Cardinals Improve by Adding Lackey, Subtracting Craig.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Wondering if the Cardinals felt good about Michael Wacha‘s shoulder or Shelby Miller‘s general existence? Wonder no more, because less than 24 hours after picking up Justin Masterson from Cleveland, they’ve now added John Lackey from Boston, for the not-insignificant price of Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.
Yesterday morning, the St. Louis rotation looked something like this:
Carlos Martinez / Marco Gonzales
Now, it’s potentially a bit more like this:
Miller / Martinez
Is that better? It’s certainly different.
Lackey, of course, has experienced something of a career rebirth after an awful 2011 and lost 2012 in Boston, providing 326.2 innings of 3.55 ERA / 3.74 FIP (and almost six WAR) since the start of 2013. Kelly, over the same time period, has missed nearly three months with a hamstring injury and given 159 innings of 3.06 ERA / 3.99 FIP baseball; he is, of course, nearly a decade younger and can’t be a free agent until 2019.
Since returning from that injury, he’s been awful, allowing at least four earned runs in three of his four starts. Long-term, there’s at least a chance that he’s a relief pitcher, since he doesn’t miss a ton of bats despite throwing hard, doesn’t have elite control, and absolutely requires a solid defense behind him in order to turn his grounders into outs. He’s a useful young pitcher, to be sure, but in an organization as full of young pitching as the Cardinals are, he’s not someone you can’t live without.
Were this simply “which pitcher is more likely to help the Cardinals this year,” it’s Lackey, pretty clearly, though perhaps only by about one WAR, which is the difference in their projections. Is that worth it? Maybe it is, because the Cardinals are 2.5 games out in the NL Central, yet in third place. The playoff odds have the Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates as all pretty even odds to win the division, and you can argue that with Milwaukee having played terribly this month, St. Louis sees themselves as the favorites.
If one extra win not only gets the Cards from being out to being in, but from being in the one-game playoff to being a division winner, then yes, getting a single extra win is absolutely worth it — and they also get the benefit of Lackey’s insanely valuable $500,000 contract for 2015, though it seems likely they’ll need to work something out with him rather than have him actually pitch for that amount. (For those unfamiliar, the Red Sox added a clause saying they’d get an extra year of Lackey for that price if he missed time with elbow surgery, which he of did.) If you buy into “playoff experience,” well, Lackey has that too, winning titles with the Red Sox last year and with the Angels in 2002.
Of course, it’s not just Lackey for Kelly straight-up, because the Red Sox also get Craig, one of the NL’s better hitters over the last three seasons, but who has been a total disaster this year. Craig has $26.5m guaranteed through 2017, is already 30, and has been absolutely atrocious this season. (81 wRC+, -0.4 WAR.) This can’t be seen as anything but an indication that the Cardinals considered his woes all but unfixable, and didn’t want to spend real money on a player who was contributing nothing, so it’s maybe also less that the Red Sox “get” Craig than it is the Cardinals don’t have to deal with him.
So when that math is factored in, Craig actually moves to the other side of the equation. The trade is really something more like:
Cardinals get 1.5 years of Lackey, $1.75m, 2013 fifth-round P Corey Littrell and the luxury of not paying Craig
Red Sox get Kelly and the prayer of finding 2011-13 Craig
Which is valuable, really. The Cardinals have a better rotation than they did yesterday, and they may have improved their offense — 17th with a 99 non-pitcher wRC+ — by subtraction, no longer needing to play Craig in the hopes that he’d rebound. Now, the Cardinals have opened up room for top prospect Oscar Taveras, who had been kicking around on the big league bench recently. There’s no guarantee that Taveras contributes, of course; he hasn’t yet, and Dave laid out nicely why he’s a risky player. If he doesn’t step up, then Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos (or someone like Randal Grichuk) are suddenly both starting outfielders, which isn’t a great situation, but again, Craig wasn’t getting the job done, either. The offense they get out of right field from here on out almost certainly can’t be less than it was before.
There’s also this: in the playoffs, in a short series, Martinez probably goes back to the bullpen. If Wacha can make it back this season, maybe he’s best utilized as a short reliever. Trevor Rosenthal is still there. Seth Maness and Pat Neshek are still there, and Randy Choate and Sam Freeman and Gonzales and Kevin Siegrist, too. A big part of last year’s postseason success was that bullpen, and that had been lessened somewhat this year by having some of those guys in the rotation. Now, they can move back, and that ripple effect improves the entire staff.
