Lost in the shuffle of the Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder trades and the Randy Johnson three-team blockbuster that was off and then on and now off again, there were actually a few other interesting deals completed recently …
To Oakland: Keith Ginter
To Milwaukee: Nelson Cruz, Justin Lehr
This is a typical Billy Beane pickup, as Ginter is a solid everyday player who was being underutilized in Milwaukee. However, this is far from one of Beane’s famous “F—ing A” trades, because he actually gave up quite a bit to get his hands on Ginter. Lehr is a run-of-the-mill relief prospect who put up nice numbers as a 26-year-old in the minors this year (2.25 ERA, 57-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60.2 innings) and could be a quality middle reliever, while Cruz has the potential to be a lot more than that.
Cruz, who Beane got from the Mets in 2000 for the immortal Jorge Velandia, hit .345/.407/.582 in 66 games at Single-A Modesto and .313/.377/.542 in 67 games at Double-A Midland this year, totaling 25 homers and 41 doubles in 523 at-bats. He doesn’t walk much or control the strike zone, as evidenced by his sub par 142-to-50 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is perhaps why Beane was willing to give him up. Plus, Cruz’s track record isn’t very good and he hit just .238/.292/.430 in 119 games at Single-A Kane County in 2003, albeit with 20 homers and 26 doubles in 470 at-bats. Still, Cruz’s offensive numbers this year were phenomenal and he’s only 23 years old.
In Ginter, Beane gets a passable defensive second baseman with plenty of pop in his bat. He batted .262/.333/.479 with the Brewers this year, hitting 19 homers and 23 doubles in just 386 at-bats, and is a .257/.344/.448 career hitter in 274 games (the average second baseman hit .272/.336/.409 this year). In addition to the all-around production, one thing on Ginter’s record that no doubt stood out to Beane is the fact that he takes a ton of pitches — 4.13 pitches per plate appearance this year and 4.18 P/PA for his entire career. To put that in some context, 4.18 P/PA would have ranked 13th among all major-league hitters who qualified for the batting title in 2004.
This is one of those rare deals where both teams come out looking good. The Brewers will have Rickie Weeks at second base by the time they are ready to compete again, at which point Ginter will be in his 30s and Cruz will potentially be ready to step in and hit in the middle of the lineup. In the meantime, the A’s get a cheap starting second baseman who should put up some very impressive offensive numbers for a middle infielder.
To Milwaukee: Carlos Lee
To Chicago: Scott Podsednik, Luis Vizcaino, PTBNL
Back in Little League I was a light-hitting second baseman and somewhere along the line, after a couple hundred at-bats with no extra-base hits in sight, I decided the problem was my bat. So I went out and traded a brand new pair of Air Jordans for a game-used TPX that I had seen produce countless gappers for the star of the team. After that, I continued to be a punchless singles hitter and the only real difference was my lack of Air Jordans. The moral of that story is that the Chicago White Sox are walking around in their bare feet right now.
After three straight second-place finishes in the American League Central, White Sox GM Kenny Williams decided the problem was that his team had too many sluggers. Among misguided attempts at fixing a problem, this ranks right up there with me thinking the secret to untapping my power potential was in something I could trade a pair of shoes for. So Williams let Magglio Ordonez walk via free agency and replaced him with a scaled-down rightfielder in Jermaine Dye, and now he’s gone and traded Lee, who hit .305/.366/.525 with 31 homers and 37 doubles this year, for a guy who runs really fast.
The problem is that this sort of thinking ignores the fact that the White Sox finished third in the AL in runs scored this season, which might suggest their biggest concern isn’t remaking the entire offensive philosophy of the team. But I imagine the thinking behind this move is that the team hit a lot of homers last year and didn’t win, so not hitting as many homers will change that. Plus, Ozzie Guillen was a scrappy player who ran fast and couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag, so clearly that’s the sort of team he should be managing.
