Sunday, December 20, 2009

Trading Arms on a Lazy Sunday

With only four shopping days left before the arrival of one Baby and with things that need to be done before the arrival of another baby, let’s roll right into a Lazy Sunday where The Reservation remains quiet, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we’re hurting for topics to dissect.
And…we’re off…

The only notable articles from the week related specifically to the Tribe dealt with the health of Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner and how Westbrook finished the winter “pain-free” and how Manny Acta describes Hafner’s likely usage pattern as one “that he’s going to get days off here and there, but nothing as he was in the past, where he couldn’t play a certain amount of games in a row.”

I’m not from Missouri (though I have been there and it is lovely…if otherworldly humid in the summer), but you’ll excuse me when I say that I’m going to wait to actually see proof that Westbrook is finally healthy and Hafner is able to play more than three consecutive games before optimism creeps in. Perhaps I’ve been tainted by hearing these “reports” before (“Hafner looks great…he’s REALLY making progress”, “When Jake gets back in June, this team could really make up some ground in the Central”), but “show me” that this isn’t just all hopeful thinking and something to talk about in a quiet off-season before you expect any excitement or optimism concerning those two. Maybe these updates on the health of players who will “earn” a little less than half of the Indians’ 2010 salary are valid (and maybe this news that Matt LaPorta will “be ready for Spring Training” is just as accurate), but after the cloak-and-dagger approach to reporting (or is it misreporting or under-reporting) injuries and rehabilitations to key players, I’ll reserve my excitement for the day when Westbrook has started his 10th straight game for the Tribe sometime in May with Hafner playing every day, taking up a spot in the middle of the lineup. Until then…color me skeptical.

As for the other semi-Tribe-related news, the Cliff Lee-Roy Halladay deal has continued to hash itself out, as most analysis centers either on why the why the Lee trade to Seattle was even necessary when weighed against the idea that Philly could have boasted Halladay AND Lee at the top of their 2010 rotation in an effort to return to the World Series as well as some analysis as to why the Phillies weren’t able to extract more on the trade market for one year of CP Lee at $9M.

The reason being broadcast as to why the Phils couldn’t just have kept Lee is allegedly “payroll limitations” (despite the team committing about $8.675M for 2010 on Placido Polanco, Ross Gload, and Brian Schneider in FA signings this off-season while Lee would have cost them $9M), but maybe the strip-mining of their Farm System to acquire Lee and Halladay had more to do with their decision to move Lee than they’re letting on, which actually leads into the next topic, which is what the Phillies received from the M’s for Lee.

As for why the Mariners gave up what seems to be so little for Lee, Dave Cameron at Fangraphs (the one who said that Shapiro got “taken to the cleaners”, or something to that effect, when Lee headed to Philly) tackles the subject:
In the last four months, I’ve written two posts with a similar point – a team traded Cliff Lee and got a mediocre return at best in terms of prospects. First, Cleveland’s Mark Shapiro made the decision to trade Lee to Philadelphia at the deadline for an uninspiring package of players, a decision that looked even more questionable given how well Lee pitched for the Phillies. But now, Ruben Amaro has followed in his footsteps, trading Lee away for a trio of okay-but-not-great prospects.
So, I have to wonder what is going on here? It’s impossible to believe that both Shapiro and Amaro failed to do their homework, trading Lee away without surveying the market and weighing available offers. They obviously are both interested in making the best deals they can, and with a player of Lee’s stature, I have to believe they did significant due diligence before pulling the trigger.
So, our options here are believe that two General Managers are lazy/incompetent and failed to extract the best return possible for their team when trading him, or that the market for Cliff Lee is just not very good. Let’s just agree to reject option A out of hand, as neither Shapiro or Amaro are lazy or stupid. That leaves the second option – that this really was the best both teams could do.
What, then, is wrong with Cliff Lee in the eyes of major league GMs?