If Craig bounces back in Boston, this is going to look bad, that they gave up on him after four lousy months after several quality seasons. But it’s hard to look at Craig right now and think that he’s going to be the key part of a Cardinals team that badly wants to get another ring for aging players like Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday while they still have time. Lackey makes them more likely to win this year than Kelly does, and is probably more valuable in 2015 as well. Not having Craig makes them more likely to win than having Craig does. A huge part of this depends on what Taveras does, of course, but that’s unavoidable. This is one of those trades that seemed shocking at first, but the more you think about it, the more it makes plenty of sense for both sides.
The Red Sox Second Trade Affirms 2015 Focus.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
An hour ago, we posted Paul Swydan’s review of the Jon Lester/Yoenis Cespedes swap from the Red Sox perspective, noting that Boston chose a shorter term big leaguer over a deal for prospects who were likely going to be several years off. And now, they’ve made a second deal — shipping John Lackey to the Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly — that reaffirms that this is not a team looking to do any kind of rebuild.
This one isn’t quite as straight forward as the Lester-for-Cespedes deal, since that was a rental for not-a-rental, while the Red Sox could have held onto Lackey for 2015 due to the clause in his contract that gave the Red Sox a league minimum option on his deal due to his 2011 Tommy John surgery. However, there was legitimate concern that Lackey wouldn’t actually pitch for the league minimum next year, and given that he’ll be 36 in a few months, he had some leverage in the form of retirement. If Lackey really didn’t want to take the mound for the same salary as some guy from Triple-A, he could have walked away, leaving the Red Sox to either give him a raise/extension or to get nothing for the option.
That makes Lackey a very difficult asset to value, because we really don’t know what he’s going to cost for the next few years. The most reasonable outcome seems like some kind of short-term extension at below market rates that doesn’t offend him, so maybe something like 2/$20M keeps him on the field. But this is all speculative; we don’t actually have any idea what the Cardinals are going to pay Lackey next year. I’d bet it won’t be $500,000, though.
By moving Lackey now, the Red Sox dump that uncertainty, and get a starting pitcher in return who doesn’t have a say in how much he makes next year. 2015 will be Kelly’s final pre-arbitration year, and so he’ll make whatever the Red Sox decide he’s going to make, which will likely be something in the $500,000 range. In exchange for a guy who might pitch at the league minimum, the Red Sox got a guy who definitely will, and then they’ll control for three years beyond that.
Of course, Kelly isn’t as good as John Lackey, so this is a downgrade in talent, and the cost savings of dumping whatever Lackey might have demanded will now have to be reallocated to Allen Craig, who also is coming to Boston in this trade. So your opinion of this deal might very well hinge on what you think of Craig’s ability to bounce back and become something close to the player he was the last three years.
For two and a half years, Craig was one of the best hitters in baseball; this year, he’s been one of the worst. His power has disappeared, as he’s stopped pulling the ball with authority, which has sunk both his ISO and his BABIP. As an aggressive hitter who doesn’t walk much, he absolutely has to hit for power to be useful, and the 2014 version of Craig has been pretty terrible.
Theoretically, Fenway Park should be the perfect place for Craig to get his career back on track. A line drive right-handed pull guy who can bounce balls off the Green Monster? This is a recipe that has worked wonders before. But Craig hasn’t been a line drive pull guy this year, and if he keeps hitting the ball to right center, the park isn’t going to do him any favors. If the Red Sox think his issues are fixable, and he can get back to being the Allen Craig of prior years, then this is a pretty big win for Boston.
But it’s certainly a gamble, and one that is going to require some trade-offs for the Red Sox to explore. After all, Craig should probably be a first baseman or a designated hitter, but Boston already has Mike Napoli and David Ortiz. The team has had success putting limited range guys in left field before — hello, Manny — but they play on the road too, and Craig’s defensive issues and offensive question marks likely make him a downgrade from any of Cespedes, Jackie Bradley Jr, or a healthy Shane Victorino. It’s not even clear that Craig-as-an-LF is dramatically better than Daniel Nava, and he’s probably worse than Mookie Betts next year.
