Okay, I guess you’re getting three
columns this week.
In some ways, trading Ramon Ramirez for Coco Crisp is similar to trading Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs. In both cases, it’s temptingly easy to take one look at the trade and say, “Wow! The Royals traded a middle reliever for a starting everyday player!” And in both cases, once you actually look at the details of the trade, the question of whether this actually makes the Royals better becomes a lot more complicated.
The difference is that Nunez for Jacobs didn’t help the Royals all that much, relative to a stand-pat move. Trading Ramirez for Crisp does.
Let’s start with what the Royals gave up. Ramirez was nearly as effective in his role as Joakim Soria was in his – Ramirez threw 71.2 innings, allowed just 57 hits, and struck out 70 against just 25 (unintentional) walks. Most impressively of all, he allowed just two home runs. Other than nitpicking his control, there’s really no way to fault those numbers. If he can sustain this kind of performance, then he’s got a closer’s job waiting in his future.
There’s reason to think he can’t. For one, he has a very significant platoon split – RHB hit just .153 against him this year, while LHB hit .300. For his career, RHB bat .198/.275/.311, and LHB are at .283/.355/.403. He’s been so successful in large part because he’s been used to face more RHB than LHB, both in 2008 and for his career as a whole, but this would make him somewhat vulnerable in the late innings (at least in a world where teams don’t carry eight relievers and three bench players.)
That doesn’t make Ramirez’s performance less valuable – after all, we do live in a world where teams carry eight relievers and three bench players. But it makes his performance more easily replaced than a right-handed pitcher who is equally effective against LHB and RHB. Right-handed specialists aren’t terribly hard to find. (This is as good a time as any to make mention of the name Chris Hayes, a sidearming non-drafted free agent out of Northwestern who had a 1.64 ERA in Double-A last year. Hopefully this won’t be the last time his name appears on this blog.)
The other reason for concern with Ramirez is that home run total. When you surrender just two homers in 72 innings, there’s some luck involved. When you surrender two homers in 72 innings and you’re not a groundball pitcher, there’s a lot of luck involved. Ramirez isn’t; his G/F ratio last year was 1.26, which is about league average, and for his career it’s just 1.06.
In Ramon’s defense, if this was a fluke, it’s a long-standing one. With the Rockies, he surrendered just 7 homers in 85 innings, and all but one of them was at Coors Field. In 105 career innings outside the Mountain time zone, he’s allowed just three homers. I don’t think there’s any way he can sustain that, but he may have a real ability to avoid gopher balls not typically seen in a pitcher of his type.
I think the Red Sox have made a fine acquisition. Ramirez is an excellent middle reliever, and there’s no reason to think, absent injury, he’s going to suddenly lose his effectiveness. But injury is not an abstract concern; Ramirez just missed almost an entire season with one, and the churn rate of relief pitchers – even good relief pitchers – is enormous.
In return, the Royals got an everyday hitter, an established major leaguer in his late 20s, a player with some plus skills which do not include command of the strike zone.
That describes Crisp, but it also describes Jacobs, whose weaknesses I have already dissected.
I think Crisp has considerably more value, for a few reasons:
1) While both Jacobs and Crisp don’t walk very much, Crisp hits for a better average, and so has the higher OBP – .331 for his career to Jacobs’ .318.
2) Crisp plays a key defensive position; Jacobs does not.
Crisp, at his best, is one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball.
Jacobs, at his best, is a DH.4)
Crisp plays a position where the Royals didn’t have viable in-house options (assuming they couldn’t live with DeJesus out there anymore, which the Royals felt they couldn’t.)
Jacobs plays a position where the Royals already had too many
Crisp is a switch-hitter with a miniscule platoon split; he has the same career OBP against LHP and RHP, but hits LHP for a touch more power.
Jacobs is a glorified platoon player.
I think that these five advantages make up for Jacobs' massive edge in power, and then some.
As I discussed in my last column when it appeared the Royals might trade for Felix Pie – obviously that seems less likely today – by getting a top-flight defender in center field, the Royals can move DeJesus to left and upgrade their outfield defense at two positions. Make no mistake: the defensive upgrade is the only reason to think this trade makes the Royals better, and it is reason enough to make the trade.
