Past Trade Review: Jose Tabata

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

There was a time, during RAB’s halcyon days, when Jose Tabata invited encouraging comparisons. The name Manny Ramirez appeared frequently, which left Yankees fans salivating. Even better, when Baseball America rated him the Yankees’ No. 2 and the No. 27 overall prospect in 2007, they said that he “has the talent to reach New York by the end of 2008.”

By the end of 2008 not only was Tabata not in the majors, but he wasn’t even in the Yankees system. On July 25th, 2008, when they sat three games back of first and were starting a series against Boston, they pulled off a major trade in which Tabata was the centerpiece. They sent him, along with Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, and Ross Ohlendorf to the Pirates in exchange for Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady. In Marte they got a lefty reliever — one whom they once traded for Enrique Wilson — and a right-handed outfielder in the midst of a career year. The Yankees certainly needed the help that Marte and Nady could provide, but losing Tabata still stung a little.

While Tabata possessed plenty of upside, his attitude and antics certainly soured the Yankees. After all, the same Baseball America scouting report that glowed about his “innate ability to get the fat part of the bat to the ball quickly, consistently, and with power,” also said that the “tends to cost and turn his talent on and off.” He stormed out of one game and considered quitting. That doesn’t even touch on his decades-older wife, who was accused of kidnapping a baby. In 2008 all that appeared to catch up to him, and he sported a mere .248/.320/.310 line in AA prior to the trade. The Yankees’ patience, apparently, wore thin.

Even with the reinforcements the Yankees couldn’t overcome their depleting pitching staff. At that point Chien-Ming Wang was already done for the year, and Joba Chamberlain had just a few starts remaining before he, too, would go on the DL. Marte pitched well at first, but after a long outing in Texas (I believe on the same day Joba got hurt) he was apparently gassed. Nady stumbled in his new digs. It amounted to a 32-28 record post-trade, which was actually worse than their pre-trade record. The Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. The only bright side was that they had Nady and Marte for at least one more season each.

With Nady, they ended up with essentially nothing. The Yankees named him the starting right fielder in 2009, despite Nick Swisher‘s presence on the roster, but he suffered an elbow injury a few games into the season and didn’t play another one until 2010 with the Cubs. His time with the Yankees amounted to 0.6 WAR. Instead of exercising Marte’s $6 million option for 2009, the Yankees signed him to a three-year, $12 million contract. He’s spent most of it on the DL, though he did come through in the 2009 World Series. The only way the Yankees won this deal was with the old saying, flags fly forever. (Though I suppose that assumes that the Yankees would not have won the series without Marte, which is debatable, to say the least.)

Karstens, McCutchen, and Ohlendorf were mere afterthoughts in the trade. Ohlendorf broke camp with the 2008 team as a reliever, though his role was never clear. Whether that made him seem worse I’m not sure, but it’s impossible to define his stint with the big league club as successful. He might have helped in the future, but the Yankees had plenty of other mid-range pitching prospects. The same goes for Karstens and McCutchen. Both had their bright spots, but both were fungible assets. There was little to argue about when trading them, and even using hindsight, with Karstens experiencing some success this year, it’s hard to find fault with trading these guys. It was actually a Yankees fan’s dream: trading middling non-prospects for actual major leaguers.

Tabata, on the other hand, represented someone the Yankees could actually use. The system has lacked power corner OF bats since RAB started in 2007, and Tabata was the one guy who could have grown into that type of player. But given all his issues both on and off the field, they apparently thought he wasn’t the best fit. And despite all the hype, he has never hit for power — not in any stop in the minors in which he had more than 100 AB, and not in the majors.

The lack of power brings up an important question when evaluating the Tabata trade: where would he have played? Even if the Yankees were a bit aggressive with him, as the Pirates were last year, where would he have fit? Last year Brett Gardner was working on a breakout year, and the Yankees had Nick Swisher manning right field. From 2010 to 2011 Nick Swisher has produced a .367 wOBA and Gardner has produced .351 (9th and 20th among qualified MLB OFers). Tabata, meanwhile, has produced a .332 wOBA, and that’s pretty evenly divided between his two seasons. (It would rank 40th if he were qualified.)

It was impossible to know at the time, of course, that the Yankees would acquire Swisher and develop Gardner into a borderline elite player, so all of that represents hindsight evaluation in one way. But in another it represents a legitimate viewpoint, since Tabata wouldn’t have been ready for the majors until the Yankees started to see what they had in those two players. Even if he miraculously broke out in 2009 the Yanks wouldn’t have had room for him.

