Beane gambles by banking on pitching prospects
by Jim Callis
ANAHEIM—For the most part, trade talk at the Winter Meetings was slower than Jamie Moyer's fastball. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin pulled off a couple of interesting deals, picking up Jose Capellan for Dan Kolb and Carlos Lee for a bargain price. Otherwise, unless Matt Lawton or Chad Gaudin is your idea of headline news, there was little to talk about.
Then Billy Beane created some excitement. Four days after the meetings ended, the Athletics GM sent Tim Hudson to the Braves for Juan Cruz, Charles Thomas and lefty prospect Dan Meyer. Hudson-to-Atlanta had been rumored, but Beane's next move caught all of baseball by surprise. Two days after divesting himself of Hudson, he shipped Mark Mulder to the Cardinals for Danny Haren, Kiko Calero and promising minor league hitter Daric Barton.
While the natural tendency of most national columnists and bloggers is to praise every move Beane makes, even they raised some eyebrows over these trades.
Maybe Hudson, who has the second-highest winning percentage (.702) among active pitchers, and Mulder, whose winning percentage (.659) ranks fourth, have peaked. Maybe the whispers about their physical condition—Hudson has had oblique problems and Mulder hip woes in the last two years—will prove to be foreshadowing a serious injury.
But—no maybe here—Beane just took a huge risk with his pitching corps.
Road To Attrition
In the last five years, the A's have averaged 97 wins while advancing to the playoffs four times. Their offense ranked second and their pitching third in the American League in 2000, but in each subsequent season they did a better job preventing runs than scoring them.
Most of the credit belongs to Hudson, Mulder and Barry Zito. They did the bulk of the heavy lifting, usually getting help from a sidekick (Gil Heredia, Cory Lidle, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden) and from a bullpen constructed on the cheap.
Hudson, Mulder and Zito arrived in Oakland within 13 months of each other, allowing the budget-conscious A's to control their costs for three concurrent years and their rights for six seasons. To continue its success, Oakland needs that rare convergence of pitching talent to happen again with some combination of Harden, Haren, Meyer and farmhand Joe Blanton.
Each year, Baseball America ranks the Top 100 Prospects in baseball. We balance tools and performance, and no one talks to as many people as we do. The track record of our top 100 is better than anyone's.
In 1999, 35 starting pitching prospects made the top 100. Last season, 11 of those 35 made at least 20 starts in the majors.
In 2000, 38 starting pitching prospects made the top 100. Last season, 10 of those 38 made at least 20 starts in the majors.
In 2001, 43 starting pitching prospects made the top 100. Last season, 10 of those 43 made at least 20 starts in the majors.
Looking at those three top 100s, 31 of the 116 starter prospects (27 percent) fulfilled enough of their promise to make 20 starts in 2004. They averaged an 11-10, 3.98 record.
Haren stopped qualifying for the top 100 after his first full season, when he didn't make it following a dominant run in low Class A but so-so results in high Class A. Meyer was No. 82 on our 2004 list and should move up a few spots this spring. Blanton was No. 43 entering 2004 and may not make it in 2005 after just a decent season in Triple-A.
Harden could become the new ace of Oakland's staff, and he did have better peripheral numbers than his more famous teammates in 2004. But history says the odds of more than one of Haren, Meyer and Blanton panning out aren't good.
Complements, Not Cornerstones
Of course, the A's got more than just pitching prospects in the recent trades.
In Calero and Cruz, they received a pair of relievers coming off quality seasons. There's thought that Cruz could return to the rotation—he ranked 17th on the top 100 in 2001 and sixth in 2002 as a starter—but he hasn't pitched well in that role since his 2001 big league debut.
Thomas, who floundered for four years in the Braves system before coming on at the end of 2003, is 26 and probably won't get much better than he was as a rookie last season. He's a nice athlete, but he's a platoon corner outfielder without much power. That's a complementary player, someone a team can win with but not because of.
Barton is one of the purest hitters in the minors, coming off a .313/.445/.511 season with a tremendous 69-44 walk-strikeout ratio in low Class A at age 18. (Beane will have to break it to Michael Lewis that spending a first-round pick on a high schooler isn't necessarily folly.) He's currently a catcher, but few scouts believe he has any chance of staying behind the plate, and he'll have a lot of work to do to play a position rather than DH.
Perhaps the A's have surmised that Hudson and Mulder are starting a slow descent into oblivion, and better to trade them too early rather than too late (and/or before they become too expensive). But their best chance to win in 2005 would have been to stick with their proven aces, and now they're banking on beating long odds on pitching prospects.
You can reach Jim Callis by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.