August 26, 2014

The Royals-Rays Trade, Ubaldo Jimenez, and “All-In Hope”

Once you get beyond how painful the realities have been for all involved, the Ubaldo Jimenez trade stands out as a pretty fascinating case study for all sorts of reasons.  Just consider how different the trade looked, depending both on your point of view and your point in time.

Back in July of 2011, some people saw the move as a straight up challenge trade, with the Indians taking two and half years of club control over an established ace while relinquishing twelve years of club control over two potential front-end starters in Alex White and Drew Pomeranz.

Others foresaw a damaged Ubaldo coming to Cleveland, and hated to give up on the potential of two sure-thing starters.

Others still thought the Indians fleeced the Rockies: after all, there is no such thing as a pitching prospect, and team-friendly contracts for number-one starters just don’t exist in today’s MLB.

Of course what ended up happening is that both teams fleeced each other, and neither side got what they thought they were buying.  The Indians were left with a durable but mechanically flawed pitcher whose fastball lacked both its former command and velocity.  Since becoming an Indian, Jimenez has thrown 242 innings, gone 13-21 and racked up a 5.32 ERA.  It’s hard to get much worse than that.

Except the Rockies’ haul is trying to do just that.  The duo of Pomeranz and White have combined to go 8-23 over 249.1 innings and a 5.70 ERA.  Alex White pitched his way right out of town, packaged with a Class-A pitcher and sent to the Astros a few weeks ago for…..wait for it….a bullpen arm.  Pomeranz, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to stick in one of the worst rotations in all of baseball, which is really saying something.  When not disturbing the peace in Oxford Mississippi, he’s working on overcoming everything from appendicitis to faulty mechanics.

In other words, if such a thing is even possible, both sides lost the trade.  Check out how eerily similar this exchange looks in retrospect:

  W L IP ERA
White 4 13 134.1 6.30
Pomeranz 4 10 115.0 5.01
COMBINED 8 23 249.1 5.70
Jimenez 13 21 242.0 5.32

In a year and a half, that’s a net difference of seven innings and 15 runs.  That’s an insanely close deal (not counting, of course, the money).  It’s also an insanely bad deal.

So why bring any of this up, 18 months after the fact?  I’m surely not telling you anything you didn’t know, at least in general terms.  Ubaldo has been bad and so have Alex White and Drew Pomeranz.  What once looked like it could be one thing—the opening of a contention window; two stabilizing arms to throw at the front of Colorado’s rotation; a blockbuster challenge trade—has become something entirely different.  Which is to say, a punchline.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I bring all this up as an entrée into the Royals-Rays trade that broke late Sunday night and subsequently sent the Twittersphere into an uproar.  The Rays sent James Shields and Wade Davis—two good-if-not-quite-great starting pitchers—to the Royals, and in return received a veritable goody-bag of prospects headlined by Wil Myers, who ranks as perhaps the best hitting prospect in all of baseball.  In addition, the Rays netted two pitching prospects of varying quality and a raw power hitter who’s not played above short-season A ball.

The story goes, among most at least, that Royals’ GM Dayton Moore was hoodwinked in the deal—that he has yet again demonstrated that he is unfit for his charge and this his prodigal ways and poor player evaluations continue to doom the Royals to last place, same as it ever was.

And to be clear, I’m pretty sure I’d rather be the Rays in this deal.  I really like prospects.  Not even any prospects in particular; I just like the idea of prospects.  I like dreaming on players.  I like thinking about how great they might become.  I like imagining them taking over the sport, the way Mike Trout did last year in Anaheim.  I like thinking about all the things that could be, before the exigencies of reality set in—before a tired shoulder or a hole in the swing or a UCL tear or a pulled hamstring.  I like the Platonic ideal of great players, I guess, which is really all a prospect is: a bunch of “tools”.  In some circles, that’s called upside, and if there’s one thing that seems clear in this trade, the Rays got more of it than the Royals did.

After all, James Shields is the biggest prize going to Kansas City, and outside of pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field he has a completely pedestrian track record: over 674.2 career innings away from Tampa he has a 4.54 ERA, a losing record and a .772 OPS against.  That’s not something you trade the farm for. In fact, that’s almost exactly Josh Tomlin.

