On the Idea of Trading Zach Lee

As trading season heats up – and as news of Dee Gordon‘s thumb surgery leaves the Dodgers with three total black holes in the infield, along with their other issues – you can bet that you’re going to hear the name of Zach Lee coming up quite a bit in rumors more and more. As we’ve talked about a lot, the Dodgers are going to go all-in this year no matter how banged-up they get, and that means we could be seeing a lot of prospects headed out of town.

Lee’s the consensus top Dodger prospect, and as prospects go, he’s seen pretty favorably. He came in at #49 in Baseball America‘s midseason top 50 list yesterday, up from the #62 he was prior to the season, and ESPN’s Keith Law noted in a chat this week that he thinks Lee could turn into a #1 starter. In parts of two seasons, he’s struck out 153 against 45 walks, and at the end of June he made it to Double-A Chattanooga two months ahead of his 21st birthday. Even the few less-positive reviews of Lee I’ve seen say that he might only be a #3 type rather than a true ace, and while that might not be as high of a ceiling as we’d like to dream on, that’s still a pretty valuable major leaguer.

If that all sounds good, it should, because Lee is probably the most highly-regarded Dodger pitching prospect since Clayton Kershaw. That, of course, makes him desirable in the eyes of teams hoping to gouge the Dodgers this month as they desperately try to patch up their offense despite a lack of other high-end prospects. The idea of trading Lee stirs up a lot of different emotions in people; to some, he’s absolutely untouchable, while to others, he’s just a long-away prospect.

For my part, I never consider any prospect completely off-limits, unless you’re dealing with a once-in-a-generation type like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. There’s a price to be had for any prospect, and if you can extract proper value, then so be it. While we all like to think that every draft pick is going to excel in a Dodger uniform, it doesn’t always work that way; value can be had in trade as well as on-field performance. It just has to be for the right reasons in the right situation, is all – and apologies if you’ve heard me say this a million times before – and that’s why trading Carlos Santana for two months of Casey Blake and James McDonald for twenty minutes of Octavio Dotel never made much sense.

So is there a deal out there which could be appropriate to include Lee in? I’ll say this right off the bat, there’s absolutely no way I would do what the Giants did with Zack Wheeler last season and trade Lee for a rental who can walk at the end of the year. There’s almost no player out there who could impact this Dodger team so much in just two months that giving up six years of Zach Lee makes sense, and if that means we’re not going to be seeing Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke this summer, then I’m okay with that. I’d much rather hang on to Lee, accept that Ryan Dempster (or someone like him) will contribute about a win less over the remainder of the season, then throw gobs of cash at Hamels or Greinke and have one of them join Kershaw and potentially Lee himself in a fantastically interesting rotation for the next few years. No rentals are worth losing Lee over. Period.

If you’re trading someone like Lee, it’d better be for someone who’s under team control for at least another year if not more, and that’s where things get interesting. The stars you’d like to get – let’s say, a Joey Votto, or an Andrew McCutchen – are obviously not available on any planet, and the rest of the market is flooded with non-impact plug-ins. The obvious names here are the two we’ve been talking about for some time, Houston’s Jed Lowrie & San Diego’s Chase Headley. Each are controllable through 2014, and the fact that they bring two additional years of control beyond this season makes them immensely valuable. (That’s right, I’m now in the position of saying that Lowrie & Headley may be more valuable trade commodities than Hamels & Greinke, though obviously not better players, just because of how much of their time you’re purchasing.) Lowrie & Headley were born less than a month apart from each other in 1984, which puts each into their age-28 season right now and makes them under team control through their age-29 and -30 seasons, which is exactly when you want a player.

Whichever one you get, you’re not only fixing a current need at third base – Lowrie would fill in for Gordon first in the short term, of course – you’re handling a future need, because the Dodgers have absolutely nothing at the position in the minors and the best of the upcoming free agency class might actually be Maicer Izturis. Which, ugh. Given the choice between the two, I’d probably prefer Headley, since he’s been far more durable and is a better defender; besides, I like the version of Headley that’s away from his pitching-friendly home field (.848 OPS this year) much better than I do Lowrie away from Houston (.716 OPS).

