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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Mid-Season Trade Candidates–Justin Morneau

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Name: Justin Morneau

Tale of the tape: 31-years-old; bats left; throws right; 6’4”; 220 lbs.

Contract status: $14 million annual salary for 2012 and 2013; free agent after 2013.

Would the Twins trade him?

Yes.

This was reported with an undertone of shock as if it was unheard of before the likes of Ken Rosenthal implied it as a possibility. The Twins took an attitude of “let’s get back to doing things the Twins way” when Terry Ryan stepped back into the General Manager’s seat. Part of that was hoping Morneau recovered enough from his post-concussion issues and other injuries to become the MVP-level player he was until mid-season 2010 when his world—literally and figuratively—was shaken from its axis from a blow to the head trying to break up a double play. Since then it’s been one thing or another for Morneau and the Twins. The team has become a punching bag.

They’re not dumping salary just for the sake of it so Joe Mauer won’t be available, but Morneau is a free agent after 2013, he won’t be around when they start to get better and clearing that salary will free them to spend it on what they need this winter (pitching) and get rid of Morneau while he’s healthy and showing signs of a resurgence.

There’s a thought that the trading of Morneau would allow the Twins to move Mauer to first base, but I don’t think that’s as automatic as is being suggested. Mauer is smart enough to understand that his bat is far more valuable than his ability to catch, but he likes and wants to catch. Had the Twins held onto Wilson Ramos, they would’ve had a capable and young replacement behind the plate. Now they don’t. If Mauer plays first base, it will be on a part-time basis. I’d expect the Twins to find an everyday first baseman on the cheap for a short-term deal until Mauer is past his 30th birthday and is ready to make the permanent shift from behind the plate.

The Twins’ mistake in trading Ramos is now being magnified for the gaffe it was. They got a pretty good reliever in Matt Capps, but he’s most certainly not worth a team’s number 1 prospect whether his path is blocked by a Hall of Fame-level player in Mauer or not. If a team is trading that type of talent there are two things that can save them: 1) have it work as it did for the Marlins when they traded Adrian Gonzalez as part of the deal to get Ugueth Urbina and won the World Series; and 2) have the team that traded for the player either trade him as well or see him fail. Because the Rangers also traded Gonzalez (who wasn’t considered a great prospect by either team), it’s not referenced as a horrible trade.

It’s a dual-pronged defense for the Marlins.

Morneau—if he’s healthy and hitting for power—could be the difference between not making the playoffs and winning the World Series.

What would they want for him?

The Twins need everything from starting pitching to bullpen help to a corner infield bat who can hit.

It’s not outrageous to think they could get legitimate prospects in two of those spots and a moderate prospect in the third. If they’re willing to eat some of Morneau’s salary, they’ll get better prospects. The idea that the Twins are a mid-market team is accurate in name only. The Pohlad family is one of the richest ownerships in sports. The business model exercised by the late Carl Pohlad made it appear as if they held the team payroll in check out of necessity, but that’s not the case. It was a conscious choice. Pohlad was criticized for it, but he was a businessman. Like most offshoots of a wide-ranging structure, the Twins had a budget and Pohlad made his baseball people stick to it without doling endless streams of extra money from the emergency jar.

There’s nothing wrong with that and for the Twins, it worked.

Which teams would pursue and have the prospects to get him?

The Yankees, Blue Jays, Indians, Marlins, Cardinals and Dodgers have the financial wherewithal and prospects to get it done. Other clubs that might be involved if they’re willing to give up what the Twins want in exchange for Morneau and money to pay him are the Indians and Pirates.

What will happen.

Morneau is going to get traded and I’d bet on him winding up with the Dodgers.

Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti is aggressive and doesn’t mess around. Much was made of his decision to trade Carlos Santana as part of the trade that got the Dodgers Casey Blake in 2008. In the long-term, it was a mistake; in the short-term with a little luck the Dodgers could’ve won a World Series or two with Blake. Had that happened, it would’ve been the same situation as the Marlins had with trading Gonzalez for Urbina. With the new ownership taking over, Colletti will be free to do as he sees fit. Upgrading the offense is paramount for the Dodgers and Morneau fills that bill.

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The Marlins Sign a Name—Heath Bell

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If any team exemplifies the ability to find someone (anyone) to accumulate the save stat and do a reasonable job as the closer it’s the Florida Marlins.

The Marlins signed Heath Bell to a 3-year, $27 million deal with a vesting option for a fourth year at $9 million; this is more about getting a “name” and “personality” to drum up fan interest than acquiring someone whom they can trust as their ninth inning man for a club that clearly has designs on contending.

