November 29, 2007

Breaking Down The Blockbuster

With the baseball world buzzing over Johan Santana trade scenarios and the annual Winter Meetings just days away, the Twins made an unexpected big splash Wednesday by sending Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to the Devil Rays for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie. In one move new general manager Bill Smith significantly reshaped the roster while showing that he's already more willing to take risks than predecessor Terry Ryan was during his final days at the helm.

Smith's first risk is a doozy. Originally the trade had Garza, Bartlett, and Juan Rincon heading to Tampa Bay, but concerns over the status of Rincon's balky elbow caused the Twins to inexplicably substitute Morlan while keeping the remainder of the deal intact. While it'll no doubt be a glossed-over aspect of a blockbuster trade, the difference between Rincon and Morlan is substantial and increases the already strong chance that the deal will be unkind to the Twins over the long haul.

On the most basic level the trade fits the team's logical, oft-stated plan to part with pitching depth in order to address weaknesses offensively, with the Twins swapping a former top pitching prospect for a former top hitting prospect. However, the trade actually involves specific players rather than simple team-building generalities and once you get past the Garza-for-Young portion of the swap it tilts pretty heavily in the Devil Rays' favor both short and long term.

Garza ranked as the team's No. 1 prospect heading into the season and pitched well after being called up from Triple-A in July, posting a 3.69 ERA and 67-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 innings. A 2005 first-round pick who turned 24 years old earlier this month and won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season, Garza looks capable of being a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter right now and has the potential to be a No. 1 starter down the road if his secondary pitches improve.

Morlan ranked as the team's No. 8 prospect coming into the season and improved his stock by posting a 3.10 ERA and 99-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70 innings between high Single-A and Double-A. The 21-year-old former third-round pick has dominated in the minors and projects as a late-inning reliever who could be ready to make a significant big-league impact as soon as 2008. Meanwhile, Rincon is set to make about $4 million via arbitration and is in the midst of a steady decline.

Last but not least the Twins surprisingly sent their 28-year-old starting shortstop packing, although perhaps it isn't such a shock given the lengths that they went to avoid handing Bartlett the starting gig in the first place. Bartlett remained at Triple-A in favor of Juan Castro long after he'd proven himself in the minors and then hit .282/.350/.374 with 33 steals and strong defense in 239 games after finally taking over for Castro in mid-2006, yet a hitting-starved team with no clear replacement just let him go.

The package that the Twins received in return for Garza, Morlan, and Bartlett essentially means that Young must become a superstar for the trade to be successful. That's certainly possible, because there are many people who've long felt that the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft is a truly elite talent. Baseball America named him their Minor League Player of the Year in 2005 and ranked him as the single best prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2006 season.

When Young finished his minor-league career that August he had a .318/.362/.518 hitting line in 353 games. He then made his MLB debut as a 20-year-old, batting .317/.336/.476 in 30 games with the Devil Rays while narrowly retaining his "rookie" status. Baseball America ranked him as the No. 3 prospect in baseball heading into 2007 and he placed fourth on the annual top-50 list, but his spot on my list came with some stated concerns about plate discipline and power development:

Young hit .326 with 45 homers and 78 walks in his first 215 games while reaching Double-A as a 19-year-old, but has since seen his power and plate discipline decline. Young continued to hit well after a promotion to Triple-A in mid-2005, batting .306 over a 168-game stretch that includes a month in the majors, but managed just 17 homers and 20 walks during that span. He's still bound for stardom, but might be a different type of hitter than he initially appeared.

The questions about his power and plate discipline loom even larger now, with Young managing just 13 homers and 26 walks in 681 plate appearances while hitting a modest .288/.316/.408 during his first full season. His long-term potential remains very good, because players who merely hold their own in the majors as 21-year-olds often turn out to be special, but it's concerning that he's hacked at everything while showing only moderate power since advancing past Double-A in mid-2005:

                       PA      AVG      IsoP     BB%      SO%
Single-A/Double-A 936 .327 .228 7.8 19.9
Triple-A/Majors 1416 .297 .141 3.1 18.1

Young has maintained a high batting average wherever he's gone, which is incredibly impressive for someone who was a teenager at Triple-A and reached the majors at 20. However, after posting a fantastic .228 Isolated Power in 936 plate appearances between Single-A and Double-A, his Isolated Power in 1,416 trips to the plate between Triple-A and majors has been a pedestrian .141. In other words, he's lost about 40 percent of the power that he showed early in his pro career.

To be clear, a 21-year-old who bats .297 with a .141 Isolated Power in 1,400 trips to the plate between Triple-A and the majors is a very good prospect. However, those numbers don't necessarily forecast MVP-caliber greatness, which is what many projected for Young and what the Twins may need to "win" the trade. A big part of the decline in power is that Young has been an extreme ground-ball hitter in the majors, which makes it difficult to hit the ball into the gaps and impossible to hit the ball over the fence.

Beyond the power issue, another concern with Young's recent performance is that his plate discipline has vanished. Never especially patient, Young walked in 7.8 percent of his plate appearances between Single-A and Double-A, which is a shade better than Torii Hunter's career mark. Since then he's drawn a free pass in just 3.1 percent of his plate appearances, which is an abysmal rate that when combined with his drop in power now makes Young anything but a sure thing to become an elite hitter.