Are either worth Lee? I’d like to think that it’s possible to get either without, but I don’t know that it is. Though I’d like to get Lowrie, I wouldn’t trade Lee for him, not with his injury history and the fact that just a few months ago he was worth only a kinda-good reliever (Mark Melancon) and a fringe starter (Kyle Weiland). As for Headley… well, on name value alone, no. But he’s a third baseman at a time where finding a third baseman is becoming impossible, and he’s a very good one; right now, he’s second behind David Wright in fWAR on the season, and since 2010, he’s ahead of Wright and behind only Adrian Beltre & Evan Longoria. Because he plays for a poor team in a small market and in a ballpark that crushes his productivity, he rarely gets press, yet adding him would solidify third base for the next two-plus seasons at a time where I genuinely have no idea where else they could turn.

Of course, Headley & Lowrie aren’t the only two guys on the market, but they do seem to be the only guys who could help now and into the future. I suppose some team could try to put together an interesting package that relies more on quantity than quality, since the Dodgers have so many holes right now. But that doesn’t seem worthy of moving Lee for. Unfortunately, if the Dodgers want to improve their offense, they may be forced to do so via trade, because, the list of upcoming free agents is less than appetizing; as we’ve seen in Los Angeles with Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier, teams just don’t let their quality young bats make it to free agency anymore. Look at the list of guys coming free after 2013, and you’ll mostly see players who were at their peak years ago, aside from outfielders Chris Young, Shin-Soo Choo, & Hunter Pence, none of whom might be available or good fits for a trade right now in 2012.

I don’t want to trade Zach Lee. I hope, badly, that he’s still in the organization a month from now, and I don’t see a lot of reasons to move him. Still, the more I think about Chase Headley, and how perfectly he fits this team’s needs both now and in the future, and how much easier it would be for this team to replace one pitching prospect than find a third baseman… well, I don’t know if I’m quite there yet in moving Lee for him, but I think I could certainly be talked into it.

Monday Notes: Ownership & Prospects

Plenty to keep track of on this last Monday of January…

* While we’re still waiting to hear more details on the (at least) eight bidders who proceeded to the second round, Bill Shaikin notes that one of the eight has a substantial new partner. Tom Barrack, a Santa Monica investment banker, has joined up with the Leo Hindery / Marc Utay group. This is a group we really haven’t looked into all that closely, but considering that Hindery helped build the YES Network cash cow for the Yankees and Barrack brings significant financial muscle, it’s time to start taking them more seriously.

* Shaikin also sheds some light on Peter O’Malley’s bid, identifying a South Korean company, “E-land”, as his main financial backer. E-land is a worldwide conglomerate which largely deals in fashion, and has reported holdings of approximately $7 billion. O’Malley would reportedly also bring in local investors, though nothing has been made official yet. I don’t really have a problem with foreign money being involved – let’s try to keep the xenophobia to a minimum, you know? – especially with the Dodgers having had such a positive history with Asian baseball, but I’m still not really high on O’Malley’s group for the same reasons as I was earlier this month. While the O’Malley name clearly carries a lot of weight in the world of the Dodgers, it’s not like he left the organization in such great shape the first time, and I’d prefer someone younger than 74 to take the reins in transforming the Dodgers from an embarrassment into a club that is looking towards the future.

* Somewhat buried in Shaikin’s story about O’Malley is that Beverly Hills real estate tycoon Alan Casden did in fact make it to the second round of the bidding. That, plus the Barrack and O’Malley details, means that the most up-to-date list of eight that we know of is this:

1) Magic Johnson/Stan Kasten/Mark Walter
2) Joe Torre/Rick Caruso
3) Steven Cohen
4) Stanley Gold/Roy Disney family
5) Peter O’Malley / E-land
6) Stan Kroenke
7) Leo Hindery/Marc Utay / Tom Barrack
8) Alan Casden

I would caution again, however, that we do not know that these are the only eight. Just as Casden’s name wasn’t included originally, other bidders could still be in play, and we still don’t know what the hell to make of Josh Macciello.

