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November 12, 2008

Transaction of the Day

Taking a Holliday in the East Bay

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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Acquired LF-R Matt Holliday from the Rockies for RHP Huston Street, LHP Greg Smith, and OF-L Carlos Gonzalez. [11/11]

A's fans can be forgiven both a bit of initial confusion but also a lot of excitement. The confusion might stem from the recognition that if there was one thing the present rebuilding effort seemed to have going for it, it was a full spread of young or talented or promising corner outfielders (some of them being all three at once, even). Between Aaron Cunningham, Travis Buck, Eric Patterson, and perhaps also CarGo, they seemed set, and that's without getting into the (waning) enthusiasm for a former sabermetric fave like Matt Murton or the perhaps more scouty boosterism for Ryan Sweeney. And should we count Jack Cust as an outfielder if he's planted in one corner or another when some other DH type is in the lineup?

You see the problem: there's a crowd, but not a lot of established value at the major league level, and not a lot to fall back on should multiple kids prove unready-as happened last season, between Sweeney's thoroughgoing adequacy or Buck's at times desperate struggles or Gonzalez's frustrating debut. It's important to not confuse on-paper depth with stability or guarantees. And a bid for contention with that lot? Right out. So when an opportunity to woo a suitor into surrendering a premium ballplayer at a position perceived to already be well-stocked presented itself, to their credit the A's moved on it, dealing from depth at positions where they already have better talent in-house. Whether you want to consider this a win-now pick-up or a more mercenary bit of "trading up" for a better subsequent bargaining chip, this deal looks like an easy win for the A's.

Before diving into Holliday's virtues, if you want to consider the surrendered package in the worst light (since I've talked up their virtues as well as I can in the Rockies segment), Street's a replaceable reliever with injury issues looking at two years of arbitration-inflated pay, Gonzalez's approach doesn't really make him a win-now player, and with the organization relatively deep in outfield talent, he was a fungible bit from the Danny Haren deal, and Smith was the least valuable of the A's gaggle of recently-acquired left-handers, clearly ranking behind guys like Gio Gonzalez, Dana Eveland, and Josh Outman in terms of upside and long-term value. Cast in those terms, this wasn't a lot to give up to get what might be just one year of the NL's left-field VORP leader.

As for how much Holliday matters right now this instant, while numerous observers have noted that his performance record comes with the standard Coors caveats, it's important to tease out the distinctions between his first two years in the major leagues and his last three:


Period  Home AVG/ OBP/ SLG    Road AVG/ OBP/ SLG
2004-05     .341/.408/.598        .249/.301/.394
2006-08     .361/.430/.669        .296/.370/.486

While his age 26-28 seasons in Denver the last three years saw only modest gains in average and OBP, the Rockies got the benefit of a big spike in power. Perhaps even more important, his performance on the road went from Bichette-style uselessness to somebody about like Jason Bay. Who, last we checked, was pretty good, and even fetched a pretty rich swag recently, albeit for a year plus two months in a pennant race as opposed to a single season. Clearly, there's been an adaptation here, possibly a matter of the same physical gifts that made him a prospect in the first place being harnessed by aptitude, making him more than just another Mile High confection. Asked about the improvement, A's assistant GM David Forst suggested that it might also be a product of the humidor-soaked ball leading to improved adaptability for hitters moving from Coors Field to neutral sites. Add in that we have examples of power hitters doing just fine after moving from Denver (notably Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker, but Vinny Castilla had his moments), and I think we can sign on to a proposition that Holliday's a down-ballot MVP hitter in any environment. Add in that he's an asset in the field (whichever poison you pick in terms of fielding metrics), and one of the best baserunners in the game today (rating sixth in the majors in Dan Fox's Equivalent Baserunning Runs), and he obviously provides value across the full spectrum of possibilities for a position player.

Consider what else this deal does for the A's, at least for as long as Holliday's in green and gold. Because of the depth in relatively ready outfield talent, it digs Cust out of the pasture and plants him more properly at DH, where he can do no harm to the pitching staff when his only gloves are for batting.* Right field should be Travis Buck's (last season's injuries and pressing ideally being a thing of the past), with Aaron Cunningham in the wings. If dealing Gonzalez took one option for who plays center off the table, that's not to say there aren't still others. The first choice is Sweeney, where his bat should prove useful enough against right-handers: .307/.369/.429 playing through a number of injuries at 23 isn't shabby, and the A's still believe there's power potential to come. They also figure his glove will play in center, and at the very least, Revised Zone Rating endorses that idea. If he continues to struggle against lefties or simply doesn't pan out, Chris Denorfia's still in-house as someone who shouldn't be forgotten, and Cunningham has played a good amount of center in the minors.

In the bullpen, there's no real absence to be felt. While Street has value that isn't really related to that floating golden "C" icon over his head many in the media might grant him, with Brad Ziegler, Joey Devine, Andrew Brown, and Santiago Casilla, there's already the kernel of a good set of right-handed relief help before they do any winter shopping, and that's before we get into flamethrowers like Jeff Gray (touching 97 in the AFL) and Henry Rodriguez (who's hit triple digits), and whether or not either of them harness their stuff. With a pair of college-bred righties in Andrew Carignan (North Carolina, fifth round of '05) and Andrew Bailey (Wagner, sixth round of '06) already tested at Double-A last season and also capable of throwing well into the 90s, and with both following that up with quality work in the Arizona Fall League, it's not hard to see how a no-name, no-stars bullpen might very well be the way to go.

