Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Crossed Wires: How Timing, Scouting and Bad Analysis Can Effect Perception

Last Friday, a trade broke between the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays. Great news for this blog, seeing as these are 2 of the 3 teams that I focus on in it. From the looks of things and depending on who is trying to "spin" the trade, it sure looked like Jim Hendry and the Cubs had pulled a fast one on Andrew Friedman of the Rays. In the offseason, games are played in front offices with agents and between GMs.

Ask anybody who gets their sports news from ESPN and ignores pure scouting analysis or sabermetrics, you'd think that the Rays are continuing an offseason-long "firesale". Plenty of Yankee and Red Sox fans believe that the nightmare that kept on haunting both storied franchises is over and done with, the Rays were no longer a championship-calibur team in their eyes. Yet Keith Law and Peter Gammons, both great baseball minds in their own rights, view the trades in wider scopes and see things in different light.

The Tampa Bay Rays aren't "re-building" at all, it's more like re-loading and re-allocating of assets and returning to what got them to the World Series in the first place. The Rays didn't forget where they came from, why should they anyways? A new ownership group who went into this new venture with a singularity mentality that they implemented organization-wide. When you're not going to out-spend or over-spend to get players, you have to find ways to attract Free Agents to buying into this thought and knowing that the team will always be in flux. "Franchise" players will leave for money, the team will decide to trade a player before their dollar value surpasses their projected statistical value and that there's a prospect(or 2) in the minors waiting for a chance to replace the veteran while the team is smart enough to limit the blow on the aforementioned prospect's arbitration clock.

Being "cheap" is a perception, as is being "savvy" and "smart" with your money/assets. Tom Ricketts probably has been called "cheap" a few times in his former life on Wall Street, Stu Sternberg might've as well. When you're running a business, its something you got be or do. If you're a reader of Tampa Bay Rays msg boards, there's a few times during an offseason in which Stu Sternberg/Andrew Friedman are called "cheap" in tirades, rants and diatribes by fans. Sometimes the readers have justifiable reasons why they're calling either Stu or Andrew that, but there's always been a smidgen of distrust surrounding both men.

You have 3 men who worked with each other in Wall Street decide to use their business smarts to run a baseball team in Florida. When you lived through the hell-ish era of the Vince Naimoli-Chuck LaMar regime and then see the team sold to a group from NY, the joy of change is quickly replaced by pessimism and skepticism on how deep the ties to the area really are. In fact, when the new regime declares a rebranding of the franchise and eliminates the location and/or region from merchandise to 80% of it...You can start being cautious about supporting the franchise's efforts to break the lease of the current stadium and have a brand new one built to support the winning franchise that the new regime had put together without spending much (if any) of their own money.

Rays fans have enjoyed the last 3 years of the team: 2 Divisional Champions, tons of All-Star Representation and the right players getting paid with long-term deals. However, fans went into the 2010 season knowing that ownership was going to slash it by 25 to 30 MIL at the end of season and some of the "important" players that helped lead to 3 consecutive "winning" seasons would be gone and almost urged to explore Free Agency. The 2010 season and the timing of the payroll-slashing comments, just so happen to be occurring during a recession in an area that had already dealt with an increase in unemployment. While the team was a force on the field, fans would rather watch on tv than in-person. Nationally televised games magnified the attendance woes. Gave national media reason to blast the team again like they were back to their losing ways.

Enter: The Starting Pitcher Logjam and the Shields Vs. Garza Trade Debate

Going into the 2011 season, it was clear to the Rays front office that one of the non-David Price pitchers in the rotation would be dealt to clear themselves of the logjam they had. Wunderkid Jeremy Hellickson showed enough in his allotted starts to cause some speculation that he was "ready" for a permanent spot in the rotation and one of the incumbent rotations was to be traded. Wade Davis was too new, David Price was far too valuable and Jeff Niemann's value to the team was greater than any trade value that he had accumulated. James Shields and Matt Garza were final 2: Shields' team-friendly contract Versus Matt Garza's reputation as a durable, consistent starter compacted with his "breakout year". Shields' 2010 season was also one of his worst with the Rays, which gave fans enough reason to entice thoughts of "Big Game James" no longer with the Rays. However, the bad season acted as a double-edged sword. Shields' trade value was at its lowest and any trade package for him wouldn't net the Rays anywhere close to the value that remained on his incredibly team-friendly contract in trade packages. It was clear, if Jeremy Hellickson were going to get any sort of shot at pitching a meaningful amount of starts in 2011...Matt Garza needed to get traded.

