Thursday, January 29, 2009

Trading Clay Buchholz

Clay Buchholz is an elite pitching prospect. There's no question about that. He throws five pitches. His curveball is his best pitch and can be unhittable; just ask the Baltimore Orioles. He ran into trouble in his big-league stint this season -- he went 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA -- but he had a 1.80 ERA at Double-A Portland and a 2.47 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket. He remains someone the Red Sox view as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for years to come.

The Red Sox will not trade him for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, at this point. The Red Sox will not trade him for Miguel Montero. The Red Sox might not even trade him for Russell Martin, though there's no indication such a deal has been discussed at all.

But is that the smart move to make?

The Red Sox, after all, have extraordinary pitching depth in their organization right now. Josh Beckett is 28. Daisuke Matsuzaka is 28. Jon Lester just turned 25. Behind these three remains a smorgasbord of talented starting pitchers: Michael Bowden, Nick Hagadone, Casey Kelly, Stolmy Pimintel.

Some will pan out. Some won't. That's the nature of prospects. For every Lester, you get a Brian Rose. For every Josh Beckett, you get a Mark Prior.

What will Buchholz be?

Truth is, we don't know.

And that's why it's fascinating that the Red Sox are so reluctant to trade him -- but won't close the door on it, either.

Minor-league pitchers with Buchholz's stuff are like lottery tickets. If you win, you win big -- just ask the Phillies, who won a World Series on the left arm of former prospect Cole Hamels. If you lose, you're left with pretty much nothing.

Should Jason Varitek decline Boston's offer of a one-year contract with or without an option, however, the Red Sox would be without a major-league-ready catcher. Going into the season with Josh Bard and a handful of unproven non-prospects isn't really an option for a team with World Series aspirations. Trading for a catcher -- be he Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden of Texas, Montero of Arizona or someone else entirely -- would be the only option.

That trade could have already happened; the Red Sox could have avoided the entire Varitek soap opera. But Theo Epstein just won't trade Buchholz.

The lottery ticket might be worth too much for him to give up. He also might worry that no catcher on the market is a can't-miss All-Star, the type of player for whom it would be acceptable to trade someone who might just be the next Cole Hamels.

Every pitcher is different, of course, but we do have a little bit of recent history to examine. For the sake of an arbitrary cutoff, we'll use any pitcher ever ranked in the top 20 of any Baseball America list from 2000-06. (The more recent prospect lists include pitchers who haven't necessarily had a chance to play out their potential.)

For context: Buchholz was ranked No. 51 among big-league prospects by Baseball America in 2007; he was ranked No. 4 on the same list in 2008.

(Catchers on the list in parentheses, just for fun. Clearly, top prospects at catcher are very, very difficult to find.)

6. Francisco Liriano, Twins
7. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
8. Justin Verlander, Tigers
10. Matt Cain, Giants
(18. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Braves)
Synopsis: Liriano tore up the American League in 2006 before undergoing Tommy John surgery; he was 6-4 with a 3.91 ERA upon his return in 2008. Billingsley and Verlander now are the aces of their respective pitching staffs. Cain would be if not for Tim Lincecum, though he's 15-30 with a 3.71 ERA in his last two seasons.
(How many of the above would you give up for a highly ranked catcher like Saltalamacchia? Let's say: 1 of 4. You wouldn't trade Liriano, Billingsley or Verlander unless you absolutely knew you were getting someone like Joe Mauer. You certainly wouldn't trade them for Miguel Montero.)

(1. Joe Mauer, Twins)
2. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
7. Scott Kazmir, Devil Rays
13. Cain
16. Adam Miller, Indians
19. Billingsley
Synopsis: Hernandez and Kazmir are aces. Miller, however, has scuffled at Triple-A Buffalo; he had a 4.82 ERA in 2007 and made just six starts in 2008 thanks to injury. Said's Keith Law in his Top 100 released this month: "Miller has had injury trouble before, missing time in 2003, 2005 and late 2007 because of arm trouble, and it's unlikely that he'll bounce back in 2009 and handle a starter's workload."
(For a catcher: 1 of 4 -- we're not going to count Cain twice.)

(1. Mauer)
4. Edwin Jackson, Dodgers
8. Greg Miller, Dodgers
12. Kazmir
13. Adam Loewen, Orioles
14. Zack Grienke, Royals
17. Cole Hamels, Phillies
18. Dustin McGowan, Blue Jays
Synopsis: Jackson eventually was traded to Tampa Bay, where he won 14 games this season as the Rays' No. 5 starter. Miller now is a full-time reliever who had a 7.71 ERA in 48 appearances at Triple-A Las Vegas last season. Loewen flamed out as a pitcher and is trying the Rick Ankiel path of reinventing himself as a hitter. Grienke and Hamels both are aces. McGowan started last season hot but had a 5.24 ERA in his last 12 starts.
(For a catcher: 4 of 6.)

(4. Mauer)
5. Jesse Foppert, Giants
9. Gavin Floyd, Phillies
11. Kazmir
(16. Victor Martinez, Indians)
18. Adam Wainwright, Braves
20. Jeremy Bonderman, Tigers
Synopsis: Foppert was traded to Seattle in 2005 and released in 2006; he had a 7.62 ERA in Triple-A last season. Floyd finally had his breakout season last season, going 17-8 (with a 3.84 ERA, so let's not get carried away) with the White Sox. Wainwright won a World Series as a reliever with the Cardinals and turned himself into a serviceable starting pitcher after that. Bonderman lost 19 games as a 20-year-old and a better pitcher than that -- but not that much better.
(For a catcher: Floyd still has a high ceiling, so we'll say 3 of 4.)

