Papelbon and Lester
Finnigan reports in the Times this morning that the Mariners have shifted their attention from Bronson Arroyo or Matt Clement to one of Boston’s two top pitching prospects, Jon Lester or Jonathan Papelbon, as the swag they’re hoping to extract in exchange for Jeremy Reed.
To be honest, I still wouldn’t make the trade. The annointing of Papelbon and Lester as elite young pitchers is quite premature. Let’s take a look at them objectively, shall we? We’ll start with Papelbon, whose solid performance out of the bullpen for the Red Sox down the stretch has led to a significant amount of hype.
In 2003 he was a 4th round pick by the Red Sox from Mississippi State University, where he had spent his entire college career as a reliever. The Sox used his short season debut to stretch him out and convert him into a starting pitcher. He spent 2004 in Sarasota of the Florida State League, the most pitcher friendly league in professional baseball, and had few problems, ranking 2nd in the league in strikeouts and ERA. After the season, Baseball America ranked him as the 14th best prospect (8th among pitchers) in the FSL. This year, he split the season between Double-A and Triple-A and showed significantly improved command, though his strikeout rate fell as a result. The Sox moved him back to the bullpen to help with their stretch drive, and he pitched well and showed that he’s ready for a job in a major league bullpen right now. BA ranked him as the 7th best prospect in the Eastern League after the season.
His fastball reportedly sits at 90-94, and his second best pitch is either a split finger or a slider, depending on who you talk to. His change-up and curveball are both show-me pitches, so at this point, everything he throws is hard. There’s not a real offspeed pitch to talk about. He’s also shown himself to be a flyball pitcher, both in the majors and in the minors.
Papelbon is essentially the Red Sox version of Clint Nageotte. Power pitcher without a good offspeed pitch, low to mid 90s fastball, lots of scouts prefer as a reliever. Papelbon has slightly better command, but Nageotte showed some groundball dominance this year, so those can essentially cancel each other out. Would you trade Jeremy Reed for another Clint Nageotte?
Moving on to Jon Lester, who grew up in Puyallup and is one of the best local prep products the area has produced. Lester was a 2nd round pick by the Red Sox in the 2002 draft, though they paid him well over slot money to sign. He spent 2003 in the South Atlantic League at 19, and while he held his own, he showed that he had significant work to do. In 2004, he moved up to Sarasota and pitched significantly better, holding his walk rate steady but seeing his strikeouts go up by 50 percent. Command was still an issue, but he had the dominance to overcome the walks. This year, at age 21, he was moved to Double-A Portland and had his best year as a pro. He continued to trim his walk rate and raise his strikeouts despite pitching against advanced competition. After the season, he was ranked by BA as the 4th best prospect in the Eastern League.
Lester throws 90-93 from the left side and uses a cut fasball at times, and while he throws a change and a curve, neither one are major league pitches right now. He’s essentially beating people with his fastball. His command is still a bit of a question mark, and he missed time with shoulder soreness in June.
Lester and Papelbon are good pitching prospects. But that’s what they are. I don’t subscribe to the “There’s No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect” mantra that lame analysts have adopted to explain away their ignorance, but there is a huge amount of attrition involved with young arms. Before the season, BA ranked Papelbon as the #91 prospect in baseball, and Lester was not included in the top 100. Clint Nageotte was #73 on the same list.
Things have changed in the past 12 months, and both Lester and Papelbon will rank well on the 2006 list, I’m sure. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that these guys are rare elite arms. They’re solid, good pitching prospects. But these guys aren’t special. Almost every organization has a guy like Papelbon or Lester. There’s a lot of 90-94 MPH arms with developing secondary pitches and mediocre command running around out there.
When you trade a hitter for a pitcher, you’re taking on a lot of risk. It can be worth it, if the upside or need of the team dictates that the pitcher is worth it. But Papelbon and Lester aren’t significantly better than the arms the M’s have done a nice job collecting over the past few months. With Nageotte hopefully healthy, and Bazardo, Foppert, and Carvajal being added in the past 6 months, the M’s have a fairly decent crop of upper level pitching prospects.
They don’t need to trade a major league everyday player at a position they have little depth for another surplus arm. The best thing Bill Bavasi has done as a GM is build a stockpile of arms in the upper minors, and he’s done it without paying a high price for any of them. The M’s don’t need to divert from this strategy.
Just say no to trading Reed to Boston.