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The Big Deal, Part 4

In which we finally wrap up our relentless coverage of these trades ...

My Backup Catcher Can Beat Up Your Backup Catcher

I think that even a swap of failed 3B prospects is more interesting than a swap of backup catchers, but it's a close call. At first glance this swap looks similar to the Gerut-Dubois deal, in which two players of roughly equivalent talent at the same position are swapped, one more established, the other with considerably less service time and thus cheaper. (Like many players in this weekend's trades, Jody Gerut is a player whose skills were not going to get fully utilized by his original team. A lefthanded Jason Michaels, if you will. Had Gerut been righthanded, it's unlikely he would have been traded.)

Kelly Shoppach looks a lot like Josh Bard did three years ago, and maybe that simple fact is the whole rationale behind the swap. Both players solved Triple-A pitching at age 25 -- not too old, but not too young, either. Both score high as defensive catchers; Shoppach draws raves for controlling the running game, Bard for handling pitchers. Bard has some power but profiles as more of a contact hitter. Shoppach has never put up impressive batting averages, but he shows solid power and consistently excellent walk rates -- a trait he shares with both Michaels and Andy Marte. On top of that, all three new Indians hit from the right side. I'm going to go out on a limb and say these are not coincidences.

Bard was given a whopping 117 plate appearances over the past two seasons, so it's fair to say that Eric Wedge never exhibited much confidence in him. It may be that in order to liberate Victor Martinez from behind the plate more often, the Indians felt they needed to bring in a catcher with more raw hitting talent; whether that's a fair judgment on Bard is an open question. It may also be that the Indians would like to give one particular pitcher a catcher who is particularly good at controlling the running game.

But it's hard to say whether this trade represents any judgment at all on the two players' skills, since it's a good swap for the Indians on the financial merits alone, and Boston was looking for ways to sweeten the Crisp-Marte deal. Neither of these players has gotten much of a shot at the big-league level -- Bard has just spent more time not getting a shot than Shoppach has. Bard is due for his "big bump" in salary in 2007, while Shoppach isn't due until 2009 or 2010.

This particular swap may be about little else -- or we really might start seeing Victor at 1B more. For those keeping score at home, that's three significant moves in six months made with the goal of giving Ben Broussard fewer at bats. And I'm not even counting making Jake Gautreau learn to play 1B in instructional league. You know something, I bet C.C. can play a decent 1B -- he'd make a nice, big target -- and he hits lefty, too. Maybe they can audition Andy Baskin while they're at it.

The Money

The Red Sox reportedly will send the Indians something in the neighborhood of $1.5 million. There are no reports that any cash was involved in the Rhodes-Michaels trade -- and no reports that the trade had to be approved by the Commissioner's office. It is fair to assume, then, that the Indians sent Rhodes to the Phillies with his $4.2 million salary for 2006 intact, while receiving back Michaels and his $1.8 million salary. In the Boston deal, Mota makes $1.2 million more than Riske, Bard makes a bit more than Shoppach, and Crisp will make about $2.5 million more than Marte ... and then there's the $1.5 million in cash.

So it appears that the Indians have reduced their 2006 payroll by about $5.5 million through these two trades. The cash savings suggests that Indians wanted to clear the way for another significant signing -- Jeff Weaver? -- or mid-year acquisition, which would be consistent with Shapiro's recent comments on the budget.

Beyond 2006, the numbers look even better. All three relievers involved will be free agents after 2006. Crisp and Michaels are already arbitration-eligible, so their salaries will be dictated largely by performance from this point forward. We'll almost certainly save a few million with Michaels. If we don't, it will be because Crisp collapsed. If we save even more than that, it will be because Crisp vastly outperforms Michaels. The Indians will save $5 million or so over 2007-2010 by having Shoppach rather than Bard, and of course Shoppach potentially is powerful trade bait as well.

The biggest financial juice in this deal comes from acquiring Marte, expected by some to be a superstar, by others to be only a bit above average. Going with the latter prediction, Marte is expected to fill a key position with solid performance for the rest of this decade. The going rate for solid major league infielders is $4 million minimum -- Boone, Belliard -- and will continue to rise every year. Marte will make roughly one-tenth that amount from 2006 through 2009. Considering we had no reasonable 3B option in our minor league system, it's fair to say that Marte represents a savings upwards of $20 million over the next four seasons alone, and far more if he develops into a star. It is probably pointless to speculate on the financial effects beyond that point.

The Talent

Like all baseball teams, the most important commodity for the Indians is still talent, not money. These trades, while financially significant, ultimately will be judged on how much talent the Indians gave up and how much they received. That is why, with all due respect to Shoppach and the others, the headline always was and probably always will be "Crisp for Marte," the two biggest talents involved in these trades. Both players likely will be with their new teams for the next four seasons. Both players are very likely to be solid contributors, both have the potential to be stars, and both carry some possibility for mediocrity. Crisp is going to make a lot of highlight reels, while Marte has the potential to be a true franchise player for the Indians well into the next decade.

There are only a handful of impact right-handed hitters in the game. Among those, almost none are capable of playing a skill position, fewer still with excellence. How many righthanded skill-position players managed a 900 OPS last season? Four. Exactly four players out of all 30 teams -- and one of them was named MVP. Players like Crisp are a valuable commodity, but players like Marte have always been extremely scarce, and probably always will be. Marte has a chance -- a good chance, even --to be that rare player who impacts the defense, the lineup and even the salary structure, all in one shot. An impact player.

A franchise player.