In some ways, Craig is a great fit for Boston. In other ways, he doesn’t fit at all, but the Sox have plenty of time to sort this out before next spring. Maybe they’ll just shut Victorino down for the year and tell him to get healthy for next year, then shop him, Craig, or Cespedes to a team looking for a right-handed bat this winter. Or maybe they’ll trade Betts to a team that would rather use him as a second baseman. Or maybe Craig will continue to look completely broken even in Fenway, and he’ll just take Mike Carp‘s role as reserve 1B/DH.
The Red Sox are in asset collection mode. Joe Kelly is a pretty nifty asset to collect, and Allen Craig is a lottery ticket who might be good, might be terrible, or might not last very long in Boston. There’s no way of knowing what the 2015 Red Sox are going to look like, but they’re doing a nice job of giving themselves options. Their current pieces don’t all fit together, but they’ve got another eight months to figure out who should stay and who should go.
The idea of a league minimum John Lackey would have been nice too, but if you believe that Lackey wasn’t going to play along, this is a much cleaner way to have a cheap starting pitcher and some upside beyond. And if part of the pitch to Jon Lester is that the team is going to get back on the winning track next year, trading for guys he’s heard of probably doesn’t hurt either.
Sam Fuld and Completing the A’s.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
I’m going to tell you something you’re not going to like. You’re going to think this is stupid, and you’re going to want to dismiss this as rubbish, but, I mean, let’s just get right to the point. If nothing else, this is where we’ll start. Early Thursday, the A’s gave up Yoenis Cespedes and more for Jon Lester and more. A little later Thursday, the A’s gave up Tommy Milone for Sam Fuld. Losing Cespedes opened up a spot in the outfield; adding Fuld plugged it. Here is a fun fact:
Cespedes: 2.9 WAR / 600 plate appearances
Fuld: 2.5 WAR / 600 plate appearances
Obviously, Cespedes has a thousand times more natural talent. Obviously, Cespedes has more potential and a higher ceiling. Obviously, Cespedes is younger. Obviously, that’s a little deceptive because Fuld has spent a lot of time as a defensive replacement. Obviously, we can trust the defensive metrics only so much, and obviously, Cespedes is the more marketable player since he has some of the purest right-handed power in the sport. But here is the general message: Sam Fuld is not far and away an inferior overall player, compared to Yoenis Cespedes. At least, they’re somewhat close. And this year, specifically this year, Fuld’s been worth the same WAR in a fraction of the time. So you can see why the A’s are happy to get Fuld back, a few months after designating him for assignment.
That’s the funny bit here. The A’s already had Fuld for free, and they dumped him. To get him back, they’ve had to give up a cost-controlled starting pitcher. So, the Twins got Fuld for free after the A’s dropped him, and they flipped him for a classic Twins-style starter. In that sense, this looks kind of stupid on Oakland’s part, but circumstances are always changing and, before, there wasn’t room for Fuld. Before, it wasn’t clear Fuld would even be a contributor. And we can say this: Fuld isn’t joining an altogether unfamiliar clubhouse. He’s going to be welcomed back.
What we know with a high degree of certainty is that Fuld isn’t much of an impact hitter. He’s been about 13% worse than average since breaking into the bigs, with good discipline but almost zero power. He’s a guy who hits like a middle infielder, sharing more in common with Barry Zito at the plate than Miguel Cabrera, but he isn’t valuable because of his offense — the A’s, it would appear, are big believes in Fuld’s defensive instincts and range. Which is understandable, since:
Fuld’s been a perfectly adequate defensive center fielder, and he’s been an outstanding defensive corner outfielder. He has just enough bat to hang around in a lineup, and he’s versatile and unlikely to complain if he isn’t playing every day. He has a similar profile to Craig Gentry, so that’s evidence the A’s like this player type, but that’s another thing: there was some urgency here, because Cespedes was dealt, and Gentry is currently injured, and Coco Crisp is also fighting something that’s keeping him down. Crisp’s been bothered by a neck problem, and this is from John Shea:
Crisp was hurt May 7 running into the Coliseum outfield wall and making contact with a metal post instead of the padding, leaving him with whiplash. The A’s are considering options to deal with the condition, including medication. Crisp might not fully recover until the offseason.
