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test of willis

like i was saying yesterday: "baseball news often breaks when i'm called away from the laptop, so don't be at all surprised if the cardinals announce a trade this afternoon."

so, next best thing. this ain't no idle rumor; jock is indeed deep into negotiations for dontrelle willis. it's a fact. the current scenario has reyes, rasmus, duncan, and stu pomeranz heading to florida for dontrelle. i'm not saying the cards have made a firm offer of that package; i'm saying that was the state of the negotiations as of late last evening.

back on march 9, idly blogging in the 2d week of spring training, i found myself fantasizing about trade-for-dontrelle scenarios:

fast-forward to midseason: if the cards offered, say, reyes mccormick and haerther for dontrelle . . . wouldn't florida at least have to listen? they just dumped another arb-eligible pitcher, josh beckett -- whose contract is similar in total value to dontrelle's, ~$4.5m -- to boston for a comparable package of prospects. maybe they'd insist on colby rasmus; if so i still think it'd be worth it. by adding dontrelle to carpenter, the cards would have the thing that has beaten them all these years -- the 2-headed monster at the top of the rotation, the schilling-johnson, schilling-pedro, clemens-oswalt type of pairing. with both pitchers locked up through 2008, the cardinals wouldn't have to fear any postseason foe for sev'l years; on the contrary, they would be the feared ones.
four months later, do i stand behind that post? . . . . .

. . . i dunno.

from a purely philosophical standpoint, it's my kind of trade: a roll of the dice, high-risk / high-reward. it also fits jocketty's pattern to some extent -- he'd rather make bold moves than tinker. dontrelle really could be an over-the-hump player -- the 2d ace that has been missing from the cards' postseason hand year after year. he could mean the diff'nce between another dispiriting playoff experience and a serious run at a championship; that alone makes the trade attractive.

but willis would come at a steep price. too steep? let's break it down, beginning with the two toss-ins, pomeranz and duncan.

pomeranz is a double a mound prospect in an increasingly crowded field. lambert and parisi are already in the mix; hawksworth and haberer have moved up from high-a this summer; garcia and boggs will be there next season; and narveson is already ahead of pomeranz at triple a and pitching well. stu's peripherals ain't so hot; he looks like a back-of-rotation guy at best. replaceable part; likely won't be missed. as for duncan, his stock is never going to be higher than it is now. if the cardinals had taken care of business and acquired a decent left-fielder, he would have no value at all; by happy accident he has gotten an opportunity and performed at (nay, above) the top of his range for 75 at-bats, but that doesn't change the fact that he has a very limited range of skills -- can't field, can't run, and won't hit for avg over the long haul. he could be an ok part-timer, but nothing more in my opinion. like pomeranz, a replaceable part.

next up: rasmus. extremely talented player, probably a future mlb regular -- but a star? way too soon to say; the odds are against it. he won't reach the majors until 2009 at the earliest, and he very likely won't be an "impact" player at the big-league level until 2010 or beyond -- if ever. his potential value is great, no question about it . . . but is that more valuable than a clean shot at a pennant in 2006? let's frame it like this: how many future pennants is the loss of rasmus likely to cost the cardinals? from that number, subtract the estimated number of pennants the cardinals might lose if they pass on dontrelle this year . . .

to me, the trade pivots on willis v reyes. i say this with the mulder trade in mind; the great regret of that deal is that haren -- not mulder -- turned out to be the strong #2 pitcher the cardinals so badly needed. barton and calero were simply the cost of doing business; it's the loss of haren that stings.

might that happen a 2d time in this trade? two questions: a) who's more likely to pitch the cards to a pennant this season, reyes or willis? and b) which one is more likely to pitch the cards to a pennant in 2007-08? i'll take them in reverse order:

who's more likely to pitch the cards to a pennant in 2007-08 ? willis has been overworked at a tender age and has struggled with inconsistent mechanics; both would seem to make him a prime candidate for DL time in the near future. i will note, however, that during spring training baseball prospectus' will carroll said this about him: "When it comes to workhorse pitchers, Sir Mix-A-Lot appears to have had it right. Willis, Livan Hernandez, and C.C. Sabathia have a lot in common in this department." dontrelle's list of comps at BP includes some guys who had great years in their early 20s but then flamed out -- jim abbott, steve avery, ismael valdez -- and two guys named mark who are both at mid-career and showing signs of decline -- buehrle and mulder. there's also one guy whose career nearly ended at age 31 and only resumed (albeit two years later) because of a very uncertain, now famous famous surgical procedure: tommy john.

