Don't Believe the Hype: The Scutaro Deal is Mystifying

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In his analysis of the Scutaro trade, Gordon Edes asks “Would you trade Marco Scutaro straight up for Roy Oswalt?” This is at best an oversimplification of the deal mechanics, one that casts the Red Sox and GM Ben Cherington in a more favorable light. In reality, Edes – like other defenders of this transaction – is attempting to link two transactions which should be considered independent of one another. Even should the trade of Scutaro net Oswalt, this is still a poor deal.

The problem isn’t the trade of Scutaro, per se. True, this compromises our lineup, our defense or both, with neither Aviles nor Punto realistic starting shortstop candidates – and Aviles, at least, is already ticketed for time in right field – and Iglesias far from ready [1]. But realistically, as Peter Abraham documents, our roster doesn’t have many movable pieces, either because they cost too much or because they’re paid too little to be worth moving. If we assume that the Red Sox feel that they need to add pitching and have to move payroll to do so, it’s either Scutaro or Youkilis. Given that the latter is coming off injury, the return will be downward adjusted which makes trading him less attractive. Add in the fact that the market for a $12M player is narrower than a $6M player, and you’re trading Scutaro. It’s not ideal, but Cherington’s working within the constraints established by ownership. Fine.

What is less fine is the return. Over the last four seasons, Scutaro’s averaged 3.2 wins per season. By Fangraphs math, this has made him worth around $14M per season. His 2012 option salary? $6M. When you trade an asset worth more than $10M but is paid $6M, you need to get something of comparable value back. As Keith Law put it on Twitter, “You don’t dump a 3 win player making $6MM for no return.” Which brings us to the real problem in this trade, Clay Mortensen, who is – at least on paper – the definition of no return.

Originally a product of the Cardinals system, Mortensen has put up middling numbers at multiple minor league stops – 5.26 ERA in 446.2 innings at AAA with a 6.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 – against even worse numbers in the majors. The Red Sox are likely to tout last year’s 3.86 ERA with the Rockies, but when you adjust that for fielding and things like BABIP you get a 5.34 FIP. His K/9 and BB/9 last year, respectively, were 4.63/3.70. Even if you don’t grasp the significance of strikeouts or walks per nine in the statistical sense, it’s easy to understand that it’s probably not good to be walking almost as many people as you strikeout.

Nor does his stuff allow for much projection. He’s 26, and it’s not like he has a big fastball which the Red Sox hope to better harness: his career average fastball velocity is 89.8. We’re told he’s a sinkerballer, which makes the fastball velocity less unfortunate, but his career ground ball to fly ball ratio is 1.61. Compare that to sinkerballers like Justin Masterson (career 2.07) or Derek Lowe (3.03) and you see the problem. Our own Daniel Bard – who is most certainly not a sinkerballer, in spite of the addition of his two seam fastball – put up a 1.68 last year. For a sinkerballer, then, he doesn’t get too many ground balls. And if you can’t break 90 on the gun and you’re not a real ground ball pitcher, well, what you are then is fringe.

And Scutaro is worth substantially more than a fringe asset.

Which leaves us with two possible explanations. One, that the Red Sox see something in Mortensen that no one else does. Or two, that they assessed the Scutaro market and felt that this was the best they could do. Having looked at the numbers in some detail, the former seems improbable. But if they assessed the market, and Mortensen was really the best they could do, was it worth it?

Even if this nets us Oswalt, it’s hard to defend this deal. We’ve given up three wins for which we were paying maybe 60 cents on the dollar in return for a pitcher whose career win total is -0.2. And yes, theoretically, the opportunity to pay a free agent premium for a pitcher whose averaged three and a half wins over the past four seasons. Oh, and was limited to 23 starts last season because of back issues. Even if the Scutaro deal and an Oswalt signing are dependent on one another, that cannot justify losing the first transaction so badly.

Oswalt or no Oswalt, this is a poor deal. I guess this is what you get when your GM went to Amherst.

[1] As noted on Twitter, ZIPS projections for Iglesias are .251/.289/.311. The career line of Rey Ordonez, the ultimate no hit shorstop who played most of his career for our new manager? .246/.289/.310. That’s too terrifying to contemplate.