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Zac Gallen vs. Dan Haren

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In which the author talks about the past, and why things are not the same, even when they feel like they are.

MLB: Game One-Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Not too very long ago, I saw someone on Twitter compare Zac Gallen, the very talented (but unconventionally so), righthander the Cardinals traded away in the Marcell Ozuna deal, to Dan Haren, about whom much has been written, and I’m sure we all remember just fine.

I don’t recall who was making the point, unfortunately; it was a month or so ago, right before the start of spring training, and it was just some random fan throwing out the comp as a way of attacking the ineptitude of the front office. Which I don’t mind, honestly; Gallen was a real point of frustration for me even at the time the Cardinals made the trade for Ozuna, as I felt like he had significantly more upside than he was typically credited with, and the club was going to regret moving him. (Lest you think I’m trying to cast myself as a prophet, I was right about Gallen, but I also thought Michael Wacha was a number four starter at best and Trey Cabbage was one of the best pure hitters in the 2015 draft. So, you win some, you lose some.) Questioning why a team lets loose of a guy like Zac Gallen is absolutely worthwhile, because you let loose of too many players like that and one starts to wonder if the process isn’t broken.

In this case, however, as much as I would like to excoriate Mo and Co. for missing on Gallen, I just can’t compare the somewhat ill-fated Ozuna trade to the truly notorious disaster that was Haren+ for Mulder. And I thought I should go into the reasons why. So, in spite of my inability to find the tossed-off tweet that was the origin of this post, let’s talk about why trading away the excellent Zac Gallen was entirely understandable, and trading away the excellent Dan Haren was an entire other class of mistake.

On the surface, it seems a straightforward comparison to make. In both cases, you have young right-handed pitching prospects with less than elite velocity, but exceptional movement that makes each of their respective arsenals play up. Both had above-average command of said arsenals, and Haren’s split-finger pitch is a fine analog to Gallen’s dominant changeup. Neither was seen as an elite prospect at the time of their drafting, with Haren picked at the tail end of the second round in 2001 and Gallen a late third rounder in 2016. And both did excellent things wearing an Arizona Diamondbacks uniform. So, yeah. It’s easy to see why a person would draw the parallel.

It is also true that Zac Gallen has now thrown just over 150 big league innings, with an ERA of 2.78 and an FIP of 3.64. He is great at both missing bats and inducing weak contact, and there’s really very little reason not to expect him to be a very good major league pitcher for a long time, barring injury. Dan Haren ended up with a 40+ WAR career; Gallen could very well have that sort of run as well.

It is, finally, worth mentioning that the Cardinals right now are in a bit of a tight spot as far as their pitching staff goes. It’s likely to be a temporary pinch; they have two top-100 prospects knocking on the door in Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson, as well as a very nearly ready right-hander in Johan Oviedo. Long term, the Cards’ pitching outlook is bright. At this exact moment, though, they’re looking at a rotation of former relievers converting back to starting, inefficient (though exciting), pitch-count timebombs, the collapsing enigma that is Carlos Martinez, an ageless wonder who is not actually ageless, no matter how loudly we clap, and two imports from the KPB, both of whom are on the shelf with injuries currently. Oh, and Jack Flaherty, who is certifiably badass, but is also only one guy. If the 2021 season turns turtle, the culprit is very likely to be the starting rotation. How much better would that rotation look right now with a one-two of Flaherty and Gallen? The late-aughts hypothetical of Wainwright-Haren-Carpenter rears its ugly head.

So we put that all in the blender, and we get a situation that feels uncomfortably familiar. The Cardinals, in search of a missing piece, traded away a young stud right-hander that might very well haunt fans’ dreams for years.

However, there is one key difference. One missing ingredient, if you will, that makes the two trades very different. And I’m going to tell you what it is.

The missing ingredient is time.

No, I don’t mean the missing ingredient is time in the sense that we don’t have enough time yet to determine whether moving both Zac Gallen and Sandy Alcantara for Marcell Ozuna will hurt in the same way that moving Dan Haren for Mark Mulder hurt. What I mean is that time is almost always an ingredient in these sorts of deals, and time changes everything. Let me explain.

