07 November 2005

Padres-Nats Trade Analysis: San Diego Will Soon Regret

This is probably a lot more in-depth analysis than a trade like like this deserves, but if there's one thing I'm not, it's concise. Hairy and concise. OK, two things. If there's two things I'm not, they're hairy and concise. And short...three things I'm not: Concise, hairy, and short...and perceptive. Four things!

OK, enough with the Spanish Inquisition (didn't expect that, did you?)

On to the analysis:

The recent trade of Padres pitcher Brian Lawrence and cash to the Washington Nationals for the corpse of 3B Vinny Castilla seems an odd way to try to upgrade an offense that ranked 27th out of 30 MLB teams in run scoring in 2005. Initially I thought that Lawrence might turn out to be a steal for the Nationals, since RFK Stadium played like such a severe pitchers' park in 2005 (Baseball-Reference.com reports a pitching park factor of 94, meaning that RFK decreased run scoring by 6%, compared to the league average). However, upon further research I discovered that Petco Park in San Diego actually played even more to pitchers' favor than RFK did, with a park factor of 91! Even Dodger Stadium, generally considered the best pitchers' park in history, has never gotten a rating lower than that for a given year.

So what does this mean? Well, it's not terribly encouraging for the Nationals, at least in terms of Brian Lawrence suddenly returning to the form of 2001/2002. At that time he had a better-than average ERA and about 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings in his first 325 or so innings in the majors, at the age of 26. Now three years later, his strikeout rate dropped to a career low of 5/9IP in 2005, his ERA rose to 4.83, 20% worse than the park and league-adjusted average, and he went 7-15 for a team that won its division, though it just narrowly escaped finishing the season with a losing record. Some of that was due to the fifth-worst run support in the National League, but his "expected" win-loss record was just 10-15, according to Baseball Prospectus, still not very good.

Now maybe 2005 was just a fluke. Maybe Lawrence goes home for the winter, takes a long, hard look at his numbers in 2005 and decides that he's going to do something to improve in 2006. Maybe he finds out that he's been traded, and in an effort to show the Pads' front office what fools they were for doing so, he teaches himself another pitch or gets in better shape or something to bounce back next year. Historically speaking lots have players have done exactly that. Heck, he is only 29 years old, and a lot of pitchers don't really find their niche until their early 30's. Lawrence's biggest problem continues to be lefties, who have punished him to the tune of an .821 OPS for the last three seasons, while righties have combined for a .692 OPS. A changeup or screwball would probably take care of that, but saying that and doing it are two very different enterprises.

More likely, Lawrence follows a more traditional career path for a RHP with good control and an underwhelming fastball: He racks up LAIM (League-Average Innings Muncher) numbers for a few years, becoming a solid contributor in the back of someone's rotation, and then has trouble finding a major league job by the time he's 35. Maybe he has some good luck with a low opponent batting average balls in play and/or good run support from his teammates one season and he wins 18 games. (In this scenario, the Yankees promptly trade three really solid prospects for him and/or sign him to a 4-year, $45 million contract, and Lawrence pitches badly and then gets injured in his first season in pinstripes, but that's just a guess.) But realistically, the chances of Brian Lawrence become a perrenial 200-inning, 15-win, 3.75 ERA type of guy are pretty slim.

Nevertheless, the chances of Brian Lawrence doing something like that in Washington next season are infinitely higher than the chances of Vinny Castilla coming back to life and hitting like a major-league third baseman again. Castilla had perhaps the worst fortune of any hitter in history last year in terms of team-movement. He left the hitter's paradise of Colorado, where he had managed to lead the Senior Circuit in RBI in 2004 despite hitting just .271 (.218 in road games), for Washington's RFK Stadium. At the time of his signing with the Nats, nobody knew how RFK would play, but there wasn't anywhere to go but down from the Mile High City.

