What does a 34 year-old pitcher making $25,000,000 this season and with $77,500,000 left on the last three years of that contract have to do with the Oakland Athletics? They could have broken Twitter during the last moments of the 2013 MLB Trade Deadline.
Just made a ridiculous prediction on the podcast, might as well say it here: Cliff Lee will be an A or a Brave by 4pm Wednesday.
— Ryan (@GRS_Ryan) July 30, 2013
This trade, surprisingly to some that may know me, was not my idea. That clearly goes to the very inventive brain of Ryan, a host of the Ground Rule Single Podcast. Just like you may be reacting to this, I was flabbergasted by the idea because it would be so un-A’s like to trade for such an expensive starting pitcher. Cliff Lee would represent a payroll greater than the entire Houston Astros payroll at the moment (out of choice not necessity) and would be nearly half of the payroll of the Oakland Athletics ($61,964,500).
This idea is not completely without comparison though, the A’s have traded for a heralded player, then flipped him for prospects again at a later, but not much later, date. While this was for a position player not making $25,000,000, it is still a great comparison. On November 10th, 2008, Matt Holliday was traded from the Colorado Rockies to the Oakland Athletics for Greg Smith, Huston Street and…Carlos Gonzalez. Holliday only stayed in Oakland for about a half of a season and earned $13,500,000 (pre-arb 2-year $23 million deal) before becoming a free agent prior to the 2010 season. In his half-season with Oakland Holliday played well (.286/.378/.454) though not up to his usual benchmarks (.319/.386/.552) in COLORADO (#hitterspark – you can take that as a hitter spark or a hitters park) nor as well as he played immediately upon arriving in St. Louis (.353/.419/.604).
At 40-54, the A’s realized that their season was in the dumps and they were not going to be able to re-sign Holliday in his first go around in free agency. That lead to the A’s trading Matt Holliday to the St. Louis Cardinals on July 24th, 2009 for Clayton Mortenson, Shane Peterson and Brett Wallace.
Taking the rest of this situation for granted for a moment, let’s evaluate the give and take the the Oakland A’s and GM Billy Beane dealt with in this true rental. First…what did the A’s send away to Colorado to acquire Holliday. We all know what Carlos Gonzalez has turned into in his time at Coors Field, but it is important to look at this through the eyes of Billy Beane at the time, without the benefit of foresight. Gonzalez was acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren trade and was ranked as the #22 overall prospect prior to the 2008 season after which he was traded. Greg Smith was a rookie back-end of the rotation type of starter and Huston Street was a very young closer that already had acquired 4 years of service time. In the end, the A’s traded away 3 big league ready players worth 22.8 (and counting) major league, post-A’s WAR for the Rockies star outfielder in the last year of his arbitration avoidance deal. They were the recipients of 2.9 of Matt Holliday’s 19.7 WAR (post-Colorado). Using WAR as a loose (VERY loose) judgement of value for this trade, the overall value of the talent exchanged was fairly comparable (as of now, CarGo and Street are still going). But, seeing as Beane flipped Holliday, we must look at what the A’s got back in return and the value that represented for their risky move.
The return for Matt Holliday resulted in a first round pick of a pitcher in Clayton Mortenson and two first base prospects. These prospects have shown a total WAR of -0.6. Not exactly Billy Beane’s best gamble. Peterson only recently made his MLB debut (2 games in 2013), Brett Wallace was used to acquire Michael Taylor (-1.1 WAR in only 26 career games) and Mortenson was used to acquire Ethan Hollingsworth (4th round pitcher yet to make the majors that was demoted from AAA to AA this season at age 26).
Whether you want to talk about this using WAR as a trade value assessment or if you want to look at impact or scouting reports and major league contributions, Matt Holliday and his associated trades were disastrous for the Athletics. Had they re-signed him in the off-season then the trade would be close to a wash if his hitting picked up the way it did in St. Louis, but they didn’t and we’ll never know if he would have continued his career averages. Does this mean that my next proposition is a terrible idea? Hell no, it sure makes it risky, but no. Two separate deals for two separate players.
