Back when I was a younger, more annoying version of myself, I seemed to think that every trade had a winner and a loser. That every deal had one team that was smart, forward-thinking, and deftly building a contender and another that was equally dumb, obtuse, and clumsily building the roster equivalent of a steaming pile of trash.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that 1) even if that was the case, I probably wasn’t smart enough to figure out which team was which and 2) that most trades were actually beneficial to all parties involved. You can see that changing mindset sort of sweep through the analytically-based segment of the baseball internet en masse in recent years, as writers began to realize that teams — most all of them — were really smart and acted in their own best interest most of the time.
Baseball Prospectus, for instance, used to publish plenty of scathing transaction analyses, ripping this organization or that organization for a trade of free agent signing that appeared to make little sense. These days, they’ll still publish some of those, but most of the time the writer seems to approach the transaction from a more neutral standpoint, attempting to rationalize the deal from every perspective.
For the most part, it’s a welcome change. As we’ve realized that teams have more manpower, more resources, more behind-the-scenes information, and, perhaps most importantly, far more on the line than Average Joe Writer, we’ve taken two or three — or 10 — steps back, approaching transactions with the careful (still critical) thought they deserve while being more cognizant to the idea that major league baseball teams usually have a decent grasp on what they’re trying to accomplish.
With that said, allow me to slip back to my younger, more annoying self for just a minute. The recently reported trade between the Padres and the Dodgers, the one that is apparently sending Matt Kemp, catcher Tim Federowicz, and (about) $25 million to the Padres for Yasmani Grandal and a pair of young right-handed pitchers in Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin, is a terrible baseball trade from the Padres perspective.
I’ve discussed both why I wouldn’t trade Grandal in general and why I definitely wouldn’t have traded him for Kemp specifically in recent weeks, so I’m not going to rehash those arguments in detail. But a quick refresher:
Why I wouldn’t trade Grandal (in general)
- He’s young, controllable, really good.
- He has breakout potential.
- He’s undervalued, thanks to offensive numbers that are better than they look, pitch framing ability, and both the recent knee surgery and PED suspension.
Why I wouldn’t trade Grandal for Kemp
- Kemp is old(er), injury-prone, likely declining.
- Kemp is making $100-plus million over the next five years and, before considering the
$30 $25 $30$32 million sent over, has negative surplus value.
- Swapping Grandal for Kemp arguably doesn’t improve the Padres on the field. If it does, it’s likely just a marginal, short-term improvement.
Last month, FanGraphs tried one of those crowdsourced efforts to estimate, well, in the words of Carson Cisulli, this:
In the case of yesterday’s exercise, however, readers were asked not to estimate the values of the league’s free agents, but rather of those players who are both (a) candidates to be traded this offseason, and also (b) signed to contracts of disproportionate cost relative to the player’s likely benefit to a team in wins.
The purpose of the exercise: to estimate the actual market values (in dollars) of those same contracts for the actual years which remain on them. And the secondary purpose: to estimate, as well, the amount of “dead money” — that is, the amount a player’s club would have to cover to successfully trade away a player — present on each of those contracts.
Matt Kemp was one of the players on the list and, according to FanGraphs readers, he has $47 million in dead money on his contract. That is, they estimate Kemp would sign a five-year, $60 million deal on this year’s free agent market. Now, FanGraphs readers don’t represent the major league free agent market and their estimates are usually too conservative. Still, even if they were 40 percent too low — which is what happened last year with the market’s three biggest free agents — that puts Kemp’s estimated FA deal at five years and $84 million, roughly $9 million more than what the Padres will be paying him.
So, as I said earlier today in Twitter form, the Padres basically gave up Yasmani Grandal-plus for the right to sign Matt Kemp to a near market value free agent deal.
Maybe it isn’t that straight forward. Even my own earlier estimate, which was, at least, slightly favorable toward Kemp, had his free agent value at $92 million and others seem to think it’d crack $100 million. I don’t know. You can swing the numbers in a variety of ways, but the real question, as people like to put it: does the deal make the Padres better on the field?
And the real answer to that question is … Maybe? Maybe not?
As we’ve discussed, Kemp’s value is significantly hampered by both defensive ineptitude and injuries. Grandal has injury issues of his own, but he plays a demanding position in catcher and, if you believe in pitch framing just a liiiittle bit, he’s a huge defensive asset. Baseball Prospectus’ new PECOTA projections aren’t out yet, but last year’s version has the two players pegged like this going forward:
|Grandal (WARP)||Kemp (WARP)|
*Grandal’s not under contract for 2019
These numbers obviously don’t include Kemp’s bounce back 2014 campaign, but they also don’t include pitch framing or Grandal’s solid offensive 2014 season. BP also views Kemp’s defense more favorably than other sites/metrics, putting his defensive runs above average at around -8 runs in each year remaining on his contract, a seemingly optimistic projection for a player that’ll be 34 at the end of the deal.
The idea that adding Kemp and subtracting Grandal greatly improves the Padres in either the short- or long-term is, well, false. It’s a much less clear cut picture than many paint it. Maybe he improves the team, maybe he doesn’t. If you like a younger, more projectable player at a demanding defensive position with good secondary skills, you’d probably take Grandal. If you like the more established player with a better bat and declining defense and more injury concerns, you’d probably take Kemp. At best, it’s close, and that’s before considering the money involved.
