Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Broxton Trade.

Five years ago, the Royals traded free-agent-to-be Octavio Dotel at the trading deadline. In return, they received Kyle Davies.

Two years ago, the Pirates traded free-agent-to-be Octavio Dotel at the trading deadline. In return, they received James McDonald.

In those two transactions, we can see the agony and the ecstacy of trading a relief rental. If you’re really lucky (and shrewd), you trade Dotel for McDonald (and Andrew Lambo), immediately put McDonald in your rotation, and he gives you a 3.52 ERA in 11 starts the rest of the season. McDonald hasn’t left the Pirates rotation since; after a solid 2011 (4.21 ERA but just 171 innings in 31 starts), he’s taken a step forward this year, with a 3.38 ERA in 131 innings so far, one of the biggest reasons why the Pirates are still in the playoff race. McDonald isn’t even arbitration-eligible yet; he won’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season.

If you’re not lucky, you trade Dotel for a minor leaguer who never reaches the major leagues.

If you’re really unlucky (or just a poor judge of talent), you trade Dotel for Davies, a pitcher who looks good enough to pitch in the majors – and pitches just barely good enough to keep his job for four years. Davies made 99 starts with the Royals, with a  5.34 ERA, and that constitutes the good part of his career. He was actually worth 1.6 bWAR during his time with the Royals, so he was nominally better than a replacement-level pitcher – but given the millions spent on him, the roster spot he occupied, and the opportunities he was granted, you could argue that the Royals would have been better off trading Dotel for shares in Lehman Brothers.

If you want to blast the Royals for their ineffectual trade history at the deadline, you can start here – my friend Soren Petro certainly has. The Pirates traded the exact same player, only two years older, and got a pitcher who was willing to step into their rotation immediately and become a mid-rotation starter in time. The Royals got Kyle Davies.

But to me, lamenting the relatively poor return that the Royals got relative to the Pirates misses the bigger point, which is that it’s crazy that two months of a set-up man should bring back a pitcher with any shot of turning into James McDonald. I mean, Dotel threw a total of 19 innings for the Dodgers, with a 3.38 ERA. His impact was clearly minimal, because the Dodgers fell so far out of the race that they traded Dotel again, in mid-September, to the Rockies (for a non-prospect named Anthony Jackson). And the Dodgers got more value out of Dotel than the Braves did – Dotel threw eight innings for them before he hurt his arm and missed the rest of the season. The Royals may have lost that trade, but the Braves certainly didn’t win it.

Twenty-two years after the Red Sox traded Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell, teams certainly have a better handle on the value, or lack thereof, in one or two months of a relief pitcher. But I’d argue that relievers are still overpriced on the trade market. James McDonald proves that, and if he doesn’t, then Josh Reddick does, or Jed Lowrie, or…

So it is in that context that we have to evaluate the Jonathan Broxton trade. The most important thing you need to know is simply that he was traded. The Royals got something for a relief pitcher who might throw 20 innings between now and free agency, a reliever whose strikeout rate is less than half what it was three years ago, a reliever who had allowed a .400 OBP to the first batter he faced, but had weaved his way out of enough jams to fashion a 2.27 ERA at the time of the trade. That the Royals were able to convince another team that Broxton was worth giving up prospects is testament to a lingering market inefficiency: relievers are overvalued. Credit Dayton Moore for exploiting it, even if it was an obvious move to make.

Last week I gave Moore a lot of flak for trying to target a “major-league-ready” starting pitcher, given that the kind of major-league-ready arm he was likely to get for Jonathan Broxton was going to be in the Sean O’Sullivan/Vinny Mazzaro class. To his credit, Moore clearly set his standards higher than that. The arm that the Royals apparently targeted was Justin Grimm, a very good arm that gets overlooked in the stacked Rangers farm system. Grimm combines #3 starter upside with being very close to the majors – he actually made a couple starts for the Rangers earlier this year, and while he allowed 12 runs in 10 innings, he also struck out 10 batters against just three walks. Grimm has a 1.96 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A this year, with 84 strikeouts and 22 walks in 101 innings, and trading Broxton for him would have been a coup. If there was a Jason McDonald to be had, Grimm was probably the guy.

The Rangers were only looking for a reliever because acquiring one would have allowed them to move Alexi Ogando back into the rotation, as starting pitching was their true need. In the end, once the Cubs couldn’t work out a deal for Ryan Dempster with the Dodgers, the Rangers elected to eliminate the middleman and trade for a starter directly. But the Rangers were clearly interested in Broxton, and I’m guessing at least one other team (probably the Giants) were too, which gave Moore the leverage to work the Reds over for some real talent.

