Hot Stove Roundup: Making up for Pujols and the Nats' win-now trade
As one of the greatest players in major league history, Albert Pujols is just about as irreplaceable as a player can be, but after inking Carlos Beltran to a two-year, $26 million contract to play right field, the Cardinals are in good shape to compensate for his departure in 2012. You see, the Cardinals are coming off Pujols' weakest season, which means that rather than having to replace roughly nine wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference's WAR (or bWAR), they "only" have to replace 5.4 wins, and at least half of those should come from the return of ace Adam Wainwright, who sat out the entire 2011 season following Tommy John surgery in March.
Wainwright is taking his rotation spot back from converted reliever Kyle McClellan and deadline addition Edwin Jackson, now a free agent, who combined for roughly one win above replacement over 29 starts for St. Louis in 2011. Wainwright, meanwhile, was worth about 6.0 bWAR in each of his last two healthy seasons. Expecting him to return to that level of dominance after a major surgery and a year of inactivity is unfair, but if you round him down to 4.0 bWAR, a three-win upgrade over McClellan and Jackson, that leaves just 1.4 wins of Pujols 2011 production to replace, and Beltran was worth 4.4 bWAR in his strong 2011 comeback season.
Beltran will be 35 in April and had major knee surgery in January 2010, which eliminated his speed and turned him from a superlative center fielder into an average defensive right fielder. However, he is a borderline Hall of Famer in his own right (or was prior to having two seasons interrupted by knee problems), and he proved in 2011 that his bat is alive and well, hitting .300/.385/.525 with 22 homers and 84 RBIs for the Mets and Giants, two teams, it should be noted, who played in pitcher-friendly ballparks. From 2001 to 2008, his last full season before 2011, Beltran averaged 5.2 bWAR with his bat and legs alone, so expecting him to contribute four wins above replacement, if healthy, is entirely reasonable. If Wainwright can be a three-win upgrade over McClellan and Jackson, and Beltran can add four wins, that's seven wins coming in to replace the 5.4 Pujols contributed in 2011. Replacing Pujols over the long term will be far more difficult, but for 2012, the Cardinals seem to have more than compensated for the lost of their franchise player.
Coming into the 2011 season, the A's had some slim hope of contention centered around a young, heavily left-handed rotation led by Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Dallas Braden and a trio of veteran outfield imports, but injuries to Braden and Anderson dashed those hopes by mid-season, and free agency has since cleared the A's outfield, prompting yet another reboot by swap-happy Billy Beane as the A's continue to build for, and pine for, a new ballpark that remains more fantasy than fact.
I thought the A's got the better part of the trade that sent Cahill to the Diamondbacks earlier this month, as Cahill, though still young, is likely no better than a league-average pitcher, while right-hander Jarrod Parker, the top prospect sent to Oakland in the deal, has the potential to be a front-end starter, is nearly major league-ready (he made his big league debut on Sept. 27), and will be under team control for six years. Gonzalez proved this past season that he's a better pitcher than Cahill, and, accordingly, the A's did even better in flipping him to the Nationals after a league-wide bidding war for the 26-year-old lefty.
Norris is a potential stud at catcher, a three-true-outcome hitter with tons of power and patience and, despite mixed reports on his defense, boasts an excellent caught-stealing percentage in the low minors and has shown improvement behind the plate. Norris spent 2011 in Double-A, which means he should arrive in time to keep Suzuki's 2014 option from vesting (which it would with 113 starts in 2013) and to replace Suzuki outright in '14. Righties Peacock and Cole are excellent starting prospects. Cole won't turn 20 until the new year but posted a 10.9 K/9 and 4.50 K/BB in his full-season debut in 2011. The 6-foot-4 righty has a projectable frame, mid-90s heat, and an improving curveball and projects as a front-end starter, though that reality is still several years away. Peacock, is smaller (6-foot-1) and older (24 in February), but he's otherwise comparable (low-90s heat that frequently jumps up around 96, strong curve, show-me changeup) and is just about ready, having made a pair of scoreless big league starts in September after seeing his velocity jump in Double-A. Peacock mimicked Cole's strikeout rates in the upper levels, posting a 10.9 K/9 and 3.77 K/BB between Double-A and Triple-A and could be a mid-rotation or better starter as soon as the 2012 season. The lefty Milone, 25 in February, is more of a command and control, back-end starter, but he's also ready now, having held his own in five September starts for the Nats. Worth noting: Milone has walked fewer men in 532 2/3 professional innings than Gonzalez has walked in either of the last two seasons. He's also the fourth-best prospect in this deal. Gilliam is a 24-year-old righty who has yet to pitch above A-ball and projects as a middle reliever in the majors.
That's a lot for the Nationals to give up, but they already have a solid young catcher in sophomore Wilson Ramos and, with the lefty Gonzalez joining righties Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, hope to have a dominant top three in their rotation that will be ready to lift them to contention once überprospect Bryce Harper settles into the heart of their lineup as early as this season. With Strasburg having impressed in his September return from Tommy John surgery, Gonzalez doesn't need to be the ace in Washington, which is good, because he's not one. He's a 26-year-old lefty who throws hard and strikes out roughly a man per inning, but he also walks almost half as many as that and has been a far more ordinary pitcher on the road over the last two seasons, posting a 3.78 ERA and 1.43 on the road compared to 2.63 and 1.21 at home. Gonzalez won't have to deal with designated hitters as often with the Nationals, but he'll have a far less friendly home ballpark, one in which the many men he walks are much less likely to be stranded on base.
Gonzalez is arbitration eligible as a Super 2 player this winter, while the A's own all six team-controlled seasons of each of the four men they acquired for him, and in the long run, the A's may wind up with the better catcher and the best starting pitcher in this deal, but with this trade, the Nationals officially shifting into win-now mode could well be justified. The Marlins may have been the NL East team that spent the most money this offseason, but they're digging out of a 90-loss hole. The Nationals lost just 81 games in 2011, and with Strasburg, Harper, and Gonzalez joining sophomores Ramos and second baseman Danny Espinosa, and Jayson Werth likely to bounce back from a season in which his new contract seemed to be pinned to the back of his jersey, Washington could be the more likely of the two perennial also-rans to contend in 2012.