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July 27, 2009

Prospectus Today

Going For It

by Joe Sheehan

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After dropping the rubber game in Denver yesterday, the San Francisco Giants slipped two games in back of the Colorado Rockies in the National League's wild-card chase, as far back as they've been in some time. With just a few short days to go before the trade deadline, the Giants have to make a decision that is among the hardest of any potential playoff team: to cash in some of the high-value chips in their system to make a run this season, or hope that the current roster is good enough to hold off the competition for the final playoff spot.

Let's get something out of the way: as currently constituted, the Giants are unlikely to make the playoffs. True, they have played well so far, thanks in no small part to a devastating one-two rotation punch and a surprisingly strong bullpen. The Giants are very, very good at preventing the other team from scoring, and that's the skill that has enabled them to be a factor in this summer's playoff chase. They can sustain much of that ability, as their rotation has underachieved a bit behind the top two-Jonathan Sanchez has performed below expectations, and Randy Johnson has been a little disappointing (when healthy). However, the bullpen includes a number of pitchers who have posted peripherals inconsistent with their career marks, and ERAs even better than those peripherals. Justin Miller's 2.17 mark is fortuitously low, as is Jeremy Affeldt's 1.14. Ideally, the Giants would start to see system products such as Osiris Matos and Sergio Romo pitch well enough to take on larger roles; that has not happened yet, and can't be counted on for the pennant chase.

Still, the Giants can fake the bullpen, just as they've patched the rotation during Sanchez's demotion and Johnson's injury. What they can't fake is an offense, which has been hideously bad. The team is 15th in the NL in runs scored, and 16th in Equivalent Average with a .241 mark that's seven points worse than the Padres. They have one good bat in Pablo Sandoval, one average one in Aaron Rowand, and seven guys who can't hit. I like Fred Lewis. I do. If he's your third-best offensive player, you have issues backed up on issues in a way that makes you a canddiate for a reality show on Bravo.

Take all that together, and the Giants have the best kind of roster: stars and scrubs. Even better, they have their stars in the rotation, meaning they are looking to upgrade the bullpen and the bats, which tend to be easier to to find in-season. The Giants' offense is so bad that they can add just about any good player in the majors and become a win better for the tradeoff; the cost to them to add two wins somewhere, or two wins at two spots, should be lower because they need to acquire a lesser level of talent to see a significant gain. Moreover, they can acquire and play just about any player in baseball because they have so few players who can't be benched. Even a third baseman would fit, as Pablo Sandoval slides easily across the diamond to first, or better still, behind the plate a bit more often.

This kind of freedom is usually only afforded the GMs of bad teams. Brian Sabean, thanks to the farm system's ability to generate below-average position players, some failed decisions of his own, and three terrific products of the draft, can make upgrades to his lineup without trying all that hard while in a pennant race.

Well, maybe. See, the other factor in play here is that the Giants have significantly outperformed their expected record, not just from the preseason, but what you'd expect from what they've done on the field. The Giants have scored 33 more runs their their third-order prediction, and allowed 17 fewer. That's a five-win swing, right now the difference between second place the wild-card chase and nowhere. That overperformance is banked, just as it was for last year's Twins or the 2007 Mariners, but it brings up the question of how good the team really is, and how good it can be? If the Giants are "only" a .500 team, improving them to .550 is harder than if they're a .530 team.

The Playoff Odds Report is seeing this problem as well, giving the Giants a mere 9.5 percent chance to make the playoffs, a small chunk of which is their chance to win the division. The Giants are two games out in the wild-card race, but are seen as having just the seventh-best shot in the league at a playoff berth. That's chasing the Dodgers, in part, but it's also the metrics seeing that this team has overachieved.

With that in mind, should the Giants bother to make a big move? As mentioned, their top-heavy farm system is a challenge, as teams want their very best prospects, and four of those guys are among the top 60 prospects in the game. Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Angel Villalona, Tim Alderson… these guys are the core of a championship team down the line. Add in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and you can see the Giants playing deep into October in the not-too-distant future.

On the other hand, four of those guys are pitchers, and one, by definition, will be the fourth starter in that rotation. The Freak isn't tradeable, and Matt Cain's contract and jump in performance make him a fixture. Bumgarner is ahead of Alderson by any evaluation, and I haven't mentioned Sanchez, himself an incredible talent, in this paragraph yet.