Back to Cliff Lee
Ruben Amaro Jr., the GM of the Philadelphia Phillies, showed remarkable restraint and a borderline hallucinogenic state prior to the 2013 trade deadline. Absolutely convinced that the current crop of players would bring them back to contention this year. I will say, he was blinded by a very poorly timed winning streak about a week before the deadline, sitting at .500 on July 20th. But, he was also the recipient of a telling 8-game losing streak, ending on July 30th. Star pitcher Cliff Lee (again..34 years old) should have been traded. As Ryan noted…the Oakland A’s could have pulled a Matt Holliday and broken twitter in the process.
You just read as I broke down the terrible results that the Matt Holliday trade resulted in for the Oakland A’s, giving up a future star OF, a random back end pitcher and a very good, but likely to soon be expensive, closer for a half year of Matt Holliday and a grab bag of ultimately useless prospects. Billy Beane likely learned from his mistakes and wasn’t planning on doing such a trade again (probably the safe/smart bet). In the spirit of fun, let’s take a look at what could have been…
To acquire a pitcher the caliber of Cliff Lee, it would have taken a much nicer package than the one that landed the Texas Rangers Matt Garza. We are looking at 2 top 100 prospects (at least one being in the top 20) and likely 2 or 3 more prospects of decreasing value. The A’s certainly have the prospect firepower to get such a trade done. A package could have been headlined by some combination of (guessing is stupid, but just an idea) SS Addison Russell, OF Michael Choice, SP Dan Straily, SP Sonny Gray or maybe if Beane could have worked some magic, IF Grant Green (now with the Angels in the Callaspo trade). Russell is viewed as untouchable around MLB and I’m sure the A’s, after their Holliday experience, would shudder at the thought of including a SS of Russell’s possible caliber in a rental trade. The Phillies would of course be looking to pry away the opposing teams top prospect and would be after Russell with guns blazing. A deal could get done if both Straily and Gray were featured in the trade though because of the value of major league ready, possible impact arms.
Regardless…the A’s would be losing impact talent that has helped them at the major league level in 2013 in Dan Straily. The key to this whole idea is the risk reward aspect of it. It sounds ludicrous on the face of it to trade such high impact talent for such a highly paid 34 year old starting pitcher for a team that lives and dies by its use of cost controlled, pre-arb players. But World Series chances are few and far between as I’m sure Billy Beane can tell you and an out and out #1 like Cliff Lee could put a team over the top. Combine that with the knowledge that the team is already planning on flipping him in the off-season to recoup what was lost makes it at least a possible bet to be made.
The risk lies in injury, lack of performance and age creeping up and sapping Lee’s value before they can go ahead and trade him away for a package that resembles what they lost. They could look to acquire someone like Tigers OF/3B prospect Nick Castellanos, one of the Cardinals MANY pitching prospects in Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez or a Jackie Bradley or Xander Bogaerts (ALMOST definitely wouldn’t happen) type of deal to the Red Sox.
As you can all surely see, this might be the most risky tact to take for the A’s because of past problems associated with the idea, the risk of injury and lack of performance, as well as the possibility that teams see this coming. If the teams that the A’s are trying to flip Cliff Lee to in the off-season see the need for them to flip him because of his salary and the fact that the A’s don’t pay people $25,000,000 then the packages offered would be severely lowered. The lynch pin of this deal is a necessity to get teams bidding against each other in the off-season for the services of Cliff Lee. Without that, it is almost a certain failure.
The risk of trading prospects that you know for a rental and then using him to acquire prospects that you don’t know as intimately as you knew the ones traded away is tantamount to putting your resignation letter on the table and telling your owner, “Watch this.” This is the type of deal that gets a book written about it and Twitter blowing up for the rest of the season if it works and results in a new regime being brought in if it doesn’t. Gutting the farm to win now and hoping that you identify the right talent to rebuild the farm without losing much on the major league level is a fun idea. But after the Holliday trade, Beane would never put his team on such a high risk path. If I ever get that dream GM job…let’s just say you’ll want to watch Twitter on deadline day.