This weekend Tabata was rewarded for his 3.5 career WAR, and his potential for more, with a five-year extension worth a guaranteed $14.25 million that could end up a eight-year, $36.75 million deal. With the Yankees he never would have gotten that opportunity. With Gardner and Swisher taking over the outfield corners in the past two years, he would have remained blocked. That could have worked out if he turned things around in the Yanks system; they could have traded him this past winter, perhaps for a starting pitcher. But if he continued to falter they would have gotten even less. The Yanks apparently saw that risk ahead of time and dealt him while at least one team still valued him.

The hardest part of reconciling these past trades is figuring out how the Yankees would have fared had they not made the trade. It’s especially tough in this situation, when they got so little value for the return, but also wouldn’t have had room for the centerpiece. While it was a clear loss for the Yankees — they gave up something of value to another team and got little value back — the real-world effect isn’t that great. It would have taken a big turnaround from the disappointing Tabata in order for the Yankees to realize any value from him in the future.

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Mailbag: Colon, Options, Nady Trade, Big Three

I’ve got five questions for you this week, each bringing something unique to the table. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the way to go if you want to send in questions.

Like a boss. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Findley asks: What are the chances that Bartolo Colon makes a start for the Yankees this season? And how would he fare?

I will say small, maybe 10% or so. The Yankees seem to like him in that Al Aceves role (even though we’ve only seen him in long relief so far), the versatile bullpen guy that could give you three outs or three innings. We also have to remember that his velocity has declined steadily during his outings (here’s his velo graph from game one, game two, and game three), maybe from lack of conditioning/fatigue, maybe from being physically unable to hold that velocity over 80-100 pitches. The guy had some major shoulder problems, you know.

I suspect that if he did start, Colon would be average at best. Six innings and three or four runs seems like a reasonable best case scenario, and finding a guy to do that shouldn’t be too hard. I wanted Colon to start the season in the rotation and think he should be there, but that’s only because I think he’s better than Freddy Garcia.

David asks: It seems like so called “toolsy” guys are a dime-a-dozen in the minor leagues. Athletic shortstops who have a great glove but nobody is real sure if the bat is ever going to show up. Obviously some of these guys even make it to the bigs (like Nunez/Pena). So, is it safe to say that predicting what a guy is going to be able to do in the field is a helluva lot easier than predicting his hitting ability? IE if you see a slick fielding high school guy, is it a much smaller leap to assume that guy will be able to do the same things in the big leagues? By comparison, some guy who can hit home runs off HS pitching (or hit for average for that matter) seems like much more of a crap shoot to project (hell, I even hit a few dingers in my day).

Hitting a round ball with a round bat is the hardest thing to the do in sports, so yeah, projecting offensive ability is tough that projecting defense. That doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk though. Players get bigger and might have change positions, which has a big impact on their future defensive value. The professional game is faster than anything these guys saw in high school and in college, so routine grounders aren’t so routine anymore. That said, the athleticism and reflexes needed for fielding a little more obvious than those needed for hitting. When it comes to batting, you’re talking about guys seeing breaking balls for the first time, getting pitched inside for the first time, using wood bats for the first time, etc. There’s a lot that can do wrong there.

But then again, I’m no expert, so I wouldn’t take my word as gospel. It just seems like projecting defensive ability would be a helluva lot easier than projecting whether or not a guy could hit Major League caliber pitching.

Charles asks: Is it possible for a team to exercise future club options early? For instance, is it possible to exercise Buchholz’s club options now, then trade him to another team if they could receive a good deal in exchange? Strictly hypothetical, not logical.

Just about all of these options have windows during which they must be exercised/declined, and that’s usually within ten days after the end of the World Series. Sometimes the contract will stipulate that the team has to decide on an option a year ahead of time, like the Blue Jays had to do with Aaron Hill’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 options this year. They had to either a) pick up all three before the start of this season, or b) forfeit the 2014 option all together. They passed this time around, but can still exercise the 2012 and 2013 options after this season.

Sometimes there’s no window and it’s anytime before the player becomes a free agent. I know the Phillies picked up Jimmy Rollins’ option a full year before they had to. Frankly, I think Buchholz would have more value without the options picked up in your hypothetical scenario. Instead of trying to trade a 26-year-old with five years and $30M coming to him with two club options, they’d be trying to trade a 26-year-old with seven years and $56M coming to him. I’d rather not have the options picked up and keep the flexibility.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Brian asks: So apparently the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is already calling the Pirates the winners of the Nady/Marte trade of a couple years ago. Is it still too early to tell who won? Granted Nady is gone and Marte likely wont pitch again this year, but Tabata has only played MLB level ball for a couple weeks now. And we did get that magical post-season out of Marte in 2009.

