World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: July 21
July 20, 2008 4 Comments
The weekly roundtable is pleased to welcome Sal Baxamusa, of The Hardball Times for a little discussion of the latest in baseball news. Sal is a grad student and a proud first-time dad (yay!) and today he joins us to talk about Rich Harden, deadline deals, and Pizza Cutter’s favorite topic in the whole world…
Question #1: Do the Indians have a strong enough core with Sizemore/Peralta/Martinez/Hafner/Carmona to regroup and try again next year, or is it time for another extended rebuilding process?
Sal Baxamusa: “Rebuilding” is a funny thing. Lots of teams talk about doing it, lots of ink is spilled over whether or not teams should do it, but there’s a dirty little secret about rebuilding: nobody ever really does it sucessfully. How many teams in the past ten years have dismantled a mediocre team with the express purpose of acquiring prospects, and then turned those prospects into the core of a great team? The Marlins, certainly. One might say the A’s of the late 90s. And most definitely the recent-vintage Indians.
Pretty much every possible veteran on 2002 team, from Chuck Finely to Ricardo Rincon, was made into prospects. Some of these deals worked out and some of them didn’t. But a strong core of Travis Hafner, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Coco Crisp were all acquired for veterans. Along with CC Sabathia, Jhonny Peralta, and Victor Martinez, the Indians created a team that was excellent for three years, outscoring their opponents by 148, 88, and 107 runs from 2005-2007.
Now the Indians are mediocre again. What to do? They still have a potentially strong core in Martinez/Peralta/Hafner/Carmona/Lee/Sizemore. Going into the year, that would be the envy of any contending a team: a young group of star to superstar performers. But now Martinez, Hafner, and Carmona are hurt. Peralta’s 2005 looks less like the breakout of a superstar and more like an early-career peak. Only Lee and Sizemore are performing up to expectations (and, to their credit, well beyond expectations).
Management has already punted this season by trading Sabathia. But I don’t believe they should punt on 2009. For starters, the Indians don’t really have the veteran trade chips to get a huge prospect haul. The guys who would might have had the most trade value now have serious questions regarding their health and/or their performance. The Indians would be selling low on them, hardly optimal conditions for accumulating top-shelf young talent. They’re better off hoping for a return to form by Hafner, Martinez, and Jake Westbrook than by trading them. And who’s lining up to deal for Paul Byrd? Jorge Julio? David Dellucci?
Secondly, and most importantly, the Indians have a huge head start on the rest of the league simply by fielding Grady Sizemore, easily a top-5 position player in the AL. He’s coming into his prime, and there’s no way the Indians would get fair value on any trade of Sizemore – no team has the quantity or quality of prospects that the Indians would demand in a potential Sizemore trade (or, if they did, they’d be very close to being a good team). Furthermore, a player like Sizemore rarely falls into your lap. When you’ve got him, you build around him.
The 2009 Indians would be better of hoping for health from some of their key contributors, building some depth with low-key moves as a hedge against those contributors’ health (or performance), judiciously plugging holes with role players, and letting Sizemore do the rest. Sure, it’s easy for me to say things like “plug the holes,” but I have faith in the Indians. From my experience with the club, they have a bunch of really smart folks working for them. They’ve got the ability to build a winner next year, and I hope they do it.
Eric Seidman: The Indians befuddle me. In 2006 they were coming off of a great 2005 season and looked primed to win the division. Then they went 78-84. Despite that, their pythag record was 89-73. They follow that up with a division win last year, and this year sit under .500 despite a 48-47 pythag record. Sure, they lost Sabathia, but the return was solid, and Victor Martinez is not only hurt but homerless in the 54 games he played, so some guys are underachieving. I don’t know what Pronk’s deal is but I think they’ll largely be fine next year with some added parts in the free agent market but another year or two like this could spearhead the rebuilding movement.
