The Granderson Trade, And Other Thoughts On The Off-Season

I suppose it’s about time that I post something here. So much has changed since December 2nd. Tiger Woods’ life and reputation have been irreparably changed. Roy Halladay has been traded. In a move that will surely solve all of the franchise’s problems, the Knicks signed former lottery pick Jonathan Bender. And most importantly, I set a new personal record by riding eight separate trains (in order: 1, 3, 2, 5, R, V, D, C) in one day. It is truly a new world.

Other than my epic day of subway riding, the most pertinent development in the last thirteen days has been the New York Yankees trading for center fielder Curtis Granderson. I found out about this the way I usually find out about important sports news – by my phone buzzing incessantly while I’m at work (my phone darn near broke the day David Ortiz was outed as a steroid user). After personally assuring each and every one of my students that, yes, that is my phone that’s buzzing and yes, I’m aware that it’s a terrible injustice that I can have my phone in school and you can’t, I found a brief moment to read one of the six text messages sitting in my inbox. By chance, I happened to see the one co-founder Keesup sent me, which read something like “[Expletive] you. Seriously? Granderson?” He later sent me the details of the trade, and after much contemplation, I’ve decided that I approve of the Yankees’ decision.

As you most likely know by now, the Yankees gave up pitchers Ian Kennedy and Phil Coke, as well as top center field prospect Austin Jackson in the three-team deal that ultimately placed Granderson in The Bronx. I am just as unaffected now by the loss of Kennedy and Coke as I was when I first heard of it. Kennedy, 24, was one of the Yankees’ three heralded young starting pitchers who debuted in 2007. His performance was brief but impressive – 19 innings, four earned runs, nine walks, and 15 strikeouts. Despite the nine walks, he showed what well-informed fans should have rightfully expected, which was exceptional control and average stuff. His performance in 2008, however, was disastrous, and he missed much of 2009 with an aneuryism in his right arm. Kennedy might well be a useful back-end starter in the National League, but it’s almost certain that he never would have cut it on an elite team in the superior league. The lefty Coke was a very useful part of the Yankees’ bullpen last season. He threw 60 innings, allowing 20 walks and 49 strikeouts. He also held left-handers to a .195/.218/.366 line, which was arguably his most important job. He did, however, have this infuriating tendency to give up absolute bombs of home runs to the lefties he was supposed to retire. And, despite what you might have heard from many broadcasters, sportswriters, and radio hosts here in New York City, Coke is not a “kid.” He’s 27, and while that isn’t old for a baseball player, expectations of significant improvement are unfounded. Coke is what he is: a useful but not exceptional left-handed reliever. I’m not torn up at all about losing him.

Losing Austin Jackson, however, caused me to wince a little bit. This was not an uncommon reaction. When I divulged the details of the deal to one of my bosses, he did the exact same thing when I came to Jackson’s name. From what I can tell, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder with respect to Jackson’s future. Some intelligent and respected scouts believe that he’ll turn into an All-Star caliber blend of power and speed. Some believe he’ll develop five above-average tools, but no elite one. And some believe that he’s the dreaded baseball “tweener” – that he won’t hit enough to play a corner, and that he can’t field well enough to stick in center field. Personally, I’m less optimistic about him than I was a year ago. He flashed some power potential in Double-A in 2008, but it stagnated in Triple-A in 2009. Coupled with his disconcerting strikeout totals, I’d wager that his ceiling is an average player. His departure still stings because Yankee fans have been hearing about him for so long and, to a lesser extent, have been pinning lofty hopes on him. With that being said, in five years, I don’t we’ll be ruing the day we traded him away.

In exchange for these three players, the Yankees received Granderson, a 28-year-old center fielder signed to a reasonable contract through 2012. Granderson is a good player with flaws that keep him from being great. He boasts a career .272/.344/.484 line, which translates into an OPS+ of 113. He has legitimate 20-home run power, and with a little luck, perhaps he’ll even touch 30 a few more times in his career. He’s an effective base-stealer, succeeding at a clip just below 80%. Just as importantly, he’s one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball today. Both of his flaws do jump out at you, although one is more widely reported than the other. Granderson does strike out quite a bit, which will only become a problem if his power drops off. I’m sure this will lead to many frustrating moments during the regular season, but contrary to popular belief, striking out isn’t some shameful indictment of a hitter’s ability. Baseball’s leaders in striking out last season were, in descending order, Mark Reynolds, Ryan Howard, Jack Cust, Adam Dunn, Brandon Inge, Carlos Pena, Jason Bay, Mike Cameron, Jayson Werth, and B.J. Upton. As you can see, strikeouts aren’t a bad thing as long as you hit the ball hard when you do make contact. Walking helps too.

