start in the Sally League, then went on the DL with what was described as “elbow inflammation.” He missed the rest of the season amidst some confusion about what the injury actually was. Campos clarified this May, admitting that he’d suffered a small fracture in the elbow and saying that he believed himself to be about 90 percent back.

There’s certainly some good news. Campos, by all accounts, is healthy. He entered the season as our eighth-ranked Yankees prospect, and he has a 3.94 ERA in nine games, seven starts, and 29 2/3 innings. He’s struck out 29 batters, walked nine, and allowed three homers. If I have my Charleston RiverDogs rotation right, he’ll start tonight against the Rome Braves. However, he’s still a work in progress: he’s on an innings limit in the 85-90 range, and late last month, Zach Mortimer confirmed what Campos said about his progress, mentioning that “his stuff hasn’t bounced all the way back yet.” Keith Law was somewhat more negative, citing “reduced stuff and an arm action that seems destined for further injuries or a role in the bullpen” and concluding “what I saw didn’t give me a ton of hope.” So Campos could be on his way back to being an electric arm, or he could be destined to be in the bullpen or break down. His future isn’t much clearer than Pineda’s.

Who’s fallen farthest?
Probably Pineda. Montero and Pineda had the highest expectations, so it almost has to be one of the two; Noesi’s fall from fourth starter to fourth righty reliever can’t quite compare. We know for sure now that Montero’s not a catcher, but we had a pretty strong suspicion of that when he was traded. We have some evidence to suggest that his bat isn’t what it was cracked up to be, but it’s too soon to say how he’ll hit as a first baseman. Pineda simply hasn’t pitched, and he hasn’t pitched because he had a serious arm injury. Until proven otherwise, that’s still the biggest cause for concern.

Who says no?
Last week, MLBTradeRumors ran a poll asking its readers which pair of players they’d prefer moving forward: Montero and Noesi, or Pineda and Campos. Pineda and Campos are currently leading by a roughly 68-32 margin.

I’m not so sure that makes sense. It’s probably not surprising; we’ve seen Montero and Noesi be bad, but we haven’t seen Pineda and Campos at all. When your only other option is to take two players who’ve combined to be worth almost a win below replacement—not counting Montero’s lousy receiving—it’s only natural to want to choose the mystery players behind door no. 2. But the prudent picks are the position player and pitcher with clean bills of health over the past few seasons, not the two pitchers who combined to miss almost all of last season.

The Mariners don’t need offense as much as they once did, but they still have a need for a productive Montero. The Yankees still have occupied 1B/DH spots and a vacancy for a solid starter. If the Commissioner offered both clubs the chance to reverse the deal, it’s possible that neither one would want to take it. But I’d guess that the Yankees would be more inclined to agree.

This article is mostly doom and gloom, but it’s also just a mile marker along the way to our ultimate assessment of the trade. Pineda, who’ll be a free agent first, still has three years of team control coming. Maybe Montero will return to Seattle and rake, Noesi will continue to eat innings in relief, and Pineda and Campos will stay strong and effective for the whole second half. No, it’s not likely that all four players will pan out. Nor was it likely that all four players would struggle. There’s still plenty of time for our original interpretation of the trade to look like the right one, and for what’s transpired so far to turn into a forgotten phase.

We do know one thing, though: unless etc./etc were really something special, there's one trade the Mariners are glad they didn't make:

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

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Premium Article Punk Hits: Marco Scuta... (05/28)
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