July 22, 2010

A Look Back at the 2008 Deadline Deals

With the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline less than a week away, many fans are expecting the Pirates to once again trade their best players. I think only a few minor moves will be made. That was certainly not the case two years ago however, as GM Neil Huntington was an aggressive seller at his first trade deadline.

On July 26, 2008, the Pirates were 48-55. The playoffs were out of the question with the Bucs 12 games out in the Central and 11 games behind Milwaukee for the wild card. Yet the offense was strong and a portion of the fan base favored making a run at a winning record. Huntington waved the white flag, sending reliever Damaso Marte and right fielder Xavier Nady to the Yankees for outfielder Jose Tabata and pitchers Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, and Ross Ohlendorf.

This deal was certainly a success. Nady, hitting an absurd .330/.383/.535 at the time of the deal, was sold at his highest possible value. He hit .268/.320/.474 with the Yankees the rest of '08, then missed all but seven games in 2009 with injuries while earning $6.55 million. He signed with the Cubs as a free agent and has been awful this year. Marte, 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA at the time of the trade, is still with the Yankees but has been mostly ineffective ever since with a 6.02 ERA in pinstripes.

Tabata, the deal's centerpiece as Baseball America's #38 national prospect, has shown quite a bit of promise two years later as a 21-year-old rookie. He's hitting a pedestrian .266/.335/.364 but has excellent speed and defense and a good approach at the plate. Count this as a win for the Pirates' scouting department; he was hitting only .248 at Double-A at the time of the deal but was a consistent .300 hitter in the Pirates' system.

Ohlendorf was a solid second piece. He wasn't ready for the majors in '08 but was Pittsburgh's top starting pitcher last year, going 11-10, 3.92. This year he got hurt early and struggled to a 1-7, 4.62 mark although he's had a number of very good starts lately.

Karstens has been serviceable in three Pirates seasons with a 4.93 ERA in a swingman role. He remains under club control for three more seasons. Dan McCutchen is the lone failure in the group as he looks like he won't amount to more than an AAA pitcher.

On July 31, 2008, the Pirates were involved in the year's biggest blockbuster. Left fielder Jason Bay went to the Red Sox in a three-team deal that brought in pitchers Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris, third baseman Andy LaRoche and right fielder Brandon Moss. This was of course the same deal that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers. This one looks like an unmitigated disaster.

Bay, hitting .282/.375/.519 at the time of the trade, immediately replaced Manny in the Red Sox lineup and hit .293/.370/.527 the rest of the way. He hit .341 with three home runs in the playoffs that year. Returning in 2009, Bay hit .267/.284/.537 and drove in 119 runs, finishing seventh in the MVP voting.

LaRoche, the deal's centerpiece, was ranked the #31 prospect in baseball prior to 2008. He had hit .295/.382/.517 in the minor leagues, leading the Pirates to overlook his .217/.348/.316 big league line with the Dodgers. Yet that performance now looks like Andy's true talent level, as he's hit only .231/.303/.348 in 266 Pirates games. He's a solid fielder but simply didn't hit enough to keep the third base job.

Moss was a 24-year-old outfielder with strong defense who had already hit .291/.348/.456 in 49 games with the Red Sox. The stale hot dog buns at PNC Park are apparently no Fenway Franks, as Moss hit only .232/.300/.381 in 178 Pirates games - not even enough to merit a reserve role. At age 26, he's putting up middling numbers at Indianapolis.

The jury is still out on Morris, the Dodgers' first round pick in '06. He dominated at Bradenton this year but has put up a 4.78 ERA at Altoona, albeit with solid peripherals. At age 23 I would like to see a better performance.

Hansen was the most puzzling inclusion since he already had pitched 74 big league games with a 6.15 ERA. I am not sure why the Pirates persist in acquiring pitchers with a proven track record of putting up a 6 ERA in the major leagues. They've done it three times already this year with Hayden Penn, Dana Eveland and Sean Gallagher. Hansen put up a 6.95 ERA here and has been on the Indianapolis disabled list all season. Truthfully I forgot about him entirely before looking up trades for this post.

