Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Reassessing the Kearns Trade

In Columbus, Ohio today it's sunny and 67 degrees. We get about six of these gorgeous days a year here in the Midwest, and when they occur I don't feel like litigating anything. Instead, I stare out my office window and contemplate the lie I'm going to tell my secretary to tell people who need me later in the day when I leave to sit on my patio and drink beer. As I was trying to decide between "sick kid" and "meeting" my friend and co-worker, Mark Noel, stepped into my office and we began to shoot the breeze about baseball.

Mark's a big Cincy fan. Despite living in Ohio, I don't follow the Reds all that closely, so I decided to pick his brain a bit about how they're doing. He thinks they're about a .500 team this year, and I tend to agree with him. Eventually, however, the talk turned to the Reds' future, about which Mark is quite optimistic. He's particularly high on the Reds' pitching. "They locked up Harang and Arroyo through 2011, and Homer Bailey may be the best pitching prospect they've had in 25 years," he said gleefully. "Plus, they have that guy in A-Ball, Thompson, who we got in the Kearns trade last year, and he looks like a stud."

Hmmm? I thought the Reds-Nats trade from last year was supposed to have been terrible for the Reds. Aaron Gleeman titled his column on the deal "Bowden 1, Krivsky 0," and called it "a disaster trade," that was "about as lopsided as it gets." MLB Trade Rumors called it "baffling" and said "this trade just looks bad" for the Reds. While I didn't think too much about the trade at the time, I distinctly recall my reaction being that the Nats probably fleeced the Reds.

Mark, who while a fan of the Reds is the first to point out when they do something stupid, said I was full of it. The Reds easily won that trade, he said, even before you figured in the arms they got back from the Nats. I was skeptical, and decided to investigate this for myself.

Guess what? Mark was right. The Reds won the trade hands down, both on the merits of the players exchanged, but more significantly, as a result of the roster flexibility and room for creativity the deal gave them. Don't believe me? Check it out:

To the Nats:

Remember that slightly crazy girl you hooked up with after the Sebadoh show back in '94? When you think of her now, you probably think of her as a hot little libertine minx who, if you only had the testicular fortitude to stick with her through all of the crazy, would be helping you organize that anti-globalization rally next month, assuming you two were able to take a break from all of that monkey sex you'd be having. But you didn't stick with her, and the fact that you didn't is the reason you're working in customer service today. Bitch.

Step back from the ledge, friend. If you saw her today there's pretty even odds that she's just like you: a bit pudgy, a bit pasty, and working a job every bit as unfulfilling as yours. No one is as cool as we like to think we could be today but for a few bad decisions, and that goes for skinny girls with cool tats, tight abs, and Lisa Loeb glasses too.

There are a handful of ballplayers who are like that crazy chick. Guys who we continue to think a bit too highly of without any real basis for doing so. Austin Kearns is one of those guys. After two thirds of a season in which he looked like Yastrzemski, everyone assumed that greatness was in the offing. After that he got hurt a lot and was jerked around by the Reds a bit, and many, myself included, thought he'd break out once he got healthy and stopped being jerked around. We forgot, however, that unless your name is Molitor, guys who get hurt a lot at a young age and end up getting jerked around typically don't blossom into superstars, no matter how much early promise they showed.

At age 27, Kearns appears to have topped out as a good, but not spectacular corner outfielder. There are a lot of those guys out there. In order to hold onto him, the Reds would have had to pony up something like the $17.5M the Nats gave him in the off-season, and by doing so, probably wouldn't have had a place to put Josh Hamilton (they would have likely kept Freel as the fourth outfielder due to his defensive flexibility). The same Josh Hamilton who is currently knocking the cover off the ball, bringing Cincy all kinds of good press for the second chance they're giving him, and costing Mr. Krivsky the league minimum.

No, the Reds didn't know that Hamilton was going to blow up like he has, but it was not unreasonable to expect that they could have come damn close to replacing Kearns' production for less than $17.5M over the next three years. Dealing Kearns allowed the Reds the flexibility to take a flyer on Hamilton, and roster flexibility is of paramount importance for a mid-market team like the Reds.

While Felipe Lopez showed some pop in 2005 it now looks like that was a fluke, and everyone knows that my granny plays a better short. Getting rid of his pathetic glove was an imperative, and doing so likely made Arroyo, Harang, Lohse, a lot happier, which is a good thing if Cincy wants to keep them around. Besides, it wasn't as if the Reds were planning on keeping him beyond 2006 anyway, especially since he is now arbitration eligible. And by getting a rent-a-vet like Royce Clayton (see below) the Reds were able to sign Alex Gonzalez, whose glove is really making Arroyo, Harang, and Lohse happy, even if he doesn't hit a lick. Bonus: this season he's been hitting a lick: .333/.374/.560. Fluke? Absolutely, but it's some pretty sweet gravy for Cincy.