The other players, briefly
The Padres have also (apparently) sent Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin to the Dodgers. Wieland came over with Robbie Erlin from the Rangers in the Mike Adams trade at the 2011 deadline. Tommy John surgery wiped out all of 2013 and most of 2014 for Wieland, who made just 11 professional starts last year. While the missed time has tarnished some of the prospect shine, his return last year was promising. In 38 and 2/3s minor league innings, spread between rookie ball and Triple-A, the command was as good as ever — Wieland struck out 36 and walked just six, improving his career minor league strikeout-to-walk ratio to 5.16. The stuff isn’t overly exciting and the realistic ceiling is probably a mid-to-backend rotation guy, but there’s a decent chance he gets there.
Eflin, at this point, is probably the more highly-regarded prospect given up in the deal. Drafted 33rd overall by the Padres in 2012, Eflin, while he doesn’t have the peripherals of Wieland, has a few other things going for him. He’s just 20-years-old, doesn’t have a significant injury blemish on his track-record, and just completed a solid, if unspectacular season in the hitter-friendly Cal League. Word is that the Dodgers might flip Eflin to the Phillies as part of the Jimmy Rollins trade once the deal is finalized.
Along with Kemp, the Padres would also get 27-year-old catcher Tim Federowicz if the deal goes through. He’s posted an ugly .547 OPS in just 271 major league plate appearances in LA, though the minor league numbers suggest there might be some form of competency in the bat. Federowicz is better known for his defense, though, as he’s thrown out 36 percent of would-be base stealers in the minors and 37 percent in the majors. Both his pitch framing and pitch blocking, per Baseball Prospectus, are near league average in limited samples.
The alternatives matter
Even if you concede that the Padres going immediately into win-now mode is the correct decision, it’s just hard to imagine that they couldn’t have gone about it in a better way. Signing Adam LaRoche, Nori Aoki, and, say, Jed Lowrie all while keeping Grandal (or dealing him for a better alternative) would have both been cheaper and improved the Padres more than dealing Grandal for Kemp.
You could (pretty easily) argue that signing Yasmany Tomas for less money than Kemp while keeping Grandal would have improved the Padres more than this move, and you have the added bonus there of signing a premium free agent without losing a draft pick. Further, it would have drummed up the same type of goodwill among the fan base. You could also argue that splurging on Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez or, ahem, Chase Headley would be been a better route, as well. Sure, you have to factor in the lost draft pick with the former two, and they’d cost a bit more, but if the Padres are in win-now mode maybe the draft pick isn’t that important and Sandoval or Ramirez plus Grandal improves the team significantly more than adding Kemp alone.
Maybe win-now mode is the wrong mode
Dave Cameron makes the reasonable argument in his write-up on the deal that the Padres “should probably be focusing more on the future than the present.” As Cameron notes, FanGraphs currently projects the Padres at 75 wins for next season, clearly ahead of only the Minnesota Twins.
As much as I’ve hinted recently that I don’t think the Padres are that far from competing, there’s a lot of work to be done. The offense stinks, flat out, and while they just added a slugger in Kemp they’ve also just lost a slugging catcher in Grandal. There are still major question marks in the the outfield, first base, shortstop, third base, and now (at least offensively) catcher. And that’s giving Jedd Gyorko the benefit of the doubt at second. Further, the constantly lauded pitching staff is full of questions, with two injury-in-the-waiting pitchers at the top of the rotation in Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner, and a solid, non-flashy mid-rotation guy in Ian Kennedy (who might be dealt) after them. There’s depth in the rotation and the bullpen, but the pitching staff isn’t great. It’s probably good. It might be average.
So, as Cameron discusses, the Padres made the kind of move that might make sense for a 88-win playoff contender, but they did it as a mid-70s win team, sacrificing future production for a too-soon attempt to, what, break the 80-win threshold next year?
There are almost certainly other significant moves on the way this offseason, but unless the Padres sacrifice what’s left on the farm (and Rymer Liriano, for what it’s worth, looks blocked now) it’s hard to imagine them improving by another five or 10 wins this offseason.
I’m still struggling to comprehend this deal. I’ve had a number of days to think about it, as it’s been rumored since before the Winter Meetings began, and not once have I though, yeah, this is a deal I can get behind. I understand I’m on a somewhat small island in my thinking*, but that the island also includes Cameron and Dan Szymborski and Rob Neyer and likely other saber-minded folk.
One of the things I’ve been grappling with: was this purely a baseball trade or were Mike Dee and other non-baseball operations front office/ownership members involved in it? And which one is worse?
If it’s a baseball trade, then it’s a disappointing start to the Preller era, as the Padres made exactly the opposite kind of move they should be making, dealing an underrated, undervalued youngster for an over-hyped older player to, at best, marginally improve the team. But if this deal is a clue that there’s going to be constant meddling from the business side of the Padres front office in baseball transactions — that the Padres are too worried about making a
splashy belly-floppy type move to squelch Twitter angst instead of allowing a smart front office to build a consistent winner — then there’s really no worse scenario than that.
Maybe, just maybe, I should return to the older, (slightly) less annoying version of myself and realize that there’s a lot going on that I’m not privy to. Maybe Grandal has some issues catching that aren’t apparent in the numbers, something to do with game-calling, etc. that Rivera specializes in. And maybe the Padres still fully believe in Hedges or that Rivera will keep hitting. Maybe they think the heavy marine air near Petco will help damper the effect of Kemp’s lacking range. Maybe there’s a greater plan in place to make the Padres a contender right away, a flurry of Dodger-like moves that would instantly make San Diego a wild card contender. Maybe a Royals-like postseason run will ensue, with Kemp playing the hero. Maybe.
For now, though, I’m going to stick to my guns. This trade stinks.