Value or Not? Right-handed starters and MLB trades | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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After the San Francisco Giants made Matt Cain the highest paid right-handed pitcher in MLB history, ESPN’s Baseball Today crew caught my ear while discussing the value of Phillies’ ace Cole Hamels. One of the commentators noted that left-handed starters are regarded as more valuable, since they can neutralize that ever-valuable left-handed power. I initially found that comment surprising; I thought that good pitching is valuable whether a starter delivers from the north or south side of the rubber.

It’s certainly safe to say that the Milwaukee Brewers are scuffling. I think I speak for most fans when I say that this early June schedule provided an opportunity to hold out all hope about the 2012 Brewers’ chances to compete. I know I held my breath, hoping that this team would reveal themselves as a good club that was previously wearing a hideous mask. I can’t explain why, but I feel a huge difference between 28-35 and 30-33 right now; and I feel that a truly good ballclub takes the opportunity to beat the Pirates, Cubs, Padres, and Royals over 12 games. At some point we’ll have to face reality that teams that allow significantly more runs than they score don’t win a lot of games, which is an extremely disappointing feeling after the highs of 2011.

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Many Brewers fans will agree that starter Zack Greinke is the best trading chip available on the Brewers’ roster. Not only is Greinke having a great season thus far, but he has the type of electric stuff that always seems to scream “it will get even better than this.” His peripherals are so solid that one always feels as though he’s giving up more runs than he deserves; if only the fielding could be as good as Greinke. Given that the Brewers only control Greinke through the end of the 2012 season, and that if he keeps up his current campaign he’s a sure bet to land 9 figures prior to the 2013 season, Greinke looks like a surefire trade piece.

I took that Baseball Today comment to heart and examined trades involving notable right-handed pitchers (mid-season and offseason alike). While we can certainly examine notable trades of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee to try and determine Greinke’s potential value on the market, I examined these right-handed deals with the following question: If right-handed pitching is less valuable than left-handed pitching, what will general managers be willing to trade for a pitcher like Zack Greinke?

If we can name CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee as notable southpaw aces traded with less than one year of contract control, we will notice that right-handed pitchers are overwhelmingly traded with extra contract years remaining. Even the most notable midseason deals involving right-handed pitchers within the last few years occurred with at least one contract year remaining (beyond the trade year). This raises another interesting question: could it be the case that we should ask whether any team will trade for Greinke, rather than asking about his potential trade value?

From a critical perspective, we can apply this logic to the Brewers’ trades involving Zack Greinke (and Shaun Marcum) in the first place. The Brewers shipped off notable prospects Alcides Escobar, Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain, and Brett Lawrie to acquire Greinke and Marcum, and a skeptic might argue that these players show the value of right-handed pitching. If the glass-is-half-empty, the Brewers traded an all-glove shortstop, spare outfielder, “change of scenery” guy, and pitching prospect for Greinke (the skeptic still has to say Jake Odorizzi is a valuable prospect); similarly, one might argue that Lawrie was a “change of scenery” move on the Brewers’ part, too. The skeptic’s point is, “this is what Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum were worth with two control years remaining.” What are they worth now?

Best Comparisons
Roy Oswalt. While the Phillies’ certainly acquired a pitcher at an older age than 2012 Greinke, they acquired a pitcher with a unique profile. While Oswalt was an undeniable ace for the turn-of-the-century Astros, his performance was declining (slightly) as the trade approached. While a 116 ERA+ in 129 IP is nothing to sneeze at, one might argue that (a) the Phillies traded for Oswalt based on his potential as much as his past performance, and (b) that Oswalt’s in-between ace status matches Greinke’s current status. That is, Greinke is having a great season in 2012, but his previous years wrere average (following his exceptional 2009 campaign). In that regard, any trade involving Greinke will be based on his potential as much as his performance over the last few years.

Surrendering Oswalt, the Astros received newly-minted ace J.A. Happ (201.7 IP / 132 ERA+ when traded), as well as eventual-Top 100 prospects Jonathan Villar and Anthony Gose. Villar currently plays with Corpus Christi during his age 21 season, while Gose is working in the Pacific Coast League with the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization (the Astros flipped Gose as a part of their Brett Wallace deal). There you have it: a right-handed former/potential ace with one contract control year remaining netted a serviceable/fringe MLB starter, a shortstop prospect, and a prospect good enough to net Brett Wallace.

(I almost titled this article “Zack Greinke for Brett Wallace,” given that Wallace’s name pops up in a couple of these deals. The Phillies traded Michael Taylor (along with eventual Top 30 studs Travis d’Arnaud and Kyle Drabek) to acquire the best pitcher in baseball from the Blue Jays; the Blue Jays flipped Taylor for Brett Wallace, another 2010 Top 30 prospect).

