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A Look Back: The Mark Mulder to St. Louis Trade

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During the 1990's, the Atlanta Braves featured a trio of pitchers that were commonly known as "The Big Three."  Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were together starters in Atlanta's rotation from 1993 to 1999; a span that saw division titles in every season and a World Series Championship in 1995.  Simply put, during their time together in the Braves rotation they were each considered one of the best pitchers in the game.

Upon the finish of the Braves' Big Three (which seemingly began when John Smoltz began closing games for Atlanta) in 2000, a new big three emerged in Oakland in the form of homegrown arms Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.  During their tenure in the Oakland rotation, which lasted from 2000 to 2004, the A's made the playoffs four times compiling a 483-326 record, good for a .597 winning percentage.

Though a pitcher's win/loss record doesn't always indicate true performance on the mound, there isn't any doubting the dominance of the trio, who went a combined 275-144 during their respective Oakland careers.  Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito were the new Big Three.

In many respects it must have been a sad farewell for A's fans when the Big Three were officially split up following the 2004 season.  On December 16th of that year, A's General Manager Billy Beane traded Tim Hudson to the Braves.  Just three days later, Beane dealt Mark Mulder to the St. Louis Cardinals.  Over a span of three days, the Big Three was shrunk down to just one pitcher.  

While the Tim Hudson trade in many ways has been a disaster for the A's, the Mark Mulder trade may today be Beane's most successful deal.  Let's take a look:

The Trade

Here is the basis of the deal that was completed just a few winters ago:

*Oakland Recieves:   Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and prospect Daric Barton

*St. Louis Recieves:  Mark Mulder

Here was Sports Illustrated's take on the trade shortly before Spring Training of the 2005 season began:

This isn't going to do wonders for A's season-ticket sales, but the deal makes sense for the long-term viability of the franchise. Mark Mulder was 5-6 with a 6.13 ERA in the second half. He's due to make $6 million next season, which makes a lot more sense for the Cardinals to pay than the low-budget A's. If famed St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan can figure out what is wrong with Mulder, if anything at all, then the Cardinals will have one of the better staffs in the big leagues. Once again, A's GM Billy Beane made sure he got quality, low-priced youngsters in return. Haren hasn't been overly impressive, but Kiko Calero's peripheral stats are outstanding, and Daric Barton batted .313 with 13 home runs and 77 RBIs at Class A Peoria as a 19-year-old last season.

This was a fine analysis of the trade at the time and the popular belief of many baseball fans following the deal.  

Mulder's VORP for the 2004 season was 38.2 runs, a solid but not spectacular figure.  He looked like a Cy Young contender in the seasons first half, but fell apart in his starts following the mid-summer classic.  Here is a look at his splits that season:

Nearly 57 percent of Mark Mulder's batted balls were going for groundballs that year, but his second half K/9 mark of 4.60 was nervously low.  Not to the point of unacceptable, but Mulder was clearly showing some fatigue in the second half.  His control also worsened and his HR/9 mark shot up 146%.  His ERA rose nearly three full runs compared to his first half figure and he pitched himself out of the American League Cy Young race.  There were obvious concerns here, but as SI mentioned, the Cards and their fans were hoping Pitching Coach Dave Duncan could fix any kinks that were in Mulder's game.

In return the A's received three players, featuring perhaps one of the most underrated relief pitchers at the time in Kiko Calero.  For a guy who wasn't used in too many high leverage situations, Kalero's WXRL ranked 41st in the majors and his peripherals were flawless.  His PERA of 3.29 that season was just a shade higher than that of St. Louis closer Jason Isringhausen, so it was clear the A's were receiving a player who could close games and pitch in high leverage situations if needed.

Dan Haren was the starter the A's received in exchange for Mulder and he was a guy who drew different opinions from scouting types and stat-oriented types.  Nothing that Haren had to offer repertoire-wise was overpowering or dominant and because of this he would draw criticisms from many scouts, but his numbers at AAA Memphis during that 2004 season were quite good.  Here is a look at Mulder's equivalent statistics compared to Haren's equivalents that year:

It's important to note than Mulder pitched nearly 100 innings more in the majors than Haren did in AAA when looking at the comparison, but it's clear that by a statistical equivalent standpoint that Haren was very similar and even better than Mulder in some aspects of his game.  While Mulder was getting more groundballs and doing a slightly better job of keeping the ball in the park, Haren was striking out more hitters, issuing free passes at a stingier rate and showcasing stronger peripherals.  

