Well, that was kind of a dud.
In the week leading up to the trade deadline, no fewer than 26 trades were made, ranging from the irrelevant (Juan Rivera for a PTBNL) to the blockbuster (Ubaldo Jimenez for four Indians prospects) to the baffling (the three-way Edwin Jackson/Colby Rasmus trade). Somehow, the Royals were involved in only one of them, and the player involved was Mike Aviles. What happened?
The knee-jerk response is to blame Dayton Moore, to say that he erred by not trading any of his veterans, whether it was hitters Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur or starting pitchers Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen. Even if the offers were insulting, better to get something for a guy like Francis than let him walk as a free agent. And in the case of Cabrera and Francoeur, trading one of them would open up an everyday job for Lorenzo Cain, which by itself would justify trading them, even for a less-than-ideal offer.
The knee-jerk response may be the right one. But let’s try to dig through what happened here, and what the Royals’ options might have been, before we dispense blame.
To review, here are the four Royals who were (presumably) on the market:
Melky Cabrera: 26 years old, hitting .304/.340/.466 (124 OPS+). Career OPS+ of 91. Below-average defender in CF; average-plus in a corner spot. Salary of $1.25 million. Under contract for 2012.
Jeff Francoeur: 27 years old, hitting .272/.326/.464 (120 OPS+). Career OPS+ of 94. Average range but outstanding arm in RF. Salary of $2.5 million. Mutual option for $4 million in 2012.
Jeff Francis: 30 years old, 4.38 ERA, 136 IP, 154 H, 24 UIBB, 70 K, 12 HR. Salary of $2 million plus incentives. Free agent after the season.
Bruce Chen: 34 years old, 4.29 ERA, 78 IP, 86 H, 25 UIBB, 47 K, 12 HR. Salary of $2 million plus incentives. Free agent after the season.
Cabrera clearly stands out from the other three players in terms of value, both because of his contract status (he’s the cheapest, and the only one under club control for next year) and in terms of performance. He’s the only one of the four that I gave better than even odds would be traded in my deadline preview.
And if the trade deadline had played out differently, he probably would have been traded. There were three contending teams that had made the acquisition of an outfielder a priority – San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. There was only one high-quality outfielder that was clearly on the market – the Mets’ Carlos Beltran. Cabrera was sort of Carlos Beltran Lite on the market – like Beltran, he’s a switch-hitter with power and speed, and the ability to fake center field or play either corner spot. So if the two runners-up for Beltran took a liking to Cabrera, there was a trade waiting to be made.
The problem was that one of the three teams – the Braves – would not have traded for Cabrera under any but the most dire circumstances, simply because 1) he sucked for them in 2010 and 2) they cut him after the season, only to see him revive his career with the Royals. For Frank Wren to have re-acquired Cabrera at the deadline would not only have been a PR nightmare – Cabrera was a piñata for Braves fans given his play and the fact that he was overweight and out-of-shape in Atlanta – but it would have been a tacit admission by Wren that he screwed up by letting Cabrera go in the first place. So that was out.
If the Braves had traded for Beltran – and they were certainly in the running – Lorenzo Cain might be our starting centerfielder today. But the Giants won the sweepstakes when they were willing to part with Zach Wheeler*, one of the top 25 prospects in baseball today, for Beltran.
*: This brings up an interesting question: did the Mets get more for Beltran, who is 34 years old and can no longer run or play centerfield, than the Royals got for Beltran when he was 27 years old and could do everything? The Royals got Mark Teahen, John Buck, and Mike Wood – the first two were borderline Top 100 prospects, but neither was a blue-chipper like Wheeler is. You could make the case either way, but when you consider that Beltran isn’t the player he used to be, and the fact that per his contract the Giants can’t offer him arbitration (so they won’t get any draft picks when he leaves), and either the Giants overpaid for him, or the Royals got jobbed. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which.
With the Giants out of play, that left Philadelphia as a possible destination for Cabrera. The Phillies had already indicated a preference for a right-handed hitting outfielder (which is why there were some rumors that they might be interested in Francoeur), and they decided to go that route, giving up a nice package of prospects for Hunter Pence.
