Analyzing the Deadline Deals

Wow. A lot happened since last we spoke. Rather than try to come up with some clever introduction, let’s just get right to the trades …

TO CHICAGO:              TO BOSTON:               TO MONTREAL:             TO MINNESOTA:          
- Nomar Garciaparra      - Orlando Cabrera        - Alex Gonzalez          - Justin Jones
- Matt Murton            - Doug Mientkiewicz      - Brendan Harris
                                                  - Francis Beltran

Instead of wasting space here talking about this deal from the Twins’ perspective (since I assume most of you reading this are more interested in how it looks from Boston or Chicago), I’m going to simply point you to my blog, where you can find all the Twins trade talk you’d ever want, and then some.

With that out of the way, I don’t think this was a good trade for the Boston Red Sox. Actually, I take that back … If Boston was absolutely sure that either Nomar Garciaparra is more injured than generally thought and/or Garciaparra was simply not going to re-sign with them this off-season, then the trade is at least understandable. Still not a good one, but understandable.

The one thing the Red Sox have done here is upgrade their defense significantly, which is an area of weakness that has been a major issue this year. Doug Mientkiewicz is the best defensive first baseman that I have ever seen and Orlando Cabrera is, by nearly every metric you can look at, one of the top defensive shortstops in baseball.

So, if Boston GM Theo Epstein set out to make the defense better, he’s certainly done that. They now have Mientkiewicz at first base and Cabrera at shortstop, along with Johnny Damon in center field and Pokey Reese as an option at second base. Their corner outfield defense will still be weak when Dave Roberts (who they acquired in a separate deal) isn’t playing, but they are now very strong up the middle defensively, which is always the biggest key.

Still, I don’t think this was a good trade for Boston. Garciaparra, with all his injuries and faults as a player, is simply one of the best shortstops in baseball. He may never again approach the offensive levels he reached in 1999 and 2000 (when he hit a combined .365/.426/.601), but he has settled nicely into the .300/.350/.500 range over the last few seasons. Last season, Garciaparra hit .301/.345/.524 and ranked third among all major-league shortstops in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), behind only Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Renteria. In 2002, he hit .310/.352/.528 and ranked second among shortstops in VORP, behind only Rodriguez.

There are differing schools of thought on Garciaparra’s defense, but regardless of what you think of him in the field, he’s clearly one of the top 3-5 all-around shortstops in baseball. In trading him, the Red Sox got two solid players, good defenders who have done well offensively in the past, but neither are in Garciaparra’s league as overall players.

Cabrera came close last season, hitting .297/.347/.460 to rank seventh among major-league shortstops in VORP, about 26% behind Garciaparra. He made up for some of that gap with his defense, but Garciaparra was still a better player. And 2003 was far and away Cabrera’s best season offensively, whereas Garciaparra has played at that level (and above) for years. Cabrera has been awful offensively this season, hitting just .246/.298/.336 in 103 games with the Expos.

Mientkiewicz is similar, in that he had a very nice season in 2003, hitting .300/.393/.450, but has been far worse this season, hitting just .246/.340/.363 in 78 games with the Twins. Mientkiewicz had the same problem a few years ago, when he hit .306/.387/.464 in 2001 and followed it up by hitting a measly .261/.365/.392 in 2002.

If Cabrera and Mientkiewicz play up to their full potential and more or less duplicate their 2003 performances, this trade is a decent one for Boston. They’ve swapped a top-five shortstop for a top-10 shortstop and a top-10 first baseman. On the other hand, if, as is more likely, Cabrera and Mientkiewicz play somewhere in between their 2003 and 2004 levels offensively, they’ve swapped Garciaparra for an average shortstop and an average first baseman. That is not a swap I’d like to make, and that’s giving both Cabrera and Mientkiewicz the benefit of the doubt that they’ll improve upon their current numbers.

However, there are clearly issues beyond simply on-field performance when it comes to Garciaparra, and it’s difficult to say how much the off-field stuff motivated this move. Still, in the end, I think the Red Sox have traded away one of their best players and, at best, have made themselves just slightly worse. I am a big believer in paying (or even overpaying) for top-of-the-line talent and Garciaparra, with all his faults, is a top-of-the-line talent.

