MLB Trade Deadline: Relievers and the Eric Gagne-Jesse Crain Parallel

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It’s safe to say the two veteran relief pitchers the Red Sox just signed to minor league contracts, Brandon Lyon and Jose Contreras, won’t be the missing pieces to their hoped-for 2013 championship puzzle. Suffice it to also say that neither will pitch as terribly as Eric Gagne did when the Red Sox surrendered three players to get the veteran closer from the Rangers in 2007. If they do, it’s no harm/no foul.

The trade for Gagne was meant to create shutdown eighth and ninth innings with Gagne and Jonathan Papelbon and lead them to a World Series title. They won the title with no help from Gagne, who posted a 6.75 ERA with 26 hits allowed in 18 2/3 innings after the trade and pitched as badly in the post-season as he did in the regular season. In retrospect the trade wasn’t one in which the Red Sox are lamenting letting young players they needed get away.

For Gagne, they traded former first round draft pick outfielder David Murphy, lefty pitcher Kason Gabbard and young outfielder Engel Beltre. Murphy has been a good player for the Rangers, but the Red Sox haven’t missed him. Gabbard was a soft-tossing lefty whose career was derailed by injuries and actually wound up back with the Red Sox in 2010 for 11 Triple A appearances and hasn’t pitched since. If the Red Sox wind up regretting the trade it will because of Beltre who is still only 23, has speed, occasional pop and can play centerfield. Regardless of what happens with him, few will hold it against them for trading a 17-year-old in the quest of a championship that they wound up winning independent of Gagne’s terribleness.

The trade could have been far more disastrous than it was and it was due to the club overvaluing both the player they were getting and the importance of a relief pitcher who was not a closer. Interestingly, as written by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy in The Red Sox Years, the Red Sox original intention was to use Papelbon as a set-up man and install Gagne as the closer. They went so far as to go to Papelbon’s home prior to pulling the trigger to discuss the possibility of letting Gagne close. Papelbon objected and the club made the trade anyway to use Gagne as the set-up man. As the numbers show, it didn’t work and it might have been hellish had they made Gagne the closer by alienating Papelbon, angering a clubhouse and fanbase still harboring dreaded memories from the failed 2003 attempt at a closer-by-committee, and repeating a mistake that the Red Sox have—even today—continued to make in undervaluing a good and reliable closer.

No one is expecting Lyon or Contreras to be key contributors to a title run, but they’re “why not?” moves to see if they can get cheap production from a couple of veterans. It’s doubtful the Red Sox are going to give up a top prospect for a non-closer again. Already the club inquired with the Mets about Bobby Parnell and the Mets reportedly asked for Jackie Bradley Jr., to which the Red Sox wisely said no. The Mets are willing to move Parnell if they get that kind of offer but it’s hard to see that happening, so it’s unlikely that they trade him. However, one relief pitcher who is on the market and will be traded is Jesse Crain of the White Sox. What happened with Gagne should not be lost on a team hoping to bolster their relief corps by acquiring Crain.

Gagne, before the trade, was closing for the Rangers. He’d saved 16 games, posted a 2.16 ERA, struck out 29 in 33 1/3 innings and allowed 23 hits. For the White Sox this season Crain made the All-Star team and is in the midst of the year of his life with a 0.74 ERA, 31 hits allowed in 36 2/3 innings (with a .337 BAbip), 46 strikeouts, 11 walks and no homers. Crain has always been a solid set-up man, strikes out more than a batter-per-inning and is a free agent at the end of the season. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s not worth what the White Sox are going to want for him and might possibly get from a desperate team looking to help their bullpen. In reality, the team that acquires Crain won’t win the championship because of him if he pitches as well as he is now, nor will they lose it if he falls to earth.

There are times in which it’s worth it to give up the top prospect to get that last missing piece if the championship is the goal. The Marlins traded former first pick in the draft Adrian Gonzalez to get Ugueth Urbina in 2003. That trade is nowhere near as bad as it would’ve been if Gonzalez had blossomed for the Rangers and the Marlins hadn’t won the World Series, but the Rangers also traded Gonzalez (no one knew how good he really was), and the Marlins did win the World Series that year. They might’ve won it with or without Urbina, but the bottom-line perception is what counts and the title justifies anything they did to get it. It’s the same thing with Gagne. The Red Sox won the title, so nothing else really matters.

