Yesterday, Jose Bautista hit three home runs, bringing his total to 16 on the season, and giving him an incredible 70 on the year. As we know, the Pirates traded Bautista in August 2008, receiving Robinzon Diaz in return. If we didn’t know that already, Dejan Kovacevic reminds us this morning.
I don’t really have a lot to say about the Bautista trade for a few reasons. First, Charlie at Bucs Dugout and Pat at WHYGAVS have already done a good job covering the topic. Second, I talked about Bautista yesterday in an interview with David Todd of Extra Innings (the interview will air this week). That said, I do have a few things to add that weren’t mentioned by Charlie and Pat. Most of this is a repeat of what I said in the upcoming interview, and if you follow me on Twitter, you might have already heard this.
First of all, here is a comparison between two players:
Player A: 27 years old, .241/.329/.403 in 1314 AB
Player B: 25 years old, .269/.328/.394 in 1496 AB
Who do you take?
It doesn’t take much to realize that Bautista is Player A. After all, this post is about Bautista. For that reason, it’s hard to remove the hindsight factor from this comparison. The numbers cited were Bautista’s numbers with the Pirates. Simply put, he wasn’t good. An OPS of .732 is what you’d expect from a middle infield bench player. The fact that Bautista was 27 suggests that this is what he was, and that improvements were unlikely. Player B was in a similar situation as Bautista, although he was 25 years old, giving him a somewhat better chance of reviving his career.
Player B was Lastings Milledge.
The fact is, Bautista wasn’t good in his time with the Pirates. That’s contrary to what Dejan writes today:
The Bautista that the Pirates had was fine.
His average was down in the .250 range over his three full seasons here, along with about 15 home runs and a .330 on-base percentage. He always had a propensity to strike out, but he also drew a lot of walks, which is why his OBP was always a healthy uptick over his average.
He also was good enough defensively at third and in the outfield — including center — that he could have been a super-utility type, if not a starter.
Bautista’s yearly average with the Pirates, in his three years as a starter, was .235 in 2006, .254 in 2007, and .242 in 2008, prior to the trade. His on-base percentage was .335, .339, and .325. At third base he had a UZR/150 of -33.1, -12.2 and -6.7 in those three years. At best, he was a super utility player, but he was not a starter.
Dejan also mentions this:
But the old Bautista was worth far more than a third-string catcher who would get released a few months after the trade.
That’s the point.
Really? That’s why we’re having this discussion? Because they didn’t get a better return for a bench player? Bautista was a bench player at best at the time. Pat pointed out that all of the NL teams, and half of the AL teams passed over him. He wasn’t even a guarantee to remain on the Toronto roster, prior to his breakout in September 2009. What kind of trade value does a guy like that have, especially when he’s due for a raise over his $1.8 M deal through arbitration?
Furthermore, if the Pirates would have gotten equal value (a bench player with similar numbers to Bautista), are we to assume that we wouldn’t have this conversation now? We’d still be having it, but the goal posts would be moved to asking why we only got a bench player.
The fact is that these things happen in baseball. A player never lives up to his potential, then makes an adjustment and something clicks. Sometimes that happens while the player is with his original team. Sometimes that happens with a new team. The Pirates haven’t had any success stories like Bautista, although those stories are rare. However, it’s not like they haven’t found capable major league players that other teams have written off. Garrett Jones was signed as a minor league free agent. Evan Meek was acquired in the Rule 5 draft. Chris Resop was claimed off of waivers. If we include trades, the James McDonald trade is looking like a steal, considering they got him for two months of a relief pitcher.
There’s also the stories that get overlooked on this topic. We want to blame the Pirates because they didn’t make the change with Bautista while he was here. However, we don’t consider all of the changes that are made with players in the system. Neil Walker looked like a future super utility player heading in to the 2010 season. His AAA numbers were horrible heading in to the season. However, Walker made an adjustment, it worked out, and he’s now arguably one of the best second basemen in the league.
The situation with Bautista is very unfortunate, but at the same time, it’s unavoidable. Look at every team in the majors, and you’ll find a player that they gave up on that went on to become a star. Off the top of my head, the Minnesota Twins got very little for David Ortiz. The Baltimore Orioles once traded Curt Schilling for a little less than three years of Glenn Davis. The New York Yankees are even involved, trading Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps. Bautista’s situation is extreme, as you’re not going to find many players who go from a bench player to one of the best hitters in the league. But that doesn’t mean the Pirates are any different than every other major league team that has gotten rid of a guy who went on to become a star. It’s unavoidable.
