Friday, August 1, 2014

Tigers win 3-team blockbuster

Yesterday was one of the more surprising trade deadlines in recent memory. There were several big trades that saw several roster shakeups, including Jon Lester heading from Boston to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes. With Oakland acquiring arguably the two best pitchers available over the last month (Jeff Samarzdija being the other), one of their main competitors knew they needed to get involved in the arms race. And get involved the Tigers did.

After weeks of David Price trade speculation, with a different "favorite" emerging seemingly daily, the Tigers came basically out of nowhere to land the Cy Young candidate. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has been incredibly active with his teams in the past, and in this case despite giving up Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and a solid prospect, the Tigers were big winners. Dombrowski even texted A's GM Billy Beane some good natured ribbing after landing Price.

Austin Jackson has been a solid player over the last few seasons, including a fantastic 2012 season. Unfortunately for the Tigers and Jackson, though, his 2012 season was aided by being extremely lucky on balls hit in play--his batting average on balls in play(BABIP) was an unsustainable .371, compared to just .335 the last two seasons.

While .335 is still a very good number, the fact is Jackson strikes out a lot, so his batting average and on base percentage will always be considerably lower than his BABIP. In other words, it's unlikely Jackson will ever replicate his 2012 season. His offensive upside is likely limited to what he's done the last two seasons, which at .272/.335/.409 is still above average. However, Jackson's defense has declined each of the last three seasons, at least according to his ultimate zone rating (UZR) via Fan Graphs. Despite saving 18 runs above average from 2010-2012, Jackson has been below average defensively over the last two seasons. Jackson was 4.5 runs below average last season, and has been even worse this season, posting a UZR of -9.6, meaning he allowed almost 10 runs more than an average defensive center fielder between opening day and today.

Every 10 runs, saved or allowed, is equivalent to basically one win. While that seems like nothing in a 162 game season, remember he's playing one of 9 positions. If the Tigers entire defense was 10 runs below average over the course of a season, they would likely lose about 9 more games than an average defense would. It gets sort of complicated, of course, as this is assuming that the improved defense would come with the exact offensive output as their less defensive-minded counterparts. Getting back to Jackson, though, by going from a good defender in 2011 (+7.8) to a poor one (-9.6) this season, his value alone has dropped by 2 wins. The Tigers were brilliant to get rid of a declining player--and even smarter to get David Price for their troubles.

Drew Smyly is a cost-controlled starter with #3 starter potential, who's had a very good season for the Tigers this year. While he's not in the same league as Price, especially in October, Smyly should be a very solid rotation piece for the Rays, and at cheap salaries to boot. He's a solid Price replacement. Because of Jackson's clear decline both offensively and defensively, it's easy to understand why the Rays preferred Nick Franklin to Jackson.

Franklin isn't the type of can't miss prospect we had expected Tampa Bay to land in a Price trade, but he was a top prospect recently, held his own as a 22-year-old rookie in the big leagues last year, and has continued to mash AAA pitching for the better part of two years. He profiles as a below average to average defensive shortstop, so most expect the Rays to play him at second base, where his defense might actually be slightly above average. The Rays are undoubtedly hoping Franklin's bat will develop enough to be more than a AAA-MLB tweener, and as a 23-year-old hitting .294/.392/.455 in AAA with almost as many walks as strikeouts, he still profiles as a very solid big leaguer.

Keep in mind the average AL hitter this season is hitting .255/.319/.395, so both Franklin and Jackson are likely to be at least slightly above average hitters for the forseeable future and aren't without value. But being an average hitter and a below average defender doesn't help a team win much, so both the Rays and Mariners are hoping either these players bats improve more than expected, or that their defense is better than advertised. Jackson would likely be an above average corner outfielder, for example, but his offense is much more valuable as a center fielder.

The final piece Tampa Bay received was Willy Adames, a low-A level shortstop who's just 18 years old. Despite getting the least amount of publicity as part of the deal, Adames has a chance to develop into an elite prospect after this year's performance. The average age in Adames league this season was 21.5, while Adames doesn't turn 19 until September 2. Despite the massive age difference, he's hit .269/.346/.428 while the league average is just .254/.325/.373. Adames is playing one of the least offensive positions in the league, is considerably younger than his competition, and has excelled. The Rays undoubtedly are trusting their scouts too, but the stats show Adames as a potential elite prospect in the future, assuming he can stay at shortstop.

That said, none of the players TB got profiles currently as a future star, and Price might be the most valuable player the Rays have ever traded. After getting Wil Meyers from KC for James Shields and Wade Davis, maybe we've just been trained into expecting TB to always win a trade, rather than simply getting fair value. While the trade isn't terrible for anyone involved, the expectation around the league seemed to be that TB would only move Price if they were blown away by an offer. Either they like Franklin, Adames and Smyly more than most, or the offers simply weren't close to what was being reported.

The Tigers however become the odds-on favorite now to win at least the American League, and they may even be the favorites to win it all. If Justin Verlander can get back to even 85% of what he's been in the past, this Tigers rotation will be incredibly scary come October. As good as Oakland's staff looked with Samardzija, Kazmir and now Lester in a short series, the Tigers can counter with 3 or all of Price, Scherzer, Sanchez and Verlander.

And because storylines that people try to write months in advance rarely come to fruition, I fully expect Detroit and Oakland to both lose in the first round of the playoffs. I certainly hope not, as a Tigers-A's ALCS would be quite entertaining. Deadline moves can be a catalyst or a speed bump, and in only a few months we will all find out. Personally, I can't wait.