The other piece that Kansas City received in the deal, Wade Davis, couldn’t even hang in the Tampa rotation.  He was moved to the bullpen in 2011 after posting a career 4.82 ERA, 5.9 K/9 and a 1.82 K/BB (that’s bad).  He’s been a good reliever, but again, not great.  And Kansas City has already decided to give him first dibs on a rotation spot due to their dearth of viable alternatives.

In other words, it’s pretty easy to see how the Royals side of this deal could go really bad.  And it’s easy to see, too, how the Rays could turn all their shiny new prospects into gold.  It’s kind of what they do down there.

But if we’ve learned anything from the Ubaldo trade, it’s that we really don’t know anything.  Wil Myers might turn out like Mike Trout did.  Or he might turn out like Andy Marte did.  James Shields might turn out like Ubaldo Jimenez did.  Or he might turn out like Cliff Lee did.  Multiple years of cheap club control is a great thing, as long as the asset you’re controlling is actually worth something.  There’s a non-zero chance the Rays will have just traded two good starting pitchers for a bag of magic beans.  I will, for the second time in a single paragraph, cite Andy Marte, to remind you that Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the best prospect in all of baseball in 2005.  As Chinua would remind us, things fall apart.  Or as Nuke would put it, sometimes it rains.

And so while it hurts to go all-in and miss, Indians fans can attest to the excitement that accompanies the initial decision: we’ve seen prospects flame out and we’ve learned the hard lessons about birds in the hand.  When Antonetti decided to pull the trigger on the Ubaldo deal, even the people who disagreed with the particulars of the move were largely encouraged that the team was making a push into its next contention window: the front office was trying to align a group of similarly controlled players to compete over the next few years.  It was exciting to have playoff thoughts again, after years of being irrelevant and terrible.

When the Indians consummated the Ubaldo deal, they were three and half years removed from their last playoff appearance.  Three and a half years of irrelevance and patience and restocking and patience and losing and patience and cold winters and hopeless springs and then more patience.

Here’s the rub: the Royals have not been in the playoffs in 28 years. The last time the Royals made the playoffs there was no Chunnel.  There were no computer viruses. The crew of the Challenger was alive.  Apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa, and would be for another decade.  Bernie Kosar played in the Fiesta Bowl.  It has been an incomprehensibly long drought.

More than anything, that’s what the Royals trade was speaking to, and even though I find the details of the deal to be dubious (at best) from their perspective, I’m also—and I mean this totally unironically—happy for them.  I remember the surge of excitement, the dawn of relevance that was cast on the Indians when they made their big move.  In retrospect, it meant nothing.  Everyone flamed out and we ended up right back where we started.  In 2012, the Indians were outscored by a larger margin than in any season during their nominal rebuild.  But that moment of going all-in still carried significance for the fanbase: all of a sudden, we mattered.  And for now the Royals do too.

It’s completely possible that this move will set the Royals franchise back.  In fact, it’s probably likely.

But I’d also argue that they’re now more likely to make the playoffs next season than they were last week.  And it feels impolitic for me or anyone else to tell them to shut up, hold their cards and wait five more years for their chance to win.  They’ve been waiting five more years for almost three decades now.

Of all people, we should understand the need to push your chips in every once in a while, even when you don’t necessarily have the best hand.  It may not be the rational play, but so far as I can tell, irrationality has a fairly sacred place in sports fandom—would rational people really invest as much time and passion as we do into costumed men performing a timed, organized ritual?

So when I see the blogosphere crucifying the Royals for their impatient negligence, their unwillingness to play their hand as it was dealt, their refusal to JUST BE RATIONAL ABOUT ALL OF THIS LOSING, I want to ask them if they’ve ever taken a chance on anything.  Isn’t sports occasionally about being thrilled rather than being prudent?  When did we all become investment bankers when it comes to our hobbies, anyway?  I want Royals fans to feel good about this trade, if only for the hope it should represent for them.

All that said, the rational side of me is a little worried for them. Myers looks like a beast and Jeff Francouer is Kansas City’s de facto right fielder, which is….not so good.

Problem solved: Choo for Hosmer, straight-up.  Let’s make it happen.

  • mgbode

    Jon, I agree. When I heard this news, I was distraught. Long-term, yes it is more likely a better deal for Tampa. But, for 2012, the Royals actually can field a real MLB rotation and have enough hitting to be a dangerous club.

    And, I don’t get the hate for James Shields. Yes, he’s better at the Trop (most pitchers are), but he was better than Gio Gonzalez when he was traded from equally pitcher-friendly A’s Coliseum to the Nats.

