When I first started following the Rays back in 2001-2002, there were only a couple of bright spots on the team. Eventually, Baldelli and Crawford sparked hope for the franchise, but Crawford's first full season wasn't until 2002 and Baldelli didn't burst upon the scene until 2003. They were both young stars that had the potential then to be the foundation of the franchise moving forward, but until they both arrived, there was another player that (at least in my mind) served as the franchise's face and hope: Aubrey Huff.
Back when I was merely a casual fan of the game, Huff seemed to brim with potential to me. Even then I loved prospects, and since I'd jumped on the Rays' bandwagon (if there was such a thing) too late to be enamored with Ben Grieve, Huff became my first real crush. He could play at a bunch of positions, he could hit really well, and he was young! Who knows what he could end up as! At the time, he seemed to me like a potential above-average to star player, and a piece the Rays should build around for the future.
Of course, in retrospect, this was a rather flawed analysis. Although Huff could definitely hit, his defense was drove his value down lower than I realized. Yes, Huff could play a bunch of positions, but none of them particularly well. Looking at his UZR rates going back to 2002, his defensive skills were never his strong suit, regardless of where he played on the diamond (UZR/150: -4.0 at 1B, -4.4 at 3B, -9.8 in RF). Also, Huff had his first real breakout year in 2002, hitting 23 homers and checking in at 21.8 wRAA, but he was 25 during that year. Back then I still believed that he had plenty of years to grow and hit his peak, but the reality is that Huff probably didn't have much more developing to do. A little bit of growth over the next couple of years, but then he'd hit his peak around 27-28 and most likely fade.
Huff went on to have a couple of great years in 2003 and 2004, posting WARs of 3.9 and 4.7 respectively, and then faded quite dramatically in 2005 (0.3 WAR) due to defensive regression, bad luck, and a decrease in patience. The new ownership dealt him during the middle of the 2006 season (along with just about everyone else on the team, but more on that in another post), getting back in return Mitch Talbot and Ben Zobrist.
In order to properly evaluate this trade, we've got to keep a couple of things in mind. Evaluating past trades is tricky, since it's tempting to look at how players have performed since the trade and declare a winner and loser. That'd be results-based analysis, though, which is something we abhor on this blog (and in life in general). What we really want to focus on is the process, which can be a lot tougher to analyze. Here are some general questions to keep in mind whenever attempting to analyze a trade completed sometime in the past:
- Context: What was the initial context for this trade? Was it completed at the trade deadline or during the off-season? What was the contract-status of the traded player(s)? What was the level of competitiveness of the franchise? Who were the received player(s)?
- Rationale: What was the initial reasoning behind this trade? Did this rationale make sense at the time and fall in line with the franchise's declared goals?
- Gut Reaction: What was the initial reaction to this trade when it was completed? Who was declared "the winner"?
- Current Knowledge: Is there any light our current knowledge sheds on the trade? For example, my initial analysis of Aubrey Huff's talent was flawed due to my lack of knowledge of sabermetrics at the time. Maybe we lacked knowledge or information at the time that prevented us from evaluating the trade properly.
- Outcome: How have all of the players involved performed since the trade? Did the processes result in successful trade or a flop? Has luck or injuries been a factor in any of the players' performances?
- Ramifications for the Present: Does this trade teach us anything going forward?
With those questions in mind, let's take a deeper look at the Huff/Talbot/Zobrist trade.
Occurring right at the 2006 trade deadline, the Rays were unloading Huff during the final year of his contract. He was making close to $7M that season, and was coming off a very poor 2005 season (0.3 WAR). His performance had been better in 2006 (although still nothing like his peak years) and he was currently riding a hot streak in July. The Rays were in last place at the time, and Huff had proved to be a negative clubhouse presence.