To be clearer, the Marlins have an intent on looking like they’re trying to contend.

So it was that they made offers to Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and made a great show in hosting C.J. Wilson.

What the offers were and whether they’re truly competitive enough to snag any of those players is a matter of leaks, ignorant guesswork and storytelling.

The Marlins traded for a feisty and successful “name” manager as well when they acquired Ozzie Guillen from the White Sox.

They’re doing a lot of stuff.

Bell will be at least serviceable as the Marlins closer and probably good. $27 million over 3-years isn’t a ridiculous amount of money, but if the Marlins were still running the team as they did under Jeffrey Loria in the days of saving money and collecting revenue sharing fees while putting forth the pretense of being broke and desperate for a new (publicly financed) stadium, under no circumstances would they have paid Bell.

And that’s the point.

On an annual basis, the Marlins closer was dynamic and interchangeable with a bunch of journeyman names that changed (in more ways than one considering the situation of Leo Nunez AKA Juan Oviedo) and were decent at an affordable price.

Braden Looper, Ugueth Urbina, Armando Benitez, Todd Jones, Joe Borowski, Kevin Gregg, Matt Lindstrom, Oviedo—all were the Marlins nominal closer at times. Some were very good; some were mediocre; some were bad. But all accrued saves for a team that was on the cusp of contention for much of that time and they did it cheaply. Would the Marlins have had a better chance to make the playoffs had they been trotting Mariano Rivera to the mound to the blistering tune of “Enter Sandman”? They might’ve won a few more games and it might’ve made a difference, but Bell is not Rivera.

This is something the stat people don’t understand when they say “anyone” can get the saves. It’s true, but not accurate in full context.

The 2008 Phillies could’ve found someone to be the closer, but that closer wouldn’t have been as great as Brad Lidge was in the regular season or the playoffs and with them teetering on missing the playoffs entirely, they might not have made it at all without Lidge.

Rivera’s aura says that the game is essentially over upon his arrival; his ice cold ruthlessness behind a pacifist smile and post-season calm provides the Yankees with a not-so-secret weapon; the biggest difference between themselves and their closest competitors during their dynasty was Rivera.

The Phillies could’ve kept Ryan Madson to be the closer and saved a few dollars rather than paying Jonathan Papelbon, but with the way they’re currently built around starting pitching, it made no sense to risk blowing games or overuse those starters because of an untrustworthy closer. Their window to win in within the next 3-4 years and they needed someone with a post-season pedigree and the known ability to handle a high-pressure atmosphere like Philadelphia.

That’s aptly describes Papelbon.

With the Marlins, they have so many other holes to fill that Bell is a nice bauble to acquire; he’ll generate some headlines and send a signal to the rest of baseball and the free agent market that they’re not putting on a show to garner attention, but are legitimately improving. They could’ve done it in a different, cheaper way, but it’s not about Bell and Bell alone—it’s about several things including public relations, media exposure, selling tickets and that aforementioned message to the other free agents to say, “hey look, we’re not doing this just so people talk about us.”

Whether it works and they lure free agents to Florida is another matter; and if they’re going to do that and get Reyes, Wilson, Prince Fielder, Mark Buehrle, Pujols or any combination of the group, they’ll have to write them a check substantially higher than the $27 million they just handed Bell.

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Draft Bored

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To punctuate the absurdity of the attention paid to the MLB Draft as if it’s on a level with the NBA/NFL versions in terms of relevance, I thought it’d be interesting—for context purposes only—to look at each team, their best player(s) and the circumstances under which they drafted, signed and acquired by their current clubs.

I can say this stuff because I’m not attached to a corporate entity with advertising dollars as a circular end like ESPN; not beholden to anyone but myself; do not pledge fealty to anything but the truth as I see it.

Let’s take a look. First the teams, then the “best” player(s) as I see them, then a brief background.

Tampa Bay Rays—Evan Longoria

Longoria was the 3rd pick in the 2006 draft after the Stuart Sternberg operation took full control of running the then-Devil Rays. The Royals took Luke Hochevar with the first overall pick; the Rockies took Greg Reynolds next.

Of the top ten that year, the notable names are Brandon Morrow and Tim Lincecum—forever linked because the Mariners bypassed the local product Lincecum in favor of the more aesthetically pleasing Morrow (and I’d have done the same thing). Brad Lincoln went 4th to the Pirates; Clayton Kershaw was taken at 7 by the Dodgers.

New York Yankees—CC Sabathia/Robinson Cano

You can make an argument for either being the Yankees “best” player.

Sabathia was taken with the 20th pick the 1st round by the Indians in 1998. Pat Burrell went 1st overall; Mark Mulder 2nd; J.D. Drew 5th.

