The Chaotic Logic of the Hot Stove Sends a Premier Prospect Out of Arizona

Trevor BauerThe Reds, Indians, and Diamondbacks pulled off a nine-player trade, one that improved two teams’ fortunes and raised dozens of questions about the third.

Here’s a breakdown of the deal from each team’s perspective:

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Traded: Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw, and Matt Albers
Received: Didi Gregorius, Tony Sipp, and Lars Anderson

For the second time in three days, a top prospect changed teams. The first such deal, Kansas City’s swap of Wil Myers to the Rays as part of a six-player trade that netted James Shields, drew waves of criticism in baseball circles; even if the Royals’ intentions made some sense, their methods were puzzling, and failed to consider other avenues. Compared to Arizona giving up on Trevor Bauer 18 months after drafting him third overall, the Royals’ move looks supremely rational.

In trading Bauer, the Diamondbacks gave up on baseball’s no. 9 prospect coming into this season. A standout at UCLA alongside fellow staff ace (now Pirates top prospect) Gerrit Cole, Bauer broke into pro ball with mixed results. In his seven-start minor league debut in 2011, Bauer fanned 43 batters in just 25⅔ innings … but also allowed 27 hits and 12 walks, struggling with his command. That spotty debut was mitigated by the small sample size of his performance, and the fact that he jumped to high Single-A ball upon his debut, an aggressive move for a pitcher immediately after being drafted. Bauer’s 2012 was a different story. Promoted to Double-A Mobile to start the year, he blazed through that level, tossing eight dominating starts and earning a quick promotion to Triple-A. There, pitching in the hitter’s haven that is the Pacific Coast League, Bauer stomped on the competition. All told, he posted the following minor league stats for 2012: 130⅓ innings pitched, 157 strikeouts, 107 hits, 61 walks, nine home runs allowed, and a 2.42 ERA in 22 starts.

Eventually, he got promoted to the major leagues — and things got ugly in a hurry. Bauer’s walk rate soared to 7.2 free passes per nine innings. His ERA ballooned to 6.06. More than that, he infuriated people in the organization with his approach to training. As Baseball America’s Ben Badler noted in his writeup of the trade:

Why did the Diamondbacks trade him? The relationship between team and pitcher deteriorated quickly. Bauer has worked out his own throwing and training program for years, and the Diamondbacks have said publicly they did not feel he was receptive to making changes they suggested.

Time for a little background: Bauer has always been unique, both in how he pitches and how he trains. At UCLA, he would routinely throw 120-, even 130-plus pitches per start, with exceptional results. He had raw, natural talent, of course. But Bauer was also an avid long-tosser. He devoured video, and worked tirelessly to perfect his pitch sequencing. He eschewed the weight room in favor of resistance training. In short, everything he did, from his between-start routines to his in-game workloads, varied dramatically from the way most big league clubs handle their pitchers. Bauer was smart and opinionated. He knew that baseball history was littered with pitchers whose arms had blown up after being conditioned through traditional means. And he had years of evidence on his side, suggesting his methods were working. If someone wanted to scrap the way he did things, there was a good chance conflict would ensue.

This wasn’t a secret to anyone, certainly not the team that drafted him third overall, handing him a four-year, $4.4 million major league deal with a $3.4 million signing bonus in the process. But recognizing a potential conflict in theory and experiencing it later in practice are two very different things. Bauer didn’t respond well to coaches’ instructions, especially in the minors. Once in the majors, he bickered with his catcher Miguel Montero over pitch selection. It was going to take work to manage this relationship, even in a best-case scenario.

The Diamondbacks were flush with pitching prospects, so much so that they had more viable candidates for Opening Day rotation jobs than they did available spots in said rotation. They had holes to fill elsewhere on the roster, holes that could be plugged with a well-placed trade or two. And here was Bauer, clashing with teammates and management in a way that fellow pitching prospects Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin were not, while getting crushed in his exposure to the big leagues. When the shortstop-starved DBacks saw a chance to acquire a young, promising shortstop in exchange for Bauer, they pulled the trigger.

There’s a good chance they will deeply regret this move over time, for many reasons.

Start with Bauer’s immense talent. Forget the stats for a second. Here’s Badler’s scouting report from the same Baseball America piece:

Bauer’s fastball is a plus pitch that sits in the low-90s and touches 96, while his curveball is a wipeout offering that earns 70 grades on the 20-80 scale from some scouts. He rounds out his repertoire with a splitter, a slider and a changeup, all of which could be average or better pitches. Bauer does need better command, which got him into trouble once he reached Arizona, but his delivery is fine and he should be able to make improvements in that area.

