Thursday, November 11, 2010

Somebody Messed With DeJesus.

What should I do?

Should I admit that the Royals have made mistakes?

Should I remind you that they’ve done this before?

Should I give you a history lesson?

What should I do?

…sorry. I feel like I’ve written this article – analyzing an underwhelming trade – so many times that I’ve run out of ledes.

The Royals traded David DeJesus to Oakland yesterday for Vinny Mazzaro and Justin Marks, and the reaction has been decidedly mixed. Fans hate it; some sabermetric types don’t like it, although others – notably Kevin Goldstein and Christina Kahrl – feel like it’s a good deal for both sides, as do most non-sabermetric journalists. Notably, almost no one thinks that the A’s got hosed here.

There’s a lot that people can disagree on about this trade, so let’s start by focusing on the undeniable facts of the deal:

- The trade almost certainly makes the Royals a worse team in 2011. Mazzaro could have a breakout season, or DeJesus could get hurt or suddenly lose effectiveness, but if those outcomes were likely, this trade wouldn’t have been made.

- The trade almost certainly makes the Royals a better – maybe only slightly better – team in 2012 and 2013. DeJesus will be a free agent after next season, and was unlikely to be re-signed. The Royals control Mazzaro’s contract through the end of 2015, and Marks might be ready for the majors in some role by mid-2012 as well. If DeJesus had walked, the Royals might have received one or two draft picks in return, but even if they hit on those picks, those players would be unlikely to surface in the majors before 2014.

- The trade saves the Royals about $5.5 million in 2011, the difference between DeJesus’ $6 million option and the roughly $500,000 that Mazzaro can expect to get. (Mazzaro is unlikely to be arbitration-eligible until 2013.) Saving money is a good thing – unless that money isn’t re-deployed elsewhere, in which case it’s a good thing for David Glass’s bank account only. Still, the money saved in this deal can’t be simply ignored.

- The trade denies the Royals the opportunity to get a draft pick or two when DeJesus walks next winter. For a team that has done a good job of using those high draft picks of late, this is hardly inconsequential. Remember, the Royals drafted Mike Montgomery with the pick they got as compensation when David Riske left as a free agent. Unfortunately, the pick the Royals used to draft Montgomery is the only supplemental pick they’ve had since 2004. It’s not for lack of trying – remember, Dayton Moore offered Mark Grudzielanek arbitration two years ago with the sole purpose of getting a draft pick, which failed when no one wanted to sign Mark.

- The trade relieves the pressure for the Royals to either 1) overspend on a free-agent pitcher to fill up the rotation this winter or 2) rush one of their young pitchers to the majors. Acquiring Mazzaro gives the Royals five major-league caliber starting pitchers – not necessarily good starting pitchers, but pitchers worthy of a roster spot – with three months still to go before spring training. The Opening Day rotation figures to go Greinke-Hochevar-Davies-Mazzaro-O’Sullivan. It’s a mediocre rotation at best, but it’s also a rotation where none of the starters are older than 27.

Of all the ways that Dayton Moore and Allard Baird differ as general managers, probably the most substantial difference is in their timetable for young players to reach the majors. Baird would bring up Leo Nunez or Ambiorix Burgos after two good weeks in Double-A; Moore wouldn’t bring Kila Ka’aihue up after two good years in the high minors. The handling of Ka’aihue was extreme, but in general I like Moore’s approach a lot better. If you keep a player in the minors too long, you might lose out on his performance when he’s ready to help you, but you’re not likely to ruin him. Keep a player in the minors for too short a period of time, and you might ruin him. Delaying his debut also keeps the service time clock from starting.

Given where the Royals are in the development cycle, and given that no one thinks they’ll be competitive until 2012, it makes no sense to bring any of their prospects north with the team on Opening Day next year. (I might make an exception for Tim Collins, who really does have nothing left to prove in the minors.) If trading for Mazzaro keeps the Royals from rushing someone like Danny Duffy into the rotation next spring, that’s a tangible side benefit of the trade.

So without knowing anything about the players involved in the trade, I think it’s important to acknowledge that whether or not we think the Royals made a good trade, we can at least understand why the Royals thought they made a good trade. This is not an awful trade along the lines of some that Dayton Moore has made. This isn’t trading two prospects for the rights to pick up most of Yuniesky Betancourt’s contract, which was a horrible trade from Day One because the Royals didn’t appreciate the desperation the Mariners had to make a trade. This isn’t trading a useful reliever for Mike Jacobs, which was a horrible trade from Day One because the Royals already had player (Ka’aihue) on their roster who could have done the job that they asked Jacobs to do better, and cheaper, and younger.