Defensive metrics show that Crisp was just average in 2008, but those same numbers suggest he was the best defensive centerfielder in the majors in 2007, numbers which are borne out by some observers (I believe Bill James was quoted in 2007 as saying that he had never seen someone play defense in center better than the way Crisp was playing it.) Split the difference: Crisp is a significantly above-average centerfielder. DeJesus is overqualified to play left field. Jose Guillen is…ably assisted by Coco Crisp and David DeJesus.
My sometimes colleague at BP, Dayn Perry, wrote a book a while back (“Winners”) in which he broke down many of the championship teams of the last generation to see what they had in common. I think his most interesting point was that he found a preponderance of teams that went to the playoffs had essentially two centerfielders: one of their corner outfielders (generally the leftfielder) was a former centerfielder who still had good range at the position. The most vivid recent example would be the 2005 White Sox, who played Aaron Rowand in center, then went out and got Scott Podsednik to play left - which seemed like a waste of resources, to use a scrappy power-free scutterbug in left field, but it worked pretty well for them.
Correlation does not mean causation, but I think there’s a potential synergy in play here, between a DeJesus-Crisp outfield and a rotation that has four fly-ball pitchers in Greinke, Bannister, Meche, and Davies. Even Soria has a low G/F ratio, although in his case it may be because he gets a lot of popouts. If nothing else, this trade gives Bannister a stronger case to get another shot in the rotation, and it raises the odds of a full-fledged, Cy Young-worthy breakout from The Baseball Jonah.
What this does for the Royals on offense is less clear, because it’s less than clear which version of Coco Crisp we’re getting. Are we getting the barely replacement-level bat of 2006-07? The .300-hitter with double-digit homer power of 2004-05? Or the 2008 version, which was somewhere in between?
Three years ago, Crisp hit .300/.345/.465 with 16 homers and 42 doubles, and was just 25 years old. The Red Sox then traded one of the game’s best prospects (Andy Marte - honestly, he was!) to get Crisp. (It wasn’t all bad for Cleveland – they also got Kelly Shoppach in the deal.) Crisp was useless with the stick for the next two-plus years; .264/.317/.385 in 2006, .268/.330/.382 in 2007, .259/.309/.410 through the All-Star break in 2008. Crisp broke a finger early in the 2006 season, and after the trade Sox’ GM Theo Epstein blamed some of his hitting struggles on the finger.
It’s a bit of a stretch to blame a broken bone in 2006 for his inability to hit in 2007, but if that’s the case, you’d expect his bat to come around eventually, and after the All-Star break this year (keep in mind, in just 47 games), Crisp hit .315/.392/.403. To me, more exciting than the jump in his batting average is the spike in his walk rate – he drew 20 walks in just 175 plate appearances (149 AB) after the Break. It might be a fluke, but he had never before walked in even 10% of his plate appearances in any pre- or post-break stretch in his career.
It’s not unheard of for veteran players to add walks to their repertoire as they get older. Let’s hope that working with Kevin Seitzer can help Crisp maintain his newly-discovered penchant for walks, because I suspect Crisp will be leading off in 2009, regardless of whether or not his skill set is truly right for the job. He fits the part – fast guy, steals some bases, hits the ball into the gap – well enough that I suspect Hillman will overlook his questionable plate discipline.
And honestly, having discussed this issue with Kevin Kietzman and Danny Clinkscale earlier today, I’m not entirely sure where Crisp fits best in the lineup. The reality is that the Royals don’t have any ideal leadoff candidates except for DeJesus, who may also be the Royals’ best candidate to bat third. When building lineups, you want to build from the center out, not from the top down – if DeJesus is your best #3 hitter, then you bat him third, even if he’s also your best leadoff hitter. If that’s the case, then your best leadoff candidates are either Crisp or Alberto Callaspo (assuming Callaspo even starts). Callaspo had a .361 OBP last year, but he had a .265 OBP in 2007; he’s far from a proven commodity. The Royals could do worse than to lead Crisp off and tell him to work the count.
I think that the sum of Crisp’s offensive contributions will approximate those of the man he is replacing, likely Mark Teahen. So it’s a wash on offense, and a pickup of maybe 20 runs on defense. If Crisp hits more like he did in the second half of the year, and Joey Gathright doesn’t bat 300 times again, there’s a potential for another 10 or 20 runs of offense to pick up. So overall Crisp might be worth about 3 additional wins. The loss of Ramirez might cost a win-and-a-half.
