Thursday, January 3, 2013

History of Trades for Top Pitchers

Don't be so quick to judge AA when he
gave up 2 of the Jays top 3 prospects.
     When the Blue Jays acquired starter R.A. Dickey as the final piece in their new rotation a couple of weeks ago, in addition to the Royals trading for James Shields, I was intrigued to see how similar acquisitions had worked in the recent past.  The goal was to see the success rate of teams which had traded away prospects in order to get a player who was perceived to be a “top of the rotation” starter. 
          There were 3 qualifications I used when looking for similar trades. 

1.    The team had to be acquiring the pitcher for at least a full season.  This eliminated deadline day rentals such as C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers, and the final Cliff Lee trade to the Rangers (though other Cliff Lee trades are included)
2.    The pitcher being acquired had to be viewed as a #2 pitcher or better.  This eliminated such trades as Doug Fister being acquired by the Tigers, & Shaun Marcum going to the Brewers. 
3.    I also didn't include Trevor Cahill on the list either for two reasons.  One, I feel he is closer to the likes of Marcum, and Fister than the pitchers listed below, and two I was having a tough time analysing that trade, and thought it might be too soon to do that.
       I came up with 13 trades that were comparable to the Dickey trade over the past 5 years.  Its important to note that I'm only analyzing these transactions from the perspective of the teams acquiring the pitcher.  When I say that the trade was a "win" for the buying team, I'm not saying that it was a "loss" for the seller, though in many of the examples that is the case.  
            These are the examples I came up with in chronological order…

Date – 2008, February 8th
Player Traded – Johan Santana
Teams - Min to NYM
Traded for – Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Phil Humber, & Kevin Mulvey
Contract Signed – 6 Years // $137.5M
Result –
         The Johan Santana trade, has much in common with the Roy Halladay trade.  Both trades were executed by a first time GM, forced in his first move to trade away the best pitcher in franchise history.  In this case it was the newly promoted Bill Smith being thrown into the hornets nest.
            Much like the Halladay trade, Santana was largely controlling the situation, and steered himself to the Mets, like Halladay did to the Phillies. In this situation the package of players they gave up was very highly regarded at the time, but none of them ever emerged into much of anything at the major league level. 
            Once Johan arrived in Queens, he picked up right where he’d left off in Minnesota.  In his first year as a Met, he finished 3rd in the NL Cy Young balloting, with a sparkling 166 ERA+.  Even despite the injury issues he has run across after that first season, when he’s been healthy he’s been very effective. 
            The Mets not making the playoffs in any of Santana’s seasons in New York doesn’t matter, since every player they gave up flopped in relatively spectacular fashion.
Verdict – Clear win for the Mets

Date – 2008, February 8th
Player Traded – Eric Bedard
Teams – Bal to Sea
Traded for – Adam Jones, Kameron Mickolio, George Sherrill, Tony Butler & Chris Tillman
Contract Assumed 2 Year // $14.75M
Result –
           In a word, Disaster. 
           The Mariners were tricked by an overachieving 2007, and were fooled into thinking they had had a better chance at winning than they actually did.  At the time it appeared they were getting a pitcher coming off a truly elite year, as he’d led the entire MLB in K% the previous season. 
            The Mariners thought they would be getting a pitcher to pair with Felix Hernandez atop their rotation, however his checked injury history never allowed that to happen.  He only managed to throw 160 innings in his two years in Seattle (before missing all of 2010).  Not only did Bedard fail to live up to expectations, but the rest of the team fell back to their normal level.  GM Bill Bavasi was fired within the year.
            The package of players the M’s gave up has also emerged into almost exactly what you hope doesn’t happen.  Adam Jones has become the face of the Orioles, and is now a perennial all-star centerfielder, George Sherrill gave the team a couple capable seasons as a low cost closer, & Chris Tillman has become a major league starter, if a somewhat disappointing one. 
            When you think of a trade blowing up in your face, this is exactly the worst case scenario you could imagine.
Verdict – Clear loss for the Mariners

