What we can learn from the trades so far

So far, with the trade deadline looming, the market has not exactly been on fire. A few trades of significance have happened, but there have mostly been rumors and little action. On the other hand, a contender in our own division (the Tigers) did make a trade for a pitcher (Anibal Sanchez) and backup infielder (Omar Infante) that could give Twins fans an idea of what they might expect in a trade for Francisco Liriano. Same goes for the trade the Pittsburgh Pirates made for Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez. Even a trade that didn’t happen (the Ryan Dempster trade to Atlanta) tells us something.

As Jayson Stark’s recent rumblings article suggests, Liriano is expected to be moved by the deadline following his next start–with the hope he does well enough to raise his price a bit.  (Interestingly, Stark’s column also suggests that the Twins are asking way too much for a player they should be more willing to move for less–Justin Morneau. Morneau’s value isn’t that on the market because he just hasn’t been that valuable this year, especially given his salary and woeful struggles against left-handed pitching.)

In the Tigers’ trade, they gave up their #2 prospect, pitcher Jacob Turner, along with catcher Rob Brantly, and Brian Flynn, a lefty starter and 7th round pick from 2011. Turner is the real prize here, as he was up until this year considered the Tigers’ best prospect before they rushed him to the majors. He’s been listed in three consecutive years as a top prospect by Baseball America, ranking #26 in 2010, #21 in 2011 and #22 in 2012. Overall, he’s got a 3.21 ERA in 330 2/3 minor league innings, with a 269/89 K/BB ratio and 7.3 K/9. At AAA this year, he’s maintained a good ERA (3.16), but the control and Ks have been suspect (5.7 K/9, 3.4 BB/9). Although Nick Castellanos has passed him for many evaluators, sites like Fangraphs had Turner in the Top 20 and as the Tigers’ best prospect coming into the season. He’s made eight major league starts and the results have been ugly: 25 innings, 34 hits, 11 walks, 15 Ks, 23 earned runs (8.28 ERA). Neither Brantly nor Flynn have had particularly standout minor league careers so far-it’s Turner that matters.

As for Sanchez, the Tigers got themselves a underrated pitcher who’s major downside is that he’s a free agent at the end of the season and the Tigers will not get compensation since they got him in a trade. In the last two seasons, he’s struck out 312 batters in 317 1/3 innings while walking only 97, with a 110/33 K/BB in 121 innings so far this year. The ERA over 2011 and 2012 (3.77) and this year (3.94) have been deceptive. He’s accumulated 6.2 fWAR over that time, as his FIP (3.35, 3.25) and xFIP (3.25, 3.51) have been excellent the last two seasons. Even in 2010, when he had a lower K rate (7.25 K/9) and a higher walk rate (3.23/9), his FIP (3.32) was good enough to give him 4.4 fWAR. With a swinging strike rate of 9.7%, his ability to get hitters to miss is legitimate. As with Doug Fister last year, the Tigers aggressively moved to get a pitcher that had been underrated.

Infante for his part is a better hitter and far superior defensive option to the Tigers current second base options of Ryan Raburn (.172/.227/.255) and Ramon Santiago (.216/.298/.294) with his .287/.312/.442 line with Miami. What the Tigers gave up was a desirable but somewhat struggling pitching prospects, two non-prospects and compensation for free agents for a strong mid-rotation starter and a useful bat and glove in the middle infield. For a team that has plenty of reasons to be in a win-now mode, it was pretty sensible.

What about the Pirates trade? They gave up Robbie Grossman, Rudy Owens, and Colton Cain for Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez has not been a great pitcher this year, with his K/9 falling to 6.1/9, but over the last five years, he’s thrown 859 2/3 innings, striking out 757 while walking 276, good for a 7.9 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, a 3.45 ERA, and a 116 ERA+, with 11.8 rWAR/13.5 fWAR. He’s been a good pitcher and continues to be solid, even if he’s in decline. Unlike Sanchez and Liriano, he’s signed through 2013 with a 2014 option and with Houston paying most of the salary ($17.7 million of the $30 million he’s owed).

Houston’s object here was to deal with their minor league depth and thus, they picked up several B/C level prospects but none of Pittsburgh’s top prospects, like Gerrit Cole or Starling Marte. Grossman is the best of the bunch, a center fielder currently at AA who’s hitting .266/.378/.406 there. Grossman was coming off a .418 OBP at A ball the year before and had cemented himself among the better Pirates prospects coming into the season. As Keith Law has noted, he’s hit .329/.443/.490 since June 1 after coming back from a hamate bone injury. Owens, a lefty, was a AAA All-Star this year, but his numbers (117 1/3 innings, 85 Ks/25 BBs, 3.14 ERA/3.87 FIP) are more solid than anything. It probably sounds familiar that his walk rate (1.8 BB/9) is the most attractive aspect of his minor league career. Cain is a lefty struggling at A+ right now who’s more a gamble at upside than anything due to his height and the fact that back issues have gotten in the way of his career so far. Law calls him merely “organizational depth” with below-average stuff. In other words, Houston’s real victory here was to move Rodriguez’s contract while picking up one significant prospect and some organizational depth.

