A's break even -- or better

Originally Published: November 21, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I get a lot of e-mail, and the best way to grab my attention is with a first sentence like this one ...

    Is Billy Beane losing his mind?

    Wasn't a decent starting pitcher, about to enter his prime, worth more than a not-yet-prospered outfield prospect supposedly at his prime age? Just looking at the numbers, I don't understand either the Jays' or the A's fascination with Kielty, and Lilly seemed a more valuable player.

    Moreover, I don't understand this Ramon Hernandez deal at all. A catcher who can hit is sooooo much more valuable than a mediocre outfielder coming off a bulging disk. They should be able to get a replacement-level player almost as good as Kotsay for a lot cheaper. Is it that important to get rid of Terrence Long? Why not just release him?

    I know, you're not Billy B's spokesman. But the SF Chronicle doesn't seem bothered by these deals, so I wondered what your take is.

    -- Gray Blake

You're right, I'm not Billy B's spokesman. Come to think of it, I haven't even talked to Billy since I wrote that column wondering why on earth the A's signed Scott Hatteberg to a contract extension for more than anybody else would have paid him. (Not that I think there's a connection; it's probably just that we're both very busy, very important men. Well, one of us.)

Anyway, armed with the knowledge that I'm not Billy's spokesman, I will do my best to objectively evaluate his recent maneuvers (even though one of these maneuvers hasn't been fully maneuvered yet).

Ted Lilly
Ted Lilly had a 4.11 ERA over his last two seasons.

Let's start with the deal that's definitely done: Ted Lilly to the Blue Jays, Bobby Kielty to the Athletics.

This one's essentially payroll-neutral. Both made slightly more than $300,000 last season and neither is eligible for salary arbitration. In other words, they're both real bargains. The A's and Blue Jays made this deal because a) the A's are moderately deep in starting pitchers, b) the Blue Jays are exceptionally deep in cheap outfielders, and c) Billy Beane and Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi are the best of friends.

If there's a criticism of the deal that I've seen in the street, it's that Beane could, and should, have got more for Lilly than just Kielty (actually, the A's are also going to get either $100,000 or a minor leaguer, but that's naught but a trifle).

Meanwhile, Kielty is a 27-year-old corner outfielder with a .428 career slugging percentage. But he's also got a .367 career on-base percentage; near as I can tell, Kielty's essentially an outfielding version of Scott Hatteberg (and as we all know, Billy Beane loves Scott Hatteberg). What's more, Kielty's minor-league statistics don't suggest he's significantly more talented than his career major-league numbers indicate.

All that really matters, though, is this: Is Kielty better than whomever he'll replace in Oakland's outfield? It's pretty clear that he is. Assuming that Jermaine Dye remains in the lineup because he's going to be paid $11 million (!) in 2004, Kielty figures to take a significant number of plate appearances that last season went to Chris Singleton (.301 on-base percentage, .340 slugging) and Terrence Long (.293, .385). Granted, the bar's not been set very high, but Kielty should clear it with ease.

But was Lilly too much? Lilly's career ERA is 4.68, but that number is inflated by his early-career struggles. Here are his combined numbers from 2002 and '03:

     IP  HR  BB   SO   ERA
    278  39  89  224  4.11
    

Pretty good, but there are some warning signs here. First, that's 278 innings over the course of two seasons, not one; Lilly's never been the healthiest of fellows, and has never totaled more than 182 innings in a professional season. He's also given up his share of home runs.

On the other hand, that ERA is pretty good, and you have to appreciate those 224 strikeouts. Essentially, Lilly is a solid No. 3 starter for a good team ... if he's physically able to pitch. Bottom line, I think he is slightly more valuable than Kielty, but not more valuable enough to have queered the deal. This is one of those trades that helps both teams.

Does the proposed deal with the Padres do the same thing? Remember, the A's would send Terrence Long and Ramon Hernandez to San Diego, and would receive Mark Kotsay. Unlike the other trade, this one involves a fair amount of money, so it's instructive to look at the years and dollars remaining on the contract for the three players:

  • Kotsay thru 2006, $19.5 million

  • Hernandez thru 2005, $8 million

  • Long thru 2005, $8.45 million

    Note: Kotsay's numbers include the $1 million "bonus" he receives, per season, if the Padres trade him.

    If you talk to Beane, one of the things you'll hear about is "payroll flexibility," which is critical when you're operating with limited financial resources (granted, it's hard to figure how Long's and Dye's contracts fall under the heading of "payroll flexibility," but then nobody's perfect.) However, trading Hernandez and Long for Kotsay doesn't add any flexibility, and in fact it might cost the A's some flexibility because Kotsay's deal runs through 2006, while the others expire after 2005.

    Essentially, the deal is Kotsay for Hernandez, with the Padres taking Long (and his contract) to even out the money. So who "wins" the trade is going to rest on two questions:

    1. Is Hernandez as good as he looked in 2003?

    and

    2. Is Kotsay as bad as he looked in 2003?

    Hernandez batted .273 with 21 home runs and a .458 slugging percentage, but his career statistics still include a .253 batting average, .322 on-base percentage, and .400 slugging percentage. There's a school of thought holding that catchers develop, as hitters, relatively late in their careers, and maybe Hernandez is just now hitting his stride. On the other hand, there's a school of thought holding that players are most likely to enjoy their career seasons at the age of 27, and Hernandez was 27 last season.

    Kotsay's batting average and his power disappeared in 2003, after three seasons of consistent quality. Why? He had a bad back, which is why this deal still hasn't been consummated.

    But if Kotsay is reasonably healthy, he's probably just as valuable as Hernandez. So call this deal an even swap, except the A's are blessed with the additional benefit of not having to see Terrence Long in an A's uniform ever again.

    If the A's can somehow replace pitching coach Rick Peterson, and if they can find decent replacements for Hernandez, Tejada, and Keith Foulke, they can be just as good next year as they were this year. Billy's still got a lot of work to do, though.

    Correction: Ted Lilly is arbitration-eligible, and is expected to earn something upwards of $2 million next season. So in trading Lilly for Kielty, Beane has essentially shaved between $1.5 million and $2 million from next season's payroll.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site . Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS .

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