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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Soriano Should Replace Rivera

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Mariano Rivera was likely lost to the Yankees for the season after tearing his knee—NY Times Story.

A decision will have to be made as to whom is going to record the saves for the Yankees.

All things considered, the best bet to take over in the ninth inning is Rafael Soriano.

As great as Rivera has been, his reputation has been built in the post-season and not in the regular season. Any team can find someone to accumulate the negligible save stat. In certain cases, there have been pitchers—Brad Lidge in 2008 with the Phillies—who were the difference for their team making the playoffs or not because of one brilliant year. During the Yankees’ run with Rivera as their closer, they were so deep and talented that if they didn’t have Rivera, they still would’ve been in the playoffs. What they would’ve done when there is in serious debate and it’s unlikely they would’ve won 5 titles without Rivera—he was the main difference between the Yankees and their World Series opponents during that time.

But this is a situation in which the misinterpreted WAR is a useful stat.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Rivera’s highest WAR was in 1996 at 5.4. That was his one full season in the big leagues when he wasn’t the closer. Setting up for John Wetteland, it was Rivera who did the old-school, heavy lifting the type which the naysayers of the new era of save-collectors have ridiculed as being totally different from what they used to do.

Goose Gossage has been the most vocal in this vein.

And he’s been right.

Without Rivera in 1996, the Yankees weren’t making the playoffs. Much like the Rivera knee injury that may have ended his career, it was an accident of circumstance that led to Rivera’s rise from failed starter to Hall of Fame reliever under Joe Torre. Torre discovered a formula that had been partially used by the 1990 Reds with The Nasty Boys Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton. The Reds’ mediocre starters were asked to get them to the sixth or seventh inning with a lead and the game was handed over to the superlative bullpen.

The 1990 Reds went wire-to-wire and swept the heavily-favored Athletics in the World Series.

The Yankees maintained that template after Wetteland was allowed to leave as a free agent following the 1996 season and brought in several set-up men to do the work Rivera did by himself.

Now, with Rivera gone, the conventional wisdom suggests that the Yankees will simply elevate David Robertson to the closer’s role and everyone else—Soriano, possibly Phil Hughes—will be used in the seventh and eighth innings.

But that’s a mistake.

It’s Robertson who’s doing the heavy lifting now. Rivera was a devastating weapon in the ninth inning, but Robertson might have become more valuable with his ridiculous strikeout numbers (12.2 per 9 innings) and an ability to magically get out of trouble that’s resulted in him being nicknamed “Houdini”.

For him to enter in the ninth inning as if by rote would render his skills relatively useless.

I suppose they could leave the current configuration as is and do something outside-the-box (that would probably work) and use Hughes as the closer, but the Yankees have shown no evidence of going so completely against the grain and their own misguided organizational rules and regulations for their pitchers to think that they’d do that.

Soriano has successfully closed before and has never gotten comfortable with pitching in the earlier innings. Perhaps giving him the ninth inning will revert him back to what he was with the Rays in 2010 when he saved 45 games, made the All-Star team and was eighth in the Cy Young Award voting.

Soriano can’t handle post-season pressure and has been disturbingly susceptible to the home run ball. That would lean me in the direction of Hughes as the closer. Either way, the heavy lifting should be left to Robertson without the onus of the save stat hanging over their heads and dictating strategy in lieu of doing what’s right to win the game in the now.

Worrying about what happens in the post-season isn’t as great a concern as getting there. Without Rivera, the stiffer competition in the American League and the resulting shifting of the pieces due to his loss, a playoff berth is no longer a guarantee for the Yankees.

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