18 July 2008

Blanton Traded to Phillies, Prospects to Oakland

In the latest move of desperation to shore up teams' rosters for the stretch drive, and Billy Beane's latest move to rid himself of burdensome (or perhaps soon-to-be-injured) starting pitchers, the Philadelphia Phillies have acquired RHP Joe Blanton from the A's for three minor leaguers.

Blanton's only 5-12 this year with a 4.96 ERA, which is even worse than it sounds when you consider that 70% of his innings this year have been pitched in the hitters' hell of McCavernous Coliseum, and he's managed only a 4.63 ERA there. Baseball-Reference.com's stat neutralizer/adjuster sayshe'd have a 5.91 ERA pitching in last year's conditions in Philly. Run scoring is down a little in both leagues this year, so any adjustments made for that would be all but negligible.

That, of course is in the past. What really matters is whether we can expect Blanton to bounce back to his previously useful LAIM form as he pitches for the Phils this year. He shows no particular tendency to pitch better or worse in the second half, with a second-half ERA only 0.31 lower, much of which can be acocunted for by the rough first half of 2008. Historically, he's gone from 4.05 in April to 5.81 in May, all the way down to 3.29 in June, only to go back up to 4.81 in July. He cruises along at 2.67 in August only to rocket back up to 4.75 in September. He's all over the place, with the only pattern being that there is no pattern.

What he does show is a tremendous reliance upon the miracles of his home park to keep his ERA in check, a full run split from a 3.79 ERA in Oakland to a 4.78 ERA on the road, and this over a significant sample size, over 750 innings total. This does not bode well for him in Philly, where Citizens Bank Park increases run scoring by about 4 or 5% compared to a neutral park, and Oakland is anything but neutral.

His walk rate is up almost a full walk per nine innings from last year, but that's just about his career average, and still well below average. He has not allowed an unusual number of in-play balls to become hits, either, with an opponent .304 batting average on balls in play, just about the league norm. The real problem has been that he's hardly striking anybody out, only 4.39/9 innings, almost a full whiff below his pre-2008 career average, and way below the 5.48 he posted last year.

In short: He's lost something. I don't know what, exactly, but it's real, and it's not likely to come back any time soon. Oakland's front office realized that this, combined with his pending arbitration eligibility, would make him suddenly both expensive and ineffective, something a small market club like the A's cannot afford.

So they got what they could for him, when they could.

LHP Josh Outman (Double-A)

He's 23 years old, 6'1", 180 lbs, and he can throw about 95 mph. And he's left-handed, so he's desirable, even though he walks a batter every other inning. Baseball Prospectus' commentary on him two years ago suggested that the control problems may have been due to his trying to learn to pitch with a more conventional motion*, but this is now his fourth year at that, and it seems like his control is getting worse instead of better.

*In high school and college he used a method developed by his father, Fritz, who wrote a book called Over Powering Pitching, describing a methodology that both increases maximum velocity and lowers injury risk. Obviously, he was sufficiently successful in college that the Phillies drafted him in the 10th round...and then promptly told him to scrap it. He still throws hard and strikes batters out, but his inability to keep the free passes in check will keep him from becoming a useful starting pitcher in the majors, and he may instead be relegated to LOOGy duties. There are worse fates, of course, but it's sad that so many "baseball people" are so closed minded, and that others suffer because of it. I personally would love to see someone using the Outman Methodology, Dr. Mike Marshall's Maxline approach, or some other scientifically-based pitching style make it to (and succeed in) the majors, but it will probably never happen.

With that said, Outman is the top prospect in this deal, and still could have a long career as a lefty out of the pen, if not much more than that. Southpaws who can hit 95 on the gun will get plenty of chances.

2B Adrian Cardenas is only 20, and has hit .303/.365/.430 between Rookie ball and two levels of Single A in the last two plus seasons. He's got a little patience (averaging a walk every ten at-bats or so) and steals bases effectively (48 for 58 in 234 career games) if not often. His modest home run totals may not look like much, but the nine homers he hit last year in Lakewood tied him for second on the team, and his batting average, slugging, OBP and OPS were all in the top 11 or higher in the Florida State League this year before the trade.

Baseball Prospectus called him an "outstanding hitting prospect" in their first comments on him for their 2007 book, and nothing he did last year changed their minds. This year is more of the same, though they anticipated a position change due to his poor defense at second. If he can improve that, he would be the heir apparent to the Keystone in Oakland now, but he's still probably two years away, at best. Still, a very good pickup.

OF Matt Spencer (Single-A) 6'4", 225 lbs, hits and throws lefty. He hit .378/.448/.616 at Arizona State and led the Sun Devils to the 2007 NCAA championship, got picked by the Phillies in the third round of the draft...and quickly turned into a non-prospect. He hit only .263 in the NY-Penn League the rest of 2007, and though he led the team with nine homers (congratu-freakin'-lations) he walked only about once every five games, and his paltry .320 OBP was artificially supported by getting plunked five times.

He's 22 now and should be destroying the unproven talent in the FSL, but instead he's hitting only .249 (including a-buck-ninety-one aganst lefties) and has lost most of his only asset: his power. He's hit only 6 homers all year and is "slugging" .367, which is like Ryan Garko without the cool, barbarian-sounding name. And the major league contract. Basically he's a throw-in.

But make no mistake, the Oaklands got themselves a solid hitting prospect in Cardenas and may have a lefty reliever or more in Outman (not to mention another cool name) plus whatever Spencer does, for a starting pitcher whose best asset was the park in which he'll no longer pitch. Oh, and who's soon eligible to start making millions of dollars just for having been in the majors for the last three years.

How does Beane keep doing this?

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