To the Reds:

Only by replacing someone like Lopez could someone like Royce Clayton be considered a defensive upgrade, but a defensive upgrade he was, committing half as many errors as Lopez post-trade. Clayton was truly pathetic at the plate once he came to Cincy (OPS+ of 54), but Lopez was only a tad less pathetic for the Nats after the trade (OPS+ of 61) . [Note: apologies for the brain fart. Lopez's OPS+ was actually 91. This changes the equation a bit, but I don't think it changes the balance of the trade]. Like I said above, however, he was a rental, the Reds planned for him to be a rental, and he is currently helping the Blue Jays battle for their customary spot in third place in the AL East.

Brendan Harris: I'm not exactly sure why he was even in the deal, really, but he was. To goose Brandon Phillips? To take over short after they let Clayton go? Maybe. He's having a nice year for Tampa Bay so far, but he appears to be playing over his head. The Reds traded him for Aplayer Tobenamedlater (I think he's from Iceland based on the name) but word on the street is that he's moved around a lot and is damaged goods.

What about the arms the Reds got in return?

Gary Majewski: At the time he was thought of as the centerpiece of the trade for the Reds, who were in desperate need of bullpen help, and a mini-controversy developed over whether he was sent over by the Nats as damaged goods. Probably irrelevant at this point. Currently at Louisville. His stats thus far look awful (6.55 ERA in 11 games), but that's skewed by one horrific performance in which he gave up six runs. Hey, we all have a bad trip sometime, and if we give Majewski a mulligan on his, he's putting up a 1.86 ERA. Of course, if me auntie had a wang she'd be me uncle, so let's not go crazy praising the guy. At 27 he's old for AAA and isn't likely to contribute more to the Reds than mopup duty.

Bill Bray: The only one to see significant time with the big club last year, Bray looks to be slightly above-average bullpen fodder (ERA+ of 113 last year) . He's currently on the Reds' DL due to a line drive to his pitching hand. He isn't likely to be the second coming of Pedro Borbon, but he's a lefty, and who the hell doesn't need a lefty every once in a while?

Daryl Thompson: This guy looks interesting. Despite being injured for much of his rookie league season, he's currently overpowering the competition in low-A ball less than six months after his 21st birthday: 4 starts, 23 innings pitched, 19 strikeouts, 1 walk, an ERA of 0.39, and a 4-0 record. Small sample size? Sure, but his K/BB ratio was pretty sweet in limited play last year as well. I haven't seen him pitch, which is inexcusable given that his home park is only about an hour away from Chez Shyster, but he smells legit to me. He needs to be promoted, like yesterday, and assuming he continues to mow them down in Sarasota, he should end the season in AA. Depending on how he does there, he could potentially compete for a slot in the rotation as early as next year, though more likely in 2009. Unless it's all smoke and mirrors, he alone could tip the trade ridiculously in the Reds' favor.

Can someone tell me what was Cincy supposed to have regretted about this trade? From the Reds' perspective, it was effectively a trade of Kearns and Lopez for Hamilton and Gonzales, a potential ace, one respectable bullpen arm, and some roster fodder. Did Krivsky plan it this way? No, he lucked into Hamilton and had no idea that he was going to get Gonzalez, but as Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design. Without Kearns and Lopez leaving, the Reds don't have the flexibility to get two players who have been helping them tread water so far this year and who are likely to be key players on what I feel will be truly contending Reds teams in the next 2-3 years (but that's another column). They also don't have Daryl Thompson.

I should note that MLB Trade Rumors' criticism of the deal was specifically couched in terms of how it helped, or didn't help, the Reds "this year." So how did that work out?

Reds record pre-trade: 45-44
Reds record post-trade: 35-38
Games behind for a playoff spot: 8 3.5

Update: When I wrote this earlier today, I stupidly only calculated how far out of the wild card spot they were, ignoring the fact that they were only 3.5 games behind the Cards. Dumb mistake, but I don't think it changes the point: the Reds were pretenders last year, whose first-half record was deceivingly good, and whose second-half performance wasn't demonstrably hurt by the loss of Kearns and Lopez.

Did the trade cost them some games? I actually doubt it. Clayton was a slight defensive upgrade over Lopez, and the extra at-bats for Freel over Kearns didn't result in as much of a falloff as many thought it would (Freel's OBP was actually higher than Kearns last year). Even if it did cost them a couple of games, it didn't cost them a playoff spot. That first-half record was supported by the Reds' now-typical fast, flukelike early start. Brother Pythagoras had them as a 76 win team, so if anything they played above their heads simply to be within 10 games of the wild card.

So, care to reassess things Mr. Gleeman? MLB Trade Rumors? The rest of the people who piled on Krivsky last year? Personally I don't care because I'm not a Reds fan. I will forward all apologies to Mark, however, because this matters to him greatly.