Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Calling BS on Reactions to Luna-Belliard Trade

At the time, I didn't really think much of the St. Louis-Cleveland trade of second basemen. Since then, I've seen it panned for ostensibly 'sabermetric' reasons, and I just don't buy it.

The arguments have been that Luna is an equal or superior hitter and is young while Belliard is older, more expensive, and on the verge of free agency. Four years of Luna versus two months of Belliard. Sorry, but I don't think four years of Luna is worth much.

Luna is, of course, having a fine season offensively. Rate-wise, there's been no difference between the two in 2006. In fact, the same could be said of their major league numbers in 2005. There are, however, two obvious problems with only looking at one or two years of data here because Belliard has been a major league regular during that period while Luna has not. First, Luna has logged fewer than 400 PA in that period while Belliard has 959. Second, Luna has had the platoon advantage in 47% of his PA against Belliard's 30%. A wiseass might argue that that's not very relevant (Szymborski kind of did at the Transaction Oracle) because Luna hasn't hit that much better against LHP in 2006 (which isn't particularly true) or because Belliard has had a reverse platoon split in that time. Since those platoon splits are only *samples* of performance, it doesn't matter if the platoon splits don't themselves support the argument, since we know that their *true talent* against LHP is higher than against RHP; if Belliard were to have more of his PA with the platoon advantage, we would expect his performance to improve significantly, and vice versa for Luna. In other words, even if they'd had the same total number of PA, Luna's rate stats wouldn't be nearly as impressive as Belliard since he has been substantially platoon-aided.

Beyond the platoon issue, we actually know quite a bit to indicate Belliard's true talent level. Belliard has clearly been a solid hitter throughout his minor and major league careers. I don't know if there were mitigating circumstances involved in his awful 2002 season, but even if we assume that that was a non-problematic sample of his true talent, all the data available indicates that Belliard's 2005-2006 campaigns are about what we should expect.

Luna, on the other hand, has a lot of the rest of the data going the other way. Luna wasn't much more than average at any of his minor league stops and wasn't young for any level. And at age 25, he hit a terrible .224/.294/.332 in the PCL. He had as many PA in that stint as he's had in 2006; is there a major reason to consider his 2006 a more meaningful sample than that that I'm just not aware of?

I'm not arguing that Luna is, incontrovertibly, an awful or even below average hitter. It is, though, completely reasonable to project that the true offensive difference between the two amounts to 5 to 10 runs over the balance of the season, and I consider it thoroughly unreasonable to think that Luna is the superior hitter. The difference in salary between the two will amount to little more than $1m, so unless Luna is the superior defender - which I doubt - then the Cardinals get a pretty good deal on a marginal win that could make a difference in getting into the playoffs. So in terms of 2006, the talent and dollar tradeoff is just fine for St. Louis.

Beyond 2006, the tradeoff is 4 years of Luna at arbitration prices (he'll be a super-2 this offseason, right?) against the draft picks they'll accrue from offering Belliard arbitration (unless they re-sign him). I don't know how the Elias formula works, but Belliard has nice enough numbers that I'd be very surprised if he isn't above the Type A threshold. That means the Cardinals would get a sandwich pick and a pick from the second half of round 1 or the first half of round 2. Even though one must pay bonuses to draft picks, a team that is as confident in their ability to select players in the amateur draft as the Cardinals appear to be under Luhnow has to attach significant value to additional early round picks. Luna will probably come relatively cheap for his value over the next four years, but even if he is, say, -5 runs per season below average for a second baseman over that time (a projection which is probably generous, I'd say), he'd likely earn in the neighborhood of $7-$8m, which amounts to paying ~$1.5m per win over replacement, which isn't exactly a steal. It's not bad value, but if you were to put a dollar value on having Luna as an asset going forward, it probably shouldn't be much more than $2m. Sure, one could quibble and argue that he'd be a better value for three years and then a non-tender, but the point is that he's not an important or particularly cheap piece. And the flip side is that if he's only used as a backup, he'll likely be overpaid. The value of a high draft pick to a major league franchise is something I haven't researched, but my WAG is that the additional draft picks offset and perhaps transcend Luna's value.

