Pineda Trade Sets Team Up To Do More
As you’ve heard by now, the Mariners made a bit of a blockbuster trade today, shipping Michael Pineda and Jose Campos – generally regarded as the team’s fifth best prospect, but one with a ton of upside – to the New York Yankees for DH/sorta catcher Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi, a lower upside guy who ranked as NYY’s seventh best prospect a year ago (but spent too much time in the Majors last year to retain prospect status). He’s probably a back-end starter or a reliever, but he’s basically Major League ready.
In swapping Pineda for Montero, the team has decided to move strength for weakness. The organization has a lot of talent on the mound and not much talent at the plate, so the appeal of this kind of deal is fairly obvious. I argued that the M’s should make exactly this type of trade over the summer, and then shipping Pineda off was part of my off-season plan back in November. While he’s a talented guy, he’s not an irreplaceable talent, and the risks associated with building around young pitching are substantial and well chronicled.
In Montero, the Mariners get a player who is a bit of a safer proposition. His bat has been beloved by scouts since signing for nearly $2 million as a 16-year-old, and he’s hit fairly well at most levels of the minors despite being very young relative to the competition. Scouts who really love his bat have projected him as a Miguel Cabrera type of hitter, and even if that might be a bit optimistic, guys like this generally turn out to be at least good Major League hitters. There are certainly fewer injury risks with Montero than with Pineda (or any young pitcher), and even assuming Pineda stays healthy, pitchers can just veer off course and regress significantly, so the organization has absolved itself of some of the variance that the roster had previously.
That said, those are mostly just arguments for trading pitching for hitting in general, and don’t deal with Pineda and Montero quite as specifically. So, we’ll start with Montero, since he’s the piece coming to Seattle.
One of the primary reasons he’s been ranked as an elite prospect is that he’s been a catcher in the minor leagues. Premium offense is extremely hard to find at the catcher position, and Montero has been projected as that rare combination of a guy who can generate runs while holding down the catching position. However, his defense behind the plate is poor at best, and it’s no coincidence that the Yankees only let him catch a total of 22 innings during his September call-up. Their coaching staff simply wasn’t comfortable having him behind the plate, and so they used him as a DH when they wanted to get his bat in the line-up.
There are scouts who think that, with more hard work, he could turn into an adequate Major League catcher. I talked to a Yankees official last year who put it this way – “He’s better than Piazza was.” But, many others think the defensive issues are so significant that he just needs to be moved off of the position. In fact, I’d say that’s probably the majority opinion among baseball executives I’ve talked to about Montero. Most people see more value in just giving up on forcing him to catch and letting the bat develop as a 1B/DH instead – not only would his defensive limitations be hidden, but there’s a mountain of evidence that shows that hitters perform significantly better when they move out from behind the plate. The physical toll of catching is harsh, and not many players can endure the beating they take over the long term.
So, for the M’s purposes, I think they should view him as a DH. They gave up Pineda to get a good young hitter, and the best way to maximize Montero’s value at the plate is to let him simply do that full time. Of course, a DH prospect is not quite as sexy as a catching prospect, which is one of the reasons that I’ve never been quite as big a fan of Montero as most. To me, the bar for bat-only players to be true stars is very, very high, and Montero’s contact issues at Triple-A – even at a young age – suggest to me that he might end up being a good hitter rather than a great hitter.
Over the last year or so, I’ve compared him multiple times to a guy like Carlos Lee – an aggressive power hitter who is a quality offensive player, but due to his lack of defensive value, topped out as around a +3 win player. Personally, I see this as something closer to the likely development path for Montero. A lot of people I respect think I’m undervaluing just how good his offense can be, but I’m just not comfortable projecting him as a Cabrera-level hitter. And if he’s a DH, he’ll need to be something close to that to justify the prospect rankings that have been placed upon.
So, if I’m not as high on Montero as others and the team had to add in one of their better pitching prospects in order to seal the deal, then it sounds like this is a deal I’m not overly fond of, right?
Well, I’d say it depends. I don’t love that the organization had to put Campos in this deal, on top of giving up Pineda, to get Montero, especially when we see the prices other teams have been paying for pitchers this winter. To me, this haul is less than what the Padres got for Mat Latos, a similar pitcher with one fewer year of team control, and not that much better than what the A’s got for Gio Gonzalez, a vastly inferior pitcher who was super-two eligible and about to start making real money. If I was just going to judge this trade from a standalone perspective, I’d probably be against it.
But, this move can’t be judged in isolation. This trade was made in the context of the current off-season, and there might not be a better time in recent history to be shopping for a free agent starting pitcher than right now.
Over at FanGraphs today, I wrote up the potential steal that some team will get by signing Roy Oswalt to the one year, $8 million contract he’s seeking. Over the last few months, I’ve written extensively about how Edwin Jackson is probably going to be underpaid due to a negative reputation that doesn’t line up with his actual performances over the last three years. Both of them are likely +3 win pitchers for 2012 – and Jackson could be for well beyond to boot – and would replace almost all of the value the team would have expected to receive from Pineda next year.
The Mariners could very easily now jump into the bidding for Jackson and sign him to a deal for something in the 4/50 range, using the money that they would have otherwise been spending on a “big bat” like Prince Fielder, and have essentially acquired Montero without a significant drop-off in the rotation. Or, if they’d rather keep their options open for next winter – when Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, and Anibal Sanchez are scheduled to hit free agency – they could offer Oswalt his one year deal in a nice pitcher’s park, let him rebuild his value, potentially trade him for a prospect at the deadline, and then throw big money at one of the free agent starters who will be available in 12 months. Or, if Hultzen and Paxton develop quickly and you’re comfortable with the rotation behind Felix, throw a bunch of money at Josh Hamilton.
There are a lot of options available for teams looking for pitchers who have money to spend. Good options. There are not a lot of options available for teams looking for hitters – there’s basically Prince Fielder and then a lot of lesser players. And, if you believe the reports, the M’s may not have had a realistic chance at landing Fielder given their geographic location, so that may have been a non-starter even if they had offered up a budget-busting contract.
Essentially, what it comes down to is a question of whether the Mariners are better off with Michael Pineda and whatever offensive improvement they could have gotten at LF/DH, or are they better off with Montero filling the DH role and shopping for a pitcher to replace Pineda? Given the availability of quality pitchers at depressed salaries right now and the dearth of quality hitters on the market, I think they very well may be better off with Montero and the pitcher to be named later.
If this was the last move the organization made this winter, I probably wouldn’t be very happy with it. I probably would have rather made the deal with Cincinnati that fetched Alonso, Grandal, Volquez, and Boxberger. There are reasons to not love this deal on its own, including the inclusion of Campos, who is a long ways from the Majors but could turn out to be a piece the team really regrets giving up.
However, it puts the organization in the position to put a better overall roster on the field than they could have otherwise. If this deal lets the team sign Jackson or Oswalt, and they have enough money left over to add depth in the outfield and at third base, then the M’s will be in a better position for 2012 and beyond than they would have by retaining Pineda.
The M’s can’t be done. There’s more work to do, and they created a hole in the rotation to patch one on the offense. But that hole is easier to fix, and with a little bit of work, the M’s could actually put a quality product on the field next year. And that’s worth being excited about.