One of the beautiful aspects of professional sports is that even when your team happens to be down in the dumps, the anticipation of something else always remains. It’s not a stretch to suggest that prospect watching and trade rumors often fill the imagination of any dedicated fan. Dreaming on that hot-shot shortstop who can’t legally buy a scratch ticket or the potential trade haul a team could receive for dealing a stud regularly occupies endless hours on talk radio and internet forums.
Since Milwaukee is currently suffering through a year which one may charitably call disappointing, trade talk continues to heat up. Instead of looking at a specific player’s value — which many of my colleagues have begun doing with Francisco Rodriguez, Aramis Ramirez, Adam Lind, and Gerardo Parra last week — I want to look at the man pulling the trigger to see if the past can prepare us for what to expect as the trade winds blow through July and August.
Dealin’ Doug Melvin has been Milwaukee’s General Manager since September 26, 2002, making him the fifth-longest tenured GM in Major League Baseball. This will be his 13th trade deadline with the Brewers. The team’s current record is 29-48, its worst through the first 77 games of a season, so it’s safe to say deals will be made. Let’s stroll through previous deadlines where Melvin and the Brewers were sellers to analyze the results.
May 27: MIL trades Alex Sanchez to DET for Chad Petty and Noochie Varner.
July 10: MIL trades Curtis Leskanic to KC for Alejandro Machado and Wes Obermueller.
August 19: MIL trades Eric Young to SF for Greg Bruso.
August 27: MIL trades Mike DeJean to STL for PTBNL (Mike Crudale and John Novinsky)
The 2003 season was Melvin’s first season at the helm, and it wasn’t pretty. Milwaukee failed to make it above the .500 mark at any point. Melvin proved to be tentative that summer, as no blockbusters were made. Leskanic and DeJean were replacement level relievers, Eric Young was enjoying his last gasp of relevance, and Alex Sanchez was made redundant by the emergence of a whippersnapper named Scott Podsednik.
To receive some prized jewels in return, a team has to actually give something up substantive, or get lucky. The uninspiring lot traded away above didn’t produce much of a return for Milwaukee. Nor did the organization get lucky.
Only Obermueller and Crudale even appeared in the big leagues. Crudale received a cup of coffee that September and was out of the-organization shortly thereafter. Obermueller managed to stick around as a back-of-the-rotation option and a bullpen piece for a few years, but since he couldn’t produce an ERA below 5.00 or a FIP below 4.75, Steroid Era be damned, he was the definition of replacement level.
If we want to try and suss out any patterns here, it’s that Melvin sought any live arms he could find. Then again, it made sense for him to prioritize lottery tickets, considering his chips were mediocre at best. The best result of this trading season was freeing up center field for Podsednik.
July 25: MIL trades Jorge de la Rosa to KC for Tony Graffanino
July 28: MIL trades Nelson Cruz and Carlos Lee to TEX for Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix, and Julian Cordero
July 28: MIL trades Wilfrido Laureano to PHI for David Bell
These represent two starkly different kinds of trades. The Graffanino and Bell moves were necessary, in a way, to cover for injuries to Rickie Weeks and Corey Koskie. Someone needed to play second and third bases, and the cost was low for both.
The Cruz/Lee trade is what we imagine when pondering deadline deals. However, normally the selling team isn’t the one giving up youngster with upside, even if it is accompanied by a pending free agent. This trade wasn’t viewed particularly favorably at the time, and history has proved those initial reactions to be correct.
Carlos Lee was a known commodity. He was an all-bat-no-glove corner outfielder in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career. At the time of the trade, he had a .302 TAv, a career high up to that point. He already had 28 home runs and was poised to become a free agent the following offseason. Knowing that they had little chance to re-sign him, it made sense for the Milwaukee Brewers to trade away Lee.
However, the trade became a bit unwieldy because Melvin also attached Nelson Cruz. He was a 25-year-old prospect whom Baseball America named eighth-best in the Brewers’ farm system entering 2005, along with naming him Milwaukee’s minor league player of the year for the 2005 season. While it’s fair to retort that Cruz’s breakout didn’t occur until 2009, the problem was that Melvin gave away upside as well as the best player in the deal, for what was seen at the time as a lackluster package — and certainly not a package that had long-term value.
Francisco Cordero fulfilled his role as Shutdown Closer admirably. He accumulated value for Texas as a cheap reliever, but Milwaukee unfortunately acquired his services as he became more expensive. Of course, sixty saves in 1.5 years and a 2.9 WARP is nothing at which to sneeze, but a selling team shouldn’t be buying closers at face value, especially not one that projected to quickly become more costly.
Kevin Mench also spent 1.5 years in Milwaukee and offered replacement-level value. His acquisition never made sense, since he was already 28 at the time of the trade and was best deployed as the short side of a platoon. His ghastly post-trade performance (.248 OBP), as well as his continuing to not hit righties (.212/.261/.303 in 2007), led him to be designated for assignment in December 2007.
Mench and Cordero were the key pieces of the so-called haul, as Nix never saw much time with the big club and Julian Cordero never amounted to anything. This trade perhaps serves as a cautionary tale for all who are hoping that Melvin deals some big names over the next month. Cordero gives the trade some value, but he didn’t seem to go for much upside. The package felt light at the time compared to what was given up. It ultimately has ended up looking even worse in hindsight.