So yes, the trade makes the Royals better, but at considerable cost. Crisp will be paid $6.25 million in 2009 (counting his buyout), with an option for 2010 at $7.5 million. Ramirez isn’t arbitration-eligible for another year, and the Red Sox control his services for four years to come. In terms of return on the dollar, the Royals could have found a more efficient way to spend an additional $6 million a year.
Or is it? If you share the Royals’ belief that they needed a new centerfielder, then you have to acknowledge that Crisp is a better player than any centerfielder on the free agent market this winter, unless you think 38-year-old Jim Edmonds can play forever, or unless you want to gamble that Rocco Baldelli’s mitochondria will start functioning normally. The other centerfielders out there include guys like Podsednik and Willie Bloomquist. The only way for the Royals to upgrade in center field was by trade, and Grady Sizemore wasn’t available.
Plus, the Royals are now in a position where they can trade Teahen, but they don’t have to trade him, and they can trade him for the best collection of talent and not simply to fill a specific need. (Maybe the Royals don’t need Pie now, although I’d still like to have him. But if the Cubs are willing to move Fontenot instead, well, I suppose we can live with a second baseman that hit .305/.395/.514 last year.)
But the main reason I like this trade is because Moore proves once again he understands one of the key principles to building a winning baseball team: relievers are fungible. Unless you have a truly transcendental reliever, you should never get too attached to them – and if you do have a truly transcendental reliever, you definitely should not be too attached to the guys that set up for him.
The Braves won for years with guys like Greg McMichael and Kerry Ligtenberg as their closers, never mind their middle relievers. More than any other position on the field, relievers are made, not born. Allard Baird thought otherwise, and kept spending money on born relievers like Roberto Hernandez and Ricky Bottalico and Doug Henry, and with that approach the Royals had the worst bullpen in major league history from 1998 to 2006.
Moore came in and, from scraps and discards, built a better bullpen than Baird ever did. Soria was a Rule 5 pick. Nunez was a minor league starter who Baird had rushed to the majors. Ramirez was inexplicably going to be left off the Rockies’ roster after he missed most of 2007, and Moore grabbed him for Jorge de la Rosa. Robinson Tejeda was waived by the Rangers after washing out as a starter; he had a 3.20 ERA in the pen last year. Horacio Ramirez was released by the Mariners; Moore picked him and he had a 2.59 ERA in 24 innings. Last season, Moore fashioned the Royals’ best bullpen in almost 15 years, with only two guys (Ron Mahay and Yasuhiko Yabuta) earning a seven-figure salary.
Just as impressively as the bullpen he’s put together on the cheap is the talent he’s obtained by trading away relievers. He dismantled the bullpen he inherited, turning Mike MacDougal into Daniel Cortes and the just-released Tyler Lumsden; Andy Sisco for Ross Gload; and Ambiorix Burgos for Brian Bannister. He traded Elmer Dessens for Odalis Perez, and in returned for taking on some salary he picked up Blake Johnson and Julio Pimental. He traded Jeremy Affeldt and Danny Bautista for Ryan Shealy and Scott Dohmann. And that’s just 2006.
He signed Octavio Dotel to a one-year deal, then cashed him for Kyle Davies just in time. He signed David Riske to a one-year deal with a player option; Riske walked away and the Royals got supplemental first-round pick Mike Montgomery for their troubles. This year he picked up Ramon Ramirez for Jorge de la Rosa; picked up Horacio Ramirez and then cashed him in for Paulo Orlando after six weeks; and now moved Ramirez and Nunez for two everyday players.
In the summer of 2006, the Royals had one of the game’s worst bullpens. Within two years, Moore fashioned a very good bullpen, and neither spent a ton of money nor traded away any talent to do so – de la Rosa is the only player the Royals gave up to assemble their 2008 pen. And at the same time, Moore used his existing relief talent to acquire his best pitching prospect (Cortes), two mid-range starting pitchers (Bannister and Davies), a pair of usable 1B/OF types (Gload and Shealy), a first-round draft pick (Montgomery), and some minor league depth (Lumsden, Johnson, Pimental, Orlando.)