Cameron concludes that GM’s are still unsold on Lee because of his rapid rise to greatness (and please remember that Lee allegedly wanted to talk contract extension with the Tribe BEFORE his 2009 season) and while that’s eminently possible, I think the fact that Lee’s made no bones about the fact that he’s chasing every last dollar (limiting his appeal to some teams, looking for more than just a rental) after 2010 excludes a number of teams from entering the conversation. Don’t take that to mean that the exclusion of a number of teams not looking for a one-year-rental at the top of their rotation sheds any more light on the situation, as it would seem that the Phillies (after the Halladay deal) were primed to use Lee as just that, to make another push for October with Halladay, Lee, and Hamels fronting their rotation; but Cameron does not mention that the Phillies strip-mined their farm system to net Lee, then Halladay, in the past two years and could be casting an eye towards their future beyond 2010.

So did the Phillies make this deal to replenish their farm system that has been stripped pretty clean in the past two years, considering that they traded their #2, #3, #4, and #10 prospects going into 2009 (according to Baseball America) for Lee as well as their #5, #6, and #7 prospects going into the 2009 season (again, as per BA) for Halladay? Perhaps, but don’t take that as a cue for the violins for Philadelphia, who have a World Series appearance and four years of Roy Halladay to show for all of their sacrifices (which amounts to 7 of their top 10 prospects going into 2009 as well as giving up their #2 and #4 prospects going into 2008 for Joe Blanton), but their good fortune as to where they sit today has as much to do with Roy Halladay putting his money where his mouth is in terms of contract negotiations (something Lee did not in Philly) as anything else.

It comes back to the question as to whether the Phillies really needed to make the Lee-to-Seattle deal to replenish their farm system as Joe Sheehan states in a fantastic piece (pay content, with the monthly price for access to B-Pro coming below what it costs for four Sunday issues of the PD on your doorstep) that, “the Mariners traded long-term upside, players who would not be in the majors until 2012 at the earliest”, which raises the biggest question in the whole Lee trade.

If the prospects the Phillies received from the M’s aren’t going to be in the Majors until 2012 at the earliest, what’s the rationale in using those high-upside players a LONG way away from MLB as the way to re-stock the farm system, particularly in the context that Philadelphia could have let Lee walk away at the end of 2010 with two draft picks in return, which could really net them the same type of young, high-upside (if untested) players they extracted from Seattle for Lee? The Phillies could have used those 1st Round Picks they would have received had Lee left to acquire players that wouldn’t be much different than Aumont and the others, players with high-ceilings who have the potential to look fantastic in High-A ball.

Regardless, it’s impossible not to bring this back to the Indians’ deal with the Phillies over the summer and to compare some of the players dealt in the three deals (Lee to Philly, Lee to Seattle, and Halladay to Philly), and it remains fascinating to me how most of the analysis regarding the trades focuses on the “promise” and “potential” of players (particularly arms) and are content to rely on names being thrown out there and “ceilings” instead of looking at track records and, even more importantly, ages that go along with those track records.

For instance, the two big arms in the recent Halladay and Lee deals were Kyle Drabek and Phillipe Aumont, two former first round picks, aged 21 (Aumont in January) and 23 (Drabek) a few weeks ago and while everyone drools over the potential of those two, let’s realize that Aumont has thrown a total of 106 2/3 innings in the minors and Drabek has thrown a total of 267 2/3 innings as a professional. What basis is used to label these guys potential impact arms…promise that may just be a result of the lack of exposure to better hitters?

I’m not questioning that Aumont and Drabek look to be talented pitchers, with Adam Miller and Chuck Lofgren in the news this past month (the Indians’ #1 and #2 prospects heading into 2007), let’s remember how much can go wrong between AA or High-A and MLB, particularly with pitchers. What puzzles me is that there seems to be an overemphasis on potential and “what could be” instead of what is actually there and projecting particular players effectively while acknowledging them for what they are.

For instance, to keep this in the Cliff Lee discussion, let’s take a look at the progression of how Carlos Carrasco (who seems to be the most MLB-ready pitcher that the Indians have acquired since…well, Lee) has been perceived as a prospect as he’s racked up 738 2/3 innings in the Minors.

