Contending Reds Make Baffling Trade

The Reds are just 1½ games back in the National League wild-card chase and four behind in the NL Central, while the Nationals have the third-worst record in the league. Yet it was Cincinnati surrendering more talent than it received from Washington in a baffling trade on Thursday. The Reds gave up two productive starters, Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns, plus Triple-A righthander Ryan Wagner to acquire a less-than-inspiring package of five players: big leaguers Gary Majewski, Bill Bray and Royce Clayton and minor leaguers Brendan Harris and Daryl Thompson.

The deal will help Cincinnati’s bullpen, which has compiled a 5.16 ERA’"the third-worst bullpen ERA in baseball. But the cost of doing so was huge. Even if the Reds replace Lopez and Kearns with some combination of Clayton, utilityman Ryan Freel and prospect Chris Denorfia, their offense will take a huge hit. Additionally, Lopez and Kearns appear to be, by far, the two best long-term players in the deal. And while those two will get raises when they’re arbitration-eligible again this offseason, they won’t make enough money that it makes sense for Cincinnati to jettison them while trying to reach the playoffs.

Lopez, 26, had a breakthrough season and earned all-star recognition in 2005, when he hit .291/.352/.486 with 23 homers, 85 RBIs and 15 steals. He hasn’t been as productive this year, but he’s still one of the game’s more dangerous offensive shortstops. He has power and speed and has improved his patience at the plate. In 85 games, Lopez has hit .268/.355/.394 with nine homers, 30 RBIs and 23 steals. On defense, he shows a strong arm but his consistency and instincts are lacking. Clayton is a more reliable defender, but the Reds will miss Lopez’ bat. He’s making $2.7 million this season and is a career .259/.329/.416 hitter with 54 homers, 216 RBIs and 56 steals in 505 games.

Kearns, 26, was considered a prospect on par with Adam Dunn when both came up through the Reds system. Kearns hasn’t achieved the same stardom, however, as he has been bothered by injuries and inconsistency. Finally on track to spend a full season in the majors, Kearns is just two homers away from his career high of 18, established last year. He’s batting .274/.351/.492 with 50 RBIs in 87 games. Kearns runs well enough to steal an occasional base, and he’s a good right fielder with the requisite strong arm. He currently has a salary of $1.85 million, a figure that will rise significantly in arbitration. He has batted .267/.358/.468 with 71 homers and 263 RBIs in 452 career games.

Wagner needed just nine minor league appearances to reach the majors after the Reds made him the 14th overall pick in the 2003 draft out of Houston. But the 23-year-old righthander hasn’t blossomed into a closer, and he has spent this year at Triple-A Louisville after missing the second half of 2005 with shoulder inflammation. Wagner is known for having one of the game’s most devastating sliders, and he has a plus fastball to go with it. But he has been far from peak form at Louisville, going 1-3, 6.34 with one save in 35 games. He has a 28-14 K-BB ratio in 38 innings, while International League hitters have torched him for a .344 average and three homers. In part of three major league seasons, he has gone 8-4, 4.69 in 105 games. The Nationals assigned him to Triple-A New Orleans.

A 26-year-old righty, Majewski finally established himself as a big leaguer in 2005, when he ranked fifth in the NL with 24 holds. He has continued to be an effective setup man this year, going 3-2, 3.58 with six holds in 46 appearances. He has a 34-25 K-BB ratio, .233 opponent average and four homers allowed in 55 innings. He’s a power reliever with a fastball that can reach the mid-90s and a slider that can hit the mid-80s. Majewski, who won’t be eligible for arbitration until after the 2007 season, has a big league record of 7-7, 3.27 with two saves in 141 games.

Bray, a 23-year-old lefty, was the 13th overall pick in 2004. A product of William & Mary, he rebounded from back problems a year ago to reach the majors for the first time this season. In 19 games, he has gone 1-1, 3.91. He has a 16-9 K-BB ratio in 23 innings, and opponents have hit .273 with two homers against him. Bray has the stuff to be a top southpaw setup man, starting with a low-90s fastball and a low-80s slider.

After the Cristian Guzman debacle of 2005, the Nationals signed Royce Clayton to a one-year, $1 million free-agent contract to take over at shortstop. He remains a quality defender at shortstop, but he contributes next to nothing offensively. He doesn’t hit for much of an average and doesn’t provide much in the way of power or on-base skills. He has the speed to steal a few bases, but that doesn’t make up for his shortcomings at the plate. He’s hitting .269/.315/.348 with no homers, 27 RBIs and eight steals in 87 games. A free agent again after this season, Clayton is a lifetime .259/.313/.369 hitter with 107 homers, 698 RBIs and 223 games in 1,981 big league games.

Brendan Harris once ranked as one of the top prospects in the Cubs system, but his stock has dropped since he joined the Nationals in the four-team Nomar Garciaparra trade in July 2004. A fifth-round pick out of William & Mary in 2001, he hasn’t been able to claim a regular job in the majors and now projects as a utilityman at best. He’s a line-drive hitter who doesn’t have a true plus tool. He has fringy power and speed, and his best defensive trait is his versatility. He can handle second and third base and fill in at shortstop. Harris has spent most of this year at New Orleans, where he hit .283/.379/.416 with five homers and 32 RBIs in 59 games. He also appeared in 17 games for Washington this year and has career big league totals of .210/.275/.330 with two homers and eight RBIs in 27 career big league contests. The Reds assigned him to Louisville.

A 20-year-old righty, Thompson quickly emerged as one of the Nationals’ best prospects after they took him in the eighth round out of a Maryland high school in 2003. But he was sidetracked by shoulder surgery in mid-2005, and only recently returned to the mound at short-season Vermont. Working under tight pitch counts, he has gone 0-1, 6.64 in four starts covering seven innings. Before he got hurt, Thompson showed a 91-94 mph fastball, an average curveball and an improving changuep. If he can regain that stuff, he’ll be a nice pickup for the Reds, who have few pitching prospects of note beyond Homer Bailey. Cincinnati sent Thompson to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

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