Friday, July 30, 2010

Down The Chimney---Ho, Ho, Ho

  • Christmas in July for the Phillies:

The Phillies made a short-term killing in getting Roy Oswalt and cash from the Astros for lefty J.A. Happ and two minor leaguers. Over the long term, the true nature of the success or failure of the trade will be more clear.

Let's take a look at the deal for everyone involved.

The Astros add volume and ability at a low cost.

In exchange for Oswalt and $11 million to offset his remaining guaranteed money and 2012 buyout, the Astros received Happ, minor league outfielder Anthony Gose and infielder Jonathan Villar. They then spun Gose to the Blue Jays for Triple A first baseman Brett Wallace.

Gose, 20, is a speed demon who, judging by the number of times he gets caught stealing, is still learning how to adequately use his gifts. Villar is a 19-year-old middle infielder who can run as well. Both are in the low minors and aren't players for whom the Phillies or their fans should get into a twist about losing in the short-term----and who knows what they'll be in five years time?

Happ has positives and negatives. I love his stuff and think he can be a consistent winner in the big leagues with the potential to win 15-18 games on a good team; he's also not as young as you'd think considering that he was a rookie last season. Soon to be 28, he fits the mold of Phillies prospects who were kept in the minors until they were deemed absolutely ready to play in the big leagues; they did the same thing with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and it's hard to argue with that success. Happ has not been overused by the organization so a burnout shouldn't be an issue. He'll be extremely cheap for the next few years and, providing he's healthy, will be a solid starter for the rebuilding Astros.

That's the key. Happ's health.

Happ missed most of the first half of the season with a forearm strain and only recently returned to big league action. A forearm strain has to be monitored and could be a precursor to a more serious injury like a torn ligament that requires Tommy John surgery. One would assume----a big assumption with some teams----that the Astros received the proper medical reports on Happ and are satisfied that he's well enough to pitch without risk.

Another issue with Happ is his pressure-handling skills. In last year's post-season, he had control problems and a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face as if he was petrified. This is not something to discount if and when the Astros improve enough to make a playoff run. It's hard to win with frightened players and Happ appeared frightened.

If he's healthy and allowed to pitch and develop for a bad team, Happ can be a useful piece in the Astros rebuild because of his talent and low financial cost. His health is most imperative because he's good enough to win in the big leagues.

As for Villar, who knows? He's 19. The Astros have a gaping hole at shortstop so if Villar is on the fast track, it's not absurd to think he could be in the big leagues as soon as 2011.

The acquisition of Wallace was entertaining in the way it rapidly removed the dunce cap from the head of Astros GM Ed Wade. First, he was being referred to in all sorts of derogatory terms, then he suddenly wasn't all that bad when he acquired a big league ready bat to replace the soon-to-be-traded Lance Berkman.

If Berkman's not traded now, the Astros are either going to decline his $15 million option for 2011----he has a $2 million buyout----or in essence complete a "sign-and-trade" by having a trade in place to a venue to which Berkman agrees to waive his no-trade clause before activating the option. They can get something for Berkman and insert Wallace in his place.

Despite Wallace's frequent address changes----he's been traded three times in the past year in the middle of some big deals, he's a big time prospect. Traded from the Cardinals to the Athletics as the centerpiece for Matt Holliday, he was only Athletics property for half a season; he was traded from the Athletics to the Blue Jays for Michael Taylor as Billy Beane skillfully insinuated himself in the wild machinations of the Cliff Lee to the Mariners/Roy Halladay to the Phillies trades; and now he's been sent to the Astros where he'll presumably get his opportunity to play in the majors. Wallace is 23 and judging by his numbers, he can really hit, doesn't strike out much and gets on base.

Aside from the money they kicked in, the Astros did quite well in getting two inexpensive and immediately implementable cogs with Happ and Wallace and a young player who could be playing shortstop for them in the near future.

The Phillies reap the benefits of back room machinations.

Without knowing exactly what happened, it's clear that the Phillies benefited greatly from several outside factors.