From the Cubs’ point of view, this is an excellent deal, assuming Garciaparra is healthy, of course. They gave up their starting shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, and prospects Brendan Harris, Francis Beltran and Justin Jones, while receiving Garciaparra and Matt Murton, Boston’s first-round pick last year.

Jones is a good prospect and I like Harris quite a bit too, but Gonzalez and Beltran are guys they won’t miss much now or in the future. If you simplify things and say that Murton and Harris essentially cancel each other out as far as value is concerned, then the Cubs just traded Gonzalez, Jones and Beltran for Garciaparra. While that’s not an extraordinary trade if Garciaparra is only around for the remainder of this season, I think the considerable upgrade from Gonzalez to Garciaparra makes it a good trade.

And trust me, the upgrade is considerable …

2004
                 AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
Garciaparra     .321     .367     .500     .867     .290
Gonzalez        .217     .241     .364     .605     .199
 
2001-2003
                 AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
Garciaparra     .305     .349     .523     .872     .288
Gonzalez        .243     .303     .406     .709     .238

Garciaparra has been about 45% better than Gonzalez offensively this season and was about 21% better from 2001-2003. That’s huge; it would be like if the Giants replaced J.T. Snow at first base with Albert Pujols.

In the end, this trade makes the Cubs a better team for 2004. If Mientkiewicz and Cabrera play like they did last season, it doesn’t necessarily make the Red Sox any worse, it simply makes them different. If Mientkiewicz and Cabrera don’t improve upon what they’ve done so far in 2004, Boston has gotten worse, although they have helped fill the void created by Trot Nixon‘s injury by being able to shift Kevin Millar from first base to right field now that Mientkiewicz is onboard. Plus, they probably won’t have to hear as many people complain about their defense, which is an added bonus.

TO NEW YORK:             TO TAMPA BAY: 
- Victor Zambrano        - Scott Kazmir
- Bartolome Fortunato    - Joselo Diaz

This is just an awful, awful trade for the New York Mets.

Victor Zambrano is a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. He has fairly good stuff, but absolutely no clue where the ball is going once it leaves his hand. This year, Zambrano has a 4.47 ERA as a starter, with a 108-to-95 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last year, Zambrano had a 4.23 ERA as a starter, with a 128-to-102 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 2002, he had a 4.27 ERA as a starter, with a 42-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. See the pattern here? Mediocre ERAs and horrendous strikeout-to-walk ratios. And Zambrano’s not even young; he turns 29 years old in August.

So the Mets just traded for a soon-to-be 29-year-old pitcher with severe control issues who has never had an ERA below 4.00 as a starter in the major leagues. And what did they give up for him? Here’s where this deal gets crazy … They gave up one of the best — and perhaps the best — pitching prospect in all of baseball, Scott Kazmir. And that’s not all, they also gave up Joselo Diaz, who is an intriguing low-minors prospect with some potential.

With David Wright being called up to the big leagues a little while back, Kazmir was the crown jewel of New York’s farm system. A first-round pick in 2002, Kazmir dominated the competition during his first two pro seasons, throwing 127 innings with a 2.34 ERA and 179 strikeouts in the low minors. After posting a 3.42 ERA in 50 innings at Single-A this season, he moved up to Double-A, where he had a 1.73 ERA in 26 innings before the trade.

Here’s what Kazmir’s done in three years as a pro …

   IP      ERA      SO     BB       H
203.0     2.53     259     82     149

How you look at those numbers from a 20-year-old power lefty who was a former first-round pick, has incredible raw talent, and has already reached (and pitched well at) Double-A, and decide to trade him away for a 28-year-old pitcher with a 4.47 career ERA is beyond me. It honestly boggles my mind, particularly because the Devil Rays aren’t exactly known for ripping other teams off in trades.

I ranked Kazmir as the #8 prospect in baseball coming into this season and certainly, with the way he’s pitched thus far and the fact that several of the guys ahead of him are now in the majors, he’s a top-five prospect right now. You can argue that you like this prospect or that prospect more than Kazmir, and I probably wouldn’t put up a fight, but he’s certainly an elite prospect, the type of guy you build your pitching staff around. And not the type of guy you trade for someone like Victor Zambrano.