Alderson could be in the major leagues a year from now, and he'll be a top-40 prospect on next year's list. He is, however, a level back of the guys who will be one-two-three at that time. As Kevin Goldstein said, "His ceiling is nowhere near that of teammate Madison Bumgarner, but he could be closer to the major league rotation." That actually could be a selling point in a deal, as GMs trading away veteran talent like to do so for players who are close to the majors. Alderson could be starting for his new team next summer, providing the local fans proof positive of the value of what could be an unpopular deal.

I wouldn't trade Bumgarner under any circumstances, and I wouldn't trade Posey. I wouldn't trade Villalona for anything short of a Godfather-style offer, which probably means Roy Halladay, and the Giants aren't trading for a starting pitcher. Alderson, as good a prospect as he is, is a notch below those three. He's the prospect you deal, because he has the lower upside, because you have such depth at his position, because flags fly forever.

Having decided to move him, what kind of deal are you making? You want to trade for two players if you can, not least because there's no Halladay equivalent on the market from the hitting side. (No, Matt Holliday wasn't that guy.) Moreover, you are in the unique position of being able to replace multiple starters in a single trade, and you want to find a team that will take Alderson and perhaps a stocking stuffer, and give up at least two guys because it makes sense for them to do so. You need a rebuilding team that desperately needs pitching.

So you look through the bad teams in baseball... the Orioles have a bunch of pitching prospects, so many that Alderson would rank fourth just among the future starters there as well. So that's not a great fit, and with Aubrey Huff falling off the earth, he's not the bat you're looking for. The Indians have Travis Hafner, who can't play the field. Victor Martinez is a terrific player, and you could play him at first base rather than admit that Bengie Molina sucks, but the net gain there is just two wins. You can't get Cliff Lee and Martinez in an Alderson deal. If the A's and Mariners had hitters, they'd be playing them. Same for the Pirates and Padres, unless you can somehow get Freddy Sanchez and Adrian Gonzalez in the same trade. Maybe the two teams can share Alderson.

No, you look and look, and you come back to the same two teams. Each team is in a different phase of rebuilding. Each has veterans it needs to slough off. One needs starting pitching, the other less so. Calling up J.P. Ricciardi without asking him for Roy Halladay would probably be a welcome relief for him, and perhaps in doing so, you could get an entire infield for Alderson? Well, you don't need all that, but Scott Rolen and Marco Scutaro would make you four wins better over the rest of the season, and I can't imagine it would take much more than Alderson and a willingess to pay Rolen next year to get those two players. You could take the less expensive Lyle Overbay, instead, but Rolen's right-handed bat would be a better fit for AT&T Park, and Sandoval would be freed for time behind the plate.

Before you call Ricciardi, though, how about dialing up Mike Rizzo in Washington? What your team needs more than anything else is guys who don't make outs. Nick Johnson doesn't make outs to the tune of a .410 OBP. There's not much power left in his bat, and he runs poorly, but you'd be picking up 15-20 runs at first base over the rest of the season, with no loss in defensive performance compared to Travis Ishikawa, himself a good glove man. That's about two wins. The Nationals also have two left fielders better than Randy Winn or Fred Lewis, one expensive, one less so. Josh Willingham is having a nice season, but it's Adam Dunn that you want. A poor left fielder, Dunn hits more than enough to make up for that, and it's not as if Lewis is a tough act to follow out there. Even if Dunn asks for a trade this winter, so what? Let him walk as a free agent and take back the $10 million you would have owed him. For now, bank the 20-25 extra runs he'll be worth and start taking yourself seriously as a contender.

Would the Nationals do the deal? There'd be no reason for them not to: they could apply the money owed to Dunn to a Stephen Strasburg offer, they'll never miss the veterans, and on Opening Day 2011 they'll run Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Alderson, John Lannan, and Ross Detwiler or Shairon Martis out to the mound, and the thought of that is reason alone to pull the trigger. That's a highly competitive rotation, one that Bryce Harper will be proud to catch.

Prospects are good. The value of players whose salaries and movements you control has never been higher, and having players on the front side of their careers is always better than paying for the back side. In specific cases, though, you have to set aside that value and think about the season, think about where a prospect fits into your future, and think about how important playing into October is to a fan base. Both of these trades seem light for a highly-rated, highly-touted prospect, but the deal makes the Giants four wins better, and it's hard to get much better than that in a single transaction. Alderson's ceiling with this team is a back-of-the-rotation starter; he's the guy you trade.

It's a phone call. It's an offer to make a trade that pushes one team to the front of the wild-card chase, and gives the other one more block in the rebuilding process. It's the one move Brian Sabean can make this July that neither cashiers the future nor abandons the present. Tim Alderson for Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn. Make the call, Sabes.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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