Giants Gamble on Even Year Magic and the Overvaluing of Elite Relievers

The Giants paid the market price for reliever Will Smith, which doesn’t mean they didn’t get ripped off. It just means they got no more ripped off than the Cubs or Indians or Nationals did when trading for Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, or Mark Melacon. The amount of value given up for elite relievers in the 2016 market is unprecedented. The moves made by the Indians and Giants were incredibly short sighted. The Cubs get somewhat of a pass because Addison Russell has shortstop locked up for the foreseeable future and the Nationals should be credited for getting an actual closer. But the Giants and Indians mortgaged the farm and bet that 2016 would be their year, and paid a heavy price for it.

(CBS Sports)

It all comes back to the Yankees and their historically dominant bullpen, the likes of which hadn’t been seen…ever. All the Yankees needed was six solid innings from their starters in most games this year, a mark that at least the first three pitchers in a  MLB rotation should be able to hit consistently, and they would be sitting pretty as a Wild Card team. That didn’t happen, as the Yankees featured one of baseball’s worst starting fives and a mediocre record led to the availability of a trio of dominant relievers. Suddenly, every team with a halfway decent starting rotation and any semblance of playoff hopes pictured these guys on their team and dreamt of October dominance.

(Wikipedia)

I blame the Indians, perhaps drunk on the idea of Cleveland sports success following the Cavaliers NBA Finals victory. They dealt Clint Frazier, one of the best prospects in all of baseball, among others, and got in return maybe 130 innings over the rest of this year plus the next two seasons. Look, Miller is a great pitcher. A dominant pitcher, and has the potential to be a huge piece in a World Series team. But Frazier has the potential to be a franchise player for 10 years instead of two. Frazier gives you so much more than Miller can, just by the nature of their respective positions. Now, part of the value of Miller is that he is a known commodity and Frazier is not. It’s possible that Frazier gets hurt or never becomes the player most scouts and experts believe he has the potential to be. But the smart money is on him becoming an everyday player and a potential All-Star. That’s just too much to give up for a player whose role could be filled by most league average starters! When you add that to the fact that the Indians play in the weak AL Central and, even with Miller, less talented and less experienced than both Texas and Boston, the move makes even less sense. The move makes the Indians better in the short term, but not by enough to truly make them World Series contenders.

The Yankees’ best outfield prospect since Bernie Williams. (MLB.com)

The Miller and Chapman trades had huge ramifications throughout the league. Despite the Chapman trade being rational for both sides, it led to a series of irrational moves throughout the league. At the forefront of these is the San Francisco Giants trade for Will Smith. Smith is basically a poor man’s Miller, a left handed relief pitcher who can eat an inning and is effective against both lefties and righties. The Giants had a need for a left handed reliever after an injury to Josh Osich, and Osich was already inconsistent to begin with. It’s just that I’m not convinced that Steven Okert or Ty Blach would do that much worse than Smith, and effectively for free. The Giants gave up catcher Andrew Susac and pitching prospect Phil Bickford for Smith. Susac has real potential, but he has struggled coming off an injury and the Giants have found a backup catcher they really like in Trevor Brown. This allows Susac to get regular playing time and fulfill his potential. Fine. A solid player, but expendable. Bickford, however, is an astronomical price for a slightly better than average reliever. Bickford was the Giants’ first round pick a year ago and the consensus top rated prospect in their system. He had an electric debut in Single A and looked to follow in the footsteps of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner as the next homegrown Giants starter. With Peavy and Cain aging and no guarantee that Johnny Cueto sticks around after 2017, Bickford and Tyler Beede, the Giants 2014 first round pick, looked to play a big role in the Giants future. Yet Bickford is gone now, at least six years of Major League control, most likely as a starter, and in return the Giants got a decent set-up man. I’m sure that Bobby Evans and Brian Sabean found the price to be high. But really, with the precedent set in the Miller and Chapman deals, there was no way the Brewers were going to make the deal without Bickford.

The Giants sold the farm for Will Smith. (MLB.com)

Now, Bickford is still fairly low in the minors and a lot can change between now and whenever he makes his MLB debut. There are concerns about the recent loss of fastball velocity and his effectiveness against Major League hitters. But still-every prospect has concerns until they prove they can be effective at the highest level, and this was the highest rated prospect in the system. Most of the time, guys like that work out to be at least average MLB starters. In my piece this morning, I pointed out how most elite relievers are just starters who couldn’t cut it. Now teams are trading away players who they don’t even know if they can cut it or not.

If they can’t, just turn them into a reliever and trade them for a guy that can cut in a few years.

Now, in all seriousness, not every failed starting pitcher can be a reliever at Miller’s level. But most relievers are players who weren’t effective enough as starters. That’s how Mariano Rivera and countless others started.

Will Smith is good. But there’s a low chance that he’s better than Bickford will ever be. A couple years ago, a Bickford and Susac type of package would net a No.2 starter in return. This crazy market has led to franchise altering trade that will affect the MLB for the next 15 to 20 years. Those who stay out of it on the sellers end will be deeply disappointed, and the buyers may find that the best trade is the one you don’t make.

The Smith deal has a greater chance of actually playing a part in delivering a World Series, but Miller is better than Smith by more than the difference in potential between Frazier and Bickford. When you consider that the Giants threw in an everyday MLB player, the Brewers got a better deal than the Yankees, but not by much. At first glance, the Giants got fleeced here.

There are players who can ignite a franchise and help a team win a World Series. Players that get hot with the bat and energize a clubhouse. Dominant starters whose value increases exponentially with the ability to go with a three man rotation in the playoffs. Closers who can anchor the back end of a bullpen. But middle relievers won’t be the centerpiece of a World Series Champions team. And it’s not worth giving up your top prospect for anything but a centerpiece.

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