The Oakland Trade: A Better Fit?

When I started writing out posts on the upcoming moves for the off-season, I stressed two critical factors in the Rockies trying to maximize their performance with a limited roster:  Play better defense and get more (or luckier) out of your bullpen.  Not so surprisingly, these two factors often play a role on teams that win more than their run differential suggests they should.  In the coming bulletin points, we’ll see just how this trade did in attacking these goals and why I believe the Rockies made the deal with the right intentions.

Carlos Gonzalez (We’ll start with the big fish)

The Rockies received the high end young talent they were lacking in the St. Louis trade-  This isn’t Colby Rasmus, but it’s pretty close.  This is a highly regarded prospect.  Coming into the season, Gonzalez was the top rated player in the Diamondback-then-Athletics systems according to Baseball America, and was a five star prospect by BP’s Kevin Goldstein.  Gonzalez is said to have otherworldly tools and has flashed these a little more often in his recent minor league stints.  It’s easy to look at his MLB numbers with disappointment, but in his defense, he did not appear ready for the challenge of the major leagues (offensively, I should say), and he made his debut at the still young age of 22.  He’ll likely play an entire year in the majors next year at just 23, and the tools aren’t going anywhere.  Goldstein floated the Hanley Ramirez comp, and someone in the trade thread used Beltran, and both are possible outcomes for Gonzalez because his skill level is that high.  Sometimes, things suddenly click for guys like this and the sky becomes the limit.  He’s still too raw to worry about walk rates yet, let the power blossom and allow him to find his own way at the plate, Ramirez wasn’t exactly the most patient young player but the numbers have come with better performance.  Bottom line, we weren’t getting this type of player from St. Louis, and because of that I figured Gonzalez would have been off limits.

+5, +5-  I won’t make you guess what these are, those are Carlos Gonzalez’ plus/minus numbers in center and right.  This goes to the first part of “beating your pythag,”  Gonzalez’ plus/minus in both positions represent an upgrade over our current output.  I don’t quite get the left field talk with Gonzalez.  Sure, we need to find a replacement for Holliday there, but Spilborghs and Smith were already stretches in center, and Gonzalez plays it better right now than anyone Colorado has.  Long term, Gonzalez will be Hawpe’s replacement.  CoGo has a very strong arm and though he had four kills in a smaller MLB stint, his strength in controlling the running game came as much in teams declining to run on him than him throwing them out on the basepaths.  He may need to clean his accuracy up a tad to increase the number of kills going forward, but again, Gonzalez has just turned 23 and has plenty of time to refine his defensive skill.  What he doesn’t need is any more range.  Go to the Oakland A’s website or Carlos Gonzalez’s MLB player page and you can watch highlight after highlight of diving catches in the gaps at Oakland’s McAfee Coliseum.  For 2009, the Rockies can pencil in Gonzalez in center and trust it’s playing a guy with plus speed, plus arm, plus first step, and a solid understanding of routes and angles.  Assuming Gonzalez can repeat his ’08 plus/minus, he represents a 10 run swing over Taveras in center, and that alone could be an additional win next year.

 

Future and Financial Flexibility-  Aside from being talented, Gonzalez also gives the Rockies another chance at developing a star on the cheap.  The team should have few qualms finding a role for him next year, and with the possibility of a breakout, the Rockies could have yet another major asset costing them close to nothing.  In addition to payroll flexibility, the Rockies could have additional roster flexibility.  Assuming both Gonzalez and Fowler blossom next year, Gonzalez has the tools to slide to right field with no problem and give the Rockies a plus defender with high end offensive tools at the position, and back to the financial flexibility, allow the Rockies to look into moving Hawpe down the road.

 

Huston Street  (More valuable than most think)

Was it that bad?-  If the Rockies were to deal with the A’s, I figured Street would be the key major league part to the deal, but I’m surprised at talk he could be flipped again.  I’ve read some of the post-trade scouting reports, but a lot of them just don’t jive with the data.  Street threw his fastball on average .4 mph slower, the slider .9 mph slower, and the change .4 mph harder.  All in all, the velocity numbers from the pitch type data just don’t reflect a major change in that regard.  Those numbers don’t reflect drops in movement, and he may have suffered there, but Street’s FIP for ’08 was still a better number than Fuentes’ career FIP (though not better than his ’08 number).  On August 19th, Will Carroll wrote in his UTK article that Street believed he had figured out what was wrong and would revert to his old self thereafter.  From that date on, Street’s ERA dropped from 4.42 to 3.74, and he pitched to a 1.74 ERA in September.  That may be a small sample size, but it’s still ironic that his improvement coincided with a believed mechanical fix.  All told, Street was worth almost two wins out of the bullpen in Oakland (based on WXRL 0f 1.943).  The Rockies’ expect closer Corpas?  That number finished in the red (-.243)

