By Jason Wojciechowski on July 6, 2015 at 8:15 PM

The A's have Made Some Moves about which I should Say Some Words. The theme of the two trades is acquiring minor-league relievers in exchange for international bonus slots. The meaning of the theme is that we shouldn't expect too much; these trades aren't even for cash, but for the right to spend cash on the international free agent market without incurring penalties. That's worth something, obviously, but I don't know if any of us know yet how much it's worth, and we're kind of relying on teams making the market over a couple of years of these trades to have a sense. Fortunately for you, I'm not of the mind that telling you whether transactions are Good or Bad is an interesting and worthwhile thing to do, so it doesn't actually matter, for purposes of this blog, how much international slots are worth. What matters is that the A's didn't want to use them or saw better uses for them in acquiring players who were already in organized baseball than signing some kids and wishing upon a star. (Which isn't to say that minor-league relief "prospects" are anything other than star-wishes, but they are undoubtedly a different type of star-wish.)

The other theme of the trades is that, four days apart, the A's acquired two minor-league pitchers from the Braves for two different international slots. That's weird! We could speculate: The A's thought they'd use the second one but then their targets were signing elsewhere so they called Atlanta back and said, "Actually, we'll trade it after all"; or Atlanta wanted the second one in the first place but didn't want to part with Aaron Kurcz but then finally relented when they weren't able to acquire the slot elsewhere for a price they preferred; or Billy Beane and John Hart just thought this would be hilarious.

The players: Cody Martin was a seventh-round pick in 2011 and was added to the Braves' 40-man roster this spring, whereupon he commenced to strike out major-league hitters at a nice rate (24 in 21 2/3 innings) but also walk a few more than is ideal (seven) and get hit pretty hard (24 hits, four homers, .357 BABIP). His dad was a professional pitcher, albeit not a major-leaguer, a fact that has been mentioned in each of the last three Baseball Prospectus annuals, and he's a pitch-mix type, someone without a standout offering, which makes his strikeout rate in relief for Atlanta a pretty nice surprise. As a minor-leaguer, he's been largely a starter, one with the strikeout rate (decent but under one per inning) fitting his type. The problem is that he doesn't have the control (over three walks per nine in his minors career) of a command-and-control guy, and he appears to get more flies than grounders. All of this adds up to, "Well, I guess this is why he was a seventh-round pick and then was available in the Rule 5 draft but not taken and then was available just for a bonus slot." He's made one start for Nashville already, striking out five and walking three (though one was intentional) in 4 1/3 innings.

Then there's Aaron "Col." Kurcz, who is already on his fourth organization: He was drafted by the Cubs, included in the Theo Epstein trade to Boston, then acquired by the Braves for Anthony Varvaro. He's had Tommy John surgery already, he's on the small side, he walks the world, and he gives up a lot of fly balls, but he's got a nice strikeout rate, and if you're whiffing 10 per nine in Triple-A, well, hey, that's worth a shot. He's not on the 40-man yet , though he'll be Rule 5 eligible this offseason if he isn't added. PECOTA threw a 2012 Brad Boxberger comp on him and 2012 Brad Boxberger was, depending on your metric, a major-league pitcher or just worse than one.

The victim: Nate Freiman was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man for Martin. All Freiman did the last two years in the majors was post a 100 OPS+, heavier on the OBP in 2013 and heavier on the SLG in 2014. He still didn't add up to even half a season of plate appearances over those two years, though, so it wasn't really much of a thing for the A's to send him down to Nashville when Beane managed to land his latest white whale, Mark Canha, particularly because Freiman is limited to first base (and he's not particularly spry even there) while Canha can lumber around left field and pretend he's capable of it. Freiman this year has been completely nothing, hurting his back and, when healthy, hitting .171/.225/.188 for Nashville. That's only 129 plate appearances, but it's the kind of line that, when you also see the phrase "back injury" in his bio, can end a career. League-average hitters don't grow on trees, even when those league-average hitters are boosted by a platoon-heavy deployment, but Freiman went unclaimed by the league. That's not a great sign.

Also: Chris Bassitt did his job filling in for Sonny Gray and acquitted himself well. Now he's headed back to Nashville. No corresponding move yet, but since the A's spent the last week undermanned on the position-player front, the word is that Jake Smolinski will be coming to Oakland. Perhaps, as a right-handed hitter, he will take at-bats from Sam Fuld against lefties.