Enter: The Matt Garza Trade Build-up

Matt Garza's 15 Wins combined with his past season's no-hitter and past playoff accolades garnered attention from teams in need of a middle or top-of-the-rotation Starting Pitchers. However, where Matt Garza was getting traded to hinged on a few factors out of his control. First of all, "The Cliff Lee Sweepstakes" held up any trade of any starting pitcher. Texas, who had long been interested in Garza, was trying to woo Cliff into turning his "hired gun" act into "staff ace" instead. While the Rangers offered the best overall contracts to Lee, in terms of money and length of contract, he took less money to play in a better overall and more comfortable situation as part of the Phillies' attempt to create the greatest rotation ever assembled. Next roadblock for any Garza trade was Zach Grienke's sudden urge to get traded. The Rangers and Yankees, both of whom offered more for Lee's services than Philly, both targeted to trade for Grienke. However, within a day of Grienke changing agent representation, the Milwaukee Brewers quietly swooped in and nabbed KC's former "Ace". This was surprising, especially when the presumed trade package for Zach was believed to be so completely insane that any team wanting him would be basically committing farm system homicide.

Baseball's winter meetings gave Andrew Friedman the ability to talk to GMs who were interested "buyers" for Garza time to negotiate a trade. The Rangers, Yankees, Cubs, Nationals, Brewers and Rockies were believed to all held some interest in Garza. The Brewers dropped out of the picture with Grienke, Nationals and Rockies never seemed to have passed the "kicking the tires" stage and the Yankees dropped out of the trade picture when the price of what it'd take for the Rays to trade Garza within the division was revealed.

The Cubs and Rangers remained interested. However, 2 more roadblocks had to be cleared before Garza was to be traded. First off, Free Agent and recovering former CY winner Brandon Webb needed to decide where he'd try to rejuvenate his career. Both Texas and Chicago, while still holding interest as the finalists for Garza, were 2 of a handful of teams that were "in" on Webb. The Rangers signed Webb, which to some put them out of the running for Garza but in all actuality they had an offer in the days leading to the eventual trade to Chicago that was considered the 1b offer to Chicago's 1a.

The last roadblock before trading Garza was that "If Friedman(the Rays GM) was to trade Garza, Andrew was going to do it on his own terms and take the offer that he wanted or Garza wasn't going to get traded." Both the Cubs and Rangers made offers that fit his criteria, with the Rangers' offer being centered around immediate impact with slightly less potential upside(Frank Francisco+Cash, Derek Holland and Chris Davis all being Major-League Ready, the Rangers swinging a deal for Cubs' prospect Robinson Chirinos then including him in the deal and prized youngster Engel Beltre being the prospect involved from Texas' system) and the Cubs' offer being the best of both(close to "ready" prospects Chris Archer[who's upside is at being a Garza-like pitcher], Robinson Chirinos[who the Rays targeted no matter what], Brandon Guyer[Rays' "type" Outfield prospect], a major league ready sparkplug in Sam Fuld and prized defensive stud in shortstop Hak-Ju Lee).

Enter: The Conclusion/The Trade Finally Happens and the fan backlash that was caused by media-"spinning"

The trade finally happened after about a month or so of deliberating, waiting for roadblocks to clear and the Rays getting what they want to allow themselves to be apt for a trade of Garza and Cubs getting what they want from the Rays in Outfielder Fernando Perez and Pitching prospect Zachary Rosscup, in addition to Garza.

There's some caveats to the trade that, depending how media members spin it, make the trade look like a clear, no-doubt "win" for the team that you want to side with.

