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Acquiring an Ace: A realistic look at potential trade packages for a top starting pitcher

After a frustrating and boring Winter Meetings, Walt Jocketty claimed that a trade for a starting pitcher was still a strong possibility, but he expressed frustration at the demands other teams were making for their arms. My first inclination was to assume other teams were trying to gouge the Reds, but given Jocketty's recent hesitance to trade any prospects of note, there is a very real chance that it is Walt who is being unreasonable. Further adding to the intrigue is a Q&A with Walt from a Pensacola newspaper that was published yesterday. In it, Jocketty says:

We're looking mainly for pitching, so I think we made enough progress that we may be able to do some things in the next few weeks, next few days...There are two deals we can do right now, but it would probably take a lot of our top prospects and I'm always a little nervous about doing that. So I'll spend a little more time analyzing that.

My guess is the deals are for two of James Shields, Gio Gonzalez, and Jair Jurrjens. It could, of course, be for anyone, but these are the three pitchers the team has most frequently been linked to in rumors. So while we'll likely never know the specific players that have been discussed, we can look to recently completed trades for guidance as to what Walt can reasonably expected to give up. This post will look at a few relevant trades from this year and last and try to determine what they might mean for Walt in his quest for an "ace".

Before we start, a couple disclaimers. First, teams will obviously value different players differently. Yonder Alonso might have significant value to one team (the Rays) but very little to another (the Braves). Second, all trades are not created equally. For example, the A's were clearly motivated to move Trevor Cahill, just like the Rays were motivated to move Matt Garza and the Royals Zack Greinke last year. All indications are that the Rays are not looking to move James Shields, and that potentially changes the equation significantly.

Despite this, we can look at recent trades for starters and discover what an objectively fair package might be for the various pitchers the Reds have been linked to. We'll start (after the jump) with the trade with the most relevance to Reds fans: The trade that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs back in January

January 7, 2011--Rays trade Matt Garza (and 2 minor leaguers) to the Cubs for 5 prospects.

This trade has the most relevance for Reds fans for obvious reasons, not least of which being that James Shields seems to be the pitcher most of us covet. Shields and his situation with the Rays is very similar to that of Garza last year. The Rays were looking to move Garza because of a crowded rotation. Garza, like Shields this year, had three years of team control left (all arb years). Both pitchers are innings eaters, having racked up multiple 200+ IP seasons, and both are fly ball prone. Also, Garza's career ERA+ at the time of the trade was 107. Shields' is currently 106.

So what did the Cubs give up for 3 years of Garza? They sent 5 players: Chris Archer, Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Hak-Ju Lee and Sam Fuld. Archer, a RHP, was the Cubs #1 prospect and was later ranked #27 overall by Baseball America. Lee was the team's #4 prospect and ended up ranked #92 overall by BA. Guyer was ranked 10th in the org, Chirinos was ranked 12th, and Fuld was an organizational extra outfielder.

So what would an equivalent trade look like for the Reds? First, let's get an overview of what the Cubs gave up. Archer was a top prospect by any measure, and was about 2 years away from the bigs at the time of the trade. As the #27 overall prospect in baseball, he alone had a ton of trade value. Hak-Ju Lee was (and is) an all-glove, light hitting SS prospect who had just completed a season in the low A Midwest league at the time of the trade. Guyer was considered a future 4th outfielder despite his gaudy minor league numbers, and Robinson Chirinos was a project as a recently converted catcher who had torn up AAA, but had done so as a 26 year old. Sam Fuld was a 29 year old, career minor league outfielder who only had 155 MLB PAs at the time. For the sake of ease, let's pretend Fuld was traded for the 2 prospects Tampa sent over, and eliminate them all from the equation.

What we are left with is a package of one top 30 prospect, another top 100 prospect, a future 4th outfielder, and a player to take a flyer on. Speaking in generalities, a similar package from the Reds might be one of the catchers (in my opinion both will be top 50 prospects), Billy Hamilton (he's VERY similar to Lee, except super duper fast), Dave Sappelt, and a 4th player. There really isn't anyone remotely similar to Chirinos in the Reds system.

