This past Wednesday, David Stearns continued to pour gasoline on the hot stove by trading the Milwaukee Brewers’ closer, Francisco Rodriguez.
In general, a lot of things go into a trade. All potential trade partners have to be explored, the loss of that particular player has to be justified by the return for both parties, one owner may have to agree to take on extra salary, and scouts and analytics departments have to agree on the cost-benefit analysis of taking on a new player and all they bring to the table. That means having previously scouted the players yourselves and having near-exhaustive knowledge of their tools.
What’s really interesting though is the timing of the deal. It’s not as if an absolute smorgasbord of closers are reportedly on the market. There’s Aroldis Chapman. Maybe Ken Giles, if you’d like to already grant him the closer’s title. That’s it. Craig Kimbrel has already been dealt. It should be noted that perhaps the fact that Kimbrel has already been traded tells us that although it seems so publicly, the closer market isn’t so thin. Or the overwhelming return for Kimbrel made it too good to pass up. We don’t know. Stearns—or any front office person—would know this much better than us outsiders.
I don’t have any insider information here, nor do I mean to pretend to. However, let’s move forward assuming the closer market is actually more saturated than previously thought. It’s not even that much of a stretch, considering the fact that Andrew Miller is also rumored to be on the market. Say that, hypothetically, a lot of teams expect Darren O’Day to close as well. Frankly, those are very believable scenarios. It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine a couple more of your own hypothetical situations. Kudos, then, goes to Stearns for being able to get a non-zero return for K-Rod.
But still, why now?
If O’Day is expected to close, that saga will end soon enough—the reliever market is stagnating until he signs as a free agent. If Miller gets dealt, the Yankees would reportedly be looking for a massive return. Despite playing the same position, the difference in quality between Miller and Rodriguez means we’re probably looking at a different market of teams. Add to the mix that the Cincinnati Reds are actively shopping Chapman and reportedly want him dealt this offseason. It seems that we have a curious case for trading away a second-tier closer before other, bigger chips fall into place and teams get desperate.
After all, what did the Brewers have to lose by keeping Rodriguez while other aspects of the team are addressed first? In fact, there’s a case to be made that trading away Rodriguez right now is selling as low as you can on a player. Nick Lampe wrote a great article over at Beyond the Box Score where he broke down the differences between offseason and trade deadline deals. His conclusion, while tentative, was that “there does appear to be some evidence that teams pay a significantly higher price … to acquire marginal wins at the trade deadline.”
If that’s true, though, why would Kimbrel have garnered such a huge return during the offseason? As Ben Carsley over at BP Boston wrote, the Red Sox “gave up two–two!–top-100 prospect types and two more lottery tickets for a relief pitcher.” That’s a huge return, no matter if you buy the ‘proven closer’ narrative or not. Perhaps a shift is beginning in how contending teams acquire elite relief pitchers. When Jonathan Papelbon got traded mid-season, it was for a Double-A prospect who lacks upside. Of course, it’s worth noting that Papelbon is considered to be overpaid and has a slew of clubhouse issues attached to him.
Moving even further, perhaps Stearns believes that selling a closer mid-season will become harder now that the outcome of the Papelbon deal has happened. That is to say, Papelbon’s post-trade antics have given a bad name to closers with tempers everywhere. Rodriguez doesn’t have Papelbon’s track record, but at the same time, he’s been known to get into some altercations of his own. K-Rod is hypothetically one outburst away from being much more difficult to trade. Furthermore, Stearns could just want the right-hander not involved in anything come spring training. Perhaps K-Rod had even privately expressed concern for closing for a losing team. Who knows what is happening on the inside? Nonetheless, J.P. Breen did a great job of breaking down why Stearns would want to be rid of Rodriguez sooner rather than later.
With all of that being said, the offseason still seems like an odd time to trade a non-elite closer. Rodriguez is a ‘proven closer’ (someone still believes in that, right?) on a contract that is pretty team-friendly. With his current deal technically expiring at the end of the 2016 season (though it does have a $8 million team option for 2017), Rodriguez would be one of the optimal ‘rental relievers for a pennant race team at the trade deadline’ candidates. Furthermore, the return of the trade is fairly comparable to the Papelbon trade who gets paid quite a bit more than K-Rod.
New Brewers prospect Javier Betancourt could have upside, but although he is still quite young, his bat has already had trouble adjusting at the High-A level. Stearns and his front office could be really high on Betancourt, however, there’s a large chance that at the 2016 trade deadline—at the very least—a similar deal would still be available. It’s perfectly conceivable that a better deal could have even come up, too. According to one report from The Detroit News, Betancourt’s future value is only 45 (not an everyday player). That’s a far-cry from the Andrew Miller trade that took place during the 2014 season in which the Red Sox acquired a prospect with a future value of 60 in Eduardo Rodriguez. Certainly K-Rod and Miller aren’t fully comparable pieces, however, Miller did end up being a rental pitcher for the Orioles.
The fact is that the move is by no means a bad one for Stearns. A closer on a team that isn’t expected to win a lot of games is a strange asset to keep. It’s just a weird time to pull the trigger on such a mediocre return. Kimbrel just got traded for two top-100 prospects. Chapman is going to fetch a similar return for the Reds perhaps shortly. O’Day could sign a deal that only the Dodgers will afford. Giles has been linked in rumors to two or three high-level prospects. That makes K-Rod a really unique asset. He’s second-tier compared to these guys which could have made him appealing to a much broader array of teams. Everyone can afford a K-Rod, not everyone can afford a Kimbrel or an O’Day. All the first-tier players could have settled into their own teams and it wouldn’t have affected Rodriguez’s trade value one iota.
In the end, this trade will likely be a footnote in Stearns’ tenure as Brewers GM. It won’t matter if Betancourt pans out or not, getting rid of Rodriguez was a good move. However, for one of his first moves, the timing didn’t exactly show patient baseball acumen.