Three-Way Trade Is Bad News for D-backs

Jackson&KennedyThe Arizona Diamondbacks took part in a three-team trade that sent pitchers Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit for right-handers Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy.  It’s hard to figure what the D-backs were thinking, as the swap will be a detriment to the Diamondbacks’ chances for 2010 and beyond.

The Diamondbacks entered the offseason with holes to fill in both the starting rotation and in their bullpen.  After their deal with the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, they will be weaker in both areas despite taking on a significant amount of new salary.

Neither Ian Kennedy nor Daniel Schlereth is arbitration-eligible, so their exchange does not affect the Diamondbacks financially.  Edwin Jackson, on the other hand, made $2.2 million during a career year in 2009 and figures to make at least $5 million next season.  Max Scherzer, meanwhile, is going to make about $2 million in 2010 before becoming arbitration-eligible next year.  Aaron Heilman, acquired last week from the Chicago Cubs, figures to make just over $2 million himself after raking in $1.625 last season.

Essentially, the D-backs have swapped Heilman for Schlereth in the bullpen, Jackson for Scherzer as their #3 starter, and added Kennedy as their #4 starter at a net cost of around $5 million.  So the questions are whether the two exchanges favor the D-backs and whether there was a free agent pitcher of Kennedy’s caliber to be had for a $5 million price tag.

The second question is somewhat difficult to answer this early in the winter, as only the top pitchers available have signed thus far.  The only free agent starting pitchers who have signed anywhere near the $5 million price tag are Brad Penny and Rich Harden, each of whom accepted $7.5 million, one-year deals.  Obviously, those two pitchers are far superior to Ian Kennedy. If this year’s middle-tier starting pitcher market is similar to last winter’s, the D-backs could have done better than Kennedy.

Jon Garland signed with the Diamondbacks for $7.25 million last January and won 11 games, tossed over 200 innings, plus finished with an ERA just over 4.00.  Braden Looper signed with the Brewers for $5.5 million.  He went 14-7 tossed just under 200 innings, but led the league with 39 home runs allowed and finished with a 5.27 ERA.  Andy Pettitte signed for the same money as Looper did and matched him in both wins and innings pitched, but had a far more impressive 4.16 ERA.  Randy Wolf improved upon his base salary of $5 million by hitting a lot of incentives on the road towards going 11-7 with a 3.23 ERA over 214.1 innings.

There’s some variation here, but it seems likely that the D-backs would have at least been able to get a decent 200-inning workhorse in the $5 million range.  What can we expect from Ian Kennedy in 2010?  It’s difficult to say, but he certainly won’t pitch 200 innings.   Kennedy has averaged just over 100 innings in his three full professional seasons due in part to being injured with an arm aneurysm for most of last season.  When Kennedy has pitched in the minors, he’s been dominant, at 19-6 with a 1.95 ERA and 273 strikeouts in 248.2 innings.  That success has not translated to the majors, where he is 1-4 with a 6.03 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 59.2 innings.  The biggest difference is that Kennedy has walked twice as many batters per nine innings in the majors as he did in the minors – 5.6 to 2.8.

The problem likely isn’t command, but rather a lack of confidence that his stuff can get major league hitters out in the strike zone. He has a five-pitch arsenal, but his fastball only averages about 90 MPH.  His changeup was his most effective pitch in the minors, but it doesn’t appear to be as deceptive to major league hitters.  One reason for future optimism is that Kennedy has refined his two-seam fastball, a pitch which he has only recently added to his repertoire and one that can only be further aided by pitching in a rotation alongside Brandon Webb.

“Before, I couldn’t command my two-seamer; it was always talking off the plate and no one would swing at it,” Kennedy recently told the New York Times. “Right now, it’s something to get guys to swing at and put the ball in play and save pitches.”

Kennedy turns 25 this month and figures to improve with more innings under his belt, but isn’t likely to contribute much at the big league level this season.  On the other hand, Edwin Jackson is a year older than Max Scherzer is and three years closer to free agency than is Scherzer.  His acquisition is a play for the short-term, but in fact he does not even improve the D-backs for this year.

Jackson entered the 2009 season with a 5.15 ERA and then posted a 3.62 mark for Detroit.   Although this was seemingly a breakout year for a 25-year old pitcher, it wasn’t quite as impressive as it first seems.  His ERA in the second half of the season was 5.07, so he has basically only had four good months in a big league career that has spanned 670 total innings.   While he did improve his walk and strikeout rates in 2009, most of his success came courtesy of the Detroit Tigers’ top-notch defense.  His fielding independent ERA was 4.24 as compared to Scherzer’s mark of 3.90, with Scherzer’s edge coming on the strength of of 9.2 whiffs per nine innings as opposed to Jackson’s 6.8 K/9.  Jackson also allowed 27 home runs in a spacious ballpark that favors pitchers, and is moving to the home run haven known as Chase Field.

The one possible argument for Jackson is that he may be less of an injury risk, although that argument does not hold much water.  Jackson throws slightly harder than Scherzer does, plus increased his workload in 2009 by over 30 innings from 2008.  Even more alarmingly, Jackson had a dozen starts of 110 or more pitches and three of over 120, with a high of 132.   Although Scherzer also saw an increased workload in 2009, the D-backs were relatively careful with him.  He only had three starts of over 110 pitches and never hit 120.

Similarly, the biggest question surrounding Daniel Schlereth was his health. Schlereth throws nearly as hard as Scherzer does, but lacks Scherzer’s size.  Like Kennedy, Schlereth has dominated the minor leagues (1.13 ERA in 39.2 innings) but struggled so far in the majors (5.89 in 18.1).  His command was even a concern in the minors, however, as he walked 5.2 batters per nine innings there.  As the 26th overall pick of 2008, Schlereth was rushed to the majors even more so than Kennedy.  He would have joined Clay Zavada as the D-backs’ left-handed relievers this year and might have been groomed as the closer of the future.

He is replaced by the right-handed Heilman, whom manager A.J. Hinch believes to be capable of getting left-handed hitters out.

“One thing that’s really good about him, he’s very effective against lefties with that changeup, and that’s very good to have,” Hinch said during his winter meeting press conference.  “Being able to put a guy in a full-inning reliever or four outs, which I like to do, and him being able to get left-handed hitters out is key.”

In fact, Heilman’s career batting average against is four points lower against left-handed hitters than it is against righties.  His OPS against, however, is 66 points higher against lefties than it is against right-handers.  Heilman can certainly hold his own against left-handed hitters, but with Schlereth and Scott Maine both gone, there will be a lot of unfavorable late-inning matchups for the Diamondbacks unless the team acquires another

Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to find a quality left-handed bullpen arm than it is to find a right-hander, and there is no doubt that Schlereth has more upside than the 31-year old Heilman does.  Worse yet, it sounds as though the Diamondbacks may be content not to add another left-hander to their bullpen.  Similarly, the acquisition of Kennedy and increased expenditure on Heilman and Jackson may lull the organization into believing that it does not need to add another starting pitcher for depth.  Surely, losing Webb for the 2009 season taught the organization a lesson about the need for depth in the rotation, right?

Even if the team does acquire another starter and another southpaw for the bullpen, this deal still makes the team worse for both 2010 and beyond.  The real kicker is that the team has been made worse despite adding about $5 million to its 2010 payroll.  For a team with limited financial resources, this could be a devastating blow.

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