“I think we’ve all come to the realization it’s something he’s going to battle throughout the season,” [trainer Nick] Paparesta said.
So Fuld is both a potential starter and certain insurance. The A’s aren’t sure how healthy their outfield is, and Josh Reddick is always a candidate to need another trip to the disabled list. Fuld’s healthy and he can play everywhere, providing for the A’s some flexibility they’ve lost due to injury problems.
Fuld obviously isn’t a great player, and while he has another two years of team control coming up, he turns 33 in November. It’s a particularly unsexy kind of win-now move, but the cost wasn’t exorbitant — the cost was a low-ceiling starter who’s preferred a trade since getting buried on the depth chart. By sending Tommy Milone to the Twins, the A’s are losing future value, but they’re losing nothing as far as 2014 is concerned, and Milone isn’t exactly the irreplaceable sort.
The big benefit for Minnesota: they turned an unnecessary piece into three years of a strike-throwing starter with arbitration eligibility. In Triple-A, Milone has generated a laughable 187 strikeouts and 26 walks. He hasn’t duplicated those numbers in the majors, and he presumably never will, but he owns an average career ERA with decent peripherals. Ricky Nolasco owns a worse-than-average career ERA and the Twins gave him $49 million. The greatest surplus value comes from young stars under team control, but young role players can still get paid less than they’d be worth as free agents, so there’s a future purpose here.
Milone’s lost a bit of his underwhelming fastball. This season has been his worst season yet, and in a brief stint in Triple-A he hasn’t thrown many strikes. Maybe that’s just frustration with being there in the first place. Clearly, Milone’s stock is down relative to where it was several months ago, but every team in baseball would grab Milone if he were available for free. He was available to the Twins in exchange for a 32-year-old defensive specialist, which is basically free as far as a rebuilding franchise is concerned. The Twins didn’t have much of a use for Fuld. The found the team that might value him the most. Milone might not help very much in 2016, but Fuld was never going to, so it’s a perfectly worthwhile roll of the dice.
Everything works out, then. Milone wanted a change of scenery, and he landed with the organization that most values his kind of skillset. The Twins got a potential longer-term starter in exchange for an aging outfielder they picked up for nothing. The A’s addressed a need with a versatile player who complements the rest of the roster. And now Fuld gets to play an important stretch-run role on probably the best team in baseball. The year is 2014, and the Red Sox are selling, and the A’s are a juggernaut, and Sam Fuld is an Oakland outfield regular. You might’ve heard that you can’t predict baseball. Billy Beane understands that as much as anyone, but he’s never before had odds so strong in his favor. Next year is Future Beane’s problem. This year’s about winning the World Series, with Jon Lester, and Jeff Samardzija, and Sam Fuld.
Red Sox Focus on 2015 in Jon Lester Trade.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Breaking up is hard to do. Jon Lester is without a doubt one of the 10 best pitchers in Boston Red Sox history. Since he returned to full-time duty with the Sox in 2008, he made 80 more starts than any other Red Sox pitcher. He was one of three players still around from the 2007 World Series championship team. Trading him is going to sting in a way that hasn’t stung for Red Sox fans since Manny Ramirez was traded, or depending on your feelings towards Ramirez, since Nomar Garciaparra was traded. But this wasn’t a typical trade, and getting Yoenis Cespedes back in return for Lester and throw-in Jonny Gomes does take some of the sting out of this deal, and signals to the Sox fan base that they aren’t looking to rebuild.
Cespedes is the power bat the Red Sox have been coveting. It was the one thing, as Buster Olney noted this morning, that isn’t really plentiful in their otherwise stacked farm system. His powerful bat, combined with good defense, makes him a player that really isn’t going to be available on the free-agent market this winter either. Giancarlo Stanton wishcasting has been a thing in Boston for some time, but in order to land Stanton, the Sox would have hard to part with enough prospects that it would have been close to a zero-sum return. They didn’t exactly get the next-best thing — Stanton ranks eighth in isolated power this season, while Cespedes ranks 27th — but considering what they had to give up, it might as well have been. It’s only for one year, as thanks to the contract he signed, Cespedes must be non-tendered, so there will be no compensation pick if he hits free agency after the 2015 season.