Honestly, if you’d have told me the Devil Rays traded Zambrano to the New York Mets for just Joselo Diaz, I would have thought that made sense. A mediocre, 28-year-old starting pitcher for a mediocre-but-intriguing 24-year-old prospect? Yeah, that seems about right. The idea that Scott Kazmir was just sent from the Mets to the Devil Rays in a trade that revolved around Victor Zambrano is enough to make you wonder whether or not you’re following the same game as some of the people in charge of actually making these decisions.

Kudos to the Devil Rays, who just shocked the hell out of me by not only making a smart trade, but actually robbing another team blind. Tampa Bay already has an impressive collection of young talent throughout their organization, and Kazmir gives them another piece to add to the puzzle. They’re in the wrong division to make waves, but the Devil Rays are going to be very interesting to watch in a couple years.

As for the Mets, they aren’t the first team to trade away the future for the present, but they might be one of the only teams to trade away the future for a present that isn’t even good. I mean really, Victor Zambrano? Rick Peterson better be a miracle worker. This trade has John Smoltz-for-Doyle Alexander potential, except Zambrano is no Doyle Alexander and the Mets aren’t going to make the playoffs.

TO NEW YORK:             TO PITTSBURGH:           TO KANSAS CITY:
- Kris Benson            - Ty Wigginton           - Justin Huber
- Jeff Keppinger         - Matt Peterson
                         - Jose Bautista

Just to show that I’m not biased against the Mets, let me say that I think this deal was merely a bad one for them, as opposed to the horrendous deal they made with the Devil Rays.

Kris Benson is a better pitcher than Victor Zambrano, but his hype went off the charts over the past couple weeks, as his name was mentioned in a seemingly endless number of trade rumors. I’ve seen fans of my favorite team, the Minnesota Twins, gradually increase their rating of Benson with each passing day and swirling rumor. First he was a guy who would be nice to add to the rotation, someone to compliment the team’s #1 and #2 starters. Then, before I could figure out what was happening, he was a potential season-maker, a guy who would make a huge difference down the stretch and into the playoffs, a guy teams that wanted help in their rotation had to acquire.

And the whole time, I kept looking at Kris Benson’s numbers and wondering if people were talking about the same guy. Yeah, he pitched pretty well over his last 10 starts before the trade, going 4-4 with a 3.01 ERA in 71.2 innings, but his ERA for the year was a thoroughly mediocre 4.22. He also had a 4.97 ERA last year and a 4.70 ERA in 2002.

Benson’s best season in the majors came way back in 2000, and even that wasn’t such a great year — he went 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 217.2 innings. And not only have three and a half years passed since that season, Benson has had Tommy John surgery and missed an entire year (2001) since. He’s a 29-year-old pitcher with a 4.26 career ERA whose best season was in 2000, wasn’t all that great to begin with, and was followed up by missing the next year and having major arm surgery.

Now, the funny thing is that I think Benson, despite all the stuff I just said about him, is a better pitcher than Zambrano. Yet, it was Zambrano who fetched one of baseball’s elite prospects, while all the Pirates got for Benson is a decent everyday third baseman and two mid-level prospects.

Ty Wigginton is the guy the Mets have apparently been centering most of their trade offers around this season, which was smart on their part. Not only did they have a better, younger player at his position in David Wright, Wigginton simply isn’t that good. He’s versatile defensively, but he’s not a good defender. He has a little power, but he’s not a power hitter. He’s not old, but he’s not young. Wigginton is just a 26-year-old third baseman who is hitting .285/.334/.487 this year, after hitting .255/.318/.396 for the Mets last season. There are worse guys to acquire to be your starting third baseman, but Wigginton is definitely not the type of player you want to build around.

Even when Wigginton is playing very well for him, which I think is the case this season, he’s only a league-average hitter. Wigginton’s .285/.334/.487 performance so far translates to a .272 GPA. The average major-league third baseman has hit .270/.336/.446 this season, which translates to a .263 GPA. Even if you factor in that Shea Stadium is a pitcher’s ballpark, Wigginton has only been slightly above-average offensively. Add in his defense, and the fact that he hit far worse than average last season, and I think I’d peg him as exactly an “average” everyday third baseman.

