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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dodgers Trade For Casey Blake

The Dodgers have traded for Cleveland third baseman Casey Blake, sending the Tribe minor league catcher Carlos Santana (2008 stats) and RHP Jon Meloan (2008 stats).

Blake has a .289/.365/.465 line in 325 at-bats for Cleveland, with 11 home runs in his age 34 season. He scuffled for much of his early career with the Twins, then suddenly put it together at the rather advanced age of 29 in 2003, hitting for power and acceptable average. Defensively at third, he's a first baseman, and even there he sports average-to-well-below-average fielding numbers (Rate2 anywhere from 88 to 102 over the last three-plus years at third). There's no question but that he would represent an immediate offensive improvement at third for the Dodgers at the moment — but I shall get to my reservations about this in a moment.

The pieces the Dodgers are surrendering are a bit more worrisome. Ranked the Dodgers' 25th best prospect in the Baseball America 2008 Prospect Handbook, Santana has had a breakout year for Inland Empire even against his already strong numbers at lower levels, posting a .323/.431/.563 line that, while likely boosted by the Cal League's notorious hitter-friendliness, gives you pause. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that Jeff Mathis had a (so far unrepeatable) career year in the Cal League; young catcher collapse syndrome is an axiom for a reason.

Similarly, Jon Meloan hasn't done well in his first full season at AAA, earning a 5-10 record with a 4.97 ERA and a 0.90 G/F ratio, a 60/99 K/BB ratio, all in 105 IP. Part of that was because the Dodgers tried to turn him back into a starter when he had been used exclusively in relief virtually all of his previous minor league career. Meloan was the Dodgers' number eight prospect (per BA) before this trade, playing in his fourth season in the Dodgers' system. Walks are clearly a problem for him, so spending time at AAA Buffalo in the more pitcher-friendly International League may help.

As I said above, this trade appears to help the Dodgers for 2008, but it's unclear whether it helps them in 2009 and beyond. Part of the reason for that is that for two of the last three years and generally over his career, Blake has had significant decline problems, posting sub-100 sOPS+ numbers in the second half. But the real issue with the trade is that it becomes yet another case where Dodgers management clearly has signaled its impatience with its young players, and worse, it has done so in a year when even the best case outcome, winning the division, would almost certainly yield a first-and-out scenario in the postseason. That is, this is a team that should be playing for 2009, not looking for that one missing piece to push them over the top. Santana, for all his gifts and shiny numbers, is still too far away to judge his real talents. Similarly, Meloan looks very much like a longer-term project than just rounding out his season in 2008.

The real question becomes that of what happens to both Andy LaRoche and Blake DeWitt. DeWitt's cold streak was unnecessarily lengthened by Joe Torre starting him ahead of LaRoche long after the tinsel had fallen off his early success. DeWitt should probably be shipped back to the minors, leaving LaRoche to either ride the pine or be traded. Since Blake's contract ends this year, it's possible the Dodger could option LaRoche back to Las Vegas after an unfair shot at a starting job ended badly, but the Times reports the Dodgers may be shopping him for middle infield help. The problem I have with this, of course, is that over the longer term it shows how little Ned Colletti really values their young players, and how little patience he has with players who stumble. Were Colletti running the Dodger teams of my youth, Steve Garvey would have been shipped out the minute he failed to produce at third, and especially once he showed he couldn't throw worth a damn.

In short, it's not as bad a deal as the Denny Baez/Lance Carter for Edwin Jackson/Chuck Tiffany deal, but it represents the same wastefulness, an inability to read the team's true needs, and a failure to properly value prospects. These are the hallmarks of losing teams, and Ned is happy to send the team on this path so long as he can fill the perceived hole at third. Branch Rickey used to say it's better to trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late; Colletti is the guy who makes the other end of those kinds of deals.

Update: There's some talk in the BTF thread on this deal that Blake could qualify as a type A free agent, so it's possible he could net the Dodgers a couple first-round picks (or a first-round and a sandwich pick at least). So there's that consolation prize. Also, from Peter Gammons:

The reason the Indians were able to get Carlos Santana, a very high-level prospect, in the Casey Blake deal is that the Indians took on all of Blake's remaining $2 million salary. Several general managers around baseball wonder whether L.A. doesn't have cash flow problems.
Hat tip to D Prouty in today's DT thread.

Update 2: More commentary at MSTI, including an important link to Andrew Shimmin's analysis at True Blue LA. Andrew came up with much more definitive numbers on Blake's defense:

... even if he continued to hit, he might not be a huge improvement over a non hitting LaRoche or DeWitt. Casey Blake's defense took a huge hit this year, dropping from below average (-5 last year) to absolutely useless (-11, 29th in the league). Hopefully this is just small sample size but defense tends to decline every year. He's probably not as bad as he's shown but he's certainly not an asset.

In the context of the entire team, this could be a huge issue. Blake is actually pretty good at stopping balls going down the line. He was +9 on those plays last year and is +2 this year. The problem is balls to his left where he was at -13 last year and -5 this year. This means that any ball that is hit between Blake and Nomar is getting through. When you have Kent on Nomar's other side any balls hit from Blake's left to Loney's range are getting through unless they're hit directly at someone. This is going to make Derek Lowe, Hiroki Kuroda, Chad Billingsley, and Brad Penny, who all have ground ball to fly ball rates over 1.5, extremely unhappy. Casey Blake gives the Dodgers quite possibly the worst defensive infield in baseball, and that doesn't seem wise when your four best pitchers are all ground ball pitchers.

Ned Colletti just manages to get stupider and stupider. Words fail me, and it's times like this that make me grateful for the fact that I have Angels season tickets. I mean, no, they're no geniuses, they've pissed away a ton of first-round picks over the last few years with dumb signings (see Matthews, Jr. and arguably the Torii Hunter deal after 2009), but ye gods, at least they have plans for their kids and stick to them.

Update 3: Forgot to mention upthread that the Dodgers sent down Blake DeWitt to make room for Blake on the 25-man.

Update 4: Let's recap:

  1. This makes the Dodgers older, and worse defensively, than either of their previous options of DeWitt or LaRoche. This is extra bad because virtually the entire Dodger starting rotation consists of pitchers with 1.5 G/F ratios or higher.
  2. It comes at the expense of one of the most valuable commodities in baseball: a really good-hitting catching prospect with relatively few miles as a catcher (Santana was a converted position player).
  3. It amounts to selling low on Santana because of his weak numbers as a starter.
  4. It blocks LaRoche in a season in which the Dodgers aren't really playing for serious postseason contention; even if they should win the division, there's no hope of anything besides a first-and-done appearance. Why not let LaRoche show what he can do the rest of the way?
  5. Blake's offensive "upgrade" is dubious because he's a second-half slumper.
  6. It opens the door to Colletti trying to extend Blake, though he could also yield a high draft pick or two.
  7. It also lends itself to roster abortions such as occurred in today's game, where Nomar was started at first over James Loney.
More on this from SoSG and Fire Ned Colletti Now.

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