Saturday, December 22, 2018

"The Trade of 2018"

Ok, I've given this trade a goodly amount of thought and...I don't love it.

It's a deal that makes perfect sense...for the Dodgers. They deal from surplus assets, reduce their total salary obligations for luxury tax purposes, add two prospects, and add international bonus pool money. In essence, they improve in the short-run because they will be able to add an impact free agent (Bryce Harper, come on down!), they improve in the long-run by adding two solid prospects (J.Downs; J.Gray) and international bonus money they can use to add more young talent, and they manage their luxury tax obligations by trading present salary for future salary and acquiring lower AAV salary.

So, it makes perfect sense for the Dodgers. Of course, trades aren't zero-sum games. Just because it works perfectly for the Dodgers, doesn't mean it doesn't make sense for the Reds. In some respects, it does make sense for the Reds. Unfortunately, it only seems to make sense for the short-run, which is problematic given the Reds current position on the win-curve. The Reds simply aren't built for the short-run.

This is/was a bad ball club, so adding three pieces who will become free agents after the 2019 season at the expense of future assets, doesn't really align with the Reds rebuild.

The purpose of the trade was to convert Homer's "dead money" (at least in the eyes of the organization) into salary obligations that will provide production. To convert Homer into productive assets, they gave up future assets. To me, it's just difficult to justify giving up future assets for three assets that are controllable for only a single season.

In fact, for this trade to make any sense, it requires the Reds to make a strong push to contend in 2019. That likely means trading blue-chip prospects for an impact starting pitcher. If they don't follow-up this trade with a big trade that pushes the team up the win-curve to a place where they are legitimate contenders, then they are wasting the prospects they traded and the single-seasons of control of Puig, Wood, and Kemp. If they do make an additional trade, then they are further depleting their rebuild assets.

This Puig trade essentially forces the Reds' hand, they now have to be competitive in 2019. Someone on the message board side talked about the danger (in the context of a Kluber trade) of ending up back at "square one," essentially by emptying our prospect-cupboard and not getting enough years of control in return to allow us to contend. Leaving us short of contention in the present and short of future assets needed to contend in the future. This trade has inherent "square one" risk and I don't think it's at all clear how the Reds are going to manage that risk.

Here's my rough summary of the assets changing hands:

RedsSalary2018 SalaryDodgersSalary
Y.Puig (Arb.)(~$9,000,000)($7.5M)H.Bailey($23,000,000)
Matt Kemp($21,500,000)2020 Buyout($5,000,000)
A.Wood (Arb.)(~$7,500,000)($6M)J.Downs
K.Farmer~League Minimum($547,500)J.Gray
International Bonus $$MinusPlus

Setting aside, for the moment, the potential value of the two prospects they gave up, there is a significant opportunity cost to this trade. Given that they traded Jeter and Josiah and international bonus money to the Dodgers, they can't later trade those assets for something else. In this day and age, blue-chip prospects rarely change hands; they are just too valuable. The types of prospects that do get moved more often are the second tier Jeter and Josiah. The Reds, as a result of this trade, have less ability to make those trades now. There are only so many bullets in the gun and Reds just fired off a few rounds.

Talking specifically about the prospects the Reds gave up, I feel like the Reds gave up more than people might think. With respect to Jeter Downs, I think he'll be a starting 2nd baseman at the big league level. Watching him hit, I'm struck by how comfortably he takes pitches. He is very comfortable at the plate, which speaks to strong pitch recognition. He seems to be able to identify pitch type and location very quickly, giving him a very calm presence in the box. And, he pairs that skill with a disciplined approach, as evidenced by a very strong walk rate at low-A. You don't give away a plus plate approach easily, especially with a player who can stick in the middle infield. Downs has a bit of work to do with his swing mechanics, as I don't think he incorporates his lower-half into the swing as well as he could...and likely will with the Dodgers. Even if doesn't change his swing mechanics, he will likely generate more power simply by filling out physically. Add in his plus make-up and the consensus that he has a shot to stick at short with a good likelihood of ending up at second base, and you have a potentially valuable player.

Josiah Gray is a bit rougher, being more of a recent convert to the mound. But, he has a quick arm and a clean arm action. He has a cross-fire delivery resulting from his stride foot landing in a closed off position, which likely reduces efficiency in his mechanics. Still, Gray dominated the rookie league, which is expected as a college pitcher...even one who recently converted to the mound. It was a strong debut, even given his age-over-level advantages. So, he has a chance to be an MLB pitcher, though he arguably packs more total risk than Downs, particularly in the form of injury risk (inherent in pitchers) and development risk (converted pitcher). Still, he's a legitimate prospect and another strong minor league season will only boost his future trade value.

As for the players coming back to the Reds, Matt Kemp is a 1.0 to 1.5 win type player. He had a solid offensive season in 2018 and will benefit from moving to GABP, but he has all the range of a traffic cone in the outfield, so he gives back much of the value of his offensive production on the defensive side. Not to mention, he's highly injury prone. At this point, Kemp has minimal value to the Reds.

So, we're down to Wood and Puig.

Wood is an interesting arm, but it's still unclear to me what role he fills. Over the last three seasons, his inning totals have been 60.1, 152.1, and 151.2 and each season he has spent time in both the bullpen and rotation. Can he hold down a rotation slot full-time? His performance level is solid, but over how many innings can he perform at that level? Given that the Reds already added a mid/back rotation option in Tanner Roark, they really needed to add, to be contenders, an arm at the top of the rotation, not more mid rotation filler. Not to mention, Alex Wood has some real funk to his mechanics and the corresponding amount of injury risk. Of course, given that he's only controllable for a single season reduces the injury risk.

Finally, we have Puig. Personally, I don't like Puig's antics, drama, or quirks. Setting that aside, at 28 years old, he's the asset with the chance to generate exit-value/future value. If everything clicks for Puig and he has a big season, then maybe the Reds give him a qualifying offer. The qualifying offer next offseason will likely be $18M+. That's a lot of cheddar and it seems unlikely the Reds go there unless Puig puts up something close to his career best season: .319/.391/.534. Of course, the fact that that production came in his rookie season, probably isn't a great sign. If Puig puts up a more typical and expected performance level of .267/.330/.485, then are we giving him an $18M+ offer??? I'm not seeing it.

As for the idea that the Reds will give Alex Wood an $18M qualifying offer, that seems highly unlikely to me. He's just not that type of pitcher. That's a salary level of a quality starting pitcher. Wood, to date, hasn't been able to shoulder the type of workload needed to justify that type of payday. So, Wood is not going to generate any exit-value.

Overall, this deal trades future assets for present ones, despite the fact that the organization is unlikely to be a contender in 2019. It certainly makes the Reds more relevant in 2019, which has undeniable value, but the opportunity cost is higher than appreciated.

It's the opportunity cost that is troubling.

Why not trade Jeter Downs, Josiah Gray, and international bonus money for a single, controllable asset that can help in both the present and the future? Something that aligns more with the organization's current place on the win-curve? Why give away future assets for assets controllable for only a single season? There's a misalignment of asset control and the timeline for contending, which might end up reducing the likelihood of a successful rebuild.

It's the misalignment of asset-control and contention-timeline that is troubling.

It's the "square one" risk that is troubling.

At this point, the Reds now HAVE to make a big trade to push this team farther up the win-curve for this move to make any sense. To do so, however, will require dealing away blue-chip prospects, further imperiling the rebuild and increasing the "square one" risk.

The Reds just put a lot of chips into the 2019 pot; I'm just not sure the odds are in their favor.