Friday, April 22, 2005

 

A Look Back: The Mets and the Marlins Fire Sale

1997 was the year of the Mets' turnaround as they improved 18 games from their 1996 season and finished 88-74. But they weren't quite complete as a team; they had some flaws. As the Mets began their ascent, financial realities set in for the Marlins, who had run into the difficult problem of not being able to pay for their team.

The Mets added three players to their team from the Marlins' fire sale: Dennis Cook, Al Leiter, and Mike Piazza. The three players were instrumental parts of the 1999 and 2000 Mets playoff teams, but a couple of questions:

1. What did the Mets give up and where are they now?
2. After seven years, how valuable were the three acquisitions?

Going South

December 18, 1997: Traded Fletcher Bates and Scott Comer to Florida Marlins in exchage for Dennis Cook.

Fletcher Bates had a mildly intriguing year statistically back in 1997, when he split time between high-A St. Lucie and AA Binghamton. I don't have the league adjustment coefficients from back in '97, unfortunately, but his stats were OK. He had an impressive line of .300/*.381/.593 in St. Lucie and a less impressive .257/*.328/.478 in Binghamton. (* - OBP only includes walks.) Unfortunately, he was 23 years old, so the OBP drop off was not really acceptable. He significantly regressed in '98 for the Marlins in the Eastern League. In either case, Bates never duplicated his quality 1997 numbers in St. Lucie. He never reached the majors.

Scott Comer is not listed on The Baseball Cube and he wasn't prevalent on Google. I dug deeper and the only thing I found was that he was a 6'5" lefty pitcher. He never reached the majors.

February 6, 1998: Traded A.J. Burnett, Jesus Sanchez and Robert Stratton to Florida Marlins in exchange for Al Leiter and Ralph Milliard.
March 20, 1998: Traded Brandon Villafuerte and a player to be named later (Cesar Crespo) to Florida Marlins in exchange for Robert Stratton; Florida Marlins received .

A.J. Burnett was described in a New York Times article as "a right-handed pitcher who has not advanced beyond Class A" in this trade. His finding is either attributable to some statistic I've never seen or scouting, because Burnett was not all that great with the Mets. He was a high-strikeout guy out of the NY Penn League with no control whatsoever, averaging around 7 BB/9 innings. I would have been happy to trade him, no matter what the scouts had said.

Since then, A.J. Burnett has developed into the best player sent South in this deal. In A-Kane County, Burnett halved his walks and put up an absurd season:

1.97 ERA, 119 IP, 3.4 BB/9, 14.1 K/9

In the majors, Burnett was plagued by unreasonable pitch counts, a return of the shaky control...and yet he still managed to be one of the better pitchers in the league in '02. Early returns in 2005 have Burnett finally putting it all together; his mid-to-high 90s fastball, coupled with a devastating curveball, make Burnett an effective pitcher. Statistically, Burnett is due for a second breakout as he distances himself from Tommy John surgery:

BB/9
1999: 5.44
2000: 4.79
2001: 4.31
2002: 3.96
2003: Lost year
2004: 2.85

To put it in perspective, Burnett's best season thus far was 2002. He went 12-9 with a 3.30 ERA, striking out just under a batter per inning. He was fast emerging as a star pitcher, but Torborg drove him into the ground. Here's some data, courtesy of ESPN.

Pitches Thrown

4/3 - 112
4/8 - 106
4/14 - 124
4/20 - 68
4/25 - 125
4/30 - 125
5/5 - 105
5/10 - 121
5/15 - 117
5/21 - 99
5/26 - 115
5/31 - 96
6/5 - 116
6/10 - 116
6/15 - 128
6/20 - 103
6/25 - 127
6/30 - 128
7/5 - 94
7/12 - 98
7/17 - 81
7/22 - 110
7/27 - 132
8/1 - 128
8/7 - 93
8/12 - 123
8/18 - 117

Burnett was then shelved and pitched a few games down the stretch, but the damage was done. I don't always agree with Aaron Gleeman, but he was absolutely on the ball with this from AaronGleeman.com.

According to Baseball Prospectus' "Pitcher Abuse Points" Burnett has been the 2nd most "abused" pitcher in all of baseball this season, behind only Randy Johnson.

