Aaron Gleeman, of his self-titled website and Hardball Talk and Rotoworld fame, has a guest column up at Baseball Prospectus today. As a Twins fan, he looks back on the Johan Santana trade that sent the then-premier southpaw to the New York Mets in exchange for a handful of prospects including Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey, and Philip Humber. Gleeman wrote:
There’s a tendency to declare an immediate “winner” in every trade, and even when taking a long-term view of a blockbuster deal involving a superstar in his prime being swapped for a multi-prospect package, it’s usually fairly easy to determine who benefited most. When it comes to this trade, however, the question is more like who suffered least. And even that’s tough to say, because everyone involved went bust.
Four years into their six-year, $137.5 million investment in Santana, the Mets have gotten just 88 starts of ace-caliber pitching and an uncertain future. And for their in-his-prime ace, the Twins ended up with 1.5 seasons of a replacement-level Gomez and a year of Hardy that they later squandered, 1.5 seasons of Rauch by way of Mulvey, nothing from Humber, and whatever hope still remains that Guerra can turn into a useful reliever.
Naturally, I thought about the recent trades the Phillies have made to acquire Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee (the first time), and Roy Oswalt. In all three transactions, the Phillies held on to their jewel, outfielder Domonic Brown. For Halladay, though, the Phillies relinquished Travis d’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, and Michael Taylor. Taylor was quickly flipped to the Oakland Athletics for Brett Wallace, who was later traded to the Houston Astros. Drabek had a forgettable start to his Major League career, posting a 6.06 ERA in 157 innings last year. d’Arnaud, however, ranked as one the Jays’ #1 prospect, a five-star player, according to Kevin Goldstein of BPro. About d’Arnaud, Goldstein wrote:
The Good: d’Arnaud has all the tools to be a star player. He has a quick bat, outstanding hand-eye coordination, the ability to hit .280-.300, and the strength to add 25-plus home runs annually. He’s very athletic for a catcher with a plus arm, and he moves well behind the plate. He is a 40 runner.
The Bad: d’Arnaud has the potential to be a plus defender, but he still needs to improve his receiving skills and the quickness of his release. He’s made some strides in his plate discipline, but it could still use refinement.
The Phillies acquired Lee from the Cleveland Indians for four prospects: pitchers Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco, infielder Jason Donald, and catcher Lou Marson. Carrasco has been more or less replacement-level in his 192 big-league innings while Knapp accrued only 28 innings in 2010 and missed all of 2011, causing him to be left out of Goldstein’s rankings for Indians prospects. Donald posted decent numbers in 143 plate appearances last year, but it was fueled by an unsustainable .423 BABIP and he has no other skills aside from making contact. Marson was slightly above replacement-level but only because he played decent defense — his .271 wOBA was less than acceptable.
Finally, Oswalt came to the Phillies from the Houston Astros for lefty starter J.A. Happ, shortstop Jonathan Villar, and outfielder Anthony Gose. The Astros sent Gose to the Jays for first baseman Brett Wallace, a deal that has thus far worked out well for them. In 385 innings with the ‘stros, Happ has been awful, posting a 5.05 ERA. Villar showed improvement with Single-A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi, earning him a #5 spot on Goldstein’s Astros prospect rankings. Goldstein wrote about Villar:
The Good: There are top-100 prospects who don’t have Villar’s upside, but he’s very far from it. He’s a 60-65 runner, good for 30-plus stolen bases, plus range at shortstop, and a very strong arm. He added a power element to his game in 2011 with 14 home runs, and has at least average raw power.
The Bad: Villar’s game might be best described as “out of control.” His newfound power led to plenty of bad habits at the plate; he became pull-conscious, adding to a strikeout rate that was already a considerable concern. He also has a history of making weak contact. As capable as he is of spectacular plays at shortstop, he’s just as likely to boot a routine play, and scouts question his concentration on both sides of the ball.
It’s safe to say that, so far, the Phillies look like bandits with these trades. Only one player has the potential to provide any real surplus value (d’Arnaud) while most of the others have floundered. The Phillies got three aces in their own right: Lee led the Phillies to the 2009 World Series and then was used to bring three prospects to Philadelphia in a trade with the Seattle Mariners (pitchers Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez, and outfielder Tyson Gillies); Halladay was the ace of the 2010-11 rotations, tossing both a perfect game and a post-season no-hitter in 2010; and Oswalt was by far the best #3 starter in baseball for the Phillies in 2010-11.
It makes one wonder, though, given Santana’s fall from grace. In 2008, Santana posted a 2.53 ERA in 34 starts and finished third in Cy Young voting. The next year, he made 25 starts with a 3.13 ERA. In 2010, he made 29 starts with a 2.98 ERA. And then… nothing. Santana missed all of 2011 with a left shoulder injury and portends to miss at least the start of the 2012 season. The Mets still owe Santana $55 million and paid him $22.5 million last year for exactly zero innings. Needless to say, it is an albatross of a contract and, given the recent financial issues surrounding the Mets franchise, a heavy burden.
While the Phillies have most likely seen the last of Oswalt, they still owe Halladay at least $40 million through 2013 (and his 2014 $20 million option is guaranteed with good health). Lee is owed at least $109 million through 2015 (includes a $12.5 million buyout for 2016). Halladay and Lee could just as easily succumb to a career-threatening or even career-ending injury. Given that the two were acquired strictly for the purposes of winning a World Series, an unapproached goal as of now, such a scenario would crush the Phillies. Remember, Santana was 32 last year; Lee was 32 as well and Halladay was 34. Fortunately, both pitchers have steered clear of arm injuries over the past five years, something Santana did not do prior to 2010.
In their respective two years with the Phillies, Halladay and Lee have been nothing short of terrific. However, the Santana case shows just how a trade that looks fantastic at the time can go sour very quickly. Such is the risk teams take when they go into “win now” mode.