A Rational Response to Curt Schilling

Curt Schilling has graced the baseball world with his opinion of the Cliff Lee trade. Via Ashley Fox of the Inquirer:

“I think trading Cliff Lee was the stupidest thing they’ve ever done, and they didn’t have to,” Schilling said. “They didn’t have to do it. It was a stupid, stupid move. They could’ve had a World Series berth locked up right now with those two guys at the top of their rotation.”

Among Philadelphia fans, there are two — and only two — reactions to this:

  • “Curt’s wrong. Screw Curt Schilling!”
  • “Curt’s right. Screw Ruben Amaro!”

Let’s see if I can find the rationality somewhere in the muck.

Curt’s criticism, sans the hyperbole, is legitimate even if you don’t agree with it. You have to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was against the Lee trade at the time as many people were. Schilling was a player, so he will obviously be coming from the viewpoint of a player. A player wants his GM to do everything in his power to win now, not later. Jamie Moyer, for example, doesn’t care about Anthony Gose or Trevor May; he cares about Raul Ibanez and Roy Halladay.

The saying goes that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, meaning that it’s easier to get people on your side if you act politely than if you are brash. Curt’s delivery of his opinions was brash, so regardless of what he says or how logical his points may be, people are going to react emotionally to it, especially given his reputation as a loudmouth. If you cut through your preconceived notions about Schilling and ignore his hyperbole, he actually does make the same logical objection that most Philadelphians have made since the trade: the Phillies would have a nearly-unbeatable playoff rotation with Halladay and Lee.

Now that I have defended Schilling, it is appropriate to state that I disagree with him. Neither side can definitively prove their case to any concrete conclusion; it’s just a difference of opinion, like chocolate or strawberry ice cream. I am going to quote some of Schill’s words and rebut them best as I can.

They could’ve had a World Series berth locked up right now with those two guys at the top of their rotation.

I’ve said it a lot here, but I’ll say it again: the playoffs are a crapshoot. That’s why the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the NL Wild Card with 83 wins, beat the 95-win Detroit Tigers in the 2006 World Series. Nothing is ever guaranteed in sports, but especially not in baseball. Those ’06 Cardinals, by the way? One ace: Chris Carpenter. Their second-best starter was Jeff Suppan with a 4.12 ERA. The ’08 Phillies had Cole Hamels… and Jamie Moyer. Last year’s Yankees had C.C. Sabathia… and A.J. Burnett who can hardly be considered an ace pitcher.

If a World Series goes all seven games and we assume they all ended in regulation, then there would be 63 total innings. Assuming that Roy Halladay would get games 1, 4, and 7, Cliff Lee would only pitch twice in the Series. If we assume, for the sake of argument, he pitched complete games both times (he came close last year), his 18 innings would only represent 28.6% of the total innings pitched. And he could pitch poorly — there’s no guarantee that Lee is the second coming of Walter Johnson.

Those guys would’ve finished legitimately 1-2 [as] Cy Young candidates on the same staff

Possible, but unlikely. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter came close last year, but it is uncommon for teammates to finish highly in the voting for the same award. You would have to go back to the early 2001-02 when Schilling himself and Randy Johnson were 1-2 in the National League in back-to-back years.

Additionally, it would have been great to have Halladay and Lee (or Lee and Halladay) finishing #1-2 in the Cy Young balloting, but it isn’t of any real importance as long as the Phillies reach the post-season. Pitching is only part of the equation in creating a playoff contender.

They would’ve been a 110-win team.

There have been six teams in Major League Baseball history — just three since 1954 — that have won 110 or more games. The Phillies, as presently constructed, are barely a 90-win team according to most projections.

Overall, there’s no way to know for sure how good or bad the Phillies would have been with Lee, but it is safe to say that the roster would have been constructed differently. Maybe Amaro doesn’t have the financial flexibility to sign Placido Polanco to that below-market contract. Maybe Amaro isn’t so willing to sign Ross Gload or Brian Schneider, both upgrades to what was an unproductive bench last year.

