Scouting the Trade Market: Floyd vs. Danks

The trade of Sergio Santos from the White Sox to the Blue Jays signaled that the White Sox were beginning the process of rebuilding, a word which the GM Kenny Williams used himself. Yankee fans have long hoped for the acquisition of the Chicago lefty John Danks, and this was the clearest indication yet that he would become available by trade. Yet Danks isn’t the only pitcher Chicago is now willing to deal. They also expressed willingness to move righty Gavin Floyd. Given the Angels’ signing of C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols, one has to wonder if the Rangers will be extra aggressive in their bid for Japanese righty Yu Darvish. If so, the best route available to the Yankees for the acquisition of another starting pitcher may in fact be a deal with the White Sox. All things considered, who is a better fit for the Yankees, Gavin Floyd or John Danks?

From a performance perspective, it’s difficult to see a lot of daylight between the two pitchers. Over the past five years, they’ve both averaged a strikeout rate around 7.0 and a walk rate around 3.0. Their career ERAs are only 0.07 apart (3.85 for Danks, 3.92 for Floyd) and their career FIPs differ by only 0.03 (4.06 for Danks, 4.03 for Floyd). For all intents and purposes, they get roughly the same number of ground balls.

From a pitching repertoire approach, Danks is your prototypical lefty. He leans heavily on his fastball, but thanks to the tutelage of pitching coach Don Cooper Danks also throws a mean cutter. This isn’t one of those weird Pitch F(x) classification issues, either. Cooper is famous for teaching his pitchers how to throw the cutter. Danks will also mix in a slider on occasion, but his real go-to offspeed pitch is the changeup. Floyd is a similar pitcher, throwing a straight fastball and, yes, a cutter. Floyd will also mix in a changeup infrequently, but his main offspeed pitch is the curveball. From a velocity standpoint they both sit in the low 90s with their fastballs.

There are a few key differences between the two pitchers though. To start, Danks is a lefty and Floyd is a righty. Further, Danks is a solid two years and three months younger than Floyd, and won’t turn 27 years old until the second week in April. Floyd does have a four-inch height advantage over Danks, though, standing in at 6’6″. The biggest difference is perhaps their contract statuses. This is Danks’ final year under contract with the White Sox, and he’ll become a free agent after this season. Floyd will make $7M this year and has a club option for $9.5M for 2013, so he’s under team control for one more year at a desirable salary. Even if the Yankees were to ink Danks to an extension after acquiring him, they’d surely have to pay him more than $10M per season.

From a performance perspective, the two are virtually equal. Danks has an advantage on Floyd in youth, but Floyd’s contract situation is more desirable than Danks. That said, Danks still seems like the preferred candidate amongst fans. Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s a lefty and hearkens one RAB writer back to Andy Pettitte, or perhaps it’s his age and frame that leads one to believe that the best is yet to come. Regardless, the relative proximity in quality between Danks and Floyd will mean that the team’s rotation will be upgraded no matter who they get. Just as long as they get someone.

Sick of this.

Yesterday Larry chronicled how past offseason activity compares to the current state of “no news yesterday, today or tomorrow”. Given the healthy condition of the Yankees roster and the dearth of good options on the free agency or trade market (for now), Larry concludes that this peaceful offseason is a actually a blessing, even if it is a bit boring:

However, in the aftermath of the Cliff Lee non-signing, standing relatively pat for the remainder of last offseason…and continuing to stand his ground at the trade deadline back at the end of July, Brian Cashman’s strategy of waiting things out — and perhaps not even making a significant move at all — may not be such a bad thing. Especially if Kenny Williams finally comes calling bearing gifts of John Danks and/or Gavin Floyd.

This is true, of course. There has hardly been a good opportunity squandered by the Yankees since the Dan Haren deal, and their inactivity is really more of a function of the market than reticence or over-caution. In fact, the front office’s ability to keep calm and carry on and not sell the farm on risky ventures is a testament to their intelligence, and patience.

Yet, I can’t help myself in feeling just a little bit antsy, and quite a bit bored, with how the Hot Stove season has gone so far. It’s been weeks and weeks since the Yankees were eliminated and the most interesting news to come out of Yankeeland and MLB writ large has been the re-signing of CC Sabathia, something of a fait accompli in my mind, and the changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That’s it. No rumors of a blockbuster trade, no mystery team, no secret meetings. Just nothing but boring. Like the kid in Sandlot, I don’t think I can take much more. As Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me [rumors] or [take away my Internet access].”

This problem is compounded by thorough and analytical coverage here at River Ave Blues. Whenever a rumor surfaces, readers can count on Joe or Mike to quickly put together a Scouting the Market piece and examine the pros and cons of the target. Yet they always provide three or four good reasons why a trade won’t happen. I know everyone’s trade proposal sucks, but yeesh fellas, let a guy dream on Cole Hamels or Andrew McCutchen for a day before you kill the idea.  It’s gotten so bad (and they’ve gotten so good) that they often will quash a trade target before I even know the player is available. They’re murdering my Hot Stove Dreams faster than I can dream them up.

