The first time I read about the Ervin Santana, Peter Bourjos, Hank Conger, and cash for James Shields trade I didn’t like it. In the time since, reports are indicating diminished chances of the Angels acquiring a starter, with talks between the two clubs fizzling. Still, that hasn’t stopped me from reconsidering my position on the original rumor.
Shields is my favorite pitcher for many reasons—his arsenal, his durability, his feel for pitching, and so on. But production is king in the majors—it’s the only thing that matters. When comparing Shields and Santana’s performances since 2010 you get eerily similar numbers:
Shields 590 innings, 4.47 RA, 3.41 SO/BB, 59% QS%
Santana 562.1 innings, 4.43 RA, 2.23 SO/BB, 59% QS%
It’s not the simple, of course. Sequencing matters, and Santana is having a miserable season. Shields isn’t having his best season, either, but Santana’s is another plane. The projection systems seem to think Shields will be better heading forward—PECOTA projects a 0.42 runs per nine innings differential; ZiPS says 0.64; let’s call it 0.53. That’s a sizable gap; one that hurts the Rays this season and help the Angels, thus changing the playoff dynamic. Shields is the better pitcher, and the one I’d rather have if all things are even—they aren’t.
If the cash part of the trade is to cover part of—or most of—Santana’s $13 million club option for next season then that further complicates the proposal, as does the inclusion of Bourjos and Conger. Every general manager in the history of baseball, from Branch Rickey to Dayton Moore, has uttered a line about building up the middle. Catcher, shortstop, and center field (and to a lesser extent second base) are typically regarded as the toughest positions to fill.
Bourjos and Conger could fill two of those spots for the next few seasons. But both have flaws.
Bourjos is a well above-average defender and runner. If his bat develops, he could become an archetypal leadoff man. The flaws in Bourjos’ game are a lack of power and iffy plate discipline. He can hit fastballs, he just expands his zone on secondary pitches too often right now. Bourjos gets high grades for character, in part because of his genes—his father presently scouts for the Padres.
Conger is a switch-hitting catcher with the potential to hit for average and power. He has a decent approach at the plate. His defense is his downfall. Mike Scioscia didn’t like playing Mike Napoli because of defensive concerns, and Conger has been in a similar spot. Like Bourjos, Conger is viewed as a high-makeup player eager to take instruction.
If the offer is a (mostly) free season of Santana, Bourjos, and Conger then you have to think about it. You have to see what the numbers and scouts say about the three*. If they’re sold then it’s a deal worth considering. It’s not going to be a slam-dunk either way. You aren’t probable to get impact talent. But you could get a potential near-equal for Shields along with two up-the-middle starters. I don’t know if I’d do the deal, but I do know that I’d be more receptive to it now than before.
*I would add that if the Rays didn’t take this deal then that probably tells you what their scouts think. Alternatively, it’s possible the logistics of the deal never worked their ways through. It’s impossible to know for sure.