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Learning from the past: The 2015 Trade Deadline in review

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With the 2017 trade deadline only a few weeks away, the A’s figure to be one of the league’s biggest sellers. What can can we learn first from the major deals of the 2015 deadline?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Chicago White Sox Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 trade deadline was Oakland’s first deadline as true sellers since 2011, when the club sent reliever Brad Ziegler to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for eventual A’s legends Brandon Allen and Jordan Norberto. This trade season could become one of the most pivotal in recent franchise history - the organization is full of talented youth, but has a few notable holes remaining. If they want to return to contention soon, the A’s will need to nail this deadline.

In turn, the Athletics - and their fans - should look back at recent deadline deals to see what worked well and what went wrong, not only for the A’s, but for the entire league. Let’s start with which deals worked well for the sellers in 2015, and why they did.

The Good

Detroit Tigers send OF Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets for RHPs Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa

This is one of the few deals from this deadline that worked out well for both teams. Cespedes (only under team control for another half season) was huge for the Mets down the stretch in 2015, and after re-signing with the club each of the past two offseasons, he has continued to be very good.

However, Fulmer has been just as impressive for Detroit. The 24 year-old righty has blossomed into a true ace, posting a 3.11 ERA over 43 starts the past two seasons. He has very good control, paired with a mid-nineties fastball and a wipeout slider. Entering 2015, Fulmer was barely even a top prospect within the Mets’ system. The lesson to learn here is that organizational prospect rankings are not the be-all, end-all. Sometimes, you need to trust the numbers and potential breakout prospects.

*Luis Cessa was later dealt to the New York Yankees in the Justin Wilson trade. He hasn’t been much more than a back-end starter, but was still a decent throw-in to the original deal.

Milwaukee Brewers send OF Carlos Gomez and RHP Mike Fiers to the Houston Astros for OFs Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips, LHP Josh Hader, and RHP Adrian Houser

The 2015 season marked the first winning season for the Astros since 2008, and at the deadline they gave up some serious talent to reinforce their young Major League roster. At the time of the trade, Gomez was a five tool centerfielder with a year and a half of cheap team control remaining, but he wasn’t great for the team down the stretch and got even worse in 2016. Mike Fiers (three and a half years of team control) has been a decent, albeit inconsistent, mid-rotation arm for the club.

The Brewers received a boat load of talent. Santana, Phillips, and Hader each ranked in the top ten of Houston’s top prospects lists entering 2015, and were playing and developing very well prior to the trade. Each did have their concerns - Santana struck out too much, Phillips’ power had yet to fully develop and Hader had command problems. And while each still have those issues to an extent, they have still continued to blossom into talented young players. Santana is a very underrated, powerful right fielder, and Hader and Phillips remain two of the club’s top prospects. Overall, the lesson here is probably to listen to your scouts, and not to let a blemish or two turn you away from a clearly talented player.

*Houser is rehabbing from a July 2016 Tommy John Surgery, and has fallen off of most prospect lists as a result.

Oakland Athletics send INF/OF Ben Zobrist to the Kansas City Royals for LHP Sean Manaea, RHP Aaron Brooks

We all know about this one, another trade that has been great for both teams. Ben Zobrist helped lead the Royals to their first World Series title in thirty years. While Zobrist did have some first half injuries and his defense wasn’t quite up to par, he retained his value as a high-OBP, super-utility man with some power and speed, and thus had very high deadline value, and many suitors.

Sean Manaea is perhaps one of the most exciting pitchers in the A’s organization. While the lefty was seen as a flamethrower with serious command and injury concerns at the time of the trade, he has developed into almost a completely different pitcher. While his fastball now sits around 92-93 MPH, rather than the 96-98 MPH advertised, it has also come with much better control. Manaea should continue to develop into a solid number two or three starter. From this trade, we can learn that sometimes, the injury bug is temporary and goes away with age...

...but we should probably knock on wood.

*Aaron Brooks was later dealt for Chris Coghlan, and is little more than a sixth starter.

