The Almost-Trade Of Carlos Gomez

What a change a few hours can make.

Around 3:00 pm on Wednesday, I would have said that there wasn’t a chance the Brewers would move Carlos Gomez. By about 7:00 pm, news broke on Twitter that Gomez was indeed on the move to the New York Mets. A couple hours later, the trade was dead in the water, with both Brewers and Mets fans being left stunned and not knowing what to think. This isn’t an article about that fiasco, though. Instead, I want to analyze the return the Brewers almost got from the Mets and wonder if it would have been “worth it,” in the abstract sense.

The reported return for Carlos Gomez was right-hander Zack Wheeler and infielder Wilmer Flores. Flores is hitting .249/.281/.378 and playing poor defense at shortstop. Although I’d like to point out Zack Wheeler’s stats from this year, he hasn’t pitched. Instead, he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery and an additional surgery to his flexor tendon. He likely won’t pitch a major-league inning until June or July of the 2016 season. At first glance, that’s shockingly underwhelming.

Zack Wheeler was clearly the centerpiece of the almost-deal, and he’s undergoing recovery from a major injury. While the recovery rate for TJ surgery is now near 80 percent, it’s far from a guarantee. According to that linked article, the average career innings post Tommy John surgery for a player Wheeler’s age is 221. That’s a scary thought, but it also might be outdated information. The study was for all players that returned to the majors from 1974-2009. It also lumps in terrible pitchers with quality pitchers, so it’s difficult to get a clear picture. But the procedure has been refined in more recent years and is more successful now than it once was.

And to focus solely on the risk is an incomplete way of looking at this part of the deal.

This is from last year’s Mets Top-10 list from Baseball Prospectus:

Wheeler showed during his stint with the Mets that his arsenal can compete against big-league lineups, and he will continue to build his resume in the rotation in 2014. If the 23-year-old can further sharpen his fastball command and avoid working too much in the upper tier of the zone, there’s a chance he sustains more consistent success. Harvey and Wheeler are in essence “1A” and “1B” on this list. Both arms can anchor the front of the rotation for the foreseeable future.

That’s high praise as Matt Harvey had established himself as potential true major-league ace. Interestingly, at the time of that writing, Matt Harvey was in much the same position Wheeler is now — recovering from Tommy John surgery and not a sure thing. So far this year, Harvey has pitched in 19 games and been as effective as one would expect. Jose Fernandez is another example of a recent successful TJ recovery. One doesn’t even have to go outside of the Brewers rotation to find an example of life after TJ surgery. Wily Peralta had the surgery performed in 2007 and is still pumping 95-96 sinkers with regularity.

Of course every person is different. Just because these players have recovered doesn’t mean Wheeler will do the same. But recovery isn’t unlikely. Most times, the only cost is time. In addition, the Brewers medical staff has been recognized on at least two separate occasions for their excellence (one, and two). I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt in this scenario. If they were ready to sign off on Wheeler, that’s good enough for me.

So assuming Zack Wheeler were to make a full recovery, he has the stuff to be an excellent pitcher — the kind of pitcher the Brewers have lacked in recent years and the kind of pitcher for which Brewers fans have pined. But he wasn’t the only piece in the almost-deal. The Brewers viewed Wilmer Flores as their solution at third base. They aren’t alone in thinking he can be a competent third baseman.

This is also from the Mets 2014 Top 10 list at Baseball Prospectus on which Flores ranked third:

Flores doesn’t get enough credit, mostly due to his inability to project at shortstop and the organizational roadblock at third base; it gets forgotten that Flores has really nice hands and a very strong arm, and with his offensive upside, a third base profile would make him a much more heralded prospect in the game. Despite the glove and overall coordination, Flores lacks average range, and that could limit his utility at second base, although he could certainly handle the fundamental aspects of the position. At the plate, Flores is going to hit for power; it’s just a matter of time and a question of how much. He has a knack for putting the barrel on the ball, with excellent hand/eye coordination and improving strength in his body that allows him to get extension and drive the ball to right-center. This is a very legit player, and this will be true even if he struggles in a longer major-league look in 2014.

Flores still doesn’t get enough credit for his potential, due to his inability to play shortstop. He’s constantly knocked for being shoehorned into a position that doesn’t fit his profile. But if a team moves him over to third base, it takes pressure off him to perform on the field defensively. With that off his mind and consistent playing time, it’s still possible that he can refine his offense. His hit tool was graded as a 5 potential (major-league average) and his power was graded as a 6 (plus power).

Flores is just 23 years old. Jean Segura, Hernan Perez, and even Carlos Gomez are all great examples of players who struggled to reach their overall potential when rushed to the majors. Early disappointment certainly doesn’t mean they cannot still reach their previous potential. Brewers fans fully understand this, as Gomez is the best example of why patience is warranted for young players.

