One of the most valuable assets a club can hold is a young, established major league starting pitcher without impeding free agency. Everybody wants pitching, but especially when it's young, cheap, proven and under contractual control. So why did teams willingly trade such assets this winter in numbers we haven't seen in years? And among the five young starters teams dared to move, might we see the next Pedro Martinez -- or the next Dontrelle Willis?
Former manager Lou Piniella once had a great line about John Schuerholz, the former GM who built a powerhouse in Atlanta on the strength of pitching. "If you're ever in a room with John Schuerholz and he starts talking to you about trading one of his young pitchers," Piniella said, "there's only one thing to do: run." The inference was that Schuerholz knew the value of pitching too well to offer you anything of substance.
What happened this winter was an oddity when it comes to giving up young pitchers. Last season there were 19 pitchers age 25-and-under who made 28 starts in the big leagues. Five of them have been traded: Trevor Cahill (Oakland to Arizona), Gio Gonzalez (Oakland to Washington), Mat Latos (San Diego to Cincinnati), Chris Volstad (Miami to the Chicago Cubs) and Michael Pineda (Seattle to the New York Yankees).
To get a sense of the rarity of that many young pitchers traded in one winter, take a look at the list below. It shows on a year-by-basis for the past decade how many 25-and-under pitchers made at least 28 starts and how many of those were traded immediately after that season:
So after nine seasons in which teams traded a young rotation regular only seven times out of 185 possible pitchers (3.8 percent), they did so five out of 19 times this winter (26.3 percent). What's up with that? Certainly Oakland, which moved Cahill and Gonzalez, may be considered an anomalous influence as the Athletics crawl inside their financial shell until they find their way to San Jose. But as one long-time NL evaluator said, "I like Gonzalez, but all the other guys I look at and say there's a reason why they were available. Their own teams know them better than anybody else, and it does make you wonder what they know."
Trading young big league starters is rare and can be risky. Martinez won 209 games after the Dodgers traded him to the Expos in 1993. On the other hand, Willis has won only four games since the Marlins traded him four seasons ago.
Martinez, Curt Schilling and Nolan Ryan all were traded after they reached the big leagues and before age 25. But Martinez (three starts at age 21) and Schilling (five starts at ages 23 and 24 upon two trades) were not truly established starters; indeed, their clubs generally defined them as bullpen pieces because they questioned whether they could succeed as full-time starters. Ryan did make 74 starts for the Mets before they traded him to the Angels after his age 24 season. All he did after the trade was win 295 games.
Let's make the safe assumption that we don't have another Ryan among the five young starters traded this winter. But do we have another Max Scherzer, a guy who can start Game 2 of a postseason series? With the help of the evaluator, I will rank the five 25-and-under traded starters according to their impact right now. Mind you, I would take 25-year-old Yu Darvish over all of them. Expect Darvish, signed as a free agent out of Nippon Pro Baseball by the Rangers, to be a star very quickly.
1. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals. Gonzalez, who turned 26 in September, has been traded four times within six years, led the AL in walks last year and has a 4.32 ERA outside of the cavernous Coliseum in Oakland. But Gonzalez is lefthanded and for two straight years has won at least 15 games with an ERA below 3.30. Do you know how many pitchers also can say that? Only one: CC Sabathia.
On base stats, Gonzalez (38-32, 3.93, 8.6 strikeouts per nine in 95 games) looks a lot like the Tigers' Scherzer (36-35, 3.92, 8.7 strikeouts per nine in 96 games), and who should be helped by moving to the National League and pitching for a competitive team.
"He has great durability, he's lefthanded and I believe he's only started to tap his potential," the evaluator said. "Walks will always be a part of his game, but he's a guy you can rely on to give you 200 innings and make 32 starts. I'm not sure I can say it as strongly about the other [four] guys. And this will be the best team he's had behind him. I think that will help him."
2. Mat Latos, Reds. One of the reasons Arizona traded Scherzer to Detroit after the '09 season was that they believed Edwin Jackson was a better bet to withstand the grind of making 32 starts than Scherzer. Similar doubts could plague Latos, who has been pitching in the pros for five years and accumulated only 614 1/3 innings. He began last season with shoulder bursitis after what I found to be an aggressive jump in innings in the previous season. His velocity has dipped slightly the past two seasons.
The good news for Latos is that he pitched well in the second half of the season (2.87) and he is a four-pitch pitcher, not just a velocity guy, with a big frame (6-foot-6, 225 pounds) who doesn't turn 25 until December. Said the evaluator, "I like Latos. I don't know if he's quite there just yet. People questioned his makeup in the past -- like another A.J. Burnett -- but he could be ready to turn the corner."
3. Michael Pineda, Yankees. Pineda garnered the most hype from among the five young starters traded, but that's understandable because it involved the Yankees and a 6-foot-7 pitcher who throws in the upper 90s -- well, at least until he wore down at the end of his first full season. Pineda was tossing around 90-91 mph in his last start. Pineda-for-Jesus Montero is a bit reminiscent of Martinez-for-Delino DeShields: giving up a young power arm with durability questions to add offense. Martinez sure proved the Dodgers wrong.
If the Mariners believed Pineda could pitch at the front of a rotation, they would have been better off trading Felix Hernandez, who has three seasons left before free agency, for four major pieces (say, Montero and three of the Yankees' other top young players). For three years of Hernandez you get five more years of Pineda plus six years of four major-league ready players.
But if you don't think Pineda can pitch at the front of a rotation, you're better off playing it out with King Felix. And Pineda is not a sure thing. He has an injury history (elbow and forearm stiffness, 2009), his mechanics are spotty (I'm not a big fan of pitchers reaching well behind the rubber with the baseball before getting to a loaded position), he still needs an effective off-speed pitch against lefthanders, and, at 260 pounds at age 23, he has added 70 pounds in five years.
"When I see a guy traded before the contract becomes an issue it makes me think they know something we don't know," the evaluator said. "That's what this trade makes me think. I think work ethic has been a question, but I think being in New York around guys like Sabathia and [Mariano] Rivera and some of the other influences in that clubhouse will be good for him. He can definitely help them win."
4. Trevor Cahill, Diamondbacks. Cahill regressed last season after his breakout year in 2010, which might be expected from a guy who pitches to contact. He was especially poor in the second half (4-7, 5.80) and has not pitched well in his career outside of Oakland's big ballpark (4.71 ERA). A poor man's version of Brandon Webb, Cahill's sinker should help in the transition to Chase Field as his home ballpark. Arizona must hope he doesn't break down the way Webb did. Cahill did have a rotator cuff strain when he was drafted and is dangerously close to a "late load" in his delivery (the ball is not at apex upon front foot strike).
"There's some concern about him holding up at a high level, even though he's been durable so far," the evaluator said.
5. Chris Volstad, Cubs. Back in 2005 and The Greatest Draft Ever, the Marlins took this high school righthander at number 16, with Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Colby Ramus and Clay Buchholz still on the board. Volstad was the first high school pitcher picked that year. He reached the majors at 21 and was given 102 major league starts before the Marlins finally gave up on him, essentially replacing him with Carlos Zambrano. Since 2008, there have been 31 pitchers who made at least 100 starts in the NL. Volstad's ERA of 4.59 is the fourth worst, trailing only those of Kevin Correia (4.88), Zach Duke (4.80) and Livan Hernandez (4.71).
Volstad has shown little improvement, but the good news is that he's 6-foot-8 and still only 25 years old, so the Cubs do have hope that he blooms late, as sometimes happens with tall pitchers. "Worth a shot for the Cubs, but I don't think he's the kind of guy who comes back to haunt you after a trade," the evaluator said.