* Jon Heyman reports that at least one bid is in the range of $1.5 billion, and if that’s true, it’s likely we are looking at a final sale price that’s between $1.5-$2 billion. I worried a few weeks ago that such a ludicrous sale price could have repercussions down the road, and that has the even more unfortunate effect of me having to agree with T.J. Simers, who wrote basically the same thing this weekend:

Some folks probably thought the Dodgers could do no worse than Fox’s ownership.

Change is difficult. This one will certainly involve higher ticket prices as the Parking Lot Attendant has lowered them for this season and the new guy will be paying more than $1 billion to please McCourt.

The payroll and stadium are going to need an upgrade. And just because the new guy isn’t McCourt doesn’t mean he’s not going to eventually hit Dodgers fans with the bill.

If he’s a loser, and there’s no guarantee just because he’s replacing McCourt that he’s going to be a winner, it’s going to take more than Magic Johnson waving to the crowd every night to keep folks happy.

Simers, for once in his miserable life, isn’t wrong. While we’re all hopeful, there’s no guarantee that the new owner is really the savior we hope they’ll be. However, I’m not going to let that bother me too much. The new owner might be terrible, but they might not be. There’s hope there. There was absolutely zero hope that McCourt was ever going to build a franchise we could be proud of, so even if the future is uncertain, I’ll take that over the certainty that the status quo was not going to work.

* At Baseball Prospectus, Maury Brown looks into the possibility that Kroenke could be involved in large part so he can move his St. Louis Rams back to Los Angeles. I’m sure that would actually make a lot of Dodger fans who grew up cheering for the Rams pretty happy, though of course Steve Dilbeck has already looked into this and inserted a terrifying theory that Kroenke could try to partner with McCourt to make this happen. Uh, no thanks.

* Getting back to baseball, Baseball Prospectus‘ Kevin Goldstein has his Top 10 Dodger prospect list out today. Obviously, all of these kinds of lists are educated guesses at best, but there’s few prospect reporters I respect more than Goldstein. Anything stand out to you on this list?

1. Zach Lee, RHP
2. Nathan Eovaldi, RHP
3. Allen Webster, RHP
4. Chris Reed, LHP
5. Garrett Gould, RHP
6. Chris Withrow, RHP
7. Alfredo Silverio, OF
8. Joc Pederson, OF
9. Alex Castellanos, OF/2B
10. Angel Sanchez, RHP
11. Shawn Tolleson, RHP

The first six players listed, and nine of eleven, are all pitchers – with only Lee seeming to still have a shot at stardom. We’ve known for a while that the Dodger system was pitching-heavy – the graduation of Dee Gordon & Jerry Sands off of lists like these doesn’t help, of course – but this really lays the flaws in the offensive side of the minors bare.

* Might we actually have a Ronald Belisario sighting this year? ESPN’s Tony Jackson claims that Belisario is already in Arizona, weeks ahead of schedule.

* Finally, the softball tourney Mike from The Left Field Pavilion is putting together is fast approaching, and it looks like some teams still need players. It’s for a good cause, so participate if you can.

A Night of Contradictions

Some night last night, right? I’m still trying to process the fact that the Dodgers signed the supposedly-unsignable Zach Lee, prying him from his commitment to LSU football, just minutes after Hong-Chih Kuo and Octavio Dotel handed up yet another painful bullpen collapse. Imagining a 2013 rotation fronted by Clayton Kershaw & Chad Billingsley, with Chris Withrow, Ethan Martin, and Lee behind them is pretty tasty.

