A Particularly Rotten Trade

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:

Year

Grandal (WARP) Kemp (WARP)

2015

2.3

2.6

2016

2.6

3.5

2017

2.4

2.6

2018

1.9

1.8

2019   2.3*

2.5

*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.

What about attempting to trade for a Josh Donaldson or Brandon Moss, both recently given away at a discount?

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.

*Both Geoffrey Hancock and Nate have defended the (potential) deal right here at Padres Public. 

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.

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  • Change the Padres

    “Negative surplus value” relative to what? The going price of W.A.R. this offseason? The price of W.A.R. for similar players that the Padres could acquire? I need your definition here so I can tell you how it’s being misused.

    • Dustin

      Yeah, basically his current contract compared to what he would get in free agency. I ran through it in my previous post on the subject, but I think I used $6.5 million per win and 7.5 inflation per year and estimated Kemp at 3.5 WAR in 2015 (which is way higher than Steamer), declining at .5 WAR per season.

      Is it really that crazy that Kemp’s five-year, $107 million deal doesn’t provide any surplus value? At best, he’s being paid like a free agent, which means he doesn’t have any surplus value. And that’s fine, but not when you trade a player of significant value to get him.

      (I realize the Dodgers sending $32 million over, which I covered in the post.)

      • bja

        I am a Dodger fan, and you just stole one of the 2-3 best all around players and fan

        favorites in all of baseball. If you watched Kemp after the All Star break, he was one of the

        top 1-2 players in all of baseball. he can run, has a gun for an arm, throws out a lot of

        baserunners, and can play RF or CF with the best. More importantly, the Padres need a star . they haven’t had one since Gwynn retired. The Dodgers got a pitcher who is injury prone, and a young catcher with drug problems. Kemp is a young 30 , and he will be killing the Dodgers 18 times a year. Very bad trade for us, very good for Padres. BJA

      • Dustin

        Thanks for the feedback. I gotta disagree with you on some points, especially Kemp’s defense, but I appreciate the input.

        And look out for Grandal. I think he’ll be a lot better than most are expecting in LA.

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  • Robby Deming

    I completely disagree. I think this trade makes our organization better, today and in the future. There’s also a substantial PR element here, both in terms of the SD fan base as well as MLB players, that matters.

    But most importantly, I just don’t get the Grandal hype. He had an exciting rookie debut cut short by injuries. Since then, he’s had middling seasons marred by injuries and steroids, and was outhit last season by a journeyman catcher with better defense.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see any there there with Grandal. He could become a good (not great) hitter. But to act like that’s a foregone conclusion (while simultaneously trying to poke holes in Kemp’s track record) seems inconsistent and frankly illogical to me.

    This was a smart move by Preller that’s going to legitimately excite a fan base that badly needs something to get behind. The interest Kemp will generate alone probably offsets another 10 to 20 percent of his salary. I love this move. And I don’t think Preller is done.

    • Dustin

      Fair enough, and thanks for the comment.

      I’ve discussed it in recent Grandal-focused articles, but he’s a borderline top tier offensive catcher. Catcher’s that who can hit at an above average rate are rare, and he has room to improve. And while everyone hates his defense, his pitch framing numbers thus far have been excellent. Entering his prime, there’s a lot to like. Maybe not as a superstar, name brand guy, but in the mold of a guy who does a lot of things well and maybe doesn’t get a lot of credit for those things. The type of guy the Padres should probably be seeking out, not dealing away.

      But I understand that most Padres fan love the deal, or at least like it. That’s cool. I could be totally wrong. They could be wrong. Maybe both sides are partially right. And I understand that this move might mean something beyond a baseball sense, but I’d just be weary of running an organization like that, especially when it involves giving away a good, young player.

      • Robby Deming

        And to be clear, thanks for throwing your take out there. I hope my response wasn’t too dicky.

        I think Pat’s point above about the personal catcher for Cash and Ross is probably an underrated part of all of this. And I also have faith in Preller as a talent evaluator. Maybe he saw something we didn’t.

      • Dustin

        No worries at all, you’re good. Appreciate any type of feedback, and there was certainly nothing out of bounds in your comments.

        The Cashner-Ross-Rivera personal catcher thing is definitely interesting. It’s something I’d like to investigate further down the road.

    • Pat

      “I just don’t get the Grandal hype. He had an exciting rookie debut cut short by injuries. Since then, he’s had middling seasons marred by injuries and steroids, and was outhit last season by a journeyman catcher with better defense.”
      Rivera is a HUGE candidate for regression at the plate, and the difference was not so great (117 OPS+ versus 112). Take a look at Grandal’s second half, once the knee was healthy, 795 OPS versus 663 in the first half.

      • Robby Deming

        Oh totally. I just think results matter. And it hurts my perception of Grandal that he got outhit by Rivera. I expect Rivera to regress but hope he doesn’t. If we’re looking for positive signs from Grandal, getting outhit by Rivera does not help.

