Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The $100 million mistake

It didn't seem like a lopsided deal at the time, at least not to casual fans. The defending champion White Sox had just acquired Javier Vazquez from Arizona in exchange for an over-the-hill starter, a journeyman middle reliever, and an outfield prospect.

A year later, the deal is a train wreck for the Sox and the steal of the century for the Diamondbacks. The over-the-hill starter, Orlando Hernandez, had a better 2006 than Vazquez while earning less salary and is off to a strong start this year, though he is currently injured. The middle reliever, Luis Vizcaino, was the biggest name in the D-Backs' trade package for Randy Johnson, whose key indicators are excellent this year.

Those are small trifles, however, compared to the outfield prospect, Chris Young, who is getting rave reviews from both scouts and statheads and figures to contribute great production while earning MLB's minimum wage.

How much is a player like Young worth? For one answer, we can look at what a similar player earns in free agency. Nate Silver recently ranked Young ahead of Andruw Jones on a list of the top players he would take in a super-fantasy draft for the next six years. In other words, in a league without salaries, Young and Jones are basically pegged to return the same value between 2007-12.

Speculation is that Jones will receive a free agent contract in the neighborhood of six years and $110 million when he becomes eligible after this season. Meanwhile, Young will likely earn around $20 million before hitting free agency at the end of 2012. When you get a $110 million player for $20 million, you net a $90 million profit. Baseball being a zero-sum game, that $90 million must be a loss for the team that traded Young, the White Sox.

It's not like this was entirely unexpected. Young ranked 46th on last year's top 50, and didn't have a breakout season last year; rather, he just continued his natural progression. Add in Vizcaino and El Duque, who the Diamondbacks converted into Johnson and Yusmeiro Petit, and subtract the small profit the White Sox will likely get out of Vazquez's first two years, and you can make a convincing case that this deal cost the White Sox $100 million.

Am I being too hard on the White Sox or GM Ken Williams? I don't think so. Dealing multiple young players for a Proven Veteran has been Williams's M.O. for years. He did the same thing with David Wells, Todd Ritchie, Freddy Garcia, and others. The Wells and Garcia deals didn't blow up in his face because the careers of Mike Sirotka and Jeremy Reed have derailed, but one young player who pans out, like Young, costs the Sox more than enough to offset those who didn't.

What's interesting is that Williams seems to have learned. This offseason, instead of loading up for one last World Series run, he exploited the seller's market by trading Garcia and Brandon McCarthy for a collection of young pitchers who should return great value on the dollar. If the Sox fall out of contention, he'll probably do the same with Mark Buehrle, Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede, and Jon Garland.

The key to building a dynasty is through homegrown talent or acquired young talent, not expensive acquisitions. The Atlanta Braves of the past two decades have been carried by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, David Justice, Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones, among many others. Even the big-budget Yankees won their four World Series titles on the backs of Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada. If the White Sox can assemble enough young talent, they might be the next. It's surely a better approach than stripping the farm system to acquire number 3 starters.

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