Now that the non-waiver traded deadline has passed, we can all look back confidently and say, “yeah, I knew that Ted Lilly and Ryan Theriot were going to get dumped.” And in retrospect, it’s probably fair to give ourselves that prescience. Theriot, a non-tender candidate, simply didn’t have a future with the Cubs. Lilly, a free agent, has more value now to another team than to the Cubs. It was obvious that they were going to go – they had to go. Right?
Now we’ll apply that same level of magical hindsight to evaluate whether the return for those two guys who had to go was adequate. Surely you can now see the irony that will inform the entire analysis. We allow ourselves to believe that we all already knew that Lilly and Theriot just had to be moved, no matter the cost, and now we’ll pick-pick-pick at the return the Cubs got from a team that also knew that Lilly and Theriot just had to be moved. Maybe we shouldn’t be disappointed, no matter what we find.
First, the most accomplished component of the deal: infielder Blake DeWitt. I say infielder as opposed to second baseman because, although DeWitt has served as the Dodgers’ second baseman this year, his formal training is as a third baseman. But the Dodgers had Casey Blake, and DeWitt’s big league bat was more well-suited for second base – so there he went. So, too, it will be on the Cubs.
DeWitt, just 24, was the Dodgers’ first round pick in 2004. He flew through the minors in just three seasons before making his big league debut in 2008 as a 22-year-old. Never much of a power hitter, DeWitt’s minor league line stood at .277/.337/.443, which was respectable, but assuredly disappointing in the OBP department. Add in the fact that he was playing third base, and it’s actually somewhat hard to see why he was so aggressively promoted. But promoted he was, and he’s responded well in the big leagues as a young man, putting up a .262/.340/.379 line in parts of three seasons. By comparison, Ryan Theriot’s numbers stand at .287/.350/.362, and Theriot did not make his debut until he was 25 – three years older than DeWitt.
DeWitt has always been very difficult to strike out, but it appears that the ability was less a product of a discerning eye, and more a product of a preternatural ability to make contact. It wasn’t until recently that DeWitt began to take walks at an acceptable rate. His IsoD in the minor leagues was just .060, whereas that number has increased to a .078 in the bigs (.082 this year). If his progress continues, he could be a guy who consistently puts up an OBP over .350. Leaving the pitcher-friendly confines of Chavez Ravine will only help.
DeWitt is widely regarded as good with the glove, if not great. His natural position is third base, where his defense is reportedly excellent. At second, it takes a hit – as anyone’s would – but by my eye and by evaluating various internet reports, it appears that DeWitt will not be a downgrade defensively at second base from Theriot, and is probably better than Mike Fontenot or Jeff Baker.
Along with DeWitt, the Cubs acquired two right-handed pitching prospects in the deal yesterday – starter Brett Wallach and reliever Kyle Smit. I should brace you: neither is considered a top prospect. Wallach was rated as the Dodgers’ 20th best prospect at the start of 2009 (though that number would likely be slightly higher at this point). Smit did not figure in the top 20.
Wallach is a 21-year-old, hard-throwing starter, whose fastball sits in the low-90s and touches the mid-90s. He’s said to have a good changeup and sinker, but needs work on a curveball or slider (he throws a slurve). He was the Dodgers’ third round pick last year, and was primarily a shortstop at that time. It wasn’t until after the draft that he was converted to pitching full-time. That makes him the “athletic” type that has been the cornerstone of the Tim Wilken regime. This, of course, is a good thing.
So far, Wallach’s results have been a mixed bag. He’s 6-0 with a 3.72 ERA in A-ball, having struck out an impressive 92 batters in just 84 innings. That’s the good. Among the bad: (1) he’s walked 43, (2) he’s got a 1.370 WHIP, (3) he’s already 21 and is striking out younger kids by blowing a mid-90s fastball by them.
Sure, at that age, you’d like to see Wallach putting up those kind of numbers in AA or at least High A ball, but you’ve got to remember: Wallach started pitching full-time just late last year, after he was drafted. He’s clearly got the stuff to become an excellent pitcher, and, in his particular case, his age shouldn’t weigh as heavily against his potential. Wallach will probably start next season as a top 20 prospect in the Cubs’ system, which is no insult.
As for Kyle Smit, he’s had a mixed, and long, minor league career. A fifth-round pick out of high school in 2006, Smit is in his fifth minor league season, without much success. Reason for optimism? He moved to the bullpen full-time this year, and he’s been dominating t0 the tune of a 2.35 ERA in 54 innings between High A and AA, striking out 47 and walking just 10. Smit throws a low-90s fastball and a hard curve. He’s working on a splitter, but there is not a great deal of optimism that he could become a late-inning reliever at the big-league level. Middle reliever seems to be the most common peg.