      • ballybunion

        You may be disappointed (or pleasantly surprised) with Rivera next year. Although he’s 31 and has been around, 2014 was his FIRST chance to be a regular. Ne nearly doubled his career PAs and ABs. Since he’s 31 (32 in July), not 26, he has a shorter future, but he might just be a smarter hitter now. Defensively, he frames better than Grandal, who also had 28 wild pitches, some of which might have been stopped, and a league leading 12 passed balls (in 76 games!) that SHOULD have been stopped.

  • Pat

    I feel your pain, Dustin, but I do think it’s important to consider that an MLB FO has a LOT more info and analysis available to it than we fans do. Furthermore, they have insight into the personalities on the team and how they interact. Now ordinarily I’m not a big intangibles/clubhouse guy, but when both of your top two starting pitchers ask for Rivera to be their catcher and not Grandal, there may be something going on behind the scenes. I’m also inclined to think the Padres do have something against Grandal’s defense behind the plate, and that they believe Kemp will be OK in a corner. I’d also say calling a guy who had two years of injury problems, preceded by four seasons of at least 155 games and followed by a 150 game season, injury prone a bit of a stretch. Sure, 2012 and 2013 are a concern going forward, but he’s been quite durable outside of those years. It may seem like more of a concern since they came back to back, but 150 games, 599 PA’s and over 1,100 innings in the field look like he’s back to health. Let’s hope for a positive outcome at least.

    • Dustin

      Good points all around, Pat.

      While I realize MLB front offices are really smart, sometimes I’ve just gotta stick my neck out there. Maybe I’ll look like a fool when Kemp’s hitting 30 bombs a year, but I can live with that.

      • Pat

        I don’t think you look like a fool, nor will you regardless of what plays out. Your position is well reasoned. I’m a bit taken aback by the trade, too, but trying to get inside the heads of the FO a bit, as well as stay positive for now.

      • Tom Waits

        It’s not just the Padre FO that has more information than us. You can just as easily say that LA knew it was time to dump Kemp before his body and further regression on defense made him untradeable.

        If Kemp is good (keeps hitting, is better than awful defensively), he’s most likely going to be good for the next couple of years and then fade. That puts a premium on making other moves to compete in that window. Kemp won’t matter if we’re counting on Alonso, Amarista, and Solarte to play major roles in 2015-2016, especially if you understand that 2014 was almost certainly Rivera’s high water mark.

      • Pat

        True, I was looking at our perspective, but LA undoubtedly has its own. And I’m completely on board with the idea Rivera is going to be awful at the plate going forward. We really need Hedges to take a step forward this year and be behind the plate in 2016. Great perspective, TW, as usual!

  • Brian

    I sympathize with the concern over this trade. There’s that small chance that Grandal fully realizes his offensive potential and we have similar pangs of regret that we today have about letting Rizzo go. I’d point out 2 things though:

    1. The Padres have consistently failed to add a power bat since…Greg Vaughn (?). Big time power hitters have commanded huge salaries, typically well outside what the Padres are able to pay. For instance, at the age of 30 (same as Kemp now), Adrian Gonzalez got himself a 7-year 150 mill contract. The Pads’ money commitment to Kemp is half that. Furthermore, even where the Padres bid big (as they presumably did with Fat Panda and the Cuban guy–inferior options to Kemp), they’re at a disadvantage since power hitters don’t want to play at Petco. So you have to take risks and find clever ways to attract that impact bat. If Kemp can stay healthy (a big if, but probably not as big as the Carlos Quentin if), then we’ve added a quality bat for 5 years at a reasonable price. That will make a huge difference for this team.

    2. Maybe this Federowicz kid is better than we’re giving him credit for. Take a look at his minor league numbers. They’re about as good as Grandal’s. And he’s only one year older and perhaps will have better chemistry with the pitching staff. If FedEx turns out to be similar in value as Grandal, then this trade goes from relatively even to a steal.

    • Dustin

      There are positive aspects to this deal which I certainly haven’t covered in as much detail as some of the negatives, and you point out a couple of them.

      Regarding Federowicz’s bat, it should definitely improve over his ugly (small sample) major league line and, as you mention, the minor league numbers aren’t bad. Some of that performance in the minors came in friendly hitting environments and as an older player, though, so I think you have to discount it some. Steamer, for example, projects him at an 81 wRC+ and a sub-.300 on-base percentage compared to a 111 wRC+ and .327 OBP for Grandal.

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  • ballybunion

    Some of the reasons for picking up Kemp can’t be measured, like the effect on other hitters in the batting order, silencing the ‘net critics who were bleating “same old Padres” after the misses on Grandal and Tomas, punching up attendance, etc. The new owners had to make a splash, letting the fans know they were committed to put a winning team on the field, and let the fans of other teams know the Padres-are-a-laughingstock meme is over. This acquisition isn’t like the Vernon Wells trade, as Dave Cameron thinks, but more like the Steve Garvey signing, which brought respectability to the franchise, though it took another bat (Craig Nettles) and a fireman/closer (Goose Gossage) to get into the post-season.

    • Dustin

      I agree with the “making a splash” thing to improve the team and acquire a big name/good player, and some of those other benefits you mention might come true. I guess I just think it was the wrong splash to make.