This was a trade in which the Royals gave up an established major-league player that had one year left on his contract, for an established major-league player that has five years left on his contract, and a minor-leaguer who hasn’t used up a day of service time yet. They traded present value for future value. They traded for two young pitchers, and under Moore the Royals have done a better job evaluating young talent than old, and done a better job evaluating pitchers than hitters. The concept was sound.

Now, about the execution…

We’ll skip over DeJesus for now, as I figure you’re all quite aware of his talents, and since one of his most obvious talents is consistency, we all sort of have an idea of his value.

Let’s talk about Vinny Mazzaro, who’s the key to the deal. Mazzaro was a third-round pick by the A’s in the 2005 draft, the year that they confused everybody who didn’t understand what “Moneyball” was all about by taking a bunch of high school pitchers early in the draft. Mazzaro was the third high-school pitcher the A’s took in the second or third round, and is the only one of the three to pan out so far, although Craig Italiano and Jared Lansford might both make it as middle relievers. (That’s right – the A’s took a guy named Vinny from New Jersey and a guy whose last name was Italiano.)

Mazzaro is a big-bodied right-hander (listed at 6’2”, 210) who throws a four-pitch repertoire, but is primarily known for having a good sinking fastball. He used this sinker to good effect in the minors, particularly in 2008, when – pitching for Midland, a good hitters’ park in the Texas League – he allowed just 3 homers in 137 innings. He reached the majors in June of 2009 – coincidentally, I happened to be in the stands for his major-league debut at U.S. Cellular Park – and has been a slightly-below-average pitcher to date, with a 4.72 ERA in 214 innings.

His biggest weakness to date has been his propensity for the home run, as he’s allowed 31 in those 214 innings. My original feeling when I looked at his stat line was that he had been awfully unlucky – groundball pitchers don’t typically give up a homer every seven innings – and that with normal luck he’s a good candidate for improvement.

But then I dug a little deeper at Fangraphs, and came upon a disturbing figure. Despite being labeled as a sinkerball pitcher from the time he was drafted, he hasn’t remotely been one in the major leagues. As a rookie, his groundball rate was just 39%, which marked him as a distinct flyball pitcher – by comparison, Bruce Chen’s GB% this season was 35%, and he’s one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in baseball. This year, Mazzaro coaxed a few more grounders, but his 43% GB rate was still a little below league average.

This is a problem. Mazzaro isn’t a power pitcher – he’s struck out just 5.8 batters per 9 innings in the majors, which is below-average. He’s not a control pitcher – he’s walked 3.7 batters per 9, also below-average. His entire claim to success rests on his ability to keep the ball on the ground. If his sinker doesn’t sink, then what is he?

The problem isn’t that his fastball literally doesn’t sink – according to Mike Fast, the guru of Pitch F/X data, the trajectory of his sinking fastball is actually quite in line with what a sinking fastball ought to do. The problem is that when the ball comes off the bat, it doesn’t behave like a sinker ought to behave – the groundball rate on Mazzaro’s sinker was 39%, compared to a league average of 52% for sinkers.

Now, with every crisis comes an opportunity, and it’s possible that the disconnect between Mazzaro’s repertoire and his results is an opportunity for the Royals to instantly improve his performance if they’ve identified something in Mazzaro’s delivery that explains the discrepancy. We all thought it was a little ridiculous when the Royals thought they could unlock the potential in Gil Meche, after all these years, simply by having him land on his toes instead of his heel – until it turned out they were right. If the Royals think they’ve pinpointed a similar issue with Mazzaro, well, they’ve earned the right to test that theory.

Unfortunately, my friend Nate Bukaty asked Dayton Moore this exact question on the radio this morning, and Moore’s answer, paraphrased, was that “Mazzaro just needs innings” to improve. If that’s really the Royals’ answer, that’s disappointing. Having said that, if I were the Royals, I wouldn’t admit that I could fix Mazzaro’s delivery until I’ve actually had a chance to work with him in spring training. Making that claim today would be a pretty empty boast, not to mention that Mazzaro might not appreciate hearing the news for the first time from a radio show.

Come spring training, though, that is one of the storylines to look for. And come the regular season, Mazzaro’s groundball/flyball ratio will be one of the most important stats to look at in the early going.

While Mazzaro was the main impetus for making the trade, Justin Marks is not simply a throw-in. Marks was also a third-round pick in the draft, albeit out of college as the ace of the University of Louisville staff last year. He’s a left-hander with a slightly above-average fastball, and throws three secondary pitches (curve/slider/changeup) that are all usable but not particularly distinguished.