And he might just land in free agency. While Cespedes is a solid player, who is a great fit for Boston’s needs as well as being perfectly suited for Fenway Park — careful if you’re driving on the Mass Pike during Sox games for the foreseeable future — he has never quite achieved the promise of his rookie season. As a 26-year-old, he stormed into the American League and posted a 137 wRC+, which was 21st-best in baseball that season. It wasn’t enough for him to take home Rookie of the Year honors, as some guy named Mike Trout happened, but the three-win campaign whetted appetites for more to come. Cespedes had only suited up for 129 games in his rookie season. Given a full season of play, it looked like he had a chance to be a four-win player.
Last year, Cespedes got six games closer to that full year of play, but he regressed across the board, with his on-base percentage dipping under .300. He was still a two-win player on the strength of good defense and scratch baserunning, but his hitting tool was just average. He did deal with thumb and wrist injuries though, so perhaps a mulligan was warranted. The truth, as they often say, lies somewhere in the middle. Cespedes’ OBP this year looks a lot like it did last year, but he has cut his strikeout rate while maintaining his ISO, and that has made an impact. He’s also handling curveballs much better this season, which should hopefully stow any Pedro Cerrano comparisons for the time being.
It was never realistic for the Sox to get a premium, top 30 prospect in return for Lester, so the trade-off they were facing was to whether to go for a shorter term addition or a longer term project. Cespedes is clearly the former, and probably makes more sense for a team with the Red Sox roster than waiting a couple of years for an A-ball guy to make the big leagues. The deal gives the team an outfield of Cespedes in left, Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Shane Victorino in right, with Daniel Nava, Mookie Betts and Brock Holt looming. Netting Cespedes also gives the team, if they desire, the freedom to move Victorino this offseason in order to open up a permanent spot in the lineup for Betts.
Betts seems like the one player who is set to suffer the most as a result of this trade. Two months ago, his arrival in Boston seemed imminent, and it was, but when he came up he essentially wasted away until he was sent packing. He has posted a .318/.348/.515 line in his first 10 games back in Triple-A, and for the season, he has hit .321/.401/.478 in Triple-A, good for a 146 wRC+. He seemingly has nothing left to prove there, but he now also seemingly has no permanent place on either the 2014 or 2015 Red Sox. And with Holt having staked out the super utility role, there may not be a place for Betts at all. Surely, things will change between now and next April, but for the moment, the Red Sox have one of those good problems on their hands.
By trading Lester to Oakland, Boston not only did him a solid — as Dave Cameron noted earlier today, this deal might not move the needle much for the A’s, though they are one of the big favorites to win it all this year — but the Sox also may have done themselves a favor. The A’s are all-in this year, but it’s basically impossible to see them re-signing Lester this winter. While the Sox now will need to compete with many other teams in order to re-sign Lester in free agency, the exclusive window the A’s have to bring him back may become moot, and that’s probably not something that could have been said if Lester had ended up with, say, the Dodgers. If the Red Sox still want to sign Lester long-term, there’s likely some benefit to sending him somewhere he won’t re-sign.
In addition to getting Cespedes, that hope that maybe the Sox can get back in the Jon Lester business after the season ends will make this deal a little easier to swallow for Red Sox fans. For the better part of a decade, Jon Lester wasn’t just a Red Sox pitcher — he was the Red Sox pitcher who won the clinching game of the World Series 14 months after being diagnosed with cancer. Lester has been the rock for the Red Sox. This month, he passed Luis Tiant for fourth place all-time in games started by a Red Sox pitcher. Only Tim Wakefield, Roger Clemens and Cy Young have made more. Whether you prefer WAR, RA-9 WAR, RE24, WPA, FIP- or any other stat, Lester is among the best in the franchise’s history.
Losing Jon Lester is going to hurt, and it’ll hurt even more if the team doesn’t bring him back into the fold this winter. But the A’s are unlikely to keep Lester long-term, so perhaps the Red Sox will get their chance to bid for him on the open market. Either way, the team took one-third of a season from Jon Lester and turned it into a season and a third of Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes may not be the long-term solution in left field for Boston, but he gives them some additional right-handed thump in the middle of the lineup, and this deal gets the ball rolling for a productive offseason in Boston.