Pro-Cubs - Cubs receive Matt Garza, who they feel has top-of-rotation upside, without giving up any prospects that have "star" upside. They gave up a lot to get Garza, but they gave up noone who will for sure come back and bite them in the butt. The 3 prospects(Archer, Chirinos and Lee) that are the intergral parts of the trade are just that, prospects, and they aren't sure-things to pan out or live up to their potential. If they do, the impact will be felt a lot later than Garza's immediate impact will be felt. Also, the Cubs used their abundant farm system depth to acquire a front-line pitcher who another team is starting to be unwilling to pay in his arbitration years. Jim Hendry had started to look like he was on the way out of Chicago, but if this trade works out like he imagines...the Cubs struck it rich without hurting the present roster and future teams.

Pro-Rays - The Rays had a logjam with 6 starters vying for 5 rotation spots. Now they can slot Jeremy Hellickson into the #5 rotation spot and not see much, if any, of a drop-off in the rotation. Doing this, they also cleared 6 million dollars in additional money that can be used to soften the blow that losing Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, partly Jason Bartlett and the few other bullpen pieces that they could potentially lose to Free Agency, leaves. Stu stated that he projects the the Rays payroll to be around 50 MIL in 2011, which leaves the Rays 17 MIL in salary to "play with" for basically 3-4 spots(player with 1B experience, player that can DH and possibly 1-2 relievers with back-end bullpen experience). Imagine the Rays signing Vlad Guerrero or Manny Ramirez to DH, Russell Branyan to play some 1B with Brian Fuentes and/or Jon Rauch giving the Rays a bullpen 1 or 2 relievers with closer experience. The team that Yankee or Red Sox fans were glad to be seeing their proverbial window of contention being slammed shut, now would have found a new window re-opening and being just as dangerous as they were before. Also, the Rays figured out a way to trade a pitcher who was one of the closest to being a "ticking timebomb" while his value was at his highest and his stats were in a dangerous decline. For proof of possible factors showing Garza's decline, check out his month-by-month splits for the last 2 seasons. In 2009, as the season progressed, Garza's strikeout rate increased. In 2010, it actually declined to almost worrisome levels for a flyball pitcher to have. If he continues his ways(low K, high flyball guy), Wrigley isn't a place that you want him pitching. Add to the fact that Garza is a very tempermental pitcher, almost to Carlos Zambrano extremes and he's not going to have a good-to-great fielding team behind him(Check his FIP), Garza's not going to succumb well to the pressure that a large market with a huge fan-following brings. Rays also, in 1 trade, found a co-starting catcher(who could play SS in a pinch) with good OBP skills/good defensive skills and ability to hit for decent power and 4th outfielder that they can use immediately. They also got a starter in waiting, if they find a trade partner for Shields(if he regains something close to old form and the Rays receive a good offer), a potential future starting OFer and a short-stop prospect that you no longer have to wonder "will he stick, defensively?". So if/when the Rays sign a big bat and reliever because of the additional salary that was reallocated, we have Matt Garza to thank.

However, with pro's to things...you always have cons. Fan backlash is the biggest thing. Cub fans think that they gave up way too much for a guy who is nothing more than a #3 starter(what he was with the Rays) and that the Cubs basically sent a possible #2 in the future to the Cubs in addition to other pieces that just give the Rays more weapons to their disposal. On the other side, fans who think that the Rays mgmt is cheap...have even more reason to believe they are. Rather than wanting to spend money on keeping Garza, a fan-favorite(for some reason, probably his ferocity) long-term, they're just gonna be cheap and do this with others in the future. For a team that has a hard enough time drawing fans, they almost have to sign Manny to return fans that now left due to Garza being dealt. Vladdy may be a better fit and cheaper, but do more fans come to see Manny or to see Vladdy? Easy answer, from the business side. Also, fans are displeased on the package received from the Cubs. Most fans are used to star-quality prospects and name recognition, so this package seemed more than underwhelming when it comes to Rays farm system standards(even though Baseball America's Jim Callis has Archer at #4, Lee at #8 and Guyer at #12 in the Rays top 30 prospects). Fans can and will be fickle. However, fans were displeased at first when Delmon Young was dealt to the Twins for Garza and Bartlett.

Its all about how you look at things, I guess.
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1 comment:

  1. Nice article Jake. Especially like the way you go through the timeline leading up to the trade rather than the way others have looked at it as a stand-alone, January-salary-dump event.