First, Ed Wade was a longtime Phillies employee and functioned as their GM from 1998 until the end of the 2005 season. One thing I find funny about the way Wade is perceived is that he's considered a fool whom the Phillies were lucky to be rid of...but it was under Wade that they drafted Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Pat Burrell, Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Marlon Byrd, Joe Saunders (he didn't sign), Gavin Floyd, Michael Bourn and Kyle Kendrick.

Many credit scouting director Mike Arbuckle for the drafting of these players----most of whom contributed in some way to the Phillies run of excellence----no one knows how much influence Wade had in their acquisition and development; but it's twisted to blame Wade for the failures of the organization and credit others for the successes.

In a prime example of the fleeting nature of ill-informed perception, Wade was cast as everything ranging from corrupt in trying to help the Phillies and getting little back; to incompetent; to not being all that bad when he netted Walllace for Gose.

Did Wade want to help the Phillies? It's only human to think that he still has some affection for the team for whom he worked for so long; a team that still has a large number of players he brought into the organization and helped develop. In comparison to the other teams that were after Oswalt, the Cardinals being most notable, I can't imagine that Wade or McLane wanted to see Oswalt in a Cardinals uniform regardless of the pitcher's desires or the offer the Cardinals presented.

These surreptitious maneuvers that scream, "let me help my friend" happen far more often than is realized. I'm still convinced that Omar Minaya's affability and popularity as a person around baseball helped him in the Johan Santana negotiations. No one can prove it, nor would they admit it, but I'm sure both the Yankees and Red Sox got word to Minaya with a spy-level of subterfuge that neither were in on the deal; that he should hold out because the Twins had nowhere else to go. It also helped that both the Yankees and Red Sox were invested in keeping Santana away from the other while simultaneously getting him away from a rival in the Twins and out of the American League.

It happens.

Wade isn't a great GM, but he's not an idiot. I can think of many worse GMs than Ed Wade based on their practical decisionmaking----and one is Ruben Amaro Jr.

Ruben Amaro Jr. should play the lottery. That's how lucky he is. I said yesterday that the Phillies would be insane for trading Happ and prospects for Oswalt, but that was under the belief that they'd be absorbing his whole salary; and they're not.

Because the negotiations were taken over by Astros owner Drayton McLane, who was speaking directly to Phillies owner David Montgomery----CBS Sports Blog----it's not hard to see that McLane was influencing the deal heavily. After acceptable players were agreed upon, it's clear that McLane's affinity for Oswalt caused the strange agreement to give the Phillies such a large amount of money to pay him; that he wanted to put a longtime, loyal player in a good situation to win.

McLane is criticized for his meddling, but he nixed sell-offs in both 2005 and 2008 as the "experts" had buried his club both times and the Astros climbed from dire circumstances to make the World Series in '05; and come within a few games of the Wild Card in '08. He spends money when he needs to and the team has been successful on and off the field with him as owner.

What more do people want? A Billy Beane book length resume (AKA Moneyball) of faux brilliance? Or someone who's done things that looked odd at the time, but worked?

Indirectly, this all helped Amaro. He got Oswalt for relatively little in the present. Happ wasn't going to help the Phillies all that much this season; the young players are years away; and they didn't spend all that much money to get a top starting pitcher for 2010 and 2011.

That said, the Phillies had better win now because they're expensive and aging. The core of the team is signed long-term to lucrative contracts and, by the time 2012 rolls around, will be in their mid-30s; the team will have a vastly different face.

Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay are all locked in to be Phillies for the long term; but Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge, Oswalt and Raul Ibanez all have contracts set to expire after 2011 and are hard to see remaining with the club (although Amaro's loony contract extension for Howard makes anything possible); they'll also possibly have a new manager with Charlie Manuel 66-years-old.

This would all be fine if they weren't gutting the farm system to win now!!!

Much was made of bolstering the prospect base when trading Cliff Lee, but they've traded a chunk of their youth to acquire these veterans. This is a cost of being a contender annually and having a fan base that expects success as a birthright; they can't back off of trying to win immediately; a byproduct of that desire is the loss of kids who would infuse the big league club with inexpensive energy.

The loss of Arbuckle makes replenishing the system all the more difficult and Amaro----with the questionable trade of Lee and the terrible signings of the likes of Danys Baez and contract extensions for Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton, is putting his team in this position where they're going to have to continue shelling out for veteran help with little flexibility in payroll and a diminishing number of desirable prospects.

