The trade: one week later
Judging by the reaction of many callers to local talk shows and some friends of mine, sending Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and erstwhile Ryan Wagner to the Nationals for three pitchers and two infielders was a certain signal of the end of the world.
Reds’ general manager Wayne Krivsky’s magic touch is gone! He’s lost his mind! Trade two regular starters with All-star potential for essentially two Major League relievers and a washed up shortstop (Royce Clayton)? What was he thinking?
While I will hear claims that – in general – trading position players for relievers is a risky proposition simply for the fact that relievers are very inconsistent, I’m not sure that risk is any greater than that involved in any trade that involves human beings who do not do everything the same every day.
So, getting beyond that, let us consider this trade a positive one for the Cincinnati nine, with one caveat: this is only a bad deal if you still believe Kearns or Lopez is really going to continue to get better and reach their “potential.”
Ah, there it is: that wonderful “P” word. That’s the word ruins everything in sports, really. We can’t just watch the damn games anymore because we have to worry about potential versus duds, overrated versus underrated and all that jazz. If a guy comes up with great potential, he is a disappointment if he ends up merely hitting .275 with 20 homers and 80 RBI. Now, on the flipside someone like Ryan Freel or Brady Clark comes out of nowhere and puts up the same numbers and it’s phenomenal.
That poison P-word is one that hindered current Nationals’ GM Jim Bowden during his time in the same position with the Reds, and I can’t help but think it has bit him again. He was always willing to trade away productive players to get flashy prospects (including the deal that brought in Lopez in the first place) and it is no stretch to say the Reds’ current spate of losing seasons – the franchise’s worst in 50 years – is largely a result of such moves.
So this is only a bad deal for the Redlegs if you are still in the belief that Kearns will become the player that made him a No. 1 pick of the Reds in the last century or that Lopez will regain the form he showed last year when he made the All-star game.
I feel very confident that either of those things happening is a 50-50 proposition at best.
Meanwhile, the cries about bullpen inconsistency are more a year-to-year thing, not for one season. Both MLB-level pitchers acquired by the Reds in this deal are having good years, so it is reasonable to expect them to continue to do so. For now, next year be damned. Considering the total disaster that had become the Reds’ bullpen – when even so-so performance in the past few weeks would have them very likely in first place as the Cardinals scuffled through June – it was time for drastic measures.
Bray has started paying dividends already. He looked pretty nasty in retiring a couple of batters with two on last night in the 8th inning of a tie game. His slider was disappearing and the Mets could only flail at it. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine young Mr. Bray’s stuff was too mysterious to the Mets: they play in the same division he came from.
But back to Kearns and Lopez. Kearns has never been healthy, and eventually we have to think that’s not a coincidence. He was a great story coming up as one of the original Dayton Dragons, where he and Adam Dunn became best buds. It was nice to see the Kentucky native trying to make it with his favorite team, but at some point we have to realize he has reached a plateau. Last year he was criticized and sent to triple-A for a lackadaisical attitude, eventually hitting .248 for the season. He’s always been a tremendous fielder and gives good at-bats, but he’s been prone to grounding into double plays this year and struck out 90 times in 92 games this season. Similar to a right-handed Brian Giles, can we expect to see more of Kearns’ line drives die short of the fence in cavernous RFK Stadium instead of home runs at cozy Great American Ballpark? That’s what happened to Giles when he went to Petco Park in San Diego, and Kearns (a career .266 hitter) has never hit for average over a whole season the way Giles has.
Lopez has speed, range, a cannon arm and pop in the bat. He also checks out mentally all the time. His defense has been abysmal since he came to Cincinnati (14 errors this season), usually because he goes lazily after routine balls then has to rush his throw and sends it into the right field stands. This year he vastly upped his stolen base frequency, but he’s still below average as a baserunner, and a betting man looking to put money down on which Red was most likely to get picked off in any given game would come out on top more often than not if he chose Lopez every time.
Sure, Lopez made the all-star game last year, but that’s really his only good year since he came up as a can’t-miss prospect with the Blue Jays in 2001. This season his triple-crown numbers are all down from 2005: Was last season an aberration? It’s very possible.
So did the Reds really give up that much? I’ve been hearing all season about how great their offense is, so doesn’t it make sense you trade away from an area of strength to improve one of great need? I should think so. Second, who says this offense is that great anyway?
Sure, they score lots of runs over the course of a season, but a great offense is one that is consistently churning out runs. They take early deficits and push them out of reach. They manufacture runs in tight games. This team does not do that. They hit four home runs and score 10 times one night in a 10-1 win, then get shut out the next night with not a clutch hit to be found. Is that a great offense?
And don’t forget the defense. They will make a vast improvement defensively with either Clayton or Juan Castro at shortstop, and while neither Chris Denorfia or Freel, who will most likely share right field have the arm of Kearns, they are both excellent fielders with great range.
Freel has already shown he is a sparkplug for the offense. Trading Kearns makes it easier to get him in the lineup without removing infielder Rich Aurillia, who has been among the team’s best clutch hitters all year. The team can also take a look at Denorfia, who was leading the International League in hitting at the all-star break. As more of a slap hitter, he might make this a more consistent offense even if some power is sacrificed.
Who is crying about losing power? The squad traded away 27 home runs. GABP turns average hitters into 20-homer guys, so how hard could it be to replace those lost dingers? Anyone who can hit long fly balls can homer at GABP, but not everyone can play good defense. Both teams will earn their share of runs: you can’t give them away in a homer-friendly yard (ask the Rockies). It is ok to have a few players who strike out a lot, but having everyone do it will kill a rally, so getting rid of Kearns and Lopez (66 Ks this year with the Reds; nine already in six games in Washington) should make the offense more consistent overall.
On the negative side, the Reds have now traded away two right-handed power hitters (including Wily Mo Pena) since March. That does reduce the protection of lefties Ken Griffey Jr. and Dunn in the lineup. The team was already susceptible to good left-handed pitching, and now we can only assume that will get worse. In addition to betting on Denorfia to hold down right field, at least until top minor league outfield prospect Jay Bruce is ready for primetime, the club must be hoping third baseman Edwin Encarnacion will continue to blossom into a legitimate run producer (Incidentally, trading the erratic Lopez makes it sting less when Encarnacion throws the ball away. A team can stomach only so many errors in one infield, right?)
The power is certainly thinned out. With the glut of outfielders now cleared, what should happen if Griffey or Dunn gets hurt? There would be a major power outage in the Queen City. That has to be a concern, but injuries are hard to anticipate. That’s just the nature of the game. Most teams have problems when their best players aren’t playing, so this is nothing out of the ordinary.
Wait and see, of course, but most likely to be a wash.
The players acquired by the Reds are fairly known quantities. They should be productive at the least, stabilizing a spot on the team that would have certainly prevented them from making the playoffs this year if left in the previous state. Bray has a chance to be outstanding for a long time, even showing the potential to be a closer.
As for the Nationals, they are probably getting what they see in Kearns and Lopez: a great defensive outfielder with an average bat and an erratic infielder with skills he’ll never fully cultivate.