The Alright

Cincinnati Reds send RHP Mike Leake to the San Francisco Giants for OF Adam Duvall and RHP Keury Mella

Leake was by no measure the top arm available at the deadline, or even the top arm the Reds had for sale (we’ll get to that a little later) but he was still fairly valuable as a reliable innings-eater and number three or four starter. He was below replacement level for the Giants down the stretch despite a solid first half.

Mella was supposed to be the more significant piece of the return, but the righty, now almost 24, has stalled in Double-A and fallen down Cincinnati’s prospect lists. The redeeming factor in the trade was the original throw-in, Duvall. The 28 year-old has been surprisingly good for the Reds, smacking 58 homers for the club since the trade. However, he is fairly one-dimensional, not walking much and playing average-at-best outfield defense. Overall, the Reds could have done better, but this one is pretty much a wash. The lesson here is that sometimes, if a guy is performing in the minors, you need to take a chance on him, regardless of his age.

Philadelphia Phillies send LHPs Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers for RHPs Matt Harrison, Jake Thompson, Alex Asher, Jerad Eickhoff, OF Nick Williams, and C Jorge Alfaro

This was a huge trade at the time, and Hamels is still under control by Texas through 2018 at least, with a 2019 vesting option. He hasn’t been quite his old ace self, but he has still been a strong number two behind Yu Darvish. Diekman is currently injured, but when healthy has been a fairly reliable lefty out of the ‘pen.

Harrison was simply a salary dump, but none of the other young players the Phillies acquired have exactly lit the world on fire. The best has been outfielder Nick Williams, now 23, who remained one of the club’s top prospects entering the season and has recently found his way into the big leagues. Eickhoff looked like one of the Phillies’ most reliable starters the past two years, but has stalled this season. Alfaro remains a very talented young catcher, but his bat is lagging far behind his glove. Thompson simply hasn’t been able to miss bats since leaving the Rangers organization.

The lesson here seems to be quality over quantity. While Alfaro, Thompson, and Williams were all very good prospects at the time of the trade, the Phillies missed out on some of the Rangers’ real gems at the time - Nomar Mazara, Lewis Brinson, and Joey Gallo. Now, who knows if it was even possible for the Phillies to acquire any of these players, or maybe they just got unlucky and picked the wrong guys, but any one of those three would have made the deal look much better in retrospect. In addition, let this be a reminder that raw tools (Alfaro’s power, Thompson’s stuff) don’t always translate too quickly, if at all.

*Alec Asher was quite awful as well, and was sent to the Orioles last spring for a player to be named.

Oakland Athletics send Scott Kazmir to the Houston Astros for C Jacob Nottingham and RHP Daniel Mengden

Kazmir had a phenomenal first half with the A’s in 2015. After completing his career resurgence in 2014 with a 32 start, 3.55 ERA campaign, he dropped that ERA all the way down to 2.38 in his first 18 starts of 2015. This made him one of the more enticing rental arms available at the deadline, and in turn he was sent to the Houston Astros in exchange for...who?

Many A’s fans, myself included, were puzzled at the return. We had never heard of either player, and neither cracked many preseason top prospect lists. However, Nottingham was experiencing a breakout year in A-ball, and Mengden was posting high strikeout rates in the minors. Since the trade, both players’ stocks have fallen significantly. Mengden has continued to dominate the minors, but even his wicked ‘stache can’t help him learn how to pitch out of the stretch or stay healthy. Nottingham was sent to Milwaukee the next offseason in exchange for slugger Khris Davis, which became the only redeeming factor of this deal to this point. Davis has become a (slightly flawed) mainstay in the middle of the A’s order, while Nottingham has come nowhere close to his 2015 offensive success. The lesson? TINSTAACP - there is no such thing as a catching prospect.

The Ugly

Detroit Tigers send LHP David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays for LHPs Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt

Price was one of the top two rental pitchers available at the deadline. After giving up Drew Smyly, Austin Jackson, and Willy Adames (currently a top 20 prospect in all of baseball) to acquire Price the year before, the Tigers were expected to do all they could to regain that value. Instead...they seem to have fallen quite a bit short.

