Monday, July 30, 2012

Angels go way too deep for Greinke

If the Angels go to the playoffs at all, they're going in as a wild card team facing a one-game elimination. Then, if they win that game, they go to the next round of playoffs handicapped. So, the Angels just gave up three prospects to acquire Zack Greinke in a bid for the one-game playoff berth. We're thinking they gave up too much.

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


The expanded playoffs in baseball will add a new layer of one-and-done urgency to the postseason. But what will it do to the trade deadline?

Under the new format, we get two wild-card teams instead of one, which has the welcomed effect of diluting the wild-card entry. Before, wild card teams entered the playoffs on exactly the same footing as division winners, so they won their fair share of the world championships. The commissioner has attempted to redress that by splitting the wild card between two teams and making them duke it out in one game. Now, at least, the wild card winner has to jump through a couple hoops. After winning that game, it's on to the road against the league's best regular season record, and down an ace pitcher from the wild-card game.

Put in short, a wild-card position isn't as valuable as it was just last year. Until now, clubs could calculate whether it actually would be advantageous to go to the playoffs as a wild card, rather than as a division winner. Now, there's no question about it. You're not going in as a wild card unless there is absolutely no other way.

It stands to reason, also, that a team looking at a one-game playoff as its only realistic postseason possibility can't be recklessly trading off prospects for two-month star rentals. A one-game playoff simply doesn't secure a team in the playoffs enough to make the acquisition worthwhile. Who would be silly or desperate enough to trade off good prospects for two months of a player who can't get you any more than a one hit-or-miss playoff game?

Enter now the Angels, who traded three prospects to Milwaukee last week for pitcher Zack Greinke. Maybe the Angels think they have some kind of realistic shot of overtaking Texas to win the American League West, but that is not a widely shared opinion. In order to believe the Angels have any kind of a chance to overtake the Rangers, you would have to believe that the Rangers suddenly aren't going to be what they have been for two years -- a solid .590 club that's strong in all aspect of the game.

Most likely, the Rangers will finish up with their usual 37-25 pace, come in with 96 wins and take the division. Even if the Rangers were to slip, maybe go 31-31 the rest of the way, the Angels still would have to finish 35-25 just to catch them. Put it this way: the Angels are pretty good in their last 60 games, 37-23, and that surge has still enabled them to cut only three games off their gap, reducing it from eight games to five.

So, the Angels aren't in that game, and they haven't been for three years. Since the 2009 season, the Angels have spent one day after July 4 in first place. That was July 5, 2011, when they were tied with Texas. But the Angels lost the next day and they fell five games off within two weeks.

Their on a different flight, a tight fight with four other clubs for the privilege of going to a one-game playoff. Right now, Oakland (55-46) holds the top wild card spot, followed by the Angels (55-47) with the second. Following right behind them are Detroit (54-48), Baltimore (53-49) and Tampa Bay (53-49). That's the league the Angels are in right now. Every tiny edge will make a difference in a race like this.

At some point, though, one has to balance the benefit of winning this one-game wild card spot this year against the potential for lost opportunities from dealing away minor leaguers with good long-term prospects. All three of the players the Angels gave up are quality, young Class AA players, guys who are getting it done against the other top prospects. Their numbers indicate that all three could be quality big league players. Not stars, probably, but an everyday shortstop and two pitchers who can win in the big leagues. How many wins have the Angels traded away for a one-game playoff?

If you're going to the playoffs as a division winner, that's a different story. You can't be eliminated so flukishly. Somebody has to beat you three times. You'll trade solid prospects for that chance. But one wonders how much is too much when you're trading solid prospects for a playoff spot that goes -- poof!  -- in one game.

Greinke is here for two months, unless the Angels play for him as a free agent this winter. But if his long-term signature were their goal, the Angels could have waited until November and signed Greinke without giving up prospects.

Unquestionably, acquiring Greinke makes the Angels better. If they can make it past the one-game playoff, the Angels can go to their playoff series against the Yankees with a starting rotation headed by Greinke, C.J. Wilson and Dan Haren, then they can still come back with Jered Weaver in Game 4.

But still. It's a one-game playoff. If you run into Justin Verlander on one of those days, you're done and you never had a chance. Any opponent who has a shut-down ace is going to use him in that game. You're not just facing one-game elimination. You're likely to be facing an elite pitcher in a prestige situation. Your chance of getting through that certainly is no better than 50-50. True enough, the Angels now can match any other team's ace -- except Verlander -- three or four times. Unfortunately, the one-game playoff doesn't play to th‏eir depth.

Here's what the Angels gave up for a one-game playoff:

1. Shortstop Jean Segura is a 22-year-old who has conquered every level he has reached offensively. Baseball America ranked Segura the No. 55 overall prospect this preseason. Segura batted .294 this year for the Angels' Class AA team at Arkansas (Texas League), where he held a .749 OPS in a league averaging .723. If minor league numbers are an indication, he could be a big league shortstop approaching an .800 OPS. Nice player. Prospect expert John Sickels ranked Segura as the Angels' third best prospect.

2. Pitcher Johnny Hellwig, 23, a 6-foot-9 right hander pitching for the Angels' club in Arkansas. The profile of a tall youngster with control problems (60 walks and 14 wild pitches in 119 2/3 innings) indicates that he is a project. But he may not be too far away. Among Texas League pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2012, Hellwig was fourth with a 3.38 ERA at the time of the trade. Hellwig was only 5-10 pitching for a terrible offensive team in Arkansas. Young pitchers with tall frames usually struggle with control. If the Brewers can straighten Hellwig out, they'll have a nice pitcher on their hands in a couple years. Sickels tabbed Hellwig as the Angels' seventh best prospect.

3. Ariel Pena, a 6-3, 190 pitcher from the Dominican Republic is 23 years old with six years of professional experience and a very solid minor league track record. Pena already is a nice pitcher, striking out 111 in 114 1/3 innings this year for Arkansas, where his 2.99 ERA is the second best in the Texas League among pitchers with 100 or more innings. Sickels named Pena as the Angels' 15th best prospect.

By our reckoning, the Angels have really gone a long way in this Zack Greinke deal. They've upped the ante on this season. It's beyond making the playoffs. The Angels are making a bid to be strong all the way through their rotation all the way through the playoffs.

But it all could go ka-boom in one game, maybe a game that nobody was going to win against Verlander or Chris Sale or David Price. Is that little chance worth all those prospects?

The Angels, apparently, have made a different calculation. Their starting rotation already has three front-line guys when they're going well. Adding a fourth gives them that pitcher they were going to cook in the one-game playoff. If they can squeeze through the season and through the one-game playoff, their chance is as good as anyone's because of their starting rotation.

But if they can't get through the one-game playoff, then they've given up three prospects for, essentially, nothing. And if they can't even get into the playoffs after trading three prospects for Greinke, that's even worse.

When the Angels make the kind of deal they've made for Zack Greinke, we can't say they aren't trying. We might say, though, that they're trying a little too hard.


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