“Double-A will be a good test for O’Sullivan in 2009. If his secondary stuff comes around, he could be a No. 4 starter on a big league contender.”
- Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2009
“A hamstring pull and a lower back injury limited [Smith] to 19 starts last year, but if he comes to camp in shape he should advance to high Class A. His ceiling is as a No. 4 starter.”
- Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2010
Well, it’s a trade. That’s something.
I’ll admit: my initial reaction to this trade is that I was underwhelmed. This put me in an unfamiliar position: given that the general reaction (both from Royals fans and Angels fans) is that the Royals won the trade, I find myself being more pessimistic than most about this move. We’ll get to why that is later.
First off, let’s talk about who the Royals acquired. Sean O’Sullivan, in addition to having the most Irish-sounding name in the history of the Royals, is an essentially major-league ready starting pitcher. Shades of Kyle Davies, who was probably the best pitcher in the country at his age level when he was 14 and 15, O’Sullivan was perhaps the best high school junior in America in 2004. But his velocity dropped as a senior, and he dropped to the third round. The velocity has never returned – he throws in the 90-92 range – but he has made up for it with command and the ability to throw three average pitches.
He was the Angels’ #5 prospect going into last season per Baseball America, and despite an unimpressive 5.48 ERA for Salt Lake City, he made 10 starts for the playoff-bound Angels. His 5.92 ERA aside, it says something that the Angels turned to a 21-year-old pitcher in a pennant race.
He returned to Salt Lake this year, and while his ERA dropped to 4.76, his peripherals were basically the same: a little more than a hit an inning, about 6 Ks and 3 BBs per 9 innings. Those aren’t good numbers, but there’s an important caveat here: the Angels’ top three affiliates all play in good hitters’ parks. The same park effects that have made Brandon Wood such a bust* make their pitchers look worse than they are.
*: In 2005, at the age of 20, Brandon Wood had ONE HUNDRED AND ONE extra-base hits in a minor-league season. Three years later, he hit .200/.224/.327 in the majors. Two years after that – this year – he’s hitting .168/.185/.225. Which is why the Angels wanted Callaspo in the first place.
If you wanted to compare O’Sullivan to Brian Bannister, you wouldn’t be far off. Statistically, Bannister’s minor league numbers were a tick better; in terms of scouting reports, O’Sullivan is slightly better, but that doesn’t give Banny any credit for his cerebral approach on the mound. Bannister, at his best, is a #4 starter, and he’s not always at his best. That may describe O’Sullivan as well.
The biggest difference is that O’Sullivan is still just 22, while Bannister was already 26 when he first pitched for the Royals. But the aging curve doesn’t apply to pitchers the way it does for hitters. If O’Sullivan was a 22-year-old hitter, you could almost guarantee that he’d be a better player in four years than he is now. But for pitchers, sometimes they’re as good in their early 20s as they’ll ever be. Pitchers tend to improve their command as they age, but they also tend to lose velocity on their fastball. Many pitchers – like O’Sullivan – throw harder in high school than they ever will as a professional. If O’Sullivan were a power arm that needed to be tamed, I’d say he might get better with time. But he’s already got the polish – what he needs is a few more mph on his fastball, and the odds of that happening are slim.
Still, he’s a serviceable starter, who has the cache of just beating the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in his last start. If he starts on Sunday, as I expect he will, he’ll have a chance to win consecutive starts at Yankee Stadium pitching for the opposing team, which if nothing else should lead to a paragraph or two from Jayson Stark.
When the rumor of a Callaspo trade to the Angels first surfaced a few days ago, it was reported as O’Sullivan and “a fringe prospect”, and as I said on radio on Wednesday, that wasn’t nearly enough. Fortunately, it appears that the Angels upped their offer, as I wouldn’t describe Will Smith as a fringe guy.
Smith, in addition to having the most Fresh Prince-sounding name in the history of the Royals, is a very big left-handed pitcher whose stuff doesn’t match his mound presence. He’s sort of a left-handed O’Sullivan, as his fastball is nothing special (usually 88-90, which is comparable to 90-92 from a right-hander), but he has a good curveball and changes speeds with it, and he has fantastic control. In his first pro season, he walked 6 batters in 73 innings, then walked just 24 batters in 115 innings last year.
The Angels started him in high Class A this season, at the age of 20, and after six decent starts was promoted all the way to Triple-A, where his ERA was 5.60 but he still managed a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2-to-1. He was then demoted to Double-A and got his clock cleaned in four starts before the trade. I’m not entirely sure what the Angels were doing with him, and given his age (he just turned 21 two weeks ago), it seems silly to be pushing him aggressively. The Royals agree, as they’ve announced he’ll be joining Wilmington’s rotation.
Going from Rancho Cucamonga and Salt Lake City to Wilmington, Smith’s going to feel a lot like Royals’ hitters feel when they get to Double-A. He could put up some nice numbers over the next six weeks. Mind you, he’ll be just the third-best left-handed pitcher in Wilmington’s rotation, behind John Lamb and the resurgent Danny Duffy. But that says more about the Royals than about Smith.
Like O’Sullivan, he projects as just a #4 starter, but given his age and size, there’s more upside here. An AL source I trust likes him a fair amount, and likes the trade for the Royals overall. One of the knocks on Smith coming into the season was that he had no feel for his changeup, but my source says they have better reports on his changeup this year.
Still, I don’t think anyone would argue that Smith ranks among the 15 best prospects in the system, nor would O’Sullivan if he still had his rookie status. Again, that’s a reflection of the system – there are a lot of farm systems where Smith would crack the top 10. Both pitchers have value; I just feel like, given the wealth of pitching options the Royals will have in a year or two, they have less value to the Royals than to most teams.