The choice of trading partner matters; some teams have a history of overpaying at the deadline, and you’d certainly like to do business with those teams if you can. It’s not a coincidence that the Royals got Kyle Davies from the Braves, who over the past 20 years have done a very good job of identifying which prospects they should keep and which they should trade away. Meanwhile, the Pirates traded with the Dodgers and Ned Colletti, the man who once gave up Casey Blake for Carlos Santana.

Colletti and Brian Sabean are sort of the Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne of GMs. They’ve had a reasonable amount of success – particularly Sabean, who has run the show in San Francisco for 15 (!) years, and has two NL pennants and a world championship to his name – but I’m still convinced they rank close to the bottom among all the general managers in baseball. Certainly they’re among the most generous GMs at the trade deadline, which is why – for all the crap I’ve given him – I have to give Ruben Amaro credit for making deadline deals with both of them, getting a good return on Hunter Pence and an excellent one on Shane Victorino.

The Reds are somewhere in between the Braves and the Dodgers. On the one hand, Walt Jocketty was a master of the trade deadline acquisition during his time with the Cardinals; on the other, Dusty Baker loooooves his veterans, and I imagine must have pushed his bosses hard to get him another proven arm for his bullpen. Which is curious, given that the Reds already had a deep bullpen, while their leadoff hitters this year have combined to hit .199 with a .244 OBP. Anyway, Baker couldn’t care less what I think; the Reds are in first place and have won 21 of their last 24 games.

The dynamics of the Reds’ front office are such that I certainly think it’s possible that they would overpay for a proven veteran, which is important, because when you look at the return the Royals got, it’s so good that it almost makes you wonder if the Reds know something we don’t. They might – but the evidence suggests they just really wanted to add a reliever, and got enticed into a bidding war.

In return, the Royals got J.C. Sulbaran, who as you might have heard was Eric Hosmer’s teammate at American Heritage High School, which won the Florida state championship in their senior year. Sulbaran was a 30th-round pick, but dropped because of signability; he got $500,000 to sign. He skipped short-season ball entirely, impressive for a high school draftee, but has moved very deliberately through the Reds system since; he made it to Double-A this year, and in 19 starts had thrown 105 innings, struck out 111 batters, but allowed 54 walks and 17 home runs.

The first thing that stands out about Sulbaran is that he misses bats – working as a starter his entire career, he has managed to strike out more than a batter an inning every year of his career. The second thing that stands out is that despite his ability to miss bats, he hasn’t been all that effective at missing runs – a career 4.68 ERA, although it’s improved every year of his career (down to 4.04 this season).

Sulbaran was ranked by Baseball America as the Reds’ #12 prospect coming into the season, which isn’t shabby – this was before the Mat Latos trade, and the Reds system was pretty deep. (Todd Frazier, who might be the best rookie in the NL this year, was #9 on the list.) Sulbaran’s fastball ticked up in 2011, sitting in the low 90s and occasionally higher, and his curveball was ranked as the best in the Reds’ minor leagues. The biggest issue for him, bigger than his difficulty in developing a consistent changeup, was consistency on the mound. Some days he looked like a future #3 starter; some days he looked like a future insurance broker. There have been accusations of poor focus on the mound.

From the Royals’ perspective, that lack of consistency makes him more appealing than a strike-thrower who gets the most out of his stuff but might top out as a back-end starter. Sulbaran is a lottery ticket, but if he pays off, he could be a mid-rotation guy. He’s not ready for the majors, but he’s not that far away – he’s made the biggest jump in the minors, from A-ball to Double-A, and hasn’t missed a beat. If the Royals smooth out his mechanics a bit and if he shows improved maturity, he could be ready for the majors by this time next year.

As a prospect, he’s clearly behind the Zimmer/Odorizzi/Ventura class, and probably behind John Lamb and Jason Adam as well. But he’s right there with Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer. That might be damning with faint praise, given how lost in the weeds those two are, but Sulbaran is clearly someone to keep an eye on. If things click, he’s an average starting pitcher in the major leagues. For Jonathan Broxton? Yes, please.

Only it turns out Sulbaran wasn’t the only prospect the Royals received. He wasn’t even the best prospect the Royals received. When the details of the trade leaked out on Twitter and Sulbaran’s name was divulged, I was satisfied with the trade – not thrilled, but it was a fair return. And then rumors came out that there was a second piece. And then it was reported that the second piece was Donnie Joseph.