    Gio: 3.3 + 3.6WAR (’10+’11) = 6.9 WAR over seasons prior to trade
    Shields: 4.9+4.3WAR (’11+’12) = 9.2 WAR over 2 seasons prior to trade

    Throw out the career numbers as the last 2 seasons of Shields have a big enough sample size and show his progression as a pitcher.

    Shields (477IP in ’11+’12)
    2011 Home – 2.36ERA/3.12xFIP
    2011 Away – 3.35ERA/3.39xFIP
    2012 Home – 3.25ERA/2.90xFIP
    2012 Away – 3.83ERA/3.64xFIP

    Yes, I’d prefer the Home stats, but those away stats aren’t exactly bad either. And, considering the success of the Gio trade, it’s like baseball writers completely forget recent history of this exact type of trade working.

    Gio (401.1IP in ’11 + ’12) – even showing his ’12 for Gio’s benefit here
    2011 Home – 2.70ERA/3.51xFIP
    2011 Away – 3.62ERA/3.99xFIP
    2012 Home – 2.38ERA/3.06xFIP
    2012 Away – 3.31ERA/3.65xFIP

    Same type of home/away splits, plus he was pitching in the NL in 2012 (which obviously helps). Are the Nats complaining that they gave away prospects for Gio right now?

  • mgbode

    also, James Shields was the 18th most valuable pitcher by WAR in 2012 (ahead of Matt Cain, Kyle Lohse, Jordan Zimmerman and others).

    in 2011, James Shields was the 17th most valuable pitcher by WAR (ahead of David Price, Brandon McCarthy, Tim Lincecum, our own Justin Masterson, and others).

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Man you just love dem stats don’t ya? Funny thing is other then Price none of those other guys make my heart flutter. Shields is solid and it’ll be interesting to see what he does in KC but TB continues to demonstrate how to construct a major league team without having to spend $150 billion.

  • mgbode

    Price has been better than Shields 2 of the last 3 seasons and is most likely the better pitcher moving forward (Shields gives up too many HRs). But, the last 2 seasons, they have both been very good (Shields better in ’11 and Price better in ’12).

    And, Price has those same H/A splits (1.81 home ERA / 3.16 away ERA in ’12).

    ———————————–

    brings up a good point though about the Royals SP staff. they have strengths, but one big weakness: they give up too many HRs. numbers following are rough approximate expected values:

    Shields 1 HR/9IP
    Guthrie 1.25HR/9IP
    E.Santana: 1.5HR/9IP
    W.Davis 1HR/9IP
    Mendoza .75HR/9IP (and he might not start)
    Hochevar 1.25HR/9IP
    Chen 1.5HR/9IP

    That is not a good thing when the team you are trying to compete with is the Detroit Tigers with Miggy, Prince, Victor and Austin Jackson.

  • Natedawg86

    Machine Gun Bode

  • markn95

    As an Indians fan, this Rays-Royals trade actually made me think of the Lee and Sabathia deals. I wondered why Tampa Bay got such a better haul of prospects for James Shields than we did for 2 Cy Young Award winners. Yes, all 3 deals involved prospects and the inherent uncertainty of same, but Wil Myers (unlike Matt LaPorta) will probably start for the playoff-contending Rays from Day One. And don’t even get me started about the Lee deal, where the centerpiece was 19 years old an in A ball. And yes, I know MIL only got Sabathia for half a season, the Phillies got Lee for 1.5 seasons and Shields is under club control for a whopping 2 seasons. Still, the talent if the former two clearly outweigh the latter.

  • WFNY_DP

    A Chinua Achebe reference? Man, you’re a nerd.

    (And yes, I’m aware of the fact that I *got* the reference, and what that means also…)

  • mgbode

    better than pop-gun :)

  • mgbode

    yep, that is fair. the problem with the CC and Lee deals was that desperate team never emerged. the one that just had to have that Cy Young guy no matter the cost (like the Expos w/ Colon). timing is everything.

    in this case, the Royals are sick of sub .500 records and the GM that has built a lauded farm system is on an extremely hot seat. so, he was willing to pay more than normal from that system to get some pants before his fanny hits the sun-drenched bleachers.

  • Steve

    Don’t use fWAR out of context when it comes to pitchers. It doesn’t take into account defense, which the Rays have been superb at for the last few years. Shields still compares favorably to Gonzalez, but you have carefully removed 2010 from Shields resume, which can’t be so easily thrown out.