The Yankees paid Sabathia a lot of money to sign with them.

Cano was signed as an amateur free agent in 2001; the Yankees had no clue what he was in the minors because if they did, they wouldn’t have offered him as part of the package for Alex Rodriguez; apparently the Rangers didn’t know either.

No one knew.

In fact, none other than that noted baseball expert Mike Francesa, along with then-partner Chris Russo, took joy in ridiculing the Yankees decision to bench Tony Womack in favor of Cano in 2005 when the move was initially made.

Boston Red Sox—Adrian Gonzalez

A couple of other Red Sox players like Kevin Youkilis could be considered the “best”; Youkilis was drafted in the 8th round of the 2001 draft by Dan Duquette’s unfairly criticized regime.

In an under-reported and swept-under-the-rug fact from Moneyball, Youkilis was going to be the compensation for the Athletics letting Billy Beane out of his contract to take over the Red Sox after 2002.

That wouldn’t have gone well.

As for Gonzalez, he was the 1st overall pick of the Marlins in 2000; Chase Utley was taken 15th; Adam Wainwright 29th.

Gonzalez was traded by the Marlins to the Rangers in 2003 for Ugueth Urbina and won a World Series they probably wouldn’t have won without Urbina.

The Rangers made one of the worst trades in major league history dealing Gonzalez and Chris Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka; Rangers GM Jon Daniels has since said that the Rangers had a first baseman in Mark Teixeira and didn’t know how good Gonzalez was.

The Red Sox traded a package of prospects to the Padres for Gonzalez and signed him to a long-term contract for $154 million.

Toronto Blue Jays—Jose Bautista

Bautista is a case study of the ridiculousness of the draft.

He was a 20th round pick of the Pirates in 2000. He went to the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft in 2003; was selected off waivers by the Devil Rays in 2004; was purchased by the Royals three weeks later; was then traded to the Mets for Justin Huber; was spun off immediately back to the Pirates for Kris Benson. This all happened within a few weeks.

He was traded to the Blue Jays for a player to be named later in 2008.

Now he’s a wrecking machine and he didn’t establish himself until he was 29-years-old.

Baltimore Orioles—Adam Jones

Jones was the 37th pick in the 1st round by the Mariners in 2003. He was traded by then-Mariners GM Bill Bavasi to the Orioles in a package for Erik Bedard in what’s turned out to be a horrific trade for the Mariners.

Cleveland Indians—Shin-Soo Choo

If he was 100%, Grady Sizemore might be the Indians “best” player, but he’s not. The Indians took advantage of the fact that Expos GM Omar Minaya was under the impression that there would no longer be an Expos franchise after the 2002 season and got Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Lee Stevens for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.

As for Choo, he was an undrafted free agent signee by the Mariners in 2000 and was traded to the Indians for Ben Broussard in 2006.

Detroit Tigers—Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Marlins in 1999 out of Venezuela. The Marlins won a World Series with him as a blossoming and fearless young star in 2003, then traded him and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers in a salary dump for a package of youngsters after 2007.

Kansas City Royals—Billy Butler

Butler was taken by the Royals with the 14th pick of the 1st round in 2004. Stephen Drew was taken by the Diamondbacks next; Phil Hughes by the Yankees later.

Chicago White Sox—Paul Konerko

Konerko was a 1st round pick of the Dodgers in 1994. He was a catcher who was traded to the Reds for Jeff Shaw; then to the White Sox for Mike Cameron.

Minnesota Twins—Joe Mauer

In 2001, the Twins were ridiculed for taking the hometown, high school hero Mauer when Mark Prior was poised, polished and nearly big league ready.

It was a pick based on sentiment; it was a mistake.

Or so it was said.

Um. No. It wasn’t a mistake.

Oakland Athletics—Trevor Cahill

Cahill was plucked in the 2nd round of the 2006 draft and he was a dreaded….high school pitcher; the exact type of prospect the Athletics and Billy Beane (according to the twisted fantasies of Michael Lewis) were supposed to avoid.

Yah.

Texas Rangers—Josh Hamilton

I think we all know the story of Josh Hamilton by now as a cautionary tale. The first pick in the 1999 draft by the Devil Rays, addiction nearly destroyed his entire life. Now he’s the reigning AL MVP.

Los Angeles Angels—Jered Weaver

Weaver was taken with the 12th pick of the 1st round in the 2004 draft.

Seattle Mariners—Felix Hernandez

The Venezuelan Hernandez was signed as an amateur free agent in 2002 at the age of 16.