By Jason Wojciechowski on June 30, 2015 at 7:55 PM

EDIT: I have learned that my queries in this article aren't really any good. I don't want to get into it, but the short is that they result in a (skewed, though in a way I don't recall) sample rather than anything comprehensive. I still like the Shea Hillenbrand comp, but basically just throw anything I even imply is "analysis" in the garbage.

Sonny Gray got sick and spent last night in the hospital, so he couldn't pitch today as he was scheduled to. The hypothetical man in the A's bullpen is Drew Pomeranz, but he pitched last night, so he was in no position to make a start. Nobody else in the 'pen is a starter, even on a part-time basis. Thus, the A's had to call for help from the minors in the form of Chris Bassitt.

Thus on top of thus, the A's needed to make a 25-man move. One thing they could have done, as suggested by friend-of-the-blog @ThanksBilly on Twitter, was send down Kendall Graveman. He started last night, so they could ship him out, have him miss one turn in the rotation, and bring him back after the requisite ten days in the minors. That's not a bad idea. I like that idea. Graveman's been pitching well, so you'd have to sell him on it, make sure he knows this is an emergency situation and he's on an arm-protection plan anyway (presumably) so the pitches he doesn't throw now, he can throw in September, when the A's have clawed themselves back into the periphery of the Wild Card chase.

But the A's didn't want to do that. Which leaves sending down a position player, because no manager in 2015 can have a short bullpen for a day. Heaven forfend! With Sam Fuld out of options and everybody else on the team at least a part-time starter, that left Max Muncy, who doesn't really have a role at this point anyway. As others have pointed out, he's not going to start vs. RHP over Brett Lawrie because what's the point of having Brett Lawrie if you're going to platoon him? You want his defense in any event. And he's not going to start over Ike Davis or Stephen Vogt at first because he isn't as good as them. And he's not going to platoon with Billy Butler at DH because ... well, that one I don't have a great reason for. Because Butler is making eight figures, I guess, and it'd be kind of embarrassing, even if it's already a little embarrassing for everyone involved that he's got a .259 True Average, a figure that'd be fine out of a second baseman but is very much the opposite of fine for a DH. But that's not going to happen, the platoon-Butler plan, so here we are with Muncy, no playing time, no role. Down he goes!

After Bassitt makes his start, Muncy can't come right back up, and the A's are short on infielders, with four for three spots, and most days all four are in the starting lineup, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Andy Parrino rejoin the 40-man roster at the expense of Arnold Leon or Jake Smolinski or Angel Castro come Wednesday. And if that happens, when does Muncy come back? Maybe after a Ben Zobrist trade, unless the A's get a major leaguer back in that deal? It's entirely possible that Muncy is in Nashville until roster expansion, which means it's entirely possible that the books are more or less closed on his rookie season. (He's not over the 130 at-bat playing time mark for rookies, but he has been on the big-league roster for more than 45 days, so by service time, 2015 spells the end of his rookie status.)

If this season is all she wrote for Muncy, it's not a great season: 88 plate appearances, a 77 OPS+, a 27 percent strikeout rate. We know rookies have ups and downs, but we also know that sometimes we're seeing the truth. The question, then: how often does a player have a poor rookie season, even in very limited time, yet go on to become a productive player? The Baseball Reference Play Index is here to help. I found 64 players who started their career with a sub-80 OPS+ in at least 80 plate appearances, yet went on to have a career of at least 2,000 PA and at least 5 bWAR. Twelve of those players are still active:

Player Positions bWAR
Adrian Beltre 3B 79
Torii Hunter CF/RF 50
Adrian Gonzalez 1B 41
Aramis Ramirez 3B 32
Brandon Phillips 2B 27
Carlos Gomez CF 23
Michael Bourn CF 23
Nelson Cruz COF/DH 19
Miguel Montero C 14
Brian Dozier 2B 13
Alex Avila C 12
Adam Lind 1B 10

The thing to notice about this list is that it has a lot of players who you can forgive being bad hitters. Hunter, Gomez, and Bourn are or were center fielders of some defensive repute; Beltre and Ramirez play the hot corner adroitly; Phillips and Dozier are middle infielders; and Montero and Avila don the tools of idiocy. This leaves Adrian Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, and Adam Lind as models for Muncy, and even Gonzalez is a much better defender than Muncy is reputed to be (and was in any event a no. 1 overall pick in the draft -- those guys get chances on chances).

