Sunday, December 13, 2009

So long, Curtis Granderson (and E-Jax)

It’s rare that I find myself unable to throw support behind one side of an argument or another. Yet, that’s where I am after the Tigers parted with Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson. This trade has paralyzed my ability to be supportive or critical. It’s not a familiar feeling. I would be lying if I didn’t say I am a little troubled by the fact that—to this point—I have been unable to defend or lament this trade. I do take comfort in the notion of “grey areas.” Life is full of them and “baseball” is just a part of life. It’s doubtful that I’m going to come out strongly for one position by the end of this post, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Who knows, maybe a little analysis will jar loose an opinion.

Dave Dombrowski has said repeatedly that this trade was not the result of a fire sale. I believe him. Granderson makes next to nothing for an all-star centerfielder. If he were trying for a fire sale, then he’d start with Miguel Cabrera. Plus, close to $55 million comes off the payroll after this season. I doubt the Tigers are in such economic disarray that they can’t wait one season for a windfall of financial flexibility. So, if DD isn’t looking to shave off vast amounts of payroll, then why trade a player who isn’t just an under-30 all-star, but perhaps one of the most likable players in all of sports? A large part my indifference to this trade is the lack of a clear motive.

I’m assuming that DD’s motive has at least two parts. First, and probably the lesser of the two, is that the Tigers clearly have chemistry issues. They orchestrated one of the biggest collapses in baseball history by choking away a 7-game lead in September. At various points of the season, both the pitching and hitting could be described as horrendous. Without the ability to make any meaningful upgrades via free agency in the offseason, I doubt even DD could foresee a successful season from an aging team saddled with dead money. So, the idea that “this team needs a change” surely crept into DD’s thought process. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a scenario in which that line of thinking was strong enough to ship away a player of Granderson’s age and value. Surely, that couldn’t have been the only motive. Teams don’t generally part with a young, inexpensive all-star just to “make a change.”

The other part—and I think this is why the trade could never be described as a huge loss from a Tigers perspective—is that, relatively speaking, Granderson isn’t that good. Sure he’s an All-Star but his splits also produce some frightening numbers. He is a career .210 hitter against lefties. That number is so poor that it has become increasingly difficult to describe Grandy without mentioning the word, “platoon.” Additionally, he's also a less-than-ideal leadoff hitter. To no fault of his own, Granderson was forced into the leadoff role. The problem is that his OBP is woeful. It was just .327 this past season. As productive as he has been at times, he is a baseball player with undeniable faults. If DD felt that Grandy was at his peak value, then getting a team to overpay while simultaneously ridding his team of those faults probably sounded like a good proposition.

DD’s rationale for getting rid of Granderson has to lie somewhere within the above two paragraphs. From purely a baseball perspective, I can understand wanting to improve the team’s ability to get on base. What makes this whole thing so interesting and weird, though, is how little Granderson is going to make over the next four years ($5.5 million in '10, $8.25 million in '11, $10 million in '12, and $13 million in '13). Faults or not, I don’t think there is a team in the league that wouldn’t gladly pay Granderson that much money over the next four years. I give DD a ton of credit for being willing to buck conventional wisdom and make an atypical move while managing to attract rave reviews by doing so.

Interestingly, I’ve spent five paragraphs trying to figure out whether this trade was a good idea or not and haven’t once mentioned what the Tigers got in return. The “return” tends to be the most important aspect of a trade but that takes a backseat in this deal. Granderson’s value around the league is so high that he was going to fetch a fair return regardless of the trade partner. The first question on my mind—before even considering what the Tigers got in return—was whether it makes sense to trade Granderson in the first place considering his production and cost. Although I admit it's unconventional, I think it does make sense.

I’m much less confused by Edwin Jackson’s departure. He was a pleasant surprise in 2009—or at least the first half—and was probably the most responsible for how much better the Tigers were in ’09 than in ‘08. However, his second half numbers were brutal (5.00+ ERA and a 1.50+ WHIP). The psyche of a pitcher is so fickle that there is no guarantee that Jackson will bounce back from his poor second half; especially since he just recently found success for the first time. Look no further than the mental/control issues that Tigers pitchers have gone through over the last few seasons. Jeremy Bonderman, Armando Galarraga, Dontrelle Willis and even to some extent Justin Verlander have all paired good years with bad years. Odds are Jackson will thrive in the National League but cashing him in at a time when his value is at an all-time high is something I cannot criticize. He’ll probably get a $3 million raise via arbitration this season and then command $10-12 million per year as a free agent after the season. That’s a pretty big commitment to a guy with such a short history of success.