See, when you get those all-time infamous trades, the truly terrible outcomes, a big part of them is almost always a mismatch in time horizons. In fact, for most truly terrible trades, one team trading the future for the present is nearly a requisite element. I’m talking about the Jeff Bagwell for Larry Anderson type trades. John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander. Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumbe. Those types of trades, where you see a Hall of Famer (or a Hall of Very Good sort), moved for a player that makes you say, wait, who? Time is a huge ingredient in nearly all those trades. One team is trading for today, the other is trading for tomorrow. And today is always worth more than tomorrow. Tomorrow, after all, may never come. Today is here now, though, and it’s today that we have to get through, one way or the other.

The Cardinals, in trading for Marcell Ozuna, were very much trading for today. The Marlins were trading for tomorrow. Of course, the issue is that today always becomes yesterday, and tomorrow becomes today. And when that happens, sometimes we find we have made a mistake. But those mistakes are almost impossible to see when today is still today, and tomorrow is still tomorrow. It’s why those trades, as bad as they might be, are all forgivable, or at least understandable. Sure, fans may never tire of kibitzing about whatever terrible down the road trade their team made, but it’s still worth remembering that in the moment, most of the time, you’re trading an unknown for a known, and a known that you believe is going to benefit your team at the time of the trade.

Let’s say I offered you a trade with the following parameters: I will give you 50 dollars right now, and in return next year on this date we will come back, and flip a coin. If I call it, I win $200. If I fail, I win nothing. Do you make that trade?

Now, probably, whether you make that trade or not has a lot to do with how comfortable you are with risk in your life, but it will also probably hinge on the context in which you find yourself. If the $50 I’m offering you doesn’t really make a difference in your life, then you will almost certainly turn me down. Sure, there’s a 50/50 chance you’re literally getting 50 dollars for free, but does it really matter that much? And sure, even if you do end up paying me out, you’ve got plenty of time to make more money so that it doesn’t hurt so much. Put five bucks back a week and you’ve got more than that saved up by the time I come around to potentially collect. But still, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t need the money, so why would you bother? If, on the other hand, you’re a little short on cash right now but have your eye on a ten-disc collection of all ZZ Top’s studio albums or a laser-engraved butt plug, then that 50 dollars might be really appealing to you, and you might be willing to chance a big loss a year from now in exchange for getting what you want today. (And by what you want, I don’t mean the ZZ Top collection. Tres Hombres is the only record worth owning, and just barely at that.)

The Cardinals, in acquiring Marcell Ozuna, took 50 bucks today, and the Marlins got to flip the coin on Zac Gallen and Sandy Alcantara. The unfortunate thing, of course, is that the Cards got the Cardinal version of Ozuna, which is very much the ZZ Top boxed set of baseball players, and the Marlins called it when their time came and Anton Chigurh walked into their station. That does not, however, mean the Cardinals were wrong to make the deal, even if looking at Zac Gallen now stings more than a little.

By contrast, the truly strange thing about the Dan Haren for Mark Mulder swap was that the element of time was almost completely absent. Yes, the Cardinals traded for today when they picked up the big lefty (or at least they tried to), but in doing so they did not trade away a far-off potential asset. Instead, they traded away exactly the thing they were trying to acquire.

The Walt Jocketty-led front office traded Haren to Oakland when he was coming off his age 22 season, which also happened to be his second year of at least some time spent in the big leagues. Now, Haren was absolutely not ready in 2003 when he was rushed to the majors, largely due to a starting rotation that was on fire almost all season, with multiple Matt Morris injuries and not nearly enough Garrett Stephenson injuries ultimately torpedoing the hopes of what was a true offensive juggernaut of a team. In 2004, though, Haren started five games, threw a total of 46 innings between starting and relieving, and posted a 4.50 ERA and 4.03 FIP, all at age 22. That ERA was slightly worse than league average (107 ERA-), but his FIP was slightly better than league average (93 FIP-). I don’t know how much the Cardinal front office in 2004 knew about fielding-independent pitching metrics, but I assume it was at least some. What I’m saying is that if you were paying attention in 2004, you could tell that Dan Haren was big league ready, and probably ready to be pretty good as soon as, well, today.

