30 June 2004

Freddy Garcia to Tilt the Balance in AL Central

The Freddy Garcia trade has the potential to mean even more in the division races and playoff than the Carlos Beltran trade did.

For one thing, Garcia's not going to be traded again, and that is not a certainty with Beltran. Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker is smart enough to know when he's out of it, and if the 'Stros fortunes don't turn around significantly this month, he'll probably flip Beltran to someone else. For another thing, the whole "keeping so-and-so away from the Yankees" factor is a much more significant one in the Garcia trade, as the Yanks could actually have used Garcia, whereas Beltran would have been predominantly superfluous.

Garcia, catcher Ben Davis and some $cratch were sent to the Chicago White Sox, currently holding onto first place in the weak AL Central by percentage points, for catcher Miguel Olivo, AAA outfielder and super-prospect Jeremy Reed, and minor league shortstop Michael Morse.

The first thing that strikes me about the trade is that the Mariners somehow managed to get a prospect, in Reed, who is better than anyone the Royals picked up for Beltran. This seems to back up the contention that Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus made that Kansas City GM Allard Baird's decision in advance to seek a catcher and a thirdbaseman severely hamstrung him in negotiations and limited his options. Despite what their current statistis seem to indicate, as I mentioned a few days ago, the only player in that deal close to a blue-chip prospect is John Buck, and once they make him something other than a catcher, his value decreases tremendously.

Mike Morse is an infielder at AA-Birmingham, in the Southern League, and seems to be improving. Prior to 2004, Morse has spent four years in professional baseball, at Rookie and Single-A, and had hit .248 with a .369 slugging percentage, only 18 homers, 82 walks and 250 strikeouts in over 1,200 at-bats. He's got a little power (11 homers and a .567 slug% this year, albeit in the Texas League), is young (22), and may develop into a decent shortstop, but still has strike-zone issues (15 walks, 46 K's), ans might only top out as Jose Valentin Lite.

The real find in this trade is Jeremy Reed, who's betrayed by his lackluster 2004 stats: .273 with eight homers at AAA Charlotte. Reed was hitting .333/.431/.477 and was 27-for-33 in stolen bases in the Carolina League, in the middle of last summer, so the organization (wisely) promoted him to AA...where he proceeded to hit .409(!)/.474/.591 for the rest of the season. You read that correctly: He hit over .400 for half a season, with patience, speed and line-drive power. At age 22. He's consistently walked more than he's struck out, hits for average, has good speed, and could develop power as he fills out physically.

He's the total package, and the Royals could probably have had them if they wanted, but no, they wanted a catcher and a thirdbaseman, and they got them. Except their catcher is 23, can hit but can't throw, and has a good chance of being a firstbaseman in three years. Their thirdbaseman, also 23 years old, can take a pitch but can't do much else, and in three years he stands a good chance of being 26.

The others involved in this trade, catchers Miguel Olivo and Ben Davis, are somewhat similar, besides their mutual donning of the tools of ignorance. Davis came up through the Padres system, showing ability to hit for average, power and patience at different stages in the minors, but never putting much of that together in the majors. He never hit higher than .259 in parts of six seasons, never had more than 11 homers, and despite his patience, owns a career .313 OBP. He was back in AAA trying to prove himself when the Mariners shipped him to Chicago. There he may get a chance to prove himself in the majors, since their starter, Olivo, is gone, Sandy Alomar's best years are about half a decade behind him, and Jamie Burke has all of 30 major league games under his belt.

Olivo, while not exactly a super-prospect, also has shown batting average, patience and (to a lesser degree) power at certain times, and is supposed to be a good catch and throw guy. At 26, he can be a productive regular for the next several seasons, and an asset at catcher. But in leading the majors in runs scored, the White Sox needed pitching help more than offense, and they got it.

Garcia gives them an immediate "proven veteran" but more importantly, a talent they can use. He's one of the best pitchers around this season, with the fifth-lowest ERA in the AL, despite his seven losses, and is definitely bouncing back after a couple of so-so seasons. He should help bring the White Sox starters' ERA down from the 5.00 at which it currently sits.

It's not really fair to examine their starting pitchers asa group. Sure, they have an unimpressive 5.00 ERA overall, but Buhrle and Loaiza both have eight wins, and those two and Scott Schoenweis are all right around the top 25 in the AL in ERA, with Jon Garland not far behind. Decent, consistent, but not spectacular.

But their other starters? The patsies they've rolled out there to take a beating in the #5 spot in the rotation? Two-and-eight, 9.91 ERA, more walks than strikeouts and a homer every three innings. Ouchies. If ever there was an argument for the four-man rotation, this is it, or at least it was before they picked up Garcia, who immediately looks like the ace of the staff.

Actually, with Schoenweis on the DL, it might make sense for them to try the 4-man rotation for a while. All of the pitchers involved are guys who have been reasonably healthy throughout their careers, and it would free up a roster spot to put someone with some speed on the bench, a valuable commodity in the playoffs, if you ever get there. Like the NL Central race, this one is belied by the incongruity between the main competitors' records and their talent. Chicago, as I mentioned, is currently only percentage points ahead of Minnesota in their division, with a 40-33 record, compared to Minnesota at 41-34, but Minnesota has overplayed their expectations by 5 games, and actually has been outscored 363-345 for the season. Chicago, on the other hand, despit ethe best run differential in the majors, has won three games fewer than expected based on runs scored and allowed. If those factors even out, as they usually do over the long season, the White Sox could end up leaving the Twinkies out in the cold, and the Twins may find themselves looking up at Cleveland in the standings come September.

I can hear Jayson Stark now:

"Garcia for AL MVP!!"

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