We can argue whether they overpaid for Pence, or whether Pence is really a difference-maker worth trading four prospects for. Just compare the two:
Pence was hitting .308/.356/.471 – in a good hitter’s park in the NL. Cabrera is hitting .304/.340/.466 – in a neutral park in the AL. Pence is 28 years old; Cabrera turns 27 next week. Pence is making $6.9 million this year; Cabrera is making $1.25 million. Pence is under contract for two more years; Cabrera for one.
Pence is a slightly better player, and he has a much more consistent track record. But he’s also far more expensive, and while he’s under contract for one additional season, he might make eight figures in arbitration next season, while Cabrera will be lucky to make $5 million.
Ultimately it’s a moot point – the Phillies wanted Pence, and they were willing to pay for him. And at that point, there was no obvious destination for Cabrera to go. (Not that it mattered, but Atlanta solved their outfield problem brilliantly, getting Michael Bourn – who on the whole is probably a slightly better player than Pence – without giving up a single top prospect.)
As disappointed as I am that Cabrera wasn’t traded, I don’t see a trade opportunity that Dayton Moore missed. The only other outfielders to be traded to a contender were Ryan Ludwick (for a player to be named later) and Kosuke Fukudome, who was traded for a pair of marginal prospects named Abner Abreu and Carlton Smith. (You know they’re marginal because their names are “Abner” and “Carlton”.)
As outsiders, we can never fully analyze a GM’s decision-making, because we’ll never know the trade offers that were or weren’t made. But as best as I can tell, Moore didn’t make a mistake by holding on to Melky. The mistake would have been trading him for a marginal return. Cabrera is under contract for next season, he’ll be relatively inexpensive, and he’ll be 27 years old, and while it’s possible that his performance this year is a fluke, he’s young enough that it’s entirely possible it’s for real.
If you believe, as I do, that the Royals should go into 2012 looking to contend, and if you believe, as I do, that Melky Cabrera is clearly the second-best outfielder the Royals have under contact for 2012, then it would be stupid to move him just to move him. Standing pat wasn’t the sexy move here, but it was probably the right one.
With respect to Francoeur, there are two issues which I think are being confused:
1) Should the Royals have traded him? 2) Having decided not to trade him, will the Royals now give him a long-term deal?
Francoeur has the industry reputation of being a valuable role player, someone who can play defense and hit left-handed pitching, but not an everyday guy. As such, it’s likely that the market for him – if there was one at all – was comparable to what the Padres got for Ludwick (a PTBNL) or the Cubs got for Fukudome (a couple borderline guys). Remember, Francoeur was traded to a contender last year, and all the Rangers gave up to get him was Joaquin Arias – the same Arias that the Royals signed as a minor-league free agent after the Mets released him barely two months later.
The meager return that Francoeur was likely to bring was reason enough not to trade him. But on top of that, I think it’s time to admit that Jeff Francoeur isn’t the player he was as recently as last year. He’s a legitimate everyday rightfielder.
Look at his monthly splits:
Francoeur got off to a hot start (as he has with all three of his previous teams), then regressed back into being Jeff Francoeur for two months, inviting the usual snark from the usual places. Only with his hot July, he’s not only destroyed the narrative of “Jeff Francoeur: terrible ballplayer, except in his first month with a new team!”, he also has four months of evidence that he’s an improved ballplayer.
His overall line of .272/.326/.464 is easily his best since his half-season as a rookie in 2005. Remember, this isn’t the Home Run Era anymore. In 2007, Francoeur hit .293/.338/.444, roughly the same split line, but his OPS+ was just 102 – this year, it’s 120.
Maybe it’s a fluke, but if you want to make that case, there isn’t a whole lot of statistical evidence to back you up. Normally, fluky seasons are driven by a high batting average on balls in play, but Francoeur’s BABIP (.293) is actually lower than his career mark of .298. He is showing improved plate discipline – he’s on pace for a career high in walks, and his strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio is 2.61. That’s not very good, but for Francoeur it represents dramatic improvement – his previous career best is 3.26.
