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December 9, 2009

Prospectus Today

Strange Dealings in the Desert

by Joe Sheehan

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To answer the question up front: No, I don't understand it, either. Let's see what we can figure out:

Tigers trade Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson for Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Daniel Schlereth, and Phil Coke.

It looks like a salary dump, and as Clay Davenport pointed out yesterday internally, it's exactly the kind of move you don't make, swapping out assets with value to subsidize the assets that do not have value. The Tigers have $35 million of worthless and another $35 million of dead weight on their roster, players they have no hope of trading away, but this deal doesn't address any of that, it simply makes the rest of the payroll lower at a significant cost to the short-term prospects of the ballclub. The deal would look better had the Tigers forced one of their two trade partners to take Dontrelle Willis or Magglio Ordońez, lopping some of that money off the payroll.

Now, Jackson for Scherzer is likely an upgrade-more on that later-but the rest of the deal is going to leave the Tigers without a good center fielder in 2010, and maybe 2011. Center field isn't a position you can fill easily, and the internal options, Wilkin Ramirez and Casper Wells, are flawed prospects unlikely to be even average major-league players next season. The Tigers aren't going to spend money on the position-they could have simply kept Granderson if they wanted to do that-so this trade likely reduces the AL Central to three contenders next season.

I defended the decision to play Ordońez last season, because you play to win the game, and the division. Perhaps that decision, which added $18 million to the 2010 payroll, was what led to this trade. It was still the right call, however; it's this trade that can be criticized.

What's interesting is that the trade holds up well on its merits independent of being a salary dump. Jackson had the best season of his career last year, improving his location and doing a better job of putting hitters away. Still just 26, you can expect him to sustain these gains, making him a low-second or high-third starter. He, not Granderson, is the most valuable player the Tigers dealt away in the trade. What they got back, though, is a potential stud. Scherzer has struck out more than a batter per inning in more than a season in the majors, with nearly three strikeouts for every walk. The D'backs have managed his workload carefully since making him the 11th pick of the 2006 draft, and at 25, he has both a stronger skill set and higher upside than Jackson. A top three of Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Scherzer is a tremendous start to a championship rotation, and is the biggest selling point to this deal.

The second is that Curtis Granderson is overrated. Granderson's historic 2007 season is the image, but the reality is a player who strikes out too much to post a high average or OBP, who doesn't hit lefties, and whose defense is good enough for his position, but not superior. By UZR he's saved about three runs a year on average since 2007, by Plus/Minus about five runs a year, and remember that he's likely seen his defensive peak. Offensively, he's averaged 35 runs above replacement per year in those same three seasons, which includes that peak '07 season. Granderson has been about a four-win player through his peak, a number that doesn't include the tactical issues he presents. Granderson is a platoon player who simply cannot hit left-handers, making him exploitable in high-leverage situations and therefore slightly less valuable than his overall line would indicate. He's not a .272/.344/.484 hitter late in games; he's a .210/.270/.344 one against any sentient manager. All the good citizen points in the world-and Granderson gets many-don't make up for that critical flaw.

The Tigers had a declining asset with higher perceived value than actual value whose peak was behind him. The asset is underpaid-Granderson makes just $25.75 million guaranteed over the next three seasons-but that particular trait isn't as helpful to the Tigers because of where the cost savings on Granderson was being spent. The Tigers may have correctly concluded that they couldn't reasonably put a winning team around him in the next year, maybe next two years, and therefore needed to cash in this asset for players who can help them win.

The nominal replacement for Granderson is Austin Jackson, who looks more like a tweener than a solution. Jackson has put up nearly identical lines the past two seasons at Double-A and then Triple-A, showing himself to be a .290 hitter who strikes out a bit too much for a player with a .120 isolated power. More disturbing is that he played 37 games on the outfield corners this year, which is odd treatment for a nominal center-field prospect, and confirms the idea that he can't stay in center. If true, he's a fourth oufielder, because his bat isn't going to play on a corner barring significant power development. Jackson has a .413 SLG above A-ball, which isn't going to get it done.

The two left-handed relievers in the deal… I'm trying to remember the last time a team acquired two left-handed relievers in one trade. I can't. Coke is a lefty specialist with a high fly-ball rate; Schlereth is supposed to be more than that, based on his first-round pedigree and the caliber of his stuff. He's walked 38 men in 58 professional innings, so I'm not at all convinced we're looking at more than Chuck McElroy with a backstory. In any case, neither player changes the evaluation of the trade that much. The Tigers probably made this deal for the wrong reasons, but getting Scherzer is a win for them, and trading away Granderson is less costly than it seems.

Yankees trade Austin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Ian Kennedy for Curtis Granderson.

