A’s Trade Harden; Beane Gets Ripped!

Speculation around Rich Harden being dealt from the Oakland A’s is nothing new for 2008, but it finally happened on Tuesday with the Chicago Cubs stepping up and giving the A’s a four-pack of players including a few major-league ready players. The A’s got Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson and Josh Donaldson for Harden and swingman, Chad Gaudin. Fans and pundits alike are criticizing the haul despite the strong track record of GM Billy Beane. I think the criticism is severely misguided and that Beane did just fine in trading the team’s ace.

Harden, when healthy, is an amazing talent with top-10 ability. Heck, it might even be top-5. The problem is that “when healthy” piece. His 77 innings this year are more than he logged in the past two seasons combined (72.3) and he has topped 128 innings a season just once despite being with the A’s since 2003. That massive concern is why the A’s weren’t able to acquire the kind of package that a talent like Harden would normally net. This is real life and not a video game, so Beane can’t trade based on Harden’s potential should he remain healthy. After all, the Cubs know all about top-flight talents that can’t stay on the hill. They had a pair of arms that were anointed future Hall of Famers in Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, yet they spent more time in the hospital than on the mound. Prior is again going to miss the entire season while Wood has reinvented himself as a closer with the Cubs.

Harden’s value has never been higher in the past two-plus seasons and Beane, known for trading arms that many others would deem “untouchable”, cashed in his chips before things had a chance to go south again. Maybe he noticed that Harden hasn’t really been the same since his eight-inning outing on June 26th, going just five in two starts thereafter with a 1.8 K/BB ratio. It was his longest outing of the season and perhaps he was stretched too far. Maybe Harden is a 6-inning pitcher at this point in his career until he builds up some durability.

Maybe I’m reading too deep into a small sample and Beane realized that Harden’s value may never be this high again so he decided to get three of Chicago’s top-10 prospects and an underrated outfielder in Matt Murton, who has never been given a full opportunity. Regardless of his motive for the deal, hasn’t his extensive track record of success earned him the benefit of the doubt? His most recent trade of a top quality arm has already paid dividends. Over the winter, he dealt Dan Haren to Arizona for Dana Eveland, Carlos Gonzalez, Aaron Cunningham, Greg Smith, Brett Anderson and Chris Carter. Eveland & Smith are 12-12 in 212.3 innings with a 3.56 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 6.0 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9. Gonzalez came up a little while ago and has a .272/.295/.432 line in 125 at-bats with 16 extra-base hits of his 34 total hits. Cunningham and Carter are both raking in the minors while Anderson is striking out over a batter per inning and earned a promotion to AA earlier this season. And that’s just one trade!

Beane can evaluate talent and that fact shouldn’t be lost on anyone at this point. Not everything he does is a slam dunk, that’s not the case for anyone in the game of baseball, but he’s got some 360-windmills under his belt. Let’s look at some of his more recent moves for the A’s:

Traded Nick Swisher for Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos and Ryan Sweeney
Both Gonzalez and De Los Santos are striking out over a batter per inning in AAA and AA, respectively, though both are struggling mightily with their control. Sweeney has been really good for the A’s with a .300/.354/.405 line in 200 at-bats. Swisher has recently turned it up, but overall he’s been a disappointment this season. At 28, he didn’t fit into the rebuilding plan of the A’s.

Traded a PTBNL for Jack Cust
His batting average may never be pretty (currently .221), but he still leads the team in on-base percentage (.361), home runs (15) and slugging percentage (.413) for qualified batters. He has 41 home runs and 125 RBIs since becoming an Athletic in May of last year. That alone is worth a player to be named later.

Signed Frank Thomas twice, once for $500K (2006) and this year for $390K
This most recent time was after Toronto discarded him to the scrap heap due to a slow start. He put up a .933 OPS in 91-at bats before hitting the disabled list with tendinitis in right quad. The first time around was amazingly successful. After two down years eaten up by injury, Beane took a chance on Thomas and watched him put up a .270/.381/.545 line in 466 at-bats with 39 home runs and 114 runs batted in.

Those are just four recent moves that worked out very well for Beane and the A’s so why is everyone so fearful that this Harden trade will be a remarkable disaster for the A’s? One of the reasons being bandied about is the inclusion of Chad Gaudin. Hats off to Gaudin who has performed well in his role between the rotation and bullpen, but he isn’t much to write home about and will likely be exposed badly in Wrigley Field. Last year, he was masterful in the first half with a 2.88 ERA and 8-3 record in 18 starts. His 4.0 walks per nine screamed “trouble” for the second half. Lo and behold, he was 3-10 with a 6.30 ERA in 90 second-half innings. The control actually got worse with 5.2 walks per nine after the break. He had a 3.99 home ERA against a 4.84 on the road in 199.7 innings last year. This year, it was an even more glaring exploitation of his home field with a 2.25/4.99 split in favor of McAfee Coliseum.

It’s not all bad for Gaudin, though, as he has quelled the control issue for now with 2.4 walks per nine. Even still, his inclusion to the trade does not doom the A’s or the give the Cubs an automatic ticket to the postseason. Given their propensity to develop arms, I’m almost certain that Oakland has several Chad Gaudins floating around their minor league system.

This is the kind of trade that can be a win for both. It doesn’t eliminate the A’s from contention and if Harden continues at pace or something near pace, it most definitely helps counteract the Brewers’ acquisition of C.C. Sabathia thus improving their chances to win the Central. For the A’s, Gallagher will enter the rotation without issue, but more importantly is that Murton may be able to offer their anemic offense a boost. Patterson gives them some depth on the infield that they desperately need given the fragility of Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby (both of whom are currently DL’d) and Mark Ellis.

Given the limitations Beane deals with as Oakland’s GM, it is imperative that he avoids risk whenever possible. A Carl Pavano situation would decimate the A’s and while Harden is significantly more talented than Pavano, his inability to consistently take the mound was too much for a risk for the A’s. Though still just 26, Harden’s free agency is right around the corner (post ’09, I believe) and he will command a large sum despite that lingering health concern. Beane has decided to let someone else roll the dice with that money and get something in return.

Maybe Harden pitches well the rest of 2008 and does really well through mid-July in 2009 as well giving him highest value yet entering next season’s trade deadline, but a more likely scenario is that he’s frequently in and out of the rotation during that time alternately looking like Pedro Martinez on the mound and Mark Prior on the DL. Regardless of how it eventually plays out (remember, hindsight is 20/15), Beane wisely assessed the situation and made a strong trade for his ballclub.

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2 Comments to “A’s Trade Harden; Beane Gets Ripped!”

  1. That was quite an excellent post. Your thoughts were perfect, and I think your analysis was right on the button. Not sure why the Cubs think they are now a shoe-in to the World Series, but it will sure be interesting to see how this trade pans out for Billy Beane.

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