With that said, Dejan also brought up something that I’ve talked about before:
Moreover, the Pirates were concerned about the money Bautista could make as a bench guy in arbitration that fall. I’m not guessing at that. I know that. In that context — and that context alone — the team decided it was not worth, say, $2 million or so, to pay for someone who could be a starter and, at worse, would be a superutility guy. That’s about what they’re paying Matt Diaz for a whole lot less right now.
Money played a role in this.
Money played a role in Bautista’s deal, although it was a smart financial decision. A team like the Pirates, with a small payroll, shouldn’t be giving $2.4 M to bench players. The decision to get rid of Bautista, rather than paying him $2.4 M to do a job that could be done by a guy making the league minimum was just being financially responsible. The problem is that the Pirates weren’t financially responsible. Instead of going with a young player, they added Ramon Vazquez and Eric Hinske the following year. Vazquez signed for $4 M over two years. Hinske signed for $1.5 M.
That’s been a trend with the Pirates every year, and one that I’ve never liked. In 2008 they signed Chris Gomez for $1 M. Last year it was Ryan Church for $1.5 M and Bobby Crosby for $1 M. Diaz is a bit of a different situation this year, as they brought him in to be a platoon player rather than strictly a bench player, although they already had a few platoon options, such as Lastings Milledge and Steve Pearce, who could fill the same role as Diaz for a lot less.
If the Pirates are going to spend money on bench players, I’d rather they go with guys like Milledge, Andy LaRoche, or Bautista. No, the players haven’t proven to be more than bench players, and probably aren’t worth the money. However, bringing in guys who only have the upside of bench players, like Church or Crosby, for pretty much the same price, seems like a worse decision, by comparison.
As an example, take Diaz and Milledge. Coming in to the year, Diaz had good platoon splits, but was 33, and had some concerns that he was on the downside of his career. Milledge had the same platoon splits, but was 26 years old, meaning he was more likely to pull a “Bautista” and revive his career. There’s no upside with Diaz. There might have been some upside with Milledge. This also isn’t hindsight, based on how Diaz has played. I said this the day Diaz was signed:
Diaz is a strong bench player, and a platoon option against left handers that the Pirates can pair with Garrett Jones or John Bowker. However, he’s not really an upgrade over what they had in Lastings Milledge. In fact, I’d argue that it would be better to have Milledge. Diaz turns 33 in March, and he’s not going to improve from his current status as a platoon player. Milledge hasn’t lived up to his potential so far, but he turns 26 in April.
Diaz has been historically better against left handers, and Milledge has only started to have success in that area during the last two seasons, which is why Diaz has the better career numbers. It’s likely that Diaz and Milledge will provide the same output in 2011, as both will be bench players and platoon options against left handers. But if there’s one player who has a chance to break out of the bench/platoon role, and have a surprise season, I’d bank on Milledge. As I said, Diaz isn’t getting better at the age of 33. Milledge is still young enough that he could finally realize his top prospect status. There’s also the concern that Diaz is on the decline in his career, as he’s coming off a year where he hit for a .250/.302/.438 line in 224 at-bats for the Braves. No financial terms have been announced, but I can’t imagine Diaz will make less than what Milledge would have made in his first year of arbitration. Personally I would have rather stuck with Milledge.
Going back to Bautista, I don’t think it was a bad decision at the time to let him go. He was a bench player, due to make a raise over his $1.8 M salary. However, if the Pirates were going to spend money on bench players (and they pretty much had to with the lack of depth at the upper levels), I would have rather seen Bautista getting two years and $4 M, instead of Ramon Vazquez. Of course, nothing guarantees that Bautista would have broken out during the 2010 season with the Pirates. In fact, he probably would have been released if he put up numbers similar to his .235/.349/.408 line in 2009 with Toronto, especially with Pedro Alvarez on the way in 2010.
As I said before, every team is going to have “the one that got away”. In hindsight, this deal looks bad, but that’s not saying it was a bad decision at the time. It’s hard to look back at the deal without using the benefit of hindsight. If you look at what was known at the time, there were no indications that Bautista would have been anything more than what he was: a poor starter, or a decent bench player. For that reason, any complaints about the trade are done with complete hindsight, and in this case, it’s hard to blame the Pirates for not seeing this outcome, especially when no one could have predicted the outcome.