There is just no way that a 25 year old pitcher in his 2nd full season in the majors should be allowed to consistently throw that many pitches, start after start after start...Burnett has been great this year and he looks like he will be a stud for years to come. But the way he is being treated makes me think he is in line for some arm troubles...
- 8/1/2002

While PAP is still relatively controversial (The Neyer/James Guide to Pitching wrote a good critique) and while I think that pitcher abuse is difficult to quantify, is there a bigger case than Burnett in 02? I think that there'd be a pretty solid consensus is that running your 25 year old pitcher out there for 111 pitches, on average, is probably not a safe strategy, if your goal is health.

Burnett is back, though, and, hopefully, McKeon will be a little more cautious with his arm. If he stays healthy, he's a pretty solid bet to be a top-flight big league starter.

Jesus Sanchez has been in and out of the majors since 1998, when he had a rotation spot. He was 22 in AA and struck out 176 in 165.1 innings, but the ERA was at 4.30. Necessity forced him to the bigs, and his 93 ERA+ in '98 was his career best. Perhaps some AAA time would have helped out, but Sanchez never really did much in the bigs, most recently surfacing for three starts with the Reds in '04, with Game Scores of 26, 50, and 36 and an unseemly ERA of 7.54. He's currently with the Blue Jays organization, on last look.

Robert Stratton, a massive Met first round bust, cost the Mets two future major leaguers: Cesar Crespo and Brandon Villafeurte. Stratton's production has been pretty disastrous over the course of his career. He serves as a fair example of where strikeouts can be excessive; Stratton struck out 40.8% of his plate apperances in A-St. Lucie back in 2000. He's never made the bigs.

Cesar Crespo isn't very good. He's been in the bigs for a bit and has posted a .192/.270/.284 line in 291 PAs.

Villafuerte's consistently been one of the PCL's more solid pitchers for the last four years and has been up and down from AAA to the bigs. Looking at the numbers makes it difficult to give up on a guy like Villafuerte, even with his less-than-stellar major league track record. His PCL stats are so darn good over the last 4 years:

196.2 IP, 2.34 ERA, 6 HR, 72 BB, 182 K

He's pitched in 91 big league games and has been a below average reliever. He's OK and might put together a good year or two, but the FIP and peripherals suggest that his low-4 ERAs have been lucky. The best explanation I can give is the slippery slope of K/9 in the minors:

2001: 9.19
2002: 8.38
2003: 8.18
2004: 6.75

A quick wrap-up on the Leiter cost: 4 prospects, all 4 of whom made the bigs. One has been worthwhile.

May 22, 1998: Traded Geoff Goetz, Preston Wilson and Ed Yarnall to Florida Marlins in exchange for Mike Piazza.

It's amazing how high a New York pitching prospect will go based on seven starts, but that's how Ed Yarnall, a 3rd rounder in the 1997 draft, did it. His 7 starts in AA-Binghamton in 1998 were as good as they could have been. He was 7-0 with a 0.39 ERA, 52 K, and 17 BB in 46.2 IP, ming him the centerpiece pitching prospect of the deal. He made 2 starts in AA Portland for the Marlins, and the 9-0 record had him promoted to AAA, where his K-rate died, his walks shot up, and his ERA was an ugly 6.42.

That offseason, the Marlins traded him in a 3 for 1 for a young Yankee third baseman, Mike Lowell.

His 1999 vaulted him into the ranks of the top prospects in the league as his control and strikeouts returned for the Yanks in AAA. They dealt him to the Reds in the infamous "Drew Henson I" deal.

For all the hype he generated, Yarnall has only thrown 20 unimpressive big league innings, due to "injuries and weight," as John Sickels notes. Yarnall has been in Japan and in the AAAs of Oakland, Philly, and Boston over the last four years. He finds himself in New Orleans this year, AAA affiliate of the Nationals.

Geoff Goetz never panned out, mainly due to control problems. He's been a reliever for the last few years who never made it above AA. Call this one a bust.

The most major league experience out of any of the goings, Preston Wilson warrants some attention. In 1998, he was making a name for himself and trying to shed the hype of being the stepson of Met hero Mookie Wilson. He went 6 for 20 and was quickly endearing himself to the Shea faithful, but this short stint served as merely a move to show his potential (his minor league stats, to that point in 1998, were atrocious). The Marlins jumped at the chance to get him and sent him down to AAA, where he hit .278/.345/.576.

1999 was his rookie season, and he did not disappoint. The 25 year old hit .280/.350/.502 en route to a second place finish in the ROY voting.

