Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Self-Flagellation of Trades Gone By

Former Red Josh Hamilton became the 16th player
in MLB history to hit four homers in a game this week
It was an interesting week for Cincinnati Reds fans, as the team continues to right the ship from a slow start to the tune of yet another series win over the Milwaukee Brewers. The final game of their 4-2 road trip was a classic pitcher’s duel between two of the premiere pitching talents in the National League in Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto and Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke. Powered by some clutch two-out hitting in the top of the ninth, the Reds squeaked two runs across the plate off closer John Axford in an eventual 2-1 victory. It was the ninth time in ten chances this season that the Reds won the “get away” game to take the final game of the series and push their record in the previous ten games to 7-3.

In spite of the cause for optimism about this current team’s lot, however, social media sites and baseball bloggers everywhere have steered the conversation about the Reds into another, much less productive discussion about a game played in the other league.
Hamilton Goes Ham
Former member of the Reds 2007 club and since-traded slugger Josh Hamilton had a historic evening on May 8th. The outfielder and 2010 American League MVP accomplished a feat that had only been achieved fifteen other times in the history of the sport: cranking four home runs in a game. Along with his fifth hit - a casual double, just for kicks - the four dingers resulted in eight runs batted in and a jaw-dropping, AL-record 18 total bases in the game.
''Obviously it's, other than being in the World Series, the highlight of my big-league career,'' Hamilton said after the game. And just as Rangers fans everywhere were raising a customary ginger ale toast to Hamilton’s remarkable achievement, a multitude of Reds fans fired up their computer to remind the world of the obvious: the Redlegs “lost” the Hamilton trade.

