How the Matt Holliday trade has gotten interpreted seems to hinge on the confidence level that Carlos Gonzalez will ever turn his storied tools into actual MLB worthy baseball skills. If you are 100 percent certain that he'll be successful in this endeavor, the trade looks like a theft from the Rockies end. If you are 100 percent certain that he'll flop, Billy Beane looks like an omniscient super-genius who needs to get hired away by Goldman Sachs, pronto. There's a whole spectrum of variations in between the two extremes.
Beane's pulled fast ones over Dan O'Dowd in the past (remember that Jermaine Dye/Neifi Perez/Scruyu Raquis three way?) in deals of unproven but promising commodities for single players. In fact, in his three trade history with O'Dowd prior to this week, Oakland's come out decisively ahead, receiving Jermaine Dye, Ron Gant, Joe Kennedy and Jay Witasick for Robin Jennings, Mario Encarnacion, Jose Ortiz, Todd Belitz, Eric Byrnes and Omar Quintanilla. It's not a pretty tradition we have to look at here for a guide of what to expect, and O'Dowd's springtime ulcers will probably come over anxiety that Gonzalez doesn't turn out to be the second coming of Ortiz for the Rockies. Nevertheless, I think simplifying the exchange down to a Holliday for Gonzalez swap misses something crucial.
First of all let's start by making clear that most trades aren't competitions between the dealing parties, they can be win-win or lose-lose as well, the only real time when this isn't possible is when the teams involved are dealing like for like, players at the same age, salary and position. That's not the case here, either or both of the Rockies and Athletics could benefit from this deal. So I'm going to break down what has to happen for each team to consider this trade a success, and while trades involving prospects could have windows of five seasons or more, for purposes of this exercise, I'm going to give each team three seasons to accomplish their goals:
- Matt Holliday continues to perform at the level he has the last two seasons in 2009
- OR Holliday doesn't perform at that level but helps the A's reach the playoffs anyway.
- OR Holliday contributes some and then returns in trade at the July deadline something similar to what the Athletics gave up for him.
- OR Oakland re-signs Holliday before he's a free agent and he accomplishes either of the first two bullett points before 2011.
- OR the compensation draft picks Oakland receives for letting him walk in 2010 are seen as likely upgrades on Street/Gonzalez/Smith.
- The sum contribution of Street plus Smith plus Gonzalez to the team in any one season in 2009-2011 over players currently on the Rockies roster betters Holliday's anticipated contribution over his replacement (currently Ryan Spilborghs).
- OR the sum contribution of those three plus the contribution of a free agent player signed with 2009 money budgeted for Holliday likewise contributes.
- OR the sum value of any received player(s) from trades of one of the three players we received from Oakland when added to who's left from the deal likewise benefits the Rockies.
- OR these players don't contribute to the level of Holliday but are nonetheless instrumental to the Rockies reaching the playoffs.
- OR any one of these players contributes at Holliday's level sometime over the next three seasons.
- OR the Rockies receive a player with the potential of matching Holliday via trade or draft compensation for these three players.
Did I miss anything? Colorado was trading one season of Holliday, so one season of Holliday's production over what we otherwise have is what we're looking to replace. Anything added beyond that goes to making up for the lost draft picks, and once that value's been replaced, we're getting gravy. While some of the "win" thresholds for the Rockies are comparatively easy, others might be more difficult than they appear. The only player received potentially capable of replacing Holliday's added value one for one is Gonzalez. If Gonzalez isn't better than Dexter Fowler or Ryan Spilborghs next season, the onus of replacing Holliday's added value then falls on Smith plus Street plus a possible free agent signed with the leftover Holliday money. The two pitchers combined aren't going to cut it by themselves, we better hope we find a bargain with that cash. None of these scenarios are going to be easy if CarGo doesn't develop, if Smith doesn't show better fastball command. However, making the playoffs, an instant justification for any trade, is probably going to be easier for Colorado than it is for Oakland given the different levels of competition in the two West divisions.
Because they got more players and more money in this exchange, the Rockies do have more roads to success than Oakland does. There's also a risk factor at play, if Matt Holliday gets seriously injured early, that's it for Oakland, the trade's a loss. If any one of the players the Rockies received gets injured, well, pray it's not Gonzalez, but there will still be roads open to making the overall return a success.
The Rockies also benefit in that the positions that are being replaced by Gonzalez, Street and Smith were so bad in 2008, and Ryan Spilborghs is such a decent replacement for Holliday, that the added value bar seems to be a lot lower to reach for the Rockies than people seem to be realizing. All three of the new parts will be replacing a bare minimum level of perfomance from their predecessors. Street, realize, isn't replacing Brian Fuentes, since Fuentes' departure is a separate issue, already factored into the 2009 equation before this trade took place. Instead, Huston's bumping out the guy who would otherwise be our seventh best reliever. Similarly, Smith needs to be evaluated in comparison to the performance of the most likely candidate for the fifth starter's job had he not arrived, either Jason Hirsh or Greg Reynolds. Finally, the bar of improvement over Willy Taveras, due to Wily T's inability to get on base or hit for power, in center field just is not that difficult a hurdle for Gonzalez to clear. We do have to factor in the cost of downgrading the bench from Spilborghs to Eric Young Jr. or Christian Colonel (who's having a great winter, BTW) or whoever we sign, but that won't be nearly as significant as the exchanges taking place in the starting lineup in evaluating this trade.
Now, with this relative ease of coming out with a winning trade also comes a cost for O'Dowd. Even not taking Matt Holliday's iconic status among Rockies fans into account, there's no room for error in this trade for our GM. His history of exchanges with Beane has shown the Rockies to be more or less a AAAA farm club for the Athletics. We've been the place where Oakland can come for a quick and painless upgrade at near zero expense. This can't be the case this time around. The Rockies need to act and play at the level of a major league franchise if they expect to keep the interest of fans and sponsors. If this trade results in another lopsided benefit to the A's, O'Dowd's next move should be to petition Beane and the team he's helped so much over the last decade to make his Athletics employment official.