There have been two major trades made already this offseason, in spite of the fact the Winter Meetings are still over three weeks away. One we're not going to be too very interested in, at least today; the swap of Brad Miller for Nate Karns (along with other assorted pieces), doesn't mean much to us at this moment.
The other trade, however, I definitely have some interest in. That was the deal which sent Craig Kimbrel from the Padres to the Red Sox in exchange for a package of prospects, with the biggest names involved on the Boston side being Manny Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra. The Sawx also included Logan Allen, a 2015 draftee and left-handed starter, whose talent probably should have landed him in the top 100 picks or so but slid due to signability, and Carlos Asuaje, a player I honestly knew nothing about before this but profiles, according to people who should know, as a utility type infielder. I've since researched him, and that seems pretty accurate. More in a moment.
Now, if you're thinking, "Holy shit, that seems like an awful lot of players to give up for a closer," then you're right. And, in fact, probably more right than you realise. Not only is that an awful lot of players to give up for a closer, those aren't just any old prospects. At least a couple of those guys look like they could be really, really good. Which, of course, just makes the deal even more baffling.
Manuel Margot is the prize of the package, a 21 year old center field prospect with plus speed, outstanding contact skills, and developing pop in the bat. He's fairly similar to Magneuris Sierra, the Cards' minor league player of the year in 2014, only a year or two further on. Margot's contact skills are probably even better than Sierra's, in fact, but the tools really aren't all that different.
Javier Guerra is a few months older than Edmundo Sosa, played at a higher level in 2015, and was a little less good. They're probably pretty similar players in terms of value, though I wouldn't trade Sosa for Guerra straight up, to be honest. Still, Sosa has yet to establish himself in full-season ball, which Guerra did this year, so the value evens out pretty well. I think Guerra ends up more of a good glove, marginal bat player in the long run, while Sosa has the potential to be an impact player on both sides of the ball.
Like I said, Asuaje is a utility type, primarily a second baseman in the minors, but there's some value to that. He's very similar to Darren Seferina in the Cards' system, in that he's a bat control middle infielder without the arm for shortstop, but a few years older and more advanced. Asuaje played at Double A in 2015, and held up pretty well there, posting a 107 wRC+ before heading off to the Arizona Fall League. In other words, he's knocking on the door of the big leagues, even if it is only as a utility infielder. He's a couple years younger than Greg Garcia, but that's the kind of role you're probably looking at.
Logan Allen was an eighth round pick out of IMG Academy this year, and at just eighteen years old laid waste to the Gulf Coast League after being drafted. He threw 20 innings in the GCL, and gave up just two runs on twelve hits. He had a 24:1 strikeout to walk ratio, to boot. So, you know, pretty good. He works with an 88-92 mph fastball that he can locate much better than you would expect from a high school kid, and complements that with a slider and changeup. If I remember correctly from looking at him this past year at draft time, neither of his secondary pitches are anything special, but there's potential there, and he's already basically got the crafty lefty thing down, only with a heater that occasionally creeps up closer to 94 than his usual range. Value wise, he's probably something like Rob Kaminsky following Kaminsky's draft year, when he came out and overmatched Rookie league competition. Allen doesn't have the first round pedigree on his side, but that pedigree fades pretty quickly once players actually start performing.
Margot was a top 25 prospect in the game according to Baseball America this past season, and he's probably closer to a top 20 now. Guerra is at least a top 100, and maybe better. Allen should have gone in the top three rounds this year based on talent, and Asuaje is kind of Greg Garcia-ish.
That is, pardon my language, a fucking balls-crazy amount of talent to give up for a closer.
Which brings us, finally, to the reason this trade is so interesting to me, and to at least some others around Cardinaldom, and that reason is this: if this deal is at all representative of what elite-level closers are going for right now, well, hey, the Cardinals have an elite closer....
Which is not to say, necessarily, that I think the Cardinals should trade Trevor Rosenthal. Or that I want them to. But, you know, just to consider the idea for a moment.
First, a comparison between Rosenthal and Kimbrel. Rosenthal does not, of course, quite measure up to Kimbrel, particularly in name recognition, but that's due mostly to the ridiculous level of dominance Kimbrel has shown at times in his career, rather than Rosie not being in the elite class of relievers.