Does this profile sound familiar? It should. The list of talented pitching prospects who struggled with command in the minors and early in their major league careers, then gone on to great success later, runs a mile long. Tom Glavine was terrible when he broke into the Show. Greg Maddux was worse. Randy Johnson couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. We’re not suggesting for a second that Bauer be compared to that trio of future Hall of Famers — only that very talented pitchers who struggle with the strike zone can, and often do, get fixed. The DBacks had concerns about Jarrod Parker’s strike-throwing ability, too. A year ago, they traded him to the A’s, and he immediately flourished, and now projects as a front-line pitcher who’ll offer five years of team control for a team that isn’t Arizona. And if we’re going to keep going with comps, baseball history is stuffed with pitchers who were supremely stubborn and supremely talented who went on to stardom (Pedro Martinez) and pitchers who succeeded despite not being well-liked teammates (Johnson). Again, you don’t compare anyone to a top-five all-time pitcher like those two. But you do try to learn lessons from past precedents.

Speaking of past precedents, the Diamondbacks were starving for a solution at shortstop as soon as the 2012 season ended. And they found one. Reaching out to the A’s again, Arizona traded starting center fielder Chris Young to Oakland as part of a three-way swap that netted Cliff Pennington, along with Heath Bell and cash. Pennington is one of the worst everyday hitters in the game, posting an ugly .245/.307/.352 line over the past three seasons. But he’s also an excellent fielder who can run, making him a useful (if limited) player overall. When Didi Gregorius grows up, he has a chance to become Cliff Pennington. The 22-year-old shortstop is also an excellent fielder. But he is, to put it lightly, an unimposing hitter. In 1,909 minor league plate appearances, Gregorius hit .271/.323/.376. He has minimal power, rarely walks, doesn’t even steal bases particularly well, with 40 steals in 70 minor league attempts. But Gregorius’s glove is so good that it might well be enough to cement him as an everyday shortstop in the big leagues; Brendan Ryan hit .194 with a .555 OPS in 2012, and he was still roughly a two-win player, because he’s phenomenal defensively. But you don’t trade a potential no. 1 starter for Cliff Pennington or Brendan Ryan, not even if you can get six years of Cliff Pennington or Brendan Ryan. The Diamondbacks obviously think a lot more of Gregorius, with GM Kevin Towers saying that his new shortstop’s performance in the Arizona Fall League reminded him of a young Derek Jeter. Towers is the only one who feels this way. Whether going by stats, scouting reports, or prospect rankings, Gregorius doesn’t blow anyone else away.

You can piece together bits of good news if you look hard enough. Arizona finding a shortstop (again) means they probably won’t trade Justin Upton, after months of efforts to do so. Reports suggest the DBacks viewed Bauer as their third-best pitching prospect, so in their minds you could reason that keeping Skaggs and Corbin (and Upton) and still landing a shortstop they wanted is a win. You can’t discount the concept of information asymmetry either: We have Bauer’s stats and scouting report at our fingertips, but the DBacks might see flaws in him that aren’t immediately obvious to trading partners, let alone the masses.

But that’s being generous. The Diamondbacks publicly aired their grievances with Bauer, which surely lowered his trade value. They sold low on a highly regarded prospect soon after spending a very high draft pick and a lot of money on him. In less than two months, they’ve traded an All-Star center fielder and a potential pitching stud for two banjo-hitting shortstops. The DBacks did well to nab Brandon McCarthy’s potential on an affordable two-year deal, and Eric Chavez on a cheap one-year contract. But when we look back at this winter’s shopping, we’ll probably remember their desperate search for a shortstop … and how it went badly wrong.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Traded: Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Donald, Tony Sipp, and Lars Anderson
Received: Trevor Bauer, Drew Stubbs, Bryan Shaw, and Matt Albers

Every negative element of the Diamondbacks selling low on Bauer can be flipped to the positive for the Indians. Cleveland did give up a very good player in Choo. But they got six years of team control on Bauer for one on Choo, with a good-defense, good-speed, moderate-power, terrible-on-base center fielder in Stubbs thrown in for good measure. More Badler on Bauer:

Much has been made of Bauer’s struggles this past season in the major leagues — all 16⅓ innings of them — for a guy who dominated the minor leagues and has frontline stuff. Bauer excelled in Triple-A, averaged 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors and has the upside of a No. 1 starter, a guy who could annually rank among the league leaders in strikeouts and contend for a Cy Young award.

As we noted in our discussion of the Wil Myers deal, it’s a given that prospects are far from a sure thing. But if you look at every decision in terms of a range of probabilities, this is a trade that a young, rebuilding team like Cleveland had to make. Hell, they even kept power-hitting shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, after months of rumors that he had to go if the Tribe were to acquire the young pitching help they craved. Choo could hit like Willie Stargell for a year and this trade would have a good chance of being a huge win for the Indians. That’s the kind of potential that Bauer offers.

CINCINNATI REDS

Traded: Didi Gregorius and Drew Stubbs
Received: Shin-Soo Choo and Jason Donald

Via Twitter, Baseball Prospectus’s Sam Miller passes along the following two tidbits:

• Shin-Soo Choo and Josh Hamilton posted the same OPS+ over the past five seasons (and Choo is a year younger).
• Reds leadoff hitters delivered a collective on-base percentage of .254 last year.