Now that I’ve argued that giving up Granderson and Jackson—despite their age and production—isn’t crazy, I suppose it might make some sense to discuss what the Tigers got in return. Baseball analysts were nearly universal in their praise of the package the Tigers received from the D-Backs and Yankees. Despite the praise, the jury will be out on this trade for quite a while. Three of the four players—Austin Jackson, Daniel Schlereth, and Phil Coke—are of the dreaded “prospect” variety. The most seasoned of the three is Coke who has played just one unremarkable season. Coke and Diet Coke Schlereth are expected to provide depth to the bullpen. What’s puzzling about DD’s insistence on getting two green relievers in return is that he spent nearly the entire 2008 draft on relievers. I hope this isn’t a sign that he’s not happy with the return on that investment. Jackson might be the most lauded player in the deal considering he was the #1 rated player in the Yankees farm system. His repertoire and production are very similar to Granderson’s. However, DD obviously didn’t sweat parting with Granderson so even at his absolute ceiling, Jackson would develop into a guy that DD just sent away in his prime. All three are top-ten organizational prospects but I’m not convinced that any of the three will achieve anything more than marginal success.

The last piece—and perhaps the most important—is Max Scherzer. He has the highest ceiling of the four players, IMO. He is a 25-year old power arm who fits the mold of the classic DD pitcher. With Casey Crosby, Jacob Turner, and Andrew Oliver not ready for the majors and Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis as unreliable as my Pontiac Grand Am, the Tigers will need Scherzer to mirror Edwin Jackson’s production from last season. He isn’t just important to Detroit’s long-term success, he’ll go a long way in determining whether the Tigers can contend for the division next season.

In the end, I don’t mind that DD traded away Granderson and Jackson. I don’t believe either is irreplaceable. However, despite what the baseball community seems to think, I don’t think there is a whole lot of “upside” in the players the Tigers got in return. Granderson and Jackson were under-30 all-stars. I don’t see two under-30 all-stars in this group. Predictably, I’m ending this post where it started: with ambivalence.


Michael C said...

If we traded two under 30 all-stars for prospects of which you don't think we'll get two all-stars out of, aren't we the clear loser in the trade?

Frankly, I think Granderson's biggest problem has been being misused. He's not a leadoff hitter, he's a 5-6 guy against RHP. Against LHP he should either be sit or put in the 7-9 spot (7 for us, maybe 9 for the Yankees). Being a platoon player isn't that bad when you're a lefty since 80% of starters are RH.

The trade bothers me because financial motives were obviously the main reason behind the trade. Also Granderson's offensive production has been greatly underrated as most fans aren't comparing him to other CF (and they overvalue average). Even in a down year last year his OPS and VORP were very good for a CF. And that doesn't even factor in his was well above average defense, which was vital in a park like Comerica.

If we were going to give up a player like that we needed to either get a proven top position player back or at the very least make the Yankees eat a large part of one of our much worse contracts. If we were able to throw in Dontrelle or Robertson, even if we had to eat 50-75% of their salary, the deal would make a lot more sense to me.

As is it feels like the Tigers are purposely taking a step back, now and in the future, just to save money, and then hoping it won't be too big of a step back. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Jake said...

I don’t agree that for this trade to be a success (or “not a failure”) we need two of the four players we got in return to become All-Stars. E-Jax was likely gone after this year anyway. So, he may be an All-Star but it doesn’t do the Tigers any good if he’s pitching for another team. As for Granderson, yeah, I think it’s fair to expect we’d get an All-Star in return for him. Is there a future All-Star among the four players we got? I have no idea. I would be pretty happy with just three to four contributors since that’s something the Tigers have significant need for. In my opinion, that would make this a good trade.

CG should not have been hitting leadoff for sure. That said, you’re severely underestimating how much time he would spend on the bench as a platoon player (or totally ineffective as an everyday player) which is where he is headed with his numbers vs lefties. In the American League last season, the starting pitching breakdown was 65/35 in favor of righties. He’ll also face a healthy dose of situational lefties in later innings bringing that number down even further. That might be an OK situation for $5.5 million but not for $10 or $13 million.

I agree about the idea of getting the Yankees to take on a contract. If this was truly a cost-cutting maneuver then getting rid of Robertson or Willis should've been a requirement of any trade? I don’t think this was strictly cost-cutting, though. They sent away two All-Stars who were set to make $10.5 million combined next season. $55 million comes off the payroll next season. DD has plenty of money to afford Granderson through the end of his contract. If this was strictly a cost-cutting move, then DD needs a remedial math class. I think DD’s primary motivation was to sell E-Jax and CG while their value is peaked. If E-Jax leaves next year (which seemed likely) and Granderson continues to struggle hitting lefties and getting on base, then where does that leave the Tigers? Instead of facing that likely future, DD got four highly-rated prospects in return. I can’t blame that sort of thinking.

I just don’t understand why we took two reliever prospects when we spent 8 of our first 10 picks on relievers in the 2008 Draft. We've needed a viable starting lefty since Columbus sailed the ocean blue. I'm pretty sure you can get one of those for two All-Stars.

Michael C said...

Yeah, I think we at least should've gotten a good young starting SS / 3B or a top prospect at one of those positions in the trade. Or dumped enough salary that we could sign a good one.

I also think Granderson is going to be really good for the Yankees. He's going to hit a lot more home runs in that ball park, and there are only a few major home run threats at CF in the league.

I also think its likely he'll do a lot better against lefties this year, due to a new hitting coach (the old one clearly wasn't helping him), and if nothing else, regression to the mean.


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