One of the great things about baseball is it attracts smart people. The statistical revolution in the game has given us even more to discuss, and indeed, argue about. For example, take Rany Jazayerli's column from Grantland.com wherein he contends Red Sox fans should be concerned about new GM Ben Cherington given his first few moves. He cites the the recent deal where the Red Sox acquired reliever Mark Melancon for shortstop Jed Lowrie and pitching prospect Kyle Weiland as prime evidence, as well as potentially moving Daniel Bard into the rotation. There is a fair bit of disagreement on both points, so...
Into the ring steps our two competitors! In the red corner, weighing more than he feels comfortable saying in a public forum... Matt Kory! In the not-red corner, weighing as much as the two pieces of 8.5x10 paper his column is printed on ... Rany Jazayerl's column for Grantland.com! OK, gentlemen, here are the rules. We're going to go point by point through Mr. Jazayerli's article. Nothing below the belt so, Matt, no mom jokes. Mr. Jazayerli is of course welcome to make fun of Matt's mom. Now touch gloves and come out writing!
Point 1: You Don't Trade Regulars For Relievers
Mr. Jazayerli's contention that the deal was bad for the Red Sox -- and good for the Astros -- seems to be founded at least in part upon the believe that such a deal is one-sided intrinsically. That is, when ever you trade a starting player for a reliever, the team acquiring the reliever made a bad trade. This quotation sums up Mr. Jazayerli's position on the matter (all quotes from Mr. Jazayerli are taken from this article):
Melancon is a nice little reliever [...], but a year ago you couldn't have acquired Jed Lowrie for five Mark Melancons. A switch-hitting shortstop with a career .252/.324/.408 line? Yeah, I'll take two.
Funny, because the Red Sox actually had two. Marco Scutaro is a career .270/.338/.389 hitter, and has hit .284/.343/.401 with over the last two seasons with Boston. OK, he's not a switch hitter like Lowrie, but he's a better fielder both by Fan Graphs advanced fielding data and by my eyes. Well, in fairness, when I put a bag over my head both fielders look similar. Still, Lowrie was redundant.
[Lowrie has] got more service time than Melancon, but three years of a starting shortstop is worth a lot more than five years of a reliever.
All true except Lowrie wasn't going to be a starting shortstop for the Red Sox. Look at it this way. The Sox could have dealt the guy with the higher ceiling and the injury problems or they could have dealt the steadier, more reliable guy. Keep in mind also that both high ceiling guy and steady reliable guy hit about the same when everything is said and done.
Boston wasn't going to play two shortstops at once because they don't employ Joe Maddon and with Dustin Pedroia at second there isn't a place to move either player without regretting it later. With Mike Aviles on the roster as well, someone had to go, and the Sox didn't want to trade Scutaro so Lowrie was the next most marketable. The Sox were not going to get the highest and best use out of Lowrie this year so dealing him now makes sense.
Point 2: Jed Lowrie Alone Was Worth More Than Melancon, But Adding Weiland Was Way Too Much
Again, Mr. Jazayerl:
Throwing in Wieland, who has some back-end rotation possibilities for an NL team, is just salt in the wound.
Weiland could be a fine pitcher and maybe including him in the deal tilts it further in the Astros direction. It probably does. Even if so, Weiland wasn't going to have much of a role on the 2012 Red Sox. He certainly wasn't going to start and there likely wasn't a role for him in the bullpen either. As odd as it may seem, trading for the young cost controlled reliever Melancon was as much about wining in 2012 as it was about winning in the subsequent seasons. Weiland and Lowrie didn't have roles on the 2012 Red Sox. The Sox added someone who can help them win now and in the years beyond for two players who were, at best, an insurance policy and and insurance policy against another insurance policy.
As far as Lowrie being worth more than Melancon, well, that's an assertion that's as tough to attack as it is to defend. If Lowrie were the highest and best possible Lowrie he could be then sure, absolutely. Since Lowrie has played barely over a full season's worth of games (175) over the past three years due to a litany of injuries so varied you'd think he was the subject of an on-going military experiment, it's hard to know what his value around the league is. What we know is he's a 28 year old, injury prone, cheap, good hit, little field shortstop. There is value in that for certain, but I'm not sure it's as much as Mr. Jazayerli contends. But maybe it is.
