Wednesday Rockpile: Why I Really Don't Like the Ubaldo Jimenez Trade

WASHINGTON, DC - FILE: Starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez #38 of the Colorado Rockies delivers to a Washington Nationals batter at Nationals Park on July 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. According to reports on July 30 2011, Jimenez has been traded to the Cleveland Indians. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

I know that you must all be sick of hearing about the Ubaldo Jimenez trade every day at this point, but as I was the staff member most vocally against the trade, I have an obligation to explain why that is/was and to give you my opinion of the trade -- which is to say that I don't like it much at all.

First, let's get the visceral emotional reaction out of the way. I'm not a guy who gets very attached to individual players, but if I had to pick a favorite Rockie it would have been Ubaldo. Here was a guy that was a hard worker, a team player, a nice guy, and who possessed a freakish right arm to boot. Obviously on an emotional level this trade is upsetting to me, but I can get over that part of it.

In a similar vein, I don't like that after an offseason in which Colorado showed two excellent players a great deal of loyalty, they traded an All-Star (who had shown them some loyalty in signing his team-friendly contract) ostensibly in his prime, using up quite a bit of the goodwill they'd built up both with their own players and with potential FAs this past off-season. But I can overlook that as well.

No, my main beef about this deal is that it just doesn't make economic (or even philosophical) sense at all to me. My argument two weeks ago against trading Ubaldo Jimenez revolved around the principle that it was very unlikely that the Rockies would come out ahead economically in a trade -- even one involving the big 4 Yankees package. I certainly don't believe that they did in this trade.

In a typical deadline deal, the expectation is that the buyer will be trading away long-term projected surplus value to the seller in exchange for a short-term gain. Let's look a little into the surplus value involved in this trade. Even if Ubaldo produces at the 3 fWAR pace he's set this year for the rest of his contract, plus another fWAR in 2011 (10 fWAR in all), the Rockies were looking at about $31 million in surplus value through 2014 from Ubaldo ($50 million in value - $19 million in salary), and that's if we don't consider inflation. If we do (and the value of one fWAR goes up), that number is closer to $50 million than $30 million.

In addition, when calculating the cost of the trade in surplus value, you also need to consider the value of the player whose spot in the rotation White would be taking in 2012 (at the moment it's looking like an unholy amalgamation of Christian Friedrich, Esmil Rogers, and Greg Reynolds) -- it's easy to project that surplus value at the least as being 1 fWAR ($5 million) per year given their relative cheapness -- so an additional $15 million in surplus value.

Looking at the most optimistic prospect rankings of Drew Pomeranz (top 10 pitching prospect), Alex White (11-25 pitcher), and Joe Gardner (grade B pitcher), the expected value (see this chart) of the package is about $43 million.

You might have a higher projected value for Pomeranz/White given their proximity to the big leagues, but my point is that even in a relatively pessimistic projection of Jimenez going forward combined with a relatively optimistic projection of their value, Jimenez probably still is more valuable. As I'll explain later, I expect Jimenez to be much more valuable than 3 fWAR going forward, so this is especially bad in my eyes.  

Philosophically, as Steve Slowinski of Fangraphs puts it, why would you trade your ace starter for three pitching prospects? I'll go into why this trade was such a bad idea after the fold.

On Ubaldo Jimenez and Risk

At its core, the disconnect between Dan O'Dowd (and to the numerous talent evaluators around the league who liked this trade) and I in terms of the value of this trade seems to involve a few factors. Primary among those is our respective evaluations of Jimenez.

While I tend to believe that Jimenez is closer to the 4.5-5 fWAR pitcher that he's been (on average) ever since 2008 going forward (from 2011-2014), it appeared that O'Dowd valued his own ace at a lower level. That is to say that O'Dowd saw Jimenez's velocity drop, early season struggles, and workload over the past few years and came to the conclusion that Ubaldo's value was closer to the 3 fWAR pitcher he's been this year.

There's certainly nothing wrong with siding with your club's GM and baseball people against the opinion of a passionate fan like me, but it is my firm belief that Dan O'Dowd sold an ace pitcher this past weekend and got a prospect return that probably won't match up to his production in their time with the Rockies.

Obviously there is a considerable amount of uncertainty as to whether Ubaldo could have continued on as an ace level pitcher (or even as a 3 WAR pitcher) through the life of his contract. There's the risk that his arm will blow out due to his heavy workload in Colorado's thin air, that he will continue to bleed velocity until he's a less crafty version of Jamie Moyer, and that he'll fall down the stairs carrying a load of goat meat and break his arm.