Pizza Cutter: Must… not…. gush. But then, I write this from Cleveland and my real job is just down the street from
Jacobs Progressive Field. Grady Sizemore is ascending to the level of one of the best players in the game, and he’s signed at a ridiculously underpriced contract. Victor Martinez has battled injury this year, but is one of the best catchers in baseball. Fausto Carmona is for real and I’m starting to be a Cliff Lee believer. On the other side, Hafner is looking more like his monster 2006 was a fluke. Jhonny Peralta is the greatest enigma in Cleveland sports. The Indians have some very good pieces, and are well positioned financially, plus they have some good pitching depth in their system, so there should hopefully be some money. The problem is that other than the newly-acquired Matt LaPorta, there’s no earth-moving position player coming up through the minor league system. So, they’ll have to shop for spare parts on the free agent market. This might be my home-team tendencies shining through, but I think the Indians do have enough to re-load for next year, rather than to rebuild. Like a few other teams they’re a few pieces and a little bit of luck away. It’s close enough to justify taking a shot over the next year or two.
Question #2: With the trade deadline fast approaching, what deadline deal in the wild card era do you feel made the most impact?
Sal Baxamusa: It’s really hard for a deadline acquisition to have a big impact. The best imaginable player – say a guy who hits like Albert Pujols and plays gold glove defense at catcher – might be 10 wins over a replacement player over the course of a whole year. For two months, then, this hypothetical player would add maybe 3.3 wins IF he’s replacing, say Brad Ausmus. That’s about the upper level of possible impact for a position player. In reality, I think only oneplayer has come close to making this kind of difference.
If we consider only immediate, in-season impact, and just off the top of my head, it’s hard to imagine anybody making a bigger impact than Randy Johnson in 1998. The Astros won 10 of the 11 games he pitched in large part because he went an average of 7 2/3 innings per start while striking out over a third of the hitters he faced (think about that for a minute).
Johnson gave up 12 runs over his 11 starts. As far as I can tell, he displaced Pete Schourek in the rotation, who gave up something like 4.6 runs per nine innings. So, over 11 starts, and assuming an average-ish bullpen, that’s about 43 runs, making Johnson an incredible 30-run improvement over Schourek, or about a 3-win difference – in only two months. Mind boggling.
Contextually, though, the Astros were 3.5 games up on the Cubs at the time of the trade and ended up winning the division by 12.5 games. They probably could have done it without Randy Johnson, but his impact in terms of raw numbers was undeniable.
One that’s often overlooked is Will Clark’s swan song in 2000. Traded by the Orioles at the deadline for the forgettable Jose Leon, The Thrill went on a two month tear for the Cardinals, posting a 1.081 OPS and smaking 12 home runs. Clark’s contribution was huge, considering that the Cards were without Mark McGwire for an extended period, and when he did come back in September he was limited to pinch-hitting.
Without Clark, the Cards might have played Eduardo Perez or Craig Paquette at first, who were probably something resembling league average hitters. Clark accumulated 18 batting runs as a Cardinal, thereby netting an extra 1.5 or 2 wins, not counting defense. Again, though, the Cards won the division by a hefty margin and were already four games up when they made the deal.
David Justice turned a similar trick that year for the Yankees, relocating from Cleveland to swat 20 homers and garner 19 batting runs. He mostly replaced Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer in the lineup, again basically league-average hitters, so he had a similar win impact as Will Clark (again, ignoring defense). The Yanks were also four games up when they pulled the trigger, but they needed all the wins they could get considering they slumped to the finish line only two and half games up on the Red Sox. You could make a case that, without the trade for Justice, the Yankees would have lost out on the division.
Eric Seidman: Hmm. Well this could be tricky because impact can come in many forms. If we’re talking about immediate impact, though, I’ll call upon two Houston Astros trades. In 1998 they sent prospects including Freddy Garcia to the Mariners for Randy Johnson, who proceeded to post a 1.28 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP, and a ridiculous amount of strikeouts, all of which propelled the Astros into the playoffs. Additionally, Carlos Beltran in 2004 had severe immediate impact as he followed a big second half with arguably the greatest offensive performance in post-season history. The Astros made the playoffs both years, which is enough impact for me, since they may or may not have done so without the trades.
