Wednesday Rockpile: Dexter Fowler trade shows the front office has lost its way

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

In trading Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros for fourth outfielder Brandon Barnes and struggling young pitcher Jordan Lyles, the Colorado Rockies traded a quarter for a dime and a nickel...and then used that 15 cents to buy an over the hill first baseman. It's hard to see how this trade makes any sense for the Rockies.

I found out about the Dexter Fowler trade yesterday afternoon when I got an email with a link to MLB Daily Dish's commentary on the trade. I read the headline and was...horrified? Disappointed? A little of both, sure, but the best word to describe my instant reaction was befuddlement.

As in, what just happened? As in, we traded Fowler for that?!? As in, in what world is this a good idea?

I wasn't surprised that Fowler had been traded - the writing seemed to be on the wall for some time on that. No, it was a combination of the suitor and the package that really surprised me. After all, the Astros had just spent the past couple of years trading anything with a price tag away and the return...well, Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles were on nobody's shopping list in exchange for Dex.

After looking at the deal for quite some time and reading the opinions of many knowledgeable baseball people and fans, I can't say that my initial opinion has changed much (though there's certainly less anger). To see what those people thought, please look at last night's Internet reactions post.

I'll take a gander at what the front office's thinking might have been in a little bit, but first I'd like to give an accounting of the assets involved in the transactions the Rockies participated in yesterday:

To the Astros

Dexter Fowler - Outfielder, toothpaste model, leaper over things

Contract: $7.35 million in 2014, arbitration eligible in 2015 (projected salary about $9-10 million)

Strengths

  • Patience at the plate, leading to high OBP. Dex's career .365 OBP and 65 walks per year will play anywhere - especially at the top of a lineup
  • Speed - he doesn't steal as many bases as his speed would suggest, but he's a near automatic first to third guy on a single and he can cover a lot of range in the outfield
  • Sneaky pop - a large part of this is due to Coors Field's large outfield, which when combined with his speed turns a lot of singles into doubles and doubles into triples
  • General above averageness - the last three years Fowler has been between 2-2.7 WAR, a number that has been suppressed somewhat by advanced defensive metrics not compensating enough for the aforementioned Coors Field outfield.

Weaknesses

  • Questions about what he'll do playing his home games outside of Coors Field - his road line is .241/.333/.361 and overall he's just a career .270 hitter if batting average is your thing. Also, there is a big perception that Fowler is a streaky hitter (his power in particular seems to come in bunches).
  • Injury history - while Fowler hasn't even been sidelined for a really significant time by an injury, he does seem to have a lot of nagging injuries that cause him to miss time. His knee injury that knocked him out of much of September was a great example of this. Fowler's missed time each of the last three years with various maladies.
  • Perceived lack of capitalization on his talent - Fowler looks like he should be a star given his tools, but above average has proven to be the apex of his production
  • Cost - Fowler's $7.35 million cost could be construed as excessive given the questions about him

Summary

Fowler, warts and all, is an above average MLB regular outfielder signed to a reasonable contract ($3.5 million per expected WAR is about half the market rate) whose perceived deficiencies probably won't amount to a huge loss in value on the move to Houston. That's why the Astros wanted to trade for him.

Player To Be Named Later - riding through the desert on a similarly named horse

While I certainly hope that this will turn out to be organizational filler or cach, there's always the potential for the Astros getting an intriguing lower-tier prospect in this deal. For the sake of my sanity I'm going to hope that it just turns out to be cash and that it's a non-factor in the deal.

To the Rockies

Jordan Lyles - Pitcher, young

Contract: Pre-arbitration, under team control through at least 2017

Strengths

  • Has 377 major league innings under his belt by the age of 22
  • Scouts say he has above average control and command
  • Has an above average ground-ball rate (career 48.6%)
  • Has youth (he'll be 23 next year) and first round pedigree (#38 pick in 2008, he was Baseball America's #42 prospect in 2011) indicate room for growth as a pitcher
  • Story matches another Rockies trade target who was rushed to the big leagues and possessed a high groundball rate in Tyler Chatwood

Weaknesses

  • He hasn't had good results in those 377 innings - he's got a career 5.35 ERA,1.45 WHIP, and opponents have hit .283/.341/.454 against him
  • He doesn't have Chatwood's raw stuff (particularly velocity). Lacks a strikeout pitch - he throws five different pitches per Pitch F/X and all five pitches provide below average value, particularly his low 90s fastball. This means that Lyles is highly dependent on the defense and the park behind him. Coors Field is not usually the best fit for such a pitcher.
  • His xFIP and other peripherals have consistently outperformed his ERA (which is why Fangraphs likes him a lot more than Baseball-Reference) but Roy Oswalt had that same profile last year - indicating that when contact was made against Lyles, it was hard contact that was more likely to be a hit.
  • As mentioned above, when contact is made against Lyles it tended to be hard contact. Many of those hits against him went for homers - his career 12.8% HR per flyball rate is abysmal.
  • If rWAR's your thing Lyles has been rated as worth -1.0, -0.7, and -1.2 wins by Baseball-Reference over his MLB career. Why is Lyles better than Colorado's existing rotation options again?

