Monday, November 07, 2011


Wave a Dirty Handkerchief

It feels like this post has been in the making for about four years. Seemingly since the beginning of time, Jonathan Sanchez has been touted by armchair GMs and red-eyed, froth-mouthed message board denizens as the Giants' most valuable trade chip. His strikeout ability and left-handedness seemingly made him an attractive option for teams seeking out pitching help, and the Giants' yearly pitching depth (or perceived pitching depth) seemingly made him expendable.

He wasn't an untouchable star like Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain, he didn't have the upside of Madison Bumgarner, and he wasn't payroll poison like Barry Zito, but his talented arm and cheap price tag clearly made him the team's top trade commodity. So the ever-present rumor had him being traded to some pitching-starved team for a big bat. Literally every offseason or trade deadline since 2006 we'd hear it. Trade him for Prince Fielder! Trade him for Adam Dunn! Trade him for Alex Rios! Oh, wait, no...that was Tim Lincecum.

Well, today it finally happened. Jonathan Sanchez was traded away with a AA non-prospect to the Royals for outfielder and former Braves fan whipping boy Melky Cabrera. After years of speculation that Sanchez had the kind of talent to bring back a big bat in a possible trade, he ended up being dealt for a player who only fit that bill if you replaced the word "bat" with the word "waistline". Cabrera is coming off a very good year at the plate, but before 2011 he was a fourth outfielder and he's no one's idea of an impact offensive player.

This trade has sparked a controversy almost from second the reports started to leak out this morning. The reaction from a lot, if not the majority of, Giants fans has been one of scalding hatred. Twitter has been ablaze all day with recurring bursts of invective, all in 140 characters or less, and if the general consensus on Twitter is wrong, I'm not sure I want to be right. This trade is loathed, and most fans are questioning why a pitcher who put up a 3.07 ERA and struck out over 200 batters just a year ago could only bring back a crappy second division outfielder.

First things first. I don't hate this trade, and at the risk of appearing either contrarian or outright dimwitted, especially in the eyes of fellow Giants fans, I actually kind of like the deal. I'm not in love with Melky Cabrera, and I wish, as do we all, that the Giants could have received a better player for our friend Dirty, but I don't think the team got shafted at all. One thing this morning's deal has done though, is put me in the totally unexpected and alien position of actually defending Brian Sabean.

Let's take a step back for a moment and try to assess Jonathan Sanchez's actual trade value. Some people see a relatively young strikeout artist and solid number three starter coming off of a subpar, injury-plagued year. Perhaps his poor performance was caused by his injury, and he is primed for a comeback this season. Me? I see a totally inconsistent, 29-year-old walk machine with exactly one truly good season on his resume and who now has an injury history.

I've always been concerned about Sanchez's ongoing battles with the evil base-on-balls monster but last season the walks just became untenable. Sanchez had always walked a lot of batters, but not an ungodly amount, and he'd always been able to get away with the wildness by being stingy with giving up hits. In 2011, though, his BB/9 rate shot up to a horrific 5.9. Unless your name is Nolan Ryan, you just can't survive that way. Sanchez's problem with walks meant that he was utterly incapable of working deep into games (just two of his nineteen starts lasted seven innings!). This created a huge burden for the bullpen and made Sanchez's starts just unwatchable in general.

If you look at the history of pitchers who last a long time in the league, you'll see that generally their control improves as the years pass. The aforementioned Nolan Ryan is just one example. Sanchez, again, saw his walk rate skyrocket, and with his general history of bad control, that's a horrible sign (the elevated walk rates were evident before his injury, before you go playing that card). Even his strikeout rate dropped a little, and now he's coming off of an arm injury and due to make somewhere around $6 million in 2012. Opposing front offices, even bad ones, aren't exactly chomping at the bit to trade for a pitcher like this, so why in the world do people still think Sanchez could bring an All-Star or anything even close back in a trade?

There's an old axiom, coined by Branch Rickey (supposedly), that it's better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. I believe this is what's going on here and I give Brian Sabean credit because I think he sees what I do. I've given up all hope that Sanchez will ever reign in his control problems and I think he's done being an effective pitcher. Call me reactionary if you want, but 2010 is looking like the fluke, not aught eleven. The incredible spike in his walk total, the injury, and the fact that pitchers at his age generally don't magically discover the strike zone all combine to scare the hell out of me. I think the walks and high pitch counts and early exits are going to cause too much wear on his arm, and I think, unfortunately, that it's all downhill from here for Sanchez.

Cabrera is out-of-shape and is, by all metrics, an atrocious center fielder. His surprisingly good season with the bat could have also been a total fluke. It's absolutely possible that I could look like a complete blithering idiot in a year as Melky is DFA'd in July and Sanchez wins the AL Cy Young. Hell, I've looked like an idiot before, believe you me.

I think the opposite is true here, though. I think Sanchez has very little left in his arm and I think the Giants just got decent value for him now because they wouldn't have gotten anything for him after this season. Pitchers with his extreme command issues don't last long, and now that he's an injury risk, I think it was fair to bid adieu. Count me as maybe the only soul on the Internet who has this opinion, but I think that, in the end, the Giants are going to come away winners in this deal, and it won't be close.

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