If we’re talking recent deadline deals that had significant impact for more than one year, hard to top Aramis Ramirez to the Cubs. I never quite got that trade.
Pizza Cutter: I could be a homer and point out that the Indians in 2002 traded Bartolo Colon (to Montreal!) for Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Cliff Lee. If you want impact, that trade basically impacted five years worth of two franchises. The Expos/Nationals haven’t gone anywhere since (except Washington) and are still digging out of the hole from that trade, and the Indians built themselves a nucleus. But I’m not that kind of guy.
Actually, in July of 2003, the Cubs traded Jose Hernandez, Matt Bruback, and (eventually) Bobby Hill (so basically nothing) to the Pirates for Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez. Lofton was a 50 point OBP upgrade over Corey Patterson (who isn’t?) and Ramirez replaced Mark Bellhorn (.209/.341/.317 in 2003) and Lenny Harris (.183/.255/.229) at third. Ramirez is still an All-Star for the Cubs and has gotten them over the whole “We haven’t had a good third baseman since Ron Santo” thing. (Side note: It’s amazing how often Kenny Lofton gets traded at the deadline.) The Cubs were 50-50 when making that deal, but finished 88-74, a game ahead of the Astros to win the NL Central, and the Cubs wound up five outs away from the World Series. It was also my first summer in Chicago, and I got to watch as that trade completely re-ignited that Cubs as an actual baseball team to talk about, rather than just the entertainment at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cash Bar. (You may know it as Wrigley Field.) It was the sort of summer I could write a book about. It was the type of trade that made an impact on the statistical side and on the romantic side of baseball all in one.
Question #3: What do you make of the Rich Harden trade?
Sal Baxamusa: I’ve said most of what I want to say about Rich Harden over at THT, Billy Beane could either sell high on Harden now or risk being left holding the bag when – let’s say, “if” – Harden breaks down again. But the bottom line is that Harden is exactly the type of player the A’s have been trading during their latest transformation: a few years from free agency, still productive, and with potential upside for the acquirer.
That the return seemed undewhelming was a testament to the fact that teams are getting smarter about risk management. The Cubs got Harden at a major discount due to his inability to stay healthy, and likely got Gaudin thrown into the deal for the same reason.
Yes, the A’s are now collecting lots of prospects. But there are a few problems with this gambit. First, they will soon need the roster space to protect all of these players. Second, while they have lots of depth, there are few position players who stand out as potential superstars. Building a team around a lot of above-average players has its advantages, such as trying to hedge against injury or flameout risk. But in the end, if they have three guys who can be average at a position but none who are outstanding, they’ll be forced to get value from the other two guys by way of trade and end up with one average player and whatever the other guys returned. It’s hard to imagine that’s better than a single superstar position player.
But speaking of average players, what really stuck in craw as an A’s fan was the inclusion of Chad Gaudin. Gaudin is precisely the kind of player that has made Beane successful as a GM: a scrap-heap pickup turned valuable contributor, all on the cheap. Seeing Gaudin leave is painful not simply because he’s a young, cheap righty with an electric slider. It’s also symbolic of a shift in Beane’s ever-changing approach to team-building. It’s not just traditionally overrated or expensive players that are expendable. Everybody in the system is fair game. Watching Beane operate is a lot of fun from far away, but it’s an absolute terror to follow his team on a daily basis.
