Breaking Down a Potential Joe Saunders-NYY Trade

The recent news out of New York is that, with the recent announcement of Andy Pettitte's retirement, the Yankees have expanded their search for starting pitching.  Included among the reported list of possible targets of GM Brian Cashman is Diamondbacks lefty Joe Saunders.  Since I've been of the mind that Saunders' acquisition was all along intended to be a rental to be traded again sometime this year, this piqued my interest.

The Yankees and D-backs have, surprisingly, always had a fairly amicable relationship when it comes to crafting trades.  From blockbusters the Randy Johnson trade (and subsequent Randy Johnson trade pt. 2) and last off-season's Granderson/Kennedy/EJackson/Scherzer/AJackson mega-swap to the recent deal of Scottie Allen for Juan Miranda, D-backs GMs have never been afraid to deal with the big boys, and Brian Cashman has found likable assets in small-market Arizona.

To get away from the minor leagues (well, actually not, as we'll see later) and back onto the big-league hot stove everybody loves so much, I've decided to write up a thorough analysis of what kind of swap the D-backs and Yankees could make involving the innings-eating Saunders.  We'll look at what Yankees big-leaguers, if any, could factor into a trade, and what kind of prospects the D-backs could reasonably target if they look to the Yankees' system.  Additionally, I'll take a quick look into how a potential Saunders trade could change the perceptions of our return on Dan Haren.  The analysis after the jump.

First, let's take a quick perusal of the Yankees' big league roster to see what pieces might be a match, sorted by FanGraphs' WAR (min. 0.5 WAR in 2010):

Pitchers:

CC Sabathia - Both teams say no for extremely obvious reasons.

Phil Hughes - Better, younger, and cheaper than Saunders.

Mariano Rivera - Uhhh, no.

Joba Chamberlain - This is where things first get interesting.  Chamberlain was reportedly part of the package the Yankees had offered for Haren, and just half a year later they still need starting pitching, still are interested in an arm from the D-backs rotation, and still have Chamberlain to offer.  Chamberlain's FanGraphs WAR was 1.4 in 2010 based off of a strong 2.98 FIP, but both his ERA (4.40) and xFIP (3.34) were higher.  He's a much better arm than his ERA in 2010 suggests, but now that New York has Rafael Soriano to set up Mariano Rivera, do they need a seventh-inning bullpen arm more than they need another starter?

Saunders seems like someone they could easily lock up for a couple extra years if they wanted to and has eaten innings at an acceptable quality against tough AL competition before with the Angels.  Having someone who may not be spectacular, but is at least dependable, in that Yankee rotation would be nice to have alongside erratic arms like A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes.

The biggest question is probably what the D-backs think of Chamberlain, who is entering his first year of arbitration.  Do they view him as a starter despite his questionable handling by New York?  Or would they play it safe in spite of his significant upside in the rotation and keep Joba in the bullpen as their set-up man and heir to the closer's role from J.J. Putz?  It is a riskier move, but personally I would decide to put Joba in the rotation and tell him that he's going to stay there unless his elbow blows out.

This isn't without reason, though.  For one, the D-backs aren't likely to compete in 2011, so they can give Joba a conservative innings count, say around 120-130, and even start him out working short starts of 4-5 innings early in the year.  Additionally, the D-backs have built up enough starting pitching depth that they can feasibly shut Joba down near the end of the year once he's reached his limit, turning to three of Armando Galarraga, Barry Enright, Aaron Heilman, Zach Duke, and whatever prospects emerge in the minors this year to fill in the three rotation slots behind Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy.

If the experiment is successful, Arizona could get a return of a solid 450 innings of above-average starting pitching (estimates of 120 innings in '11, 150 innings in '12, and 180 innings in '13), with the potential for a few stretches, or even a year or so, of elite work.  Hopefully by that time, the D-backs will be back in contention as their current lower-minors prospects begin playing major roles in the big leagues.  If something goes wrong, the team will have a strong asset to move to a team in need of an ace.

Sure, something much more important to this plan could go wrong - namely, Joba could fall apart again - but it's a worthwhile risk when the cost is 30 starts from Joe Saunders and the D-backs have significant starting pitching depth.  It might cost an extra fringey prospect, but this is the type of high-upside move that small market teams like Arizona need to make.  Of course, the D-backs could go in another direction, so let's go through the other options...

A.J. Burnett - The D-backs won't touch him with a fifty-foot pole.

David Robertson - Robertson is a good, though erratic, reliever who could probably serve as a closer someday in the National League.  Additionally, Robertson has a year of minimum-salary team control remaining before hitting arbitration.  If they want another high-upside reliever who could potentially assume the closer role from J.J. Putz in three years, Robertson could be their target, and Robertson could be squeezed out of regular work in the newly-bolstered Yankees bullpen.

Ivan Nova - Too high of an asking price - Nova will probably will be as good as Saunders is now very soon, and with a ton of remaining low-cost control.

