Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is it a rumor? Or just the landlord?

I stole that pun from Abbott & Costello. So even if I'm stealing my jokes, at least I'm stealing them from the right people.
But there's a lot of talk circulating now around baseball, especially in the wake of the Rich Harden trade (which I'll get to in a minute). The interesting thing is which teams are buying and which are selling, and why some of them may have it backward. What's also interesting is some of the names being thrown around as targeted acquisitions, the most surprising name being . . . Barry Bonds?

  • First, the Harden deal. The A's traded Harden and reliever Chad Gaudin to the Cubs in exchange for pitcher Sean Gallagher, outfielder Matt Murton, outfielder/second baseman Eric Patterson, and minor league catcher Josh Donaldson.
    Let's look at this from the A's perspective: why are they trading away two valuable pitchers when they're still right in the middle of the pennant race? The A's are just 4.5 games back of the Angels in the AL West and 4 games behind the Red Sox in the Wild Card race. I admit that I don't think the A's were true contenders; they were seriously overachieving considering their roster. But that doesn't mean they weren't going to keep winning. Did Billy Beane just give up on a season where the A's had a legitimate shot?
    No and no. Beane didn't give up because he got good, major league-ready players in exchange. And no, the A's didn't really have a legitimate shot, which Beane must have known. Granted, a GM isn't supposed to be the first person to give up on a season. But don't sell Billy Beane short. The trade was a good one.
    Remember in Moneyball when players were compared to stocks, with their value rising and falling? Well, Rich Harden has been an extremely volatile stock since he arrived in the majors, thanks to injuries. But his stock price right now is very high, high enough to bring back Gallagher, Murton, and friends. Regardless of the pennant race, Beane wanted to get value for Harden while he still could. And this may have been his last chance. Harden's making $4.5 million this year. There is a club option on his contract for 2009, at $7 million, but I doubt Beane expected to exercise it. So unless Harden stays really healthy and pitches really well, he'll probably get cut loose into free agency after this season. Beane wasn't losing much.
    Harden spent most of April and early May on the DL, but has come back strong since then. But there's a lot of doubt that he can actually stay healthy, and he's shown signs of trouble in July, with his last start especially troublesome (5 IP, 3 R, 4 BB, 4 K). Now was the time to trade him. Especially when you take into account this excerpt from Keith Law's blog:

    "Harden complained of a dead arm after his July 1 outing against the Angels; his velocity was a little better in his most recent start, but his command was off. "

    So the alarm bells were already going off when Beane decided to trade him, perhaps in the nick of time. If Jim Hendry knew about these issues when he made the trade, then I'd have to say he was reckless (more on that later).

    As for Gaudin, he's a 25-year-old journeyman who's actually a decent starter and a pretty good reliever. But he's entering his arbitration years, and while he's a good addition to a pitching staff, he's far from irreplaceable.

