Why The Harden Deal Was Good For Oakland

The Cubs and Athletics engineered a fascinating deal yesterday, in which Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin were sent to the Cubs in exchange for Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson, and Josh Donaldson. My initial reaction, like many others’, was one of surprise. The benefits are obvious for the Cubs, but why would Billy Beane make such a deal?

Less than 24 hours after the trade was announced, however, I am beginning to understand why Oakland would make this trade. And now, it looks like a very good deal for the A’s.

 

The benefits for the Cubs are obvious: they obtain a pitcher with as high a ceiling as anyone in baseball in exchange for spare (in their eyes) parts. Even if they believe any/all of the players they gave up will have long-term value, it is worth risking Harden’s health in order to push themselves over the top for this year and next. If Harden gets hurt again, they have lost very little; but if he stays healthy, they have gained a tremendous amount of production.

Oakland, however, is not in the same place as the Cubs, financially or in the standings. While I do not believe that this trade signifies that the A’s are raising a white flag over their season, the A’s are built more for the future than they are for the present. Additionally, given their financial limitations, it is worth converting a player like Harden into cheaper – and more reliable – production, even if that means a potential downgrade overall.

No one will deny that Harden is fantastic when healthy. But a team like Oakland can afford the risk of Harden’s health less than a team with more financial resources. If the Cubs pick up Harden’s 2009 option for $9 million and he doesn’t throw one pitch, they will be disappointed, but Harden’s salary won’t prevent them from making any other moves. The Athletics, however, must obtain production from every dollar they spend; if they are spending money on a player who is not producing, they do not have the means to simply spend more money and improve their team. Thus, they are less able to absorb injury risk than a team like the Cubs.

While Chad Gaudin is a nice pickup for the Cubs, he will be arbitration eligible next year and can be easily replaced by Oakland. Gaudin is the type of pitcher who is great to have while he’s cheap but can quickly become overpriced. Still, it is rather odd that he was included in this deal – if Beane insisted on keeping Gaudin, it hardly seems like it would be a dealbreaker.

Harden’s value is probably as high now as it will ever be, and there are few teams who are willing to surrender value for a pitcher like him, even with his amazing upside. The Cubs are in a unique position – with their financial resources combined with their win-now attitude – to absorb such a risk. The A’s simply cashed in their lottery ticket in exchange for several far-less-risky options, and, in doing so, also saved themselves money.

But beyond this, I think that the package Beane received is more than solid. Matt Murton is what he is – a player undervalued by the Cubs, although certainly not a star and maybe not more than a platoon player. Still, Murton won’t be eligible for free agency until the 2012 season, and may very well be further undervalued in arbitration due to his previous lack of playing time and lack of gaudy counting statistics. A 26-year-old with a career line of .292/.362/.448 is nothing to sneeze at. While he may never hit for a ton of power, he’s demonstrated, time and again, an above-average ability to get on base. Even for a corner outfielder, this is very valuable, especially in a guy who’s yet to hit free agency.

Eric Patterson also possesses an above-average OBP, some speed and pop, and some defensive issues. Patterson may not be a starter, but would be an above-average, versatile (and cheap) bench player.

Josh Donaldson is another lottery ticket, and even though he has struggled and scouts are supposedly down on him, Donaldson was highly regarded one year ago; plus, catching prospects are hard to find.

But the key to this trade is Sean Gallagher, a righty who I believe some are underrating. For some reason, people like to focus on Gallagher’s negatives – he’s hefty and does not offer much to project upon– rather than his positives. Both of these statements are true, but they obscure the positives: Gallagher is already good.

Just 22 years old, Gallagher has excelled at every level of the minor leagues, doing exactly what you want a young pitcher to do: staying healthy, striking out a batter per inning, and limiting his walks and his homers. In 481 career minor league innings, Gallagher has struck out 482, while only giving up 188 walks and 26 homers. He has had success at the upper level of the minors as well: in 216 innings across Double-A and Triple-A, Gallagher has a 2.96 ERA and 212/101 K/BB ratio (55 of those walks came as a 20-year-old in double-A in 2006), while surrendering only ten homers. Oh, and he did it while pitching half of his games in parks which marginally favored hitters.

Gallagher has been fairly successful in the majors as well, despite the poor handling of him and his role. Gallagher has a more-than-respectable 49/22 ratio in 58 innings with the Cubs this year, having surrendered six homers (four of which were hit in homer-happy parks: US Cellular Field, Great American Ballpark, and MinuteMaidPark).

 

Sure, there may not be much to project on him, but it’s not like he’s lacking in stuff, either: his fastball has averaged 92.3 MPH this year. Additionally, according to ESPN’s Keith Law, Gallagher possesses “a tight-breaking downer curveball that serves as an out pitch and an average changeup.” 

A young pitcher who cannot become a free agent until the 2014 season, who has had nothing but success in the minors, possesses excellent peripheral stats, who has struck out 54 in 73 major league innings (despite being pushed back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation), who throws 92, and who has three at-least-average offerings and an out pitch? Yes, please.

 

Sean Gallagher is no ace, but he’s better than he’s getting credit for being. Although he’s switching to the more difficult American League, he will pitch in front of what is consistently one of the league’s best defenses and play half of his games in one of the league’s best parks for pitchers.

The Athletics receive five years of Gallagher, three years of Murton, six years of Patterson, and a nominal catching prospect in return for three years of a decent reliever/fifth starter and one-and-a-half years of a guy whose injury concerns present more of a problem to them than they might to another team. And they saved themselves a nice chunk of change, too.

 

This is a good deal for the Cubs. But it’s also a very good deal for the Athletics.

 

 

For more excellent analysis of this trade, check out Dave Cameron’s summary on FanGraphs. 

Also, Lone Star Ball has a bunch of links to other opinions/analysis of the deal. 

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