The Lee signing is a real feather in the cap of an embattled organization, especially after two months of jokes and conspiracy theories about how they’d “punted” the pick by choosing someone they knew wouldn’t sign. And not only did they sign him, they signed him – the $5.25m bonus is more than double the previous high of $2.3m that Clayton Kershaw received in 2006, and it’s tied with Baltimore’s Manny Machado for the third-highest bonus handed out in this year’s draft. They also gave $600,000 to 11th-rounder Joc Pederson, a large amount for such a low pick.

In a vacuum, this is incredible news. The draft process is incredibly flawed, and this is exactly how large-market teams ought to be taking advantage of it. It’s how the Red Sox were able to sign Anthony Ranaudo, who was viewed as a top-ten talent but fell to #33 due to concerns about his salary demands, and it’s how the Tigers were able to snag Rick Porcello at the end of the first round in 2007. Sure, it sucks that small market teams are sometimes forced to choose signability over talent (Matt Bush over Justin Verlander, I’m looking at you) but that’s the system we have, and the Dodgers played it perfectly this year. So kudos to them, and expect to hear “but we paid Zach Lee” over and over whenever people accuse the McCourts of being cheap in the future. For a system that was starting to stagnate, this is a much-needed infusion of talent and goodwill.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder… what exactly is the plan, here? You want to shower them with praise for investing in the future, but this is the same team which was roundly ridiculed for refusing to offer arbitration to either Orlando Hudson or Randy Wolf last year, and then didn’t sign a free agent bigger than Jamey Carroll. This is the team which had 20% of its Opening Day roster made up of either non-roster invites or Rule 5 picks. This is the team that’s basically stopped spending in Latin America, and this is the team that’s been among the five cheapest in baseball in draft signings in four of the last five years. In trades, the team has proven more than once that they’d rather give up superior prospects rather than take on any money, even as recently as two weeks ago in the Pittsburgh deal.

Now, all of a sudden, they’re spending big on the draft. The Lee deal isn’t really as big as it looks; the bonus is spread out over five years, so they’re paying just more than $1m a year for him, or the equivalent of a mediocre backup infielder or a very good Russian faith healer, yet it’s still a bigger splash than they’d been making in just about any arena lately. But does that forgive all of the missteps laid out above? It’s a good start, but the answer won’t come until after the season, when a team that’s full of holes will need to be rebuilt.

For today, at least, the feeling is a positive one. Not only did they open the wallets for once, but if they were willing to pay this much for Lee, then he’s clearly someone Logan White considers worthwhile, and I think White has earned our trust and then some in that department. We’ll just need to see how far this gets the team in the world of public opinion.

Hong-Chih Kuo Doesn’t Have the Heart of a Winner

Consider this: one of the two longest-tenured Dodgers, one of the only two who’ve been with the team continuously since 2005, enters the game in the 8th inning. He fires an absolutely dominant 8th inning, getting three outs on only seven pitches.

He comes back out in the 9th, trying to nail down a two-run lead for the save. But the first two batters hit seeing-eye singles to just the right places, putting two on. A wild pitch moves both runners into scoring position, and things get worrisome. James Loney makes a nice play to grab a foul out, but then he walks Brooks Conrad to load the bases.

At this point, Joe Torre can take no more, and he comes out to rescue the All-Star. Octavio Dotel offers no relief, however, by allowing all three runners to score on a walk and a walkoff single. Of course, it’s Octavio Dotel, so you sort of expect these things from him, and he didn’t create this situation in the first place: the longtime Dodger reliever did.

We’re talking about Hong-Chih Kuo, of course. But if all this had happened to Jonathan Broxton, you’d be hearing an unbelievably epic shitstorm all over the internet about how people have looked deep into his soul, and determined that he’s just “not a winner”, “doesn’t have what it takes to closer”, and “is a loser.” Anyone want to make the same claim about Kuo? Guess what. Shit happens, especially in the 9th inning, and none of us are psychatrists. I’m not defending Broxton’s recent slump, because he’s been awful, but let’s not pretend it’s anything more than a wild pitcher and the ups-and-downs of baseball. It can happen to Broxton, it can happen to Kuo, and it sure as hell can happen to Dotel.

