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The Big Deal's Little Deal

Ryan on the Big Deal: Here's the entire trade (former teams in parentheses):

The Seattle Mariners receive: RHP Aaron Heilman (NYM), OF Franklin Gutierrez (CLE), OF Endy Chavez (NYM), 1B Mike Carp (NYM), RHP Maikel Cleto (NYM), LHP Jason Vargas (NYM), and OF Ezekiel Carrera (NYM)

The New York Mets receive: RHP J.J. Putz (SEA), OF Jeremy Reed (SEA), RHP Sean Green (SEA)

The Cleveland Indians receive: RHP Joe Smith (NYM), 2B Luis Valbuena (SEA)

From an overall view, this deal was all about the Mets getting J.J. Putz and the Mariners getting as much talent as they could. The Indians were just facilitating the larger deal, though that's not how we as Tribe fans look at it. New York has made rebuilding their bullpen an offseason priority after losing the division because they couldn't hold leads down the stretch. To that end, they've recently signed Francisco Rodriguez, the best closer on the market, and now they've traded for Putz, a closer in his own right, to set up for Rodriguez. I would imagine Putz wasn't happy at the prospect, since the demotion in roles means his future earnings potential decreases significantly.

Seattle ended 2008 needing talent in a lot of areas, and while there's no top-flight talent heading their way in this deal, the infusion of both major-league and minor-league players (seven in all) will certainly help their outfield defense in the short-term, and will strengthen their minor-league system in the long-term. Replacing Raul Ibanez and Jeremy Reed with Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez will be a massive defensive improvement. And with ball-in-play pitchers like Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn in their rotation, they're going to need all the defense they can get.

Jay on the Little Deal:  CF Franklin Gutierrez for Mariners 2B Luis Valbuena, an advanced prospect, and Mets reliever Joe Smith, a righty who just completed a successful first full season in the majors.  As an aside, the name Maikel Cleto frightens me.

Gutierrez of course played right field for the Indians but was always a center fielder.  They say that weakness invites aggression, but Indians fans know that depth at a skill position invites a trade — that principle is the reason Asdrubal is on our roster and Coco isn't.  But if Coco's skills suggested a trade would be productive, Gutierrez's skills flat-out demanded it.  He was one of the best defensive outfielders in the game last season, possessed of both staggering range and a plus-plus arm, and he may well blossom into being the game's very best center fielder.  With us, he's a weak-hitting corner outfielder, soaking up a few more balls than anyone has a right to expect.  With the Mariners, he becomes chief defender of one of the most spacious outfields in the game.

Gutierrez will be eligible for arbitration starting in 2010 and will reach free agency after the 2012 season.  Like many high-tools-low-skills players signed as teenagers out of Latin America, he's been out of options for years, which creates a real flexibility problem when he goes into long slumps at the plate.  People ... I understand that you loved Gootz.  We all love Gootz.  Defensive standouts are part of the aesthetic beauty of the game — they help the home team a little but help the viewing experience even more — hell, I still get misty about Alex Escobar.  But let's be real about this player — he got 741 PA over the last two seasons and his line drive rate over that period was just 15.8%.  For context, out of 138 qualified major league hitters this past season, only four had a lower rate than that.  Yes, we risk that he might explode as a hitter and jack 25 home runs at some point, but the Mariners risk four years of struggles to hit .260.  At the plate, he's more high-risk than high-reward, and all of the above is a package of trade-offs that looks a lot better in CF than in RF.

Joe Smith is only the second Joe Smith in MLB history, which I think is kind of remarkable.  (The other one was a catcher who had a 14-game cup of coffee with the Yankees in 1913.)  He made the big-league club (and was added to the Mets 40-man roster) out of spring training in 2007, and he didn't give up a run until his 18th appearance in the majors.  He stayed in the bigs for most of 2007 and all of 2008, putting him one year of service time away from arbitration as a Super Two (assuming he stays in the majors) but under team control all the way through 2013.

Smith also has two option years remaining, which is more than we can say for Ed Mujica, just for one example.  Smith becomes the 8th reliever on the 40-man roster with at least one option remaining going in 2009, in addition to four relievers (K-Wood, Masa, Betancourt and Mujica) who can't be sent to the minors.  Option rights can be quite significant for players in complementary roles, which includes all but the very best relievers, and the Indians clearly value those rights.

Ryan: Last season, Smith pitched in 82 games for the Mets, usually from the seventh inning on. Based on his Fangraphs profile, he throws a high-80s fastball, a slider, and an occasional changeup. He's a ground-ball pitcher, always a plus for a reliever, though he he's walked 4.35 BB/IP in his professional career, higher than you'd hope for a late-inning guy. The bullpen situation is way too jumbled up right now to guess where he's going to end up in the Wedge pecking order, but I'd put him in the Lewis/Betancourt/Perez group as of today.

