Hit and Run: Making sense of Dodgers' Uribe deal; Cueto gets good news
1. The Uribe head-scratcher
The on/off nature of the six-player trade between the Dodgers and Braves centering around Juan Uribe and Alberto Callaspo was less interesting than the scramble to find any solid rationale for a deal that sent one of the game's best defenders away in exchange for replacement-level flotsam. The full trade sends Uribe and reliever Chris Withrow to Atlanta in exchange for Callaspo, swingman (and ex-Dodger) Eric Stults and relievers Juan Jaime and Ian Thomas.
The 36-year-old Uribe is off to a slow start this year, batting just .247/.287/.309 through 87 plate appearances, but just last year, he hit .311/.337/.440 with nine homers and 17 Defensive Runs Saved en route to 4.0 Wins Above Replacement. In 2013, he hit .278/.331/.438 with 12 homers, +15 DRS and 4.0 WAR, numbers that don't include his Division Series-clinching home run against the Braves, arguably the biggest hit in franchise history since Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series homer. That performance salvaged a disastrous three-year, $21 million deal whose first two years saw Uribe slip to -0.4 WAR, as the Dodgers re-signed him to a two-year, $13 million deal that's paying him $6.5 million this year.
In addition to Uribe's strong performances, the portly, cigar-chomping fashion plate emerged as an iconic clubhouse leader capable of easing the transitions to the majors of players as disparate as Hyun-jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig. In the wake of the trade, former ESPN reporter Molly Knight, author of a forthcoming book about the inner workings of the Dodgers called The Best Team Money Can Buy, said via Twitter:
Juan Uribe is the only player I've ever seen befriend players of every age, race, position, skill level. The most popular teammate anywhere.— Molly Knight (@molly_knight) May 27, 2015
Despite Uribe's popularity and the strength of his recent track record—which included a 13-game hitting streak from mid-April to early May as he rebounded from a minor hamstring injury—he had lost playing time to the torrid Justin Turner (.287/.374/.529 with five homers in 99 PA) and Alex Guerrero (.313/.348 /.687 with eight homers in 89 PA) as manager Don Mattingly has gone with the hot hand. Guerrero, a Cuban defector whose four-year, $28 million contract allows him to become a free agency at season's end if he's traded, has seen more time in leftfield during Carl Crawford's stint on the disabled list, which prevented Uribe from getting lost entirely, but the Dodgers' options at the hot corner are multiplying.
Fellow Cuban defector Hector Olivera's six-year, $62.5 million deal is now official, and he doesn't need Tommy John surgery, an issue that scared away some teams. Though primarily a second baseman, Olivera is also capable at third. He's currently working out at Camelback Ranch and could begin a minor league stint soon. Meanwhile, top prospect Corey Seager, a shortstop, has played eight games at third base split between Double A Tulsa and Triple A Oklahoma City. After hitting a combined .355/.390/.583 in 247 PA at two Double A stops over the past two seasons, Seager was promoted to Triple A at the start of May and is heating up, with two doubles and two homers among his six hits over the past two games, lifting his line to .280/.323/.409 in 89 PA.
Even with so many options, the timing of the move is curious. Neither Olivera nor Seager is ready for the majors, and there's no immediate need for them, nor are the Dodgers suddenly looking to shed salary while committed to an MLB-record payroll above $270 million. The 32-year-old Callaspo, making $3 million on a one-year deal, may be in the trade only to help offset Uribe's remaining salary and could soon be designated for assignment. For the Braves, he's played third base extensively in the absence of Chris Johnson, who's been out since the end of April due to a hand fracture and is due back this week. Callaspo is hitting just .206/.293/.252 through 123 PA after a dreadful .223/.290/.290 in 451 PA for the Athletics last year en route to -1.1 WAR. Because he was signed as a free agent this past winter, he had to agree to waive a rule that doesn't allow such players to be traded before June 15. His waffling was the holdup, as he was said to have declined the trade on Tuesday morning, only to accept it later in the day.
If Callaspo is just ballast, the question is what the bounty in this deal is. Stults, who was drafted by the Dodgers in 2002 and spent parts of '06 to '09 with the big club, is a 35-year-old lefty who's been torched for a 5.85 ERA, 5.35 FIP and 1.9 homers per nine in 47 2/3 innings over eight starts and a curiously-timed relief appearance against his once and former team on Tuesday night. In parts of nine seasons, he owns a 4.24 ERA, 87 ERA+ and 5.7 strikeouts-per-nine ratio over 683 1/3 innings.
With Ryu and Brandon McCarthy both gone, the Dodgers are in need of rotation help, but Stults hasn't been above replacement level since '13, when he delivered a career-high 203 2/3 innings of 3.93 ERA ball (87 ERA+) for the Padres. There's nothing he gives the Dodgers that prospects Joe Wieland and Zach Lee or retreads Scott Baker and David Huff, all currently stashed in Oklahoma City, couldn't out of the fifth spot in the rotation. Then again, Stults's $2 million salary may also be in the deal just as a counterbalance, and he could be back on the waiver pile soon enough.
That leaves Thomas, a 28-year-old lefty with all of 16 major league innings under his belt, and Jaime, a 27-year-old righty with 13 2/3 big league innings. A non-drafted free agent who spent 2009–12 in the independent leagues before catching on with the Braves, Thomas is a lefty specialist with a fastball in the 89–91 miles-per-hour range among his four offerings. He lost much of last year to shoulder tendinitis; in 136 2/3 innings at Double and Triple A since the start of '13, he's delivered a 2.63 ERA with 10.7 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine. That's promising, but with J.P. Howell, Paco Rodriguez and Adam Liberatore all pitching well for the big club, the Dodgers don't lack for lefty relievers.