Which meant that Sulbaran was really the second piece. Joseph was a third-round pick out of college in 2009, drafted as a left-handed reliever with closer potential. He has dominated at times in the minors; in his first full season in 2010, he struck out 103 batters in 65 innings and jumped from low-A ball to Double-A. But 2011 was a nightmare; he posted a 6.94 ERA in Double-A, allowing 67 hits and 30 walks in 58 innings. That dropped him from #13 to #27 in the Reds’ system per Baseball America.

Joseph throws in the mid-90s, and his slider is unhittable when he’s on, but he’s been hampered by a combination of iffy command and inconsistent mechanics. But this season, he’s cleaned up both of them, and it shows: just 17 walks in 52 innings, with a 1.72 ERA and 68 strikeouts between Double-A and Triple-A. As Kevin Goldstein said at the time of the trade, “I’m not sure Joseph isn’t a better pitcher than Broxton right now.”

Joseph’s already in Triple-A – he debuted for the Storm Chasers last night – and is a good candidate to get called up in September (since he’ll have to be added to the 40-man roster or be exposed to the Rule 5 draft anyway). While Sulbaran has a higher upside – because a #3 starter is more valuable than all but the most dominant closers – Joseph is a much safer bet, and will probably be a part of the Royals’ bullpen next year.

Joseph, in fact, reminds me of a slightly discounted version of Tim Collins. Compare their minor league careers:

Collins: 223 IP, 141 H, 11 HR, 94 UIBB, 329 K
Joseph: 208 IP, 164 H, 11 HR, 79 UIBB, 279 K

Joseph can’t match Collins’ absurd strikeout rate – few pitchers can. But he also has slightly better command, even including his awful 2011 season. Collins is two years younger and is in his second major-league season; on the other hand, Joseph is 6’3”.

Actually, there is one big difference between them: while Collins relies on a very good curveball and changeup, Joseph’s out pitch is his slider. This is relevant because curveballs and changeups are more effective on opposite-side hitters, and in fact Collins has been significantly more effective against right-handed batters than left-handed batters in his career. But sliders are murder to same-side hitters, and at the time of the trade, left-handed batters were 7-for-54 against Joseph this season.

Which makes Joseph the perfect complement to Collins, and means that the job he ought to be taking in the Royals’ bullpen is the one that belongs to Jose Mijares. Joseph not only becomes the Royals’ best left-handed relief prospect, he gives the team the flexibility to move Mijares this winter. Mijares is under contract through 2014, and should have significant value, whether on his own or as part of the package to bring in an established starting pitcher.

Either pitcher would have been a good return for Broxton. Asking for both of them would just be greedy. Dayton Moore was greedy, and with multiple teams looking for relief help, and with Huston Street off the market, he had the leverage to be greedy. Greed, in this case, is good.

I don’t know if I’d call this a great trade, simply because I’m not sure it was momentous enough to be a great trade. But it was certainly a great return. The Royals turned a $5 bill into a pair of stocks that are each worth $10. It’s hard to imagine how Moore could have done better without getting Ned Colletti involved.

So it was a good trading deadline for the Royals. It wasn’t a great deadline, because Broxton was the only player they moved. Admittedly, I would have been beyond astonished if Francoeur had been dealt. And while I was hoping for a Jose Mijares trade, it appears that the teams looking for bullpen help were focused on right-handed relievers. No left-handed reliever was traded to a contender* at the deadline; the Dodgers got Randy Choate from the Marlins, but he was the fringe benefit in the Hanley Ramirez trade.

*: The Red Sox traded for Craig Breslow, but I’m not certain the Red Sox are a contender, and I’m quite certain that I have no idea what the Red Sox are doing anymore.

My only real disappointment stems from the fact that Yuniesky Betancourt, the bane of my existence, is still a Royal. I had hoped that his contract status – he’s owed about $800,000 and is a free agent in two months – would make him a favorable target for a team in need of a utility infielder type. But the Giants traded for Marco Scutaro, the Nationals elected to hold pat, and we’re stuck with Yuni and his .260 OBP through the end of the season. Meanwhile, Johnny Giavotella continues to rake in Triple-A, and continues to get one day older with each passing day.

So it wasn’t a perfect trade deadline. But it could have been much worse, and honestly, it couldn’t have been a whole lot better. It was just one day in a nightmarish season. But it was a good day.