Lastly, though the trade was rescinded by Dempster, the Braves and Cubs did agree last week in principle to trade Dempster for top prospect Randall Delgado. Without question, Julio Teheran is the Braves’ top pitching prospect,but Delgado is among the best in their system as well. He’s been solid at the major league level for his age (22), with a 4.42 ERA/4.11 FIP/4.18 xFIP, 0.9 fWAR, 7.17 K/9 and 4.12 BB/9. His 8.8% swinging strike rate is a positive as well. His control has left a lot to be desired, but that was an issue for him in his minor league career, so Delgado is a pitcher who needs further development, but has some obvious upside.

Dempster is a pitcher who in 104 innings this year has posted a 2.25 ERA, which has raised it’s value higher than maybe it should be for a 35-year old pitcher. His 3.40 FIP/3.69 xFIP suggest he’s been a little lucky, but plenty good over the season, as do his K rate (7.18 K/9) and BB rate (2.34 BB/9). Over the last five seasons, he’s accumulated 9.6 rWAR/17.3 fWAR in 928 1/3 innings, with 841/336 Ks/BBs. Between 2008 and 2011, he reached 200 innings in each season, so he’s been durable. That’s Dempster’s value–a durable starter with questionable control and above average strikeout ability, but one who’s older and losing velocity and will be a free agent at the end of the year meaning that if he’s traded midseason, a team in the Braves’ position would not get draft pick compensation if he leaves.

So, if Dempster and Sanchez can fetch top pitching prospects, should Twins fans expect that or should they expect more of what the Astros managed for Rodriguez? I’d suggest the latter. Liriano has certainly been a very valuable pitcher at times in his career, but without question, those other pitchers have been much more consistent and a pitcher like Sanchez has at least as much upside as Liriano if not more.  Let’s use one potential suitor as a example of what the Twins might get with the Baltimore Orioles, who are the latest rumored team to be seeking out Liriano’s services.

Twins fans should first know that they are not getting Dylan Bundy, who might be the best pitching prospect in the minors. They are also not likely getting top SS prospect Manny Machado. But the Orioles do have another top middle infield prospect who has struggled some at AA this year in 20-year old Jonathan Schoop, who was the #82 prospect coming into this season according to Baseball America.  Schoop has spent 179 games in the minors at short, but has spent most of this season at second. He’s hit .244/.303/.392 with 12 home runs but a ugly 26/75 BB/K ratio at AA after hitting .316/.375/.514 in 212 at-bats at A ball and .271/.329/.375 in 299 at-bats at A+ last year. He be struggling, but he’s a player experts like John Sickels believe will develop a very good bat in the middle infield, wherever he settles positionally. Similarly, they could look at 3B Jason Epsosito, a 2nd round pick last year who has struggled at single-A, hitting .223/.278/.293 with a 22/84 BB/K ratio in 368 at-bats.

As for pitchers, they could seek out Bundy’s older brother, who had done well in the minors up until this year at AA, where he’s had a 6.25 ERA with a 64/35 K/BB ratio in 80 2/3 innings. They could do the same with 20-year old Parker Bridwell, a struggling pitcher whom scouts love anyways (6.30 ERA, 84 1/3 innings at A-ball) due to his high-ceiling arm and sinking fastball. Or 19-year old lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, who’s had a very good minor league career so far and has a 3.58 ERA in 78 innings at A-ball, with a 56/21 K/BB ratio. They could also shot for a former top prospect who’s struggled, like Jake Arrieta.

Arrieta’s has a 3.02 ERA in 176 career innings at AAA with a 7.8 K/9 ratio but also a 3.8 BB/9 ratio. Arrieta has a 5.27 ERA in 321 major league innings so far,  including a 6.13 ERA this year. However, he’s improved this year, even if his ERA doesn’t show it, with a 7.9 K/9 and a 2.75 BB/9, leading to a 4.01 FIP/3.81 xFIP that suggests the 26 year-old deserves more of a shot with his 94 mph fastball and nasty breaking ball. As this Fangraphs article suggests, there is good reason to still believe in Arrieta. Similarly, they could do the same with one-time top 5 prospect Brian Matusz.

With that, would a package of say Arrieta, Rodriguez and Epsosito be enough for Liriano? Yes, yes it would. I think a package like that the Pirates gave to the Astros is plenty for a enigmatic lefthander who struggles with control. Remember that for all his improvement over the last few months, he still has a 109/55 K/BB ratio in 100 innings over the year.  With a high K rate, his FIP (4.22) and xFIP (3.93) indicate he’s better than his ERA–like Arrieta–and he’s certainly looked different since April, but for a soon-to-be free agent with real inconsistency issues as shown by his last start, one should not expect to get a package much different than what the Astros got for Rodriguez. That means rolling the dice on upside players who have struggled and not expecting to get a organization’s best prospects. Even better pitchers like Dempster and Sanchez aren’t getting the best prospects in return–just very good ones. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the Twins need to improve their minor league depth just like Houston, but it is something that fans and perhaps management need to keep in mind. Sorry, but Dylan Bundy is not heading this way anytime soon.

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