Wilson never improved on that, though, so instead of developing into an elite centerfielder, he became well-known for his strikeouts and low batting averages. No real peripherals advanced, either:

BB/PA

1999: .085
2000: .082
2001: .070
2002: .100
2003: .081

K/PA

1999: .287
2000: .277
2001: .209
2002: .241
2003: .210

Crude park-adjusted ISO (see note at bottom)

1999: .230
2000: .225
2001: .224
2002: .189
2003: .223

The only consistency over that four-year span was the slight decline in power until that last year. His strikeouts and walks followed similar curves, interestingly enough, but Wilson never took his game upward.

OPS+ is a better stat at this point because I trust their park adjusting more than my own:

1999: 119
2000: 107
2001: 113
2002: 101
2003: 115

Wilson's '03 looks a lot like his '01, when you break it down, so that's probably our best guess as to his "established norm."

None of Wilson's years were elite. He then got hurt in 2004 and remains one of the highest paid players in the game, due $12 million this year.

So what is Wilson now?

He's probably right at that 115 OPS+ when healthy; he's never done anything to prove otherwise. I don't see anything here to project that he'll be better in 2005, either.

To summarize, the Mets traded the following players for their triumvirate of Marlin castoffs:

- AJ Burnett
- Preston Wilson
- Brandon Villafuente
- Jesus Sanchez
- Cesar Crespo
- Ed Yarnall
- Geoff Goetz
- Fletcher Bates
- Scott Comer

One of those 9 is a star caliber player. One is a serviceable to above average hitter. One is an inconsistent reliever. The other five never really panned out.

The Acquisitions

Cook was the first of the three acquisitions, and his 1998 was fantastic. He led the league in K/9 among middle relievers, who, in my list, were the 95 major league pitchers with 40 or more games, 5 or fewer starts, and fewer than 10 saves. While that sample is a bit contrived, his 10.5 K/9 was excellent, regardless of how you look at it. An interesting curve forms for Cook's K/9 over his career:

1995 - 8.00
1996 - 8.19
1997 - 9.10
1998 - 10.46
1999 - 9.71
2000 - 8.08
2001 - 7.49
2002 - 4.88

A smooth rise and fall for Dennis Cook, in which he peaked in '98 and then began to age.

The signs were all there, though, in 1999, predicting a big fall in 2000. His walks increased, his homers more than doubled, and accordingly, his ISO allowed went from .108 to .208, which was dangerously high.

By the time the playoffs rolled around in 2000, Met fans everywhere held their collective breaths when Dennis Cook entered the game. He was no longer the dominant middle reliever of 1998; he was just another incarnation of Mel Rojas / Jerry DiPoto / pick a bad Mets reliever.

Retrosheet's game logs indicate what I remember: Cook pitched a lot of one batter appearances, originally being used as a lefty specialist. Gradually, his role expanded and diversified in his time in New York.

It is, unfortunately, extraordinarily difficult to calculate Win Shares, and I don't have a copy of the book. It is equally difficult to quantify the value of relievers without detailed play-by-play accounts of the game, which I also don't have. So the best we can do for Cook is to make a couple of statistically-based generalizations:

- He was a superb reliever in 1998.
- He was an average reliever but a potentially valuable guy out of the pen in 1999.
- He was well into his decline in 2000 and was not all that valuable for the World Series Mets club.

Considering the cost of Cook was two fringe prospects who never panned out, this was an excellent deal for the Mets.

Al Leiter gave the Mets seven seasons and a 95-67 record, and he was another guy whose best year in New York was his first:

2.47 ERA, 193 IP, 8 HR, 8.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9

Leiter's either an amazing pitcher or an amazingly lucky one, if you think about it. By the end of his New York tenure, his peripherals were horrendous, but he kept his ERA under 4 for each of his last 5 seasons with the Mets.

The first playoff season for the Mets, 1999, was his highest ERA year and probably his worst. Yet his most memorable performance for the Mets occurred this year, as he threw a 2-hit shutout in the 1-game play-in against the Reds. Leiter was earning his money and extension.

Leiter and Hampton carried the Mets to the NL pennant in 2000, but Leiter's year was one of his best. His K's jumped up as he struck out 200 batters in 208 innings. The walks dropped, the homers dropped, and he was going deep into games. Coupled with a low-ERA from Hampton, the Mets were well-suited for a playoff run. (Actually, I don't know what the relation is to having two very good pitchers and winning playoff series. That would be an interesting study to do.) 2000 was Leiter's last very good year; it's all been going downhill from there.

