Saturday, December 1, 2007

Breakdown of the Mets/Nats Trade

If you’re a Mets fan, you probably fall into one of two classes right now.

1) The trade is an abomination (Kazmir/Zambrano part II) and the organization is clueless.

2) The trade might not, kinda sorta, be all that terrible, depending on how you look at it and let’s wait until Minaya is done with all moves to judge him.

One thing's for sure, I haven’t heard a single person outside of the Mets organization truly lauding the trade from the Mets' perspective, and that should speak volumes right there.

Before giving my personal final assessment I’m going to play both sides of the coin and first spin it as a positive, then look at the negatives.

The Pros:

Starting with Church–
All things considered, Ryan Church should be comparable, if not better, offensively and certainly an upgrade defensively over Lastings Milledge… for next season at least. Church was 35th in the NL in OPS and SLG. Of the Mets regulars who had enough plate appearances to qualify, that’s good enough to place Church behind only Carlos Beltran and David Wright, despite playing in RFK, a worse hitters park than Shea and with far worse talent around him in the batting order.

Also, while Church had an unfortunate incident regarding religious beliefs, Milledge has had quite a few more incidents and personality conflicts with his teammates/management while attempting to grow up in the New York City spotlight. So in that regard, I think clubhouse/chemistry wise Church and Schneider will probably turn out to be an upgrade over L-Millz.

As for Brian Schneider -
Aside from expecting a decline as he ages, it’s tough to argue against the defensive abilities of Schneider. Even if he declines, he’s a significant upgrade over anything the Mets have had in recent history. Over the past four seasons here are Schneider’s caught stealing percentages and where he ranks in all of baseball:
2007 - 31.2% caught stealing/7th in MLB
2006 - 30.2%/12th
2005 - 40.0%/5th
2004 – 50%/ 1st

He also hasn’t had a fielding percentage worse than 99.2% since his rookie season. So, in theory, the improved defense and ability to throw runners out should help the pitching staff.

As far as his hitting goes, it’s certainly not pretty, but over the past three seasons, his OPS and SLG are significantly better against right-handed pitchers than lefties. Over the same period of time, Ramon Castro has had a propensity to mash left-handed pitching, so it might not be that terrible of a one-two punch from the 8 spot in the lineup. Furthermore, Schneider’s RBI and HR per at bat numbers are better than those of Paul Lo Duca over the past three seasons. Besides, it’s not like huge offensive production out of the 8 spot/catcher position is a necessity in order to be successful.

So, to close out the positive spin in the most drastic of ways:
In Milledge, the Mets gave up a young player with potential, but also an unproven prospect with character issues. They lost a player with questionable defensive ability, who’s struggled mightily to hit right-handed pitching, or anything not going fast and straight, to be honest. His trade value had seemingly plummeted because other teams noticed these flaws before the Mets did.

In return, they received a significant defensive upgrade at catcher (younger than their previous starter), and an upgrade both defensively and offensively in the OF for the current season.

Prospects are suspects until proven otherwise (just ask the Alex’s – Escobar and Ochoa to name a couple), and if the goal is to win now, to win this season, then this trade clearly is a good move, unless…

You Think The Glass Is Half Empty:
As bad as Milledge currently is against right-handed pitching, Church is even worse against left-handed pitching. It’s to the point where you really can’t even play him.

Last season, he batted .229 with .339 SLG and .655 OPS, compared to his numbers against righties of .287/.506/.866. The big difference between the two is that Milledge is 22, with the potential to improve drastically. At age 29, barring some unforeseen breakout season, we’re probably looking at marginal improvements for Church, at best.

Milledge may have lacked maturity and focus while struggling defensively, but at the age of 22 it should have been expected that he wouldn’t be completely polished when they threw him into the fire. Last I checked, Jose Reyes and countless others had their fair share of growing pains on the way to stardom. Is Church really going to give you THAT much more than Milledge this year? How bout for the next 5 years?

Then there’s Brian Schneider. He’s a really nice guy, like David Eckstein, but like Eckstein, he isn’t much of a ballplayer.

Saying he can’t hit is a gross understatement. He’s practically an automatic out coming off a season where he hit (cringe) .235 with an OPS of .662 and a SLG of .377. Sure, his defensive numbers were spectacular… in ’04 and ’05. The past two seasons, while still solid, he’s dropped off a bit.

Johnny Estrada on the other hand brings a much better bat to the table, and his throwing numbers weren’t terrible in ‘05/’06 (between 29-31%). In 2007, Estrada was terrible throwing guys out, but if you look at his career numbers it seems to be a mirage and the offseason surgery to remove a bone spur in his throwing elbow should get him back to where he was. Is Estrada a bit more of a risk defensively? Absolutely. Is he a phenomenal all around catcher? Of course not, but he’s probably a comparable stop gap, and did I mention the Mets acquired him for virtually nothing (Guillermo Mota)?

Lastly, let’s talk about the myth that Schneider is great at handling pitchers and calling a game. Not only have we heard from a Washington Nationals blogger on the topic, but let’s look at his CERA (Catcher's earned-run average. Earned-run average of club's pitchers with a particular catcher behind the plate).

In ’04 and ’05 he had some success with CERA’s of 3.83 and 3.88 but again, in his past two seasons we see a drastic drop off. In 2006, he was second to last among qualified catchers with a CERA of 5.28 and in 2007 he was 4th worst with a CERA of 4.79. Naturally, there are a lot of other factors that go into handling a pitching staff and their performance (like talent for example), so I’m not going to kill him on those numbers, but to say Schneider is significantly better than the next guy isn’t really fair either. By comparison, here are Estrada and Lo Duca’s CERA’s over the past four seasons .
Estrada 04-07: 3.77, 3.92, 4.43, 4.45
Lo Duca 04-07: 3.83, 3.79, 4.31, 4.12

So, to close the case for the glass half empty folks:
The Mets gave up one of their most hyped prospects who could have filled a need position for the next several seasons (or at least been traded for something better at some point). Milledge’s quick bat and pure athleticism seemed to have him primed to develop into a premier player – one that would fit perfectly in the lineup with the other young Mets’ studs and provide a great foundation for years to come.

Even if his value had declined, it couldn’t have possibly declined to the point where the return is an aging defensive catcher who can’t hit for anything and a 29 year-old outfielder that you essentially have to platoon because - against lefties - he too is an automatic out. If we ever saw Church-Schneider-Pitcher against a lefty, we may as well concede the inning and save the energy of running in and out of the dugout, as that trio would translate into Rey Ordonez batting three consecutive times. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point.

Did I forget to touch on the fact that the Mets will have to face Milledge 18 times a year for the next 5-10 years?

Final Assessment:
My biggest problem isn’t necessarily the value of the pieces being exchanged in this particular trade, but the apparent thought process behind it (or lack thereof) and as Keith Law said in a recent chat “the mismanagement of assets” by the Mets.

Clearly the Mets’ biggest need is pitching, so the question is why do you make this move before you sort out the rotation and the bullpen? If they fail to land a front line starter, and/or improve the bullpen are they really serious contenders for a World Series title? Probably not, especially if Johan Santana heads to the Red Sox, or the Phillies and Braves improve.

So, why not give Milledge a full season to see what he’s capable of – especially if his trade value had dropped off THAT much (which I find hard to believe considering he’s only 22, showed signs of improvement, and his value was sky high just 12-18 months ago). It would make more sense to give him a shot to prove himself instead of selling low now with all the other question marks surrounding the team.

Also, rumors are that this trade had been discussed for quite some time, with Minaya reluctant to pull the trigger and part with Milledge, so what made now the right time? I doubt teams were banging down the door for Schneider and Church.

They sold low on Milledge and bought high on Church and Schneider (who the Nats overvalued). Let’s say for a second that the Mets have significant reason to believe Milledge isn’t going to pan out. Keep in mind, they’ve already told us that other teams had lost interest in him.

To me, that’s a poor reflection on the Mets organization, the past two seasons we wouldn’t trade Milledge for a high end pitcher (which we are now desperate for) and all of the sudden he’s not even a significant trading chip to keep around while we look at the various options, or consider him for the starting spot in RF? How come other teams realized this before the people watching him day in and day out? Disappointing to say the least.

After the last two seasons, it wouldn’t be fair to totally disregard the pressure the Wilpon’s and Minaya are under to win now, and I think this move clearly illustrates that line of thought.

I’m going to reserve complete judgment until the rest of the moves are made, because acquiring a legit starter or two and improving the bullpen would make this team a serious contender and thus this trade could be more justified as well. I’m more upset with how/when it happened and how it makes me worry about the front office, than the fact that Milledge may have been undervalued a bit (but not nearly as much as most of the die-hard Mets fans would have you believe – this is not Kazmir for Zambrano)

In the meantime, I’m disappointed to see Thrilledge go as I hoped he’d mature into a perfect fit for this Mets team and become a fan favorite for years to come. But, so is the game…good Luck in Washington, I’ll be rooting for you – at least for 144 games of the year or so.

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