Friday, July 23, 2010

Even Jeff Pearlman's Hindsight is Myopic

The summer heat has taken its toll on my weary mind, so in this post I'm just going to focus on why Jeff Pearlman is silly to think that Scott Kazmir's flameout validates Jim Duquette's incredibly stupid move to trade then-stud prospect Scott Kazmir for Victor "No I'm Not Carlos" Zambrano in 2003. So in other words this might not be very funny ("Don't worry! Your posts never are!" say the legions of FJayM readers).

Called Jim Duquette yesterday. Left a message for him at the Sirius XM office, where he hosts a show with Kevin Kennedy. Mentioned that I'm working on a column about Scott Kazmir.
Never heard back.

Good for you. Is this what sports journalism has become in the age of the internet? "I know people in the sports world! No really, I know people in the sports world. They talk to me sometimes! Except when they don't!" See also King, Peter

I'm not upset. Duquette is someone I know a little bit, someone I like and respect as both a former baseball executive and, now, as a fellow member of the media. Maybe he was busy. Maybe he had to cook dinner, fly to Guam, buy a sofa, meet my Uncle Marty for sushi.

Well, la di da

My guess, however, is that Duquette simply doesn't want to answer the 432,532,211th question of his life about Kazmir, Victor Zambrano and the ill-conceived trade that overshadowed his brief career as general manager of the New York Mets.

Hard to blame a guy for not wanting to talk about an epically stupid trade that saw past his prime (if there ever was a prime for the guy) Victor Zambrano come to NY for two years, strike out 6 people per 9 with a one and a half whip and a sky high ERA (not to mention 0.1 WAR over the two years, if you believe B-R) in exchange for one of the best prospects in baseball who--despite a disappointing end to a once promising career still put up solid-to-very-good numbers for Tampa Bay for dirt cheap. Pretty easy to see why the guy would assume most people writing columns about that trade would rank it one of the worst of the last decade.

I completely understand.

In the words of Christian Bale: "Ohhhhh good for YOU!" (sorry guys, my computer runs a few months slow)

It has been nearly six years to the day since Duquette, in his only season as New York's GM, famously dealt his team's top prospect, the 20-year-old Kazmir, to Tampa Bay for a pitcher who, in 2003, led the American League in walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen. Not that Zambrano didn't have an upside. He threw hard, his fastball had some wicked movement and, at age 28, he was still in the prime of his career.
"The feeling is that we still have a chance (this year)," Duquette said at the time. "We're still in the mix. Let's go for it. With these guys added to the rotation [the Mets also acquired Kris Benson from Pittsburgh] we have a chance to win every night."
The trade was a disaster.

Well, the trade was certainly a disaster, but I do take issue with the idea that when you trade for a pitcher in the last year of his prime in order to get his services for half a season you're "getting a pitcher in his prime". But whatever.

Here's where the article gets dumb:

While Duquette was certainly foolish to take on Zambrano, his worries about Kazmir have, by and large, proven true. At the time of the deal, Kazmir boosters were comparing the youngster to another Ron Guidry. Both were small (Kazmir is 6-feet, 175 pounds), left-handed, fluid and hard-throwing. Yet how many Ron Guidrys are there? Truth is, when the Mets brass watched Kazmir throw, they often saw another Bud Smith, a slight St. Louis left-hander who, as a rookie phenom in 2001, went 6-3 while tossing a no-hitter. Smith was briefly the talk of baseball, but after pitching terribly early in 2002, he was traded to Philadelphia and never heard from again. He was small, he was left-handed -- and he broke down.
Yes, Scott Kazmir has had a nice career. But nice is often misleading. Now in his seventh full season, Kazmir has never posted an ERA lower than 3.48, has never won more than 13 games and has only thrown one complete game -- in 2006. After beginning last season with an 8-7 record and 5.92 ERA for Tampa Bay, he was unceremoniously shipped to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez and two prospects.
Now, with his velocity down, his once-potent slider nonexistent and his ERA a major league-worst 6.92, Kazmir has been placed on the disabled list by an organization perplexed and befuddled by a should-be ace. He recently made the worst start in the 49-year history of the Angels, permitting 13 earned runs over five innings against Oakland. "Looking at video, I can't even tell if that's me out there," Kazmir recently told ESPN. "It's getting a little out of control."
In other words, the man has broken down. He will likely never be Ron Guidry or, for that matter, the Scott Kazmir of four years ago.

Ok. Let's ignore for one second that Kazmir actually had a very solid career for the Rays for quite a while*

*Over four full seasons in the toughest division in baseball, Kazmir averaged a 3.51 ERA, 9.7 K/9 and and 2.3 K/BB. If you care about such things, he also made 2 all-star teams)

But even if we ignore that, this trade is one of the dumbest I can remember (I mean, not on the Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for AJ Pierzynski level but what really is?). Why's that? Well, Jeff in his neverending superficiality doesn't realize that trades can't really be evaluated in hindsight. Trades aren't made with a priority on looking back. Sure, we all do it, and it's kind of fun to talk about how bad Brock for Broglio was, and certainly the Mets would have been kicking themselves even more if Kazmir were Cooperstown bound.

However the fact of the matter is without becoming masterfully familiar with scouting and organizational depth, really the only way a casual fan can evaluate a trade is to consider whether the GM got adequate value. I'm not talking from a SABRmetric standpoint "does this guy have a 37% chance based on the Pacific Coast League's park effect factor to succeed in which case we need to get at least two times his value in order to blah blah blah" (not disparaging this BTW, just saying it's not germane to my point). I mean in the very simple sense:

Can a GM get more value for his player than he got and can he get it easily?