But the most stunning aspect of Francoeur’s season is that he has 18 steals; he had 23 career steals in six seasons before 2011. He also had been caught 18 times (56% success rate) before this season, but he’s been thrown out just five times this year (78% success rate).
However you break it down, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Francoeur has made real improvements on offense. Defensively, he remains a rightfielder with average range, but with a tremendous arm – both in terms of strength and accuracy. He’s thrown out 11 runners this season, the seventh year in a row he’s done that.
He’s still only 27 years old. Do I want to sign him to a long-term deal? Hell no. Would I be willing to bring him back on a one-year deal? Absolutely.
He’s got a mutual option for next season. That doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be back, and it doesn’t prevent the Royals from doing something dumb like giving him a four-year deal after the season. But there is a chance he’ll be back next season at a reasonable salary, and that possibility is a lot more valuable than cashing him in for another Joaquin Arias.
Last week, on the Border Patrol’s show on 810 WHB, Buster Olney said he was “99% sure” that the Rays would trade B.J. Upton. Upton did not, in fact, get traded. Upton, like Cabrera, is under contract for one more season, and the Rays are probably out of the race this year, and like the Royals they have a prospect waiting to take over the spot (Desmond Jennings, who’s currently playing left field.) I think the Rays, more than almost any team in baseball, have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to trades: if they didn’t trade a player, it’s probably because the offer wasn’t there. If the offer wasn’t there for Upton, I think the burden of proof lies with those who accuse the Royals of turning down a good offer for Cabrera and Francoeur.
I absolutely recognize that there is a danger that, with Francoeur still on the team, that Dayton Moore will finally succumb to his most primal urges and give Francoeur a long-term deal. But even if that happens, the mistake lies with the long-term deal, not with the decision to hold on to him right now. At this point, the Royals should finish the season with Francoeur, and then make a decision as to whether or not to bring him back on a one-year deal, whether it’s in the form of his mutual option or a similar contract.
If not, and Francoeur walks, there’s a good chance they’ll get a draft pick in return. MLB Trade Rumors put up their latest Elias Rankings yesterday, and if the season had ended then, Francoeur would be the highest-ranked outfielder not to achieve a Type B ranking. A strong finish by Francoeur might make him harder to retain, but it also makes it more likely that the Royals will get a draft pick when he does leave.
In the end, the clamoring from fans to move Cabrera and Francoeur has very little to do with their performance this year, or even the sustainability of that performance. It has almost everything to do with Lorenzo Cain. As I write this, the Painkiller is hitting .318/.389/.522 in Omaha, with a career-high 13 home runs. He continues to get good marks for his defensive ability, and would certainly be an upgrade over Cabrera in centerfield.
Granted, as Royals fans we don’t have much experience with this particular phenomenon, so it’s understandable if we don’t know how to react. But when a team has a player in Triple-A who is clearly ready for the majors, and his position is capably filled at the major-league level, sometimes you just have to wait. This isn’t Kila Ka’aihue being blocked by Mike Jacobs.
I had this discussion with Joe Sheehan on my radio show last Thursday, and he made some strong points:
1) Cain is going to be a capable centerfielder in the majors, but not a particularly good one. His .318/.389/.522 line against minor-league pitchers in a good hitter’s environment is not that much better than Cabrera’s .304/.340/.466 line for the Royals.
2) Cain is only 20 months younger than Cabrera. This isn’t a 22-year-old phenom we’re talking about here.
Based on that, if you’re the Royals, don’t you have to at least explore what Cain’s trade value is? He still has a prospecty sheen to him, and he hit over .300 in the majors last year, and he’s under club control for six seasons. If you can’t get a #3 starter in exchange for Cabrera or Francoeur, shouldn’t you find out if you can get one for Cain? We’ve reached the point in baseball’s economics where prospects are overvalued – just look at what the Indians gave up to get Ubaldo Jimenez* – and since Cain doesn’t project to be an impact player, the odds that the Royals would get burned badly by dealing him are small.