Sick of this.

Part of the consolation of a baseball-less half-year is the fact that the offseason unfolds in a manner unlike any other sport. Much like the game itself, baseball’s free agency is a languid and leisurely process, dawdling and lingering before wrapping up in January; trade rumors kick up in the first set of winter meetings and refuse to die for weeks; and avid fans are treated to a solid eight or more weeks of news and gossip before February settles in and the countdown to Spring Training begins in earnest. Aside from the absence of actual games, at times it feels like baseball never leaves.

So while I’m generally comfortable with the team’s roster, I’m with Larry and others in hoping the club can add one or more starter pitchers this winter. And before they ink these pitchers to shiny new deals or ship out prospects to get them, I’d very much like to have a lovely drawn-out period in which the team is linked, truthfully or not, to all the names out there. All of them. Tell me Prince Fielder wants to live in Alpine with CC and let me try to figure out how in the world they could pay $180 million for just a DH, and with Montero on board to boot. Tell me Cash had dinner with Big Papi at Tap. Tell me Jack Z. and Felix just aren’t getting along. Tell me Tim Lincecum cut his hair and has been spending time in the Village. Tell me all of it.

It’s been a long time since Ben, Mike, Joe and I gnawed our way through our hats and watched in agony as the team failed in Game 5 of the ALDS. It’s been a long time since Joe and I stood at the mezzanine level in the bottom of the 4th with the bases jacked and one out and ate our hot dogs and banged on the metal tables and hollered until security told us to stop, and then acted like we forgot and did it again, only to see Martin and Gardner pop out and the rally die. But it hasn’t been long enough. A new year is almost here, and that means a new team. And until I get that new team, I’d like very much to dream on what could be. Help a brother out; it’s starting to get cold.

The Anti-Cliff Lee

Nearly a full twelve months after the Yankees watched Cliff Lee spurn New York and depart from Texas for Broad Street in Philadelphia, they find themselves yet again eyeing a big name free agent starting pitcher. This year’s premium talent is lefty C.J. Wilson, and he’s reportedly seeking six years and $120m, a hefty sum for a pitcher with just two years of experience as a starter in the major leagues. Aside from the fact that he’s a lefty from the Rangers seeking big money, Wilson really is the polar opposite of Lee. In a lot of ways, C.J. Wilson is everything that Cliff Lee was not.

The easiest place to start is their performance. Cliff Lee is a savant when it comes to control, while Wilson is one of the most wild starters in baseball. In the last two years, only three people have walked more batters than C.J. Wilson’s total of 167 (Gio Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ryan Dempster). Not even A.J. Burnett has walked as many as Wilson over this span. By comparison, in the two years prior to hitting free agency, Lee walked a mere 61 batters, tied for the lowest amongst any pitcher with at least 200 innings pitched. Their career walk rates (Wilson 3.75 BB/9, Lee 2.15, but not higher than 2.00 since 2007) really drive the point home.

Wilson and Lee are also very different in their personalities and home lives. Based on what I could gather from watching the way Lee handled his negotiations and subsequent press conferences, he seems to be a very laid back guy. He’s from Arkansas, not just geographically but also in the sense that it’s his home. It’s where he’s from. Like a smart husband, Lee also placed a very high premium on the wishes of his wife and family when choosing a new team. The positive experience his wife and kids had in Philadelphia went a long way towards convincing him to stay. By comparison, Wilson is a hipster from California, to put it bluntly. He tweets with the best of them, he’s outspoken on political issues, and he’s gregarious. He’s also not married, a factor which he emphasized when talking about his pending free agency. Wilson’s a free bird, limited only by his suitors.

There’s also the interest factor. It’s hard to know how much Lee really likes New York and would have been happy playing here. Personally, I never got the sense that he was dying to spend his off-days in Central Park and go out to dinner in SoHo, but that’s just post hoc explanation. Like a lot of free agents in high demand, Lee made the Yankees, and several other teams, fly down to Arkansas to pitch him on a new deal. By comparison, Wilson seems to want to play in New York, or at least have the Yankees bid up his price. He even had his agent ask the Yankees if C.J. could come to New York and visit the Yankees to discuss a new contract. After the way the Lee negotiations went, it’s almost refreshing.

But here’s the rub, and here’s where their greatest dissimilarity stands out most prominently. As of this morning, the Yankees still hadn’t gotten back to Wilson’s agent to let him know if they want him to come meet with them. Unlike Cliff Lee, over whom the Yankees front office and fan base nearly salivated, no one in New York seems to want C.J., certainly not at any price. No one seems to be clamoring to open the vault in the Bronx for the Texas lefty. Perhaps this and all the other differences between Wilson and Lee will create a commonality between the two after all: hitting free agency only to end up in a new home other than New York.

What does it take to get a save in this place?

It would be hard to find a segment of the free agent market in which saber-minded analysts and general managers differ more than on the value of relief pitchers. Second only to the uselessness of the pitcher win stat, the futility of paying relievers big money and chasing the save statistic is likely the biggest saber cause célèbre in town. The argument goes something like: “The save stat is stupid, and relievers are volatile. Don’t chase the save, and don’t pay relievers big money, because they’ll likely just blow up in your face”.