The uncertainty involved with Ubaldo is still much lower than the uncertainty that comes with two young TOR potential pitching prospects. Say it with me: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. I say this knowing that both Alex White and Drew Pomeranz have beaten the odds considerably already by making it  to a near-MLB level, but the chances of even one of them reaching the Ubaldo 4-5 fWAR level (yes, even at this point) is much less than 50%. I mean, White has already suffered an injury that put him on the 60 day DL, while Pomeranz really has yet to even prove himself at the AA level.

For example, Pomeranz's pedigree and performance/level/age are roughly equivalent to Jeff Francis before he made his debut. Now Francis was a nice pitcher for the Rockies, but he's not a guy you'd trade for Jimenez -- and he's a guy who "worked out". I'm not necessarily saying that Pomeranz = Francis, just that it's much more likely that he gives us Francis production than Jimenez production.

Yes, both prospects have top of the rotation potential and a rotation of under 26 stud pitchers is certainly a mouth-watering possibility, but the chances that they ever reach even a 3 fWAR per year level are less than 50% each. In other words, Ubaldo Jimenez, red flags and all, is still a heck of a lot more likely to be productive than this prospect package. I mean, Colorado may have just traded their ace for three pitching prospects who might become league average players one day. This mistake is made more egregious when you consider the fact that Jimenez was worth more to the Rockies than he was anywhere else given the voided 2014 option -- essentially, Colorado took that potential value and threw it away completely.

That's not even mentioning the fact that Colorado's needs lie far more on the offensive end of the spectrum than the pitching end. The 2012-2014 rotation still looks pretty good to me with Jimenez and without Pomeranz/White (the only logical leap to be made is that Friedrich will join the back end of the rotation), but what about the lineup? I feel like I have a good enough read on O'Dowd to know that he won't be spending heavily in free agency to acquire a big bat. The way I see it is that the Rockies weakened their starting pitching in the short term (and possibly the long term if nobody pans out) while leaving the holes in the lineup intact.

On the Rockies' Current Talent Level

The arguments that I've heard from O'Dowd and many others were about the fact that the Rockies just weren't good enough to win as they were currently constructed, so they needed to infuse the team and farm with impact-level depth. I disagree with this assertion, given the level of competitiveness (in the playoff hunt late into September) put forth by basically this roster last year, a year in which several things went right (great years from our big 3, Chacin breakout) but many more things went wrong (nearly every other player underperformed expectations, poor health). Unfortunately, Colorado has experienced worse health this year (especially with pitching) as well as a very strange run distribution, leading to something of a lost season.

I feel like this team (with Jimenez) has a true talent level of a 85-88 win team when relatively healthy, and at that point a couple of bounces here or there will get you in the postseason. For some people, winning between 80 and 92 games wasn't satisfactory (I can certainly understand this point of view), so this trade is an attempt to get the true talent level of this team closer to 90 wins. To do so, the Rockies are taking on a tremendous amount of risk that they lower the team's short-term talent level below the competitiveness threshold (for me, 85 wins).

It's not like I think the 2012 Rockies' chances are doomed without Ubaldo, it's that I feel they won't be as good or as likely to make a playoff run. As far as pitching prospects go, O'Dowd picked some good ones (as I stated in my radio interview yesterday), but I don't feel that the risk was worth it.

Conclusion

I am deeply disappointed with the entire line of reasoning that went into this trade, from the apparent opinion that the Rockies weren't good enough to contend in 2012 as currently constructed to the valuation of Jimenez as a #2 or even #3 starter. Jimenez would have been a bargain even if he didn't produce at much more than a league average level over the life of his contract. As far as prospect packages go, this is a decent one (though it doesn't address the offense much at all), but it still drastically undervalues Jimenez's combination of production and contract.

I've been a supporter of Dan O'Dowd for a long time, but I just can’t get behind this deal. I feel like this move creates a huge amount of unnecessary risk for the Rockies and the reward to be gained is too unlikely in my eyes to be worth it. In my opinion O'Dowd traded a pitcher signed to an incredibly team-friendly deal, while his value was damaged, and while he obviously had more value to the Rockies than he did to any other club.

Off-topic.

News

Here are reactions from Pomeranz and from White on joining the Rockies.

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