    Your opinion of this trade basically depends on your opinion of Sean Gallagher. Some people see him as a margin starter, in which case the Cubs didn't lose much. Others see him as a potential asset and above-average guy, in which case he could out-perform Harden in the long- and short-term, if the latter continues to struggle with injuries.
    As for me, I see Gallagher as a real sleeper. The Cubs' rotation was crowded, and it's always been hard for a rookie to force his way in, especially when Dusty was there. But Gallagher is 22 year old, he's cheap, and he's good. In his minor league career, he posted a 2.77 ERA with 482 strikeouts in 481 IP. He's only had two stints in the majors. Last year, he threw 14.2 innings in relief and got hit hard, to the tune of an 8.59 ERA. This year he's thrown 58.2 inninngs, mostly as a starter, with a 4.45 ERA. But his peripherals were good: 22:49 BB:K ratio and 6 HR allowed. Now walks and homers are a bit of a concern for Gallagher, but the A's play in a big, roomy park, so that should help.
    Honestly, even considering how much potential Harden has, I think I would take Gallagher over Harden straight up. It's financially more sensible, you keep the player for much longer, and you're guaranteed what should be above-average innings, as opposed to very sporadic brilliance.
    But the A's got more (if not a whole lot): Matt Murton is a good outfielder who must have pissed off somebody in the Cubs organization, because he's never really gotten a fair shake to stick in the outfield. After doing a decent job in short stints with the club, the Cubs decided he couldn't be a really useful player and left him on the bench to rot. Murton's the kind of guy the A's love: a guy who has flaws, but also value. Murton kills left-handed pitching, and the A's outfielders are all hitting way over their heads. If Murton were platooned, or even just used sparingly against righties, he would be a very useful (and cheap) asset. The Cubs made a big mistake when they failed to use him and failed to trade him before they left him on the bench to rot and ruined his trade value. He's now literally been reduced to a throw-in.
    More of a throw-in is Eric Patterson, Corey's little brother, who's an outfielder and emergency second baseman. In terms of raw talent, Patterson isn't too far behind the likes of Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, but those guys got the playing time and the good luck, so they stuck; Patterson got neither, and so was just twiddling his thumbs in the minors. Patterson's never going to hit well enough to start in the outfield, but he's a useful utility player, especially since he can cover second in a pinch.
    Donaldson was a good catching prospect heading into the season, but he's having a terrible year in '08. The Cubs drafted him out of Auburn last year, and he mashed in 49 Low-A games (346/470/605). He was promoted to the Cubs Regular A-level team in Peoria this year and has been awful: 217/276/349. College hitters in their second pro year should be able to handle A-ball. Donaldson isn't. Having said that, he's a great guy to take a flyer on. He's shown great promise in the past, and if this year is just a little speedbump, he could still turn out to be useful. The A's need catchers, as does everyone. And if not, it was worth a try.

    For the Cubs, the outlook on the trade is a bit different; the Cubs are thinking short-term, so they don't really care what happens to Harden after this season. They'd already given up and/or ruined Murton and Patterson, so they were expendable. And losing Josh Donaldson probably won't cost anybody their job.
    Essentially, the trade comes down to Harden and Gaudin for Gallagher. The Cubs may have already made up their minds about Gallagher, too; although with the crowd of pitchers vying for a spot in the rotation, they may have just felt that losing one of them wouldn't be so bad. And even if the Cubs did think highly of Gallagher, they gave up on him with the understanding that it was worth taking the risk on Harden and Gaudin.
    I can't argue with Gaudin. He's moving from the AL West to the NL Central, which tends to do good things for your ERA. He's a great middle reliever who could start in a pinch, and you can never have too many of those guys. But what about Harden . . . ?
    We'll have to see how it turns out. But we can't judge the trade in retrospect; we have to determine if Jim Hendry made the right decision, knowing what he knows now, about Rich Harden.
    Personally, I think Hendry got too starry-eyed and fell in love with a guy that's going to break his heart. If Keith Law is correct about Harden's last two starts, then I wouldn't go near him in a trade. Harden is very comparable to Mark Prior, and Cubs fans know what happens when you pin your faith on those guys. Even if I'm proven wrong and Harden stays healthy, I still think this wasn't the right decision, knowing what we know now. I know that the Cubs are desperate for a World Series and are willing to sacrifice anything in the future to get that ring; that's understandable. But this trade doesn't sound like it's going to help them even in the short-term.
    Another point that makes me think the Cubs made a faulty rush to judgment is Buster Olney's claim that the Cubs weren't even in talks with the A's until the Brewers traded for C.C. Sabathia. In less than 48 hours after the Sabathia trade was announced, the Cubs made their initial contact with the A's and completed this trade. Hendry is quoted making vague statements that the team had been looking for help, namely Harden, for quite some time now. But all the evidence points to the fact that this was a snap move done less for the good of the ballclub and more as a desperate counter to a big move by a divisional rival. In that case, the trade was inspired as much by the need for a PR response to Sabathia and an irrational sense of one-upsmanship than any baseball information. Olney has made his claim, and he's one of the most reliable baseball reporters out there. I'll easily believe him over Hendry and all the local (presumably unbiased) Chicago papers, whose only sources for ongoing talks were apparently Hendry and his partners.