After his first couple of seasons in Rookie ball and on short-season teams, Carrasco spent his first year in the Sally League (the same league as Lake County), posting this line for the Lakewood Blue Claws:
Carlos Carrasco 2006 – Age 19 – Low-A
2.26 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 159 K, 65 BB in 159 1/3 IP

Pretty impressive stuff for a 19-year-old pitching against players much older than him and entering 2007, he was rated as the #41 ranked prospect in all of MLB and put forth this line as a 20-year-old:
Carlos Carrasco 2007 – Age 20 – High-A/AA
3.86 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 102 K, 68 BB in 140 IP

A slight regression for him in terms of a higher WHIP and a lower K-rate from his time in the Sally League; but after posting that line in 2007, he was still ranked as the 54th ranked prospect in all of MLB going into 2008, when he put forth this effort:
Carlos Carrasco 2008 – Age 21 – AA/AAA
3.69 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 155 K, 58 BB in 151 1/3 IP

The K-rate went back up and the ERA and WHIP stayed consistent with Carrasco pitching as a 21-year-old in AA and AAA. As a result, after thriving in 2008 with that cumulative line, he was ranked as the 52nd best prospect in MLB and posted this line last year:
Carlos Carrasco 2009 – Age 22 – AAA
4.64 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 148 K, 45 BB in 157 IP

Carrasco thrived at each level that he’s been placed at and, while his ERA may have seen a bump in 2009 in AAA, his WHIP was actually the lowest it’s been since he was a 19-year-old in the Sally League…the season after which he was rated the 41st best prospect in MLB. Carrasco posted his best K/BB rate in 2009 (3.29) as a minor-leaguer besting the numbers in 2006 (2.45) after which he was the 41st best prospect, in 2007 (1.50) after which he was the 54th best prospect, and 2008 (2.67) after which he was the 52nd best prospect.

So…where did the luster come off and when did Kyle Drabek (he of the 96 1/3 innings pitched above A-ball…and only 5 ½ months younger than Carrasco) become the “ace-in-waiting” and the “untouchable” in the Phillies’ organization, while Carrasco became the disappointment? In Carrasco’s overall body of work, what justifies the opinion that he wasn’t the close-to-MLB-ready starting pitcher that was desired in any Cliff Lee deal? Are we really going to label Carrasco as a “project” and a “potential bust” because of 22 1/3 disastrous innings he threw in MLB as a 22-year-old?

Wouldn’t a little bit of patience be a better avenue to travel?
It may be a difficult road to hoe in this world of instant analysis with every off-season and every trade having “winners” and “losers” immediately, but who’s to say that Carrasco isn’t the exact same top prospect that he’s been since the end of 2006, climbing the minor-league ladder appropriately and putting up the same numbers that he did as a 19-year-old for the Lakewood Blue Claws?

Trust me when I say that by no means is that meant to suggest that Carrasco is the next aCCe (see what I did there) of this team or that Drabek isn’t going to front the Blue Jays’ rotation for the next 6 years while Carrasco attempts to find some level of consistency in the back of the Indians’ rotation. The exercise is meant more to cast a suspicious eye on reading too much into reports or on how one particular publication ranks prospects, when the consensus among MLB Front Offices could run completely counter to those opinions. More than that though, it’s meant to preach some level of patience to the idea that a trade can be properly evaluated so soon after being consummated.

To that end, realize that after the 2004 season, a solid 2 ½ years after Bartolo Colon deal, here is the cumulative production at the MLB level from the prospects (Lee Stevens need not apply), with their ages at the end of 2004 shown, obtained from Montreal:
Cliff Lee – Age 25
17-12, 4.88 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 211 K, 109 BB in 241 2/3 IP over 44 MLB starts

Brandon Phillips – Age 23
.210 BA / .251 OBP / .317 SLG / .567 OPS with 6 HR in 423 AB over 129 MLB games

Grady Sizemore – Age 21
.246 BA / .333 OBP / .406 SLG / .739 OPS with 4 HR in 138 AB over 43 MLB games

Thirty months after the deal, the Indians had a talented LHP who was still adjusting to MLB, a young middle infielder who was not making much of a transition to MLB, and a very young OF who had just made his appearance with the parent club. To put that in terms of evaluation, thirty months after the Lee deal will be AFTER the 2011 season. If that seems like a long way away, it is…and that period of time should reveal what type of pitcher Carrasco is, whether a 23-YEAR-OLD Lou Marson is just a suitable back-up catcher or more (or even trade bait), whether Jason Donald is a legitimate starting 2B or just a Utility IF, and whether Jason Knapp’s arm troubles cause him to go the way of Adam Miller.