Date – 2009, July 29th
Player Traded – Cliff Lee
Teams – Cle to Phi
Traded with – Ben Francisco
Traded for – Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson, Jason Donald, & Jason Knapp
Contract Assumed – 1 Year+ // $8M
Result –
            Lee was acquired at the trading deadline by a Phillies team looking to ensure that they would have a strong chance to repeat as World Series champions.  To this day I really cant figure out why the Indians were so eager to move Lee.  They had him signed for another year, at a more than reasonable rate, I could’ve understood moving the reigning Cy Young winner if you’d gotten an overwhelming package but this was anything but that.
            Even though Lee had an up and down second half in Philadelphia, he really emerged come playoff time. The Phillies would go on to win all 5 starts he made in the playoffs, including 2 complete games.  Regardless of what the Phllies sent to the Indians, in exchange for Lee, this would’ve been a win for them. However, considering just how woeful the package they sent back was, I really imagine a trade working out much better.
            Now, if only they hadn’t stupidly shipped him to Seattle the following winter, but we’ll get to that in a little bit…
Verdict – Clear win for the Phillies         

Date – 2009, July 31st
Player Traded – Jake Peavy
Teams – SD to CWS
Contract Assumed – 3 Years+ // $52M (4th year option for 22M)
Result –
            At the time this trade was made, White Sox GM Kenny Williams was pilloried for gambling on Peavy.  He’d just signed a very lucrative new contract (which didn’t even start until the following year), and had been suffering from elbow and shoulder problems that season, which limited him to just over 100 innings.  The general opinion of the industry at the time was that taking on almost $20 mil per season was a lot to begin with, to say nothing of the prospects the White Sox were required to part with, which featured the White Sox top-pitching prospect at the time, Aaron Poreda. 
            Even despite Peavy posting relatively pedestrian production in his first two seasons in Chicago, the trade was already looking good for the White Sox because of how poorly the prospects sent the Padres way had performed.  However Peavy then returned to his old self in 2012, and was unfairly snubbed for an all-star appearance.
          He was good enough last year to convince the Sox he was worth a 2 year & 29 million dollar commitment. The fact that the White Sox were willing to extend him, shows rather obviously this trade worked out well for the pale hose.  
Verdict – Win for the White Sox

Date – 2009, December 16th
Player Traded – Cliff Lee
Teams – Phi to Sea
Traded With – Mark Lowe
Traded for – Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gilles & J.C. Ramirez
Contract Assumed – 1 Year // $8M
Result –
            This move is clearly the strangest and most inexplicable trade on this list.  Soon after Cliff Lee had finished putting in a playoff for the ages, and on the same day they had just finished acquiring Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays, the Phillies decided to ship lee cross country to the Mariners.  This trade made very little sense at the time.  Yes, the Phillies claimed to be at their budget, but it hardly seems like Lee’s 8 million dollar bargain was the one to send away. 
            The Mariners envisioned Lee teaming with Felix Hernandez atop the rotation for a team they thought would be a contender in 2010, coming off a surprising 86 win season.  Lee lived up to everything the Mariners could hope for and then some.  The 13 starts that Lee made in Seattle green was a half season for the ages.  The 14.83 Strikeout to Walk rate he posted was the highest of all time, and his 1.5 Walk % was the 2nd highest of all time (humorously behind Carlos Silva of all people).
            In the end, none of this mattered.  The talent around Lee & Hernandez fell apart in spectacular fashion.  The Mariners would go on to trade him once again to the Rangers at the trading deadline, in another disastrous trade (which isn’t being featured here because it was merely a rental) featuring them getting a rapist (Josh Leuke) back in return. 
            All in all, Cliff Lee had a very strange 18 months, when you think about it.
Verdict – Win for the Mariners

Date – 2009, December 16th
Player Traded - Roy Halladay
Teams – Tor to Phi
Traded for – Travid d’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, & Michael Taylor
Contract Assumed – 1 Year // $20M
Contract Signed – 3 Years // $60M
Result –
            On the same day that the Phillies were trading away one ace in Cliff Lee, they were reloading the rotation with the pitcher considered to be he best in baseball at the time, Roy Halladay. 
        Halladay was brought on board to be a legitimate ace starter, and Doc would go on to essentially be the best pitcher in the National League for the next two seasons.  In 2010 he would lead the league in Complete Games, Shutouts, Innings, Strikeout//Walk rate and wins, and if that wasn’t impressive enough he went on to throw a no-hitter in his playoff debut. 
         The true brilliance of this trade, was that not only did the Phillies get their ace, but they only got him to sign a dramatically undermarket contract, that was only for 3 years guaranteed.  That took all the risk out of the acquisition.  In my mind this is the prototype of a deal for an ace.
Verdict – Clear win for the Phillies