In his career, Craig Kimbrel has struck out 14.55 hitters per nine innings, or 41.2% if you prefer. He's walked just under 10%, or 3.36 BB/9 if you like the traditional format better. His career FIP is 1.72; his career ERA is 1.63. In 2012, Kimbrel put together perhaps the most dominant season of any reliever in the modern era, with a K/BB ratio of better than 8:1 and an FIP of 0.78. For some historical perspective on that, Dennis Eckersley's 1990 season, the year in which he walked only four hitters all season, set a new save record with 48, and completely won the heart of a young boy from St. Louis named Aaron, saw Eck post a 1.34 FIP, over half a run higher. The best FIP of Mariano Rivera's career was 1.88, way back in 1996 when he was still setting up John Wetteland. In other words, Craig Kimbrel is good at his job.
Trevor Rosenthal, as I said, is not quite on that level. His career FIP, in a little over three full seasons of relief work, is 2.49. His career ERA is 2.66. Career K rate of 28.9%, career walk rate of 8.7%. Those are all really, really good numbers, and they really only look pedestrian compared to, say, Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman. Still, after a 2014 that saw him struggle all season with his control, Rosenthal rebounded to post a very solid 2015 campaign, worth 2.0 wins over 68.2 innings. Trevor Rosenthal is not Craig Kimbrel, but he's still one of the best closers in the game.
There's also this fact: Trevor Rosenthal is cheap. Whereas Kimbrel will cost the Red Sox $24 million over the 2016-17 seasons, with a $13 million option for 2018, Rosenthal is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason. MLBTradeRumors has him projected for a raise to a $6.5 million salary in 2016, which doesn't sound all that outlandish. Using that as a baseline, Rosenthal could probably make ~$20 million or so over the next three seasons, which would be a far cry from the $37 million Kimbrel would cost over that same timeframe.
Importantly, Rosenthal is also two years younger than Kimbrel. (Two years and one day, actually; the two were born just one day apart.) Two years is meaningful in the lifespan of any baseball player, and doubly so in terms of a pitcher. Triply so when talking about relievers, whose careers are so often defined by their brevity.
What I'm getting at is this: Craig Kimbrel is worth more than Trevor Rosenthal on the open market, because he is a better pitcher. He also has name recognition, which might not make a difference in the box score, but certainly has an effect on how the two are perceived. However, when you take into account the difference in age and salary, you don't have to squint all that hard to see a pitcher whose value is actually very close to that of his more celebrated contemporary.
So, given the return we just saw the Red Sox send away for Kimbrel, the question, I feel, is at least worth asking: would the Cardinals be interested in cashing in Trevor Rosenthal right now as a trade chip? Or, a better question still: should they?
A quick hypothetical: I've already given you players I think are somewhat comparable to the players San Diego received in exchange for Kimbrel, but let's try to find some value comps. Margot, as a top 20 prospect, is higher than anything the Cardinals have really had the last couple years, aside from Alex Reyes. Reyes being a pitcher, though, muddies the waters a bit. Stephen Piscotty was never top 20, but he got near there, and was easily within the top 50. So let's just use Stephen Piscotty as a starting point. Pretend it's the pre-2015 version if you like, the version we hadn't seen play at the big league level with our own eyes.
We need a top 100 overall prospect. The Cardinals don't have a positional one of those at the moment, much less a middle infielder (though Sosa could be creeping that direction relatively soon, I think), so maybe we'll have to just go ahead and use a pitcher. Rob Kaminsky was a back half of the top 100 kind of player; Luke Weaver will likely be in the same range after the season he just had. So we'll go with Weaver. He might actually be a little too good for this spot, but then again, Piscotty was maybe a little low.
Asuaje I feel we can replicate with Aledmys Diaz or Greg Garcia; Diaz is the younger player, so I'll go with him. Now, personally, I think Diaz has more offensive upside than Asuaje, but the numbers don't really say that just yet. And that's where the value probably falls, at least so far.
As for Logan Allen, that's kind of a tough one. I'm tempted to just say Jake Woodford, the high school righty the Cards took in the sandwich round this year, but he didn't dominate the way Allen did. I don't want to go all the way up to a guy like Jack Flaherty, who had a similarly dominant run through rookie ball in 2014, but proved this year he was no fluke and is probably a step or two higher in value. Woodford is probably the best comp, really, in terms of value. He didn't blow away the competition out of the gate, but has the perception of a much higher ceiling, not to mention that first round draft pedigree.
So for a direct Kimbrel comp coming out of the Cardinal system, we're looking at Stephen Piscotty, Luke Weaver, Aledmys Diaz, and Jake Woodford. Yes, the Cards' package is a little more pitching-rich, compared to the Boston package which was heavy on middle infield types, but that reflects the two systems' relative strengths. In terms of value, that's a fairly good comp, I think.