Edwin Jackson. Perennial trading chip Edwin Jackson has been moved so many times that he could probably write the book on the shifting value of right-handed starters over the last 5 years. While no one would question that Greinke is a better pitcher than Jackson, believe it or not, within the last few years, Jackson is the most notable MLB right-handed starter moved at the trading deadline during his final contract season. Luckily for Jackson, he was traded twice during his final contract season (along with a handful of other players), which allows us to make some interesting value judgments.

When the Chicago White Sox traded Jackson to Toronto, they sent Mark Teahan along for the ride. In return, they received veteran reliever Jason Frasor (42.3 IP, 145 ERA+ prior to the trade) and young hurler Zack Stewart. The Blue Jays turned around and swapped Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Corey Patterson, and Marc Rzepczynski for veteran reliever Trever Miller, “change of scenery” outfielder Colby Rasmus, veteran hurler Brian Tallet, and organizational depth piece, P.J. Walters.

It is worth noting that the Chicago White Sox traded for Jackson when he had a year of control remaining. At the time, Jackson boasted an 82 ERA+ over 134.3 IP, but his 558.3 IP and 100 ERA+ over his previous three seasons netted minor league starter David Holmberg, and 2010 Top 100 prospect/ace-in-training Daniel Hudson. This leads me to ask, if one-and-a-half years of Edwin Jackson is worth Daniel Hudson and David Holmberg, what is half a season of Zack Greinke worth?

On a side note, I desperately hope that the Brewers eventually acquire Jackson. I’ve watched him pitch in person and I really like his hard fastball/slider approach. But, more importantly, I already have a future article planned: “The MLB Roster Built from Players Involved in Trades for Edwin Jackson.” Seriously, you could staff an entire MLB squad with the players involved in his trades.

Other Notable Deals
Ubaldo Jimenez and Dan Haren were both traded with multiple control years remaining on their contracts (or club reserve rights). While those contract control years make both pitchers poor comps for Greinke in that regard, they are interesting comparisons because both pitchers were traded during rough patches in their respective careers. Jimenez worked 728 IP with a 133 ERA+ prior to 2011, but was basically average through his first 123 innings in 2011. Haren boasted more than 1100 IP with a 127 ERA+ during his five seasons prior to the trade, but he only had a 92 ERA+ in 141 IP prior to his second deal.

Jimenez landed a gang of minor leaguers for the Rockies, including two prospects that climbed from the Top 100 to Top 50 between 2010 and 2012 (Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, respectively). They also landed organizational farmhands, Joseph Gardner (currently in the Texas League at age 24) and utility-man Matt McBride.

The Diamondbacks made a completely different type of deal for Haren, opting to trade for another MLB veteran in Joe Saunders (he worked 384 IP with a 111 ERA+ prior to the trade). The Angels also sent over young minor league pitchers Patrick Corbin and Tyler Kaggs, and veteran Rafael Rodriguez (currently playing Mexican ball).

Both of these deals are intriguing for different reasons. First, Saunders has worked as a serviceable rotation arm for the Diamondbacks, which makes me wonder if the Brewers could use either Greinke or Marcum to land a less-flashy-but-serviceable arm to help anchor their rotation behind Yovani Gallardo in 2013 (and beyond). Secondly, Kaggs and Pomeranz are interesting prospects in both deals because they both exploded once they hit the Rockies and Diamondbacks respective systems. While they were both certainly good prospects prior to their respective deals, one might argue that they are climbing the prospect ranks at a higher rate than expected.

By contrast, the Minnesota Twins’ trade with the New York Mets shows the other side of trading for prospects. While trading Johan Santana (and the right to negotiate a huge contract) to the New York Mets, the Twins picked up Philip Humber (a Top 100 prospect in 2005 and 2007), Kevin Mulvey, Deolis Guerra (a Top 50 prospect), and (famously?) Carlos Gomez (a climbing Top 100 prospect in 2007 and 2008). Of course, neither Humber nor Gomez amounted to much in Minnesota, and of that entire haul, only Guerra remains (he’s currently playing in the International League with the Twins’ Rochester affiliate at age 23). (As an aside, the Twins had similar luck with Delmon Young, their top return when they traded for Matt Garza. Young was a Top 3 BaseballAmerica prospect for four consecutive years, but he didn’t stick with the Twins).

Matt Garza‘s second deal might also provide an interesting comparison for Greinke’s value, although it’s difficult to gauge with the amount of control years the Cubs picked up when they acquired Garza. The Cubs surrendered top prospects Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee, along with organizational pieces Brandon Guyer, Sam Fuld, and Robinson Chirinos. While Garza had several years of reserve rights, he was also a slightly-better-than-average starter, posting a 107 ERA+ in 725.3 innings prior to moving to the Addison Red Line. That leads me to ask, what is a half season of notably above-average Greinke worth, compared to several seasons of Matt Garza?