Summary

Lyles has youth, groundballs and a good feel for pitching on his side, but his results and stuff indicate that he's not an effective MLB pitcher - and I fear that in Colorado he may never be. He'll improve by virtue of actually having an excellent infield defense behind him, but I fear that improvement will be countermanded by the move to a very hitter-friendly ballpark. At this point I'd rather roll the dice on Drew Pomeranz in the fifth rotation spot than use it on Lyles.

Brandon Barnes - Outfielder, defense, scrappy

Contract: Pre-arbitration, under team control through at least 2018

Strengths

  • Cheap and under team control for five seasons
  • Plays very good outfield defense - good enough defense that Baseball-Reference had him at 1.7 wins in 2013. He'll be a good late inning defensive replacement.
  • Is a passable hitter against lefties - a career .280/.335/.401 line over 199 plate appearances

Weaknesses

  • He might be the worst position player hitter in the Major Leagues. Baseball Prospectus's True Average offensive metric projected him to have the worst mark in the league. On any other team in the league (okay, maybe the Marlins), Barnes wouldn't have seen much action last year.
  • He has terrible strike zone awareness - he struck out 127 times last year and walked just 21 times. His career OBP is .282.
  • He's not an upside play either. Defensive value (let's face it, that's really his only value) peaks at a young age...and Barnes is Fowler's age.

Summary

For a team that leaned on its bench so much last year, the Rockies really needed an upgrade to who would be getting that playing time. Instead they got a bench player who will not be an offensive asset for the team and who shouldn't play at all unless it's against lefties. Barnes plays very good defense, but his bat is the kind that DH for.

Sweet, sweet cash relief

The Rockies added two minimum salary players (about $1 million) to their payroll while unloading Fowler's (reasonable) $7.35 million deal, leaving them with roughly $6.5 million in salary relief. Hmm...what other move did the Rockies make yesterday that cost them $6.5 million? Oh right, the Rockies traded that $6.5 million in cash for...

Justin Morneau - First base, former MVP, hockey enthusiast

Troy Renck did a pretty good job of explaining why the Rockies would want Morneau. Here's my take:

Contract: Two years, slightly under $13 million with a mutual 3rd option year

Strengths

  • Was very respectable against right-handed pitching in 2013, posting a .280/.352/.467 line against them. If healthy, he'll be a decent bet to improve upon his power numbers
  • Reports indicate that he'll be pretty good defensively at first base (okay, some reports indicate otherwise, I'm taking the positive view) - and combined with a league average bat, that's a useful player
  • Veteran presence in the clubhouse (rejoining former Twins teammate Michael Cuddyer) - he also won't be intimidated by stepping into Todd Helton's shoes

Weaknesses

  • Injuries are a big concern for Morneau - after all, the man has been sidelined multiple times for concussions and really hasn't been the same guy since suffering one in 2010.
  • He'll be 33 in 2014, and the onset of age (slower bat speed) in combination with his injury history lowers his ceiling considerably
  • The Rockies no doubt consider him to be more of an everyday solution, but Morneau should not be playing against left-handed pitching (.207/.247/.278 line against them in 2013)
  • He has the following projection for 2014 with the Rockies from ZIPS maven Dan Szymborski:

Summary

Even if Morneau does only produce 0.9 WAR for the Rockies in 2014 as Szymborski projects, that will be a large upgrade from the terrible production the Rockies got from the position in 2013. If the Rockies platoon Morneau with Wilin Rosario or Cuddyer, that situation gets even better. Still, Morneau is getting paid a lot of money for a declining first baseman (limited utility) with large platoon splits and a scary injury history. I really feel like the Rockies could have spent their money more wisely here.

Other effects of this move on the Rockies

The Rockies will likely be moving Carlos Gonzalez to center field, a move that will improve his value to the team. It might also be a good idea to move him into the lead-off position as well. Meanwhile, most of Fowler's plate appearances will go to the Corey Dickerson/Charlie Blackmon duo, who will try to prove they belong as MLB regulars in 2014.

Barnes's presence might mean less of a role for Charlie Culberson, which is a shame because I think Culberson's a better player. Lyles will probably get slotted into the rotation though it's not clear that he deserves to be, meaning that Chad Bettis and even Drew Pomeranz is more likely to head to the bullpen.

Colorado's motivation for making the Fowler trade

In recent years the Rockies have made many a move that leaves fans just scratching their heads. Here's a few potential motivations that I see for the Rockies making these moves (specifically Fowler).

1. The Rockies really like Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes

Maybe the Rockies really think that Lyles will become the mid-rotation savior the team has been searching for and that Barnes will be a valuable utility outfielder. If that does turn out to be the case, the deal would be a definitive win for the Rockies.