FIP

2000: 3.56
2001: 3.67
2002: 3.99
2003: 4.30
2004: 4.73

IP/S

2000: 6.71
2001: 6.46
2002: 6.19
2003: 6.02
2004: 5.79

Those two numbers tell it best - Leiter's peripherals have deteriorated, and he hasn't been able to stay in games very long...a big contract wasn't appropriate / warranted for 2005.

That said, Leiter was an important pitcher for the team, and, over the long haul, wins aren't a horrendous evaluation tool for pitchers. 95 ain't bad, and for, again, a few prospects, no one really complains about this. Of course, one of the prospects is A.J. Burnett. We'll get there after Piazza.

For Piazza, I tried a different tack with value-evaluation. He has been the franchise player of the Mets since they traded for him, and he seemingly single-handedly brought the Mets to respectability (never mind that the Mets had a pretty solid 1997). Jeremy Heit on MetsGeek.com wrote a solid review of Piazza's decline, so I'll stay away from that and instead focus on a slightly different tack for evaluation.

Everyone's got their run-scoring estimation methods of choice; mine remains Jim Furtado's XR because it's easy to calculate and it's linear.

So here are some figures on Piazza's offensive production for his Met career:

1998: 12.34%
1999: 11.45%
2000: 12.87%
2001: 14.84%
2002: 12.30%
2003: 6.64%
2004: 9.85%

That's the percentage of the Met offense that Piazza accounted for. How about plate apperances?

1998: 7.13%
1999: 9.19%
2000: 8.61%
2001: 9.31%
2002: 8.80%
2003: 4.54%
2004: 8.51%

Piazza was most valuable for the Mets, percentage-wise, back in 2001, but the 2001 Met offense was a disaster. It just wasn't very good, and the fact that they hung in that race for so long was a major accomplishment. Perhaps his most stunning achievement was accounting for 12.5% of the Met offense in only 4 months of a season. Either way, Piazza's runs and offensive production would be extraordinarily difficult to replace, and the fact that they came from the catching position just enhances his value.

Bringing it Together

So, the trades:

- The Cook deal was a steal, if only for Cook's excellent 1998.
- The Piazza deal was a steal as well. Preston Wilson never advanced pass the level of "above average" as a centerfielder. The Mets got 4.7 excellent seasons out of Piazza.
- The Leiter deal was not as good as the other two, if only because AJ Burnett is emerging as a top-flight starter as we speak.

Evaluating a trade is always an interesting thing to do, but, in the interests of not Monday morning quarterbacking, it's only fair to note with a disclaimer: the fact that the Marlins got "ripped off" in a lot of this is partially a product of the fact that they were in a "sell low" situation. Everyone knew that the Marlins had to trade their players away, and quickly. In stockpiling prospects, they were bound to have a lot of failures. But when one or two pan out (like Burnett), they accomplished something in their massive fire sale.

The Marlins are an interesting subject in general; the construction of their second World Series team fascinates me because they were so low-budget (I will probably write about this at some other time).

The other part is that in trade evaluation, to me, it's OK to look at what a trade was rather than what it could be. There's an argument to be made that no matter how poorly Scott Kazmir develops, the Kazmir-Zambrano trade is a disaster for the Mets because of not getting equal "perceived value." Burnett's numbers were disastrous before he was traded.

An add-on: Others from the Sale and its Aftermath

- Derrek Lee was acquired in the Kevin Brown deal.
- Johan Santana was selected in the Rule V draft by the Marlins and was then traded to the Twins.
- Braden Looper was one of the players in the Renteria deal.
- Brad Penny was one of the players acquired in the Mantei deal (1999).

Note: To calculate what I called "Crude park-adjusted ISO," I used Baseball Reference's park-adjusted data and made the slight adjustments for his years with the Marlins. For 2003 with the Rockies, I used ESPN's more specific data because Coors' Field has such changes for the extra base hits. I would have used the ESPN data for all of Wilson's years, but it only goes back to 2001.


Dan Scotto couldn't think of anything better to post when asked for a guest column. He'll be writing here more frequently as time goes on. He currently writes on his own blog, Baseball Babble, but not very well.


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