But the majority of those questions figure to be answered by the time that 2012 starts and, if you remember what Joe Sheehan wrote about the prospects that the Phillies received from the Mariners, that they “would not be in the majors until 2012 at the earliest”, it becomes a question of timing.

Is the better strategy to receive players whose warts may be a little more on display but are closer to legitimately contributing at some level in MLB, or load up on high-ceiling prospects who have yet to be exposed or challenged in AA, with the keywords of “promise” and “potential” carrying the day?

Time will ultimately tell if the better strategy in trading Lee was to take the apparent bird in the hand of close-to-MLB ready players (not that Carrasco, Marson, or Donald are any locks to become everyday MLB players) or two in the bush with younger, high-ceiling players (as, most notably, Aumont does seem to have the talent to help the Philadelphia bullpen) was the more judicious path to take. Regardless, both paths were taken and the names are now out there so they can always be compared in terms of return for Cliff Lee.

Finally, in a programming note, I will appear on Monday’s episode of “More Sports and Les Levine” with Scott Sargent and Rick Grayshock of Waiting for Next Year as we discuss the past year in Cleveland sports with Les, as well as what 2010 may hold. So, if you want to see what a frazzled, soon-to-be-father-of-2 (badly in need of a haircut) looks like in the holiday season, espousing thoughts on the Indians (while faking it on the Browns and Cavs questions), the show airs at 6 PM on NEON (that’s 23 on Time Warner Cable…at least my Time Warner Cable) and re-airs at 11:00 PM.
Set those DVR’s…now.

With the week ahead likely precluding any posts until next Sunday, let me take the opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays to you and all of your families.

8 comments:

Jon said...

It is this type of level-headed examination and reason that keeps me consistently coming back to this site. After reading the comments (don't ask me why I keep doing it) on cleveland.com or Castroturf or the Indians Facebook page, I wonder if any Indians fans have a brain in their heads. (As a sidebar, I live in Detroit and it's no better here.) But the DiaTribe and Let's Go Tribe (mostly) remind me that there are intelligent Tribe fans out there.

While the Lee deal didn't have the sizzle of the CC trade, your analysis and comparison to the Colon trade a few years ago gives us plenty of ammunition to argue with the morons and enough hope that Shapiro isn't the simple-headed dunce that so many seem to think he is.

Despite low expectations for the 2010 season, I'm still excited to watch LaPorta, Asdrubal and Brantley develop and hope that Jake and Pronk can come back.

Keep up the great work!

Baltimoran said...

good luck in the studio and the delivery room...i'm trying to have my mom record the les levine show, is it shown on the dish network?

Paul Cousineau said...

Jon,
Thanks, I appreciate that...particularly in an off-season as slow as this one.

'moran,
I'm pretty sure that since it is a Time Warner station that it's only carried on Time Warner and isn't available on the Dish.

R.M. Jennings said...

Mitch Talbot. Hooray.

Jacob said...

I've always enjoyed the blog myself. Always excellent analysis. I've been reading for a few years now, but I think this is the first time I've actually commented.

However, to Jon, as a guy who comments on CastroTurf, I'm afraid I resent your comment. Sorry to disappoint.

sptguy1969 said...

Paul,
I read this blog from time to time and do enjoy your various takes on certain issues. I don't comment much but after reading the breakdown on the various returns for Lee this past year, I wanted to just point something out that I felt warranted mentioning.

