09 July 2008

Rich Harden-to-Cubs Trade Analysis: Don't Think the A's Got Cheated

Well, that didn't take long.

Despite the patently transparent protestations of Cubs general manager Jim Hendry that he would not ramp up his efforts after the big CC Sabathia deal, the Chicago Nationals have acquired their own pitcher for the stretch drive, getting Rich Harden from the Oakland A's in a 6-man swap. The Cubs get RHPs Harden and Chad Gaudin in exchange for RHP Sean Gallagher, OFs Matt Murton and Eric Patterson, and minor league catcher Josh Donaldson. (It's being incorrectly reported as John Donaldson in some places, which would really be a bad deal for the Athletics, since John Donaldson is either 65 years old, or dead, depending on which one you're talking about.)

Of course, some parties didn't think this could happen, and if Oakland had waited for the kind of package the Tribe got in return for Sabathia, it never would have. But in the end A's GM Billy Beane settled for less than anyone thought it would take to pry Harden away from him.

Make no mistake, though. If we've learned anything about Billy Beane in the last ten years or so, it's that the man is no fool. He got the best deal he thought he could get for Harden, or he wouldn't have traded him. Actually, for Harden and Gaudin.

Rich Harden has talent coming out of his ears. Maybe you remember him coming to the majors in 2003, a fresh-faced 21-year old with a sizzling fastball, a hard curve, a nasty slider...and, it would eventually turn out, a penchant for getting hurt. He struck out ten Devil Rays as a rookie, won 11 games as a sophomore, and looked every bit like the Next Big Thing in Oakland, following in the footsteps of Hudson, Zito and Mulder (not to mention Dave Stewart, Vida Blue, and Catfish), but alas, 'twas not to be. Harden simply could not stay on the mound, and the Oaklands really weren't even counting on him to come back this year, mostly just hoping he'd be healthy enough to trade by the deadline. Who knew they'd be within striking distance of the division lead by the All-Star break?

A foolish GM would think that Harden has suddenly discovered some magical ability to stay healthy, some Fountain of Youth -or at least Health- to which he'd never before had access. Billy Beane is not a foolish GM, so he can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. Jim Hendry may not be a foolish GM either, just one who happens to be holding on to a tenuous grasp of first place with a club desperate for a World Series win, which the Cubs have not had in (all together now...) 100 years.

So he looked to trade harden while the young righty still had some value. And while he was at it, he got rid of Chad Gaudin, a young, short righty who's A) playing over his head and 2) been in the majors for parts of six seasons and is therefore about to become expensive.

For his trouble, Beane got the following:

Josh Donaldson: A 22-year old Single-A catcher who hit .346/.470/.605 last year in 49 games in Boise. (He was 0-for-2 with two walks as a DH in the game I saw there last summer.) Nobody seems to think he's injured or anything, so he should eventually get out of the slump he's currently struggling through (hitting only .217 through 63 games this season) and become the top catching prospect the Cubs thought he would be when they drafted him in the supplemental phase of the first round last season.

Matt Murton: A 26-year old right-handed hitting outfielder with a decent batting eye, who has not yet displayed much power or speed. On a bad team, he might be a starter in centerfield. On a good team, he's a 4th outfielder who can pinch hit because he won't go up there swinging for the fences. On the Cubs, with Soriano and Fukudome on the corners and Reed Johnson playing center, he's taking up a roster spot. Baseball Prospectus 2008 called him "a good bet to be traded".

Eric Patterson: Younger brother of Corey, he's a 25-year old outfielder/secondbaseman who has bounced back and forth between Chicago and AAA Iowa this year, where he's hit .320/.358/.517. He's only hit .237 in the majors, which is why he hasn't stuck, but then if you only played once a week or so, you'd be rusty too. In the minors, he hit for average, took walks, stole bases effectively and even hit a few homers. If the Oaklands (currently playing .247-hitting Mark Ellis at the keystone) decide to give him a chance at the second base job, he could be pretty useful for a few years.

Sean Gallagher: The real jewel of the trade, 22-year old Gallagher is a big righty (6'2", 225-235, depending on your source) who's dominated the minor leagues. Over parts of five seasons, he's gone 27-12 with 482 strikeouts and a 2.71 ERA in 481 innings. He's walked only about 3.5 per nine innings and has allowed an obscenely low 0.49 homers per nine frames.

The numbers are all there, but the scouts don't love him, or haven't, because he didn't have a great fastball and they at least used to think he was a little overweight. One report on MLB.com indicated that he lost 30 pounds this spring, or presumably, coming into the spring, and when you see him now, he looks like he's in fine shape, probably not more than about 205. More important, his fastball now clocks in at 92-93 mph and can hit 95 on occasion. He still has the sharp, 12-to-6 curve, plus a slider and change he can throw for strikes. What he has not yet shown in the majors is stamina, as he's averaged just 5.4 innings per start this season. That should come with time, though, and moving from the Friendly Confines to McCavernous Coliseum should only help his progress into a very good starting pitcher.

In total, the Cubs got two pitchers who can help them get to - and maybe even win - the playoffs this year, but who will be expensive to retain, too expensive for a club with Oakland's modest budget.

The Oaklands got a starting pitcher they can plug in right now, to go along with Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland, Greg Smith, and Joe Blanton. The names may not be all that familiar to you, but the four of them have combined for a 3.48 ERA in 434 innings this year, and Blanton, at least, hasn't even pitched up to his capabilities yet. They got a useful third or fourth outfielder, a potential starting secondbaseman and a minor league catcher who has shown the ability to hit like Mike Piazza, at least for a little while in the low minors.

In time, when Harden is either hurt or playing for another team, and oakland is still reaping the benefits of one or more of their acquisitions, I don't think A's fans will still be complaining.

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Anonymous said...

Murton play CF? Watch more baseball. The reason Murton is always in a package is because he is a MLB hitter with average power, average speed, bad arm, and bad OF skills. Simply stated, his is, at best, a 1-tool player, hits for average. Why do you think Boston dealt him so quick after drafting him 1st round? You think Boston is dumb?

Travis M. Nelson said...

Yes, well, that's why I said "On a bad team." He's got a little speed (stole 20 bases in 2005) so theoretically the manager of a lousy team might put him out there at CF. Is he really any worse than Wladimir Balentein, or Jody Gerut, or Mark Kotsay, or Joey Gathright?

But yes, I do think Boston is dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. What are you gonna do about it?

Anonymous said...

Why would the A's move the best defensive 2nd baseman in the AL for a guy who can't show up to the ballpark on time and can't hit any better than Ellis? Patterson is a utility guy at best though he might just be a future trading chip.

Travis M. Nelson said...

Baseball Prospectus said this about Ellis coming into the 2007 season:

He`s a good fielder, of course, but not good enough to play every day if his numbers in 2006 and 2003 accurately represent his true hitting ability. He`s not young anymore, so it`s likely that waiting for the big comeback is an unsupported act of optimism.

On the face of it, his 2008 batting numbers look a lot like his 2006 stats, but that ignores that McAfee is playing like even more of a pitcher's park than usual, and the fact that he's walking more and stealing a few bases. Nevertheless, with Ellis about to enter free agency (this is his 6th year in the majors) the A's won't keep him beyond this year, and if they fall out of it, they may even trade him to the Cubs, Mets or Dodgers for a minor leaguer, as a late-inning defensive sub/spot starter.

And Patterson, while he may be most likely to become a utility guy, is Ray Durham at best, an offense-oriented secondbaseman with a little power, some speed and patience, and the smarts to know how to use them. That's what "at best" means. Whether it ever happens that way is, of course, unlikely.