Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Trade Review: Jose Valverde

Every now and then, I think back on a trade the Astros made in the past few years and it either makes me angry, sad or depressed. To torture myself more, sometimes I comb through the archives to come up with an analysis on exactly how badly a particular trade hurt. This is the first in what may become a recurring series of Trade Reviews. First up, the December 14, 2007 trade of Chris Burke, Juan Gutierrez and Chad Qualls for Jose 'El Papa Grande' Valverde.

I want to be up front about this. I like Valverde. I like the nickname, I like his antics on the mound and I like his stuff. I think he's a good closer. He helps the Astros win games, which is all you want. What bothers me about this swap is how much we gave up for a ninth-inning pitcher on a team that had just a marginal chance of making the playoffs. So, what did we give up?

Chad Qualls, 30-year old right-hander, drafted in the second round in 2000 out of the University of Nevada, Reno. Pitched in 119 1/3 innings in two seasons, striking out 111 while walking 23 and earning 30 saves with an ERA of 3.16.

Juan Gutierrez, 25-year old right-hander from the Dominican Republic, signed in 2000. Pitched in the minors in 2008, but has thrown 51 2/3 innings in 46 games this season, striking out 53 while walking 25 with a 4.53 ERA.

Chris Burke, 29-year old middle infielder, drafted 10th overall in 2000 out of Tennessee. Got 199 plate appearances in 2008 with Arizona and had a line of .194/.310/.273. Was released in the off-season and signed with San Diego.

What did El Papa Grande do? In 105 1/3 innings over the past two seasons, Valverde has picked up 59 saves, striking out 120 while walking 35 with an ERA of 3.16. That may look familiar, since it's exactly the same ERA Qualls had in more innings. Of course, Valverde suffers because he lost time in 2009 to an injury, but let's look closer at the player values.

Valverde earned 4.7 million in 2008 and will earn 8 million in 2009. After this season, he is a free agent and can sign with any team he wishes. Qualls earned 1.31 milllion in 2008 and 2.53 million in 2009 and still has one year of abitration left. Burke earned 955,000 in 2008 and Gutierrez is earning 401,000 in 2009.

That's 5.2 million in salary going out the door and 12.7 million in salary being added to a team that was already top-heavy with a few big contracts. To look at it from another angle, that's eight seasons of pitching the Astros traded away for two seasons of a closer. But, you say, those 59 saves Valverde picked up have to be valuable. Who would have closed if he had not been acquired?

Fan Graphs has assigned a monetary value based on player performance for each guy involved in the trade, so we can break this down even further. Valverde has been worth 4.6 million over the past two seasons, while Qualls has been worth 14.6 million and Gutierrez worth 5.4 million. Even if you count the negative 100,000 Burke was worth in 2008, the Astros still handed away some very valuable seasons of bullpen help that would have cost them less than they are paying for now.

Another knock on Qualls when he was with the Astros is that he gave up too many home runs. In a more hitter friendly park than Minute Maid, Qualls has given up eight home runs in the past two seasons while Valverde has given up 15. The only significant difference between the two is that Valverde can miss more bats, giving him a higher strikeout total.

Granted, we don't know if Gutierrez will pan out past this season, but he was one of the top 30 Astros prospects in 2007. Qualls also was a playoff-tested reliever heading into the 2008 season, so he could have been counted on to close as well. This trade was a classic over-reaction by the new General Manager Ed Wade, hired three months before this move. Wade has made some good pickups in LaTroy Hawkins, Alberto Arias and Darin Erstad, but whiffing on Valverde left him tied up financially and unable to make any significant moves last winter and this summer. Some GMs realize you can't give up multiple seasons of cheap players for expensive veterans; I just wish the Astros could get with the program.

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