Just how bad does this deal suck?

added 12/13/2000 by Todd Brody

I was shocked and then angered by the deal the Astros made, trading Roger Cedeno, Mitch Meluskey and Chris Holt to the Tigers for Brad Ausmus, Doug Brocail, and Nelson Cruz. I thought about it all night, trying to justify the deal on some level. And its not that I don't understand why the deal was done. I think that the Astros wanted to improve their bullpen without spending $4 million per year on one of the purported star middle-reliever free agents and they wanted to get rid of several players who were problems in the clubhouse. As it presently stands, however, I think that the deal was a mistake. Let me tell you why.

First, I believe that the Astros could have received more in return for the Meluskey/Cedeno combination than what they got from the Tigers. While I don't have Gerry Hunsicker's phone tapped, I don't think that Mitch was actively shopped by the Astros at the winter meetings. I never even heard his name mentioned in a single rumor (not even in MLBTalk) until this deal was first reported by Jayson Stark on ESPN (and we all thought that was a sick joke). Second, while I like Brad Ausmus, and I think that he will certainly improve the pitch calling and the defense up the middle, I have some doubts about the relievers that the Astros received from the Tigers. Third, I don't like the fact that the Astros are trading to get back players that they sent over to the Tigers in the first place. And most important, when looking at the deal, in a vacuum, it just doesn't make any sense in terms of where the team is right now. Specifically, I don't believe that the team can compete in 2001 with the current roster. Consequently, if the deal was done to be competitive right now, it was a mistake. In addition, the deal hurts the rebuilding process of which Meluskey was going to be a critical part.

So why did the Astros do the deal? We all know that pitching was the Astros' biggest priority in the off-season. Relying on Marc Valdes, Joe Slusarksy, Scott Linebrink and Rusty Meacham and a host of other rejects (okay, the Astros didn't rely on Linebrink and Meacham, but didn't it feel like that sometimes last season?), the Astros bullpen was, by far, the worst in the National League -- it had the worst ERA in the league. And Valdes led the league in allowing runners to score. The trade with the Tigers is meant to alleviate this problem. ESPN notes that Doug Brocail has been one of the best set-up men in the American League over the past few years. Nelson Cruz's stats seem pretty good, although the sample size is limited to one season. If the Astros sign Mike Jackson for next year (which apparently is still being discussed), the bullpen, all of the sudden, doesn't look so bad. Indeed, a bullpen of Wagner (who presumably will pitch better now that he is recovered from his injuries), Brocail, Cruz, Stonewall Powell, Jackson, and Cabrera seems pretty good. And maybe Dotel stays in the bullpen as well (I'll talk more about Dotel below).

But before we give praise to the Hun for improving the bullpen, let's take a closer look at the numbers. The Astros may have been overly impressed with Brocail's and Cruz's ground ball to fly ball ratios (Brocail %96 1.51; Cruz -- 1.32). Just because a pitcher gets a lot of ground balls, does not necessarily make him a good pitcher in Enron Take a look at Chris Holt, for example. Jayson Stark, in his "Rumblings and Grumblings" column, noted that Chris Holt was ninth in all of baseball at inducing ground balls. And Chris Holt definitely was not a successful pitcher in Enron Field. After all, if the ground balls you give up are getting hit smack through the infield, you're still going to get hammered night in, night out even if you don't give up a lot of homeruns.

And let's talk a little bit about Doug Brocail. Doug Brocail is a pretty good pitcher, but his numbers last year paled in comparison with his numbers from the two years before %96 and this was despite the fact that the Tigers moved into a pitcher's park, where his numbers should have gotten better. Brocail was a dominating pitcher in 1998 (ERA 2.73; SLG .296; OBP .269 AVG. 211) and 1999 (ERA 2.52; SLG .309; OBP .276; AVG .206), but was only average in 2000 (ERA 4.09; SLG .460; OBP .330; AVG .285). Injuries, apparently, were the cause of his decline (although he still would have been the top reliever on the Astros last season with these numbers). This is what the Detroit Free Press had to say about Brocail in an article written on September 19: "Despite a sore pitching elbow that caused him to have a below-average season, Brocail pitched before Jones and held the lead in more than half the games Jones has saved. Now Brocail faces elbow surgery this week. Although the procedure seemingly will be routine, there's never a guarantee the pitcher will be the same after arm surgery. Jones doesn't want to think about what next season will be like if Brocail can't hold leads in the eighth." (Emphasis added).