Before the complaining starts, let's make something clear: every single team in baseball could have afforded to acquire Curtis Granderson. The Yankees didn't buy him, but when you look at the trade as it appears from their standpoint, it's hard not to have one thought: "Really?" The Yankees simply didn't give up anything they will miss or anything that should have significant value over any span of time. Jackson's prospect status is marginal given his lack of power development and the question of whether he can be an everyday center fielder. Coke is fungible and might never have pitched for the Yankees again after last October's struggles. Kennedy, who I like, is 25, has a career MLB ERA of 6.03 and threw 23 innings last year in a season marred by surgery on his right biceps. He was maybe the Yankees' sixth starter, maybe their seventh, and that was before Andy Pettitte made noises about coming back.

The Yankees made do last season batting their center fielders ninth, getting decent work from Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner. They came into the offseason with questions about their outfield, seemingly reluctant to pay the price for Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, unwilling to offer arbitration to Johnny Damon, and caught staring at a market that lacked real solutions. Granderson addresses the problem, and while he's the same player he was five paragraphs ago, the Yankees can leverage his skills better than the Tigers could have. The Yankees are a better team, so the marginal wins Granderson creates will have more value. Granderson won't have to lead off in New York, a role for which he's never been well-suited; he can bat second, wrapped in the same safe space between two good right-handed/switch-hitting batters that protected Johnny Damon last year. The Yankees can use Cabrera or Nick Swisher or an as-yet-unacquired player to caddy for Granderson against southpaws. Yankee Stadium's center field is a bit smaller than that of Comerica Field, which should make Granderson's job afield easier, and he'll probably share the pasture with better defenders in Cabrera, Gardner, and Swisher than he did last year in Detroit (Ordońez and Carlos Guillen, among others). The Yankees are better positioned to utilize Granderson and better positioned to leverage the value he provides.

For the Yankees, this is essentially a free upgrade at a position that was looking like a challenge to fill. It allows them to stay out of the left-field market and hoard cash for next winter. It costs them three players who, it could be argued, were not going to play for them in any future season. It's surprising that Granderson could be acquired for so little investment-a number of GMs are undoubtedly shaking their heads this morning about this part of the deal-but this appears to be a case where 90 percent of success is simply answering your phone.

Diamondbacks trade Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy.

"Well, this is stupid."

When I woke up Tuesday morning and read about this rumor on MLB.com, I sent an e-mail to our internal list with just that subject line.

Solve for X, and the D'backs' part of this trade is Max Scherzer and prospects for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy. ... Unless Scherzer has some really egregious personal habits, that's insane, and makes me wonder how anyone could report this and not say, "Hmmmm...that doesn't pass the smell test." And I'm one of the guys who still likes Edwin Jackson.

I mean, I dismissed the trade out of hand. So that it was made, and made with the D'backs throwing in their 2008 first-round draft pick… no, I do not get it at all. Kennedy is not a pitcher you trade for; he threw fewer than 30 innings last season, had no possible role for the Yankees next year and, oh yeah, a career ERA above six. The Diamondbacks have been looking for rotation depth, but you can get guys like Kennedy in the minor-league free-agent market, or by sifting through the non-tenders, or by waiting until February for the last guys hanging around waiting to be signed for peanuts. You don't need to trade for a guy like this, and you certainly don't need to trade Max Scherzer for a guy like this.

Scherzer and Jackson were comparable pitchers in '09, Jackson throwing more innings in a tougher league, Scherzer having better peripheral stats, so calling them equal last year is fair. Scherzer is younger, has better raw stuff, and many more years under team control. There doesn't seem to be any reason to prefer Jackson to Scherzer; as much as I like Jackson, it's not like he has an extended track record of pitching at this level, nor much reason to think he'll be better than Scherzer over the next couple of seasons. The deal costs the Diamondbacks money, as Jackson will be able to make $7 million or so through arbitration. You could have kept Scherzer and signed a bunch of proto-Kennedys for that coin. You'd still have Schlereth, too.

The only, and I mean the only, way this makes sense for the Diamondbacks is if they are absolutely convinced that Scherzer cannot hold up as a starter. You may recall that when he was drafted, there was concern about a quirk in his delivery, a violent jerk of his head that created non-specific concerns about his durability. That's been tamped down a bit, and Scherzer hasn't had much in the way of health problems yet, but he's still not exacly Greg Maddux out there. The Diamondbacks have seen more of Scherzer than anyone, and they may have decided to trade him before he gets hurt, for whatever they can get.

Even if you grant that premise, this isn't the trade to make. If the Diamondbacks had simply put Max Scherzer, with his one-plus year of service time, his great fastball, his career K-rate, and his scouty goodness on the market, they had to have been able to do better than a lateral move that costs more money and a possible fourth starter in Kennedy. Mind you, they had to put Schlereth in the deal to make it as well. It's a bad trade on the surface and it's a bad trade if you dig deeper, because there's no way that Max Scherzer isn't worth more than this. The Diamondbacks got worse and raised their payroll at the same time, which is a rapid path to extinction.

I'm chatting at 1 p.m. We'll talk about this deal and anything else going on in an hour.

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

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