Finally, what would a survey of right-handed pitching deals be without a note about the San Diego Padres’ salary / injury dump of former-ace Jake Peavy? In one of his crazier-than-a-fox deals, Kenny Williams traded for Peavy, surrendering lefty Clayton Richard, along with minor leaguers Adam Russell, Dexter Carter, and Aaron Poreda. I remember everyone in Chicago thinking that Williams was nuts for making this deal, but as we always learned, when Williams does something we all question, he’s probably right. Sure enough, Russell, Carter, and Poreda amounted to nothing for the Padres, and even Clayton Richard did not live up to his billing. Turns out that Williams’ ability to afford large contracts worked to his favor; after a few serviceable back-end rotation years, Peavy is working a renaissance this season.

In hindsight, it appears that there may be something to the idea that right-handed pitching is less valuable than left-handed pitching, in labor terms. The Brewers’ disadvantage in dealing Greinke appears to be his lack of an extra contract control year. Yet, the Brewers still control one of the strongest pitchers in the NL this year, which leads me to believe — even against the evidence — that Greinke must be worth something. Time will tell; in the meantime, I’m hanging on to that Oswalt deal, hoping that Greinke’s half season is at least worth a serviceable MLB starter and one notable prospect. If not, one has to think that the Brewers’ real advantage rests in offering Greinke arbitration and taking compensatory picks for his service.

Cot’s Contracts. BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2012.
Minor League Baseball. Sports Reference, LLC, 2000-2012.


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Tell us what do you think.

  1. 19er says: June 15, 2012

    Great article Nick.

    Do you think teams are also willing to send less talent to get greinke because he might be unwilling to negotiate a contract extension?

    Cuz I look at the Johan Santana deal to be a hinging point for a team that wants Grienke but are only willing to get him if he was to sign a contract extension like Santana did. So hence maybe they are only willing to give away less talent.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 15, 2012

      Thanks for the kind words, and the comment!

      That’s an interesting idea, about trading for Greinke to make a contract extension. I would typically think that that type of provision might only occur if a player has a no-trade clause. I.e., “well, I don’t want to be traded, but if X wants me, I’ll waive my no-trade clause.”

      I am not convinced a club would want to do that — the more I think about it, if you’re Doug Melvin and you’re trading Greinke to a club that’s giving him 6/$120, wouldn’t you demand a larger haul? I mean, you’re essentially trading away his reserve rights, as well as Greinke. BUT, then again, in Santana’s case, i’d hardly say that landed a haul for the Twins.

  2. Ryan Topp says: June 15, 2012

    The major issue with trying to comp to other deals right now is that in just about every case here, the teams dealing the pitcher weren’t just dealing the player, they were also dealing the draft picks that the buyer could expect to get when/if that player walked. With the new CBA rules eliminating draft pick compensation for players traded mid year, the Brewers aren’t selling Greinke (or Marcum) plus picks. They’re just selling the guy.

    We don’t know how this is going to effect the market for players just yet, but it’s hard to fathom that it won’t matter. Perhaps the second wild card adding more “contenders” for the playoffs will increase competition for players enough that it won’t matter much, but again we’ll have to wait and see.

    Either way, the Brewers are going to have to be truly “out of it” not just 4-6 games back at the deadline to sell. I really doubt that they will be far enough back that Attanasio is going to allow a sell off anyway.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 15, 2012

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Ryan! First and foremost, I 100% agree with your final paragraph.

      As for your earlier comment, I am confused about the compensation — isn’t it the case that a certain class of players still land their team supplemental draft picks? I.e., if Greinke is in a certain class, don’t the Brewers still get supplemental draft picks if they offer him arby and he declines?

      • Ryan Topp says: June 15, 2012

        Right, the Brewers can get comp for anyone who starts the year on their roster, becomes free agent eligible and that they’re willing to offer at least 1 year and 12.5 million to. That’s how you get comp picks now, making qualifying offers to players.

        The catch is that the player MUST be on the team’s roster to start the year. So the Brewers can offer Greinke and Marcum qualifying money and if they turn it down get the picks. Any team they’re traded to, though, cannot get that comp. This was (foolishly) done to thwart GM’s like Freidman and Anthapolous from stockpiling picks for rental players.

        • Nicholas Zettel says: June 15, 2012

          Wow. They are really making this game about unfettered free agency now.

          • Ryan Topp says: June 15, 2012

            That’s part of what the union got in exchange for screwing over the amateurs with this stupid signing pool system.

        • Nicholas Zettel says: June 16, 2012

          I agree completely. I wonder what Marvin Miller would say — he always wanted unfettered free agency, but I don’t believe that he ever sold out amateurs and their potential earning power (and of course, future union members).

          This new CBA reminds me that labor negotiations in times of “peace” can be disastrous — it’s a bunch of extremely wealthy, well-to-do parties patting each other on the back.


Websites mentioned my entry.

  1. Curious Cases of Compensation: Trade Value and Draft Picks | Disciples of Uecker
  2. Reconsidering Rebuilding: Trading at the Deadline and 2013 | Disciples of Uecker

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