August 9: MIL trades Jim Edmonds to CIN for Chris Dickerson
With a record of 53-60 and at 11-games behind the first-place Cardinals and the wild-card-leading Giants, it made sense to trade an expiring Jim Edmonds. He had actually enjoyed a decent year, accumulating 2.2 WARP through 73 games, mainly through the value of his bat.
Dickerson appeared to be a decent flyer for the team. At that point, Carlos Gomez had not yet become Carlos Gomez!!!, and there was certainly reasonable doubt as to whether he would never live up to his lofty hype. Hell, it’s important to remember that Jim Edmonds and his creaky knees had just taken Gomez’s job in center field. The team thought that Dickerson could handle center field and provide a needed OBP boost to the team.
While he would get some time with Milwaukee towards the end of the season, Dickerson never distinguished himself with the glove or the bat. Before the start of the 2011 season, Dickerson was on the move in exchange for reliever Sergio Mitre, as Dealin’ Doug acquired Nyjer Morgan (aka T-Plush) as his replacement.
July 27: MIL trades Zack Greinke to LAA for Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg, and Ariel Pena
July 28: MIL trades George Kottaras to OAK for Fautino de los Santos
Like the Lee/Cruz trade, Zack Greinke going to the Angels qualified as a blockbuster. Melvin paid a princely sum to acquire Greinke from Kansas City a season earlier, and managed to get 1.5 years out of his arm. Unfortunately, with the Brewers struggles that year, Melvin decided it was time to cut bait before Greinke had the chance to leave as a free agent.
Jean Segura was the headliner of the deal. Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the 67th-best prospect in baseball before the 2012 season, down from #35 in 2011. Segura had the best pedigree of any prospect Melvin had ever acquired in a deadline deal, and within two weeks of the trade, he stepped in as Milwaukee’s starting shortstop. While Segura’s production has dropped off from his torrid start to the 2013 season, he remains valuable and remains young enough to perhaps get back to his previous heights.
Johnny Hellweg was the 3rd-best prospect in a weak Angels system, according to Kevin Goldstein in 2012. He was still rated #3 in Milwaukee’s system by Jason Parks in 2013, and moved down to #5 in 2014. Hellweg is a large man at 6-foot-9, which has led to consistency issues in terms of command and delivery. His 2013 rotation audition is best if forgotten and Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2014. But you can’t teach size and arm strength. His fastball is tantalizing enough that he could be a future bullpen piece.
Ariel Pena was the throw-in to the deal. He was the definition of a lottery ticket. Blessed with good fastball velocity but poor command and home-run issues, he’s currently repeating Triple-A as a reliever. Baseball Prospectus has labeled him a Factor on the Farm for two years running. However, it seems unlikely that he becomes any more than a fringe middle reliever at the big-league level.
The Greinke trade, in my mind, has to be considered successful for Melvin. He got legitimate prospects who had/have the potential to be impact players, which is the best one can hope to acquire. The anonymous arms are fine, but those will rarely pan out. In the Greinke trade, he netted an everyday starter at a premium position in Segura. Hellweg was a worthy secondary piece in a deal, who unfortunately has not worked out as planned thus far. Pena was more or less a shot in the dark, and still has a chance to contribute at the big-league level. This type of return, if it could be replicated across several trades in this upcoming July, would provide Milwaukee with a strong foundation for the future.
The Kottaras trade must be mentioned, though, there isn’t much of anything to note. Kottaras has not stuck with an organization for more than a year since the deal, and de los Santos was put on waivers by the Brewers after the season.
July 23: MIL trades Francisco Rodriguez to BAL for Nick Delmonico
August 30: MIL trades John Axford to STL for PTBNL (Michael Blazek)
Good and bad examples here. First, the K-Rod trade. He’s likely one of the most expendable pieces on the current roster, but the return from 2013 has not been as good as hoped. Nick Delmonico was the #6 prospect in Baltimore’s system going into 2013, according to Jason Parks. It seemed that he was a surprisingly good return, considering Rodriguez was picked up off the scrap heap with a minor-league deal. Unfortunately, Delmonico received a 50-game suspension in 2014 for amphetamines and was released in the offseason.
John Axford had already lost his closer role with the Brewers and was sent to St. Louis to shore up their bullpen, as the Cardinals made their annual playoff push. Blazek has been a revelation out of the bullpen this year. He always projected as a reliever, with (at the time) above-average velocity for a righty out of the pen, similar to the man for whom he was traded. His 2013 wasn’t pretty with either St. Louis or Milwaukee, but this has proven to be a lottery ticket that has provided some return, even if it hasn’t been the $10,000 grand prize.
Is there a conclusion here, other than that trades remain fun about which to speculate? It appears that when dealing fringe pieces, Melvin leans towards acquiring arms with good stuff and poor command, hoping the organization gets lucky and they become something in the future. Most of these guys never became anything. Try searching the BP database for some of the above names and one will find that not all these guys even have pages. This is the most likely return Milwaukee will net this summer if they only move fringe pieces.
However, if Melvin is willing to deal some of his real talent, such Lucroy or Gomez, things will get more interesting. I have Melvin at 1-for-2 in those big deals — the Lee/Cruz return was lackluster, but what he got for half a season of Greinke was impressive. Considering the control that Lucroy and Gomez offer contending teams, Melvin should have more leverage to pull a stronger return with tangible upside. He has the opportunity to put Milwaukee closer to its next window of contention, much like the Atlanta Braves have recently done, and one hopes that he does not squander the opportunity.