This spring, the White Sox will talk about their improved defense and how they are no longer depending on homers to win. Then, once the season starts, they’ll start running and bunting like crazy. When September rolls around and they’re looking up in the standings — not only at the Twins again, but at the Indians too — everyone in Chicago will point to some other random character trait the team has and proclaim that the problem. Then Williams can go out and “fix” it in the offseason, perhaps trading all the shoes in the state of Illinois and Aaron Rowand for two sprinters and the bat from The Natural.
At some point, someone in charge might realize that the problem isn’t having too many powerful hitters (can you imagine how absurd that sounds to someone just learning about the baseball?) or not having enough guys who can get from first base to second base safely most of the time, but rather that they have a guy running the baseball team who thinks those are the problems. Until then, the Twins will have it a whole lot easier than they should and teams like the Brewers can pick up those icky power hitters for 50 cents on the dollar.
To Atlanta: Danny Kolb
To Milwaukee: Jose Capellan, Alec Zumwalt
Yes, another Milwaukee trade. This is the best kind of deal for a team like the Brewers, as they used their most plentiful resource — playing time — to turn nothing into something. A couple years ago, they signed Kolb, a 28-year-old with just 79 career major-league innings, to a minor-league contract. After nearly 1,000 career innings in the minors, Kolb took advantage of the opportunity when the Brewers gave him a chance, throwing 41.1 innings with a 1.96 ERA, while saving 21 games. Kolb was back closing games this year and once again did very well, saving 39 games with a 2.98 ERA in 57.1 innings.
In just two seasons, Milwaukee turned a free agent who required just a minor-league contract into an “established” closer. Then, realizing a 30-year-old established closer wasn’t really much good to a team with 294 losses in the past three years, they cashed their creation in for one of the better pitching prospects in baseball. All it really took was a minor-league deal and the willingness to allow someone unknown to pitch in the ninth inning, and the beauty of it is that they can attempt to recreate the whole process with someone else starting next season.
That’s not to suggest that Kolb isn’t a fine pitcher, but rather that he has a lot more value to a team like the Braves (who can’t afford to experiment with closers) than he does to a team like the Brewers (who can). Kolb will replace John Smoltz as the closer in Atlanta, allowing Smoltz to move back to the starting rotation full time for the first time since 1999. Kolb’s record with Milwaukee is tough to argue with — 2.55 ERA in 98.2 innings, while going 60-for-67 in save chances — but the one big concern has to be his strikeout rate. After striking out 8.49 batters per nine innings in 2003 and 6.96 batters per nine innings at Triple-A, Kolb struck out an amazingly low 3.30 batters per nine innings in 2004.
The only pitcher in baseball history who recorded at least 30 saves in a season with a lower strikeout rate was Dan Quisenberry, who did it in 1980 (33 saves, 2.59 K/9), 1982 (35, 3.03), 1983 (45, 3.11), and 1984 (44, 2.85). In fact, before Kolb came along this season, Quisenberry held the top five spots in this category. Quisenberry managed to be one of the best relievers of all-time despite barely striking anyone out, so clearly it can be done. However, he’s the only closer to ever do it even once, let alone for a sustained period of time, and the 1980s were a lower strikeout era than the one Kolb is pitching in. In other words, if Kolb doesn’t start missing a few more bats, history is definitely not on his side when it comes to remaining an elite closer. Luckily for him, he now has Leo Mazzone as his pitching coach.
As for the main guy the Brewers got, he’s a keeper. At 23, Capellan began the season at Single-A and ended the year with the Braves. Combined between three levels of the minors, he went 14-3 with a 2.33 ERA in 139 innings, striking out 152, walking 45, and allowing opponents to hit just .223 against him. He has a total of just 101 innings above Single-A and got lit up pretty hard in his brief stint with Atlanta, so he likely needs a little more seasoning in the minors. However, Capellan should be ready to step into Milwaukee’s rotation soon enough and his ceiling makes trading Kolb away a no-brainer for the rebuilding Brewers, who figure to have a pretty dangerous young team starting in a couple years.