How can a three-team trade involving two of the five best pitchers in baseball leave so many questions about who won and who lost? It's a mystery, but Philadelphia, Seattle and Toronto managed it this week in the most convoluted and entertaining trade of the decade.
Philadelphia traded several good prospects to Toronto for Roy Halladay, baseball's preeminent ace, whom they signed to a new contract. But then they traded resident ace Cliff Lee to Seattle for several much less impressive prospects. The Philliles are better in that they will have Halladay for the whole year to replace two months' worth of tremendous pitching from Lee. Yet they are can't be considered winners when they traded Lee for little in return. Considering too that he has a $9 million contract for this year and that the Blue Jays sent $6 million along with Halladay and that the club is coming off two straight National League pennants with their attendant revenues, it's hard to think something couldn't have been worked out to keep Lee. At worst they could have held out for a better offer. When you trade off an ace for nearly nothing, you lose the deal.
Toronto isn't a better team for the trade. In exchange for Halladay, they received pitcher Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis d'Arnaud and outfielder Michael Taylor (whom they traded to Oakland for third baseman Brett Wallace). That's a respectable return for the second-best pitcher in team history, but odds are that only one of their new young players will ever do anything really impressive in the majors, and Halladay is irreplaceable.
Seattle is better for the trade, but not as much as one might think. Compared to where they were before they dealt for Lee, they're a vastly more impressive team; compared to 2009, they really aren't. After all, the Mariners got 216 innings and a 2.71 earned run average from departed starters Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn this year. That's about they can expect out of Lee. Like their recent signing of Chone Figgins to replace Adrian Beltre, this deal keeps them from losing ground, but doesn't help them make any up.
The real winner is Jack Zduriencik, Seattle's general manager. Coming off a brilliant run in Milwaukee, whereas scouting director he built the farm system that brought that town its first playoffs in a quarter century, he's turned a depressingly lousy team into one of the more dangerous in just a year. His shrewd appraisal of defense and fine eye for talent ranging from managers to center fielders is earning a reputation as an operator to rate with any in the game, and he deserves it.
One way a good reputation is useful is in discouraging questions and doubts. Boston general manager Theo Epstein, for example, is generally considered especially smart, and so his moves are usually thought of as especially good, even when they aren't. (Of course, they often are.)
The Red Sox signed starter John Lackey for five years and $82.5 million this week, and outfielder Mike Cameron for two years and $15.5 million. The second is the kind that earned Epstein his reputation. The first, though, is mainly gloss.
Lackey is very good, but not great. He doesn't have great velocity, or great control, or one great pitch that keeps hitters from getting the ball in the air, or any one thing about his game that seems likely to hold up well against the slow wear of age. Whether or not Boston's medical staff is concerned about it, he's averaged just 170 innings the past two years, and his strikeout rate has dropped four years running. Lackey is 31, and recent pitchers with similar workloads, adjusted ERAs and strikeout rates through age 30 include Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, Freddy Garcia and Wilson Alvarez.
There are lots of justifications for the move, the most compelling two being that Boston has lots of money and plays in such a tough division that they can get more return on a dollar spent improving their club than anyone else can. Also, his flaws are priced into the contract: He may be a high-end number two starter and not an ace, but going by the precedent of A.J. Burnett, who signed the same contract last year with the Yankees, that's how he's being paid. Still, there is a lot to be wary of with Lackey, and one would expect a team that generally declines to sign five-year contracts to be a lot warier.
The Cameron deal is much better, and not just because so much less money is involved. One of the least appreciated players of his generation, Cameron is good for 60 hits and 70 walks every year, which more than makes up for a poor batting average. Add in good outfield play -- according to UZR and John Dewan's Plus/Minus, the best of the fancy defensive statistics, he's averaged five runs saved over the last three years -- and he is to seemingly departed left fielder Jason Bay what Bay was to Manny Ramirez: more a thrifty man's version than a poor man's.
As with Lackey there are reasons for concern: Cameron is about to turn 37, and the list of regulars who have stayed productive at that age with anything near his strikeout rate is extremely short. You shouldn't be surprised if the team is shopping for an outfielder in June. Despite that, this is the kind of shrewd signing that allows the Red Sox to take the occasional calculated risk with a player like Lackey.