    This trade may turn out well for the Cubs, and I'll look silly for saying all of these things. But regardless of what happens, I think that a) the Cubs took on a substantial risk that hurts them in the short run, and b) they probably did it for a lot of reasons having nothing to do with baseball.
  • Rumors: According to and the rumor mill, Barry Bonds has been mentioned in internal discussions with several clubs, most notably the Arizona Diamondbacks. In fact, the Diamondbacks have publicly admitted discussing Bonds, which doesn't sound like much, but is the most public interest any team has been willing to show this season. Bonds would be a great fit for Arizona, as they need an offensive boost and have a huge hole in left field: Eric Byrnes is out for the season. Although to be fair, that huge hole was there even when Byrnes was healthy.
    There's also been a rumor that the Red Sox were interested in Bonds, even a rumor that they had a secret workout with him at Fenway Park. Given the amount of media attention surrounding Barry Bonds and the Red Sox, respectively, I highly doubt such a thing could be kept secret. Theo Epstein has denied the rumors, and it's hard for me to see a place for Bonds, since David Ortiz seems to be recovering nicely. You can't have three DHs in a lineup, no matter what Michael Lewis says.
    Bonds has been "suggested" for other teams seeking outfield help, with most people offering up the Mets as a perfect fit. I personally think Bonds would be great for the Mets, since they desperately need offense from the outfield. As far as Bonds' "baggage" is concerned, I think the Mets have already had so many clubhouse problems and PR fiascoes that the signing of Bonds would be accepted pretty easily. And the Met fans might not like him, but they want to win the division a lot more than they hate Barry Bonds, and even they can see what a big help he might be.
    I personally never bought into the allegations of collusion against Bonds. Mainly I think that the Bonds situation is so sensitive that Bud Selig, much though he hates Bonds, wouldn't want to create a significant legal issue with the MLB as a defendant. And honestly, I think those inside the game know that if they signed Barry Bonds it wouldn't be the huge PR nightmare that some people seem to think it would be. And lastly, I think teams would just get too covetous of Bonds' abilities to abide by the Commissioner's office in what would be an illegal (and potentially expensive) act. I should say, though, that nothing the MLB does would surprise me, morally. I just think that Bud Selig is smarter and more practical than many of his predecessors. He wouldn't put the industry at risk of another multi-million dollar settlement and publicly damaging lawsuit just to spite Barry Bonds.
    But that's just my opinion, and I could be wrong.
  • The Braves are really in a quandary about whether to be buyers or sellers on the trade market. They're pretty far out of the race, but they've got some good talent and if you look at their Pythagorean record, they're the second-best team in the division. But I myself just don't see it happening. With Smoltz out as a starter, Glavine out, and Chipper likely to miss a few weeks here and there, they just don't have the talent, especially pitching-wise, to sustain a prolonged push for the playoffs. If I were them, I'd be energetically shopping Mark Teixeira.
  • Some other teams don't seem to realize what side of the trading fence they're actually on. The Indians have already run up the white flag on 2008, and understandably so. The Rockies, Pirates, and probably the Royals will follow. But why aren't the Washington Nationals, the Cincinnati Reds, or the Houston Astros going into full-sell mode? Neither team is going to be contenders this year, and if they think they are, they're grossly mistaken. Nationals GM Jim Bowden has never been one to trade away excess talent, no matter how far in last place his team is. It's one of the biggest blunders of his entire tenure as GM of the team that he didn't trade away Alfonso Soriano, Chad Cordero, Dmitri Young, Jon Rauch, and several other players while they were at their peak value.
    The Reds are still in a transitional period, front office-wise, and could start selling. I'm sure they'd like to sell on Ken Griffey, Jr., but who would want him? They may end up selling on Adam Dunn, but surprisingly very few teams are going after Dunn. I still don't understand why baseball ops people (J.P. Ricciardi isn't the only one) like to hate on the Donkey. Get him for a half-season, and he'll do ya wonders. And why not, if you're the Mets, D-Backs, Yankees or somebody who could really use a first baseman or left fielder? I'm not sure who else the Reds would like to make available. I'd like to see them trade Bronson Arroyo, if only to get rid of those damn JTM commercials. But Arroyo is expensive and hasn't pitched well in two years.
    And the Astros wouldn't know a good idea if it fell out of the sky, landed on their face, and started to wiggle.
RIP, Mr. Carlin.

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