Monday, December 15, 2008

Cleveland's Return on the Gutz Trade

Cleveland made a surprise move before leaving Las Vegas on Thursday, acting as a bridge for the Mariners and Mets to complete a 12 player deal. Part of the trade involved Franklin Gutierrez heading to Seattle, with the Tribe getting reliever Joe Smith from New York and second baseman Luis Valbuena from Seattle.

It was no secret the rebuilding Mariners were shopping closer J.J. Putz and the Mets had been inquiring about every available closer at the Winter Meetings before signing Francisco Rodriguez. Tribe GM Mark Shapiro had been in discussions with Seattle about Putz before, but pulled back once negotiations with Kerry Wood started to yield results. Combine that with Shapiro’s strong relationship with Mets GM Omar Minaya and it’s easy to see where much of the groundwork for Cleveland’s involvement came from. Shapiro admitted the deal came together “remarkably quickly,” often the case when a transaction occurs on the last night of the Winter Meetings at 2:00am.

Obviously the Mets main goal was to further bolster their bullpen, although some might argue that acquiring a second closer to go with Rodriguez’s new contract borders on overkill. Omar Minaya has some guts in trading for Putz and relegating him to the setup role. Putz had explicitly stated before the trade that he wanted to remain a closer, so he couldn’t have been too happy about becoming K-Rod’s sidekick. On the plus side, Putz will get to play for a contender again and may be in line for a big payday in two years depending on his performance.

After compiling a 1.86 ERA and 76 saves the past two seasons, Putz’s 2008 season jumped the track when he suffered a rib injury in April and a hyperextended right elbow in June. Putz’s trademark is the strikeout, backing up his 95 MPH fastball with an 11.04 K/9 average the past three seasons. If Putz makes a 100% recovery from his elbow injury, the Mets could have a ridiculous one-two punch to close out games. Putz’s two remaining contract years ($5 mil and an $8.6 mil club option) make him a pricey setup man, but he could turn out to be a bargain if he returns to form. There have been some questions regarding how sustainable Putz’s peripherals are and the recent injuries only compound the issue. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back from a sub-par 2008.

Seattle got back a slew of young players in the deal, including four major leaguers and three minor leaguers. Below are the 12 players on the move:

New York gets: J.J. Putz (RP), Jeremy Reed (CF), Sean Green (RP)

Seattle gets: Aaron Heilman (RP), Endy Chavez (OF), Jason Vargas (RP), Franklin Gutierrez (OF), Ezequiel Carrera (OF), Mike Carp (1B), Maikel Cleto (RP)

Cleveland gets: Joe Smith (RP), Luis Valbuena (2B)

With the obvious exception of Franklin, I don’t know much about the package of players Seattle received. In general, Mariners fans seem to like the trade, which is probably a good indicator of the value they got back. Since I’d like to focus on how the trade will impact the Tribe, I’ll leave the analysis of Seattle’s return in the hands of baseball guru Dave Cameron at U.S.S. Mariner.

Joe Smith

Year Age Level IP ERA WHIP K/BB K/9 BB/9 AVG ERA+
2006 22 A- 20 0.45 0.65 9.33 12.60 1.35 .151 N/A

AA 13 5.54 1.77 1.09 8.53 7.82 .251 N/A
2007 23 AAA 9 2.00 1.22 1.25 5.00 4.00 .216 N/A

MLB 44.3 3.45 1.55 2.14 9.14 4.26 .277 123
2008 24 MLB 63.3 3.55 1.29 1.68 7.39 4.41 .222 118

Smith is expected to start the season in the Cleveland bullpen and should see a significant workload in 2009. GM Mark Shapiro views Smith as “an important part of the back end of a 'pen," which probably means we’ll see him contribute in the 7th and 8th innings if all goes well. Smith broke in with the Mets in 2007 and has logged two successful Major League seasons. I don’t think I’d call Smith a prospect anymore because he seems to have established himself at the ML level at this point. Most of Smith’s appearances with New York came in the 7th and 8th innings in low leverage situations.