Don’t upset the apple cart-  Point two of “beating your pythag” is a good bullpen.  A good bullpen does not have to have a great closer, but it does need a great leverage pitcher.  Street is not ’08 Fuentes, but you can make the case he is every other year Fuentes.  Street picks him K’s without a big fastball and generally keeps the walks down.  He’s coming to the easier league (good bye DH, hello pinch hitting, slap swinging, fourth outfielder) and will be facing hitters who have not adapted to his unorthodox mechanics and sweeping breaking ball.  Add in supposedly cleaned mechanics, and you have the chance for a solid rebound (and we aren’t looking for much, he was still pretty good last year).  One of Street’s attributes is his “closer history.”  Street can settle into the ninth inning role, and his managers and teammates can have confidence in him getting the job done.  That’s important because then the Rockies can release the better pitcher, Buchholz to tackle the eighth and high leverage appearances in the seventh.  This also means the Rockies don’t have to move Corpas to a role he hasn’t earned back and make allow him time to regain form (namely getting back on top of his pitches).  Remember, closers are overrated as is, and Street allows the Rockies to replace Fuentes one for one without upsetting the balance of the bullpen.  This also gives the Rockies versatility in playing the free agent market for additional relief help. 

 

Financial Flexibility…-  I’m sure some can spin this as being cheap, but again with Street, the Rockies can have a “proven closer” not making 7-8 million per year, and will allow the Rockies to spend money elsewhere.  Street’s likely in line for a bump in salary from 3.3 million last year, but the Rockies are just going year to year, and assuming they do put Street in the closer’s role, I’d expect in two years, the Rockies would be looking at another Type A free agent, and subsequently, a couple of first rounders again (He’s a projected A this year).

 

Greg Smith (As long as he doesn’t fail his physical)

There is still upside here, maybe?-  I’m not thrilled with this piece, but this should be Smith playing the “J.A. Happ-Skip Schumaker role,” so his contribution isn’t AS critical.  On VORP and SNLVAR, Smith was as good as our top two arms last year, but when the year is peeled back, there were obvious fluke signs.  That said, Smith can still make improvements in areas he’s shown proficiency for in the past and hope to keep some of his gains.  For one, Smith’s BB/9 rate was much higher last year than it has been in any of his minor league stops.  Smith can improve this through reputation, once the umpires gain respect in his nibbling ways, they will be more inclined to give him the black.  Smith can also “give in” more to hitter, using the two seam fastball a little more when he gets behind in counts.  The other improvement Smith can make is in his GB%.  Smith’s sub 40% GB% won’t cut it in Coors, but he’s been above this number several times in the minors.  Smith has the two-seam and diving cutter to be better in this department, but it was easy to take advantage of Oakland’s spacious foul territory.  He’ll have to make improvements here, but Apodaca has been fairly successful at milking pitcher for all their ability to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible.

Financial, Trade Flexibility-  Here it is again, Smith gives the Rockies a fifth starter that has tasted big league success, and he won’t cost anything.  Smith allows the Rockies to become more open minded in their return for Taveras and Atkins.  Now, getting a guy like Sowers or Broadway becomes redundant, and if the Rockies can find a better trade fit for a right handed bat, reliever, or even second baseman, they can do so without worrying as much about starting pitching.  There’s always a chance that Smith be packaged with Atkins or Taveras to improve a haul.  Lastly, Smith must still take and pass a physical, so before looking more into Greg, we need to first make sure he’ll be coming this way.

Overall, I consider this trade a big improvement on the Cardinals’ package.  Though the talent may not have the same track record, all three pieces fill a distinct hole, and the Rockies are afforded even more payroll flexibility to pursue improvements in any number of positions.  Keeping Street could not only impact the bullpen, but also uphold the value of the two first round picks lost in dealing Holliday before his sixth season.  The Oakland package offers more upside, long term potential, financial savings, and “scheme fits.”  The success of the trade ultimately hinges on Gonzalez, but banking on five tool, highly regarded talent is the type of risk this team needs to take, and for this O’Dowd deserves much credit.

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