I don’t want to say this every day, but now it’s time to shop veterans, right?

******

Hey, how’s that Dotel for James McDonald (20/4 K/BB in 17.2 Pirate innings) and Andrew Lambo (.904 OPS in 61 minor league Pirate plate appearances) deal looking now? Oh, that’s right. Just as bad as it did from the moment it was made.

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Let’s not forget Chad Billingsley, who was outstanding. He went seven innings, allowing just one run and one walk while striking out eight. Most impressive, he struck out the side in the fifth inning after allowing a leadoff baserunner. But hey, he doesn’t have any heart either, right?

Reason number 1,213,127 that wins are stupid:  Billingsley left the game after seven innings with the game tied 1-1. He no longer had any impact on the game from the second he was pinch-hit for by Reed Johnson to start the 8th. He could have left the stadium, and it wouldn’t have mattered. But because Brooks Conrad gifted the Dodgers with two errors, and Billingsley was still “the pitcher of record”, he gets the win. It works both ways, folks, but neither way matters. That’s a large part of why I didn’t bother to use wins in my chart about Clayton Kershaw from earlier today.

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I wanted to wait on this post, because all indications are that the Dodgers have an increasingly good chance to sign Zach Lee before 9pm PST tonight. But at this point, I’m just deflated. I’ll update this here once the deadline passes.

UPDATE: LSU insiders are claiming Lee has signed, more to come.

UPDATE 2: Confirmed by LSU

LSU coach Les Miles confirmed late Monday night that freshman quarterback Zach Lee signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Details of the contract were not immediately available.

“This was a very personal decision for Zach and his family,” Miles said. “This opportunity was just too difficult to pass up. We wish Zach and his family the very best. He’s an outstanding young man and we hope he develops into a great Major League pitcher.”

Lee was the 28th overall pick in the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft over the summer.

WOW. Did not think there was any prayer of this happening. Kudos, once again, to Logan White. And even a little for the McCourts – they still suck, but this goes a long way towards helping credibility.

UPDATE 3: Ken Gurnick says it’s $5.25m. Holy hell. This is kind of a game-changer.

http://lsufootball.posterous.com/lsus-lee-signs-with-dodgers

You’d Give Clayton Kershaw $30m Right Now, Right?

You all know that I think the season is all but over, and yesterday’s blowout at the hands of Atlanta only served as yet another nail in the coffin. If the Dodgers wanted to see what they could get for guys like Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda, Octavio Dotel, and the other veterans I’d be more than okay with that right now. That being the case, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, and not only the overwhelmingly negative parts of it (like, how do you fill holes at catcher, second base, third base, left field, and 3/5 of the starting rotation with no money and few prospects?)

More specifically, I’m talking about the future of Clayton Kershaw, who at just 22 has lived up to the hype that accompanied his arrival. For the second year in a row, he’s in the top ten in the NL in most strikeouts per nine and fewest hits allowed per nine. He’s dramatically improved his control (walks/nine dropping from 4.8 to 3.8), he’s working deeper into games, and of his 24 starts this year, he’s allowed three earned runs or less in 20 of them. He’s awesome, he’s getting better, and he won’t even be 23 until spring training - a rare bright spot in what is quickly becoming a spiraling season.

I’m bringing this topic up now because the Blue Jays just signed their own young lefty, Ricky Romero, to a five-year deal, and it’s time to start thinking about doing the same for Kershaw. Romero and Kershaw are similar in many ways, each being lefty top-10 draft picks in their second full seasons, and MLBTR notes that Romero’s deal also bears similarities to deals that Jon Lester and Yovani Gallardo recently signed. At the time of the deals, all three had one more season left before arbitration, and at the end of the year, Kershaw will have 2 years and 105 days of MLB service, meaning he’ll probably fall just short of qualifying for “Super Two” status and arbitration eligibility.

