It’s been pretty obvious ever since the Indians started to rebuild in June 2002 that the Indians have been trying to deal Matt Lawton. But a combination of injuries, ineffectiveness, and an albatross of a contract prevented them from doing so. Until now, when Cleveland found a trading partner that (a) was looking to dump a similar contract, (b) needed a left-handed hitter, and (c) needed an outfielder. Pretty much the perfect scenario, and the fact that Rhodes is a left-handed reliever made the deal too sweet to pass up.
There’s two ways to look at this trade: the talent perspective and the economic perspective.
(1) The Talent Perspective
In general, when you deal an outfielder for a reliever, you aren’t going to get as much production. Middle relievers usually pitch about 50-70 innings in a given season, and left-handed specialists may only pitch in 30-40 innings a year. To look more closely at the two individual players, I’ll use VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) to compare the two over the past three seasons. Here’s Rhodes…
…and here’s Lawton.
There’s probably a good bet that Lawton will be a more valuable player than Rhodes next season. If he’s healthy, (and that’s still an issue with him) he’ll be a productive outfielder. His defensive ability certainly isn’t what it was earlier in his career, but he’ll be all right in left field if that’s where the Pirates play him. Rhodes, while there’s still a chance he can rebound in a more familiar role (setup), probably will never be the dominating pitcher he was with Seattle in the first couple years of this century. Volatility works both ways with relievers; it’s certainly possible Rhodes can be at least an adequate setup man over the remainder of his current contract. But Lawton’s the better player right now.
You also have to look at the talent around Lawton, and more importantly, the outfield talent. Thanks to the signing of Aaron Boone, the Indians have to find a new place to play Casey Blake, who was probably the team’s third best hitter in 2004. When the Indians signed Boone, it was thought that Blake would take over for Ben Broussard, who up to the point had been putting up well-below-average numbers for a first basemen. After the signing, Broussard got hot and stayed that way through the rest of the season, finishing 2004 with a .289 EQA, which is pretty good. So now there was two positions Blake could go, neither of which he’d played before: second base, and the outfield. Blake was a poor fielder in 2004 at an infield position he’d played most of his career; the thought of him moving to second base, which is a much more demanding position, scared me. Blake in the outfield, though, scares me less. Casey is a pretty athletic player; he has a good arm, and has average speed. At the very least he won’t be an embarassment in right or left field like he would at second.
The Indians also have a lot of talented, yet unproven, outfielders they could use. Ryan Ludwick is coming off a knee injury, but has power potential, as shown in his brief stints with the Indians. Coco Crisp was one of the few Indians to get better as the season went on, showing somewhat surprising power. Grady Sizemore, the organization’s best prospect, has nothing much to prove in AAA. And Jody Gerut, who is going to miss the first couple months of 2005 with a knee injury, is at least a nice part-time option in right, left, or center. So the Indians could replace Lawton with an internal option.
(2) The Economic Perspective
If Matt Lawton was making $4M this season, no one would really be talking about him. Often the money a player makes will increase or decrease expectations as to their production. Lawton at $7M, especially on a team that spent around $35M total last season, is expected to be the team’s best player, leading the league in several categories. And that’s unfair; a player’s value is measured by the numbers on the stat sheet, not on his paycheck. The latter numbers are the representation how valuable the team thinks he is. When the numbers don’t mesh, it’s a problem. The Indians weren’t getting $7M worth of production from Lawton, and this is what lead to today’s trade.
The Indians have a pretty strict budget for this upcoming season; it will be around $45-48M, depending which source you use. Before today’s trade, Mark Shapiro had $7M of that budget to spend on free agent acquisitions. Prior to the beginning of the free agent period, he thought $7M was going to be good enough to land a pretty good starter. But thanks to some market-setting deals early in the process, $7M doesn’t look like it’s going to be enough. This is another reason why Lawton was traded; adding $2M to the pile may land a Matt Clement, or allow the team to bring back Ronnie Belliard for another year. Now, after the trade, the Indians have about $9-10M to get a starter, keep Belliard, or both.
By itself, the trade doesn’t do much to improve the team. But it allows Shapiro more flexibility to add a couple players that may allow the Indians to challenge for the division next season. Right now, it looks a trade may be a better avenue than to brave the excalating starter bazaar, but Matt Clement is still (as of this moment) unsigned, and maybe that extra $2M will be the difference in convincing him to sign with the Indians.