Date – 2010, July 25th
Player Traded – Dan Haren
Teams – Ari to LAA
Contract Assumed – 2 Years // $25.5M – 3rd Yr Option for 15.5 (Bought out for $3.5M)
Result –
          This trade is one of the more difficult to analyse on the entire list.  At the time this trade was made, the Diamondbacks just got crucified for trading away a pitcher at the top of his game, in exchange for 3 unknown prospects, and an innings eater in Joe Saunders.  It was especially poor, when it was unveiled that the trade was mandated by new owner Ken Kennedy. 
          Now 2 and a half years later this is a much closer trade than perceived at the time.  Skaggs has emerged as a very elite prospect, who could make a major impact this season, and Corbin has already made the bigs, even if he seems destined for a bullpen or swing man role.
          However, despite Skaggs development, I still view this deal as a win for the Angels.  Down the stretch in 2010 Haren threw almost 100 IP, with a sub 3.00 ERA, as the Angels narrowly missed the playoffs.  The next year, Haren was his normal dominating self, over 230 Innings, and finishing top 10 in Cy Young balloting.
          Even despite him falling off in the final year of his contract, the two previous (especially at below market price) makes it worth the risk that Skaggs turns into a stud.
Verdict – Win for the Angels

Date – 2010, July 29th
Player Traded – Roy Oswalt
Teams – Hou to Phi
Contract Assumed – 1 Year+ // ~$20M
Result –
            In the days leading up to the 2010 trade deadline the Phillies, who had been to the last two World Series, were sitting 2.5 games back of Atlanta Braves for the division lead, and also 1 game back of the Padres for the Wild Card.  At that point, Ruben Amaro decided he needed another elite pitcher to pair with Cole Hamels & Roy Halladay.
            They found that player in Houston stalwart, Roy Oswalt.  In the 12 starts that Oswalt made down the stretch, the Phillies won 10 of them, which catapulted them over the Braves and into the division lead.  The subsequent year he was somewhat up and down, and at times derailed by a back injury, but he still provided loads of value to the a Phillies team in the middle of their mini-dynasty. 
Verdict – Win for the Phillies

Date – 2010, December 19th
Player Traded – Zack Greinke
Teams - KC to Mil
Traded with – Yuniesky Betancourt
Contract Assumed – 2 Years // $27M
Result –
            In the winter of 2010, Brewers GM Doug Melvin clearly decided that he had to maximize his team’s chances to win, given that star first baseman Prince Fielder was about to hit the open market.  Melvin decided to cash in the remaining chips in a farm system that was already looking rather poor to plug the team’s deficiency in starting pitching. 
            First he started by acquiring Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays, and followed that up less than 2 weeks later, by getting the ace he needed if the Crew was going to be legitimate contenders.  Even despite Greinke missing the first month of the season after suffering an injury playing basketball, he managed to put up a very effective season.  He went on to lead the National League in strikeouts per 9 innings, and the Brewers won 21 of the 28 starts he made that season.
        This plan worked perfectly for Melvin in every way.  In Fielder’s final season, the Brewers made the playoffs for just the 2nd time in almost 30 years, and got to the NLCS before bowing out in game 6.  The following year, with the Brewers out of contention they were able to flip him again and recoup a portion of the prospect resources they expended to get him in the first place.
Verdict – Clear win for the Brewers

Date – 2011, January 8th
Player Traded – Matt Garza
Teams – TB to CHC
Traded With – Fernando Perez
Traded for – Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer & Robinson Chirinos
Contract Assumed – Traded before his 2nd Arbitration Year.  3 Years of Control.
Result –
          At the time that Garza was acquired by the Cubs, it was a clear case of Moral Hazard.  GM Jim Hendry was coming off two very disappointing seasons, and it was fairly obvious that unless things turned around the following year Hendry would lose his job. 
         Even though none of the prospects have truly emerged yet, this trade has turned out quite poorly for both the Cubs, and Hendry himself.  The first year Garza had in Chicago, even despite him having a typically good year, the Cubs bottomed out and by the end of the year Hendry would be shown the door.
        So, despite the package that the Cubs gave up not being quite as impressive as the others listed here, because of the situation that the Cubs were in.
       This trade offers a clear lesson for teams, that timing is as important as the details of the trade being made. 
Verdict – Loss for the Cubs