In fact, Baseball Prospectus noted in their 2005 annual that Haren could very well duplicate Mulder's 2004 production the A's had just traded:

Don't be shocked if he roughly approximates the quality of Mark Mulder v.2004.

Daric Barton, a catching prospect at the time and a darn good one, was the last player Oakland acquired in the deal.

Here is where Barton stood on many of baseball's premier top prospects list:

*Baseball America:  #32 out of 100
*Baseball Prospectus:  #9 out of 50
*The Hardball Times:  #14 out of 100

Even when Billy Beane announced that Barton would make the move to first base, BP and THT still listed Barton as the 9th and 14th prospect in all of baseball respectively.  

It's easy to realize why statistically-oriented publications such as BP and THT liked Barton so much; you don't find too many 19-year olds who walk in 22 percent of their plate appearances and post .445 on-base percentages in just their second year of professional baseball.  

Looking at the big picture, you had to like the deal from Oakland's perspective in the first place. Acquiring a solid peripheral starter in Haren along with an underrated relief pitcher in Calero and a top prospect in Barton for a guy that posted a 6.31 second half ERA is a pretty solid deal.

Still, the focus was on Mulder and what looked to be the formation of a very good St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation.

The Results

Here is a look at how both Oakland and St. Louis have fared in the trade thus far in terms of WARP. Daric Barton is not included because he has not seen major league playing time:

It looks like Baseball Prospectus was right when they predicted Haren could duplicate Mulder's 2004 performance:  His WARP of 6.4 that season was nearly one win better than Mulder's mark the previous season.  As a whole Calero and Haren combined to produce 8.5 wins above the replacement player while Mulder went on to produce 5.5 wins above the replacement player in St. Louis.  Beane 1, Jocketty 0.

As well as the A's fared in the year following the deal, they looked like geniuses during the 2006 season.  All Calero would do was duplicate his fine 2005 season while Haren would go onto "outWARP" many of baseball's most productive starting pitchers including Mike Mussina, Chris Young, C.C. Sabathia, John Lackey and Justin Verlander.  Mulder on the other hand would pitch 93.1 awful innings before undergoing season-ending rotator cuff surgery.  Beane 2, Jocketty 0.

I don't want to neglect the presence of Barton in the discussion either.  Here are Barton's rankings as a prospect before the 2006 season began:

*Baseball America:  #28 out of 100
*Baseball Prospectus:  #18 out of 100
*The Hardball Times:  #11 out of 100

The most recent prospect rankings:

*The Hardball Times 2007:  #5 out of 30 (ranked by Chris Constancio)
*Baseball Prospectus 2007:  #62 out of 100 (ranked by Kevin Goldstein)

Because Barton still hasn't developed the power both scouts and statheads alike are predicting, his status as a prospect hasn't changed much and if anything has diminished just the slightest bit, but he's still a very appealing young player.

Looking Forward

When you think of one sided trades, deals like the Pierzynski for Liriano/Bonser/Nathan swap come to mind along with the Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir deal, but this is a deal that could soon be included in this discussion.

While Rich Harden is arguably the most talented pitcher among Oakland's young starters, it is Haren who is the team's ace.  His PECOTA five-year forecast projects Haren to be worth around 22.2 wins above the replacement level player.  To give you a perspective of that figure, his projected five-year WARP tops Justin Verlander, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Josh Beckett and Erik Bedard.  

Oh and by the way, as I write this, Haren currently leads all major league pitchers in VORP at 32.9 runs.

Kiko Calero continues to fly under the radar as one of baseball's most underappreciated relief pitcher and even though he is off to a rough start, PECOTA expects good things over the next five years.

The latest on Mark Mulder has him aiming for a possible August return to the majors.  Our own Marc Normandin had a piece go up on Mulder and his rather murky PECOTA forecast a while back, needless to say it's difficult to predict how Mulder will perform following rotator cuff surgery. We all just hope everything works out well for him and the Cardinals.

As far as Barton is concerned, he is currently hitting .245/.364/.383 for AAA Sacramento once again showing his tremendous plate discipline.  The power still hasn't developed all of the way, but there are plenty that still believe that the best part of the Mulder deal, that being Barton, is still yet to come.