It may be that Kevin Towers traded Ian Kennedy for less than his full value — but when you identify a specific need (lefty reliever) and you only want to move assets of your choice, 80 cents on the dollar is not so bad.  You expect to pay an exchange rate when you only have foreign currency to pay with, and Towers deserves credit for getting needed help while surrendering only a player he wanted to move anyway.

While Arizona was connected in the media to Jake Peavy of the White Sox and Bud Norris of the Astros, it was clear even last week that the rotation was not an area of need, with Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy on the way and Randall Delgado doing enough to warrant a starting role moving forward.  It was also clear that the bullpen was in terrible shape and that some of the better options for fixing it came from outside the organization.  I didn’t anticipate that a trade would come from inside the division, but I’ve learned my lesson; San Diego Josh Byrnes should always be considered a wild card, because of his familiarity with Arizona and Towers’ familiarity with San Diego.

In return for Kennedy, who was signed to a modest 2013 salary and under control for two arbitration years, Towers got a needed lefty specialist in Joe Thatcher, minor leaguer Matt Stites who could fit into the bullpen mix in a year or two, and a compensation pick.  So how valuable is the dollar (Kennedy), and how valuable is the 80 cents Arizona got in return?

Kennedy to Padres

Since Byrnes swung Kennedy in a three-way trade with the Tigers and Yankees, Kennedy has been good for 11.0 WAR (Max Scherzer has amassed 15.2 WAR in the same time frame).  A whopping 5 WAR of that total all comes from Kennedy’s monster 2011 season in which Kennedy tallied a 21-4 record.  Kennedy’s 222 IP that year was tied for 15th in the majors, with Carl Pavano and Arizona’s Daniel Hudson.  To find the next-highest innings total that year for a pitcher with 4 losses or fewer, you end up down at 88th on the IP leaders list (Ivan Nova, with 165.1 IP).  In 2014 and 2015, will Kennedy be the pitcher from 2011?  The pitcher from 2010 (2.4 WAR) or 2012 (2.9 WAR)?  Or has something happened this year that should make us think that 2013 (0.7 WAR, on pace for around 1.1)?

The great thing about trades is that the answer need not be the same for both teams involved.  After all, teams play half of their games in predictable environments:

2012 MLB Park Factors (via ESPN)

Runs HR H 2B 3B BB
Chase Field

1.171 (6th)

1.192 (6th)

1.064 (6th)

1.176 (4th)

1.176 (12th)

0.955 (25th)

Petco Park

0.854 (26th)

0.626 (28th)

0.960 (21st)

0.967 (18th)

1.257 (T-8th)

1.004 (T-16th)

I use FanGraphs for WAR information, and it’s important to note that that FanGraphs does make “park adjustments” when determining the baseline (replacement-level) against which a pitcher gets measured — but if the discrepancy is more one of HR rate than of runs overall, and a pitcher has a particularly unusual HR/FB rate, WAR may not tell the whole story.  It’s also important to note that San Diego did take in the fences a bit this year, making 2012 park factors less predictive of 2014 or 2015.  So far in 2013, it seems that Petco has a very similar Runs factor (0.845, 29th) and as compared to 2012, it’s traded an increase in HR factor (+ o.315) for decreases in doubles factor (-0.248) and triples factor (-0.312).  Although it’s been less difficult to hit home runs at Petco than it was in 2012, it’s also harder to hit doubles or triples.  In fact, it’s just plain harder to get a hit now (+0.019 hit factor), perhaps because fielders have slightly less ground to cover.

Statistics and popular wisdom agree that Kennedy will probably pitch better in San Diego, but it’s not so much because he’s a flyball pitcher.  I mean, he is a flyball pitcher (2013 GB rate of 36.1%, 6th-worst among 92 qualifiers) and his flyballs have been turning into home runs at an impressive clip (HR/FB of 12.5%, 26th-worst).  I just mean that popular wisdom may be a little off on the idea that less of his flyballs will turn into home runs in Petco — Chase actually has a below-average HR factor of 0.906 this year, meaning it’s been more difficult to hit ’em in Phoenix than in San Diego (2012 HR factor of 0.941).  This bump in HR rate at Petco could be an aberration, and Chase’s this year certainly seems strange — but I’m more inclined to believe that Petco will be more middle of the pack from now on, what with a plausible explanation to point to (shorter fences).