In addition to Wigginton, the Pirates also got Matt Peterson, who is a very solid 22-year-old pitching prospect. Peterson had a 3.34 ERA in 371.2 career minor-league innings coming into this season and had a 3.27 ERA in 104.2 innings at Double-A before the trade. He’s big, he throws hard and he gets a fair amount of strikeouts, although his strikeout-to-walk ratio is not outstanding. I’d say he’s a B-minus/C-plus pitching prospect who is fairly close to being major-league ready.

The second prospect the Pirates got came by way of the Kansas City Royals. Pittsburgh apparently coveted Jose Bautista, so the Mets sent Justin Huber to Kansas City for him, and then flipped him to the Pirates. The weird thing about all of this is that Bautista was actually in the Pirates’ organization this time last year. They took him in the 20th round of the 2000 draft and he played three seasons in the Pittsburgh organization before the Orioles grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft this off-season.

The Orioles decided they didn’t want to hold onto him all year (Rule 5 picks have to remain in the big leagues or be offered back to their original teams), so they put him on waivers, where he was claimed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. A few weeks later, the Devil Rays dealt him to the Royals for “cash considerations.” Yes, you read that right. A month ago, the Royals acquired Bautista for essentially nothing, and they just traded him to the Mets for Huber, one of the best catching prospects in baseball.

As much as I have to applaud the Devil Rays for making a rare great move and for ripping off the Mets by getting Kazmir for Zambrano, I have to give at least that much credit to the Royals for basically getting their hands on one of the top prospects in baseball for nothing. I have a feeling New York GM Jim Duquette called up Kansas City GM Allard Baird in a panic, saying he needed to find another prospect to include in the deal with Pittsburgh and the Pirates wanted Bautista back. I imagine the conversation went something like this …

Duquette: I need Jose Bautista. Would you deal him?

Baird: Sure, I’d consider giving him up.

Duquette: Great. That’s great! Okay, so do we have anyone in our system who you like?

Baird: Hmm, I don’t know if I can think of anyone off the top of my head. I know we obviously like Kazmir and Huber …

Duquette: Well, we’re dealing Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, but I’d give you Huber.

Baird: Wait, what?

Duquette: Would you do Huber for Bautista?

Baird: Justin Huber, the catcher?

Duquette: Yeah.

Baird: [Holding his hand over the phone as he looks around the room to see if perhaps he is on Punk'd] Yeah, I could do that.

Duquette: Great, done deal. Nice doing business with you Allard. Thanks for helping me out on such short notice.

Baird: Okay … no problem … I guess. By the way, did you just say you traded Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano?

As I see it, the Royals are the only real winners in this trade. They gave up a mid-level prospect who they had just acquired for cash for one of the best catching prospects in baseball.

The Mets acquired a decent #3 or #4 starter who is a free agent this off-season for an average, 26-year-old third baseman who didn’t really have a place to play, plus a mid-level pitching prospect and an upper-level catching prospect. Losing Wigginton is no loss, although he certainly had value, but giving up two good prospects for a dozen starts from Kris Benson seems rather foolish.

Of course, the Mets could sign Benson to a long-term deal, but they could have done that this off-season anyway. The only other way this deal gets better from the Mets’ perspective is if they offer Benson arbitration, he declines and signs with another team, and then the Mets pick up a couple draft picks as compensation. Even still, Wigginton, Peterson and Huber for two months of Kris Benson and two draft picks isn’t my idea of a good deadline deal.

As for the Pirates … I can’t say that this is really a bad deal, but it seems like a very unimpressive package of players to end up with after all the enticing rumors about what they had been offered and were asking for Benson. They’d have been much better off simply taking Huber, Wigginton and Peterson from the Mets, which would have made trading Jason Kendall at some point much easier.

TO LOS ANGELES:          TO FLORIDA:
- Brad Penny             - Paul Lo Duca
- Hee Seop Choi          - Guillermo Mota
- Bill Murphy            - Juan Encarnacion

When I first saw this trade, courtesy of a Lee Sinins e-mail, my immediate reaction was that it was a very good trade for the Dodgers. Then I started to go around the internet, looking for reaction to the trade from others, and I was shocked to find that almost every “expert” and every fan of the Dodgers thought the Marlins robbed L.A.

