Saturday, March 12, 2016

Bad trades are part of baseball

Annie Savoy knows whereof she speaks.

“Bad trades are part of baseball,” says the Susan Sarandon character in the opening sequence of the 1988 film Bull Durham. “Who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas for God’s sake?”

I got to thinking about bad trades as I was preparing the previous post about Nelson Cruz and researching the dubious deals made by the Mariners over the years. (Man, do I love!) Quite a few other masochists have considered this subject and posted their lists of the team’s terrible trades. Just about all of these lists include Woody Woodward’s swap of Randy Johnson to the Astros at the trading deadline in 1998, and Pat Gillick’s shipping of Ken Griffey, Jr. to the Reds in February of 2000.

I say hold on a second.

Randy Johnson

Johnson had a sour relationship with the club and was going to become a free agent at the end of the ’98 season. He was 34, there were concerns about his back, and he was putting up un-Big Unit type numbers (9-10, 4.33) in Seattle before the trade. Johnson was brilliant for the Astros (10-1, 1.28) after the deal, signed as a free agent with Arizona that offseason, and promptly won four straight National League Cy Young Awards. It would have been tough to get equal value back for that.

Yet Woodward did all right, getting Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and John Halama in exchange for Johnson.

Garcia and Jamie Moyer were the aces of the staff for the 116-win club in 2001, the former going 18-6 with an ERA of 3.05. The Chief had five pretty good seasons for the M’s, amassing a record of 76-50. In mid-2004 Bill Bavasi traded Garcia and Ben Davis to the White Sox for Mike Morse, Miguel Olivo, and Jeremy Reed. Garcia wound up with 156 wins and a 4.15 ERA in 15 seasons.

Guillen spent a couple of years as the regular shortstop in Seattle, then became an All Star after being traded by Bavasi to the Tigers in ’04 for Juan Gonzalez (sadly, not the slugging one) and Ramon Santiago.

Halama was a journeyman who went 56-48 with an ERA of 4.65 over nine years.

Comparing the players by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Johnson piled up a handsome 39.8 in the five years following the trade. Garcia did OK at 15.6 during that same span. Guillen was 15.1 WAR in his first five seasons as a regular and racked up career WAR of 27.7. Halama is practically the definition of replacement level; though he chalked up 4.7 WAR in his first season in Seattle, his career total was only 5.6. Woodward managed to get decent value out of a situation in which he had little choice but to make a deal.

Trading Junior

Gillick’s situation with Griffey was similar. The Kid wanted out of Seattle, wanted to play closer to home. With the gun to his head, Gillick got Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez, and Jake Meyer for the future Hall of Famer. It’s hard to see how anyone calls this a bad trade.

Griffey had only two really good seasons during his injury-plagued years with the Reds. His total WAR from 2000-04 was 8.5. Cameron in those same years racked up 19.8 WAR, including 18.3 in four years with the M’s. He was a far better player than Griffey over that span.

Tomko is essentially Halama. In fact, he had the same career ERA of 4.65, and went 100-103 over 14 seasons. Meyer never made the show. Perez was a utility infielder for four years with the Rays, Dodgers, and A’s.

The one interesting note about Perez is that in October of 2002 he was traded, along with manager Lou Piniella, to Tampa Bay for Randy Winn, who had a couple of nice years for the M’s, and he, Cameron, and Ichiro were a beautiful outfield to watch. Winn was dealt by Bavasi to the Giants in a deadline deal in 2005 for the legends Jesse Foppert and Yorvit Torrealba.

Winn was a useful player, but the deal that brought him to Seattle may actually be the worst in club history. The Mariners have had only four winning seasons and have not made the playoffs since Piniella’s departure.

The real worst trade

The Griffey deal does not belong on a list of bad trades. Seattle got the short end of the Johnson deal but did OK under the circumstances. What’s the real worst trade?

