On Friday morning, I read an article by Bob Smizik talking about how the Pittsburgh Pirates should be open to trading a top prospect for first baseman Ike Davis. There were parts of the article I agreed with, and parts I disagreed with. At the end of the article, Smizik asks a simple question to “all of those afflicted with PSS (Prospect Separation Syndrome)”: Why not trade Nick Kingham for Ike Davis?
I guess I would qualify as someone with PSS, although I’m not against trading prospects. I just think that in the majority of cases, it doesn’t make sense for a team like the Pirates to trade prospects. If you look at the Rays, they’ve been the most successful small market team in the majors because they’re constantly building with prospects and trading their top players away. They don’t make a big splash by trading a top prospect away. They trade an established player away for top prospects, then replace that established player with other top prospects that they usually acquired in a previous deal.
I talk about the Rays all the time on this site, as I think they should be a model for how the Pirates operate. It would be simple to just say “that’s not what the Rays would do” in response to the “why not Kingham for Davis” question. But I wanted to dig a little deeper and perhaps explain why that isn’t something the Rays would do.
I will first point out that most response articles are seen as a war between two authors, or attacking the other author. That’s not what is happening here. I like Bob Smizik. I don’t agree with all of his views, and I know he hasn’t agreed with all of mine. The entire purpose of sports talk is to have a healthy debate about these types of topics, because obviously that’s as far as we can go here. All of our disagreements in the past have fallen in that “healthy sports talk” area, and the conversation behind the scenes has been respectful. I look to continue that here by answering the question he posed at the end of his article. In this debate, Smizik put the ball in the court of anyone arguing for prospects. So I’ll pick up that ball and do…whatever it is people do with a basketball, because that expression is the only use I have for that sport. But I digress. Let’s get to the topic at hand.
The Value of Ike Davis
Ike Davis does have some promise. The analysis by Smizik doesn’t paint a full picture, but does show some of his value. He did hit 32 home runs in 2012, but he was a three true outcomes player. He had a .227/.308/.462 line with a 24% strikeout rate and a 10% walk rate. That’s not bad. By comparison, Pedro Alvarez had a .233/.296/.473 line in 2013, with a 30% strikeout rate and a 7.8% walk rate. In his best year, Davis looks exactly like Alvarez.
If you go the platoon route, Davis was even better in 2012. He had a .253/.345/.523 line against right-handers, and a .174/.225/.335 line against lefties. His strikeouts were higher against lefties (28% to 22%) and his walks were cut in half (6% to 12%).
Smizik also points out that Davis had a .954 OPS in the second half of the 2013 season after a horrible start (.505 OPS) in the first half. That is true, but sample size has to be considered. Davis had a monster month of August (.990 OPS), but also went down at the end of the month with an oblique injury. He missed the rest of the season with the injury, which limited him to 138 plate appearances in the second half. Out of those plate appearances, 94 were in his hot month of August.
We don’t know if Davis would have continued his hitting tear into September and into the 2014 season without the injury. But if there’s anything learned from Justin Morneau this past season, it’s that a hot month of August does not guarantee future success at the plate.
When it comes to Davis, I think his offensive upside amounts to his career numbers before 2013. He had a .252/.336/.461 line in that time, which is better than the 2012 numbers. He has also struggled against left-handers, so he could improve on those numbers in a platoon.
The one thing Smizik overlooked, and one thing a lot of people overlook, is the defense. Davis had good defensive numbers at first base in his rookie year, but the last two years have been poor. They haven’t been Garrett Jones bad, but they’re still poor.
Overall, Davis has similar offensive upside to Pedro Alvarez. However, his overall upside is lower. Alvarez plays a tougher position, so the same numbers at third base are going to be more valuable than Davis’ numbers at first. Davis doesn’t make up for this with defensive value, and that’s why his 2012 season was worth a 1.1 WAR, while Pedro Alvarez has been a 2.3 and 3.1 WAR player in each of the last two seasons with the same offensive numbers.