Position Players:

Robinson Cano - Somewhere, Brian Cashman is laughing.

Brett Gardner - Somewhere, Brian Cashman... you know.

Nick Swisher - Who'd have thought that the top three Yankee position players in FanGraphs WAR for 2010 would be Cano, Gardner, and Swisher?

Alex Rodriguez - Yeah... no.

Curtis Granderson - The last thing the D-backs need is an extremely expensive center fielder who would force a perfectly good center fielder to left field, where that player's value would be cut into immensely.

Mark Teixeira - Just imagine that headline...

Derek Jeter - Roflcopter!

Jorge Posada - There's no DH in the National League.  Oh yeah, Posada also is paid a ton.

Francisco Cervelli - Cervelli managed a paltry 1.1 WAR in 93 games as Posada's injury replacement.  Not someone that the D-backs should give up a legitimate big-league innings-eater for.

 

So, having burned through the big-league options, the only choices are a pair of relievers - one with a well-known past and one lesser-known name with an impressive strikeout rate but questionable control.  However, it would be hard to fault Kevin Towers for seeking for a starter or position player in return for someone who has thrown 587 1/3 innings over the last three seasons.  Since the answer doesn't appear to lie in the major leagues, let's look at what options currently lie in the minors.

To help sift through the minor league system, I'll be using John Sickels' most recent work - both on his site and in latest book - as a guide, since he provides scouting reports some of the lesser-known prospects, nearly 1,100 in total, of each team's system that BA or BP don't detail.

John Sickels' Top 20 Yankees Prospects for 2011:

1) C/1B/DH Jesus Montero - Hahaha.

2) C Gary Sanchez - Try again.

3) RHP Dellin Betances - Keep going.

4) LHP Manny Banuelos - A little more...

5) RHP Hector Noesi - Still too much.

6) RHP Andrew Brackman - Could be a possibility with his age and volatility as reasons for the Yankees to give him up, but the bonus investment the Yankees have made in him and his upside make it extremely unlikely and an overpay.

7) RHP Ivan Nova - No reason to give up one of the few big-league ready arms the Yankees have available when they're trying to fill their rotation.

8) C Austin Romine - It would be a heist if we pried Romine from the Yankees, as we currently don't have an everyday-caliber catcher in the system, and it helps our cause in nabbing Romine that the Yankees have a ton of them.  At the end of the day, though, it's till a pipe dream.

9) OF Slade Heathcott - Reminds me a bit of Keon Broxton with more hype.  It isn't likely to be a possibility, but with the attrition rates of these types of prospects, it would be very nice to stockpile some upside.

10) RHP Adam Warren - The 23-year-old tore through A-ball and Double-A in his first full season of pro ball, and probably a bit too heavy of an asking price for Saunders.

11) RHP Graham Stoneburner - Another 23-year-old, the 14th round pick from 2009 bulldozed A-ball in 2010 and has good fastball velocity and movement, making him a great fit in the small confines of Chase Field.  At worst, he looks like a nice power bullpen arm who can generate grounders.

12) RHP David Phelps - Phelps doesn't have the raw velocity that Stoneburner possesses, but he's already had an impressive stint in Triple-A despite being only a year older.  Phelps has the look of an innings-eater, but he might not get that chance for very long in New York.

13) SS Eduardo Nunez - If the D-backs aren't looking for a pitcher in return for Saunders, Nunez is probably the most feasible and sensible alternative.  He doesn't profile as a strong everyday-caliber infielder, but his defense at shortstop is above-average, and the D-backs might need a stop-gap option in two years if Stephen Drew leaves in free agency.  Given how cost-effective he likely will be, even a mediocre bat could provide a solid 1.5-2 WAR with a good glove and everyday playing time at shortstop.  As long as his bat isn't Rey Ordonez-bad, he'll be a useful piece until Chris Owings arrives in the big leagues.

14) 3B Brandon Laird - Laird is another strong possibility, considering that he's blocked in New York by some guy named A-Rod.  He had a very strong 2010 campaign at Double-A, though a brief cameo in Triple-A proved less successful, particularly in his strike-zone judgment, which is suspect right now.  Laird could be ready for big-league action at the hot corner in 2012, providing a stopgap solution that is more of a sure thing than Ryan Wheeler, and who could be insurance in case Matt Davidson and Bobby Borchering both have to move to first base or left field.

15) 2B David Adams - Another quality middle infield prospect, Adams was a piece of New York's supposed package to acquire Cliff Lee from the Mariners, but Adams' health supposedly was brought into question as the Mariners' reason for making a last-minute switch and sending Lee to Texas.  Health issues are one of Adams' unfortunate forte's, but he's a good hitter when healthy, and Arizona doesn't have many middle infielders who can do that in the upper minors.

16) C J.R. Murphy - Another catcher with high upside, Murphy is younger and needs more polish than the catchers closer to the top of this list.  Catching depth in the Arizona system has gone from average to a major weakness since last year, so Murphy would be a welcome addition, though not one that would provide value in the big-leagues in the near future.