In the rotation, there's cause for a more eventual brand of optimism, having acquired so many other team's ready or almost-ready starting pitching in the last year or so, and having so much of their own on the cusp, Trevor Cahill and James Simmons in particular. There's plenty to dream on, certainly, but the near-term rotation of Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland, Sean Gallagher, and a crowd of even more maybe-ish maybes makes the proposition that a Holliday-enriched A's ballclub might contend seem speculative at best.

It will be, but that said, such a bid wouldn't be all that different from that made by the 2008 team in the first half, which made things interesting while relying on Eveland and Duchscherer and the recently-dealt Smith, among others. It might be iffy, but the Angels' odd over-performance of their expected record, and the difficulties their offense might endure with a post-Teixeira lineup, should be cause for hope in the present every bit as much in Oakland as it should be in Texas. If Holliday helps a bid to contend now, that's great, and when he departs as a free agent, A's fans know the drill, and we'll see what the 2009 draft brings by way of compensation. If the team's bid for contention proves as tenuous as this year's did, then there's the potential of flipping him for a better package at the deadline come July and acquiring stuff the A's organization doesn't already have in spades-like lefty starters, righty relievers, or young corner outfielders.

*: For Cust, "Death to flying things" isn't a sobriquet, it's a cry of teeth-gnashing despair as some other object rattles off the walls. My snark aside, the organization still sees him as quite playable, if not necessarily on a daily basis.

COLORADO ROCKIES
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Acquired RHP Huston Street, LHP Greg Smith, and OF-L Carlos Gonzalez from the A's for LF-R Matt Holliday. [11/11]

Boiling this down to its components, the Rockies dealt the one year that they had contractual control of Holliday for a package of goodies. The question is whether the goodies are good enough to have justified dealing away a premium slugger so early in the winter's proceedings. Even just one year of Holliday represents a crucial addition to an aspiring contender, so the question is whether the Rockies maximized the amount of value they could receive by moving early. The answer is a decided 'no,' because the more you look, the less the Rockies got. To have settled for this package either says something about how much the Rockies didn't want to pay even a fraction of Holliday's 2009 arbitration-boosted salary by leveraging his value in a deadline deal next July, or how much they really like CarGo's upside potential, and how much they're invested in the propositions that Street's a closer who closes, and Smith's a starter who starts, and why go any deeper into it than that?

First, it's important to stress that this is really a deal in which they primarily get Smith and Gonzalez as important building blocks, and two years of Street-an arbitration-eligible Street-before free agency. As much as Street represents a quality closer to some people's way of thinking, in the absence of any extended commitment, that's only two years, which effectively makes him something of a variant on what Holliday was if the Rockies don't contend, only on the wrong side of that risk: what sort of value do you expect to get for a pitcher who might really only be a situational right-hander, and who's had to labor with the predictable bad days at the office that come with being a professional pitcher who calls Coors Field "the office"? To give the Rockies some benefit of the doubt, at least the relative difficulty levels of the two leagues favors them, but if the Rockies don't win now-and dealing Holliday makes it hard to suggest they're trying to-what's the point of dealing your best player for a short-term answer for who gets to log saves for you?

Then there's the question of Smith's value. Joe's already nailed this today, so I won't really go into detail, but I think it's important to dial back to Smith's days with the Diamondbacks, because even then he was seen as a guy who was semi-fringy as a starter, and more likely to make it as a reliever. His strikeout/walk ratio against right-handers last year was 75 unintentionals to 79 strikeouts in 622 PA. That's decisively ungood, but between his ownership of lefties and a good move to first, there's also a very real chance that he'll make millions-as a reliever. If the Rockies make a point of transitioning him to that role as a matter of design instead of subsequent to some park-aided battering, they could end up turning a rotation cipher into a bullpen asset. That's still fundamentally a bit of damage control to add value to an unfortunate exchange, but if you focus on a responsibility to put players in positions to succeed instead of fail, this is a way to make Smith into an important part of a winning Rockies ballclub, even if you might initially be hanged for the expense.

Which brings us to the real key to the deal for the Rockies, the player who quite simply has to make the difference over the next five years, or the franchise will have dealt a franchise player for relief bits. Cargo cults were spun around the desire by less-advanced cultures to capture the magicks of advanced technologies through ritual or sacrifices or whatever. Giving up a Holliday to fire up a Rocky Mountain CarGo Cult seems a bit of a stretch, but the sacrifice has been made-will it have been worth it? Speaking as one of Carlos Gonzalez's believers, I can see how it might. For the time being, he has the range for center, and the strong throwing arm that will help cover the gaps and minimize hits from going for extra bases as much as might be practicable. That sort of thing matters in Coors, and was one of the rationales behind Willy Taveras' utility as a regular. Happily CarGo's not merely a slappy speedster, but he's also far from a finished product at the plate. He may well be a platoon player-as I noted in his player comment in BP2K8, he'd smacked around right-handers in Double-A at a pretty good clip in 2007 (.326/.373/.554) as a 21-year-old, and he showed a massive split in his big-league at-bats in his age-22 season in 2008. His walk rates have never been all that good, but he won't strike out in a quarter of his plate appearances in Coors, because the park still helps deflate strikeouts, even humidor'd. Roughly three percent fewer Rockies PAs in Coors wind up as strikeouts compared to on the road. That helps some players more than others, and a guy like CarGo-like Preston Wilson-who is an athletic player with tremendous power on contact, decent speed, and some swing-and-miss issues... it's not hard to see how the park helps belt-sand some of those rough edges and turn him into an offensive machine. It's also not hard to see how he might thicken up in his middle 20s and have to move to a corner, at which point you'd hope he'll be something more than a better-fielding Brad Hawpe. I like the possibilities, however much I dislike the price paid.


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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