Of the other 52 players on the list, here are those with Muncy-like defensive value:

Player Seasons PA bWAR
Paul Konerko 18 9505 28
Aubrey Huff 13 6786 20
Vic Power 12 6459 15
Ollie Brown 13 4012 11
Kevin Young 12 4352 6
Fernando Tatis 14 3468 6
Deron Johnson 17 6619 6
Shea Hillenbrand 7 3816 6
Harry Simpson 9 3138 5

Don't forget: These are the success stories. There are four figures worth of players who had a shitty enough rookie season to qualify for the initial list, and out of all those, the 64 from which the above two lists are culled were the only ones who had a successful career by the arbitrary definition I chose.

But Shea Hillenbrand! Two All-Star Games, nearly $20 million in career earnings, 229th in career hit-by-pitches ... that's a career to aspire to even if, okay, maybe he didn't have the best reputation as a teammate. Still.


By Jason Wojciechowski on June 29, 2015 at 7:46 PM

The A's are, as the kids say, forked. Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds have them, before tonight's game (which, to be fair, the A's are winning 4-0 in the second inning as I write this), under 5 percent, the lowest odds in the AL West and second lowest in the American League (White Sox). This from a system that liked the team before the season and still expects .508 baseball going forward, a smidge better than the Astros' expected winning percentage. The problem is the 10-game hole they've dug in the division and/or the 7 1/2-game hole they've dug in the Wild Card. That's a lot of games to make up in half a season even if your underlying roster is more Dodgers than Phillies.

With those holes and with the non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just over a month, many of us have been pondering Ben Zobrist trade scenarios; he, along with Scott Kazmir, is the obvious candidate to get shipped out for a prospect or two. The Cubs have apparently been hard on the A's to acquire him, and they've certainly got prospects out the ears. But Billy Beane isn't getting Addison Russell back for two months of Zobrist.

So who could we expect? What does a player like Zobrist, with a contract and service-time situation like Zobrist's, get traded for these days?

Here's where I started, the Baseball Prospectus transaction browser. I narrowed down to trades and just started scrollin', looking for position players who were pending free agents and were still something like starting-quality players. I examined as far back as 2011, and I was only interested in June or July trades, since that's the type we're looking at for Zobrist. Offseason deals are a whole other beast, as are waiver trades. So what do we have in terms of semicomparable moves?

The bWAR column below is the three years prior to the trade plus whatever was accumulated in the season in which the trade was made. Asdrubal Cabrera's bWAR column, then, lists 2011-13 plus the Cleveland portion of his 2014 season. The "Cash?" column indicates whether the trading team had to kick in part of the salary to get the deal done.

Player Money bWAR Return Cash?
Carlos Beltran $19.3M 15.8 Zack Wheeler Yes
Asdrubal Cabrera $10M 10.4 Zach Walters Yes
Stephen Drew $10.1M 4.3 Kelly Johnson Yes
Rafael Furcal $13M 10.1 Alex Castellanos Yes
Chase Headley $10.5M 16.0 Rafael De Paula & Yangervis Solarte Yes
Ichiro $17M 10.8 Danny Farquhar & D.J. Mitchell No
Carlos Lee $18.5 3.3 Matt Dominguez & Rob Rasmussen No
Derrek Lee $7.3M 9.5 Aaron Baker No
Shane Victorino $9.5M 14.7 Josh Lindblom, Ethan Martin, Stefan Jarrin No
Kevin Youkilis $12.3M 17.6 Brent Lillibridge & Zach Stewart Yes
Ben Zobrist $7.5M 15.8 ??? ???

A player as cheap as Ben Zobrist with as much ability as Ben Zobrist, but with as little team control remaining as Ben Zobrist, is not available on the market very often. We could dream on a Zack Wheeler-like return, but that move was seen as a massive overreach at the time by the Giants, a wild overpay in prospect cost for two months of an admittedly excellent player. But these names on the prospect lists can wind up feeling lost in time to us, so I'll turn to my stash of Baseball America Prospect Handbooks to refresh. I'll use the next year's book as the best idea of the prospect the team traded for -- from the time of most of these trades through the end of the season, they saw only about another month of performance from the prospects, versus the four months they'd already seen to that point.