I was amused to see so many people describe his first full pro season in 2010 as “disappointing”, because my first thought upon looking at his numbers was that he actually had a pretty good year. Of course, that’s because I was only looking at the right-hand side of his page, where I noticed that in 129 innings, he had struck out 136 batters and walked only 49, though he did give up 15 homers.

I guess the disappointment stems from the left-hand side of his page, where you’ll learn that he went 6-13 with a 4.87 ERA. Win-loss records mean less than nothing for minor leaguers, and frankly, ERA is about equally as meaningless. The component stats are all that matter, and Marks’ components show him to be a guy with pretty good stuff for a left-hander. Scouting opinions on him vary, but Baseball America’s Jim Callis tweeted yesterday that at least one scout thought he had a ceiling as a #3 starter in the majors. At worst, a number of people have said that his fastball/slider combination has a future as a lefty specialist in the majors.

With all that said, this makes Marks something like the eighth or ninth-best prospect in the Royals’ system just among left-handed pitchers. I keep saying that the Royals might actually be testing the theory that you can have too much pitching, and with each trade they make, they focus on acquiring more pitching. Going back to the Alberto Callaspo trade, by my count the Royals have traded for 10 players – two low-upside hitters (Lucas May and Gregor Blanco) and eight pitchers. Pitching may be the currency of baseball, but someone needs to tell Moore that by definition, currency is something that it can be used to buy and sell.

I’ve come around to the notion that the Royals received fair value, more or less, for DeJesus, and I think that the people who are calling this deal a disaster are thinking with their spinal cord – it’s an automatic reflex to call any trade between Billy Beane and the Royals’ GM (no matter who he is) a disaster. The best way to illustrate why I think it’s a fair deal is to compare it with the first trade Moore made this summer, when he moved Alberto Callaspo to the Angels in exchange for O’Sullivan and Will Smith.

The trades are eerily similar – in both cases, the Royals traded an everyday hitter in their lineup for a young right-handed starter who had already reached the majors, a starter who has decent but not great stuff, a starter who despite his youth is not projected to improve his stuff over time; and a left-handed starting pitching prospect who has above-average command of average stuff. The trades are thus easily comparable.

There’s no question in my mind that Mazzaro is a better pitcher/pitching prospect than O’Sullivan. Neither pitcher misses a lot of bats, but O’Sullivan’s strikeout rate is particularly bad – just 4.8 Ks per 9 innings. Both pitchers have roughly average control – O’Sullivan’s walk rate of 3.1 per 9 innings is slightly better than Mazzaro’s. And while both pitchers have given up a lot of homers in their career, Mazzaro at least holds the promise of reducing the taters with his sinker – O’Sullivan’s an unabashed flyball pitcher. O’Sullivan strikes me as a #5 starter, maybe #4 if everything breaks right – Mazzaro’s a #4, and a #3 if everything breaks right.

From everything I’ve gathered, I’d also say that Marks is a better prospect than Smith. Marks, I believe, throws a tick harder, and the consensus seems to be that he’ll succeed in the majors in some capacity – at the time the Royals acquired Smith, the consensus was that he was probably nothing more than a Quadruple-A guy.

So the Royals got better players for DeJesus than they did for Callaspo. That stands to reason, since DeJesus is the better player – but at the same time, the Royals had DeJesus under control for one more season at a slightly below-market value salary. Callaspo was under control for three-plus seasons, and was not even arbitration-eligible yet.

If you liked the Callaspo deal – and some of the same people who hate this trade were much more favorable to the Callaspo trade – I think you have to like the DeJesus deal. I was very ambivalent about the Callaspo deal, but at worst, I think that means I have to be deeply ambivalent about the DeJesus deal. Which I am.

And about DeJesus. When the Royals traded Callaspo, I was worried they were selling low, as he was hitting just .275/.308/.410 after his impressive .300/.356/.457 line in 2009. Instead of rebounding, though, Callaspo was awful for the Angels after the trade, batting .249/.291/.315. His power disappeared, and he wasn’t even hitting for average anymore. I have no doubt that the Royals wouldn’t be able to trade him for O’Sullivan and Smith today, or anything close to it.

DeJesus is a better player, but at the same time the Royals traded him at the absolute peak of his abilities. He hit .318/.384/.443 this season, setting career highs in average, OBP, and OPS. Now, by virtue of the fact that DeJesus’ game revolves around batting average – he doesn’t strike out much, but also doesn’t walk much or hit for a lot of power – his performance is heavily dependent on how many groundballs squirt through the infield and how many bloopers drop in no-man’s land.