That's obviously the bad news. The good news is that, flaws and all, Young remains a strong bet to become a good hitter. In fact, after being about 10 percent below average in 2007, he can probably be expected to be more or less a league-average hitter in 2008. That may not seem overly impressive, but it'd be plenty good for a 22-year-old. Even if he fails to develop much more power and continues to swing at everything, Young still figures to eventually settle in as a solidly above-average hitter.

Of course, if Young becomes "only" a solidly above-average hitter there's a very good chance that the Twins will regret making the trade, because Harris and Pridie don't have nearly the kind of long-term upside that the three players heading to the Devil Rays possess. Garza ranked No. 8 overall on the same top-50 prospects list that had Young fourth, Morlan is among the best relief prospects around, and the notion that Bartlett-for-Harris is a simple swap of young shortstops is very misleading.

Taken by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, Harris was traded to the Expos in mid-2004 as part of the massive four-team "Nomar Garciaparra trade" that sent Doug Mientkiewicz to the Red Sox. Almost exactly two years later he was traded to Cincinnati in former Twins assistant Wayne Krivsky's first big deal as Reds general manager, with Krivsky then giving him to the Devil Rays last winter for a player to be named later.

Throughout all the bouncing around, Harris consistently put up strong numbers in the minors. He's a career .294/.359/.467 hitter in 2,500 minor-league plate appearances, including .287/.349/.459 in over 1,300 plate appearances at Triple-A. Given his first extended chance in the majors with Tampa Bay, he matched his Triple-A production by batting .286/.343/.434 with 12 homers, 50 total extra-base hits, and a 96-to-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 137 games. Here's how he compares to Bartlett offensively:

TRIPLE-A      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD      SO%     SB
Bartlett 821 .323 .383 .458 .135 .060 12.1 103
Harris 1351 .287 .349 .459 .172 .062 16.5 42

Bartlett 1208 .272 .341 .362 .090 .069 13.0 39
Harris 696 .273 .331 .418 .145 .058 16.5 4

While certainly not a power hitter--he's shown about as much pop as Young did as a rookie--Harris has far more power than Bartlett and possesses similar plate discipline. Bartlett has the edge in on-base skills thanks primarily to a lower strikeout rate and better speed, which also makes him a far more dangerous and effective baserunner. Add it all up and they're similarly valuable offensively, which makes the swap of shortstops seem like a relatively even one.

And it is, except for one huge factor. Harris played 750 innings at shortstop in 2007, but that was due mostly to the Devil Rays lacking other options. He was clearly stretched there defensively after rarely seeing time at the position during his minor-league career and was eventually moved to second base when manager Joe Maddon grew tired of his obvious lack of range. Meanwhile, despite a high number of errors Bartlett has proven himself to be a solid defensive shortstop thanks to above-average range.

              INN     FLD%       ZR      RZR
Bartlett 2681 .967 .854 .835
Harris 778 .966 .755 .781

They have identical fielding percentages, but that just shows Harris as less than sure-handed while displaying the uselessness of evaluating defense from fielding percentages. Zone Rating and Revised Zone Rating measure the percentage of balls hit into a player's "zone" defensively that he converts into an out and Bartlett has done so about 10 percent more often than Harris. That's a huge disparity and Harris' defensive numbers show him as one of the worst shortstops in baseball last season.

In other words, while they're close offensively Bartlett has a huge defensive edge that leaves a gaping hole in the infield. If the Twins replace Bartlett with Harris at shortstop, the dropoff figures to be at least double-digit runs and could be much more. If the Twins correctly realize that and instead view Harris as an option only at second or third base, then they've traded away a 28-year-old shortstop who's above average on both sides of the ball for a lesser, non-shortstop without having an in-house replacement.

Harris is a solid player, but doesn't field well enough to be a starting shortstop, might be stretched even as a regular second baseman, and doesn't hit enough to be a big asset at third base. There are no doubt more trades on the way and perhaps one will bring a quality shortstop back, but until then the Twins' options are Harris, Nick Punto, and Alexi Casilla. Harris and Casilla would be big downgrades defensively and Punto would simply shift the lineup hole from the position Harris fills to shortstop.

In other words, the Twins have filled two lineup holes with Young and Harris, but the cost to do so was a pair of extremely talented young pitchers and by also dealing Bartlett in the process they've opened up a different hole that's a lot more difficult to capably fill both offensively and defensively. Of course, there's a third player coming from the Devil Rays along with Young and Harris, and the Twins have clearly been very high on him for years.

Back in 2005 the Twins selected Pridie in the Rule 5 draft, only to offer him back to the Devil Rays prior to Opening Day. At the time he was a 21-year-old who was limited to 29 games at Double-A during the previous because of injuries and hit just .219/.276/.396. His prospect stock has improved since then, and this time around Pridie is a 24-year-old who hit .303/.352/.487 with 14 homers, 57 total extra-base hits, and a 92-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 134 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

Unfortunately, Pridie's success in 2007 sticks out from the rest of his otherwise mediocre track record and he had a horrible season at Double-A in 2006, batting .230/.281/.304 in 132 games. He's still young, has enough speed to play center field, and has occasionally shown the ability to hit, but Pridie's plate discipline is sub par and his power is modest. Unless 2007 is the beginning of a sustained breakout, he looks like a fourth outfielder.

Add it all up and the Twins have traded two big pieces of their current team and three potentially big pieces of their future teams for Young and a pair of role players. The Twins' front office clearly believes that Young will become a very special hitter and despite some sizable current flaws he's absolutely within range of that career path. However, anything short of Young becoming a perennial All-Star and occasional MVP candidate leaves an awful lot of room for the Twins to regret Smith's first big trade.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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