at the very least, there is a significant chance that dontrelle will pitch worse in 2007-08 than he did in 2005-06; you might even say that's a probability. whether he slides into middling effectiveness, as mulder has, or into flat-out uselessness, a la ismael valdez, remains to be seen.

what does PECOTA say? willis is not missing his projection by much this season -- he's actually beating his VORP forecast, and is only slightly underperforming vis-vis era, hits/9, and strikeouts/9. (PECOTA anticipated willis' drop in k/9 this year.) for 2007 and 2008, PECOTA has dontrelle posting 3.60ish eras with 1.25ish whips --- nearly identical to chris carpenter's projections for those two seasons, nearly as good as jason schmidt's and roy oswalt's. ie, PECOTA has him right up there with the elite --- and he's so close to his PECOTA in 2006, i wouldn't expect that projection to change much.

but can't the cards expect a 3.60 era and 1.25 whip out of anthony reyes?

PECOTA doesn't think so; it has reyes at ~3.90 the next couple of years. and let's not forget, reyes has arm/mechanics issues of his own; he may be just as great an injury risk as dontrelle. i doubt reyes will ever have a single year as good as dontrelle's 2005 . . . but dontrelle probably won't, either. these guys are about the same age; reyes has a better strikeout rate, a better k/w, and a lower avg allowed, but he is more HR prone. who's going to pitch better from today through 2008? i think it's pretty close, but i'm leaning to reyes. factor in the salary differential -- reyes at a few hundred K, vs willis at $5m to $10m per year, and it's no contest which of the two will be the more valuable.

who's likely to be the better pitcher for the rest of 2006 (including the postseason) -- reyes or willis? dontrelle's overall line -- 6-7, 3.94 era, 1.42 whip -- is hardly ace-like; his strikeouts are down this year, his hits allowed up. i checked his BABIP over at fangraphs and found it right in line with his career avgs; we can't say he's just pitched in poor luck. i did, however, see something not to like at that page: willis' rate of infield popups is way down this year, about half of his established level. that is worrisome, particularly when taken in conjunction with the dwindling strikeout rate; when a power pitcher is on his game, he tends to get a lot of pop flies.

the sagging peripherals make us all think one thing: mulder, whose 2004 line bore all the same caution flags. many people heeded those warning and predicted -- correctly -- that mulder would never be the ace st louis hoped he would be. so might dontrelle simply be mulder II? maybe; but i'm not convinced. the cardinals acquired mulder after the worst half-season of his career -- an era in the 6s. willis by contrast is actually pitching very well; his overall line this year is skewed by one horrible month (may) in which his mechanics apparently got way out of whack. since june 1 he is 5-2 with a 2.93 era and a 1.34 whip; his strikeout rate is up during that period, too. in his last 54 starts (back to the start of 2005), dontrelle has held opponents to 3 runs or fewer 41 times; he consistently gives his team a good chance to win.

that's a record of reliability that reyes simply can't match; not at this stage. he looks like a fine pitcher to me, but he hasn't established an ability to pitch deep into games. might he get hot in october? possibly; after seeing what he did vs the white sox, i wouldn't put anything past him. but there's no guarantee he'll even be in the rotation come october; if mulder comes back and is able to pitch, i'm guessing tony/dunc choose carp mulder marquis + suppan as the four postseason starters.

so . . . . where does that leave us? it leaves us at a pivotal moment for the franchise. if they pull the trigger, the front office is basically saying the future is now -- that, even if the cards hang on to their youngsters, stl's odds of winning a pennant are all downhill over the next five years. you look at the young talent massing up in cincinnati and milwaukee and new york and atlanta and florida, and you can understand why jocketty might draw that conclusion. and you can understand why he might look for an equalizer -- a guy who, best-case, is a 2d hammer atop the rotation.

if st louis takes a pass, they're indicating one of two things: either a) better championship opportunities are forthcoming soon, and reyes rasmus et al will play important roles in creating those opportunties; or b) the cards think they'll have a chance to acquire a pitcher as good as willis (or better) at lower cost/risk.

my own opinion is that the "future is now" assessment has more truth to it; i'm not convinced that any of the four guys they are giving up is going to be a difference-making type of player anytime soon. reyes might be the lone exception, and because of his high injury risk i'm not even sure if he fits the bill. of the five players involved in this trade scenario, willis represents the most scarce commodity -- a left-handed pitcher with an all-star / cy young talent ceiling.

if i'm walt, i try to get florida to throw joe borowski into this deal; if they agree, i pull the trigger immediately.

and if they refuse?

i close my eyes, take a deep breath, and roll the dice. you cannot win if you do not play . . . .

poll and discussion in this diary. see also other perspectives at reverend redbird, 26th man, and luck o the redbirds. bernie miklasz weighed in yesterday.