He got the benefit of a lot of breaks in 2010, which is why he hit .318 instead of his career average of .289. But there’s no reason to think he was doing anything different in 2010 to explain his success, which is why it would be foolish to expect him to hit .318 again next year. He’s a .290 hitter, with some gap power, a few walks, good defense – that’s a good player, but hardly an irreplaceable one. If his luck goes the other way, like it did in 2007, and he hits .260 – well, he’s not even an average outfielder.

And he’s under contract for just one more season.

Frankly, the most valuable thing DeJesus brought to the Royals going forward was that compensatory draft pick. The Royals won’t get that – but they also won’t spend $6 million on DeJesus. People a lot smarter than I have tried to calculate the value of a draft pick, and the general consensus is somewhere around $4 million – double that if he’s a Type A free agent, of course. So between his salary and his draft pick compensation, it’s basically a wash.

So unless you think the Royals can compete in 2011, there’s no question that the Royals are much better off with Mazzaro and Marks than they were DeJesus.

I’m just not convinced that they’re better off than they would have been had they simply waited for a better offer. That’s my main beef with this trade: why now? Why not wait to see where Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth sign, knowing that for the teams that don’t sign either free agent, DeJesus may represent a better option for them than any free agent left on the market?

This again reminds me of the Callaspo deal, in that my main reservation with the trade was less about the talent the Royals received than about the nagging sense that they should have done better. You would think that some team would pony up more for a young, cheap everyday player. But if those offers weren’t there, what were the Royals to do?

In DeJesus’ case, we know that the offers were there. We don’t know what the offers were, but we know they were there – from the Red Sox in particular. It’s not a coincidence that the Red Sox and A’s were most interested, given that DeJesus’ defensive numbers have always been excellent, and those teams take those numbers seriously. But not every team does, and to a team like, say, the Cubs, what do they see when they look at DeJesus? A guy who can hit .300 but doesn’t hit for power, doesn’t have a lot of speed, and has to play a corner outfield spot. And who’s under contract for one year. And getting paid six million dollars.

So it’s quite possible that we, as fans, are overestimating the interest in DeJesus, and overestimating the offers that were made for him. Moore said on the radio today that this was “clearly” the best offer that any team had made for DeJesus, and what sucks is that I have no choice but to believe him. This is the uncertainty that makes my job difficult – without knowing what other offers were made, I can only speculate as to whether the Royals could have done better. All I know for certain is that trading DeJesus makes more sense than letting him go as a free agent next year. I have no way of knowing whether the Royals missed an opportunity to trade him for more.

If the Royals had asked me yesterday whether to take the deal or not, I would have said no. I would have said, wait for a better deal, and if you don’t get it, pencil DeJesus in as your right fielder and re-assess the situation in July. I would have told them that, while everyone seems to think the Royals are going to be awful in 2011, I actually think that the team could play close to .500, because Zack Greinke should be better, and Alex Gordon can’t be any worse, and Ka’aihue could be a stud, and Hochevar might take a step forward, and there aren’t a lot of players on the team (aside from maybe Yuni) who you’d expect to be significantly worse. If Gil Meche stays healthy in the bullpen, and Tim Collins does what we think he can do, the bullpen should be an asset. Mix in some second-half debuts from the Prospect Tsunami, and who knows what might happen?

I would have also told him that if you trade DeJesus, then you’re probably forfeiting your chances of signing Greinke to a contract extension. I might be in the minority here, but I still feel like if the Royals can simply put a .500 team on the field in 2011, that they have a real opportunity to convince Greinke to re-sign with the team. But if they suck in 2011, it won’t matter if they play well in 2012, because they’ll have no choice but to trade him by the trading deadline in 2011 before his trade value starts to evaporate.

The irony is that by trading DeJesus now, by keeping their vision focused on 2012 and beyond, Dayton Moore is being credited for looking at the big picture. But the way I see it, trading DeJesus for Mazzaro and Marks makes sense up close – the Royals will probably get more value for the two guys they traded for than the guy they sent packing – but it fails in the big picture, because it sets up a domino effect which almost forces the Royals to trade Greinke by the end of July.

Maybe that’s for the best. Maybe the Royals can get a Teixeira-like haul for Greinke, and maybe the players they get for him will be the coup de grace on a 2012 or 2013 Royals team which takes baseball by storm. Maybe Greinke will go down in history as the final sacrifice a long-suffering franchise had to make to end a quarter-century of misery.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

What should I do?

Should I throw a fit and say, once again, that Dayton Moore doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing? But if trading DeJesus, and likely Greinke after him, leads us to the promised land in two or three years, how can I complain now?

Should I Trust The Process? But if Moore trades off the two best Royals of the last seven years and doesn’t lead us to the promised land, how can I defer to his judgment now?

Or should I just wait and see?