So, for two months of Lilly, the opportunity to pay Ryan Theriot way too much money next year, and $2.5 million, the Dodgers gave up a cheap, young, starting-caliber infielder, a high ceiling starting pitching prospect, and a low ceiling relieving prospect. When viewing the deal through the lens of a Dodger fan, does it look better today than it might have yesterday? It certainly does for me.
Some thoughts on the trade, itself, as opposed to the players in it:
(1) Waiting to move Lilly probably proved a mistake. It was not, however, a poor decision – often, waiting to move your piece until after some other, shinier pieces have been moved will allow you to reap a better return from the teams who missed out on those shinier pieces. Here, it seems there weren’t too many teams interested in Lilly by the time all the preceding moves had been made. It went quickly from Angels-Tigers-Twins-Mets-Yankees-Phillies-Dodgers to holy-crap-please-make-a-fair-offer-Dodgers. The return was bound to wane.
Then again, all we heard for days was how disappointing the returns on Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt were, so maybe it was simply a buyer’s market.
(2) This deal is undoubtedly about money. Not just the money that the Cubs get in payroll relief from casting off Lilly and Theriot for the rest of the year (the Dodgers are taking on about $2.5 million of the combined $5 million(ish) that the pair are owed for the rest of the year), but relief for 2011, primarily at second base.
In this respect, there can be no debate that Blake DeWitt is the centerpiece of this deal for the Cubs. That is to say, DeWitt, and the salary he won’t make next year. DeWitt will be eligible for arbitration for the first time next year, where he should make something in the range of $800k to $1.2 million – perhaps one third of what Ryan Theriot could make in 2011. Yes, yes, I know: Theriot was likely to be non-tendered by the Cubs. But someone was going to have to play second base, and it was going to be a big money free agent, or Fontenot/Baker, each of whom would have made more than DeWitt. I’m not saying I like the idea of going cheap at second base, but at least DeWitt could put up the numbers of an average second baseman – something Theriot was straining to do.
(3) DeWitt isn’t the only money-saver in the deal – prospects Wallach and Smit are as well. You regularly heard, before Ted Lilly was dealt, that the Cubs needed to make sure to get two first-round caliber prospects in any deal, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it. After all, the team could simply offer Lilly arbitration at the end of the year, and if he declined, they’d net a couple first round picks in the 2011 draft (depending on who signed Lilly).
One aspect of this plan, however, that goes unconsidered is the cost associated with those first round picks. When a team receives a prospect, that player’s signing bonus has already been paid; but when taken in the draft, the team has to pony up to get that player in the system. First round picks aren’t cheap – increasingly, their bonuses average $1 million or more – and by securing prospects, as opposed to draft picks, the Cubs saved money. Are these two pitchers as good as first round draft picks? Probably not; but they’ve at least passed the total bust phase, which is a risk for all draft picks. Think of them as lower ceiling, but higher floor than a first round draft pick.
(4) You have to wonder if the Cubs view DeWitt as a safety net at third base should Aramis Ramirez opt out of his deal at the end of this year (ha, yeah right), or become injured/ineffective. DeWitt is certainly a better full-time option at third than Fontenot or Baker, but he does not have the stick to play third base right now on a championship team. Hey, what do you know, maybe he’s perfect at third for the Cubs.
(5) I will not miss Ryan Theriot. He strikes me as a great teammate who loves the game and plays hard. But he’s also maddeningly inconsistent in his approach at the plate, has a brutally low baseball IQ, and is a nightmare on the basepaths. But the nail in the coffin for me was his decision to take the Cubs to arbitration over his unreasonable request for $3.4 million in 2010 when the Cubs were reportedly willing to settle for around $3 million. Instead, he ended up in arbitration, lost, and now takes $2.6 million with him to Los Angeles.
(6) I will miss Ted Lilly. He also strikes me as a great teammate who loves the game and plays hard, but he has also been the Cubs’ ace over the past three years. Together, he and Ryan Dempster have been as consistent a duo as there is in baseball. They were never the best 1-2 around, but you knew that when they took the mound, they were going to give the Cubs a chance to win that day. Now that he’s gone, folks will say not to worry, the Cubs can always re-sign Lilly at the end of the year. This kind of blissful naivety ignores the fact that traded vets almost never return to their former team, the fact that the Dodgers will have an extra several months to work on Lilly during and after the season, the fact that signing Lilly could cost the Cubs a draft pick (depending on where they finish in the standings), and the fact that next year, Lilly will be 35.
But, well, it could happen. Sound familiar? I guess we Cub fans are nothing if not blissfully – perpetually – naive.