Jay: Valbuena literally means "good value," from the Latin root vale, which variously means strength or worth.  Then again, sometimes vale means "farewell," as in "ave atque vale," so you could argue Valbuena means "good riddance."  Then again, it could also be from the Latin root valle, which is more like an assistant, which suggests that Valbuena could be a good complementary player, or perhaps just good at making assists.  (Hat-tip to randallhank.)

Valbuena got his first look at the majors just three months ago, as a September call-up.  He seems to have emerged as a quality defender at second base and a canny hitter, albeit one who may not ever have any pop.  He definitely fits the Indians pattern of targeting advanced prospects who are excess depth on other clubs, and especially their pattern of targeting infielders with unusually selective approaches at the plate.  Evidently they feel that middle infielders with minimal pop but the ability to draw walks end up being under-valued by other clubs, a trend that stretches from Carroll to Asdrubal to Rivero and now to Valbuena.

In 2007, Valbuena played in Double-A at the rather young age of 21, and while his overall numbers were quite underwhelming — 693 OPS — he seemed to hit into a fair amount of bad luck — Sackmann puts his 2007 neutral OPS at 766 — and he maintained a healthy walk rate of 9.5% despite frightening no one.  In 2008, his walk rate was even better — 11.2% in Double-A and 11.5% in Triple-A, numbers that qualify as highly unusual for a 22-year-old middle infielder at that level.  His overall numbers rose even more significantly in 2008, as he posted and 864 OPS in Double-A, 748 OPS in Triple-A, 831 neutral OPS across both levels — and here I will remind you again, all of this at age 22.  UPDATE:  The icing on the cake is that he's got a 901 OPS in 38 games in the Venezuelan Winter League.  He's spending three months as the starting 2B for the Cardenales de Lara, whose starting shortstop is ... Asdrubal Cabrera.

Our Progress score system has Valbuena around 8.0 for 2008, right with our best-performing position player prospects from last year (Santana and Rivero) and with more experience in Triple-A and the majors than any of our best prospects.  He's very obviously one of the best ten prospects in our suddenly burgeoning farm system, and as he sits on the cusp of the majors, you could argue he's in the top five.  Marcels has him pencilled in for a 766 OPS in 2009, in the majors at age 23.  He doesn't have Asdrubal's star potential, but his power will almost certainly improve as he goes through his mid-20s, and he's got a solid chance to be a core player.

Ryan: I think adding Valbuena precludes any major infielder signings or trades, in fact I think the Indians pursued this trade only after they looked at all possible free agent signings or trades for established major leaguers. I would think this gives new life to Josh Barfield or Andy Marte, depending on whether the brain trust decides to move Peralta to third permanently. The problem with waiting until Spring Training to figure out who to keep is that three-fourths of the infield wouldn't know what position they were playing until the Marte/Barfield competition had a winner. It's probably for the best if the Indians send Marte on his way this winter, let Peralta play third every day in Spring Training, and have Carroll and Barfield handle second.

If this is it for the infield, then I think it's now on to adding another starting pitcher or even looking at one of the free agent corner outfielders. I don't think the deal does a whole lot for the 2009 Indians, though it may very well turn out a very good trade for the club two or three years from now if Valbuena pans out.

Jay:  Somewhat overlooked in the discussion so far is the fact that Valbuena bats from the left side, and lefty-batting infielders (other than 1B) have extra value because the great majority are righty batters.  It's easier to throw a lefty rookie into the fire because it's easy to find a viable righty to spell him off the bench.  The Indians may well be considering breaking camp with a platoon of Valbuena and Barfield at 2B, backed up by Carroll, with the long-discussed position shift for Peralta and Cabrera going into effect.  That at the very least has now become the Indians' worst case scenario, but with crappy options for the infield abounding league-wide, maybe it's just ... the scenario.

Valbuena was just added to the 40-man roster this past September, and he'll enter 2009 with just 28 days of service time.  If he breaks camp with the Indians and stays in the majors, he'll play the next three seasons at or near minimum salary, hit arbitration starting with the 2012 season, and reach free agency after the 2014 season.  If he splits his time between the majors and minors this season, you can move both of those back one year.  He has three option years remaining.

Breaking this down according to contractual value, the Indians traded four seasons of Gutierrez for 11 seasons of control over Valbuena and Smith — like it or not, this is the classic M.O. for the Shapiro front office, but at least in this case, those 11 seasons will start to be cashed in immediately, not several years down the road.  That's the long view, though.  The short view is that we traded from a position of depth — we have, like, ninety weak-hitting outfielders — to bolster one part of the roster where we badly needed depth — middle infield — and another part where you can never have enough — the bullpen.  Frankie Gootz, we will miss him, and he was the most specialest and our most favoritest weak-hitting corner outfielder, but he probably would never have been much more than a complementary player on our club.

Some may question whether we got enough value back for a player of Gutierrez's talent and potential, but there can be little doubt that these two new players are far better fits for our particular needs.  And regardless of that, how cool is it that we screwed the Tigers out of the best two available closers in the space of about 30 hours?