Wednesday Rockpile: Rockies Trade Former Top Prospect For Top Reliever in Wilton Lopez

Bob Levey

The Rockies traded away one of the big prizes of the Ubaldo Jimenez deal in Alex White last night. In return, they secured a cost-controlled reliever with elite control and groundball rate, a reliever with some injury concerns.

I don't think that there would be too much debate if I said that the Rockies' bullpen last year was one of their strengths. After all, 3 of their top 4 pitchers by fWAR were relievers. Much of that is usage -- after all, the Rockies bullpen threw almost 100 innings more than the next highest team -- but it's also true that the top three (Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle, and Rex Brothers) were pretty darn good.

Here's the thing: if healthy, Wilton Lopez, whom the Rockies just acquired for Alex White and Alex Gillingham (pretty much a non-factor), is as good or better than those guys. Indeed, Lopez was dominant last year, throwing 66 innings of 2.17 ERA/1.04 WHIP ball for the Astros. Plus, he's under team control (he has 3.038 years of service time) for the next three years, meaning that Dan O'Dowd wasn't acquiring a rental.

While Lopez's K/9 rate (7.33) is a little low for an elite reliever, his exceptional BB/9 rate (1.09) meant that he was pounding the strike zone with consistency. To put it in perspective, Betancourt had a 1.87 BB/9 last year while showing phenomenal control...and a 1.16 BB/9 during his historically good 2011. Oh, and Lopez's ground ball % last year was 55% (and that was the lowest of his career), so not only does he throw strikes, he induces ground balls. So I think it's safe to say that I'm excited to see what Lopez can do in Colorado's bullpen.

However, there are concerns with Lopez's elbow that could cloud this deal from the Rockies' perspective. The Phillies had a trade in place for Lopez last month that fell apart due to these concerns. Troy Renck's article on the trade mentions that the Rockies did an MRI on the elbow and still wanted to do the trade, so that's something of a relief. Still, acquiring a potential Tommy John surgery candidate is risky business.

So is giving up on Alex White at this stage in the game. White was a 1st round pick in 2009 for the Indians, pitched his way into many Top 50 prospect lists, and was one of the two centerpieces in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade in the summer of 2011. To say that he struggled mightily once coming to the Rockies organization would be thoroughly, depressingly accurate. With the Rockies, White had an ERA that hovered near 6, a BB/9 well over 4, and a K/9 that was below 6.

Put simply, White wasn't able to locate his pitches well as a member of the Rockies, which was an extremely poor fit for the four man rotation. In 20 starts last year, White managed only 93.2 innings pitched -- that's just 4.2 IP per start. While he was in the mix for a back-end starting position this year, it was unlikely that he was going to win a starting job, especially if the Rockies were to acquire a starter or two this off-season. Even his position as a member of the bullpen would have been in doubt, given the glut of players like White on the Rockies' roster.

With all of that said about White, there's a reason he was part of the Ubaldo trade and why the Astros insisted on including him in this deal. He's still young and not far removed from his top 50 prospect days. White's pitches can be nasty when he's on, and in a different environment (read: not Coors Field) he could become a decent starter.

There's definitely an argument to be made that the Rockies should be acquiring starting pitching (their greatest weakness), not trading it away for a relief arm (arguably their biggest strength). The thing about White was that I just don't think that he was ever going to be a significant contributor for the Rockies unless it was in the bullpen -- and he would have had to beat out plenty of similar players (including Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Chatwood, and Christian Friedrich) to become that player. In other words, the potential production by White (great relief arm) is exactly what Lopez (barring injury) will produce for Colorado.

We've been wanting for a long time to see Colorado turn some of their "wait and see, maybe never" assets into ML-caliber players, and with this trade the Rockies front office has done just that.

Los Links!

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs is confused about the deal from the Rockies' perspective -- it basically boils down to why Colorado would acquire a reliever despite being far from contention. It's a valid point, though I believe Lopez will be more valuable to Colorado than White would have been (Houston might reap more value if White becomes a starter for them, but I don't think that was going to happen here).

Troy Renck thinks that it might be a bigger risk for the Rockies to NOT trade Dexter Fowler. Which is a little melodramatic given how far the Rockies need to go to be contenders. My position is that unless Colorado can get a haul for Fowler that will legitimately improve the team more than it hurts them, it doesn't really make sense to move him.

New manager Walt Weiss spoke at the meetings yesterday, which was chronicled by SBN's own Rob Neyer and by Troy Renck. So far, Weiss is saying the right things and getting my hopes up. Tony Larussa's a fan.

Finally, SB Nation is hosting a Winter Meetings Simulation, where contributors from across SB Nation's blog roll are acting as Fake GMs for their teams. The rules and the transactions are found here. So far, I've fake traded Michael Cuddyer and Jordan Pacheco for Rick Porcello of the Tigers and signed Brandon McCarthy to a 4 year, $55 million deal. Which is somewhat of an over-pay, but in the fake market over there it's pretty close to market value. It's also the only way a good free agent pitcher would sign with the Rockies.

Let me know if there are any other transactions you want me to pursue in the comments.

Off-Topic.

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