The Phillies have leapt back into the playoff race for both the Wild Card and the NL East----and they'd better win now because the window is closing rapidly.

This makes the Phillies better, but doesn't address fundamental holes.

With Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt, the Phillies throw out three top, proven starters. But that doesn't address the bullpen; nor does it halt the lingering questions about the clubhouse factions breaking out over salacious rumors of an affair between Jayson Werth and Chase Utley's wife. Utley has been out with a torn ligament in his thumb so isn't around the team; but eventually, he'll be back; if the rumors are true, will personal problems be on the back-burner? Is it possible?

Werth was on the trading block, but circumstances have made that impossible with the oblique injury to Victorino; the pending free agent Werth is not getting through waivers after July 31st, so he's going to be with the club.

The Phillies are going to be in the playoff hunt, but Manuel will have to do his best job yet of keeping everyone on the same page of winning on the field while not having an off-field explosion. The weaknesses of the National League contenders have given new life to a Phillies team that was slumping terribly. They're battle-tested and have come through in the clutch before. Contrary to popular belief, their playoff chances don't hinge on those three starters, but how well the bullpen performs down the stretch.

  • It's not the trading deadline, it's the Twilight Zone:

Some of the other trades that have been completed are sensible; some are strange.

Padres acquire INF Miguel Tejada from the Orioles for Double A RHP Wynn Pelzer and cash.

The Padres needed a big time offensive upgrade.

Miguel Tejada is not a big time offensive upgrade. In fact, he's not much of an upgrade at all.

The Padres are based on pitching and defense.

Miguel Tejada, who cannot play shortstop anymore, is going to be playing a lot of shortstop.

They didn't give up much to get him, but just because something is cheap, that doesn't mean you're obligated to take it. I don't understand this.

Twins acquire RHP Matt Capps for minor league catcher Wilson Ramos and minor league LHP Joe Testa:

I like Matt Capps, but is he worth the Twins top prospect? Even if the top prospect is a catcher and has his way blocked by Joe Mauer? Ramos is a work in progress, but Capps has been overworked by the Nationals; isn't an upgrade at closer over Jon Rauch and is a pitcher the quality you could presumably find after the non-waiver trading deadline and not give up your best prospect to get.

The Twins have made some questionable deals in recent years. The aforementioned Santana trade was a train wreck; and sending Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris didn't look particularly good before this year----Young's playing very well----but they'd have been better off keeping Garza and Bartlett.

A smart organization that runs their team correctly, the Twins make an awful lot of strangely overaggressive trades for middling players and this deal for Capps is the latest one. You have to get more for your top prospect----who plays a sought after position----than Capps.

Rangers acquire INF Jorge Cantu from the Marlins for minor league RHPs Evan Reed and Omar Poveda:

If anything exemplifies what the Marlins do, it's how they replenished the floundering Cantu, used him to their own benefit for a couple of years, then traded him for useful, organization-building arms.

Cantu had been released by the Cincinnati Reds after 2007 and was invited to spring training on a minor league contract by the Marlins in 2008. Cantu had a terrific year with 29 homers, 95 RBI and 70 extra base hits. He had another fine year last season and was slumping a bit this year, but still hitting with some pop (10 homers). He's versatile and will hit in the cozy confines of Rangers Ballpark.

This is an excellent deal for both sides.

I was a guest with Sal at SportsFan Buzz last Friday. You can listen directly here----link----or click on Sal's site and download it from I-Tunes.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.


Jeff said...

Meh. Despite this Oswalt deal, I still think the Phils miss the playoffs this year.

That's 50% wishful thinking and 50% analysis (albeit half-assed).

Hey, at least that one famed fan won't have to sell her body for playoff tix.

She-Fan said...

The trio of Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels make the Phillies very formidable, no matter what their other weaknesses are. I'd be scaaaared if I were in that league.

Gabriel said...

I like the Cantu trade. He'll probably play 1B, and he'll at least bolster his stats in The Hitters' Heaven in Arlington. I want the Rangers to win this year's pennant.