By contrast, when the Cardinals included Zac Gallen in the Ozuna swap, not only was he not even the headliner of the deal, he was coming off an age 21 season that did, to be fair, see him make it all the way to Triple A at the tail end of the season, but that promotion was not due to him dominating Double A. He pitched at three levels in 2017, was too good for High A, was okay in Double A (71 innings, 4.48 FIP, but only a 13.8% strikeout rate), and then had a very solid 20 inning audition in the Pacific Coast League to close out the season. Yes, it was exciting that Gallen had been moved so aggressively, but the bulk of his innings that year in Springfield suggested he still had a substantial amount of development left to go.

And, indeed, he did. Gallen spent all of 2018 in Triple A in the Marlins’ system, throwing 133.1 innings and posting a very solid 3.65 ERA and 4.33 FIP. Those are good numbers for a 22 year old in Triple A, but they’re not blow the doors off good, still. He returned to Triple A in 2019 and was absolutely dominant, then got promoted to the big leagues and hit the ground running. The Marlins flipped him to the DBacks in a swap for an even younger prospect, and Gallen now looks like an Arizona star in the making.

Think of how long it took Gallen to establish himself as a major leaguer after the Cardinals traded him, though. He had a full year and a half of Triple A before being promoted to the majors as a Marlin, and even that timetable was probably a little faster than one would have predicted. He still made it to the big leagues at 23 despite being drafted out of college, which is no mean feat. If you’re the Cardinals of 2017, staring down your second straight season of missing the playoffs, a year and a half or two years waiting for a good but not great pitching prospect to develop has to be weighed against trying to get that Big Bat for the middle of your lineup today. The Marlins had all the time in the world; the Cardinals needed to fill a hole right now, he typed with a straight face.

To be fair, the Cards did move a big league ready arm in Sandy Alcantara as well, but Alcantara brought his own risks to the table that were less time-based and more strike-throwing-based. There were two other players in the trade as well, but I don’t think either will ultimately amount to much long term. If Mags Sierra does end up hitting enough to be a useful player, the trade looks even worse, but is not any less understandable. The Cardinals traded a bunch of future assets whose values were unclear for a relatively sure thing that, unfortunately, turned out to be slightly less sure than we were hoping. It looks like a very bad deal long term, but the process still makes all the sense in the world, even if you want to quibble with the exact players included in the trade.

And this is where the Haren/Daric Barton/Kiko Calero for Mulder trade looks so inexplicable. (You forgot Kiko Calero was in that trade, didn’t you? Don’t lie.) Yes, the Cards traded away one far-off asset of unclear value in Barton, but they also moved a player who, with even the barest hint of hindsight, should have been clearly seen as nearly as good a bet as the player the club was trying to acquire in the immediate term. Acquiring Mark Mulder was the worst kind of voodoo baseball, a club looking for a True Ace and a Winner and a Stopper and a variety of other words where you can hear the capital letters when the front office guy giving the interview says them. The Dan Haren for Mulder swap was, essentially, the sort of trade that basically no front office would make today, or even just a few years after the trade was actually made. Trading four minor leaguers, including one 21 year old who looked better than you expected but was still, you know, 21 and a pitcher, was, by contrast, totally explicable, and could happen anytime still today. The Cardinals dealt good pieces, but they were also mostly expendable pieces, and when the Marlins called heads and won that 200 bucks, the Cards probably weren’t happy to pay out, but they also got more or less what they were looking for out of the deal. Okay, less more than more, but still.

It looks like the Cardinals gave up quite a bit of long-term value in the Marcell Ozuna trade, which sucks. But they made a deal with time as an ingredient, and those deals always have a chance of looking bad years down the road. There’s really no comparison to the Mark Mulder deal, though, when time was not really an ingredient, and Walt Jocketty essentially signed his own pink slip by trading 50 dollars today for 200 dollars a week from today if the A’s made a saving throw of four on a d20, and also the $50 was actually a Monopoly 50, and also the Monopoly 50 had a bad shoulder.

To be fair, Zac Gallen was also traded for a guy who showed up with a bad shoulder we didn’t see coming, and it may very well hurt to watch him over the next decade if he stays healthy. But there is nothing wrong with the process that got the Cardinals Marcell Ozuna and sent away what may end up being a couple of very good young pitchers. The process that led to Dan Haren wearing an Athletics uniform, on the other hand? Well, that, along with refusing to get onboard with new ideas that would hopefully prevent a disaster of exactly that sort from happening again, is how a GM gets himself fired.

This was supposed to be a short column. Like 1200-1500 words. Oh well.