Your breakdown by the numbers on Carrasco was very interesting and certainly should indicate to most level headed individuals that he possesses the talent to be a viable starting pitcher in the majors. But while those are the tangible things one can touch on for why Carrasco was highly regarded (and should still be), could it be that he's lacking in areas that stats can't measure, and thus that's why he's recently been looked at in a different light by some talent evaluators. Perhaps he hasn't demonstrated an ability to pitch effectively when he doesn't have his best stuff. Maybe he's susceptible to falling in love with his offspeed pitches, or he stubbornly tries to overpower hitters who are sitting on his fastball. Maybe he doesn't take to coaching well, doesn't make in-game adjustments, or starts to pout and become moody when he's not getting calls from the plate umpire. Perhaps he's not viewed as being mentally tough.

Conversly, maybe one reason Kyle Drabek is held in such high esteem is because he excels in some of these areas. Lord knows, at just around 6-foot, it's got to be something because he's not blowing scouts away because he's got the ideal "pitcher's build."

I know stats can break down most everything in baseball (and trust me, I believe in their use and use them myself in many facets of evaluating baseball) but sometimes one can't depend on stats exclusively without at least considering the intangible elements that may be in play in talent evaluation.

Take care and happy holidays

Paul Cousineau said...

sptguy1969,
I can appreciate the fact that those things about Carrasco’s tendencies or shortcomings may be true, just as what you say about Drabek may be just as valid. The point of the exercise is that at the beginning of the 2009 season, Carrasco was the Phillies’ #1 prospect in Baseball Prospectus (and their only 5-star prospect) while B-Pro rated Drabek the #3 prospect (4-stars) and Carrasco was ranked the Phillies #2 prospect coming into the season by Baseball America while Drabek was #5.

Given that the Halladay talk started in mid-July, which is when Drabek became the hot name, does that mean that feelings on those two changed THAT MUCH from mid-April to mid-July to Drabek being the “untouchable” based on 3 months of AA pitching while CarCar became the “disappointment” based on those same 3 months.

Obviously statistics don’t tell the whole story, but I have trouble believing that everything that had made Carrasco a Top 50 prospect for 3 straight years, at every level, simply left him in a 3-month stretch in AAA. Maybe it did and maybe Drabek was THAT much more impressive to start out the 2009 season, but the prospect rankings are there for both prior to 2009 and Carrasco was ALWAYS seen as the better prospect.

What bothers me is that everyone grew enamored with Drabek because that’s who Toronto wanted and the word “untouchable” became associated with him, while Carrasco (seemingly because of a rough start in 2009) became this arm that the Indians “settled” for because they couldn’t get Drabek.

Again, what you say may be completely valid, but the fact that Drabek is only 5 ½ months younger and has yet to be fully exposed even against AAA pitching (which Carrasco has) doesn’t make me feel that he’s head-and-shoulders above Carrasco as a prospect, intangibles considered.

Jay said...

Great piece, lots of interesting nuggets in there.

One small nit to pick, and I think Phillies fans have missed this, too. I don't think it really adds up to somehow equate Type A draft picks with prospects who will be knocking on the door of the majors around 2012. Cliff Lee pitches the 2010 season, departs, compensation picks are drafted in June 2011, signed in August, don't even play a full pro season until 2012. So the timeline on these players is not really all that similar. One group will be nearing the majors in 2012, while the other will be just starting their pro careers.

I also think part of the nuance being missed in Philly is that you don't only restock the farm system to provide future big-leaguers -- far future -- but also to provide more trade fodder in the NEAR future. Amaro is smart enough to know that you spend the first two months of the season figuring out what you need, the next two months acquiring what you need, and the last two months playing it out. With some the best Phillies prospects going out the door over the last five months, who exactly are the Phillies supposed to trade in July, when one need or another inevitably arises on the roster?

In short, it is inconceivable that Amaro is thinking mostly about having young blood to contend in 2012-2013, which is beyond the contractual and peak windows of Howard, Utley, Rollins, etc. He's thinking about having quality prospects to trade for major leaguers in 2010 and 2011, which is their clear window of opportunity.

One other thing. I suspect other GMs are more concerned about Cliff's durability than his signability. I think he was quite signable, but in a bandbox like Philly has, taking Halladay for three years instead of Cliff for four is a no-brainer.