Scott Kazmir at the time of the trade was one of the top prospects IN BASEBALL. Now, some things to consider: top prospects are valued less than proven young stars by anything but the most cost-conscious of GM's; furthermore the MLB of 2003 was less young-talent driven than the MLB of 2010; finally, even the most talented pitchers have a high flameout rate and thus many GM's are less likely to give up value for them than a young position player.

With that said, of his class of players (Minor League pitchers) Kazmir was one of the 5 most valuable in baseball. Duquette traded him for: absolutely nothing. Zambrano is a zilch. Your favorite team's minor league organization has, right now, probably 2 or 3 players that can produce at the level Victor Zambrano did for the Mets (and more importantly, did before he came to the Mets). The question a fan should ask--if they want to be fair to the GM--is not "Did it work out well for the team" but rather "Did the GM make the best trade he could."

The answer here is that Duquette did not. And more than that, he probably made the worst possible trade that was on the table for him in 2003. The worst. I would be shocked if any other GM in baseball would trade a top 10 MLB prospect for a Victor Zambrano. It just doesn't happen.

Jeff should know that. But of course, he doesn't. I wonder how he invests? Do you think he sells $50,000 worth of stock for a hundred bucks and then crows about what a smart move it was when the company goes bankrupt seven years later?

I suppose he probably wouldn't, because this is the last snippet of the column, immediately following his litany of mitigation on Duquette's behalf:

This doesn't mean Jim Duquette was right. The trade was unambiguously dumb and irrational and unsophisticated.

Well thanks for wasting my time. A final note:

The baseball landscape is one littered with boneheaded swaps -- many worse than Kazmir for Zambrano.

My fucking ass. Let's run it down:

1.) Mets trade one of their most valuable chips
2.) For a shitty player
3.) Who has a shitty career for the Mets
4.) While the player they traded away has a very solid career
5.) During the years he would have been under contract to the Mets
6.) For cheap
7.) During years when they missed the playoffs three times by a cat's whisker

Name me 10 trades in the past 20 years that were worse than this, either in how it looked at the time or how it looked after the fact. I think you might have to think a while to come up with five.


Fred Trigger said...

Minor Correction: It was Jim Duquette, not Dan Duquette that traded Kazmir for Zambrano. At least you got the last name right. I had to correct a boston sportswriter that thought it was Steve Phillips that made the trade.

Chris W said...

Good looking out. I hate Dan Duguette for other reasons so I like to conflate the two, I guess

Fred Trigger said...

Also, off the top of my head, all I could think of was Mark Mulder for Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and some other guy. Pedro for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. Mark Mcgwire for Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews and Blake Stein. Casey Blake for Carlos Santana. Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb.

Fred Trigger said...

I guess I'm kind of cheating, because three of those trades were made because the players were hitting free agency, so the team needed to unload them.

Chris W said...

You have to look at the sort of head-hittingly "duh" factor of Kazmir for Zambrano when they were made. There's no doubt that Lowe and Tek for Slocumb is something like one of the five worst trades ever made so that's definitely worse and in essentially the same vein. Pedro was a salary dump and while the issue of salary dumps is up for debate and while the question of whether they got enough in return is up for debate, it kind of makes some sense. Blake for Santana was a bad misevaluation of prospects and of the value of prospects in the same vein, but there was a sense of desperation there in the pennant chase that doesn't factor into the Zambrano deal as much.

I guess what really rankles me about the Kazmir trade is that everything about it was wrong and everyone knew it completely at the time. I think two out of the three of the trades you mentioned are up there, but not a ton more pop into head immediately.

Fred Trigger said...

oh, I completely agree. At the time, I didnt really follow prospects all that much, but even I knew that was a terrible trade for the mets.

Its kind of like when the Bruins traded Joe Thornton for aging defenseman. I didnt know shit about hockey at the time, but even i knew it was a terrible trade.

Anonymous said...

As a Pirate fan, yes there still some of us out there, I've seen enough horrific moves. Not coincidentally, 18 years and counting of bad baseball.

Dave Littlefield takes the cake when it comes to ineptitude.

His wiki page wraps up all his failures.

Fred Trigger said...

you mean the trade for Matt Morris wasnt a rousing success?

Larry B said...

Pearlman is a Ko-you-know-what. Also, Blake for Santana was like a negative salary dump. What I mean by that is that the Dodgers worked out a deal for Blake and it was done. But the Indians weren't picking up enough of Blake's deal for the Dodgers' taste, so they added Santana to get the Indians to pay for more of Blake.

Adam said...

To give you some idea of how awful Victor Zambrano was that year; he lead the American League in walks for the season even though he pitched his last game in the AL on August 17 and only threw a total of 120IP.

Anonymous said...

As a Mets fan, you think these wounds are healed until articles like this.

Chris W said...

I have a pet theory that you can trace all of Pearlman's analysis w/r/t on-field (or executive) developments back to whether the guy involved was nice to him or was a big ol' meany.

For instance. "Steroids are a plague on the game and infinitely worse than cocaine in the 80's in terms of making the game a travesty and a trainwreck"

(cf. "Love Me or Hate Me", "The Rocket Who Fell to Earth" and "The Bad Guys Won.")

Adam said...

Oh God, Matt Morris! If I remember correctly that was like 1/4 of the Pirates payroll spent on a 7+ ERA pitcher.

Jeff Pearlman said...

I think Jeff Pearlman is smarter than you. I also think Jeff Pearlman got you 95% of your readers by linking your site from an ESPN column. So I also think you owe Jeff Pearlman money.

pnoles said...

Jeff, you can have my share of all teh richez we get from this blog.