For what it’s worth, Smith’s 3.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 1.67 K/BB over 63.3 IP made him one of the best options in the Mets’ bullpen for 2008. Historically, Smith has struggled against left handed batters. Lefties compiled a .309 / .427 / .454 line in 23.2 IP versus Smith over his career. Smith is very effective against righties though, posting a .223 / .317 / .326 career line in 84.0 IP. Smith’s struggles against left handed batters are probably in large part due to his sidearm delivery (batters in the left side of the box are able to pick up on his delivery better). Until Smith develops a way to better deal with lefties, he will continue to be limited as a righty-specialist in the late innings.

Smith had a solid K/9 rate of 7.39 in 2008, but his 4.41 BB/9 rate points to occasional control issues (he still managed to throw over 60% of his pitches for strikes). His sidearm style allowed him to induce a ton of groundball outs, with 62.6% of his batted balls going for grounders. Being an extreme groundball pitcher probably helps him stay out of trouble despite a high walk rate. Overall, Smith was an above average reliever in 2008 with a 118 ERA+.

Smith’s trademark is his sidearm delivery and sinking fastball. According to Josh Kalk’s Pitch f/x database, Smith’s fastball has an average speed of 91.19 MPH and was used almost 68% of the time in 2008. His fastball has such a strong bite that Pitch f/x actually classifies it as a sinker. Smith’s secondary pitch is a slider with good movement and an average speed of 82.05 MPH.

Smith takes advantage of his deceptive delivery and extreme pitch movement by pounding right-handers inside with his fastball before pulling the string with the slider outside. He rarely went inside with the slider and used it about 32% of the time overall. The slider is Smith’s go-to pitch in potential strikeout situations where he is ahead in the count. While the slider shows up over 55% of the time in a favorable count, the fastball is utilized over 90% of the time when he’s fallen behind.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video of Smith’s delivery, but his release point tends to fall between four and five feet off the ground (most pitchers have a release point of at least six feet). Smith switched to the sidearm delivery after his college coach recommended it as a way to improve his control. The suggestion worked so well that Smith went from a college baseball walk-on in 2004 to a 3rd round MLB draft pick in 2006. Smith describes how his delivery has evolved in a recent Washington Post interview:

"My delivery now is a little different than the way I threw in college. In college, the delivery was putting a lot more stress on my arm. Now, there's not as much stress on my arm, so I don't feel as sore. I'm still learning how to pitch to big league hitters. I don't think I'll ever stop trying to learn more about how to do this."

Smith has weathered a pretty rapid transition from college ball to the Majors. Considering he is still developing as a pitcher in both his delivery and approach, I think there is a lot of potential for improvement over the next few seasons. Tony Lastoria believes “the key to [Smith] becoming more effective against left-handers and a potential setup man is the development of a changeup.” Hopefully the Tribe can continue to improve Smith’s changeup (he used it sparingly in 2008) and allow him to emerge from his current specialist role.

With the addition of Kerry Wood and Joe Smith and prospects like Adam Miller, Tony Sipp, Jeff Stevens, and John Meloan waiting in the wings, Cleveland’s bullpen is due for a major overhaul in 2009. Given his potential ceiling, previous experience, and dominance against right-handers, Smith is better than your average depth acquisition and could become a significant arm in the pen next season.

Luis Valbuena

Valbuena is considered the centerpiece of Cleveland’s return in this deal. Based on the suddenness of the trade, I had a feeling Valbuena was not meant as the answer to Cleveland’s infield needs. Shapiro confirmed this theory by stating Valbuena “could be a guy who factors into our big league picture, depending on how our offseason concludes. But he's not our infield piece right now." In other words, Valbuena will be starting the season with Buffalo so he can build on the substantial progress he made last season. The fact that Shapiro left the door open for Valbuena to contribute in the Majors in 2009 tells you something about his potential in the eyes of the GM.