All three signed deals for $30m over five years. Are those fair comparables for Kershaw? Let’s find out. Lester signed his before 2009, and Gallardo before 2010; I’ll use their stats at the time of the deal.


It’s not a perfect comparison, as Kershaw is younger than all three, yet will have far more starts under his belt by the end of the year than any had at the time of their deals. But the stats are similar, and nothing on that chart matters more than the nearly identical amount of service time, because that’s how these deals get made. The difference in value between a pre-arbitration year, the three arbitration years, and free agency years are astronomical, and when the time comes to make this deal happen, both sides will be looking at players in similar situations. The last remaining pre-arbitration year is really the big deal here; look at Zack Greinke and Josh Johnson, who each recently signed similar four-year deals, for $38m (Greinke) and $39m (Johnson). The average per-year salary on those two deals (north of $9m/year) were higher than any of our three comparables, but Greinke and Johnson each had more leverage because they had exhausted their pre-arbitration years and were poised to get huge raises in arbitration.

FanGraphs breaks down the difference between going yearly or signing long-term, and you can really replace Romero’s name with Kershaw in this quote, because the details are identical – even down to the 3.4 WAR produced in 2010.

Romero will finish his second year of service time in 2010 and would have been on a club-controlled contract for 2011. He would then be arbitration eligible for 2012, ’13 and ’14 and a free agent or 2015. Given the standard guide of 40%/60%/80% of market value expected for arbitration rulings, the five years of Romero’s contract add up to 2.8 seasons of free market worth plus one year at the league minimum. That is what Toronto and Romero are surrendering by not going year-to-year.

With a payment of $30.1 million guaranteed, that works out to the Jays paying Romero $10.75 million per market year. With current trends pegging the market dollars paid per win at around $4 million we have an estimation of about 2.75 to 3.0 wins per season for the contract’s middle point once we factor in the discount Romero should be offering for the security of a long-term deal.

Romero produced 2.7 WAR last season and is already at 3.4 this year so on the face of it, this looks like a possible win for the Blue Jays already.

They liked the Gallardo deal as well, noting that ”the new contract represents good value for the Brewers while providing ample personal security,” so unless you think Kershaw’s about to fall off a cliff, this is a sensible idea for the Dodgers, especially since he had the most WAR of the three in 2009 (4.2 to Gallardo’s 3.4 and Romero’s 2.7.)

So $30m over 5 years seems to be the going rate for this caliber of pitcher at this point in his career, and if you want to toss in a bit more because Kershaw is younger, that’d be fine by me too. If nothing is done, he’ll make less than a million dollars in 2011. That’s a steal. But then he’ll be eligible for arbitration, and if he keeps on his current career path the yearly arbitration raises are going to get expensive and unpredictable. What if 2011 is his true breakout year, where he goes 21-6 with 212 K? We’ll be begging for the days when he might have been had for only $6m/year. So while I’m sure the responses here are going to be “sure, but the Dodgers are poor” (and it’s not that you’re wrong, it’s just that I’m trying to pretend we’re fans of a real baseball team for once), this is a deal that would save the Dodgers money in the long run.

Besides, if smaller teams like Toronto and Milwaukee can do it… there’s no reason the Dodgers shouldn’t be able to as well. This has the potential to be a painful offseason for a variety of reasons, and a commitment made to one of the game’s bright young stars would go a long way towards easing that.

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Don’t forget, tonight at 9pm PST is the deadline for the Dodgers to sign 1st-round pick Zach Lee. Unconfirmed reports are saying that they’ll offer him $3m to forget his LSU commitment and start his professional career. If that offer is accurate – and like you, I’ll believe it when I see it – whether or not he takes it is almost irrelevant, because that would be an offer higher than the Royals gave the #4 pick, Christian Colon. Should the offer be made and verified, then a lot of us may have a whole lot of crow to eat for our post-draft reactions.