Date – 2011, July 30th
Player Traded – Ubaldo Jimenez
Teams – Col to Cle
Traded for – Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Joseph Gardner & Matt McBriar
Contract Assumed – 1 Year + // $4.2M (2nd & 3rd option years for $5.75M & $8M)
Result –
            This trade had a strange smell to it the minute it was made.  The circumstances were very suspicious right from the start.  The Rockies had the rare pitcher who had proven he could be effective at altitude in Coors Field, and not only that, had him signed to an astoundingly cheap contract with just 1 more year guaranteed, but with 3 well below market value options tacked on.  When the initial reports of them shopping him came out, GM Dan O’Dowd had promised that only a “Herschel Walker type offer” would pry Ubaldo loose from the Rockies grip. 
            So when it was unveiled that the package he was traded for included just 1 prime prospect, and he was a pitcher no less (Pomeranz), to go with a prospect who’s almost certainly a reliever (White), and two total non-prospects (Gardner & McBriar) the initial reaction was that the Indians had just robbed the Rockies blind. 
            At the time the Indians acquired him, they were just 1.5 games back of the Tigers in an unlikely run at the playoffs.  The design was that Ubaldo could provide a boost to their starting pitching that year, and hopefully catch the Tigers, and then ideally for years going forward. 
            Unfortunately, none of that happened however.  From the minute Ubaldo set foot off the plane in Ohio, he was a totally different pitcher.  His velocity dipped (Over 3 MPH since his glory season in Denver), his control regressed (including leading the league in wild pitches last year), and somehow, despite leaving Coors Field, his HR rate went through the roof.
            Even though the Indians gave up a rather modest package to acquire him, there’s no way I can call this one anything but…
Verdict – Loss for the Indians

Date – 2011, December 17th
Player Traded - Mat Latos
Teams – SD to Cin
Traded for – Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso, Brad Boxberger, & Edinson Volquez
Contract Assumed – Traded before eligible for arbitration
Result –
          Coming into 2012, it was fairly obvious that the Reds were going to make a trade.  They had two surplus assets that had significant value, but were blocked on the roster.  The first was 1B Yonder Alonso, who was Major League ready, but blocked by 2010 MVP Joey Votto.  The other was one of their two elite catching prospects, Devin Mesoraco (ranked 24th by BP), or Yasmani Grandal (ranked 38).  They just needed to decide which.
           The player they decided to target was Mat Latos from the Padres, and he was a player who came with some red flags.  He'd dealt with some shoulder issues the past year, which always concerns you more than elbow problems, and he was also pitching in PETCO park, which can disguise an average pitcher as great. 
         In his first season Latos put a good deal of those fears to bed.  He made all 33 starts up and successfully transitioned to Great American Ballpark (posting a 3.85 FIP).  He slotted in nicely behind Johnny Cueto on a Reds rotation that led them to the playoffs.  Also as a cherry on top, Latos is both controlled long term (2 more years) and inexpensive (only first year arbitration eligible. 
           The one aspect you could criticise the Reds for, is choosing the wrong catcher to keep.  Mesoraco was the higher regarded coming up as a prospect, but struggled in his first exposure to major leaguie pitching, posting a sub .300 OBP.  Grandal on the other hand, exploded out of the gate in San Diego posting both an On Base %, and Slugging % more than 100 points higher than Mesoraco did. 
         Even with the players ths Reds traded away establishing themselves the acquisition of a young anchor in their rotation makes this a...
Verdict – Win for the Reds (at this point)

Date – 2011, December 23rd
Player Traded – Gio Gonzalez
Teams – Oak to Was
Traded For – Derek Norris, Tom Milone, AJ Griffin, & Brad Peacock
Traded With – Robert Gilliam
Contract Assumed – Traded final year before arbitration
Contract Signed – 5 Yrs // $42 M (Bought out all Arbitration years & 2 FA years)
Result –
          Before the Nationals made this trade, they were seen as fringe contenders behind the Phillies, and Braves.  Gonzalez immediately gave them a complement at the top of their rotation along side youngsters Jordan Zimmermann, and Steven Strasburg.  In his first year in the nations capital Gonzalez achieved everything Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Nationals front office could've hoped.  He led the National League in K/9, and finished 3rd in Cy Young voting. 
        However the real brilliance of this trade is that this is as much a play for the long run, than just a move for now.  The Nationals control Gio for four more years after this one (ostensibly his entire prime, ages 27-31) for less than 40 million.  After seeing the prices being paid for pitching this offseason, thats looking even more attractive than it did when it was signed.
       While the package the Nats paid included some very impressive pieces, none of them will really be missed.  Derek Norris has a chance to be an above average catcher, but the Nats seems set behind the plate foe years to come with Wilson Ramos, and the 3 pitchers vary in quality, but with Gio, Strasburg, and Zimmermann atop the rotation, they can probably afford to give away pitching.
Verdict – Clear win for the Nationals

Final Tally -
10 Wins – 71%
3 Losses – 21%

Final Thoughts -
        I came into this project without preconcieved notion of where it would lead me.  I assumed that since pitchers are such a unpredictable when it comes to both performance, and injuries, that trading for then would be about as risky as they come. 
       Coming out of it, I'm frankly stunned by the results.  Having a 70% success rate is impressive enough as it is, but I can make the case that all 3 of the losses was largely because the acquiring team wasn't in correct position to take advantage. 
       This clearly isn't the most scientific of studies, and it isnt the largest of sample size, but I know that going forward I'll certainly think longer and harder about criticising similar trades going forward.