Whenever my Sweetie, the official scorer, and I talk about bad trades one of us usually says, in Annie Savoy accent, “Who can forget Jason Varitek AND Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb, for God’s sake?” Slocumb notched 10 saves in 11 opportunities down the stretch in 1997 for the M’s team that won the A.L. West, but wasn’t actually very good. He saved just three and had an ERA of 5.32 the following season. His career WAR was 5.6 in 10 seasons.

Varitek, on the other hand, was a switch-hitting catcher with power—he was Crash Davis!—and piled up 24.3 WAR in a 15-year career. Lowe pitched 17 seasons and was 33 WAR. That was a lousy trade.

I thought of it again last year when the M’s shipped Fernando Rodney to the Cubs. I figured that if Woodward had been the general manager in Chicago we could have gotten Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta for this “proven closer.”

What may eventually be acclaimed as the M’s worst trade ever is the February 2008 deal in which Bavasi sent young slugger Adam Jones to Baltimore for the great Erik Bedard. Bedard’s career WAR was 17.3, but only 4.3 of that came after the trade. Jones has already piled up 27.5 WAR with the Orioles. Who needs a gold-glove center fielder with a great bat, anyway? Oh, and by the way, we also gave Baltimore FOUR OTHER GUYS in the deal. Chris Tillman has developed into a solid starting pitcher, George Sherrill was a useful left-handed reliever, Kam Mickolio pitched in 29 games in the bigs, and southpaw Tony Butler was a career minor leaguer. Word at the time was that Bavasi needed to win or he'd be sacked. In this, at least, he was correct. He was fired June 16 with the team already 17 1/2 games out and in dead last. Bedard, alas, didn't help turn things around.

Some folks list the Mariners' 1996 swap of David Ortiz to the Twins for Dave Hollins among the worst ever. It didn't turn out well, but I give Woodward a pass on this one. Ortiz was 21 at the time of the deal. He was 17 when they signed him out of the Dominican Republic, and had knocked around the M's system for three years before the trade. In parts of six seasons with the Twins he amassed just 2.5 WAR. A free agent after the 2002 season, he signed with Boston, hit 31 homers in 2003, and was off to the races. But it was seven years later, and there was really no sign that Ortiz would blossom into a Hall of Fame contender. The hell of it is that this trade was a case of the Twins trying to get something, anything, for a guy who was going to be a free agent. Hollins played just 28 games for the Mariners and signed with the Angels for 1997.

One good trade

This post makes it sound as though the Mariners have never made a good trade. On the contrary, they made what is possibly the best trade in baseball history, at least as judged by television situation comedies, swapping designated hitter Ken Phelps to the Yankees on July 21, 1988 for a young outfielder by the name of Jay Buhner. The deal was so bad for the Yankees it was ridiculed on an episode of Seinfeld.

Ironically, less than a week after making the best swap in franchise history, general manager Dick Balderson was fired by the Mariners. Manager Dick Williams had been sacked earlier in the season, and the club was in last place and 20 games out. And thus began the Woodward era.

Bavasi or Woodward?

The names of Bill Bavasi and Woody Woodward are all over the bad trades list. They had some successes.

Woodward hired Piniella, drafted Alex Rodriguez, and dealt outfielder Darren Bragg to Boston in 1998 for Moyer. Many folks thought that was dumb at the time. Bragg was a speedy young spark plug and Moyer a 34-year-old soft-tossing lefty. Moyer pitched for the M's for parts of 11 seasons and won 145 games, which is tops on the team's all-time list, though Felix Hernandez will likely pass him in about a month. In August of 2006 we made the same mistake Boston did, trading too-old Moyer at age 43 to the Phillies for essentially nothing. He kept going until he was 49 and won 58 more games. (As a total aside, it may tell you something about the Mariners' mostly sad history as a franchise that the list of its ten winningest pitchers includes Joel Piñero and Gil Meche.)