By and large, this line of thinking is correct. Yet if its constantly regurgitated by the masses with no critical thinking behind it, and if no attempt is made to understand why teams do what they do, then we’ll never really advance the proverbial baserunners. We’re just spinning our wheels, beating the same old dead horse and never learning anything or trying to understand the people making the big decisions.

In any walk of life, one quick way to open yourself up to embarrassment is to assume that those around you are either unable or unwilling to comprehend the complexities of your worldview, to borrow a turn of phrase from Confederacy of Dunces. I’d wager that most General Managers have a pretty good idea that relievers are volatile creatures, and that they are also aware of the failure of these relievers to live up to the contracts given to them. So, avoiding the arrogance that would suggest that they’re just irrational actors, what would drive a GM to pay a premium for a reliever? It boils down to predictability.

Paradoxically, the volatile nature of relief pitchers drives GMs to pay big money for relievers whom they don’t believe will be volatile. Thus, relievers with a long track record of health and consistently superb performance are the most likely candidates to get big money. Like it or not, teams also value closer experience. Late inning relievers with a track record of ably manning the ninth inning will pull in a premium over those without it. Anecdotally, relievers with fewer than ten saves signing multi-year deals after the 2010 season averaged $3.8M per year. Relievers with more than ten saves averaged $8.3M, although this number is driven higher by the Soriano and Rivera deals. This illustrates the point that for whatever reason, most clubs are averse to handing big money to someone to close out games if they’ve never seen them close out games before.

This is all perfectly illustrated by the Phillies pursuit of Ryan Madson. Madson has a long track record of being an excellent reliever, and has shown a decent enough health record. Yet not too long ago, the Phillies weren’t interested in committing big money to Madson because he lacked the “closer’s mentality”. After a solid year closing out games for the Phils they were on the verge of guaranteeing him of $44M over 4 years. The deal has since been put on hold, but Madson will likely see a huge payday.

Teams crave predictability, which is why you’ll often see teams with decent budgets pursue relievers whom they believe to be predictable. They’re looking for relievers who can make a nine inning game an eight inning game, and when they find them or believe they’ve found them, they’re willing to pay a bit more than one might expect. It’s just the way it is. As our understanding of how to properly value relievers evolves and develops, it’s important to keep in mind the principles under which various organizations appear to operate.  Who knows, we might even learn something from the people who are doing this for a living.

Our Man in Chicago

It’s been a tough couple of months in Boston. The Red Sox went from a virtual playoff lock and World Series contender to missing the playoffs, firing their manager and seeing their long-tenured and well-respected general manager depart for a new challenge with the Chicago Cubs. Change has come to the AL East, change that seemed hard to imagine a year ago. Now that Theo has moved on and no longer runs the Yankees’ biggest and baddest rival, he’s more free than ever to explore a more functional working relationship with long-time nemesis, Brian Cashman. Indeed, one of the more interesting things to watch about the new leadership on the North Side of Chicago will be the extent to which Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer find Brian Cashman to be a go-to trading partner.

Photo credit: Aaron Houston for the New York Times

While there certainly isn’t any type of formal prohibition on trading between fierce rivals, Epstein and Cashman weren’t ever really free to pursue a trading relationship during their tenures atop their respective organizations. Despite the fact that a mutually-beneficial deal could have existed at least in theory, the constraints of the rivalry, pressure from ownership, and glare of the media made it extremely unlikely. Intra-division trades aren’t too frequent. Trades between the biggest rivals in baseball almost never happen. The last time the Sox and the Yankees matched up on a deal was back in 1997 when they swapped Tony Armas and Jim Mecir for Randy Brown and Mike Stanley. Neither Cashman nor Epstein were General Managers yet, and Epstein was just 24 years old.

Despite the fact that they worked for rival organizations, Epstein and Cashman have always seemed to get along. This makes sense, as they share a lot in common. As general managers, they were both in big markets with a lot of money to spend. They had high-profile owners and sometimes messy decision-making apparatuses. They were under harsher media scrutiny than anywhere else, and they operated with the pressure to win every year. Setting aside their professional competitiveness, one has to imagine Epstein could empathize with Cashman when he got overruled on Rafael Soriano, and that Cashman felt similarly towards Epstein as the Sox season spiraled out of control and ownership pushed Terry Francona out the door. They’re not so different, Epstein and Cashman.

They could be eager now to explore a working relationship. One has to imagine they’re at least curious to match wits in a trade negotiation, to experience up close what they’ve observed from afar over the past decade. For now there doesn’t seem to be an obvious fit between the Cubs and the Yankees, unless the Cubs were willing to trade one of their starters now. If the Cubs fall out of contention this summer and look to shed payroll and get prospects in return, could they make Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza available? And would Cashman be ready to deal? It’s an interesting question, and the burgeoning dynamic between the once-forbidden partners will be something to watch over the next few years.