With the potential for at least average defense at third base and 20 home-run power in his bat, I think Wilmer Flores could have been a solid-average player at the hot corner. With a full recovery, I think Zack Wheeler had the potential to be the best starter in the Brewers rotation. Four years of a frontline starter (though really 3.5 years since he won’t pitch until mid-season) and four years of an everyday third baseman is a pretty good return for 1.3 years of Carlos Gomez, even as good as he is.

But that is all projection at this point. Flores has to prove he can make those improvements, and Wheeler has to prove he’s healthy. There is a chance, small though it may be, that Wheeler never pitches in the majors again. If he does make a return, it’s possible either he never regains his previous form or it takes longer than half a season. If Flores bat never comes around, he’s just a utility infielder, at best. This outcome would obviously be disastrous for the Brewers.

I can’t immediately say this deal would have been a bad one for the Brewers. In fact, I think it had a better chance of working out than not. But with that risk in mind, I would describe this particular trade package for Carlos Gomez as exceedingly risky. I think it’s fair to question if that risk would have been worth it.

But there is one last thing to consider. A trade like this could have allowed the Brewers to compete again more quickly than a package of prospects might allow. (Note: This was written before the Astros trade was announced, so it doesn’t reflect any opinion on that deal). Take a look at this hypothetical roster for 2016:

C: Jonathan Lucroy BN: Martin Maldonado SP: Mike Fiers* RP: Francisco Rodriguez
1B: Adam Lind BN: Jason Rogers SP: Wily Peralta RP: Will Smith-
2B: Scooter Gennett BN: Hernan Perez SP: Jimmy Nelson RP: Jeremy Jeffress
3B: Wilmer Flores BN: Shane Peterson SP: Matt Garza RP: Michael Blazek
SS: Jean Segura BN: Hector Gomez SP: Taylor Jungmann RP: Corey Knebel
LF: Khris Davis RP: David Goforth
CF: ??? RP: Tyler Cravy
RF: Ryan Braun RP: Tyler Thornburg-

There’s a large amount of guesswork involved in constructing that roster, but it’s made of just the players that are currently available to the Brewers. That particular roster would cost approximately $57,805,000 before pre-arbitration and arbitration salaries are factored. Pre-arbitration players would add approximately 7,211,575**.

Jean Segura, Wily Peralta, Will Smith, and Tyler Thornburg will all be in their first year of arbitration. It’s difficult to guess what their salaries may look like, but I assume the combined total wouldn’t be more than $9 million. Brandon Kintzler, Logan Schafer, and Matt Dominguez are also arbitration eligible, but I’d be surprised if they’re on the roster by Opening Day. Again, that’s just reasonable speculation on my part.

Added all up, it’s approximately $74,016,575. Their 2014 Opening Day payroll was $103,697,967 and in 2015 it was $104,237,000. If that’s their maximum payroll limit and they can still spend that much in 2016 — something that is not a guarantee — it would give the Brewers as much as $30,000,000 to spend to improve their roster via the trade market and the free-agent market.

Clearly, they would have needed to find a center fielder. But that’s a position of depth in the next free-agent class, not the least of which includes Gerardo Parra. Regardless of what they do for center field, they’d have a significant amount of money left to spend on upgrades elsewhere. But that isn’t the only way the Brewers could improve their team next year.

They do have some prospects that could contribute by mid- or late-2016. Chief among those prospects is Orlando Arcia. His value has skyrocketed this year, going from the back-end of several Top-100 lists to the Top 20. Michael Reed is a player capable of playing each outfield position, though may defensively profile best in a corner, and at his best could approximate a Nori Aoki type offense. Tyler Cravy, Ty Wagner, Jorge Lopez, and perhaps even Tyler Thornburg and Michael Blazek would provide more starting pitching depth than the Brewers have enjoyed in recent memory. And, of course, in this scenario they’d be able to add Zack Wheeler to the mix by June or July.

And none of this is factoring in trades they could still make at some point with Gerardo Parra and Matt Garza among others. I don’t know if this would have given the Brewers a great chance to compete in 2016 or beyond. But I do think it would have kept the possibility very real. That chance could even improve in 2017 when more prospects become MLB-ready or near MLB-ready.

At the very least, I can understand why Doug Melvin and the rest of the Brewers front office found the package of Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores so compelling.

*Recall this is a hypothetical scenario in which Mike Fiers wasn’t traded.

**The major-league minimum in 2015 was $507,500 which was an increase of 1.5%. I increased that again by 1.5% to account for potential increase in the minimum for 2016. This figure may not be entirely accurate but is likely only a few thousand dollars off which is a negligible amount.

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