Basically, the Astros are taking a big chance that Brocail, who is 33, will be able to come back from elbow surgery and return to form. I don't think that I would have a big problem with taking a gamble on a good pitcher recovering from injury except that the Astros have seem to try that every year, and I don't recall it working once.

The Astros pitching problems, however, don't end with the bullpen. While Elarton pitched well at times (which was pretty amazing given that he too was returning from surgery) and Wade Miller and Travis McKnight surprised, by and large, the starting pitching was pretty bad. The Astros have not made any moves (so far) to improve the starting pitching. Holt is gone. I suppose that is addition by subtraction. But Shane Reynolds, recovering from injury, is a big question mark. I believe that Jose Lima will be a continuing disaster. Octavio Dotel, the centerpiece of the Hampton deal, has great stuff, but he hasn't proved to anyone that he can pitch past the fifth inning (and isn't better suited to pitch out of the bullpen). The M&Ms (Miller and McKnight) may turn out to be serviceable pitchers. Or they may suck. Will other teams catch up to them once they have seen them more than once?

The real shake is that the Astros need another starting pitcher for next year if they hope to be competitive. I think that the Astros may be too optimistic that Brad Ausmus will be able to help the young pitchers mature quickly and maybe bring some life back into Lima.

Consequently, the only way that this deal makes sense to me is if the Astros are planning on making another trade for a starting pitcher. There are no free agent starting pitchers worth discussing at this point (and I think that the Astros knew that after Hampton and Mussina and maybe Neagle there was no one worth really talking about). The pitcher that I would like to see the Astros make a move for is David Wells who has been on and off the trading blocks for the past two seasons. Yesterday's Toronto Globe and Mail reports that Gord Ash "will continue to listen to what he called 'three or four serious teams' interested in trading for the 20-game winner." I don't know if the Astros are one of those three or four teams (the Mets are certainly making a push for Wells), but I would like the Astros to make an offer to the Jays that would blow them away: Dotel, Wilfredo Rodriguez, and Ward for David Wells and Cruz Jr. I would throw in Jose Lima as well if that is what it takes to get the deal done (although I would prefer to keep Lima for depth on the pitching staff). And p.s., Wells isn't even that expensive (when compared to the salaries that a lot of mediocre pitchers just received). He is getting $8 million next year, the Jays have an option on Wells for 2002 for $9 million, and Wells wants another year (probably at $10 million). Yeah, the market is crazy, but this isn't a lot of money for a pitcher of Wells' caliber.

Through this deal, the Astros would get a top notch pitcher and a fourth outfielder (who very well may turn into a starter for 2002 if the Astros don't resign Alou). Yes, I know that the players that the Astros would be trading are all hard to let go, but as I said before, the Astros have already moved in this direction by trading Meluskey. The Astros cannot sit on the fence between rebuilding and competing. If the Astros trade for Wells, they create a serious two to three year window to really compete for the pennant. I believe that the Astros have the hitting to compete (even without Meluskey). I think that Bagwell will sign an extension if the Astros bring in Wells %96 which serves many purposes (not least of all, public relations). The rotation for next year then becomes Wells, Elarton, Reynolds, Miller, and McKnight. This is a very serviceable rotation that could even be dominant. And as I set forth above, while there are questions in the bullpen, it certainly is improved over the past year.

Cedeno and Holt were marginal players last year. Both were going to get paid a lot of money in arbitration and they were likely gone after this season anyway. Consequently, I am not particularly saddened with their loss. But Meluskey is something else. He is going to be a very good hitter in the league (despite playing in Comerica). And I think that his hitting will surely be missed in 2002, especially if the Astros lose Bagwell and Alou. (Let's face it -- in light of the moves made by the Rangers, Red Sox, Yankees, and Mets this off-season, I don't think that the additions of Ausmus, Brocail, and Cruz, by themselves, demonstrate to Bagwell a serious intention and willingness by the Astros to compete). The Astros have traded away a big piece of their rebuilding process to pick up several role players who will be critical to winning a championship, but by themselves, can't lift the team up to the championship level. There is one more move to make. Its time for the Astros to step it up one more time and bring in the biggest piece of that puzzle -- and I do mean the biggest piece -- David Wells.