The trade that sent John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny to the Chicago Cubs was probably one of the least favorite trades amongst Pittsburgh Pirates fans. At the time of the deal I felt there were two factors fueling this reaction.
The first factor was the expectations of Pirates fans following the Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez trades. Not many people expected the Pirates to land much of a return for Wilson, so when they brought in Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno, and three lower level pitchers for Wilson and Ian Snell, it was met with surprise. When the Pirates followed that up with the Sanchez for Tim Alderson swap, it raised the bar even more.
All in all I thought the trade was pretty even. The Pirates traded a good late innings reliever in John Grabow, with Grabow having two months remaining before free agency. They also sent away Tom Gorzelanny, who had success at AAA, but was struggling in the majors this year, after a horrible season in 2008. In return they got a starting pitching prospect in Kevin Hart, a potential late innings reliever in Jose Ascanio, and Josh Harrison, a second baseman in A-ball. I felt the Hart for Gorzelanny and Ascanio/Harrison for two months of Grabow (who was a potential Type A free agent, thus raising his value) were fair. That’s where the big debate comes in: how important is left handed relief?
The biggest complaint from this trade came over the result of the deal, and that’s not talking about what any of these players did. The trade left the Pirates short on left handed pitching out of the bullpen. Phil Dumatrait is the only major league left handed reliever. The Pirates have Donald Veal, Kyle Bloom, and Daniel Moskos in the upper levels of the minors, although all three are being used as starters right now. So how important is left handed relief?
First, we have to consider the appeal of a left handed reliever. The whole idea centers around having an edge over left handed batters. So, in theory, left handed relievers would have better numbers against left handed batters than right handed relievers. However, if a right handed reliever and a left handed reliever are equal in this regard, or if a right handed reliever is better than the left handed reliever, what’s the point of having the left handed reliever?
Let’s look at Grabow for example. This year he had a .222/.330/.284 line against left handed batters in 81 at-bats. How much of an edge does he have an edge over Jesse Chavez, who had a .228/.288/.394 line against left handed hitters in 127 at-bats? Or how about Steven Jackson, who had a .216/.337/.324 line against left handed hitters in 74 at-bats this year? Even though these guys are all effective against left handers, do we favor Grabow only because he’s left handed?
We also have to consider the role Grabow had. He was a set up man. He was in to pitch the eighth inning, regardless of whether it was a left hander or a right hander at the plate. He wasn’t a LOOGY. So does it really matter what hand a pitcher throws with if he’s pitching the full eighth inning regardless of what side of the plate the batter hits from?
Left handed pitching is important, as it gives you an edge against left handers, but it’s not the only avenue to get a left handed batter out. A left handed pitcher has an edge, but so does a right handed pitcher with a good changeup. So I didn’t mind losing our last left handed reliever, mostly because we have two right handers with good changeups, and like Grabow, they both pitch a full inning when they’re in, regardless of the hitter’s handedness.
Unfortunately the trade took a major hit in August. After just two appearances with the Pirates, Jose Ascanio went down with a shoulder injury, which required labrum surgery. Ascanio is on a timeline to return by June of 2010, although labrum surgery has been known to derail careers, so it’s hard to say how Ascanio will do in the future without knowing how serious the injury was.
Kevin Hart, the other pitcher acquired, fell off completely after joining the Pirates. Hart had a 2.60 ERA in 27.2 innings with the Cubs, although that was lucky, as Hart had a .235 BABIP. Hart fell apart with the Pirates, putting up a 6.92 ERA in 53.1 innings pitched. That also was lucky, although this time bad luck. Hart had a .372 BABIP with the Pirates. The normal rate for starters is usually around .290-.300.
Harrison hit for a .270/.289/.362 line in Lynchburg, helping the Hillcats to a Carolina League title. Harrison makes good contact, has a lot of speed, plays good defense, but he rarely walks, something that could stack the odds against him in the upper levels.
Meanwhile, Tom Gorzelanny didn’t do much better than Hart, with a 5.63 ERA with the Cubs in 38.1 innings pitched, and while he was a bit unlucky, his .326 BABIP wasn’t as extreme as Hart’s unlucky BABIP.
Grabow was solid, as would be expected, and the Cubs have been talking about bringing him back next year. If the Cubs don’t re-sign him, and don’t offer him arbitration, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Pirates go after him. If he’s offered arbitration, I would pass, as Grabow is a Type A free agent, and would cost the Pirates their second round pick.
The bulk of this trade will break down as a comparison between Hart and Gorzelanny, as Grabow would have been a free agent after the season, and Ascanio can’t be relied on for much with his injury. Harrison is still too far off to accurately project what type of major league impact he could have, although any production from him in the future would be a bonus in this deal.