1. Josh Beckett, Marlins
2. Mark Prior, Cubs
6. Juan Cruz, Cubs
(7. Mauer)
14. Ryan Anderson, Mariners
16. Dennis Tankersley, Padres
17. Nick Neugebauer, Brewers
19. Jerome Williams, Giants
Synopsis: We all know about Beckett. We all know about Prior. Cruz now is one of the Diamondbacks' top relief pitchers. Ryan Anderson never made it to the big leagues; he might be baseball's biggest bust in the last decade. You've never heard of the other three.
(For a catcher: 6 of 7.)

3. Beckett
4. Jon Rauch, White Sox
5. Ben Sheets, Brewers
7. CC Sabathia, Indians
8. Anderson
13. Roy Oswalt, Astros
15. Chin-Hui Tsao, Rockies
17. Cruz
19. Williams
20. Bobby Bradley, Pirates
Synopsis: Rauch has had his ups and downs; he has a 3.83 ERA in his career, including a bipolar 2008 season in which he had a 2.95 ERA for Washington and then a 6.56 ERA after a trade to Arizona. Tsao was let go first by the Rockies and later by the Dodgers. Bradley had a 13.14 ERA at Triple-A in 2005 and hasn't played since.
(For a catcher: 3 of 6.)

1. Rick Ankiel, Cardinals
9. Anderson
10. John Patterson, Diamondbacks
12. Mark Mulder, Athletics
14. Kip Wells, White Sox
15. Matt Riley, Orioles
19. Beckett
20. A.J. Burnett, Marlins
Synopsis: We all know about Ankiel. Patterson had a decent full season with Washington in 2005 (9-7, 3.13 ERA) but hasn't done much since. Mulder went to back-to-back All-Star Games before injuries set him back. Wells has a career 4.67 ERA and might be the epitome of mediocrity. Riley now is a Triple-A relief pitcher. Burnett got lots of money from the Yankees.
(For a catcher: You'd take what Mulder did before he got injured. Burnett still is a great pitcher. We'll say 3 of 6.)

Where does that leave us?

According to an entirely unscientific survey of, well, myself, we've discovered that 21 of the 37 top pitching prospects of the last decade have underachieved to the point that you'd be happy to trade them for an above-average catcher like Saltalamacchia. Then again, that means 16 of the 37 have turned into, well, Kazmir, Hamels, Sabathia and Beckett.

That means a 57 percent chance you haven't lost anything. That means a 43 percent chance you get burned really, really badly. Knowing what the Red Sox have in their rotation and what they have coming behind Buchholz, would you do it?

(If you ask me -- and, hey, you clicked on my blog, right? -- I'd do it.)


floydiansea said...

I'd do it, too.

You need a good catcher, there's just no getting around it. You have remarkable pitching depth, and the budget (and options) to keep developing young pitchers. ...

I mean, I hate to say it, but what's one more great pitcher on an already solid staff? You've said it better than I would, and you've backed it up ... Buchholz may well be a star, but you've already got stars. And you've got a question mark in one of the more important infield positions. To me, that's a clear decision.

(Joe Mauer rules.)

Word: chelyzer

dbhammel said...

I dont think they should do it. Bucholz's value is pretty much at an all time low, it would be rash to trade him now considering that if he is able to bounce back this year, be it in the minors or majors, his value would be restored to where it was a short time ago. It is reasonable to think that will happen. Additionally, Brian made the argument that if you can trade an unproven pitching prospect for a top starting catcher that you should. Id agree. Do it for Martin, do it as the centerpiece of a mauer deal, but I wouldnt call Teagarden or Salty anything close to a proven, major league, starting catcher. There are too many unknowns with those two catchers to unload your organizations top prospect.

As the saying goes, you can never have enough pitching.

Brian MacPherson said...

Is his value really that low? I'd argue that if they can get one of the top catching prospects in the game for him, his value isn't all that low at all -- no matter what his stats were last season.

Yes, his value could go up if he has a Lester-type year this year -- but then they wouldn't trade him anyway. And if he has another year like he did last year, his value drops almost to zero, doesn't it?

Brian MacPherson said...

Oh, and as the other saying goes: "You have to have a catcher because if you don't, you're likely to have a lot of passed balls."

dbhammel said...

A year ago Bucholz was the centerpiece of the proposed santana deal, no way that happens now. I dont think bucholz needs a lester-type year in order for his value to be restored, id like to see him domiante AAA again, then at least pitch OK in a cup of coffee call up or something. At that point maybe he actually could be the center of a martin/mauer deal next season. I guess i just dont but into tegarden/salty being that great.

Pretty sure Bard/Kottaras wont have too many passed balls, if thats what your worried about.

dbhammel said...

Who really knows though, last year Clay was ranked easily 1-2-3 top prospect in all of MLB, just behind Bruce probably, now he might now make top 10 if he qualified as a prospect. Then again 2.5 years ago Pedroia wasnt in the top 100, and look what happened.

I just see this as a case of selling lower than possible, which is never the best case scenario.