That is, in a word, astonishing. Especially since not one trade involving a reliever has come back to haunt Moore – the closest might be the Shealy deal, as Affeldt had a good year for the 2007 Rockies, but he was a free agent at the end of the season.
Moore did err when he traded J.P. Howell for Joey Gathright, but the difference is that Howell was still a starting pitcher and had not been tried in relief. I’ve mentioned this rule of thumb before: never give up on a starter until you’ve tried him as a reliever, because you might be leaving value on the table. But in the case of a pitcher who’s already a reliever, there nowhere left to find untapped ability. (And Moore partly made up for that deal by trading Billy Buckner for Callaspo.)
So I don’t know about you, but if Moore wants to trade another reliever – a reliever he had just acquired for a failed starter eight months ago – for an everyday centerfielder, I have faith he’s going to be able to replenish the well.
I’ve known Christina Kahrl since we started Baseball Prospectus 13 Novembers ago. In that time the Royals have made a lot of trades, some good, some bad, some criminally awful. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say “I love this deal for the Royals” for any of them before.
On Monday, Nate Silver wrote this in our Hot Stove Preview for the Royals, under the question “What Should They Do?”:
“There are two somewhat radical moves that the Royals could consider:
- Recognize that most closers have short lifespans, that the bullpen is fairly deep behind him, and that his trade value will never be higher, and move Joakim Soria for a premium corner outfield talent.
- Decide that they're actually fairly close to contention, and increase payroll by $20 million, hopefully using more discernment in the free-agent market than the sort that brought them Jose Guillen.
Absent doing one of those two things, the Royals are going to be in a holding pattern of some kind or another, with an outside chance of contention if things break just perfectly, but more likely to finish once again with a win total somewhere in the seventies. Sometimes there are no magic bullets and a holding pattern is the best that a team can do, particularly if they have limited financial resources—Kansas City may well be one of those cases. However, Dayton Moore ought to at least be contemplating these sorts of alternatives.”
Moore isn’t going to trade Soria, and he’s not going to try Soria to the rotation. But he’s done the next best thing: knowing he has the security blanket of having the Mexicutioner in the ninth, he’s willing to gamble that he can find pitchers capable of pitching the 7th and 8th. And after this trade, crazy as it sounds, I wonder if he’s setting the Royals up to compete in 2009 if no one runs away with the division.
In fact, I’m pretty sure he is. Because while Crisp makes the Royals a better team, he also makes them more expensive, and he's only under contract through 2010. Setting aside my reservations about Jacobs, I don’t think anyone can argue that replacing Gathright and Gload with Crisp and Jacobs is going to help the team significantly. The problem is that they also raise the team’s payroll significantly, to the tune of over $8 million. The Royals are already bumping up on a $70 million payroll, which they’ve suggested is close to their limit.
I hope that David Glass is willing to show some flexibility in that regard, because the money spent on Jacobs and Crisp will be invested most wisely if it’s accompanied by an additional investment. The addition of Jacobs and Crisp is worth on the order of 5 wins over the course of a year, more if the Royals can turn Teahen into something with present value. Is that enough to make the Royals a contender? No. Even if Gordon or Butler has a breakout season, probably not. If they both have breakout seasons, it’s still a maybe.
But if the Royals add one more bat to the lineup, the calculus changes. The off-season is still young. The Royals have yet to be ruled out of the Rafael Furcal sweepstakes; Furcal, like Crisp, would allow the Royals to upgrade defensively at two positions at once, as Aviles could move to second base. Or perhaps they pony up the dough to sign a big-name starting pitcher, a Ben Sheets or someone of that caliber. Who knows what else Moore has up his sleeve – but unless there’s some money tucked away in his shirt, he’s going to be hard-pressed to make enough moves to propel the Royals into the postseason in the next year or two.
For now, though, the Royals have the luxury of having no more obvious holes to fill in their lineup, and they still have Teahen to dangle out there for whatever suits their fancy. Making this trade in November sets the Royals up to explore every possible trade and free agent option out there in December, without feeling pressured to make a move.
This is not a risk-free trade, but for the Royals, the upside trumps the downside. I think that the Red Sox are more likely to win this trade by a little. But I think that the Royals are more likely to win this trade by a lot.