The Value of Nick Kingham
The reason Kingham comes up in this discussion is because Keith Law said the Pirates shouldn’t trade him for Davis. I don’t think there has been any actual talk between the Pirates and Mets involving these two players. Smizik uses the MLB.com top 100 rankings to say that Jameson Taillon (number 10), Gregory Polanco (13), Alen Hanson (40), Austin Meadows (69), Luis Heredia (76), and Tyler Glasnow (97) should be off-limits, but almost no one else should.
The problem here is that this is based entirely on one set of rankings, and I’m not even sure how recent these are. I know that MLB.com keeps running updates with their lists, but I don’t think they’ve actually started from scratch to come up with a fresh list. If they have, then I question why Tyler Glasnow is rated 97th and below Luis Heredia. I’d also question why Kingham isn’t on the top 100.
If you’ve read the site or the Prospect Guide over the years, then you’ll know that I’ve been higher on Nick Kingham than most. I had him as a top ten prospect in the system after his first season. He remained in the top ten after his first full season in West Virginia, where the overall numbers didn’t look top ten worthy. He jumped up the rankings with his performance this year in Bradenton and Altoona.
The numbers have been good with Kingham, but it’s the stuff that is more impressive. When the Pirates drafted him, he was your typical 88-92 MPH prep right-hander. Since then he has developed into a 92-95 MPH right-hander who tops out at 97-98. The fastball is thrown with a lot of downward movement, making it difficult to hit at his velocity. He’s got a curveball which looks like a plus pitch at times. His changeup is definitely above average. He also has plus command of all of his pitches. He profiles as a mid-rotation starter who can pitch 200 innings per year, and a possible number two starter if he continues improving his game every year.
Smizik points out that prospects aren’t guaranteed. That’s a point I make many times, although I also offer up that major league players aren’t even guaranteed. In Kingham’s case, you’ve got one of the safest prospects in the system. His stuff and his command is going to make him a major league starter, and he doesn’t need to do much to make it to his upside. He should spend the 2014 season in Triple-A working on improving the consistency of his secondary pitches, but after that he’s a candidate to arrive in late 2014 or in 2015. I’d say that the odds of Kingham making the majors are about the same as the odds of Davis bouncing back to his 2012 numbers. The comfort factor with Davis is that you can point to his previous MLB success. Kingham doesn’t have any MLB time, which makes him appear to be a risk on the surface. That risk goes away when you see his stuff live.
I wouldn’t deal Kingham for Davis because Kingham is one of the better prospects in the system. We have him rated higher than the MLB.com rankings, and it seems that Keith Law is in the same boat. Kingham is a guy who can come up and give 6.5 years of strong production in the rotation. He might not be Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon, but he stands out above the mid-to-back of the rotation candidates the Pirates will have arriving in the majors over the next few years.
I pointed out in the Davis write-up that he doesn’t have good defense. Kingham gives the Pirates a great potential rotation, slotting behind Cole, Taillon, and Glasnow. As we saw in 2013, great pitching and defense can be highly underrated. The Pirates had bad offensive numbers, but still won due to their pitching and defense. They weren’t the only team to do this, as the San Francisco Giants have won a World Series with this approach. That doesn’t mean the Pirates shouldn’t focus on offense. It does mean that they can’t afford to be trading a key pitcher like Kingham away, especially when he is much safer than other pitchers and so close to helping in the majors.
One thing that Smizik brings up is that Davis was a former top prospect, being rated number 62 in Baseball America’s top 100 in 2010. He also points out that the Pirates traded Alex Dickerson for Jaff Decker and Miles Mikolas earlier this off-season. He questioned why the Pirates could trade Dickerson for two players the Padres DFAd, but can’t trade Kingham for Davis.