Norris, the centerpiece of the deal, has been wildly inconsistent. He lacks command, and overall is looking more like a back-end arm than the future ace he once seemed to be. Boyd was a very interesting secondary piece, but has more or less been another Mendgen - dominating the minors, but unable to get outs in the bigs. Finally, Labourt has been moved to relief full-time, and while he could be a very good late-inning lefty some day, one would expect more in return for a true ace like Price, even as a rental. I’m not entirely sure what the lesson is here - there’s still time for the deal to turn itself around, and Norris used to look like one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. This one just didn’t quite work out for the Tigers.

Colorado Rockies send SS Troy Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins to the Toronto Blue Jays for SS Jose Reyes and RHPs Miguel Castro, Jeff Hoffman and Jesus Tinoco

This one caught everyone off guard. Tulo was one of the best players in the game, a perennial five-WAR shortstop - albeit, one with a lengthy injury history that also played half of his games in Colorado. Still, he was a very good player, and still in his prime at 30 years old. He did still have about $100 million remaining on his contract, through 2020. His 2015 first half wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of his career, but Toronto certainly expected huge things from him going forward.

Reyes was, very obviously, just a salary dump. However, the Rockies were clearly hoping for a rebound, but instead he continued to decline, and when domestic violence issues started to crop up they cut him and the ~$50 million remaining on his contract. The young pitchers Colorado received, unfortunately, have faltered. Tinoco’s strong first half of 2015 was more mirage than true breakout, and he has now stalled in High-A. Castro never put it together either, and was traded to the Orioles for a PTBNL last spring. Colorado’s last hope is righty Jeff Hoffman, who does look like a promising mid-rotation arm. That being said, one would expect the Rockies to have received more than one decent arm for a star (at the time) like Tulo, especially considering the bad contract they took back in Reyes. The lesson here is that salary dump trades of any kind rarely work out.

Cincinnati Reds send RHP Johnny Cueto to the Kansas City Royals for LHPs Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed

Cueto and Price were the two gems of the deadline, the two rental aces. But neither return has worked out well for the selling team. Cueto had a bit of an injury history, but was also one of the game’s top arms when healthy. The Royals were all-in after falling just short in the 2014 World Series, and they went for it big time, giving up three young lefties for Cueto.

Nothing from this deal has worked out well for the Reds. Finnegan turned in an alright season for them in 2016, but recently suffered a torn labrum in his right (non-throwing) shoulder. Lamb was busted for PEDs, and has been pretty awful when he has pitched, anyways. Reed might have the brightest future of the three, but just can’t throw strikes. As a whole, pitching prospects are hard to trust, whether it be due to injury or inconsistency.

——————

All in all, the 2015 deadline was a mixed bag. While one season is too small of a sample to draw any definitive conclusions from, and none of these trades can fully be judged until the young players involved finish their development, there are certainly some takeaways here.

Prospect rankings are a useful tool, but they are not the law. Many MLB superstars never made a league top prospect list, and countless highly-ranked players flamed out. Now, scouting the numbers alone isn’t recommended either, but sometimes a breakout season from a “lesser” prospect will turn out to be legit. Similarly, the A’s should know as well as anyone that talent does not have an age limit. While the 19 year-old might be more exciting, the 24 year-old is almost always closer to the bigs and usually has the higher floor.

Finally, chances are, the A’s will not be acquiring the perfect prospect this month. Each player that will be dealt this month will have their flaws, or else they would not be available for trade in the first place. The A’s cannot let one or two flaws in an otherwise talented player turn them away. But on the other hand, flaws can’t just be ignored, either. Big tools may look sexy, but often, raw players will remain raw.

Exciting times are ahead, for the A’s and for their fans, and this is a critical trade season for the team. Let’s just hope they remember to look to the past, and avoid making similar mistakes that other sellers did before them.