17) 2B Corban Joseph - Another second baseman with an intriguing bat, Joseph's good numbers have mostly come at A-ball, and have yet to translate to Double-A in limited action.  A nice middle infield prospect, but a definite step down from David Adams.

18) SS Cito Culver - The Yankees are obscenely high on him, and he was just drafted last June so he can't be traded yet.

19) RHP Brett Marshall - A sleeper according to Sickels, Marshall's stuff wasn't what back to it's pre-Tommy John levels in 2010, but with the surgery in the rear-view mirror, that velocity could return.  He's still young, just 20 years old, and his four-pitch mix is ready for Hi-A ball, which fits right in line with the team's current wave of prospects.

20) RHP Jose A. Ramirez - A young (21 years old), live arm with a change-up but no polished breaking ball.  If we're looking for upside in the rotation, Ramirez would be a solid choice that wouldn't be too difficult to pry from New York.

21) SS/OF Angelo Gumbs - A very raw up-the-middle player, the second-round pick from 2010 can't be traded yet.

Other Interesting Prospects:

OF Melky Mesa - Tools, tools, and tools galore.  Mesa's tools are amongst the best in the Yankees' system, but he still has difficulty handling off-speed pitches despite being 24 years old, spending enough time in the minors to require a 40-man roster slot as Rule 5 protection, and having yet to get out of A-ball.

LHP/RHP Pat Venditte - Everybody wants to know more about Venditte except for scouts, it seems.  The good and intriguing: he's posted video game numbers over the last two years and is, and this is not a typo, a switch-pitcher.  The bad and concerning: He doesn't have knockout stuff (from either side), hasn't been given a chance outside of A-ball, and is already 25 years old.  The Yankees don't seem to be particularly high on Venditte given their reluctance to promote him as his numbers warrant, but if someone in the D-backs front office is intrigued enough, he would at least be an amusing throw-in to a package for Saunders.  However, considering Venditte to be one of the key assets in a return package would be foolish - I wouldn't recommend accepting a deal involving Venditte unless you're also willing to accept it without him.

 

Sadly, most of the other prospects in the New York system profiled by Sickels were late-round, over-slot signings from the 2010 draft that aren't eligible to be traded, so this appears to be most of the current group we have to work with.  The way I see it, the top-ten prospects are all definitely off-limits, and the only possibilities from the big-league roster appear to be Joba and David Robertson.  So, what kind of deals could I see happening?

 

1 - Yankees acquire LHP Joe Saunders (and RHP Matt Gorgen/RHP Carlos Rosa) for RHP Joba Chamberlain.

The D-backs sacrifice one of their fringier relief prospects in order to acquire a serious upside play in Chamberlain.  If New York is hesitant about cutting into their relief depth, the D-backs can add a C-to-C+ rank (both Gorgen and Rosa are Grade C for me) relief prospect to sweeten the package and cut some of that hesitance.

2 - Yankees acquire LHP Joe Saunders for a quality MiLB starting pitching arm (RHP Graham Stoneburner/RHP David Phelps).

The Yankees have a hole in the rotation in the immediate future that they are struggling to fill, but the 2012 off-season will bring a fresh crop of starting pitching free agents that the Yanks can throw their money at once again.  Having back-end starting arms in the minors that are a few years away from the majors isn't particularly useful to New York except, well, as trade bait.

3 - Yankees acquire LHP Joe Saunders for an above-average MiLB position player (SS Eduardo Nunez/3B Brandon Laird/2B David Adams/C J.R. Murphy) and an average prospect (OF Melky Mesa, relief arm, etc.)

The D-backs have holes throughout the infield in the upper-minors, and if we want to parlay Saunders into a stop-gap solution that will be cost-effective in the immediate future, Laird, Nunez, and Adams make sense.  If we want someone who might be able to provide a bit more long-term value, then Murphy would give us some minor league help at a position where we really need help.  The additional prospect would help to sweeten the package just a bit since these prospects aren't quite as good as Stoneburner or Phelps.

4 - Yankees acquire LHP Joe Saunders for RHP Brett Marshall and RHP Jose A. Ramirez.

Taking another step down the prospect tier within the Yankees system gives Arizona the opportunity to hedge its return on Saunders a bit, divesting the risk between a pair of moderate-upside low-level starting arms.  Both pitchers have some pretty significant question marks, but if all goes right, they both could turn into impressive assets.

Of course, any additional trade proposals would be very welcome.

 

A trade of one year of Joe Saunders isn't going to set the world on fire, and isn't going to rocket the D-backs' system into the top-10 in all of baseball.  However, if we can take advantage of the demand for an innings-eater from the Yankees, we could get a solid return from New York.  Combine either a B- prospect or a pair of C+ prospects with Tyler Skaggs, a B+ prospect in my opinion, and Pat Corbin, around a B- prospect, and that's not a terrible return for Dan Haren.

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