That’s a long way of saying that it’s not immediately obvious to me that Kennedy will be more valuable to the Padres than he would have been to the Diamondbacks this year.  On a separate note, it’s also not obvious to me that Kennedy’s team control will be worth anything in 2015 — when Arizona received Joe Saunders in the Dan Haren trade, he too had 2+ seasons of control left, but Arizona non-tendered Saunders before the final year, a confirmation that Arizona’s ability to control Saunders in the final year ended up meaning nothing.  While it’s no guarantee that San Diego won’t non-tender Kennedy before the 2015 season, having the option of bringing Kennedy to arbitration is definitely worth something.

Remember the old kind of Olympic scoring, when they threw out the highest and lowest numbers?  Let’s throw out Kennedy’s highest (his 2011) and lowest (his 2013), and settle on about 2.5 WAR per season.  That’s about 5.8 total expected WAR, probably at slightly below market rate in terms of dollars.

Thatcher, Stites and Draft Pick to Diamondbacks

As the music drew to a close in this year’s musical chairs trade deadline, several available bullpen options had already been traded.  Like most of us might in that situation, Towers turned to a solution he already knew — Joe Thatcher, who Towers had traded for six years ago.  Thatcher has been good for 2.1 WAR over parts of seven seasons in the majors, not an outstanding figure, but understandable given that he’s been used as a specialist (30 innings in 50 games this year for the Padres).  Thatcher’s contract for this season is reasonable ($1.35M), and Arizona gets one more year of control at slightly less than market.  Even if you assume that Thatcher can contribute like he did in his best seasons (0.7 WAR in 2009, 1.0 WAR in 2010), we’re looking at about 1 win above replacement here.  But that’s not the whole story.

The Dbacks’ recent bullpen shortcomings have been explored ad nauseam, elsewhere and on this site.  “Replacement” is an objective standard, and there’s just no guarantee that Arizona could get there.  There were no lefty options in the minor league wings (that Towers would divert to the bullpen, anyway), and the sole lefty in the bullpen, Tony Sipp, has actually pitched better against righties (.203 BAA) than against lefties (.254).  With no other available option for a late inning LHB matchup, maybe need should say something.  WAR is all about comparison to alternatives, and so I’d like to give Towers a little bump over 1 WAR for Thatcher.

Towers also acquired Matt Stites in the trade, a pitcher who is not part of the 2013 bullpen solution (he’s out for the rest of the year because of an emergency appendectomy anyway) but could be a useful piece down the road.  Merely #27 among Padres prospects at the end of last season, according to Baseball America, Stites is a former 17th-round pick who throws a fastball in the 92-94 mph range.  Although he’s only advanced to AA ball, Stites has enjoyed success in the minors (1.53 ERA, 9.98 K/9, .159 BAA).  A big reason to think he may have a future in the majors is his stellar control (1.26 BB/9).  He’s more than a throw-in, and he does make the trade return better for Arizona.

There are a few things I liked about this trade.  I like that Towers traded away what he wanted to trade away.  I like the Thatcher fit for this team right now.  But my favorite thing about the trade is Matt Stites, because of what it shows about what Towers is thinking.  Look, the bullpen right now is overpaid and not very good, and there weren’t many easy options to fix it.  Using young pitchers in the bullpen is not only cheaper than signing or trading for Putzes or Bells, but better for flexibility; if a guy is struggling and the team has a minor league option, you can mix and match.  Leaving closer duties as a problem for another day, a 2015 bullpen of guys like Stites, Anthony Meo and Andrew Chafin is a good model that is sustainable.

So that’s maybe 1 WAR from Thatcher, a decent probability of some 0.5 WAR relief seasons from Stites down the road, and a draft pick.  What is the pick worth?  Well, it’s probably not worth a young Patrick Corbin, even though the pick will come higher than where Corbin was selected at 80th overall.  With a pick in the 70th overall range to add to the one it already received, Arizona will have a little bit more in the way of flexibility with their bonus pool in the 2014 MLB Rule 4 draft.  A major-league return is probably five or so years away, however.

Even if Stites pans out and the extra draft pick proves useful (it can be traded again, after all), this trade is really about Kennedy and Thatcher.  Towers overpaid, but in so doing, he didn’t borrow from the future and he didn’t subtract anything the team couldn’t afford to be without.  For those reasons alone, this was a reasonable move for the Diamondbacks, and one that won’t haunt the organization down the road.


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