No, Granderson’s real flaw is his total futility against left-handed pitching. While he crushes righties, his career line against southpaws is .210/.270/.344. In 2009, it was .183/.245/.239. Clearly he’s not improving. Perhaps this says something about me, but this flaw was the first thing I thought of when the trade was announced. I was particularly worried because Granderson is (a) relatively small, (b) a center fielder, (c) fast, which to me screamed that he would immediately be designated the team’s lead-off hitter. But mercifully, the Yankees’ front office appears to be aware of this shortcoming, and has stated that Granderson will be in the top of the order against righties and near the bottom against lefties. I’m fine with this arrangement, provided that I don’t catch him pinch-hitting against Jon Lester or David Price in an important situation. If that happens, you’ll be reading about it here in short order.

Ultimately, I’m quite pleased with how the Yankees did in this deal. They gave up a pitcher that they’ll never have any use for (Kennedy), a useful but replaceable reliever (Coke), and a talented prospect with wildly varying forecasts (Jackson). In exchange, they received reasonably-compensated, power-hitting, good defensive center fielder in his prime. It’s hard to complain about that.

* * * * * * *

Other thoughts about the off-season so far:

  • To their enormous credit, the Red Sox appear hell-bent on improving their already formidable roster. As much brighter people have pointed out, the Red Sox are prioritizing run prevention over run production this off-season, as indicated by their nearly-finished signings of pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Mike Cameron. Hopefully, this off-season conclusively reveals two things. The first is that the Red Sox are an exceedingly well-run organization that combines intelligent management with immense resources. This is not up for debate. The second thing is that the Red Sox are not – I repeat, not – a small market team that must rely on new and innovative methodologies to compete with richer teams. They are giving over $80 million to John Lackey, $15 million to Mike Cameron, $12.5 million to Marco Scutaro, and have a standing offer of at least $15 million to Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. No, this is not the same as the Yankees’ binge on the Teixeira-Sabathia-Burnett trio, but this isn’t exactly thrifty behavior either. The Red Sox are a big market team with considerable financial resources. There is no room for debate about this. I’m looking at you, John Henry, and anyone else who has bought into this delusional concept.
  • There continues to be no franchise in Major League Baseball that is more hopeless than the Houston Astros. Washington Nationals’ fans at least have the careers of Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg to look forward to. Kansas City Royals’ fans can at least enjoy the development of Zack Greinke, Billy Butler and, to a lesser extent, Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar. I could also offer glass half-full perspectives on the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. But the Astros are the only team that has a hopeless present, a bleak future, and perhaps most devastatingly, a management team that shows no signs of recognizing either reality. The Astros predictably fell way short of their laughably high expectations, and in order to rectify their huge number of problems, have done the following things: signed average middle reliever Brandon Lyon to a three-year, $15 million contract, traded for mediocre middle reliever Matt Lindstrom, signed the impotent Pedro Feliz to a one-year, $4.5 million deal, and – wait for it – signed the horrendous Jason Michaels to a one-year, $800,000 deal. Normally, I’d be furious not only at such a gross misuse of funds, but also at the opportunity cost (not giving young players a shot to produce the same amount at a much lower cost). But we’re talking about the Astros here, which means that they have absolutely zero prospects to test out in lieu of these overpaid veterans. It’s going to be hilarious when they win 70 games again and can’t figure out why.
  • Speaking of unintentional comedy, the Chicago White Sox have traded for Juan Pierre (and are going to hit him lead-off!). It’s going to be just as hilarious when Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams can’t figure why a lineup featuring Andruw Jones, Alex Rios, Alexei Ramirez, A.J. Pierzynski, and Juan Pierre can’t produce enough runs to win games.
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