The Cleveland Indians' strategy earlier this winter, going after expensive veterans such as Shane Victorino and Kevin Youkilis, made little sense given the state of the roster, and the team was lucky those signings didn't work out.
But in the three-team, nine-player deal completed Tuesday night, the Indians are flipping one year of Shin-Soo Choo for six years of Trevor Bauer and three years of Drew Stubbs; they've made a move that better reflects the talent on hand and the immediate future of their franchise. On the other end of the same deal, the Cincinnati Reds add a potentially significant bat but will give some of that gain back on defense, while the Arizona Diamondbacks end up with the shortest side of the triangle in giving up a potential No. 2 starter for a defense-only shortstop and a lefty specialist.
Indians do well
The net result in this trade has Cleveland dealing Choo, a free agent after 2013, lefty reliever Tony Sipp, and minor league first baseman Lars Anderson for Bauer, Stubbs, reliever Bryan Shaw and reliever Matt Albers. It's a small price to pay for two upside players in Bauer and Stubbs.
Bauer's major league debut in 2012 was disappointing, marred by a groin injury he suffered in his first outing and by his refusal to alter his pitching plan, drawing the ire of fellow D-backs players and management. But when healthy he still has swing-and-miss stuff and the intelligence to convert that into success on the mound. Bauer's fastball was 92-95 mph and touched 97 in college, but in the majors this year he was more 90-91 and touched 94 as he tried to pitch through the groin injury and adjusted to pitching every fifth day.
He has two varieties of curveballs that missed plenty of bats in college, but they typically finish out of the zone, so big league hitters just watch them go by. That's the main adjustment Bauer will have to make -- trusting his stuff in the zone when he's behind in the count because major league hitters don't chase that often when they're ahead. It's not mechanical, it's mental, and it's something Bauer will have to change to reach his potential in the majors. Bauer's an intelligent kid with a tremendous resume from college, and was good enough to race to the majors in his first full year of pro ball. There is no reason to assume that he'll never make this adjustment just because he couldn't make it in four major league starts at age 21.
I've never loved Bauer's delivery, which might be modeled after Tim Lincecum's but isn't as loose and doesn't get Bauer over his front side as well as Lincecum does. Even Lincecum seems to have worn down after his first 1,000 innings (very impressive ones, mind you). For the Indians, however, if Bauer should fade in his fifth or sixth season that's much less of a concern than extracting value from him now while he's inexpensive and their need for starting pitching is so acute.
Stubbs, meanwhile, is a first-time arbitration-eligible player coming off his worst year in three as a regular, one in which his bat was below replacement level and his value was saved only by his plus defense and his baserunning. Stubbs has a long swing and actually has 20-plus homer power that he can't get to because he swings and misses way too often at pitches in the zone, a combination of his swing length and poor pitch recognition.
He's an excellent defender in center, however, good enough to carry his bat even through a miserable season like he had in 2012, but for Cleveland's front office this is more like a one-year audition for Stubbs before he gets really expensive in his second and third years of arbitration. If he repeats 2012, they can just non-tender him after the season, but there is some upside here because of the glove and the raw power if the team can even get him to make more contact on fastball strikes. Bauer alone makes this a good deal for Cleveland, but if Stubbs regains a little of his lost offensive value it'll be an enormous win for the team.
Reds trade defense for offense
The Reds upgraded their offense, since they received virtually none from center field in 2012, but are left without a true center fielder on the roster. They give up Stubbs and shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius and get Shin-Soo Choo and utility infielder Jason Donald.
Choo has just 83 major league innings in center, none since 2009, and was awful in right field in 2012, according to both UZR and DRS. In fact, he is among the worst right fielders in the game, and asking him to play center is delusional. They'd probably be better off trying Jay Bruce, who hasn't played center since 2008, to handle it, although I wouldn't expect him to be even average out there.
The value of adding Choo is in his ability to get on base. His .373 OBP in 2012 was the worst he's posted in the three seasons in which he played at least 100 games. He has average power that might be of greater value in Cincinnati, given its hitter-friendly park. He's also pretty bad against left-handed pitching, enough that pinch-hitting for him late in close games is a good idea, if not outright platooning him. If Choo can regain his 2009-2010 form, when his defense was average and he showed more power and walked a little more often, he'll be a huge upgrade for the Reds, but it's more likely that he's worth 2-3 extra wins at most because of what the Reds will have to give back on defense. They also receive Donald, who can back up at all three infield positions he'd be asked to cover but doesn't have the glove to play short everyday or the bat to profile at second or third.
The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, come out on the bottom of this pile, giving up way too soon on a pitching prospect who reached the majors at age 21 and was the third overall pick in the 2011 draft. I don't care what they think about Bauer's quirky personality or what fences he might need to mend in the clubhouse, intelligence does not equal bad makeup, and he shouldn't be written off for wanting to prepare himself a certain way.
In exchange for Bauer (my 21st-ranked prospect coming into the 2012 season), Shaw and Albers, the Diamondbacks got a plus-glove/no-bat shortstop prospect in Dutch-born Didi Gregorius, a lefty specialist in Tony Sipp, and a failed prospect in 25-year-old first baseman Lars Anderson. That's nowhere near enough of a return for a prospect of Bauer's potential. Kevin Towers openly discussed his covetous feelings toward Gregorius during the latter's stint in the Arizona Fall League, and if you just watch Gregorius play defense, you can see why, as he has great actions at the position with soft hands and plenty of arm, not quite in the territory of Andrelton Simmons but not that far behind, either.
But the 23-year-old Gregorius has no real history offensive performance, with weak pitch recognition and a long swing for such a slight build, loading his hands way too deep and then dragging the bat head through the zone. In a world in which Brendan Ryan and Brandon Crawford have value based almost entirely on defense, Gregorius might end up a 2-WAR shortstop, but that's about it. Bauer's ceiling is at least twice that. It's a very disappointing and premature ending to Bauer's tenure in Phoenix, and Diamondbacks fans have to be wondering how the team ended up with so little in return for one of the game's top pitching prospects entering the season.