A Second Look Redeems the Reds In Eight-Player Deal

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The New York Sun

If the Cincinnati Reds win the National League Central this year, I am going to laugh heartily, mostly at myself.

Yesterday, when the news hit the wires that the Reds had traded outfielder Austin Kearns to Washington for ancient shortstop Royce Clayton, relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, scrub reserve Brendan Harris, and oftinjured pitching prospect Daryl Thompson, I cackled a bit to myself. When I read the full story and saw that, aside from Kearns, the Reds had thrown in slugging shortstop Felipe Lopez, who played in last year’s All-Star Game, and hard-throwing reliever Ryan Wagner, I began to wonder when the last time such an indefensible deal had been made.

I thought of quite a few deals, but two stuck with me. There was the time the Oakland A’s traded 27-year-old DH Jeremy Giambi, who at the time was hitting .274 BA/.390 OBA/.471 SLG, for inept 31-year-old pinch-hitter John Mabry (.286/.304/.286); and the time the Boston Red Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra for a passel of reserves and banjo-hitting shortstop Orlando Cabrera. The latter deal, as you may recall, worked out perfectly well; the former one did, too, as Mabry hit .275/.322/.532 for the A’s and still has a major league job, while Giambi is now best known for being a steroid user.

It’s easy to make all sorts of snarky snap judgments about trades and player moves of all sorts; it’s less easy to assume some basic level of competence on the part of major league executives and some objectivity toward one’s own prejudices. So, granting that anyone who’s given the matter any thought assumes that Reds GM Wayne Krivsky is a madman or a buffoon, is there any reason to think this deal makes sense?

Here was the Reds’ situation before this deal was made: They were one game over .500, four games behind the Cardinals, with a lousy defense and a terrible veteran bullpen.Veterans Rick White, David Weathers, Kent Mercker, and Chris Hammond had each made at least 25 appearances with ERAs of 4.88 or higher. This problem had to be solved if they were to win a winnable division.

Further, with Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang enjoying flukishly great years atop their rotation and the offense heavily reliant on the fragile Ken Griffey Jr.and unsustainable performances from hitters like Scott Hatteberg and Brandon Phillips, the Reds really had to go for it this year.This isn’t a young team exploding on the scene, but rather a mediocre one that’s had a lot go right for it,one that needed immediate reinforcements to sustain any chance at winning.

It’s one thing to understand all this, and another to think through its implications. Krivsky, if he wanted to give his team its best shot at winning, had to improve the bullpen immediately. That narrows one’s options; teams that might be able to make certain offers will want to wait to see how their position is nearer the July 31 trade deadline.

So there’s one set of ameliorating factors — Krivsky is not running a fantasy league team, nor does he operate in a theoretical context. Might he have gotten a better return for his players from some other team? Perhaps, but one has to assume not — markets tend to be pretty efficient, and when managers in any field make certain deals, it’s usually best to assume better ones weren’t possible. And anyway, his goal was not to get maximum return for his players, but to put his team in the playoffs.

Those are related goals, but they’re not the same thing. Garciaparra was and is a better player than Orlando Cabrera, but the Red Sox would not have won the World Series in 2004 had they held on to him.

Past all this is a more basic fact: While every assessment of this trade I read yesterday proceeded from the assumption that Kearns and Lopez are valuable young players, they really aren’t.

Kearns, 26, still has the residue of potential on him, dating back to his days as a top prospect coming up through the Reds’ system alongside Adam Dunn, but he’s a liability. Due mostly to injuries, he’s never had so many as 390 at-bats in a season; he’ll surpass that this season, but in this, the year he’s supposedly reaching his potential, he’s hitting .274/.351/.492 in a great home run park. He has a reputation as a top outfielder, but it’s a holdover from the days before he gained 40 pounds and turned into a wide-bottomed boat. He makes nearly $4 million. This is not a valuable commodity.

Lopez is pretty much the same player: Last year he had a fluke year in which he hit .291/.352/.486; this year, he’s hitting .268/.355/.394, in line with his career numbers.He’s also an absolute abomination in the field, has a reputation dating back years as a headcase, and is making nearly $3 million this year.

So, in sum, Krivsky took two grievously flawed players and traded them for two cheap young relievers, a pair of reserves, and a random pitching prospect who may or may not pan out, saving millions and millions of dollars that he can use to address more pressing needs while opening up a spot in the lineup for Chris Denorfia, a major-league ready outfielder who’s better, judging by his minor league numbers, than Kearns.

Krivsky did all this in the hopes of squeezing a playoff spot out of a mediocre team by improving its most glaring weaknesses — its defense and bullpen — as soon as possible. Maybe someone can explain how making this deal paints Krivsky as a fool; they’re going to have to be pretty persuasive to convince me.

tmarchman@nysun.com


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