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Friday, July 07, 2006

Baseball Trades: Auction Theory

Buster Olney made a good point this morning on "Mike & Mike on ESPN Radio" regarding why there are so few trade rumors in Major League Baseball. Olney explains that because so many teams are in the hunt for a playoff spot, there is an abundance of buyers but few sellers. This is especially true in the National League, where every team in the West is in the hunt for the division title and a wildcard spot (playing zero-sum baseball again this year, as the team that wins that division might do it with 85 wins). Teams in the Central are also bunched (with the Cardinals having slipped and four teams in the chase for a playoff spot), and in the East, the woeful Phillies (who have lost 19 of their last 25) are 5 games out of the wild card (and, if you want to extend the list, the entire NL East could contend for the wild card, as all of those teams are on the Phillies' heels for second place in the NL East.

Therein lies a dilemma for many a team and GM. Do you stay the course, hope that the gaps on your roster heal themselves and pray to contend, or do you do something about it? If you have prospects, do you dangle them to other teams to lure that extra starter, reliever or lefthanded bat? Or do you stand pat? Or, and this is the huge or, do you turn yourselves into a seller, auction off your most desirable players, and then re-load your franchise the way Florida did at the end of last season. If you turn yourself into a seller, then you have a chance to reap great benefits, precisely because there are tons of buyers.

Let's focus on the Phillies. They don't have enough starting pitching to take the stress off their already over-taxed bullpen. The guy sitting next to me at the game on July 4th said, "Who would have thought that the Phillies' are expecting pitching relief from Jon Lieber and Randy Wolf? They're not exactly Koufax and Drysdale." He then relented and acknowledged that Lieber would be an upgrade, but Wolf is recovering from Tommy John surgery (hopefully he'll hurl better at the plate than his brother Jim, an umpire, worked the plate in last night's Phillies-Padres game. The lesser-known Wolf brother seemed to have a blind spot on inside pitches to lefthanded batters, calling most in sight strikes -- he also blew a game-ending call at first-base the night before, where the Phillies' runner clearly tied the throw). If the starters get knocked out early night after night, the relievers have to go 4 innings or more instead of an optimal 2 to 2 2/3. But I have digressed. . .

The Phillies shouldn't kid themselves and think they can make the playoffs. True, Brett Myers was emerging as a #1 starter before his domestic violence charge (Billy Wagner opined yesterday that Myers has the physical tools of a #1 but the mental gifts of a #4). Ryan Madson shows flashes of brilliance, but that's all -- flashes. Cory Lidle is a journeyman, Scott Mathieson needs seasoning, and the way Adam Bernero pitched in Toronto the other day you would have thought that the game was played in Cape Canveral. Bernero is back in the minors as is promising youngster Scott Mathieson. Youngster Cole Hamels hasn't thrown particularly well as of late.

The bullpen, outside of Tom Gordon and Rheal Cormier, is flammable if not combustible. Arthur Rhodes' WHIP as a set-up man is almost 2.0. Geoff Geary has been hit harder than the guys Larry Holmes defeated when he was the undisputed heavyweight champion. Aaron Fultz isn't the same guy he was last season, and Rick White is approaching Dave LaPoint's record for the most teams played for in a career. Ryan Franklin pitched well in relief on July 4th, but he's been a disappointment.

Without getting to the position players, I think I've made a good case that this team doesn't have nearly enough pitching to seriously contend for a playoff spot (unless somehow you could qualify with a 74-88 record). That said, there are some position players who might benefit from a change of scenery and who could benefit other clubs.

The Phillies have 5 reasonably good outfielders. CF Aaron Rowand is an above-average CF who plays hard. Shane Victorino is the leadoff man of the future, as he has the stroke, eye and wheels to bring more excitement to the top of the lineup than Jimmy Rollins, whose selectivity in the strike zone will not be confused with Wade Boggs' or Ted Williams'. David Dellucci is having a great year as a reserve OF, and his total bases to plate appearances ratio is one of the best in the Majors for outfielders (according to an excellent column in today's "Wall Street Journal" by Allen St. John, Dellucci appears to be in the top ten in this most interesting of statistical categories). The corner outfielders get maligned, but Pat Burrell hits for power, can hit in the clutch and kills the Mets. Bobby Abreu is one of the few people in MLB history to put together 7 seasons of at least 20 HRs and 20 steals. If a team needs a bat -- and many do -- they should look no further than Philadelphia.

