Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Santana Trade Thoughts

The Twins have traded Johan Santana in exchange for four of Baseball America's top ten ranked Mets minor leaguers. They include Deolis Guera (rhp, 2nd), Carlos Gomez (cf, 3rd), Kevin Mulvey (rhp, 4th), and Phil Humber (rhp, 7th). While some of the players differ, I predicted this back in August. Based on what I've read so far, most seem to agree that the Mets got the better end of this deal, which is an obvious initial assessment. But we need to consider multiple factors when assessing this deal.

The Trading Market
The market for Johan Santana has been tepid since speculation arose that he was on the trading block. At first glance, this doesn't make sense for a 29 year old left-hander with two Cy Youngs on his resume (should have three) who many believe is the best pitcher in baseball. However, at second glance only a few teams could afford to make offers. Santana has a no-trade clause and is on the final year of his contract with the Twins. He made it well-known that he wanted to be shipped to a contender, specifically on the east coast, and he was seeking a contract in excess of 6 years, $20 million per. There aren't many teams that can meet those terms. Actually, there are only three, the Yankees, Red, Sox and Mets. So, Twins G.M. Bill Smith had very little negotiating leverage to begin with. This is why you cannot compare this trade to the Dan Haren trade or yet to be consummated Erik Bedard trade.

To make matters worse, there are indications that the Red Sox and Yankees never actually wanted Santana as badly as the media projected. Their main objective may have been to prevent the other team from acquiring the ace. The fact that the Yankees or the Red Sox did not even make a last ditch offer remotely resembling the offers made in December indicates they were satisfied with allowing the Mets win the Santana sweepstakes, because both teams had the prospects to best the Mets offer.

The reality of the situation is that market may have been composed of one team, the Mets, and the other two teams participating had very good reasons to get out. Namely, young stud pitchers who each team could control through their arbitration years: Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy for the Yankees, and Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester for the Red Sox. Plus, had the Yankees traded for Johan Santana and signed him to his asking price of $150 mil. that would have cost the Yankees $200 mil. real dollars given how much it would take them over the luxury tax.

The Small Market
When evaluating this trade we need to consider the limits of Minnesota's small market. Twins G.M. Bill Smith traded one year of Johan Santana (Smith was not going to resign him) for 24 years of big league service time. That's four players whose six-year arbitration clocks haven't started ticking yet. That is extremely valuable for a small market team.

Second, he received minor-league pitchers. It has become pretty evident that for small-market teams to remain competitive in the American League they must do so by developing young pitching. Small-market teams cannot afford to compete with the offensive firepower of the Yankees, Red Sox and the newly revamped Tigers by attempting to match them run for run. So, they must rely on good pitching to keep them in games against these slugging teams. Had Smith traded Santana for 4 position players, it would not have made the Twins anymore competitive, unless he was able to flip these prospects for young pitchers. Small-market teams in the American League must develop pitching to compete with teams in larger markets that have become offensive minded.

Finally, in acquiring Gomez, it's pretty clear Smith has refocused Twins baseball on the fundamentals: pitching, defense, and base-running. The premise of Michael Lewis' groundbreaking biography of Oakland A's G.M. Billy Beane, Moneyball was that in order for small market Major League Baseball teams to survive they had to invest their money where other's were not. Zig when others zag. Then, that meant that Beane invested in on base percentage instead of home runs or batting average. Today that means investing in defense. During this offseason, it has become pretty clear that Bill Smith is investing in defense and base-running with his signing of Adam Everett, Mike Lamb, and his trade for Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez. Eventually, an outfield of Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez, and Micheal Cuddyer could make up one of the best outfields in baseball. He's zagging while others are zigging, an absolute necessity for a small market G.M.

The Prospects
Scouts vary on their opinions of the players involved in this deal. After surveying a lot opinions in various blogs and articles from "experts" the two players with the highest upside in this trade are Guera (18 yrs. old) and Gomez (22 yrs. old). Many seem to think both have been rushed through the Mets farm system (a testament to how shallow that system is) and could use some more seasoning in the minors. So, don't be surprised if the Twins sign a stop-gap center fielder like Kenny Lofton or Corey Patterson and a low-cost innings eater like Steve Trachsel or Tony Armas Jr.

Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey both project to be middle of the rotation starters. Humber was the 3rd overall draft pick out of Rice University where he won an NCAA title. He was derailed with Tommy John surgery in 2005 and has yet to regain his collegiate form. He still projects as a MLB pitcher, but does not have the stuff he had prior to surgery. Mulvey projects as a control artist who keeps the ball in the stadium and on the ground, similar to Twins youngster Kevin Slowery-a nice profile for a team that emphasizes defenses. (Learn more about the Twins new acquisitions here)

I'm not as down on this trade as many analysts because I like the way the Twins have spread the risk around four players. If they take the deal with the Yankees and Phil Hughes gets hurt, they end up with an average center fielder, Melky Cabrera, for Johan Santana, and that's it. Plus, the Twins have a history of identifying good prospects from other farm systems. Some examples:

Alexi Casilla (from the Angels for J.C. Romero, 2005)
Francisco Liriano (from the Giants for A.J. Pierzynski, 2003)
Jason Bartlett (from the Padres for Brian Buchanan, 2002)
Johan Santana (from the Marlins for Jared Camp, 1999)
Kyle Lohse (from the Cubs for Rick Aguilera, 1999)
Cristian Guzman (from the Yankees for Chuck Knoblauch, 1998)
Joe Mays (from the Mariners for Roberto Kelly, 1997)
David Ortiz (from the Mariners for Dave Hollins, 1996)

While the Twins were forced to give up the best pitcher in baseball due to the financial constraints of this small market, let's remember the context, and trust the scouts that have put the Minnesota Twins in contention for the last 5-10 years.

Update (01/31/08): A smarter person more effectively stating what I tried to say, using statistics and stuff (click here).


Siege said...

I am fine with this trade. I agree with your analysis about trading one year of Santana time for 24 years of MLB service time. This situation reminds me of the KG trade - Santana has one year left on his contract, will not resign after his contract is up, and we need to get something for him now rather than letting him walk away.

I thought it was interesting that you stated that the Yanks and Sox may not have even really been interested, but rather posturing to keep the other at bay - I hadn't heard that, but if it is true, then some of the local media (KFAN) and local fans should need to relax with their analysis that Smith funked up the timing. I have been listening to KFAN over the last few days and have heard the hosts talk about how Smith may have blown it by not taking earlier offers from the Yanks or Sox and that while he waited the offers continued to get worse, until he finally settled with the Mets deal. But if those offers weren't really on the table, then Smith probably got the best realistic deal out there. As you stated and highlighted with your trade table, I am going to trust the Twins on this one, they have been pretty good the last 5-10 years at working small ball successfully.

The Cook said...

Two other issues I forgot to include, that need to be factored:

1. When you buy a car, do you take the dealer's first offer, or do you negotiate for a better one? Why should we hold Bill Smith to a different negotiating standard?

2. It has been reported that Johan threatened to invoke his no-trade clause if he wasn't traded by Tuesday. Talk about no leverage!