Slap some caveats on those two factoids, including Choo’s most recent two seasons being far less impressive than the previous three, and the Reds managing just fine with their cavalcade of leadoff outmakers in 2012, if 97 wins are any indication. But in Choo, Cincinnati adds an excellent lefty bat and on-base threat who rounds out a dynamic lineup. The Reds figure to trot out something like this next season:

CF Choo
2B Phillips
1B Votto
LF Ludwick
RF Bruce
3B Frazier
C Hanigan/Mesoraco
SS Cozart

That’s a strong starting eight. You’ve got youth and upside in the bottom four of the order; stellar defense at first, second, and short; power, speed, lefty/righty balance, the works. The bench looks good, too, with the capable Donald joining Chris Heisey and half of the catching timeshare as viable threats in reserve. Then you’ve got the starting rotation, which ranked fifth in the majors in ERA in 2012, with the top five starters making every start but one for the season. That core will be joined by Aroldis Chapman and his otherworldly stuff next year, adding a potential star and creating a surplus of capable starters, something about 27 other teams would kill to have.

If you look hard enough, you can find a few potential red flags. The most obvious question: Who’ll play center field? Choo’s started just 10 games in center during his eight-year major league career, Jay Bruce just 35; whichever one of those two gets the nod will be a significant defensive downgrade from the departed Drew Stubbs. Joey Votto’s expected to be ready for spring training, but you’d like to see his knee injury heal sooner rather than later. Chapman is a huge wild card, owning a 100-mph fastball and nightmare-inducing slider, but also lacking experience in a big league rotation, with some questions over whether his stuff can hold up for six, seven, or eight innings an outing. Gregorius’s departure, combined with other recent trades involving prospects and the graduation of young players like Mesoraco and Frazier to the majors, means that the Reds now own one of baseball’s thinnest farm systems. Plus there are the usual concerns over regression and injuries after a fairly healthy and wildly successful 97-win season.

But the overall outlook is hugely positive. Heisey should spot for Choo as a late-inning defensive replacement and occasional caddy against lefty pitchers, with record-breaking base-stealer Billy Hamilton slated to seize the starting center field job for 2014 and beyond. The lack of other farm system reinforcements is more than offset by a young, cost-controlled core, one that has all eight lineup positions locked up through at least 2014 (counting Hamilton) and Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Chapman, and Mike Leake secured through 2015 (with Homer Bailey controlled through 2014). The Reds have even shown a willingness to pay top dollar for star talent, which bodes well for addressing future needs and retaining more key players.

The Dodgers get a ton of attention for their frenzied spending and big-name roster. The Nationals have a loaded pitching staff, Bryce Harper, and an excellent supporting cast. The Giants have won two of the past three World Series. The Reds could hang with all of these teams, and any other NL contender, next season.


Finally, a few words about Kevin Youkilis in pinstripes: The non-analytical take is that it’ll look damn weird, with a Red Sox fan favorite heading to the Bronx. But you’ll need a lot of fingers to count the members of the World Series-winning 2004 Sox team that went on to play for the Yanks. Youkilis joins Johnny Damon, Derek Lowe, Doug Mientkiewicz, Mike Myers, Alan Embree, and Mark Bellhorn in that distinction.

As for Youkilis’s one-year, $12 million deal with the Yankees, it’s in keeping with their new, fiscally disciplined approach, which has them determined to keep the 2014 payroll under $189 million, thereby realizing a potential cost savings of about $40 million. Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda all re-signed on one-year deals with that luxury tax savings in mind, and Ichiro Suzuki figures to do so shortly.

So will Youkilis be worth the money? The third-base market was barren, with few viable options in free agency and even fewer via trade. So, in that respect, any able body was welcome, given Alex Rodriguez’s hip injury could keep him out for a good chunk of next season, maybe even permanently hinder his ability to play third base. Youkilis very well might not be an able body, though. Plagued by a variety of injuries (hip, back, knee, hernia) over the past three years, he’s averaged just 115 games per year in that span. His mobility has been zapped, to the point where he’s likely to be one of the worst defensive third basemen in the league for as long as he mans the position in New York. And while he can still show flashes with the bat, a soon-to-be-34-year-old, injury-ridden Youkilis is a far cry from the beast who posted three straight wOBAs over .400 from 2008 through 2010.

You make the move because there’s nothing else out there, and because it doesn’t mess with your payroll plans. But Youkilis is going to get a lot more media attention than a player of his diminished ability would normally command, because he’s a Yankee who was once a beloved member of the Red Sox. He’s probably not going to make a huge difference in next year’s pennant race, one way or another.

Filed Under: Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Kevin Youkilis, MLB, New York Yankees

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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