As for the players they received, Ben Zobrist was ranked 16th in the Astros' farm system at the time by "Baseball America", and Mitch Talbot was ranked at 26th. Both were in Double-A, although Zobrist was 25 years old and Talbot was 22. Zobrist had flashed good on-base skills (if limited power) and a solid glove at shortstop, a position of weakness for the Rays at the time (with Upton struggling defensively and Lugo being traded at the deadline as well). Talbot had been rated as having the best change-up in the Astros' organization in 2005, and he currently had a 96:26 K:BB ratio in 90.1 IP.
The new Rays front office had made up their minds that they were rebuilding, and were intent on stocking the farm system. Huff was expensive, his value was at a recent high point, and he was getting old, so he was an ideal candidate to get traded. Old (comparatively speaking) and expensive for young and cheap. Also, if they hadn't traded him, there was no guarantee that he'd qualify for Type-A or -B status, and could thus have left the Rays without any compensation.
At the end of the season, DRaysBay readers voted it the best trade completed by the new FO, although I believe Aubrey-Huff-hate played into that selection. To quote the DRaysBay staff at the time, the general reaction to the trade seemed to be "meh". It didn't seem like either side had gotten robbed, but both teams got what they wanted. The prospects didn't seem overwhelming, but they were also more than the Rays would have gotten otherwise.
As stated in the beginning of this article, Huff was a poor defender and although we couldn't quantify that at the time, we can now. Also, Huff has shown signs of decline in his BB% and isolated power, the two areas that made him a valuable offensive piece in the first place. His LD% had decreased for two years straight from 22.1% to 15.4%, and he was striking out at an unprecedented rate for himself (15.3% vs. 12.3%). His was suffering from a mildly low BABIP (.275 as opposed to his average of .300), but nothing else in his numbers suggested he was getting unlucky. He had most likely hit his peak and was beginning to decline, especially since he was 29 that season.
Although scouts claimed he had underwhelming stuff, Talbot had put up some impressive numbers in Double-A. He somehow posted a 3.39 ERA while having a .362 BABIP and a 64.8% LOB%, and his 3.31 K/BB ratio helped give him a sparkly 2.81 FIP. Zobrist was older and therefore had less time to develop, but he had put up impressive enough numbers in the minors (.410 wOBA in Double-A) to make himself a viable utility infielder with a bit of upside.
Since being traded, Huff has bounced back and forth between being a 4 WAR player (2008) and a -1 WAR player (2009), oscillating every which way. In total, he's produced a bit over 4 WAR in value for his various teams. Zobrist became a super-utility man for the Rays before visiting The Swing Mechanic and exploding this past season; he's been worth a total of 8 WAR for the Rays (he had some negative years in there too) and is still under team control for another 4 seasons. And due to the Rays' stacked pitching depth, Talbot has only had a sip of a cup of tea in the majors, although he's posted consecutive years of a sub-4 FIP in Triple-A (3.03 in 2008; 3.55 in 2009). He's in contention for a spot in the Rays' pen this year since he's currently out of options.
Ramifications for the Present
I wish I had more to say for this section, since I feel like it's a very important step. There's no point in evaluating the past if you can't use it to guide your future actions; this is the step the allows us to realize where we screwed up and fix those issues in the future. In this case, though, not much change is needed. The Rays made a smart move using good processes for a club in their position (they were correct to be rebuilding at the time) and have been fortunate enough to have the results be positive as well. The process was sound, so no tweaking to be done here.
The Rays pulled off a smart trade here and have benefited greatly from it in the end. They've definitely gotten lucky; not all trades work out this well, even when you use good processes. Zobrist's surge is nothing anyone could have foretold, although in my mind, this trade was still a successful one regardless of how the prospects turned out. The Rays had zero leverage when dealing Huff, and he really didn't have all that much value at the time. With that in mind, the Rays got a steal in snagging two solid prospects for him, and so far both of them are panning out. Thank you, Aubrey Huff. Zorilla has certainly been a nice going-away present.
**Information provided by Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs.