Friday, December 21, 2007

The End of the Hamilton Era


Well, Krivsky has done it again. He has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Personally, I'm very high on Josh Hamilton and his future in Major League Baseball, but regardless it's difficult to justify this trade for the Cincinnati Reds.

ORGANIZATIONAL DIRECTION

To me, there are only two rationales for trading Josh Hamilton.

1) The Reds want to make a big push for the pennant in 2008, so they trade away Hamilton to get an impact starting pitcher who could make the difference in 2008.

or

2) The Reds were very concerned about Hamilton's injury and relapse risk, so they trade him away to reduce their risk for the future.

Unfortunately, the deal doesn't seem to fall under either category.

If the Reds were relying on the first rationale, then you would expect the return on a Hamilton trade to include Erik Bedard or Dan Haren. Unless Edinson Volquez can step in and perform like Francisco Liriano did as a rookie, which is more than a little improbable, then he's unlikely to help much at all in 2008.

In addition, it's difficult to justify the trade by using the second rationale. If the Reds were afraid of Hamilton's risk of relapse or his ability to stay healthy, then it would be expected that the return on the trade would include an established player or a less risky prospect. However, that doesn't seem to be the case either.

Josh Hamilton certainly does come with some risk, but that risk does not include performance risk. His performance in 2007 removed all doubt about his ability to be an impact player at the big league level. So, his risk is only one of injury and relapse.

Edinson Volquez has never proved that he can perform at the big league level, despite several stints in the majors. He currently possesses a career ERA of 7.20 in 80.0 big league innings over three seasons. It's clear that there is definite performance risk with Volquez. In addition, as a pitching prospect, he brings inherent risk of injury.

Given that the risk of Volquez is both injury and performance, it's difficult to argue that the Reds have reduced their risk by trading away Hamilton. So, if the Reds didn't make the deal to improve their chances for the short run and didn't reduce the injury risk for that spot on the roster, then why was the deal made???

The only other consideration that comes to mind is that Jay Bruce is currently blocked by Ken Griffey Jr. However, it hardly seems logical to compound this problem by dealing away a player as sublimely talented as Hamilton, especially when both Griffey and Dunn are free agents after the season. There would have been room for both Hamilton and Bruce in the 2009 outfield and for years to come.

This deal is hard to take from both a baseball perspective and a fan perspective.

BASEBALL PERSPECTIVE

It's mind boggling that the Reds were willing to give up on Josh Hamilton, especially for a return that included Edinson Volquez and Daniel Herrera. Given his overall skill-set, an MVP or two could conceivably be in Hamilton's future, so this return seems like selling low.

Josh Hamilton

In 2007, Hamilton posted a line of .292/.368/.554/.922 with 19 homeruns and a 65/33 K/BB ratio in 337 plate appearances. That's remarkable performance from a rookie, especially one was has played little over the past 5 seasons and is engaged in a never ending battle with addiction. Hamilton performed at this level, despite logging only 261 professional ABs between 2002 and 2006.

His performance becomes even more impressive when you look at some of his sabermetric stats. He posted a secondary average of .372, a GPA of .287, and a Line Drive % of 21.7, all of which are very impressive for any player and especially so for a rookie with Hamilton's background. In addition, Hamilton fared very well under Bill James' Win Shares system.

In 2007, Hamilton (13) was 6th on the Reds in Win Shares, which was behind Dunn (21), Phillips (18), Harang (17), Encarnacion (17), and Griffey Jr. (16).

However, Win Shares is not prorated for playing time. Accordingly, the more you play, the more opportunity you have to accumulate Win Shares. The Hardball Times has created a stat that prorates Win Shares for playing time, which they call Win Share Percent (WSP). Here's the definition of WSP:
Win Shares Percent, a Win Shares "rate stat" -- a measure of the player's contribution, given his playing time. The math is WS/(2*ExpWS). Expected Win Shares are the number of Win Shares an average player contributed, given that particular player's time at bat, on the mound or in the field.

WSP provides a glimpse of Hamilton's true level of performance. In 2007, Hamilton had a .696 WSP, which ranked him first among all Reds position players who had at least 100 Plate Appearances. He led Keppinger (.640), Dunn (.619), Encarnacion (.562), Hatteberg (.492), Phillips (.480), Griffey Jr. (.480), Norris Hopper (.441), and Alex Gonzalez (.439).

Of course, injuries are of concern, but given the circumstances under which he played in 2007, it's not beyond the realm of possibilities that another year away from drug addiction and another offseason to prepare his body for the grind of Major League baseball will result in improved health. Regardless, one season is far too small of a sample size to definitively label a player "injury prone." It's difficult to justify giving up a player with Hamilton's upside after one season in which he was injured.

When he played, Hamilton played at the highest level of any position player on the Reds and it's not a trend that is likely to change. Baseball guru Bill James projected Hamilton to post a 2008 line of .305/.382/.598/.979 with 31 homers for the Reds. As mentioned above, that comes with the same fear of injury, which is why James projected Hamilton to play only 115 games. Of course, that's a season's worth of production in only 115 games and if he stays healthy, then he could have an MVP caliber season.

Edinson Volquez

Edinson Volquez was part of the overhyped "DVD" trio of Ranger pitching prospects. Volquez joined John Danks and Thomas Diamond as the cream of the Ranger farm system. Unfortunately for the Rangers, none of the three lived up to his reputation.

Danks was traded to the White Sox in the Brandon McCarthy trade, Diamond underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2007, and now Volquez has been dealt away.

Volquez features a plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a plus change-up in the mid-70s. Unfortunately, he has never had a consistent breaking ball. He has always been lauded for his makeup and work ethic, but struggles at the MLB level have raised questions about his ability to make adjustments.

I've always liked pitchers who feature a top notch change-up, as it is truly a "pitcher's pitch." It's a pitch that requires good feel and understanding of how to pitch in order to use it effectively. If a pitcher features a good change-up, then you know he isn't just a thrower. So, Volquez is more than just a thrower, but he'll have to develop a breaking ball to be an effective starting pitcher in the majors.

It'll be interesting to see if he can find success at the MLB level, but he may ultimately prove to be an example of a plus fastball dominating minor league competition, but not being enough to over match the more advanced MLB hitters. Volquez's future will hinge on his ability to refine his curveball. If he can't, then he'll likely be headed to the bullpen in the future.

Danny Ray Herrera

Herrrera is one of the most unique, intriguing prospects in baseball. However, that may not be such a good thing. Herrera is a left-handed pitcher who is listed at 5"7' and 145 pounds, but even that is likely generous. He was drafted out of the University of New Mexico in the 45th round. He had tremendous success at New Mexico, despite working in one of most hitter friendly parks in college baseball.

However, Herrera features a fastball that sits in the 80-82 mph range and tops out at 84. He also features a changeup that he throws at 55-60 mph with screwball like action and a late breaking slider.

Herrera relies heavily on his change-up, which has good sink, enabling him to rack up groundballs at a healthy clip. Heavy groundball tendencies is an attribute that should serve him well in GABP.

Herrara had the best control in the Ranger system, but questions remain over whether his success was the result of a gimmick pitch which would be ineffective against MLB hitting. He seems oddly similar analogous to Carlos Guevara, the screwball pitcher that the Reds refused to ever give an opportunity at the MLB level, which makes his inclusion in the deal all the more puzzling.

Given the volatility of Volquez, I could see Herrara having the more successful career of the two pitchers. However, if that's the case, then this deal will be monumentally bad for the Reds, as Herrara's upside is limited and they need Volquez to be successful in order to justify dealing away Hamilton.

FAN PERSPECTIVE

Oddly enough, as inconceivable as I find this deal from an analytical point of view, I find the deal even more disturbing as a fan. Sadly, the Reds exhibited a complete lack of loyalty in making this deal. After years of watching baseball and long ago reaching that age where it's understood that baseball is a business, I really shouldn't have expected any loyalty. Still, the pure fan part of me is disappointed, as it seems like the Reds had a duty to stick with Hamilton.

The Reds plucked him out of relative obscurity, where he was chopping down trees for extra money. They brought him to the majors, gave him the support system he needed to succeed, and exposed him and his history to the white hot spotlight.

In spite of the long odds, Hamilton not only survived, he thrived. At that point, to me, he became inextricably linked to the Reds. He was a symbol of a possible resurgence in Cincinnati baseball. Hamilton not only resurrected his own life and career, but it seemed like the Reds might be able to revive their fortunes as well. If Hamilton could conquers his terrible demons, then the Reds could certainly conquer their own futility. In many respects, Hamilton had become the face of the organization.

The acquisition of Hamilton earned the Reds respect from media and fans across the nation. The organization was actually being lauded by everyone around baseball for an intelligent, unforeseen move. As odd as it sounds, it's been a long time since the Reds put one over on the competition and were accorded that level of respect. They stole Brandon Phillips, but Hamilton was different. The Reds pulled him out of nowhere. It was an inspired player personnel move and a great story, one that made the Reds the envy of baseball fans across the country.

However, almost before the ink is dry on the articles, the ride is over for the Reds. Hamilton moves on to Texas to write the next chapter of his amazing story and the Reds are left with another potential middle of the rotation starter and a relief pitcher who may not ever be given the opportunity to pitch in the majors.

Somehow, as fan, it's hard not to feel truly cheated by this deal, which somehow manages to wound the heart and bewilder the head at the same time.

So long, Josh, we hardly knew ya.

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