And down he went. He hit .253 with 12 homers and 66 RBI while batting 4th, 5th or 6th most of the season. His walk rate, amazingly, stayed almost exactly the same as 2004, but everything else went into the toilet. Castilla apparently had some kind of knee tendinitis problem this year, which didn't help, but even if he had gotten some kind of knee braces online, getting only 11 at-bats at Coors Field instead of 250 of them was his biggest problem. Vinny didn't really hit on the road either in 2005, with a .683 OPS that was notably lower than his already-poor .765 at home. Vinny is going to an even worse park for hitters than RFK, will be 39 before the All-Star Break next year, and will probably lose his job before he gets to celebrate that birthday. You can certainly see why the Nationals would want to get rid of him, especially with a phenom like Ryan Zimmerman waiting in the wings, but how they managed to get some money thrown into the deal is beyond me.

Speaking of young thirdbasemen, the Pads were justifiably disappointed with Sean Burroughs, whose one-time, power-hitting, MVP-winning dad (Jeff) seemingly did not teach his son to hit for any power. Now 24 years old, with three years in the majors, Sean's already awful slugging percentage plummeted to .302 in 2005, at which point the Pads traded for Joe Randa and gave young Sean a Time-Out in the Pacific Coast League to think about what he'd done. Burroughs got about half of the total plate appearances by Padres' 3Bs in 2005, with most of the rest going to Joe Randa and Geoff Blum. Blum had hit poorly in spot-duty for the Pads until he was traded to the White Sox, for whom he hit even worse, with the noted exception of a go-ahead home run in the longest postseason game ever played. Randa had been with the Cincinnati Reds, where he was hitting .289/.356/.491 with 13 homers in 92 games, owing largely to the fact that my grandmother could hit home runs in the Great American Bandbox. But when traded to San Diego, he once again began hitting like, well, Joe Randa. In a sink hole.

So, here's the tale of the tape:

          AGE    BA   OBP   SLG   OPS
Pads 3Bs 30 .254 .318 .366 .684
Castilla 38 .253 .319 .403 .722


Wow. Huge upgrade there, eh?

That "30" is a weighted average of the ages of Padres' thirdbasemen in 2005, quite a bit younger than Castilla. Vinny also missed about 20 games this season, and at his age, unlike the rest of his statistics, that number is more likely to go up than down.

Padres' GM Kevin "Ivory" Towers continues to show how out of touch with reality he is, as evidenced by the following quotes:

"In the 10 years I've been a general manager, I was tired of Vinny hitting home runs against us, either in Colorado or Washington. He's always been a Padres nemesis, not only from the offensive standpoint, but from a defensive standpoint. This guy, I think, is one of the best defensive third basemen in the game."


Towers is right about the nemesis thing, sorta. Castilla has 33 career homers against San Diego, more than any other team, but most of that came in the old days, when Vinny was a Rockie, and could hit a little. But he hit only .234 against San Diego pitchers in 2004 (though he did have 5 homers in 16 games) and only .250 with one homer in 2005. You know, Bernie Williams has hit pretty well against Tampa Bay in his career, and you don't see the knuckleheads who run the Devil Rays going out of their way to pick him up, do you? (On the other hand, it is only November...)

Regarding his fielding reputation, that seems to be justified. Even with his gimpy knee(s?), Castilla has been a pretty good defensive third baseman, with Baseball Prospectus' fielding runs above average and runs above replacement comparable to Mike Lowell, who won the 2005 NL Gold Glove at the Hot Corner.

Here's another Towers quote:

As we found out the last couple of years, right-handed power plays in Petco...


Well, that's not too tough to check. In 2005, Padres righties (excluding the pitchers) hit .269/.322/.396 at Petco Park, and .251/.307/.399 away from home. The slugging percentages are nearly identical, and the batting averave and OBP numbers aren't much different, so I'm not sure from whence he's getting this idea. Maybe Towers was thinking of 2004, right?