The Phillies have said they're standing pat, although rumors have swirled that teams have approached them about Abreu. Former GM Ed Wade loaded the team up with no-trade contracts (Abreu, Burrell, David Bell and Mike Lieberthal), so Abreu would have to approve a trade. He's making $13 million this year, has $15 million coming to him next year and there's a club option of $15 million for 2008 (with a $2 million buyout). The conventional wisdom has been that the Phillies would have to eat a good portion of this contract to move the RF.

Pundits have opined that the Phillies would be better to blow up the roster and build around Rollins (who has a place in the lineup, but not at the top of it), Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Those pundits have included writers, former manager Larry Bowa, and, to a degree, former reliever Billy Wagner. Bowa figured that if the Phillies didn't make the post-season last year, that perhaps some guys need a change of scenery. He could well be right.

Pat Gillick should take stock in the views of the pundits and the fact that it's a seller's market and make a dashing move -- one that his predecessor never seemed to be able to make. If he auctions Abreu to the highest bidder, interesting things could happen, such as a) getting some good young players to build around and b) getting rid of most of the contract. The question does remain whether Abreu will waive his no-trade clause, but in most cases in the past 10 years that waiver hasn't seemed to be a roadblock. Let's assume, for the moment, that this won't be an issue.

I saw the Padres play the Phillies on Tuesday, and their lineup is weak. Put Abreu in the heart of the order and he'll transform the lineup. Ditto Colorado, Arizona, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once one team gets interested, its competitors will have to, for two reasons -- one, he can help their team and two, if they get him, not only do they help their team, but he's someone their competitors didn't get. The thing about the NL West is that some of those teams -- Los Angeles and Colorado, to name a few -- have some young prospects worth getting. For example, a trade with the Rockies could yield the third baseman-hungry Phillies promising prospect Ian Stewart while giving the Rockies a potent bat in Coors Field. In addition, if the bidding frenzy heightens as it might well given the abundance of buyers, the Phillies could shed Abreu's entire contract.

The fewer the items on sale (especially if they're scarce items, which they are here) and the more willing buyers, the higher the prices will go. at some point, the egos of those involved who just have to have it will become so inflated that they'll continue to offer a little extra until what they've offered is so overwhelming that the selling GM will say quickly and hope that the other team won't change its mind before the fax confirming the trade gets to MLB's offices in NYC. We've all seen this happen, and some of you, I'm sure, have gotten caught up in this phenomenon on eBay if not somewhere else. It's powerful, and handled correctly by the seller of the scarce item, potentially very lucrative.

This could be a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the right seller.

If Pat Gillick sees this and pulls the trigger, history could well prove him to be a genius.

Shedding Abreu makes more room for Dellucci and Victorino, both of whom have earned more playing time. It also could give the Phillies 2-3 solid prospects to help rebuild what "Baseball Prospectus" has dubbed a woeful minor league system and free up cash for future expenditures.

The possibilities abound for the Phillies (among others), but if they move quickly and become the first of the sellers, they could reap a bounty far beyond what they ever could have imagined. It's only a shame that King George in NYC doesn't have the prospects to trade, because getting the Yankees and BoSox into a bidding war over Abreu would be great theater.

The Phillies and others could be worried that if they throw in the towel and call it a season that their fans will be frustrated and won't show up. Well, truth be told, what's attracting fans to Citizens Bank Park are Utley and Howard and the park itself. The fans are frustrated with ownership's ineptitude to begin with, and they want action. Believe it or not, making this type of big trade, given the fans' sentiments, will attract more fans that it repels. Why? Because the fans know that this team cannot contend, and they want solid signals why they should buy tickets from this ownership group in the future.

Now is not the time to stand pat and watch a starting pitching staff of Lieber, Wolf, Hamels, Lidle and Madson try to pitch you into the post-season. Now is not the time to cross your fingers and toes that Arthur Rhodes can straighten himself out and become the set-up man you hoped for. Too many variables have to come together for the Phillies to contend for the wild card (and, even if they could, it would be a false positive, so to speak, because the way the team is currently constructed doesn't bode well for the future).

Now is the time to seize upon a major market opportunity --

and sell!

Let the auction begin!


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