Even if you decided that the Cardinals got no added value from having those draft picks, I think I'd still be on board for St. Louis making this trade. If we say they get .8 marginal wins for a $3.2m price tag, they're paying $4m per marginal win, which is reasonable given the race they're in, and they also improve the postseason roster. Additionally, a player like Luna isn't exactly the kind of player that St. Louis needs to have around; this is a team that's trying to make a World Series run each season and has a pretty high payroll, and you'd hope that they would only be accepting below average production at one or two positions on the field going forward; though they haven't done a particularly good job at it this season, you'd think in the future they'd be able to find those below-average pieces at value better than what Luna represents.

The final piece that baffles me is that Cleveland has caught flak on this deal because it's a reminder they let Luna go in the first place. While I could understand arguing that Cleveland should have picked up something with more upside than Luna or simply should have waited to collect on the draft picks, I find this particular critiqur quite ridiculous. Christina Karl argued at BP (subscription required) that:
Luna was a player the Indians developed in the first place, and lost to the Rule 5 draft not once but twice, in consecutive years (2003 and 2004). That Chuck LaMar didn't have the sense to keep him on the D-Rays the first time around is no defense, and Shapiro needs to be taken to task for protecting guys like Corey Smith and Ivan Ochoa on the 40-man in his place, and then finally making a deal to undo a past mistake, instead of dealing Belliard for somebody he shouldn't have let go in the first place. It's sort of like the 2004 deal in which Dave Littlefield patted himself on the back for getting Jose Bautista, instead of expressing sufficient regret for blowing it by exposing him to the Rule 5 draft the previous winter. Shapiro made the same mistake, and now, instead of having Luna and something for Belliard, he's got just one of those things.
This is a pretty big head-scratcher. I don't know all about what Cleveland protected on their 40-rosters back then, but who, exactly, would have been arguing in favor of protecting Luna over Smith or Ochoa? Smith and Luna played together for Akron in 2003 and had equal value as hitters in that season; Smith was two years younger and a former 1st-round pick, and he'd been as good in his previous seasons. Though Cleveland subsequently traded him for Gautreau, he's actually having a good year for Birmingham and is still only 24, so it's not like he was some obviously flawed player kept around just because he was a former 1st round pick. Ochoa is less obvious, but was at the time a 20-year-old shortstop coming off a bad but not terrible season in high-A, and almost certainly represented a higher celing than Luna. The notion that Luna, coming off an uspectacular age-23 season in AA and without any impressive track record, was someone who needed to be protected is pretty out there. Given how poorly he played for St. Louis in 2004 and, if you factor in his Memphis performance, 2005, I don't see why anyone would assume that Luna was likely to stick on a 25-man roster or why anyone should be crying about not donating a 40-man roster slot to someone who wouldn't contribute until August 2005. You have to be unrealistically high on Luna to take him to task for that.

Even more disappointing is the gratuitous LaMar put down. A book may eventually be written about how poorly LaMar did as a GM, but if that book has an editor any references to Luna will be left on the cutting-room floor. LaMar didn't have the sense to keep around a 23-year-old who had yet to hit AA and managed just .276/.334/.361 in the Carolina League? That criticism is thoroughly unwarranted, and I can imagine that a list of players who LaMar could have acquired in the Rule 5 draft over the years would not include Luna as one of the more valuable. Luna was sent back because the Rays deferred to Rey Ordonez, Marlon Anderson, Brent Abernathy, and Damion Easley. Hector Luna on a major league roster for Hector Luna back in 2003 would actually make that group look good by comparison. And had Luna survived the first cut, should LaMar have held onto him in May when he otherwise would have acquired Julio Lugo?


At 5:28 PM, Blogger Studes said...

Nice job, Tom. Thanks.


Post a Comment

<< Home