The Roy Halladay deal, I think, gave them the perception that they depleted their minor-league system

[…]

If they hadn’t made that [Lee] deal, I think they felt like their minor-league system would’ve been trashed, even though it wasn’t. They still had a lot of talent. But it was to restock.

Here is Baseball America’s top-10 prospect list for the Phillies prior to the start of last season. Note: Carlos Carrasco (2), Lou Marson (3), Jason Donald (4), and Jason Knapp (10) were included in the Cliff Lee trade with Cleveland. Then the Phillies sent Kyle Drabek (5), Michael Taylor (6), and Travis D’Arnaud (7) to Toronto for Roy Halladay. That’s seven of the Phillies’ 10 top prospects traded for two players. Then note that J.A. Happ no longer qualifies as a prospect.

The only prospects from the top-ten list left are Domonic Brown and Zach Collier. Following the Halladay and Lee trades, Minor League analyst John Sickels did not give a single Phillies prospect an A. Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez, acquired from Seattle, were two of four Phillies who received a B- or better. I think it’s safe to say that the Halladay trade depleted the Phillies’ Minor League system, and the Lee trade helped replenish it.

If you draft right, you can literally restock your system in a year or two now.

Key words: If you draft right. Drafts are a gamble.  As Matt Swartz found out at Baseball Prospectus, “51% of first and second rounds picks make the majors.”

If the Phillies had kept Lee and let him walk as a free agent after the season, they would have received a first round pick and a sandwich pick (since Lee would undoubtedly receive Class A free agent status) from whoever signed him. Lee is expected to receive a lot of money in free agency, which means that he will likely sign with one of the better, more wealthy teams in baseball, such as the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. Both teams are expected to finish with at least 90 if not 95 wins apiece, which means the Phillies would have received a very late first round pick, between #25-30.

Looking at the statistics in the Swartz article, picks #25-30 have traditionally been the least productive. Of the first round picks from #1-30, the #25-30 set produced the least amount of Major Leaguers and the least amount of Major Leaguers who compiled 10 or more WARP3.

It is extremely difficult to build up a good farm system.

There’s no other reason why they made that deal, none whatsoever. That’s why they didn’t push trying to re-sign Cliff, because I think they felt like he would’ve been real receptive to it, so then they would’ve looked even worse, because ‘We traded a guy who wants to be here.

It was very clear that Lee enjoyed his time in Philadelphia and would have been receptive to signing an extension. However, Lee was not going to give the Phillies any breaks. Jon Heyman reported this back in December:

[…] word is, the star who dominated the 2009 postseason (4-0, 1.56) will be taking “no discount.”

[…] Lee is expected to seek about $23 million a year, which is the annual pay of Johan Santana and CC Sabathia […]

The Phillies signed Roy Halladay to a three-year, $60 million extension. That, of course, is an annual average value of $20 million, $3 million less per year than Lee. Furthermore, the Phillies likely would have had to commit at least five years to Lee; they committed only three with an option for a fourth to Halladay. The difference between the two is $60 million guaranteed versus $115 million guaranteed. Which would you choose if you were Ruben Amaro?

Schilling said that Halladay is “a fantastic guy” and “a hard worker,” but he pointed to Lee’s postseason performance last year and shook his head.

“He’s coming off a phenomenal run when he came over,” Schilling said of Lee. “He showed them [in] October he was going to be better than everybody else. You don’t know what you’re getting there. Doc’s never pitched in October. I think he’ll be great and be awesome and all that stuff, but he could get to October and not be the guy. Cliff proved that he can pitch in October. That’s a big loss.”

This is just a nonsensical argument. Cliff Lee had no post-season experience prior to joining the Phillies! He pitched just fine, didn’t he? Curt himself had no post-season experience prior to 1993, but that didn’t stop him from tossing a 2.59 ERA in the ’93 post-season, including that incredible complete game shut-out in Game 5 of the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

I think it is evident that the facts don’t support Curt’s claims. Still, it doesn’t make him necessarily wrong to prefer a playoff-tested pitcher over a playoff newbie, nor does it make him wrong for valuing the here and now over the future. The responses I have seen so far have not given Curt the benefit of the doubt most human beings deserve when entering into a debate about the merits of a particular set of beliefs or a thought process.