One flaw here is that he’s using the MLB.com rankings to determine value. I’m not knocking those rankings, but I disagree that Alex Dickerson was the Pirates number 13 prospect, only a few spots behind Kingham (9th). We had Dickerson as the number 33 prospect in the 2013 Prospect Guide. He would have been the number 26 prospect in the system before the trade. He was never really the first baseman of the future. He was just the best option at first base in the short-term, in a farm system that doesn’t have a lot of true first base prospects.
Mentioning former top prospect statuses also brings up a gray area. Davis was the number 62 prospect in 2010, but Decker was number 82. Decker was a few years younger, and entering high-A ball, so he shouldn’t be expected to have the same MLB career to this point. However, this shows that you can’t evaluate guys based on past prospect rankings. In 2010, Davis and Decker had similar values. In 2014, Davis is hoping to bounce back from a bad season at the age of 26, while Decker is hoping to finally break into the majors and show why he once was a top prospect.
There’s another guy who has followed the same path. Andrew Lambo was the number 49 prospect prior to the 2009 season. Since then he has struggled, but in 2013 he was showing the bat that once made him a top prospect. In Double-A and Triple-A he combined for a .282/.347/.574 line with 32 homers. He was also doing this at the age of 24.
Lambo doesn’t have the MLB experience that Davis has. He doesn’t have much experience at first base, being limited to 41 games in his minor league career, plus some time this off-season. Both Lambo and Davis were once top prospects in the game, but the more important thing is where they stand now. Davis has put up some decent numbers in the majors, and is coming off a down year. Lambo is coming off a huge year in the minors, and looking to finally break into the majors and show that his new-found power in 2013 is legit.
If you’re looking for an alternative on the free agent market, you won’t find many good options right now. But the Pirates do have a good alternative at first base in their system, and that is Lambo. He doesn’t come with the comfort of previous MLB success, and he has the disclaimer that prospects aren’t guaranteed. This all brings us to the final section.
The Opportunity Cost
For those who didn’t take economics, opportunity cost is the added cost of a chosen option, compared to an alternative plan. In this case, I think a lot of people would agree that Ike Davis is a better option than the alternative, Andrew Lambo. But if the opportunity cost to go from Lambo to Davis is Nick Kingham, is that worth it?
Davis does have the previous MLB success. We don’t know if Lambo will do that, but this doesn’t mean we know Lambo won’t have that type of success. One thing that gets lost in the “prospects aren’t guaranteed” view is that prospects do work out. Lambo might not work out, but he’s the type of player who deserves an opportunity from the Pirates. Whether they’re coming off a losing season, or a contending season, the Pirates are always going to be a team that needs to give chances to guys who hit 32 homers in the upper levels of the minors at the age of 24.
Davis would be the safer option here, but if the opportunity cost to get that safety is Nick Kingham, then I’m not paying it. MLB deals are often viewed only in the scope of the upcoming season. The reality is that General Managers need to make moves that both balance the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, Lambo could match the production from Davis, but Davis is a safer option. In the long-term, Kingham and Lambo could be much more valuable than Davis, and I’d say the chances of the Pirates getting more value with the prospects over the long-term is higher. I wouldn’t play it safe in 2014 when it means that you’ve got a good chance of losing value in the long-term. Those are the types of moves that bring on phrases like “window to compete” and “rebuild in a few years”.
If it was a lesser prospect than Kingham, I might consider Ike Davis. Then again, my choice if they’re making a trade would be Justin Smoak. I’d also rather deal something that is easier to replace. Rather than dealing a potential mid-rotation starting pitcher, I’d deal a top, established reliever. If I had a choice between dealing a prospect like Kingham or a reliever like Justin Wilson (assuming the Pirates won’t give him a chance at starting), I’d deal Wilson. The Pirates have shown a great ability to find cheap relievers. If they could turn one of their current relievers into a safer first base option, and make Lambo a Plan B, that would be a good all-around plan. It would be safer in the short-term, and wouldn’t hurt them much, if at all, in the long-term.