While everyone spoke of Paul Lo Duca like he’s Johnny Bench and Guillermo Mota like he’s Goose Gossage, I didn’t hear one person say or write something positive above Hee Seop Choi. In fact, most of the analysis of the trade that I saw barely even mentioned Choi. It was like he was the invisible man.

I saw former Cincinnati GM and current ESPN baseball expert Jim Bowden say that Choi couldn’t hit breaking balls, and then I watched as Peter Gammons repeated the exact same thing with great authority whenever he spoke of the trade over the next few days. ESPN.com’s Buster Olney wrote that “Choi hits homers and draws walks, but he had 78 whiffs in 281 at-bats this year, and he was hitting .238 with runners in scoring position; part of the reason the Marlins needed to make this trade was because rallies tended to die with Choi.” Olney later wrote: “Choi has had the type of long swing that can get exploited by good pitchers.”

After reading that, I thought maybe I had mistakenly thought of Choi as a good, young hitter all this time. So I looked up his numbers: .270/.388/.495 with 15 homers, 16 doubles, 52 walks, 40 RBIs and 48 runs scored in 95 games with the Marlins. He was leading Florida in on-base percentage and walks, and was third in slugging percentage, OPS and homers. And while it’s true that Choi was “hitting .238 with runners in scoring position,” what Olney conveniently left out was that Choi had a .407 on-base percentage and a .547 slugging percentage in those situations, both great numbers.

While everyone was busy picking on (or not even talking about) the 25-year-old hitter with the .388 on-base percentage and .495 slugging percentage, I didn’t see many people mentioning Juan Encarnacion‘s inability to hit any pitching or Lo Duca’s .273/.335/.377 performance last year or the fact that he hit just .252/.306/.374 after the All-Star break during the past three years. All I heard about was how Lo Duca was the “leader” and the “heart and soul” of the Dodgers, how Encarnacion was “a good bat,” and how Choi was either non-existent or worse.

Well, let me respectfully disagree: Hee Seop Choi is a damn good player. He’s 25 years old, he has power and plate discipline, and he’s been one of the better offensive first basemen in the National League this year. Just a few months ago, the Marlins valued him enough to trade Derrek Lee to the Cubs for him. Now, just a few months later, after Choi has actually been a very good hitter for Florida, he’s just some guy who feasts on bad pitching, can’t hit with runners on base, and flails away at breaking balls.

Paul Lo Duca is a good player, a solid defensive catcher who hits for nice batting averages and can play nearly every day. As for his leadership, heart, soul, and ability to create chemistry, I’ll quote long-time baseball writer Ross Newhan, in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times: “Chemistry, of course, is a mysterious thing, but it is worth remembering that Dodger chemistry wasn’t worth much in the second half of last season when Lo Duca slumped badly, a management concern that was compounded by his falloff this June and July.”

Chemistry, along with winning, is always a “chicken or egg” issue, as in which came first, the winning or the chemistry? This trade makes the Dodgers a better team and whether you want to call that the chicken or the egg, the chemistry will follow. You see, it has to, because as most mainstream baseball writers and TV personalities will tell you, time after time after time, all good teams have good chemistry. And the Dodgers are a good team.

They strengthened their starting rotation with Brad Penny, added to their offense (and their future) with Choi, and later used Bill Murphy, the third player acquired from the Marlins, in the trade for Steve Finley. The Dodgers’ new catching duo of David Ross (a career .224/.310/.466 hitter) and Brent Mayne is unlikely to be as productive offensively as Lo Duca, but the addition of Choi and the fact that he allows Shawn Green to move back to right field, replacing Encarnacion, will likely make up for those offensive losses and then some.

Guillermo Mota, who was also sent to Florida in the deal, is a very good, very valuable player, one of the best relievers in baseball, both this year and last year. But the Dodgers clearly felt that their bullpen, with a combined ERA of 2.98, was an area of strength, so they dealt from it in order to improve an area of weakness, their rotation. Unless you believe that chemistry can come and go with one player and is more important to a team’s record that hitting and pitching, this trade a was good one for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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