Player Top 100 Rank in team Overall grade Risk
Aaron Baker No 14 50 High
Alex Castellanos No 19 45 Medium
Rafael de Paula No Not top-30 ??? ???
Matt Dominguez1 No 4 50 Medium
Danny Farquhar No Not top-30 ??? ???
Josh Lindblom2 No 8 50 Low
Ethan Martin No 6 55 High
D.J. Mitchell No Not top-30 ??? ???
Rob Rasmussen No 19 45 Medium
Yangervis Solarte3 No Not top-30 ??? ???
Zach Walters4 No 14 45 Medium
Zack Wheeler 35 1 60 Medium

Stefan Jarrin, part of the Victorino trade, was in the Arizona League for the Dodgers and never actually appeared in the Phillies organization. Or any other organization after 2012. He's now scouting for the Dodgers.

Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart were both in the majors. The former had a 123 OPS+ in 2011 but was struggling mightily by mid-2012 and he never regained his form. He'd been a prospect once upon a time but now he appears to be out of baseball. Stewart had a 72 ERA+ out of the bullpen and couldn't miss bats. He threw two games for the Red Sox, pitched most of the year in the minors, and hasn't been in the majors since. He's now in Salt Lake, and still just 28.

The dream that never dies is a Carlos Beltran return. A reasonable comparable in terms of salary and performance is Shane Victorino. And then there's the Youkilis/Headley range, where you wonder how the trading team didn't get more. At MLB Trade Rumors, I see four teams linked to Zobrist in the last month or so. What's a sample trade in each of these three ranges for each of those four teams?

High Medium Low
Mets Steven Matz Rafael Montero & Marcos Molina Hansel Robles & Wilmer Flores
Cubs CJ Edwards Pierce Johnson & Jen-Ho Tseng Neil Ramirez & Junior Lake
Nats Michael Taylor AJ Cole & Tony Renda5 Blake Treinen & Tanner Roark
Royals Sean Manaea Miguel Almonte & Bryan Flynn Christian Colon & John Lamb

I'm not suggesting that any particular one of those packages is something either the A's or the trading team would do. Some probably seem high for where they're slotted (e.g. Colon & Lamb) but I'm trying to do this in fairly basic back-of-the-envelope fashion. In fact, my overall attitude might be high -- Victorino's haul might be a sort of sub-ceiling return, a reachable upside compared to the unreachable Beltran upside, rather than a mid-level return.

But I think it's entirely possible that Zobrist is, in many respects, the most attractive player to hit the "expiring soon" trade market in years. I will note that Zobrist's price tag is low compared to most of the players in the first table above, and that it's in 2015 dollars while, say, Carlos Beltran's $19 million was a couple of years ago. This may mean that the A's can get the type of package that other teams had to pick up salary to get. Also, the advent of the qualifying offer raises the cost for the A's to sell -- they lose the ability to get a draft pick back for Zobrist if they make him the offer and he rejects it -- though I could see Beane's trade partners telling him they know his ownership will never approve making a QO offer and daring him to blink.

The A's probably won't be able to add back a Daniel Robertson-like talent, but they may be able to get closer than I thought I'd find when I started this exercise. Look at that! Optimism!

  1. For Dominguez, I'll use the 2012 book because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2012 with a 110 OPS+ in 113 PA as a third baseman. (Two full seasons in the majors after that showed that he can't hit.) 

  2. For Lindblom, I'll use the 2012 book because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2012 with 71 innings of 110 ERA+ ball out of the bullpen, albeit with a 5.15 FIP. He's managed just 36 big-league innings since then. 

  3. For Solarate, I'll use the 2014 book because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2014 with a 102 OPS+ in 535 PA, mostly at third base. 

  4. For Walters, I'll use the 2014 book because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2014 with an 87 OPS+ in 137 PA mostly DHing. 

  5. EDIT: R.J. Anderson informs me that Tony Renda is not in the Nats' system anymore, having been traded to the Yankees. R.J. is, as usual, correct, and I'm, as usual, an idiot. I don't have my book in front of me, so I don't know who to replace him with. But the idea here is a lower-upside, safer pick. Think, of players already in the A's system, a Joey Wendle type.