The Pirates immediately started to play out the string lackadaisically and were 57-70 on August 21, 2008 when Huntington made his final move of the season. Third baseman Jose Bautista went to Toronto for catcher Robinzon Diaz.

This deal was another disaster. Bautista has hit .236/.346/.472 with Toronto since the trade and remains under the team's control for 2011. He's the current AL home run leader and is drawing a lot of interest at the current trade deadline; presumably the Jays are receiving better offers than Robinzon Diaz. Diaz, for his part, hit .289/.315/.363 in 44 games for Pittsburgh before leaving as a free agent. He's catching for the Tigers' AAA team. His offense wasn't bad but he couldn't actually catch, to the point where he led the NL in passed balls last year despite catching in only 33 games.

The remaining Pirates were unwatchable for most of the rest of 2008. Of course that is mainly because I didn't have a TV in Pittsburgh until October. Nevertheless, but they went 17-37 after the Bay trade to finish 67-95.

The Lessons Learned
It is a strange trio of trades - one hit and two misses.

Somewhat incomprehensibly, one and a half years of Bay, a bona fide star, brought the Pirates less in return than the complementary pieces Nady and Marte.

This happened even though the Pirates were clearly in the superior bargaining position. The Red Sox absolutely had to deal Manny Ramirez and there was no one out there other than Bay who could replace his production. Yet they didn't even have to kick in a top 100 prospect to make the deal.

In the Nady/Marte trade, the Pirates gave up both players at the peak of their value and got a package that seemed like more than fair value even at the time. Yet the Bay trade, consummated at the last possible minute, seems more like settling for the best possible package. Bay was hitting at exactly the level he had hit at for his whole career, and would have brought a huge return in a trade even had the Pirates waited a full year until July 2009.

At this year's trade deadline, the Pirates' most valuable piece is undoubtedly Paul Maholm. Yet like Bay, Maholm is a player who will retain value, both in trade and on the field, for another full year. So there's no reason to deal him unless the Pirates are truly overwhelmed. Certainly I wouldn't give him up, as the Pirates did bay, for a package headlined by a player who is already performing poorly in the major leagues.

Cliff Lee is a more recent lesson. The lefthander, traded three times in the past year, brought the most in return in the most recent trade. How is he worth more with 0.5 years remaining on his contract than with a full year or 1.5 years? Because someone was willing to give it. The Indians felt rushed to deal Lee at last year's deadline but could have benefitted from his services for a full season and gotten more in return by waiting another full year.

Regarding the Baustista deal, this deal went down the day after I moved to Pittsburgh and mystified me at the time. Bautista had hit .241/.329/.403 in five Pirates seasons, spending time at all three outfield positions as well as first, second and third base. One would think that is the perfect formula for a utility guy. Yet somehow, after Andy LaRoche hit .160 for three weeks at one of the six positions Bautista could play, the Pirates decided he would be worth over the next three years and change than a backup catcher.

The lesson of this deal is that a team should not give up major league talent for nothing, just because there appears to be no place to play the player. Of course the man this applies to is none other than Andy LaRoche.

LaRoche is currently hitting .228 with three home runs. Do you think any owners are telling their GMs, "Make a deal for a corner infielder with three home run power!"? I have seen LaRoche's name in trade rumors, but trading him now would sell him at his lowest possible price - likely a useless piece like Diaz. He has more value to this team just sticking around as a backup.


  1. You make valid points, although I disagree with some. Bay was "our" star, and yes he played well in his one full red sox season. So why didnt any team come calling when he became a free agent, including those red sox? Also, Bautista is obviously playing well above his norms in the power department ONLY. Toronto is looking to deal him to take advantage of his seemingly breakout numbers. The players we got for Bay were all solid and/or top prospects other than Hansen. You can't blame the FO for the trade, you blame the players for squandering their best opportunity to become major leaguers.

  2. Anon - Thanks for your feedback. Clearly I'm evaluating the trades in hindsight - but if the front office gets credit for Tabata's success, it's only fair that they get blame for, say, Moss's failure.

    Regarding Bautista, clearly no one expected his 2010 season but my point is that at his established level of performance through 2008 he was a useful bench player who would have been worth retaining over Diaz.