My opinion is that Devin Mesoraco is much more valuable than Chris Archer, both in that he's MLB ready today, and that he's less of an injury risk than a 21 year old pitcher. Yasmani Grandal would be a better comp in terms of value. It's possible that this alone is the barrier: The Rays want Meso, and Walt won't trade him. Billy Hamilton had a very, very similar 2011 season to what Lee had in 2010 in the exact same league. Except, of course, for all the stolen bases. Still, in a vacuum, Grandal and Hamilton would be a comparable way to headline the deal. Add in Dave Sappelt and a low ceiling guy from AA, and you'd have yourself a very comparable deal.

But of course, trades aren't made in a vacuum. Because the Rays traded for Lee last year, I doubt they'd be as interested in Hamilton now. Further, they are in a different win cycle, in that they are ready to compete but need some final pieces at the MLB level. They are probably much more interested in Yonder Alonso than Hamilton at this point. They also need a catcher right now, and Mesoraco likely is worth much more to them than Grandal simply because he's MLB ready.

There are other differences between the situations. First, Shields is coming off of a career year in which he made the all-star team and received Cy Young votes, whereas Garza was coming off of his worst full season in the majors. Also, while years of team control are the same, Garza will be slightly cheaper for his 3 than Shields will be, by a total of a few million dollars. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Garza was basically made available by Friedman, whereas he has claimed he does not want to trade Shields, but would rather trade Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis. Because he'll probably have suitors for those lesser pitchers, he can afford to be very demanding for Shields. It's very possible that the 4th player would need to be a legitimate prospect.

So given all of these factors, it seems very possible that a trade package of Mesoraco, Alonso, Sappelt, and a 4th decent player (Todd Frazier? Travis Wood?) might be along the lines of what the Rays are asking for. In my opinion, that's too much for the Reds, mainly because it creates a hole at catcher for this season. If the Rays would accept Grandal instead of Meso, I would do that deal in a second. Would Walt? Would the Rays? Would you?

December 9, 2011--Athletics send Trevor Cahill, Craig Breslow, and cash to the Diamondbacks for 3 prospects.

This deal is a bit more complicated. For one, we don't know exactly how much cash is involved. Also, the inclusion of Breslow further muddies the waters. Breslow is a LH reliever with a nice career ERA+ of 138 and 2 years of arbitration remaining, so he's much more than a throw-in. We'll deal with him later.

The Diamondbacks sent Billy Beane a package of players headlined by Jarrod Parker. Parker is a former top-10 pick with tremendous upside, but he lost all of 2010 to Tommy John surgery, so there are significant injury worries around him. He has never pitched in AAA, but the Diamondbacks aggressively promoted him from AA to their MLB squad at the end of the season. He stands a chance of making the A's out of spring training. If not, he'll start in AAA. Last year he was ranked the #36 overall prospect by Baseball America, and his value is likely to be similar now. Collin Cowgill is undersized at 5'9", 185, but he tore up AAA pitching this season, plays solid outfield defense, and is projected by most to be a 4th ourfielder. Sound like anyone else you know? Ryan Cook is a 24 year old reliever who throws hard, strikes lots of guys out, but has control issues. He's kind of a poor man's Brad Boxberger.

For the sake of ease, we'll pretend Cook was traded for Breslow straight up and take them out of the deal. We're left with Cahill for a top 40 prospect and a 4th outfielder. Not exactly a great haul. What does this deal mean for the Athletics other main trade chip, Gio Gonzalez?

For starters, Gonzalez's trade value is not the same as Cahill's. Cahill's contract is interesting. He would be due for his first arbitration year in 2012, but he signed a contract last season that bought out his three arb years and one year of free agency and pays him almost $29 million over those four years. This is very similar to the deal that Johnny Cueto signed for his equivalent four seasons, only Cueto is guaranteed about $3 million less (nice job, Walt). But Cahill also has 2 team options, each worth about $13 million, giving the Diamondbacks up to 6 more years of team control over the young pitcher. Gonzalez is entering his first year of arbitration as a Super-2 player, so he has 4 guaranteed years of team control left, but the cost is not controlled. That could work for against the Reds depending on how much Gonzalez continues to improve.

