July 28, 2008

In the biggest trade of this past weekend, the Yankees and Pirates made a six-player swap, with New York getting left fielder Xavier Nady and lefty reliever Damaso Marte in exchange for outfielder Jose Tabata and right-handers Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Dan McCutchen.

Actually, in order of importance, the Yankees got Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady. In what has been a surprisingly effective bullpen, the lack of a remotely competent left-hander has been something of a weakness. When you consider the number of games the Yankees play in a division with David Ortiz and J.D. Drew, with Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, with Nick Markakis and Matt Stairs, having a quality left-handed reliever approaches necessity. The 33-year-old Marte, a Yankees farmhand seven years ago, has been very good in the specialist role, and is competent enough against right-handers to throw complete innings if needed.

Marte's return may actually put an end to an era in which the Yankees struggled to find effective lefty relievers, one that coincided with New York's trading of Marte. Since being dealt by the Yankees to Pittsburgh in 2001 -- for Enrique Wilson -- Marte has gone on to post a 3.05 ERA in 445 2/3 innings. In that time the Yankees have muddled through with a host of veterans, none of whom has been consistently effective. Felix Heredia, anyone? Buddy Groom? Gabe White? It is possible to have a good bullpen with no left-hander -- the 2004 Angels won the AL West with two innings of left-handed relief all season -- but having a good lefty increases a club's tactical options. Marte is a good one, and a significant piece for the Yankees.

Nady, 29, is more famous but less important. He has established himself as a slightly above-average hitter, a .270 EqA guy who plays acceptable defense in the outfield corners. He's not the .380/.530 guy his current stat line shows; he's having a typical Xavier Nady season with 50 points of batting average randomly dropped in. Remember Gary Matthews Jr. in 2006? That's Nady this year. Even the established-value Nady, however, is an upgrade for a Yankees team that misses Hideki Matsui. Brett Gardner and Justin Christian have combined to bat .188/.267/.263, albeit with 8-for-9 on the bases and some pretty good defense. Nady is about a win better than that, maybe a little more, for the rest of the season. If you estimate Marte's value as about a win -- it's hard to pin down because his value is leverage-affected -- this is a two-win upgrade for the Yankees.

For the Pirates, the key to the deal is a very big bet on Tabata. The 19-year-old has been a disaster at Double-A this season, playing poorly (.248, 3 HRs in 79 games), getting injured and inspiring considerable doubt about his attitude and makeup. While 2008 is a lost year for Tabata, he represents the type of talent that the Pirates have generally had problems getting into the system: young, high upside with superstar potential and some risk involved. It's not clear what he's going to become, but what he could become is more impressive than any other Pirates prospect's ceiling. This is the type of deal that Neal Huntington needed to make. Considering that he flipped an impending free agent (Marte) and a player having a career half, this is a very good deal for the Pirates' first-year general manager.

This is an indelicate comparison, but if you want the optimistic viewpoint, think about Hanley Ramirez, who put up a desultory 2005 season in Double-A, creating whispers similar to what we've heard about Tabata. Three years later, Ramirez is as close to untouchable as any player in the game. That's the kind of talent Huntington is trying to add to Pittsburgh's system, and if the name and the performance aren't thrilling to Pirates fans, the thought process and the approach should be.

Of the rest of the package, Karstens, 25, is a fringe major leaguer who could help patch a decimated rotation. He's probably better than John Van Benschoten. Ohlendorf, who turns 26 next week, is a bit better than Karstens and may have a bit of development left. He could be a low-impact starter in the NL. McCutchen is very polished, and Kevin Goldstein reported that he has "above-average command of an average-velocity fastball and outstanding curve." Like the other pitchers in this deal, McCutchen is older, at 25, and could upgrade the poor Pirates' staff pretty soon. Perhaps low on upside, but with a good chance of providing a dozen WARP for less than $2 million from now until 2011.


Across the country, the Dodgers were also adding a right-handed bat, trading two prospects to the Indians for Casey Blake. Although Blake, who turns 35 next month, was desired for his experience and perceived leadership qualities, his bat is adequate, a .270/.340/.440 hitter who can play all four corners and is actually a pretty good third baseman. Trading for Blake isn't a problem in and of itself, but the Dodgers have both paid too much talent for his services and are using him to block a comparable, perhaps even better, player.

First, the price: Power right-hander Jonathan Meloan, whose 5-10 record and 4.97 ERA at Triple-A Las Vegas are less reflective of his talent than they are of the context in which he's pitching, is half the package. Meloan, 24, is about ready to be a middle man in the majors, and his upside is that of a high-leverage, high-strikeout reliever. The other prospect, Carlos Santana, is a catcher who is a little old for the Florida State League (22), but he has hit very well this year and has earned good grades for his defense. These prospects haven't gotten the play that Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and the rest of the Dodgers' youth has gotten, but they're also very talented and can't be treated as free resources. Trading two prospects of this caliber for 200 at-bats of Casey Blake is a ridiculous waste.

Moreover, Blake is reportedly slotted to take time from 24-year-old Andy LaRoche, who is almost certainly as good Blake, and has upside that Blake doesn't have. The Dodgers could improve their situation by playing Blake in the outfield in lieu of Andruw Jones and/or Juan Pierre, as those two are among the worst players in baseball in 2008, and Blake isn't. Playing Blake, or if you prefer, those two outfielders ahead of LaRoche, is actively hurting your team's chances of winning. This is nothing new for the Dodgers, who have come to value experience over performance, but it is a sight to behold.

This is a great package for Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro. It's actually a better package, relative to what he gave away, than the Matt LaPorta-plus one that he received for CC Sabathia. Meloan will probably be a big part of the Indians' 2009 bullpen, and Santana could be Victor Martinez's replacement two or three years down the road, and at the least will be a solid major league backup catcher.

Shapiro made one other shrewd move on Saturday, adding Anthony Reyes from the Cardinals for a Double-A arm. Reyes, 26, never fit in with St. Louis, so it's hard to tease out how much of his failure to develop was situation versus being about him. In Cleveland, he should have the opportunity to be the above-average starter that he looked set to become three years ago, although the Indians will use him at Triple-A at first; the chance to take one last, long, lingering glance at Matt Ginter is a bit too tempting to pass up.

This is going to be a very big deadline. With the top names largely already out of the way, teams are being aggressive about filling their needs with what's available. Look for a dozen deals, maybe more, before the bell rings on Thursday afternoon.

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