Hamilton hit .292 with 19 HRs and 47 RBI
in 298 at-bats with the Reds in 2007
The Trade
When Hamilton was traded in late 2007, the Reds received pint-sized reliever Danny Herrera and, more notably, starting pitcher Edinson Volquez. Josh was coming off a season where he hit .292 with 19 homers and 47 RBI in 298 at-bats with the Reds. As a “rookie” for the Reds, he led all of the National League with 151,000 write-in votes for the All Star game.  He has arguably been the most dynamic hitting talent in baseball since that fateful December day in 2007, making the All-Star game each of the last four years, securing two Silver Slugger awards in 2008 and 2010 and winning MVP honors in 2010 for both the regular season as a whole and in the AL Championship Series.
At the time of the trade, Volquez was coming off a season in which he won 14 games for the Rangers’ AA and AAA minor league affiliates, posting a 3.67 ERA and holding opponents to a .190 batting average. He was regarded as the third best prospect in the entire Rangers organization by Baseball America and had made marked improvements in his control, leading then GM Wayne Krivsky to believe that, "he was ready to compete and win a job in the rotation in '08."
To Krivsky’s credit, he was right about Volquez in the short term. The pitcher started the 2008 season for the Reds with a 7-1 record and a 1.33 ERA in nine starts. By season’s end, he was 17-6 with the eighth best ERA in the National League (3.21) and was an obvious representative for the National League in the 2008 All-Star Game. Unfortunately, Volquez’s stock began to decline after the 2008 season while Hamilton further entrenched himself as one of the most natural talents in the game. After Tommy John surgery and a suspension for PED use in 2009 and 2010, Volquez’s contributions to the Reds team became increasingly marginal until he was finally packaged as a pot sweetener in the 2012 blockbuster trade that brought Mat Latos over to the Reds. Herrera was a limited contributor in 2009, but eventually waived from the club in 2010.
In light of how the winds of change have blown since “The Trade” it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of baseball insight to say the Reds seemingly got hosed. But judging these exchanges on the plight of a player once they leave an organization is lazy and ignores the most obvious reality of any major sports trade: they happen in the context of the time that they are made.
Accepting Reality without Wallowing
It’s easy to look at box scores around the league and covet having the contributions of the best players in the game wearing your team’s colors. In reality, though, actually attaining and keeping that kind of talent doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Going into 2008, much like 2012, the Reds had one major glaring need to help them compete: starting pitching. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo were the only true anchors in the rotation. Homer Bailey had just arrived to limited success and some kid named Johnny Cueto was on his way up in the minors. A then-ineffective Kyle Lohse (traded at the All-Star break) and a young Matt Belisle were doing the rest of the heavy lifting for the 2007 staff.  If the Reds club had one position of strength to deal from at the time, it was big-hitting outfielders (Griffey, Dunn), especially with a highly-lauded youngster named Jay Bruce knocking on the door for promotion.   
It’s easy to wish the team had a trade “do-over” knowing what we know now about Hamilton and Volquez. But at the time, keeping Hamilton wasn’t an option that was without liability itself. The experts in Cincinnati and Texas likely saw the same raw talent in Josh that Tampa Bay did when they picked him #1 overall in 1999. But merely possessing talent and having it translate on the field are two different things, and other than his one summer in Cincinnati, Josh Hamilton largely didn’t translate his talent.
This reality should come as no surprise to those familiar with the Josh Hamilton substance abuse saga: alcoholism and drug abuse had him banned by MLB in 2003 before spiraling into another few years of self-destructive behavior following that. Sure, MLB gave him another chance at the game after he cleaned up his act, and so did Tampa Bay. But people seem to forget that Hamilton was not an effective player right upon his return in 2006, as he scuffled along in single-A before finally being released and by the Rays and picked up by the Cubs (on behalf of the Reds) in the Rule 5 draft.  
Cincinnati took a gamble on Hamilton managing his demons, and it happened to pan out in 2007. The Reds were the most recent team (before Texas) to have seem him produce at a high level. For that reason, Cincinnati might have a little more egg on their face than Tampa Bay does for releasing him or Chicago does for taking the cash for his pick in the Rule 5 draft. It wasn’t exactly a sure conclusion that a recovering drug addict with a potential injury propensity would continue that level of production long-term, though.
The Reds took another gamble following 2007 in trading Josh away, potentially “selling high” on a nice redemption story for a position they needed much more sorely than power hitting outfielders.
Hamilton’s 2007 season was one of almost unprecedented in how unexpected it was. Players virtually without exception don’t take three years away from the game and come back to produce at the MLB level on more than a “fluke” basis. His dramatic splits against lefties that season (.222/.296/.292 ) may have even given the Reds cause for concern about Josh getting “figured out” by pitchers or managers as he got more plate appearances. The organization took a risk that whatever production Hamilton would continue to bring wasn’t worth the risk of carrying a player who had been kicked out of baseball for drug use already and needed almost constant supervision to manage his addictions. It probably didn’t help that Hamilton’s personality wasn’t generally well-received in the clubhouse to begin with. In the few years since the trade, (other than a two well-documented “minor” Josh Hamilton relapses) the Reds would seemingly have lost that gamble. But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong idea at the time.
Sometimes a trade isn’t necessarily “bad” in its conception, but the results just end up being that way. Josh Hamilton may be the prime example of this reality in modern baseball.
Enough Hypotheticals Already
Beyond Hamilton, Cincinnati fans have been quick to point out that three of the four homerun leaders in the American League right now (Hamilton, Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion) are former Reds. To simply observe this is one thing, but the insinuations that the Reds royally mismanaged their roster in the last few years by letting these guys walk are a little inaccurate. In fact, the Reds had all three of those players on the same roster in 2007, resulting in a ho-hum 72-90 record, mostly due to abysmal pitching.
To suggest that the Reds would have somehow been able to keep even two of those three players without losing some of the other role players on the current team is foolish. Had the Reds seen the promise in Hamilton like so many fans now claim that they did in hindsight, Cueto, Bailey and Votto may well have been traded for Erik Bedard after all, and the conversation could have been about how terrible that trade was. In any event, the team would almost certainly not have had the flexibility to extend Brandon Phillips as they did, who himself arrived from Cleveland via trade for a bucket of baseballs and a bag of sunflower seeds.
Hypothetical assumptions are unproductive in these conversations because we just don’t know how things would have panned out if the path not traveled was taken. Nothing in this game happens without causing some ripples. When one piece moves in a certain direction, the rest of the roster pieces need to shift to accommodate it somehow. Speculating on “what could have been” in baseball is a game best saved for sadists and masochists.
Josh Hamilton has turned into a monster ball player after being passed over by other MLB teams in his career due to the loaded personal history, Reds included.  Teams passed by Pujols more than 400 times before he was selected in the 13th round of the 1999 MLB Draft. Sometimes stories like that develop in baseball. More often than not they don’t.
The goal of managing a baseball team’s roster is to constantly try to strike balance between the parts and pieces of your club to improve on the number of games you won. The Cincinnati Reds made marginal improvements to their record in each of the years following Hamilton’s trade by addressing priority needs the club didn’t have answers for, leading up to the 2010 NL Central Championship.
Could it have happened sooner or with more frequency had Hamilton stayed? We’ll never know. But we can be sure he isn’t coming back, so Reds fans need to move on. Cincinnati has a ball club this year that hasn’t lost a series in the last six and is two games over .500 in the second week of May. It may or may not last all season, but that’s why the play the game. Fans need to shift attention to the present cast of players wearing Cincinnati on their chest and stop harping on the existence of a hypothetical roster that doesn’t exist and never will.

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