There were lots of less-glamorous moves this week. The one I hated most was the Dodgers shipping Juan Pierre to the Chicago White Sox. It's not that this is indefensible -- Pierre is a moderately useful fourth outfielder who will be paid as such, and it's not his fault that he'll be asked to start. The problem here is that it's the cap on a series of sadly uninspired moves from usually creative White Sox general manager Ken Williams. Granted, he's laboring under money constraints but hauling in the decrepit likes of Pierre, Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel shows an uncharacteristic lack of imagination. So did trading off Chris Getz and Josh Fields for Mark Teahen, a more expensive model off the same line of possibly passable players. Outfielders like Austin Kearns and Coco Crisp (or others like them, if these two have bad medicals or what have you) are available for even less than Pierre and are quite likely to outplay him.
As a straight baseball move, this wasn't nearly as bad as Kansas City's inexplicable signing of 35-year-old journeyman catcher Jason Kendall.Then again, they'rethe Royals ... this is what they do. They pay too much for terrible players like relief pitcher Kyle Farnsworth and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and are then mystified when their team is terrible. Second, the signing provoked some highly entertaining spluttering from people like Joe Posnanski and Rany Jazayerli. May the Royals never beat it out of them.
If those two moves were bad from the team's perspective, the oddest one from the player's end had to be Rich Harden's recent move to Texas. There's only one place an oft-injured ace trying to establish his value and make a $50 million score should want to be less: Dr. James Andrews' office in Birmingham, Al.
Along with the bad comes the good. The best move not involving Cliff Lee has been the Yankees' trade for Curtis Granderson. Any criticism of him is nonsense; the decline in his topline statistics over the last few years is wholly the result of his being asked to face a lot more left-handers, whom he seems to be unable to hit. Since 2006 his OPS against right-handers has gone from .805 to 1.014 to .900 to .897, perfectly normal variation around a stable talent level. With his gifts on the bases and in the field, he's basically a healthier version of Carlos Beltran. That's a hell of a player to have locked up for four years for just a few million more in total than Beltran will be making this year alone.
The Yankees' possible signing of Nick Johnson sounds similarly inspired. When healthy he's one of the best hitters in baseball, with the ninth-best on base average among active players, and the Yankees have enough offense not to miss him when he's hurt. He's a great player, and in an ideal world he'd settle in at DH with the team that drafted him and play 140 games a year for a decade.
While of far lower profile, another team in the American League East made a nice move this week when Baltimore signed closer Mike Gonzalez for two years and $12 million. A good closer may seem like the last thing a team as lame as the Orioles should fret over, but they're gearing up for a run in 2011 or 2012. While it's not quantifiable, there's probably some actual value for their young players in having a decent pitcher who won't blow the games they've played well in. Morale isn't nothing.
Having mentioned Coco Crisp above, it's probably worth noting that some team is going to get a real bargain with him, assuming that he's something near his usual self after undergoing double shoulder surgery this year. (His agent, Steve Comte, says he'll be ready for spring training.) Crisp is a spectacular defender, one of the best outfielders in the game, and his running is good for 20 or more bases a year. Together with essentially average hitting, he's worth three to four wins more than a Quadruple-A scrub when healthy. That's in the range of what Jason Bay has done the last two years, at least if you're inclined toward a pessimistic read of his defensive statistics. (I'm not, for what it's worth; Fenway Park makes left fielders look worse than they are.) If your team signs this guy, you can be quietly happy about it.
That may not be true of Bay, who looks likely to provide an illustration of what is meant by the phrase "winner's curse." Not many players who strike out 27 percent of the time, as Bay does, age well. Those who do tend to either be exceptionally athletic or have even more power than he does.
With Hall of Fame ballots coming in, here's something to keep in mind about the great Tim Raines: He's one of 10 players to have reached base 3,500 times, racked up 3,500 total bases and stolen 500 bases since 1901. (Raines' totals are 3,977, 3,771 and 808, so these aren't standards cherry picked to make him look good.) The others are Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, Lou Brock and Max Carey.
You don't make a list like this by accident. Raines is overqualified for Cooperstown.