I think Cleveland’s plan is to start Valbuena in AAA and allow him to build on his break-out season. Valbuena’s offensive numbers surged during his age-22 season, culminating in his Major League debut with Seattle. Below are Valbuena’s peripherals for the last two seasons:

2007 21 AA 505 .313 .378 .304 6.08 0.58 .140
2008 22 AA 277 .384 .483 .378 7.48 0.84 .179

AAA 246 .383 .373 .339 7.68 0.88 .071

MLB 54 .315 .347 .298 4.90 0.36 .102

There are a few positive signs in Valbuena’s minor league performance. He spent the entire 2007 season toiling in AA and only had modest offensive numbers to show for it. He was striking out almost 19% of the time and did not show much patience at the plate. Valbuena took what he learned in 2007 and ran with it, becoming a much more disciplined hitter in the process. By honing his batting eye and showing more patience, Valbuena was able to reduce his strikeouts and collect more walks. Once he started to get on base more, his overall offensive production (represented here by wOBA) improved by .074 points compared to his previous season in AA. Valbuena also started to make better contact with the ball, pushing his ISO up from .140 to .179.

Seattle rewarded Valbuena’s work ethic with a promotion to AAA mid-season. Even though his power numbers took a nosedive in his first exposure to AAA pitching, Valbuena’s OBP held steady while his strikeout and walk rates actually improved. This is the most important trend from Valbuena’s time in the upper-minors. Despite having to adjust to tougher pitching in AAA, his ability to reach base and earn walks continued to improve. Valbuena’s power numbers should bounce back naturally as long as he continues to see the ball well. He may also develop more power in his swing as he ages. Many young players tend to press and go for the long ball, so the opposite trend will occur (OBP and K head south at the expense of a few more extra base hits). Valbuena has done a good job of avoiding this pitfall.

Most Cleveland fans (my self included) haven’t seen Valbuena in the field before, but Jeff at Lookout Landing provides his take on Valbuena’s glove:

“The thing that excited me most about Valbuena, though, was his defense. Don't bother looking at his defensive statistics; given the sample size, they won't tell you anything. Trust your eyes. If you watched Valbuena around second base this past month, you saw him make a lot of plays deep to his right, along with a couple that required him to come charging in towards the plate. I don't recall seeing him go to his left very often, but that's kind of out of his control. What's important is that, in his limited playing time, Valbuena was able to showcase both above-average range and above-average instincts with a pretty good arm. That's big. This team [Seattle] badly needs some better defense going forward, and now that I've seen Valbuena play his position, I'm pretty confident saying that he could play a solid second base in the Majors Leagues right now.”

Sounds good to me.

The adjustments Valbuena made between 2007 and 2008 look like they have a good chance of sticking and probably made him an appealing prospect to the Tribe. It took Valbuena one and a half seasons in AA before he was ready to move up, so one more season in AAA would seem like a logical move here. Unless he really catches fire (or Shapiro fails to land a new infielder), I doubt we’ll see Valbuena in Cleveland until the rosters expand in September. Valbuena could break in with the club by taking over Jamey Carroll’s utility role in the 2010 season.

Bottom Line

I like this trade in theory: dealing from an area of depth (corner outfielders) to fill in two definite needs elsewhere (bullpen and high level infield prospects). As a fan, Gutz was one of my favorite players to watch, but I think it was a smart move to trade him. Cleveland has another wave of quality outfielders who are near-ML ready and there would have been a serious crunch on the 25-man roster at some point. Plus, Gutz's value probably wouldn't have gotten much better than it already was anyway. In a way, Cleveland did Gutz a favor because now he can be a starter in centerfield, taking full advantage of his defensive prowess. I figured Gutz would have gone as part of a package for a bigger return, but I'm satisfied with what we got back for him.

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