Point 3: Moving Bard To The Rotation Is Dumb
Moving Daniel Bard to the rotation, which the team may do or, alternately, they may not do depending on how the rest of the off season plays out, is, according to Mr. Jazayerli, "absurd." Actually, he says, "It's hard to convey just how absurd this idea is." He cites Bard's struggles in the minor leagues in 2007. These struggles, and calling them struggles probably under-sells how awful Bard really was, happened just after Bard was drafted and inserted into professional ball for the first time. Here's what he says:
Bard started his professional career as a starting pitcher and it nearly destroyed him. In 2007, Bard’s first pro season, he made 22 starts in the low minor leagues. In 75 innings, he walked 78 batters and threw 27 wild pitches. Before the whispers of "Steve Blass Disease" reached a crescendo, the Sox moved him to the bullpen, where he’s been effective ever since. And now they want to send him back into the dragon’s lair?
At this point I'm going to turn the floor over to my surprise witness, the Providence Journal's Brian MacPherson, who covered just this topic about a month ago:
But the Bard pitching for the Red Sox now barely resembles the Bard who pitched at Single-A Greenville and Single-A Lancaster back in 2007. The Red Sox tried to change the mechanics Bard had used in college after they drafted him, and what they had him do simply didn't work. "I was at 90 to 93 with a crappy curveball and a changeup I couldn't locate," he said shortly after his major-league debut. "There were times I went out there and felt like I was pitching with someone else's mechanics and someone else's repertoire."
So the Red Sox monkeyed around with Bard's mechanics and it didn't work. Then they moved him to the pen and he went back to his old mechanics later that year. According to OTM's own Marc Normandin, as soon as Bard returned to his old mechanics (that winter in the Hawaiian League) he regained lost velocity and began pitching with far more command and control.
None of this guarantees Bard will be successful if the Red Sox do transition him to the rotation, but saying he couldn't do it five years ago so he can't do it now misses both the forest and the trees.
The especially odd thing to me is that Mr. Jazayerli would argue in one breath that the Red Sox made a mistake dealing a shortstop for a reliever because of relative value, but then, in the next breath, would argue against the Red Sox taking a reliever and making him a starter. Surely he knows far better than I (and I'm quite content saying Mr. Jazayerli knows more about baseball than I do by a factor of a number too high for me to count to) the relative value of a starter versus a reliever. And in fairness, he does say if it works out it will "pay big dividends."
One final point on this whole thing, courtesy of WEEI.com's Alex Speier (forgive the long quotation):
In a vaccum, if Weiland emerges as a solid starter for the next six years for the Astros or if Lowrie remains healthy and becomes an everyday shortstop for the next three years in Houston, then it will be easy to conclude that, no matter how good Melancon is, the Astros got the better of the deal. After all, a reliever who works 60-80 innings per year is less valuable to a team than a 180-200 innings a year pitcher or a starter at a premium position.
The Astros aren’t a team that needs to tinker. They were a horrible team that needs big pieces; they are a better team for having exchanged a reliever for regulars.
But that doesn’t make it a bad deal for the Red Sox. Quite the contrary. The Sox are a team that needs to fight to get better at the margins. If they had been one win better in 2011, after all, their season would have gone on for at least one more day. Melancon’s impact on the 2012 Sox exceeds, in all likelihood, what either Weiland (who was slated to open the year in Triple-A) or Lowrie (a role player whose role was dwindling steadily) was going to offer.
In a sense, the Astros have the luxury of being able to win this deal. They have so few pieces that acquiring players like Weiland and Lowrie fills two holes on their roster. The Red Sox aren't in that same position as those same two players not only didn't fill holes on their roster, but were either redundant or wouldn't have made the roster in the first place. Melancon may or may not be the reliever the Sox hope him to be, but the players they gave up for him weren't likely to help the Red Sox win baseball games in 2012.
As for moving Bard, well, we've kinda kicked this dead horse again and again here, so I'll just say, from all the information available, it seems like it has a fair enough possibility of success that I think it's worth a try. One thing I'm pretty sure of, though, is it's not absurd.