I think the Pirates won this trade rather convincingly. Xavier Nady predictably turned back into a pumpkin after the trade, and then he missed basically all of 2009 with the elbow injury. Damaso Marte‘s been a complete non-factor for New York outside of two weeks in October and November of 2009. If you want to fWAR this, the Yankees acquired exactly one win the trade.

As for Pittsburgh, they’ve already gotten two okay (1.1 and 0.9 fWAR) seasons (285 IP total) out of Ross Ohlendorf, not to mention a pair of up-and-down arms (393.1 IP combined) in Jeff Karstens (0.8 fWAR) and Dan McCutchen (-0.7 fWAR). Jose Tabata’s the real prize as a legitimate everyday outfielder. He’s not (yet?) the star we thought he’d become and probably won’t ever turn into that guy since he’s a corner outfielder with little power, but he can hit (career .336 wOBA) and is dirt cheap for the foreseeable future. He’s already been worth 2.7 fWAR by himself, and has a good chance of being a four win player this season.

The Yankees probably don’t win the 2009 World Series without Marte’s great relief work, so in that respect they “won” the trade. But in terms of value added and subtracted, the Pirates kicked their asses, even if none of three pitchers turns into anything better than what they are right now.

Tucker asks: Who would you say has been the most productive big leaguer out of the old big three (Joba, Hughes, Kennedy)? I’m leaning Kennedy but Hughes is right there.

I think it’s Joba Chamberlain and not particularly close. Let’s look at their big league resumes in general terms…

Joba: one full season as a starter (2009), one full season as a reliever (2010), one full season as a reliever/starter (2008)
Hughes: one full season as a starter (2010), one full season as a reliever (2009), one half season as a starter (2007 and 2008 combined)
Kennedy: one full season as a starter (2010), one half season as a starter (2007 through 2009 combined)

Hughes has a leg up on Kennedy because of his relief stint in 2009, and Joba has a leg up on Hughes because of the 2008 season he split between the rotation and bullpen. If you want to get technical and compare fWAR, then Joba (7.5) leads Hughes (6.0) by a sizable margin and IPK (3.0) by a mile.

Who would I want long-term? I’d take Joba if I could move him back into the rotation. If not, then give me Kennedy. Phil’s missing velocity and stuff this year raises a pretty big red flag. Four months ago I would have said Hughes without thinking twice about it. Funny how that works.

Some right-handed outfield options

While most of the focus is on Cliff Lee and to a lesser extent Carl Crawford, the Yankees also have to address their need for a right-handed hitting outfielder at some point this offseason. Matt Diaz was said to be a target, but he signed with the Pirates for two-years and $4.25M last night even though he’s almost guaranteed to finish that contract in another uniform. There’s also the chance that he’ll be exposed with regular playing time and see his value plummet, but I digress.

With Diaz no longer an option for the Yankees, they’re left scrapping the bottom of the free agent barrel for someone that can hit left-handed pitching in part-time duty. Marcus Thames is still out there despite the interest from the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and there’s always personal fave Scott Hairston, but let’s take a look at who else is available. I’m going to assume that Austin Kearns is not an option given how his stint in pinstripes ended (with 14 strikeouts in his final 25 at-bats).

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Jeff Francoeur

Nope. (also: inevitable)

Reed Johnson

Johnson, who turns 34 today,  was one the team’s leftfield targets last winter, but he ended up with the Dodgers and had a rather forgettable season. He missed close to a month with back spasms and hit just .262/.291/.366 (.287 wOBA) in 215 plate appearances overall, though he did hit lefties for a .342 wOBA. Johnson has a .368 wOBA against southpaws over the last three seasons and is relegated to left defensively (ugly, ugly UZR‘s in center and right), which means he’s not far off from what Thames was last offseason. He’s a legit option, just not a terrible interesting or safe one.

Gabe Kapler

Once upon a time Kapler could mash lefties, tagging them for a .404 wOBA in 2008 and 2009. He fell off to a .255 wOBA against southpaws and .264 overall in 2010, playing so poorly that Tampa stashed him on the phantom disabled list in mid-August so they wouldn’t have to demote Dan Johnson when Carlos Pena came off the disabled list. Kapler’s 35-years-old and is actually a fine defender in the corners (+9.2 UZR in RF, -1.0 in LF (SSS) over the last three years), though there’s quite a bit of risk here.