As for Jaime—whose arm issues during his minor league career include Tommy John surgery five years ago—he can pump his fastball into the 94–96 mph range, albeit with unclear destination, as his 8.5 walks-per-nine ratio in 44 2/3 innings of Triple A work suggests; his best secondary offering is a changeup that grades out as average. Maybe the Dodgers can straighten him out, but hard throwers who lack control and secondary stuff are a dime a dozen, and in Withrow, a 26-year-old former first-round pick who’s currently recovering from June 2014 Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers had a better option in-house. In 56 innings split between '13 and '14, Withrow whiffed 11.4 per nine and walked 5.0 en route to a 2.73 ERA and 3.65 FIP, though that walk rate is inflated by his struggles in his final few outings before his UCL tear was discovered.
The upside is clear for the Braves, who not only have a live arm for their bullpen but an upgrade at third base, one who could be flipped to another contender later this summer. The Mets, who will be without David Wright for the foreseeable future, and the Giants, who recently sent down Casey McGehee, make sense. Uribe spent 2009–10 with the Giants and was a key part of their championship run in the latter year, producing a series-clinching homer in the NLCS against the Phillies.
For the Dodgers, they’ve traded away their best infield defender and a possible second-half bullpen arm in a deal that just doesn’t make sense. For the sake of saving perhaps one or two million dollars — depending upon who’s DFA’d and subsequently employed elsewhere, with their new team paying the prorated minimum salary — they’ve created room for other options down the road, but they may well have done better by dealing Uribe to a contender once Olivera was ready.
2. What's next for Cueto?
The Reds breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday when an MRI on Johnny Cueto's elbow revealed no structural damage. That clean bill of health has less to do with the team's slim 2015 chances and more to do with the likelihood that the 29-year-old righty, who is in the final year of his contract and in line for a nine-figure deal, will be one of the top players available at the July 31 trade deadline.
Cueto, who last pitched on May 19 against the Royals, was scratched from Sunday's start against the Indians due to stiffness in his elbow, with Raisel Iglesias taking his turn. While he's free of any tear, he's dealing with some amount of inflammation. If he doesn’t experience further issues after playing catch on Wednesday, he could throw a bullpen session on Friday and start on Sunday against the Nationals. If he can't make that turn, the likelihood is that the team would place him on the disabled list with a stint backdated to May 20.
Cueto is coming off the best year of his career, a Cy Young-caliber season in which he went 20–9 with a 2.25 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine and led the league in starts (34), innings (243 2/3), strikeouts (242) and fewest hits per nine (6.2). He hasn't been quite that stingy this year, with a 3.03 ERA and 8.3 strikeouts per nine, but his 3.33 FIP is a dead ringer for last year's 3.30, with a lower walk rate offsetting a slightly higher home run rate.
Cueto has been the best starter on team that's 19–26 after a walk-off win against the Rockies on Tuesday snapped its nine-game losing streak. With Homer Bailey out for the year due to Tommy John surgery and Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon both traded last winter, a rotation that had previously been one of the club's strongest facets has become much shakier, though hardly its only problem. The unit’s 4.01 ERA ranks ninth in the league, significantly better than the bullpen's 4.89 mark, dead last even with the stellar work of Aroldis Chapman. The team's 4.47 runs allowed per game is 12th in the league, but the offense has been even worse, scoring just 3.69 runs per game (13th in the league) as Billy Hamilton (.214/.257/.321), Jay Bruce (.225/.318/.417) and Marlon Byrd (.213/.286/.460) have struggled, and 2014 All-Star Devin Mesoraco has been lost from the lineup due to impingement in his left hip. Mesoraco last caught a game on April 12; since then, he's been limited to pinch-hitting and DH duty, a strange, unsustainable plan that's finally been shelved with his placement on the disabled list as of Monday, with season-ending surgery looming as a possibility.
Before the losing streak, the Reds were 6 1/2 back in the NL Central but just half a game out of a wild card spot, albeit in a scrum featuring five teams separated by a game and a half. Now, however, they're 10 1/2 out in the division race and six back in the wild card hunt. While they still have time to rebound, the point will quite likely come when general manager Walt Jocketty has to weigh the possibility of getting something besides a compensatory draft pick for Cueto, who's likely to be one of the winter's marquee free agents. He could be the top pitcher available at the deadline, depending upon whether the Phillies commit to moving Cole Hamels.
The Dodgers, who have lost Ryu and McCarthy for the season, and the Red Sox, whose rotation has a major league-worst 5.10 ERA going into Wednesday, figure to be the top suitors; both have the prospects to swing a deal and the money to afford Cueto should they desire to keep him. The market is much larger than that, though. A reported 20 scouts were on hand to watch Cueto pitch against the Giants on May 14, including high-level officials from the Blue Jays and Padres. The Cubs and Cardinals would also figure to make sense, but a trade within the division seems far less likely.
The Reds and Cueto did talk this winter about an extension that would keep him in Cincinnati, but his agent, Bryce Dixon, set an Opening Day deadline for a new deal to be in place. It's unclear if they even made a formal offer before the deadline passed.