*: I’m surprised that the general reaction to the Jimenez trade is that the Rockies did well. Am I missing something? Jimenez almost won the Cy Young Award last season pitching in Coors Field. He has a 4.48 ERA this year, but 1) it’s the worst ERA of his career; 2) his peripherals suggest that his ERA should be much better; 3) he’s STILL an above-average starting pitcher. In exchange, the Indians gave up Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, and two nobodies. Pomeranz and White are both fine prospects – but if the Rockies are lucky, one of them will be as good as Jimenez one day. Meanwhile the Indians have Jimenez now, and for the next two years, at a ridiculously low salary. Pomeranz and White are comparable to Mike Montgomery and Aaron Crow. I love Montgomery and Crow, but if I could trade them for a guaranteed above-average starter with ace potential through 2013? I’d strongly consider that.
These things have a way of sorting themselves out. Maybe Francoeur opts out of his contract, or maybe the Royals find a buyer for Cabrera over the winter. But if not, trading Cain has to be considered as a fallback position.
As for Francis and Chen…they’re both serviceable starters, but “serviceable” isn’t going to get you much on the trade market. The same change in offensive levels that makes Francoeur better than he looks also makes Francis and Chen less impressive than you might think – an ERA in the low 4s just isn’t that special anymore. It doesn’t help that neither pitcher strikes out even 6 batters per 9 innings.
Aside from Jimenez, just three starting pitchers were acquired by a contender at the deadline. Doug Fister is a command-and-control pitcher who benefits from his ballpark and defense, sort of the right-handed version of Francis. But in addition to sporting a 3.33 ERA, he’s also under club control through 2014; this wasn’t a short-term rental by the Tigers. (And even then, I think they gave up too much.) Jason Marquis, as a 32-year-old in the final year of his contract, is more directly comparable to Francis and Chen. But his ERA and peripherals both point to him being a slightly better option. In exchange, the Diamondbacks traded Zach Walters, their ninth-round pick last season, and who’s having a pretty good season as a middle infielder in the Midwest League. He has maybe a 10% chance of turning into Mark Ellis or something.
The third guy is Erik Bedard, who the Red Sox got in a complicated three-way deal at the deadline. Bedard is an entirely different kettle of fish; going back to 2006, he has a 3.41 ERA and has struck out over a man an inning. The issue is that 2006 is also the last year in which he threw a pitch in September; the dude just can’t stay healthy. But for the Red Sox, they’d rather have a potential #2 starter than a guaranteed #4 starter; they already have a bunch of those.
And that’s it. No other contender made a trade for a starting pitcher. The Reds, who I thought might be a landing spot for Francis, had a terrible week going into the trading deadline and weren’t buyers at all. If you’re frustrated that the Royals didn’t move Chen and Francis, what about the fact that the Padres, with every incentive to move Heath Bell, couldn’t find a suitable market for him? If the offers aren’t there for a player, even one who is an impending free agent, it’s counterproductive to trade a guy just to say you did.
So as much as I’d like to muster up some outrage that Chen and Francis are still around, I really can’t. I didn’t see much of a market for them when I wrote
my deadline preview two weeks ago, and the way the deadline went down doesn’t change my opinion any. If a contender develops a sudden need for a starting pitcher this month, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if either Francis or Chen still get traded after clearing waivers. But otherwise, I expect they’ll finish the season in Kansas City.
(It’s also worth pointing out that, amazing as this may sound, according to MLB Trade Rumors yesterday Bruce Chen would actually qualify
as a Type B free agent – even after his 10-run debacle last week, he was the last Type B pitcher on the list. He’ll need to pitch well down the stretch, and he would need to sign a major-league contract with another team this off-season to prevent another Mark Grudzielanek situation, but the possibility of a draft pick is reason enough to turn down insulting offers for him.)
