On Tuesday I tried to make you feel good about the 2011 Indians. I told you how if things go just right, this team can compete in the AL Central. It was a shiny, happy day. Today I might end up making you feel sort of crummy about the 2007 Indians. Yes, it’s a weird exercise, but bear with me.
Let’s start with the sell-off that was precipitated by those 2007 Indians underperforming in 2008, taking a team from within one game of the World Series to competing with the Royals for last place. By and large, there seemed to be two major reactions to the moves of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez.
The first reaction was one of alienation from MLB as a whole and the Indians in particular. Any system that encourages the sort of talent-exodus that took place in Cleveland cannot and should not be supported, or so the argument went. This reaction was manifested in a number of emotions: anger, grief, disgust, disdain, withdrawal, and, I’m certain, quite a few more. This reaction creates a significant legitimacy crisis for Major League Baseball, and one that gets talked about quite a bit by people smarter and better informed than I. To be brief, I can offer these folks no comfort. What happened to the Indians, beginning with the CC trade and culminating with Victor, sucked eggs, and I would never try to tell anybody that it didn’t.
There was a second group to react to those trades though. This group of people had largely come to terms with the fact that, for better or worse, the Indians had to trade those players—that it was probably the prudent thing to do. This group, while not happy about that reality, knew that if they were going to continue to follow baseball, they’d have to come to terms with those trades because they couldn’t envision a life devoid of Major League Baseball, and that Shapiro’s decision to move those guys, while a major bummer, was probably closer to “smart” than “dumb”.
However, that’s not to say this second group didn’t voice some major complaints. I’ve heard them from plenty of smart people: It’s not that they traded those guys, but that they got so little in return. We should have gotten so much more for our big prizes. Or: If we couldn’t get Kyle Drabek or Domonic Brown or Clay Buchholz, why bother trading them at all?
I think this sentiment comes from a few places. The first is a general appeal to fairness. Even if the complainants didn’t couch their argument in terms of WAR, what they meant was that giving up CC Sabathiaand Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez cost the team wins and that those lost wins should be balanced (maybe not immediately but certainly someday) by the players acquired in return. Another source for the frustration—especially the stuff about Kyle Drabek and Domonic Brown and Clay Buchholz—was that the press had decided that there were only a few players “worth” what we were giving up, and that Lou Marson was not one of them.* Finally, there is always the spectre of the Bartolo Colon trade hanging over any move the Indians make. It was a blessing to get so much talent in that trade (Sizemore, Lee, and Brandon Phillips), but the corresponding curse is that many fans now feel that all trades should be that good. Anything less is a failure. It’s quite an unreasonable measuring stick.
And it’s not that I disagree with these points on an emotional level—I would have loved to have gotten more in return for our trades, especially considering the sub-par debuts of LaPorta, Brantley and others. If we could have a 25-man roster filled with the best prospects in baseball all being paid the league-minimum? Well, you think I’m optimistic now…
But trades just don’t work this way, not in any sport and especially not in baseball. You never get what you think is fair—be it “equal value” or what the press thinks or what you remember as a kid. You get what the market will pay. You don’t get a team’s best prospect just because you want it; you get what the team is willing to offer. Markets tend to be efficient like this: what you get is largely what you deserve.
Nevertheless, there is still a cloud hanging over the Indians. We gave up two Cy Young winners and the heart of the franchise, and we’ve yet to see any real contribution from what we got back. Did we get duped?
I thought I’d take a look into the past, to answer that question. Today I want to spend some time looking at the pitching that came back in the deals (we’ll do hitters another time). If we really were supposed to get top-end, young pitching talent for our trades, then there should be a precedent out there somewhere. Right?
So here’s what I did. I grabbed all starting pitchers from 2010 and sorted them by WAR (high is good, low is bad). Then, to try to identify young players, I insisted that they be no older than 28. The point of this is simple: I’m not interested in how a team acquires Cliff Lee—I already know that. I’m interested in whether there’s a precedent for acquiring young, affordable pitching talent through trades, preferably pre-free-agency players.