Post script: This piece is a bit of a departure for me, and as you've just read, is considerably longer than most pieces both by me, and on this site.  I'd be very eager to read feedback, as to whether you like this approach, or any other thoughts you have on the piece.

As always you can follow me on Twitter @Mentoch, or reach me via Email -
Leave your comments below!


  1. I really don't like the approach taken in assessing the winner of the Halladay trade - that trade was a clear win/win, where the Jays traded 1 season of Halladay for a very good haul of prospects, while the Phillies gained a lot of their value in the trade on the condition that an extension was reached. That trade is a prototypical case of win/win for both teams, and I don't really think either team really came out on top because of it.

    1. I clearly state in the open that by calling the trade a win for the Phillies, in no way am I saying that the Blue Jays lost the trade. Many of these trades are clear win/win trades. The purpose of this article was just to analyse the trades from the perspective of the team acquiring said pitcher.

    2. Continuing from Ewan said...Because that's the position the Jays are in right now

  2. Very interesting and well-written article, although I thought bringing up Josh Lueke's history as a rapist was unnecessary.

  3. Wow. So today, you would trade a catcher that looks likely to post a WAR of around 5, a 1B capable of at least a WAR of 1 (possibly 2), a serviceable #3 pitcher ... all for a #2 pitcher? Oh by the way, I get to control the 1B and C for a lot longer than the #2 pitcher.

    I had to re-read that several times just to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding your points.

    How do I get you to become the Atlanta Braves GM?

  4. thanks! great read... love the trade anyways...
    We already have a stud back catcher...
    Sad to see Noah go, but once Drybeck is healthy no one will care (kyle is a better pitcher)

    1. A stud back catcher? Are you referring to JPA? In what sense, and on what baseball field is he a stud save for his near model good looks?

  5. As a Mets' fan, I was distraught to see Dickey go and truly can't understand the press saying Alderson did well in the trade. Yes, I understand catching and pitching prospects are valuable, but has it not been proven that a #1 pitcher is the single most valuable commodity in baseball? How about a #1 pitcher who is being paid like Jeremy Guthrie?

    If you want to go back further, the only other trade that comes out as a win for the team giving up the stud pitcher was when the Indians traded Colon to the Expos for Lee (again!), Phillips and Sizemore.

  6. yes, let's review prospects 6 months out and determine the winner of a trade outright. fucking idiot

    1. None of this is about the prospects being given up. Its about how this has worked for the teams acquiring the pitcher.

      Thanks for the kind words tho.

    2. Great article. I would like to add to the many encouraging voices, but also point out small errors. The final tally should be 77% vs. 23%, yes? Not the most critical detail but I may as well provide something constructive.

  7. Interesting read, I guess the saying whoever gets the best player in a trade wins applies here!

  8. You are too quick to judge some of the trades, ie GIO GONZALEZ and MAT LATOS!!

    So far these are a draw at best. Both are very close to having the opposite team win the trade. San Diego received a 4/5 starter, a future closer, a starting first basemen, and a starting catcher for a #2 starter. PADRE WIN!!! and BIG!!!

    Oakland may have claim to a win here as well. future starting catcher, #2 starter, and 2 projectable minor league starters.

    Ladies and Gents Billy Beane knows what he is doing!!!

  9. Dude fantastic article. Would love to see you do the 5 years previous to 2008.

  10. Interesting article. For the teams trading for a star pitcher (ala the Jays for Dickey) it is year 1/2 that matters not what happens in years 3 and beyond (normally). Pitchers are fickle and so are prospects. Even the top 10 from Baseball America each year have a significant failure rate (over 40% iirc) and for pitchers who are below the top 30 it goes up to a 70% failure rate (forget where the article was, but it makes sense if you've been following those things for a couple decades).

    This is stuff I was thinking would be worth digging into, thanks for saving me the time :)