Philadelphia Phillies—Roy Halladay

Those who try to manipulate you by not disclosing full details can use Halladay’s status as a 1st round pick in 1995 of the Blue Jays as an example of the value of 1st round picks.

But Halladay was a failure mentally and physically until coach Mel Queen lit into him, broke down his entire being and rebuilt him into the monster he’s become. The pitcher he is now is not the pitcher whom the Blue Jays drafted, 1st round or no 1st round.

Florida Marlins—Josh Johnson

Johnson was a 4th round pick in 2002 and is now one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.

Atlanta Braves—Jason Heyward

Heyward was drafted in the 1st round by the Braves in 2007 with the 14th pick; he’s an MVP candidate if he can stay healthy.

Washington Nationals—Ryan Zimmerman

Zimmerman was taken in the 1st round of the 2005 draft with the 4th pick.

You can’t quibble with Zimmerman, but that was a very strong draft with Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Clay Buchholz and Andrew McCutchen all taken after Zimmerman.

New York Mets—Jose Reyes

Reyes was signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1999 at age 16.

Cincinnati Reds—Joey Votto

Votto was a 2nd round pick of the Reds in the 2002 draft. Brian McCann was taken later in the 2nd round by the Braves.

St. Louis Cardinals—Albert Pujols

Pretty much the only issue I had with Jonah Keri’s book, The Extra 2% detailing the rise of the Rays, was the chapter that discussed how they missed on Pujols as an example of the Chuck LaMar regime’s cluelessness concerning the draft.

Everyone missed on Pujols.

Nobody thinks a 13th round pick is even going to make it, let alone become this era’s version of Joe DiMaggio, but that’s what Pujols is.

Would Keith Law or Jonathan Mayo even have known who Pujols was had they been focusing on the draft to the degree that they do today?

No chance.

Milwaukee Brewers—Ryan Braun

Braun’s selection was discussed in the bit about Zimmerman.

You could make the argument that Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke or Yovani Gallardo are the Brewers “best” players. Fielder was said in Moneyball to be “too fat” for the A’s to draft in a draft in which they were intent on drafting players who weren’t would-be jeans models.

Fielder turned out pretty well I’d say.

Pittsburgh Pirates—Andrew McCutchen

I’m biased because I think McCutchen is going to be a MEGA-star. He too was in the Braun/Zimmerman draft.

Chicago Cubs—Starlin Castro

The Dominican Castro was signed as an amateur free agent at the age of 16 in 2006.

Houston Astros—Brett Wallace

It’s hard to pinpoint a “best” player on a team like the Astros, but Wallace qualifies I suppose.

Wallace was taken in the 1st round of the 2008 draft by the Cardinals and Ike Davis was taken a few picks later. Wallace was traded by the Cardinals to the A’s for Matt Holliday; traded by the A’s to the Blue Jays for Michael Taylor in the complicated series of deals involving Halladay and Lee; then was traded by the Blue Jays to the Astros for Anthony Gose.

Colorado Rockies—Troy Tulowitzki

Tulowitzki was taken in the 2005 draft detailed earlier.

San Francisco Giants—Tim Lincecum

The 10th pick in the 2006 draft, teams were scared off by his diminutive size (listed at 5’11”—YAH!! RIGHT!!!); his unique motion and training regimen that his stage father demanded not be altered in any way.

Back then, I would’ve drafted Kershaw and Morrow before Lincecum myself.

Los Angeles Dodgers—Matt Kemp

Kemp was taken in the 6th round of the 2003 draft. His attitude has long been a question, but his talent hasn’t.

Arizona Diamondbacks—Justin Upton

Upton was the first pick in the oft-mentioned 2005 draft. You can make a lukewarm argument against him, but he’s an excellent player.

San Diego Padres—Heath Bell

You can argue that Mat Latos is their best player, but right now it’s Bell.

Bell was picked by the Devil Rays in the 69th round of the 1997 draft but didn’t sign; he signed with the Mets as an amateur free agent in 1998. Much has been made of the Mets “failure” to give Bell a real opportunity and his clashes with then-pitching coach Rick Peterson.

Despite his frequent travel time on the Norfolk shuttle between the big leagues and Triple A, Bell did get a chance for the Mets and pitched poorly. The trade the Mets made of Bell and Royce Ring for Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson was awful, but I’m sick of Bell complaining about how he was treated by the Mets.

If he’d pitched the way he is now, the Mets wouldn’t have traded him.

Are you starting to get my point?

Watching the draft to the degree that MLB and ESPN are trying to sell it is a waste of time, energy and sometimes money for the observers.

You never know which players are going to make it and from where they’re going to come.

Accept it or not, it’s the truth.

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