Wrong. In 2004, there actually was a notable split, but it went the opposite way. Padres' righties hit .255/.332/.405 at home, and .303/.357/.478 on the road, about a 100-point difference in OPS. Petco Park has yet to show a favorable disposition toward any kind of hitter, as far as I can tell.

So, in short, the Padres got hosed on this deal, even if Lawrence doesn't do any better for the Nationals next year than he did in 2005. Towers made several mistakes, including trading Lawrence when his value was lowest, after a 15-loss season that had as much to do with the way his teammates failed to hit as it did with his own performance.

Towers also made the mistake of rushing into this deal, desperate to fill a hole he could have plugged with a free agent for no more than Castilla is making. Bill Mueller can probably be had for something akin to the $2.5 million he made in 2005, is 34, rather than 38, and wouldn't be hurt as much by Petco as someone like Castilla, since he doesn't hit for much power anyway. Heck, a journeyman like Russ Johnson or Earl Snyder could probably put up numbers comparable to Castilla's for a quarter the price, maybe less, depending on how much dough the Nationals got with Lawrence.

Towers is also likely about to lose Brian Giles and Ramon Hernandez as well. Although Giles was vastly overpaid, he was also the best hitter on the team, and will be missed in the lineup, if not the payroll office. Their pitching is taking a huge hit as well, as the departures of Lawrence and free agent Pedro Astacio leave them with a rotation of Jake Peavy, Woody Williams, Adam Eaton and Chan Ho Park, all of whom have huge injury questions, and none of whom, except Peavey, is very good. Rookies Chris Oxspring and Clay Hensley are likely to get some playing time once Eaton, Williams and/or Park sustains his Inevitable Annual Injury, and they'll probably sign a lower-level free agent as an insurance policy, but this staff hardly has the markings of a repeat division winner.

This is the kind of move than can get a GM fired, and I'll be very surprised if Towers still has the job a year from now, especially if he makes another move that turns out badly.

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3 comments:

Yankees Chick said...

what do you think about the trever-to-mets rumors? and who would you rather see in pinstripes - - damon or giles?

Anonymous said...

Why sign Vinny Castilla?

Three words: Mexican Fan Base

Travis said...

As a general rule, I think closers are overrated, and I disagree with Jayson Stark's description of him as "a future Hall of Famer". Tom Henke and John Franco, for example, have similar career numbers, and nobody thinks of them that way. I don't blame the Padres for not wanting to pay $10 mil/year to Hoffman. Pitchers who can save 35 games a season seem to grow on trees these days, and I'm sure Kevin Towers can find one somewhere who will work for a lot less than that.

The Mets, on the other hand, can afford t give that kind of money to a 38-year old who's only one year removed from a serious arm surgery. Certainly it would help bolster their bullpen (as you know Roberto Hernandez isn't going to pitch like that again), but they still need a lot of offensive help if they're going to make the playoffs.

Regarding the future of center field at Yankee Stadium, you couldn't really go wrong with Giles or Damon. I'm a little concerned about Giles' lack of power in recent years, as I don't think it can all be attributed to Petco. He had a huge home/road split this year, but almost none in 2004, so I don't know what to believe. And if his power doesn't return, and they pay him as though he can still hit 30 homers a season, then this has the potential to look very bad for the Yankees front office. Damon is a little younger, offers some speed, and is probably a better defensive CF than Giles, so they can fill a hole in the outfield and at the top of the lineup at the same time, possibly a little cheaper than Giles since he doesn't hit for power. I'd probably prefer Damon, but only slightly, and I wouldn't complain about either, unless Giles ends up making $10 mil per year.

And as for you, Mr. A. Nonymous, Mexican Fan Base? Did that work in Tampa when the D-Rays signed Jose Canseco to draw on the Cuban fan base? Did Montreal draw any better with Larry Walker, a native Canadian, in the outfield than it did without him? Did Alex Fernandez offer any long-term attendance boost to the Marlins? People come to baseball games for free stuff and/or good baseball, and if the Padres aren't any good, then having 25 Mexicans on the roster won't help them draw any more fans.