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December 22, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

I don’t like it

This morning I was thinking about doing a post about how boring this off-season had been so far–nothing more interesting going on for the Nats than signing minor league free agents, Rule V draft picks, and claiming guys off waivers (yawn). Then I read Tom Boswell’s stunning column in the Washington Post (more about that later), followed by breaking news of the trade with the Oakland A’s for Gio Gonzalez.

In exchange for Gonzalez, the Nats gave up four of their top prospects, righties Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, lefty Tommy Milone, and catcher Derek Norris. The A’s also threw in Robert Gilliam, a single-A right-hander who’s apparently no prospect.

I don’t like the deal:

  • Gonzalez is not really a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Probably the best way to assess a player’s abilities right now is to look at his projections for next season. That’s because most projections have already averaged a player’s statistics over recent seasons and taken account of aging, etc. The Bill James projections are currently available at Fangraphs. (I’d prefer to look at two or three sets of projections, but since others like Zips and Marcel aren’t available yet, I’ll stick with the Bill James numbers.) For Gonzalez, James projects the following:

.                K/9  BB/9  ERA   FIP

Gonzalez  9.0     4.2      3.83   3.94

Compare that projection with those for some true top-of-the-rotation pitchers on our divisional rivals:

Halladay  7.3     1.2      3.03   2.96

Lee           7.5      1.4      3.18    2.99

Hamels   8.4     2.1       3.22   3.50

Hanson   9.0     2.9      3.18    3.39

Beachy   10.6     2.8     3.14    2.83

Johnson  8.2     2.6      3.09   2.92

As they used to say on Sesame Street, one of these lines is not like the others.

  • The Nats gave up too much talent.  Beyond the Boxscore has a nice graphic showing how the projected WAR over the next three years for the prospects the Nats traded was nearly twice as large as Gonzalez’s projected WAR over the same interval. Yet that actually understates the lopsidedness of this trade, since the Nats are buying four years of control of Gonzalez in exchange for six years of control for each of the four prospects. I think there’s a high probability that either Peacock or Cole will actually prove to be a better pitcher over their six-year period of team control than Gonzalez will be over his remaining four years (and that’s ignoring the additional value provided by Norris and Milone). I think that Norris, Milone, and one of Peacock or Cole would have been a fair exchange, but not both right-handers.
  • Even if the exchange of talent were more balanced, it doesn’t make sense for the Nats because the value they’re getting is concentrated in 2012, when the Nats aren’t so likely to contend, whereas the value they’re giving up is concentrated in 2013 and later, when the Nats’ chances are much better. I see two reasons for thinking their odds are better in 2013 or later: first, much of the Nats’ own talent is not fully developed—Rendon will be in the minors next season, and if Harper arrives, it may be later in the season and he’ll be making adjustments to major league pitching. On the other hand, two of their divisional rivals—the Phillies and the Marlins—seem likely to peak in 2012 and face aging rosters thereafter. So while I think the Nats have finally reached the point where they can think about contending in 2012, I think it’s foolish to weaken the team in 2013-15 in order to strengthen the team in 2012.
  • The trade removes a lot of talent—especially pitching talent— from our system and doesn’t leave us with many good prospects available for future trades. While it looks like the center field trade isn’t working out this winter, I’d like us to have the flexibility of making a move if a good player becomes available in July. Without the trading chips on board, it makes future trades more difficult.

I said I’d come back to Boswell’s column. First, I’d like to apologize for a comment I made about Boswell in my last post.  I really respect the way he took on the Lerners, arguing that ownership’s penurious ways are hurting the team. While we can debate the specific transactions he discussed in his column, I think the broader point is correct. The Nats have consistently spent less on salaries than would be expected for a team serving a market with Washington’s population and income. Other than Jayson Werth, they have never spent big on a free agent.

I’m not asking the Lerners to spend money just to be spending it. If they can emulate the Tampa Bay Rays and win without spending on salaries, more power to them. But Washington isn’t Tampa Bay. If we could consistently field a winning team, there’s no reason Washington’s ticket sales and revenues couldn’t match a team like the Phillies, which lags behind only the Yankees and Red Sox in income. The Lerners lack of spending has been matched by a notable lack of winning. I’d really like to see the owners make the investments that they’re capable of making and that most winning teams need to make.

And the Gonzalez trade really confirms the broad point that Boswell was making. Gonzalez almost certainly isn’t a better pitcher than C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish, or maybe even Roy Oswalt, but he is cost controlled for the next four years. To acquire Gonzalez, ownership didn’t have to give up much money, but they did give up talent. I’m afraid that decision will come back to bite us in a couple of years.

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