Now, as we established earlier, Rosenthal isn't as good as Kimbrel. The difference in quality is partially made up for by Rosie's cheaper contract status, but probably not entirely. So perhaps we should bump down that comp a shade.
If we bump out the upside arm play, that feels like too much of a difference. Dropping Diaz, on the other hand, maybe doesn't feel like quite enough. So perhaps we drop both Aledmys and Woodford, and find a player to replace them, with more value than either but not as much as both. Which, honestly, feels like Jack Flaherty to me. Flaherty posted a 2.83 FIP in short-season ball this year as a nineteen year old, and boasts a wide repertoire of effective offerings, even if none of them grade out, at least yet, as a legitimate out pitch.
So think of that. If Trevor Rosenthal could net you a package from another team, desperate for a capital C Closer, that amounted to something like Stephen Piscotty (the pre-2015 version), Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty, would you make that trade? Completely aside from where the Cardinals are on the win curve, and where they project to be in terms of contention in 2016, would you do it? I have to say, as much as I like Trevor, I would, in a heartbeat.
Which, of course, is kind of the thing about Closers, isn't it? Even in this new, sabermetrically-inclined age in which we find ourselves, the dude at the end of the game, who takes the ball and gets those last three outs, still has a certain mystique. Teams still value certainty at the end of their bullpen, no matter how many FanGraphs articles suggest clubs would be better off using their best guy in high-leverage spots, and the ninth has no real special quality to it, and blah, blah, blah. Teams...really don't seem to be buying that.
But then, we can't make this decision in a vacuum. We can't say, well, sure I would make that deal outside of what the Cardinals are going to be in 2016. After all, the Cards are going to be contending, both for the division and a championship, again next year, and it's awfully hard to ask a club looking for rings to trade away the guy who will likely throw the final pitch of any title-clinching game.
Trading Trevor Rosenthal would mean likely bumping Kevin Siegrist into the closer's role, at least to begin the season, and then hoping guys like Sam Tuivailala and Tyler Lyons can slot into setup spots in front of him. Personally, I feel Luke Weaver himself profiles best as a bullpen arm, so perhaps he could be accelerated from Double to the big leagues during the season. The Toronto Blue Jays showed you can take a hard throwing kid from High A ball and turn him into a closer this year; maybe the Cardinals would be willing to move the timetable forward on a power arm or two of their own in the minors. Arturo Reyes looks to be a little short on stuff as a starter in the high minors; that fastball/splitter combo might look mighty good as a big league reliever. Zack Petrick has seen his strikeouts tumble noticeably the last two seasons, but he still throws hard and has a solid slider. Maybe that plays up in short stints.
Or, maybe the Cards just make sure that any package they receive in return for Rosenthal includes a young fireballer they feel can step into the 'pen immediately and make an impact.
Given the return we just saw Kimbrel bring back from the Sawx, it's hard to argue with the intrigue an idea like trading an established closer, even for a team solidly in contention, holds. We've seen the last two seasons the Kansas City Royals basically bullpen their way to the World Series, which could read two different ways. One could look at that and say clearly relievers are far too valuable to trade, and having a deep cadre of hard-throwing bullpenners is one of the best ways to succeed in baseball. On the other hand, one could also look at what the Royals have done, and at what a copycat league MLB tends to be, and conclude that relievers are still unpredictable, still mostly fungible, and likely to currently be even more overvalued than ever due to the optics of KC's ascent to a championship. In that case, dealing a Trevor Rosenthal before Scott Boras takes him into a very expensive free agency might be just the thing to do. And when better to do it than a point when your club is looking for young offensive talent to slot in in place of some aging core players?
I frankly cannot imagine the Cardinals trading Trevor Rosenthal this offseason. It's hard to imagine any club in the Cards' position doing so, honestly. But look at that return. Now, perhaps you don't get that same kind of return if it isn't Dave Dombrowski, dealing from one of the deepest farm systems in the game, with a mandate to get this ship turned around, and fast, on the other end of the line. But a team like the Texas Rangers, squarely in contention, is still trying to nail down the back end of their bullpen, and have a similarly deep system to Boston. We all know Tony La Russa loves his closers, and is running the show out in Arizona now. Seattle has some solid relievers, but were using Fernando Rodney to close games this past season, and there's really no heir apparent at this point.
So, the question is, with the Redbirds likely to contend for a title in 2016, trying to keep pace with the Cubs and Pirates in the Central, and without a surefire replacement for Trevor Rosenthal as closer, if presented with the kind of return outlined above, what would you do?