But Woodward made some other lulus, too. July 31, 1997 may go down as the darkest day in M's history. On the same day as the Slocumb trade, Woodward moved young outfielder José Cruz, Jr. to Toronto for Paul Spoljaric and Mike "Two Run" Timlin, so named because two runs came in whenever he pitched. Nothing like trading a slugging outfielder for some bullpen "help." Maybe Woodward didn't have a good breakfast or enough coffee that day. He also engineered the disastrous 1995 trade of Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson to New York for the completely mediocre Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock.

Bavasi's successes aren't so obvious. His best moves may have been the signings of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. While his stats were deflated by Safeco Field, Beltre was a fine player for Seattle. Sexson is generally regarded as a bust, but he had two relatively productive years before falling off in his final season with the M's. In addition to the above moves, Bavasi's 2006 swap of Shin-Soo Choo for Ben Broussard goes down as a bust.

Perhaps one day we will do an analysis to figure out which former GM lost the most WAR in trades.

Beware, ye who would trade for a pitching ace

The notion of going out and getting a good pitcher is what often leads to trouble. Savoy’s favorite trade was a slugger for a hurler; Pappas had reached double figures in victories for eight straight seasons before being traded for Robinson in 1965. He did it eight more times after the deal and won 209 games in his career. Robinson immediately had an MVP season for the Reds and hit 254 of his 586 career home runs after the swap.

Broglio. Who else cut out these
baseball cards from the backs of
cereal boxes?
As a Cardinals fan, I am forever thankful to the Cubs for their trade of Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. It must have made sense at the time. Broglio had won 18 for St. Louis in 1963, while Brock was 25 and in his third season as a regular and batting about .260 when the deal was made. Broglio went 7-19 in two-and-a-half seasons in Chicago, and then was out of the game. Brock made the Hall of Fame. There were four other guys in the deal. You’re more of a baseball nut than I if you can tell me anything about Jack Spring, Paul Toth, and Doug Clemens. Bobby Shantz was also part of the swap, hanging on as a mop-up reliever at the end of his 16-year career.

Other notorious bad trades involving pitchers include John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander, Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen, Steve Carlton for Rick Wise, Pedro Martinez for Delino DeShields (the elder; Delino Jr. was one year old at the time of the deal), and Christy Matthewson for Amos Rusie.

Naturally, we benefit from hindsight as we look back at how these trades came out. But who besides Woody Woodward didn't realize that the Slocumb deal was a big mistake.

Now, what will you give us for proven closer Joaquin Benoit?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in

The onset of baseball’s spring training has caused painful memories to emerge that I had managed to repress since October. Memories of a Seattle Mariners team with a dismal .311 on-base percentage that still managed to hit into 123 double plays. Memories of a club that was already six games off the pace and effectively out of the AL West race by May 1. Memories of a disappointing club that got the manager, Mr. Lloyd McClendon, and GM Jack Zduriencik sacked.

Nelson Cruz was more successful in 2015 than most players
the Mariners have brought in to add a little pop to the lineup.
Yet though he hit 44 home runs and batted .302, he drove in
just 93 runs. It turns out that hitting over .300 with at least 40
homers and fewer than 100 RBI is pretty rare, and it happened
twice last year. Photo: Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons. 
Even the seasonal bright spot had an odd disappointment. Nelson Cruz was the slugger brought in to add some pop to the club’s anemic lineup. Seasoned Mariner watchers, understandably pessimistic about whatever move the club makes, expected the usual flop, ala Kevin Mitchell, Richie Zisk, Gorman Thomas, or Jeff Cirillo, to name just a few of the duds who suddenly lost their mojo upon arrival in Sodo. Boomstick broke the mold, cracking 44 home runs and hitting .302 on the season. Despite this, Cruz drove in only 93 runs, and 44 of them were his own self, so Cruz sent just 49 teammates plate-ward on the season.

Later I noticed that National League Most Valuable Player Bryce Harper hit .322 with 42 home runs and just 99 ribbies. Arbitrary cutoffs are what baseball is all about, so I got to wondering how many other players have hit over .300 with 40 or more home runs and fewer than 100 RBI. Today I did the research. The list is surprisingly short. Though there were two such occurrences in 2015, there have been only five others in the history of the game, and all of them have been by big-name players, including the game's two most prolific sluggers. Which now seems obvious, since inclusion on the list means you hit .300 with 40 taters.