Lastings Milledge

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Pirates non-tendered the former Met last week rather than give him a sizable raise through arbitration, and it’s tough to blame them really. He’s a slightly below average hitter (.322 wOBA) and a bad defender (-8.0 UZR/150 career), so the only thing that makes him appealing is his age (26 in April) and status as a former top prospect. Milledge can hit lefties (.350 wOBA career) and there’s always the potential to get better, bet I prefer a veteran guy that’s been a platoon player before when it comes to replacing Thames. It’s not an easy job, and a young guy that’s used to playing every day might be able to make the adjustments.

Xavier Nady

Been there, done that. Other than his great 2008 season (3.6 fWAR), Nady’s never been even an average player, topping out at 1.4 fWAR way back in 2003. He put up a .295 wOBA for the Cubs this season after having his second Tommy John surgery and was below replacement level (-0.4 fWAR) in a pretty good amount of playing time (347 plate appearances). The Yanks can do better.

* * *

It’s an ugly crop of righty hitting outfielders out there, especially with Diaz off the board. Hairston is clearly the best option in my eyes with Thames a distant second, even though the latter’s unlikely to repeat his 2010 success. Perhaps Brandon Laird will get thrown to the wolves a little sooner than expected, though something tells me that movie will have a tragic ending.

Link Dump: Nady, Munson, Draft, Facker

Some loose ends to tie up…

Cashman hand delivers Nady’s World Series ring

With the Cubs in town to play the Mets, GM Brian Cashman took the opportunity to head over to CitiField to present Xavier Nady with his World Series ring. Nady played in only seven games for the Yankees because of his injury last year, but he was slated to be the every day rightfielder coming out of camp. Hopefully Cashman didn’t hang around Omar Minaya very long, osmosis can be a bitch.

From what I can tell, the only regular members of last year’s team that still need to get their rings are Johnny Damon, Jose Molina, Phil Coke, and Brian Bruney. The Yanks play the Tigers next month and the Blue Jays in June, but they won’t face the Nats at all this year. I don’t suppose they want to keep those guys waiting, so the FedEx man it is.

A little old street named after some catcher

The Yankees are very proud of their history, as they should be. You can’t walk two feet in the New Stadium without being reminded that they’re the greatest sports franchise in the history of universe, whether it’s Babe Ruth Plaza or the placards around the building or the 27 World Championship years proudly displayed beyond the bleachers.

Thurman Munson though, well the former Yanks’ captain just has a little elevated walkway in the Bronx named in his honor. There’s no plaza, no restaurant, just this little passageway build in the 1960’s. “He wasn’t about the big superhighway and mainstream streets,” said Munson’s widow Diana. “It fits his personality so much more that it would be an out-of-the-way street and be something that not a lot of people would embrace.”

Free draft chat at Baseball America

We’re starting to get into draft mode here, and not because the NFL edition starts tonight. Conor Glassey of Baseball America chatted about the draft yesterday, and the transcript is free for all to read. As you can imagine, it’s chock full of great insight into whose stock is climbing, whose is falling, and a whole bunch of other stuff as well. It’s not terribly long, so it won’t take an hour to read. Make sure you check it out.

Just a reminder, we have a draft-only RSS feed you can subscribe too.

A Facker gets some air time

Did you stay up late to watch Kim Jones’ interview with Phil Hughes‘ parents after the game? Remember that dude in the old-school Columbus Clippers’ hat hanging out behind them? Well it turns out that he’s a long-time regular over at Fack Youk, going by the handle Mode. It’s always great when one of the little people gets out from their mother’s basement garden apartment to show their mug in the real world. We’re still waiting for one of you guys to do that.

(I keed, I keed)

Surprise! Tabata might be older than expected

Via The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington admitted that former Yankee prospect Jose Tabata might actually be in his mid-20’s, instead of the 21 he’s believed to be. If you’ve stuck with me throughout all of my blogging adventures, then this shouldn’t be a surprise. There were rumblings Tabata was older than he claimed to be way back when he was in Rookie ball. “I mean the body… it’s hard to argue with the skeptics,” said Keith Law.

If true, Tabata’s prospect status would take a major hit given his complete inability to hit for power at such an advanced age (his best IsoP is .122, and came four years ago). The Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade would look that much better as well.