Here’s what I found:
Amateur Free Agent
Amateur Free Agent
Here’s a google.doc spreadsheet with all the data, if you’re interested.
So what do I see here? Well first of all, look at that “Acquired” column on the right. It tells us how a player’s current team added him to the organization. Out of the top twenty pitchers 28 or younger, only four were acquired via trade: Adam Wainwright, John Danks, Francisco Liriano, and Gio Gonzalez. Two were signed as amateur free agents (Latin American signings) and the remaining 14 were drafted.*
*For those who don’t want to click on the link, Fausto appears at 49th with a 1.9 WAR (Amateur Free Agent) and Masterson doesn’t make the list: according to Baseball-Reference his WAR was negative.
Now, let’s look at those four who were acquired by trade, because that’s we want our assets to become.
Adam Wainwright was acquired by St. Louis from the Atlanta Braves for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero in 2003. This was a great trade for the Cardinals: not only was Drew about to become expensive through the arbitration process, but he also butted heads with Manager Tony LaRussa. St. Louis was able to capitalize on Atlanta’s desire to continue their run of dominance in the NL East, and pried away Wainwright, who was widely viewed as one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. I’m not sure a pitching prospect as big as Wainwright has been traded since.
John Danks was traded from Texas to the White Sox in 2006. The big piece moving to Texas was prospect Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy was probably the biggest name in that trade, and everyone thought Texas got the better of the deal. Despite Danks’ success in 2010, his closest comparison on baseball-reference.org is Donovan Osbourne—hardly a dominant force.
Fransico Liriano was barely 20 years old when he was traded from the Giants to the Twins in 2003. He, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser were traded for A.J. (freakin’) Pierzynksi. The big name was, believe it or not, Bonser, who was thought to be a viable, cheap starter.
Gio Gonzalez was acquired by the A’s from the White Sox in a deal that sent Nick Swisher to the South Side in 2008. Ryan Sweeney was the big name in that trade. Gonzalez had already been traded two other times since 2006, indicating, at least to me, that teams thought he was largely expendable.
Sorry to bore you with all this minutiae, but hopefully you’re starting to see my point. It’s exceedingly rare for teams to acquire front-end pitching talent via trades, and most of those who end up as dominant guys weren’t thought of terrifically highly when they were originally traded. Young pitchers are a crapshoot: you just don’t know whether a guy will turn into Francisco Liriano (rare) or Daniel McCutchen (common).
So what did the Indians do? They acquired a guy with a high pedigree in Carlos Carrasco, hoping he might turn into Adam Wainwright. They acquired some guys with high upside who were a long way away in Bryan Price and Nick Hagadone, hoping they might become Lirianos. They added a fairly sure thing, in Justin Masterson, whose impact will likely top out at a middle-of-the-rotation. In other words, they looked at the sort of pitchers who are acquired in trades, and cast a wide net, hoping a few might hit. A buckshot approach.
Does this vindicate the front office for the meager contributions of these additions? I don’t think so, at least not entirely. They’re still supposed to be hitting more than missing. And we don’t yet know whether there have been any hits from these trades.
But when I hear people complaining that we didn’t get enough for our guys? I’m not quite convinced. The deck is stacked, especially when it comes to pitching, and you get what you can, not what you deserve. Or, to put it another way: where are all these impact pitchers that have been acquired via trade? If the market doesn’t deliver them up, it’s hard to fault the organization for not acquiring them.
So if you think we could have gotten more, you’ll have to show me a team that did get more. Did the Phillies do much better than we did when they traded Lee to Seattle? Did Seattle get a top-tier return when they moved him to Texas? Did Minnesota get a strong return when they shipped Johan Santana to the Mets?* Show me the market that Shapiro swung and missed on, and maybe I can cast some disdain, but until then, I think we probably did what we were supposed to do: get what we can, while we can. Even though they weren’t perfect deals, they were better than the alternative–losing our guys to free agency.
Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself this winter.
*The answers, for the record, are “no” and “no” and “NOOOOOO”.
Sometime soon, I’ll look at position players, and I think we’ll see that the conclusions will be quite different.