The last time it happened was in 2003, when Barry Bonds smacked 45 homers while batting .341 that year, yet had only 90 RBI. Bonds played in 130 games in '03 and had 550 plate appearances. His chances to drive in runs were reduced somewhat by 148 walks, 61 of which were intentional.

Before that you have to go back to 1994, when Ken Griffey, Jr. hit .323 and clubbed 40 round-trippers but drove in just 90 runs. This particular occurrence deserves a bit of an asterisk, though, as the season was cut short by a strike. Junior played in just 111 games and had 493 plate appearances. Had the season progressed to its typical 162 games he might well have approached 60 dingers and gotten the ten more ribbies he needed to avoid this list.

Baseball’s one-time home run king made the list twice. Henry Aaron batted .300 and hit 44 home runs while driving in just 97 runs in 1969, and he went .301-40-96 in 1973, both with the Atlanta Braves. Aaron played just 120 games in ’73 when he was 39 years of age. In ’69 he played 147 games and led the National League in total bases.

The first player to ever hit over .300 with at least 40 home runs and not drive home 100 or more runs was the Commerce Comet, Mickey Mantle, back in 1958. Mantle hit 42 homers that year and batted .304, but had just 97 RBI.

There was quite a bit of “missed it by that much” as I did the research for this list. For example, there was almost a third member just last season, when near-MVP Mike Trout hit 41 home runs and drove in 90, but hit “only” .299. But a cutoff is a cutoff (something many Mariner outfielders seem to know nothing about, but that’s for another article.) In fact it is fairly unusual for players to hit 40 home runs and not reach 100 RBI, regardless of batting average. Adam Dunn may be the poster child on either side of this; he hit 40 or more dingers six times and drove in at least 100 runs in four of those seasons, never hitting above .266.

There's long been a debate about whether "clutch" hitting exists. I don't believe that it does, and for Cruz, it is easy to find a reason that he logged fewer RBI than most guys with his sort of numbers amass. Austin Jackson and his .302 on-base percentage batted first or second 75 times for the Mariners last season. Logan Morrison (.302) led off 20 times. Even Rickie Weeks batted at the top of the order occasionally against left-handed pitching until his .263 OBP (and numerous other shortcomings) led to his release. Seth Smith, though not a prototype leadoff man, batted first or second 40 times and had a .330 OBP. Smith was actually McClendon’s best choice for the top of the order until Ketel Marte arrived at the end of July and put up a respectable .351 OBP for the rest of the season. In August and September McClendon pretty much settled on Marte in the leadoff spot and Kyle Seager at number two, though Seager's OBP of .328 isn’t all that great, either.

Cruz wasn't denied many RBI chances because of the intentional walk, even though he was the team's most productive hitter. He walked 59 times last season, just nine of them intentional. And he didn't fold under the pressure of batting with runners in scoring position; he hit .291 in that situation, just a tick below his overall season numbers. There just weren't that many guys on base for him, and the team didn't have anyone who was really good at getting to first base. Cruz himself was the club OBP leader at .369; maybe HE should have been leading off.

It seems that the Mariners as an organization have had a “walking is for sissies” philosophy in recent years. Swing the bat, be aggressive, they would preach. There must have been a zillion times last season when an M’s hitter would be battling a 1-2 count with several foul balls, and the pitch tracker (if you believe that's not just an intern in the back room putting a dot on a box) would show the pitcher hadn’t yet thrown a strike. One hopes that the hiring of Edgar Martinez (career OBP: .418) as hitting coach means that this approach has been rightly scrapped, and that Edgar can convince these guys to work the count a little, take an occasional walk, and rip the good pitches.

So let’s get some guys on base, set the table for the boppers, and watch Cruz morph into Ben Broussard.