Will Crain yield that for the team that acquires him? Is it likely? Probably not on both counts. The only time to give up a significant piece for a known set-up man is if you’re getting Mariano Rivera from 1996 Yankees or the Rob Dibble/Norm Charlton combination from the 1990 Reds’ Nasty Boys. Other than that, a team is better off doing what the Red Sox did with Lyon and Contreras and tossing a dart at a dartboard or finding a reliever who isn’t in the midst of his career year as Crain is and hoping that a move to a contending team and more than a little luck turns into a “genius” move when it was exceedingly lucky.

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Myers to the Bullpen and Luhnow’s Betrayal

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It must’ve been a kick to the gut of the hard core stat people who felt that they finally had one of their own running a club in the way they would run a team if given the opportunity when the GM of the Astros, Jeff Luhnow, okayed the move of Brett Myers from starter to closer.

The reactions ranged from anger to bewildered to non-answer answers in trying to “protect” Luhnow because they don’t want to put forth the impression of infighting in the mostly monolithic “this is how to do it” world of hardline stat-based theory.

Luhnow doesn’t need your protection and obviously, he’s not going to follow a specific set in stone blueprint in running his club.

The underlying sense I got from the responses I saw on Twitter were indicative of righteous indignation and the feeling of betrayal as if a spouse had cheated on them.

(Insert your stat guy/spouse joke here.)

“But, but, but…you’re one of us!!!”

In truth, the shifting of Myers to the bullpen can be argued both ways.

He was a good closer with the Phillies in 2007 and enjoyed the role, the adrenaline rush and the game-on-the-line aspect of doing to the job.

He’s a durable starter who can give a club 200 innings and, at times, pitch well.

The Astros need a closer because they don’t trust Brandon Lyon and the other candidates—David Carpenter and Juan Abreu—are inexperienced.

What you have to do in trying to understand the Astros’ thinking is examine what the long-term strategy is.

They’re not going to be a good team either way and when they are, Myers is not going to be on the roster in any capacity, so how would having Myers for 2012 best help expedite their rebuilding project?

Myers’s contract pays him a guaranteed $14 million with $11 million for 2012, a $10 million club option for 2013 and a $3 million buyout.

Teams have frequently overpaid for good relievers as opposed to mediocre starters in trades in recent years. The Nationals got Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps; the Rangers gave up young talent for Koji Uehara, Mike Gonzalez and Mike Adams; the Rangers got Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco and got David Murphy for Eric Gagne.

What would be the most lucrative return on Myers at mid-season? It depends on whether he’s pitching as he did last season as a starter or as he did in 2010; either way, he probably wouldn’t be a contributor in the post-season for a team that gets him in that role. But as a reliever he would be more attractive to teams with their eyes on post-season help.

It’s cold reasoning not in the Astros using Myers for themselves on the field, but using him to get a few pieces to make themselves better in the future.

Moving Myers to the bullpen could end up being seen as a smart move.

At least there’s an argument for it.

But stat people are reacting as if Luhnow has betrayed them and it displays the lack of in-the-trenches understanding of how to run a team that led them to relying on stats rather than intuitive, subjective interpretations of circumstances to begin with.

They’re a crutch.

Crunching numbers, reading and regurgitating lines off a stat sheet and steering an organization by rote is not how a successful team can and should be run.

Jeff Luhnow knows that.

Do you?

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The Remainders

Hot Stove

As spring training approaches, the Rays weekend signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez diminishes the number of remaining free agent “names” available in star power and financial obligation.

But that doesn’t mean these names can’t help.

In certain cases, their presence could make the difference between a playoff spot and going home for the winter.

Let’s have a look at some of the recognizable players and where they could and/or should wind up landing.