    Shields is a 107 ERA+ guy, whose basic numbers benefited greatly from that park and defense. He will eat a ton of innings, but he doesn’t prevent runs a whole lot better than league average.

  • Steve

    Aside from the centerpiece of the Lee deal, the Indians got three guys who were rated in the top 100 by Baseball America.

  • mgbode

    2010 can be thrown out pretty easily. Take a look at his 6 MLB seasons with more than 200IP. One of them doesn’t look anything like any of the others. That would be 2010. He has thrown 477IP since then demonstrating it was just a blip.

    Shields also compares nearly equally the past 2 seasons with David Price. So, I am going to say that yes the park and the defense help (and Gio had those as well w/ Oakland), but Shields deserves some credit too.

  • WFNYJon

    Lines such as those you mention are typically included only to entertain the author, who, while drinking and writing rambling pieces about the existential morass of 100-loss baseball teams, feels as though he deserves to be reminded that things could always be worse. He could after all, have been exiled from his community during a yam famine in the middle of a systemic and continent-wide colonization process. When the author thinks of it like that, Matt LaPorta doesn’t seem so bad.

    Any sense of embarrasment created by recognizing the reference is on you, pal :)

  • Steve

    For the last three years, UZR has the Rays about 20 runs/year better defensively than the Athletics. The A’s had some solid defense, but not like those in Tampa.

    And I can’t just let that two years thing go. If we’re ignoring the 75 ERA+ out of Shields, then we have to ignore the 108 ERA+ for Price, making him a ~145 ERA+ guy. Which is vastly more impressive. Shields compares to Price if and only if we look at a two year period. Not one, not three, and not four (and that fourth year helps Shields out a bit). That suggests to me that the comparison is a bit disingenuous.

    Shields belongs at the front of almost any rotation, and his ability to eat innings may be a bit underrated. But he’s not one of the very best pitchers in the game.

    And the major difference between him and Gonzalez is that Shields costs more per year and is there for just two years, compared to the four that Washington was getting before the Gonzalez extension.

  • mgbode

    20runs/year = 0.123runs/game. In 33 starts that is 4 extra runs for the entire season. in 2012, those extra 4 runs would have pushed Shields ERA from 3.52 to 3.53.

    I have already said that Price is the better pitcher moving forward in this thread. We’re arguing on the semantics here.

    just like I am saying Shields is a top20 pitcher in MLB. that really is all. it seems you agree as you say he belongs at the front of almost any rotation. what i have seen about the trade is that Shields is not a front of rotation SP, which is why this is a “bad” trade for KC and then blathering about the Gio being better (which he only was ‘after’ the trade to Washington).

  • Steve

    3.68 ERA for 2012 with the extra runs.

    I don’t think it’s simply semantics when I say that they two aren’t even comparable. I’m saying Shields isn’t even a top 20 pitcher in the AL. He’s a decent enough #2.

  • markn95

    Yeah, but their names are Jason Donald, Carlos Carrasco, and Lou Marson. I don’t mean to be snarky but not everyone on BA’s list pans out, particularly when you get past the 20′s or 30′s. And yes, probably at least 2 of the 4 or so guys the Rays got will fall on their faces too. But when it comes to upside, I’d take Myers over any of the guys the Tribe received for Sabathia and Lee.

  • mgbode

    doh, forgot to do the 9IP math. thanks.

    it is more than semantics if you don’t think Shields is a top20 pitcher in the AL or comparable at all to Price (who played in the same park w/ the same defense). that’s silly talk. the last 2 seasons Shields has been a top20 pitcher in MLB. end.of.story.

    Price was tied for #20 in 2011 and #5 in 2012. Shields tied for #15 and #18. And, if you want to drop Shields in ranking for defensive adjustments, then you need to drop Price too.

  • Steve

    As you know, I’m not going to draw the line at just the perfect spot for Shields. He’s outside the top 20 in the AL in bWAR if you look at 2012, 2010-2012, and 2009-2012.

    And I’m not even sure how we can exclude 2010 but not 2011. 2011 looks less repeatable. The Rays UZR was incredibly high that year, Shields BABIP was .260, well below expected, and perusing bb-ref, it looks like a lot of the run suppression was due to the Rays defense. I’d be willing to bet that Shields becomes HR prone again before he figures out how to improve the defense behind him.

  • WFNY_DP

    Shoot, Okonkwo and me are tiiiight.