Eric Seidman: Rich Harden is a tremendous talent but as has been noted by every fan on the planet, he struggles to sustain his health. After making 12-13 straight starts for the first time in a while, Beane decided to sell high and ship him to the Cubs. The move puzzled many because the return didn’t seem too great and, on top of that, he included Chad Gaudin who was a more than serviceable pitcher as well. Every trade Billy Beane makes usually garners the “he did it again, that rascal” reaction from this writer and this one was no different. I remember reading an article about the man in which he discussed talking to fans at a fanfest sort of deal and mentioning how he was explaining to these fans that winning 81-83 games just wasn’t worth it to him. If you don’t make the playoffs you don’t make the playoffs. He asked the fan if he’d rather have a couple of 82-80 years or win a little less in those two-three years and then make the playoffs due to the rebuilding.
This whole firesale of sorts reminded me of the Sacramento Kings of a few years ago. They were a high-powered offense that had gone as far as they could go, and began unloading their parts. The Doug Christie deal shocked me because it came from nowhere, but when I saw Chris Webber sent to the Sixers it made a lot of sense. The same could be said of this with Haren, Harden, and Blanton.
I see this as a win-win of sorts. Harden will help the Cubs NOW more than Murton and probably Gallagher, but in the long run the As got exactly what they needed, and I’m sure any shortcomings from the Chicago players were already taken into account by Beane and his staff. I think it’s incredibly arrogant on our parts to assume that Beane has no clue what he’s doing. Everything he does might not be perfect, but all these ESPN shows and talk radio programs brought up the whole Murton part of the trade and how he didn’t get enough back. I think he got plenty back and in a couple of years we’ll truly be able to see who won this trade… though if the Cubs win the world series and Harden wins a game or two, it doesn’t matter what we think because it’ll be very hard to convince anyone the Cubs lost.
Pizza Cutter: At first, I thought that this was a sneaky Billy Beane trade that was a camoflaged attempt to load up for the post-season disguised as a “rebuilding dump.” The A’s have the 3rd best run differential in the AL and are within shouting distance of the Wild Card (and only a few games out of the AL West lead.) But then the A’s traded Joe Blanton. The A’s really are re-building.
Harden, to say nothing of his injury history is 26, and has always had fantastic strikeout stuff and problems with walking too many batters. But a look at his Fangraphs page shows a few weaknesses. First off, his “amazing” numbers over the past few years have been built on a combination of low BABIPs, high LOB%, and (at least this year) a low HR/FB. He’s also become something of a flyball pitcher over the past few years, which works great in foul-territory heavy Oakland, but in Wrigley? When the wind is blowing out? I should move back to Wrigleyville and take a walk up Sheffield Ave. and point these things out. At the bottom of the page, we also see that Harden this year is no longer throwing his sinking fastball (that would explain the jump in fly balls), and is instead going with the changeup and he’s slowly losing velocity on his fastball. Harden looks like he’s damaged goods. Consider that Sean Gallagher has good (although not Harden level) strikeout stuff (and problems with walks), but keeps his line drives down and is much more of a ground ball pitcher, plus he seems to have four pitches with three variations in speed (92 mph fastball, 85 change/slider, 76 curve… that’s not fair), is 22, and so far his track record doesn’t have “lucky duck” written all over it, I have to wonder if the A’s didn’t end up with the better pitcher in this deal, and I mean “better pitcher right now.” Harden has a track record already, which is really what the Cubs are paying for, but I have to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better keeping Gallagher and starting him.
As for the other MLB talent in the trade, why the Cubs were so down on Matt Murton, I don’t know. Murton’s biggest sin is that he’s a corner outfielder who hits ground balls and this year, his BABIP is down. Sounds like he’s hitting them at fielders. (Not a good idea, but a sign of bad luck.) Murton is also swinging at a lot more pitches outside the strike zone this year and swinging less at pitches in the strike zone. (Not a good idea.) Now I understand why he was immediately dispatched to the minors in Oakland. If there’s a team that has built an organizational philosophy around knowledge of the strike zone, it’s Oakland. Billy Beane is probably betting that the A’s coaches can fix Murton’s strike zone judgment and he can realize his potential. Chad Gaudin is exactly as advertised, a pretty-good-but-not-amazing reliever. Not a bad pickup for a contending team.