I just don't think that there's a good possibility that it does. I don't think that Lyles is much better (if at all) than pitchers like Chad Bettis and Drew Pomeranz that were slotted to compete for the fifth slot in the rotation and I think that Barnes will be useless as a bench bat.

If the Rockies thought that this deal was a good return for a player like Fowler, then I vehemently disagree with Colorado's front office on this one and don't really know what more there is to say on the matter.

2. The salary relief is a precursor for acquiring more players

Here's a telling quote from Patrick Saunders's article on the deal:

Rockies general manager Bill Geivett disagreed with the suggestion that trading Fowler was a "salary dump."

"I will say that when we open the season, our final payroll number is going to be what it's going to be," Geivett said. "Any money that we aren't spending on Dexter is going to go to somebody else."

Isn't trading a large salary away so that you can spend that money elsewhere the very definition of a salary dump Bill? There's no denying that the Fowler trade provided extra salary flexibility for the Rockies - it's just unclear if Colorado will be able to buy Fowler's level of production for that extra money.

This depends somewhat on if you think that the Rockies would have spent the money on Morneau if they still had Fowler's salary on the roster. If the money saved from Fowler was truly earmarked for Morneau...then this line of thinking is unfathomably bad. Morneau is an inferior player to Fowler and trading a valuable asset for pennies on the dollar so that you can make room for a player of Morneau's caliber is pure idiocy.

Therefore, I have to hope that the Rockies have a different target in mind for the salary relief generated by the Fowler trade - preferably on a starting pitcher who's unquestionably better than the current fifth starter derby options, but possibly on a good reliever and a good bench bat.

That could be a decent outcome for the Rockies, but the whole logic behind the deal is still terrible. Colorado could have just built around the team they had in place with a complementary signing or two and gone for it in 2014 with Fowler doing Fowler things for the Rockies. As a GM you shouldn't be considering too heavily that you'll be freeing up payroll to potentially sign other players. Instead, you need to focus on getting the best return for your assets and making your team better through these kinds of transactions (either short or long term). In this regard I believe that O'Dowd and company failed miserably.

I have to believe there was a better deal out there for a player like Fowler - and if there wasn't, then there's absolutely no reason for the Rockies to be trading Fowler at this point for that return. Unless...

3. The Rockies just really didn't like Dexter Fowler

I really hope that this wasn't the primary motivation for a deal, but there's a lot of evidence supporting this conclusion. In his interview with Dave Krieger last week, Dan O'Dowd dropped plenty of hints that the Rockies were not pleased with Fowler - questioning his desire and toughness.

I think that a lot of this frustration from Dan O'Dowd stems from Fowler not making the leap from league average regular to star given his tools. Fowler has certainly had stretches in which he looked like the best player on the field for the Rockies - which made it even more frustrating to everyone when he was unable to sustain that level or, really, improve from year to year.

A large part of that is on Fowler of course - it's his career after all - but it's a black mark on O'Dowd's player development resume to have a player like Fowler not achieving his full potential on the roster. I think that O'Dowd had built a Fowler break-out into his off-season plan for the Rockies multiple times only to get burned by it not materializing as he'd hoped.

In addition to that pent up frustration over Fowler failing to develop as planned, it was clear that the Rockies were unhappy with Fowler not coming back quickly from injuries like the hamstring injury he sustained in August. The FO wants the team to get tougher and I believe that Fowler was an example to them of a talented player who didn't care enough about the game to a) play through pain and b) to improve his game to help the team.

The corollary to this line of thinking is that the Rockies really liked Justin Morneau. Because he possesses certain traits that O'Dowd and the front office were looking for, Morneau is a player that I was almost resigned to the Rockies overpaying coming into the off-season...and lo and behold it has come to pass!

It's part of the "human analytics" mumbo jumbo that O'Dowd was describing in the Krieger interview. If you asked the Rockies who was a more valuable player, Fowler or Morneau, I'm almost certain they would say Morneau (which is preposterous given the stats) because he brings that competitiveness, toughness, and leadership to the table. Call me crazy, but I'd prefer that my players be good on the field than in the locker room.

In conclusion

This move is so Rockies. Colorado traded their starting center-fielder (and a PTBNL?!?) for a homer-prone young fringe starter and a reserve outfielder - and used the savings from the deal to overpay an oft-injured, swiftly declining 33 year-old first baseman. Of course they did.

They had a quarter in Dexter Fowler, then they traded him for (charitably) a dime (Lyles/Barnes) and a nickel (salary relief). They then took that 15 cents and spent it on a below average, aging, injury-prone first baseman that should be platooned and might not even be good defensively. Even though it might end up being a positive outcome for the Rockies, this trade is a disaster from a player evaluation and basic logic standpoint. It's a nightmare for Rockies fans and confirmation to many that this front office is just out of its depth. Time for a change.

Dan O'Dowd: you have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.

Purple Row will have more on these transactions in the days to come - stay tuned! This is the worst.

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