I should take the opportunity to break down the one trade the Royals did make. Just a week after recalling Mike Aviles from Triple-A, the Royals were able to spin him into Yamaico Navarro and Kendal Volz.
Navarro is a 23-year-old player who could be the guy that they wanted Mike Aviles to be – a true utility infielder capable of playing shortstop, second base, and third base well. Most utility infielders have the rough offensive profile of someone like Alcides Escobar – capable of hitting .250 but with nothing in the way of secondary skills like power or plate discipline. That’s not Navarro.
Twice he’s hit 11 homers in a minor-league season, and Baseball America wrote this offseason that he has “uncommon power for a middle infielder and the potential for 15-20 homers annually.” He also knows how to take a pitch – over the past two seasons, in 138 minor-league games (all in Double-A or Triple-A), he’s drawn 64 walks. Navarro hit .275/.356/.437 in the minors last season, and .258/.362/.469 this season. The Red Sox know how to develop middle infielders with secondary skills – look at Dustin Pedroia and Jed Lowrie – and while Navarro isn’t in their class, he’s not a punch-and-judy guy either. Along with Rey, Yamaico gives the Royals two Navarros who profile as excellent utility players in the majors at the very least.
By himself, Navarro – who was the #12 prospect in the Red Sox system before the season – would have justified the trade. Volz is a worthwhile gamble as well; he was the Sox’ ninth-round pick two years ago, but was a potential first-rounder before a disappointing junior season and got $550,000 to sign. In his first pro season last year, he was hittable but walked just 14 guys in 118 innings. Moved to the bullpen this year, he’s got 56 strikeouts and 12 walks in 51 innings. He’s probably a seventh-inning reliever in the end, but he’s more than just an organizational guy.
Last year, the Royals traded Scott Podsednik, Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth, and Rick Ankiel for six players. Aside from Tim Collins, Navarro and Volz are both better than any of those guys. For Mike Aviles, that’s a nice haul.
Granted, Aviles ought to have some real value – he’s under club control for three more years after this one. But he’s already 30 years old; the fact that he’s under club control when he’s 33 probably isn’t worth all that much. Aviles has value on the bench, but his defense the last couple of years has been decidedly sub-par, and he has a .295 OBP since his rookie season. The Royals have moved on from him, and I fully expected them to release him this off-season if they couldn’t find a taker. Getting two legitimate prospects for him allows Moore to bring the Mike Aviles Era in for an easy landing.
Over the last year or so, I have developed a bit of a reputation as a Dayton Moore apologist, which I find hysterical – apparently it’s not good form to acknowledge that Moore has done some things well, or to acknowledge that Cabrera and Francoeur, two player acquisitions that were mocked mercilessly over the winter, have turned out to be two of the best free-agent signing any team made last off-season.
Actually, my reputation as an apologist might have started when I complimented Moore on the Cabrera signing at the time. I also refused
to join in the whistles and catcalls when Francoeur was signed; while I was ambivalent about the deal, that was less because of Francoeur than because the fact that his 2012 option was a mutual one limited the Royals’ upside. (I think that observation has born out – if the Royals had a club option for $4 million next year, they would almost certainly exercise it, and that would obviate the need for a long-term deal.)
I’m sure my breakdown of the trade deadline will not change that perception. Am I disappointed by the lack of trades? Most certainly. But I’m disappointed at the market, not at the Royals’ decision-making.
The lack of movement at the deadline allows the Royals to kick the can down the road. Moore still has some decisions to make, and he still has the opportunity to screw things up badly – whether it’s signing Francoeur to a long-term deal, or failing to resolve the Lorenzo Cain situation. If and when that happens, I’ll voice my displeasure then. But criticizing Moore because his lack of moves opens up the possibility that he might screw up in the future – that strikes me as putting the cart before the horse. If that makes me an apologist, so be it.
P.S. For those of you who aren’t faithful listeners, “The Baseball Show With Rany & Joe” covered the trade deadline in two parts this weekend. So if you want my take on all the trades made around the game, please download the show from iTunes, or you can listen online with Part 1 here and Part 2 here.