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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