Also, Gonzalez is a superior pitcher. As a lefty who throws hard and induces lots of strikeouts, he's the type of pitcher who should succeed outside of Oakland's large dimensions. He also gets a decent rate of groundballs (about the same as Mike Leake in 2011), and has steadily improved each of his 3 years in the majors. Comparing him to Cahill, it would probably take what he brought back, plus another top 100 prospect, and possibly a 4th player. Once again, something along the lines of Grandal/Alonso/Sappelt/(4th player?) would be reasonable. Gonzalez is not as good as James Shields, though, and Billy Beane has made it clear he's available, so he shouldn't be as expensive to acquire. So it's possible just the three players would be enough. We know that Beane loves on-base percentage, and the As desperately need a 1B. A package of the three players above, plus a throw-in, should be plenty (although Beane has stated that he wants a package similar to what he got for Dan Haren in 2007. That trade didn't feature more quality than this package, but definitely more quantity. The D-Backs sent the A's 6 players)

But just for fun, what if Walt asked Beane to add Andrew Bailey to the package? Bailey is a highly sought after closer who is under team control for three more years (his arb seasons). He has much, much more trade value than Breslow, so adding Brad Boxberger plus another player would probably be the minimum. Perhaps a Billy Hamilton, or maybe a lesser prospect like DiDi Gregorius? That would be a huge player swap, and would put a huge dent in the Reds farm system, but for the purposes of making a splash, and going all in during the Votto WindowTM, this deal would be about as good as it gets.

Jair Jurrjens?

I'm ignoring two other major recent trades--Zack Greinke to the Brewers and Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians--for a couple of reasons. For one, the package that the Royals got from the Brewers is remarkably similar to what the Rays got for Matt Garza. Also, there isn't a player currently available with the "ace" credentials and cache value that Greinke had/has. I'm ignoring Ubaldo because typically in mid-season trades one team gets hosed. In this case, I think it's the Indians who drastically overpaid.

But I do want to mention the third pitcher that has frequently come up in trade discussions this year-Jair Jurrjens. My objections to Jurrjens as a trade target have been repeatedly stated, but once more for good measure: He's clearly injury prone, he's losing a lot of velocity off of his fastball, he's the most fly-ball prone pitcher currently available, and he'll be overvalued because of his "lucky" year in 2011. Not that he wouldn't be a good pitcher to have-there's a distinct chance he's better than every Reds starter in 2012 except Cueto-but he won't be worth what the Braves will want. As a player with the above concerns and only 2 years of team control remaining, I wouldn't give up more than one "elite" prospect for him. Yonder Alonso OR Yasmani Grandal plus a throw-in player would be it. I just can't see the Braves going for that. For one, they don't need a 1B or a catcher. If they asked for Chris Heisey/Drew Stubbs and Grandal, would you do it?

Finally, there are a lot of other pitchers we could play this game with. Both Gavin Floyd (cue Scrabbles heavy panting) and John Danks are supposed to be available. I'm sure Walt could get Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis from the Rays. Shoot, maybe he's going after David Price or Mat Latos. But since there have been zero rumors linking the Reds to any of those players, I chose to ignore them. Feel free to put together your own hypothetical trade package for one of them in the comments below.

Conclusion-Go all in!

When I started writing this my assumption was James Shields or bust, and I'd still be thrilled with that. But the more I think about it the more I want Walt to go nuts and put together a mega deal for Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey. Bailey is a legitimate shutdown closer, and Gonzalez has the potential to be more valuable than Shields over the next 3-4 seasons. Given his comments about current offers requiring "a lot of our top prospects" I'm wondering if this deal is, in fact, on the table. Giving up Grandal, Alonso, Sappelt, Gregorius, and Boxberger would hurt, but if they are serious about not trading Joey Votto, they need to act serious. It's time to make a huge move and set the Reds up to win the division in '12 and '13. There will always be more prospects, but the time is now to raise some banners.