Dayton Moore loves to talk about how pitching is the currency of baseball, and it’s a hoary cliché that you can never have too much pitching. You can never have too much of anything, but when you have needs elsewhere, too much pitching is a luxury the Royals can’t afford.
Rather than insisting on pitching in every deal, the Royals might insist on outfielders instead. Even if they believe in Alex Gordon in left field, that still leaves two positions to fill long-term. Derrick Robinson might fill one; he might not. Wil Myers might move to the outfield; he might not. Another outfielder, preferably one that can start next year, would be nice.
The Angels have a guy like that. Peter Bourjos, a 23-year-old in Triple-A, is hitting .301/.351/.455. He’s a plus-plus runner – he has 27 steals in 31 attempts, and already has 12 triples this year. He’s basically Scott Podsednik with upside and a center fielder’s glove, and with Torii Hunter entrenched in Anaheim, you’d think he’d be available. Maybe the Royals asked and were rebuffed. But I’d rather have Bourjos than both pitchers the Royals got.
Having said all of that, the general consensus is that the Royals did well here, and it’s not because other people think O’Sullivan or Smith are going to be stars. It’s because most people think that Callaspo simply isn’t worthy of a bigger haul than this. And I’m not sure I agree.
Callaspo has had a strange career, to be sure. Just in his three seasons with the Royals, he’s been three different players.
In 2008, he was a .300 hitter with absolutely no power, but made terrific contact (14 strikeouts in 234 at-bats), and played all over the infield, including – this is hard to believe now – 9 starts at shortstop.
In 2009, he still hit .300 and made excellent contact, but had a sudden power surge. After not hitting a single homer in his first three seasons in the majors, he hit 11 in 2009, along with 41 doubles and 8 triples. Frank White is the only middle-infielder in franchise history to have as many extra-base hits in a season. Callaspo also played second base every day, and his defense was a nightmare.
In 2010, he moved to third base, and his defense was almost shockingly good – by the eye test he was at least average, and most defensive metrics actually show him as slightly above-average this year. But while the power has stayed, he’s not hitting .300; he’s hitting .275, and his walk rate has dropped, leading to an unacceptable .308 OBP.
Given the Three Alberto Callaspos, what you think of him is more of a philosophical question than a baseball one. I’m an optimist by nature, so I see a guy who has finally moved to the position he was meant to play. And batting average is a notoriously schizophrenic stat – Callaspo has hit .300 the last two years, he’s a career .331 hitter in Triple-A, he’s striking out even less than last year, he’s 27 years old, so to me, the fact that he’s hitting .275 is more bad luck than anything else.
You combine Callaspo’s bat from last year with his glove from this year, and you have a heck of a player – a slightly above-average everyday third baseman. Who is making the league minimum. And who is under contract for three more seasons. That seems like a nice commodity.
Not everyone agrees. At Royals Review, Will McDonald says Callaspo “at best really, is average, and about to get more expensive.” At Fangraphs, Jeff Zimmerman writes that he’s “an average to below average major league hitter over his career.” You can make a case for that, certainly – it really depends on how strongly you weigh Callaspo’s last four months relative to his last two seasons. If I’m overrating Callaspo, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve overrated a Royals’ player.
I just feel like the Royals didn’t have to make this trade right now, and they could have waited to see how Callaspo played in the second half. If he hit over .300 the rest of the way – and I suspect that he’ll hit over .300 for the Angels this season – they could go into the off-season with a much more marketable commodity, and could probably get more than a pair of potential #4 starters for him.
But my disappointment is muted by the fact that the Royals already tried to move Callaspo last winter, and the best offer we heard about was a joke – A.J. Ellis, a backup catcher in Triple-A. It’s clear that I hold Callaspo in higher regard than 29 – well, 30 – major league teams. I don’t think that the Royals got fair value for Callaspo, but I think that the Royals got fair market value. This was about the best the Royals were going to get for Callaspo. Tactically, it’s a mistake, but strategically, it’s a winner.
Obviously, this move was made in preparation for opening the door for Mike Moustakas to take over, if not next April, then by next June. Wilson Betemit is a more-than-capable stopgap with a little bit of upside, and if I understand his service time correctly, the Royals have him under contract for next season. Once Moustakas is ready, Betemit can go back to his utility role with no harm done.
I just hope that this is the first of many trades to come. It’s great that the Royals traded a player to make room for a prospect who might be ready next June. But it won’t mean much if the Royals don’t trade guys like Jose Guillen and Scott Podsednik to make room for prospects who were ready this June. (Or in Kila Ka’aihue’s case, two Junes ago.)
Addendum: So David DeJesus is out, at least for 2 weeks, all but killing his trade prospects. (If his exam today goes well and he’s expected back in the minimum, the possibility is still there that a team would trade for him knowing he won’t be able to play until August 10th or so.) This is bad news, obviously, but as someone who was ambivalent about the decision to trade DeJesus in the first place, I don’t feel it’s the nightmare some are making it out to be. I’m assuming the Royals are smart enough to pick up his option for next season, and it’s not like DeJesus is blocking anyone who’s ready in the minors. If the Royals have a magical season in 2011, they’ll be happy they kept DeJesus around. If not, well, we can have this same discussion again next July.
In the meantime, Alex Gordon is back. Of course, so is Rick Ankiel. Which of the two gets more playing time in the coming weeks will be telling.