Vladimir Guerrero—DH/very part-time OF

Guerrero proved he can still hit last season and it wasn’t a creation of Rangers Ballpark because his numbers were similar at home and on the road—link.

What does he want? Is he looking for more than a 1-year deal? Does he want to go to a specific place?

He’s hindered in that he can’t play the outfield anymore, eliminating the entire National League.

He could go back to the Rangers if they decide they don’t want to play David Murphy every day; don’t trust Chris Davis or Mitch Moreland at first base and shift Michael Young there; or are concerned about Josh Hamilton‘s injury history. But these are not guaranteed at bats and Guerrero proved he still deserves to play regularly.

It’s a comparable situation with the Angels as they appear intent on at least giving Peter Bourjos the chance to play center field every day with newly acquired Vernon Wells in left and Bobby Abreu as the DH. Guerrero is still a fit if they determine that they’d be better overall with Wells in center, Abreu in left and Guerrero as the DH.

I understand why the Orioles would consider Guerrero because of his still productive bat and that he’d be a great influence on the young players like Adam Jones and Felix Pie. One would assume Vlad’s mother would be accompanying him wherever he goes; it can’t be discounted how important that influence and home cooking was to both the Angels and Rangers young Latin players.

But do the Orioles need Guerrero and, at this stage in his career, does he want to be a pure babysitter for a team that has literally no chance at contention? Manager Buck Showalter would love to have Guerrero as a conduit to the players, but to me, it’s not the right fit.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

The Blue Jays could use his bat and maybe—maybe—Guerrero could get through the thick skulls of Edwin Encarnacion and Yunel Escobar.

The best place for Guerrero could be the Tigers. They don’t have a pure DH; it would be a short-term deal so they wouldn’t have to be concerned about clogging up the DH slot for Miguel Cabrera/Victor Martinez and they’re a legitimate contender.

Most importantly, it wouldn’t be because of off-field leadership; they’d be getting Guerrero to try and win now. And they can.

Joe Beimel—LHP/Ron Mahay—LHP

Contending teams are missing an opportunity with Beimel or Mahay. Every year they’re floating around looking for work as a lefty specialists and are generally the last ones out there, signing right before spring training.

Inexpensive and wise for clubs who are smart enough to foresee the future, they’re necessary.

The Yankees have three lefties in their bullpen with Pedro Feliciano, Boone Logan and Damaso Marte, but Marte is a question as to whether he’s going to be healthy. If the Yankees truly intend to go with a bullpen-based pitching staff, get what they can out of the starters after C.C. Sabathia and mix-and-match depending on the situation, they’re going to need all the arms they can get and an extra lefty could mean the difference between making the playoffs and not. Joe Girardi’s bullpen machinations aren’t trustworthy and if he’s entering the season with it in mind to micro-manage on his micro-managing, it could be a problem.

The Red Sox are going to be coming at them with Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and J.D. Drew—the Yankees are going to need the extra left-handed arms.

The Phillies also only have J.C. Romero, Antonio Bastardo and Mike Zagurski as lefties—none of whom is going to scare anyone. they do have Dan Meyer in camp, but Meyer is historically better against righties than lefties.

Looking ahead to possible post-season matchups with the Braves and Red Sox isn’t paranoia, it’s forward thinking and another reliable lefty is going to be a necessity.

It’s not that Beimel or Mahay are frightening, but they’re good at the role of lefty specialist.

Jorge Cantu—1B/3B

If I thought he could still play second base, I’d say the Mets should have a look at Cantu, but I doubt he can.

Cantu didn’t hit for the Rangers after they got him from the Marlins, but he has a habit of disappearing for a year or two and coming back with a big year. He fights through at bats and has good power. If he’s looking for a starting job, he’s going to have trouble finding one, but if he wants a backup role, the Phillies and Yankees could both use him. If he hits, he might be the Angels best option at third base on a cheap deal.

Teams will sorely regret missing a playoff spot or championship because they scrimped and saved where they didn’t have to. Lefty specialist, power bat off the bench and on/off field positive influence are valuable; with the above players, they’re not costly either.