Past Trade Analysis: Joey Gathright Runs Faster Than J.P. Howell’s Fastball

If you were to go through all the players on the Opening Day roster for the 2006 Devil Rays, it's incredible how few of them survived on the team for long.  Actually, considering the talent involved, maybe it's not such a surprise.  This isn't a complete list, but take a look for yourself:

Position

Player

History

C

Toby Hall

Traded mid-2006

1B

Travis Lee

Released post-2006

2B

Jorge Cantu

Traded mid-2007

SS

Julio Lugo

Traded mid-2006

3B

Aubrey Huff

Traded mid-2006

LF

Carl Crawford

Still on team.

CF

Rocco Baldelli

Let go post-2008

RF

Damon Hollins

Released post-2006

UTL

Ty Wiggington

Traded mid-2007

UTL

Greg Norton

Released post-2006

UTL

Joey Gathright

Traded mid-2006

UTL

Tomas Perez

Released post-2006

Once the new ownership group took over, they made it pretty clear that they were entering into re-building mode fast.  Of the positional players that started the 2006 season with the Rays, four were traded by the July trading deadline, three were released or granted free-agency after the 2006 season, and two were traded by the 2007 trade deadline.  In short, the 2007 line-up looked nothing like the 2006 one.  Carlos Pena started at first, Aki was at third, Delmon was in right, Dukes and Upton were in center, Harris was at short, and Navarro was behind the plate.  It was a classic rebuilding strategy - relying on young players and picking up undervalued veterans off the scrap heap - and instead of being intimidated by the new industry, the Devil Rays' new front office jumped in with a fury.

While there is plenty of material to choose from, one trade that happened mid-2006 stands out to me a little: the Joey Gathright (and Fernando Cortez) for J.P. Howell trade.  In retrospect, this deal has obviously turned out well for the Rays and not so well for the Royals, but what did we know at the time?  Let's walk through each of the six steps of past trade analysis: context, rationale, gut reaction, current knowledge, outcome, and future ramifications.

Context

Completed in mid-June, this trade wasn’t a deadline deal and certainly wasn’t a salary dump.  Joey Gathright and Fernando Cortez were both minor leaguers that hadn’t racked up enough major league time to be expensive yet, and Gathright earned just $337K during the 2006 season.   Drafted in the 32nd round of the 2001 draft, Gathright was 25 during the 2006 season and had gained notoriety for 1) being incredibly fast, and 2) jumping over a car.  He was incredibly tool-sy and he’d flashed some signs of potential during brief stints in the majors over the 2004 and 2005 seasons, stealing a total of 42 bases out of 56 attempts (75% success rate).  Cortez, on the other hand, had been drafted much higher (9th round of 2001), but had displayed less success in the minors.  He was 24 and in Triple-A during the 2006 season, where he was batting .222/.265/.271.  He’d gotten a brief taste of the majors in 2005 for 8 games, but for all intents and purposes, he was viewed as a non-prospect.  For example, after the 2004 season, Gathright was ranked as the 3rd best prospect in the Devil Rays’ system by Baseball America, while Cortez didn’t crack the top-10; however, Cortez was ranked as having the best infield defense of any player in the system.

On the other side of the coin, the Royals were in desperate need of young outfield talent at the time (Emil Brown and Reggie Saunders were the other outfield starters at the time, and were both well north of 30) and were willing to pay for it.  J.P. Howell had been drafted in the 1st round (31st pick) of the 2004 draft and he was had displayed success in the minors in 2005 before being rushed to the majors by the end of the season (101.2 IP in A+, AA, and AAA combined before promotion).  He posted a 6.19 ERA over 15 starts for the 2005 Royals, and he began the 2006 season as a 23-year-old in Triple-A, where he posted a 4.75 ERA in 36 IP before being traded to the Devil Rays. Although not ranked by Baseball America as one of the Royals’ top-10 prospects going into 2006, he was still a highly touted pitcher and his star had been dimmed by being rushed through the minors. 

To highlight this point, I found a really entertaining quote from a Baseball America chat before the 2005 season:

"Q: After coming off an All-American year at Texas, what is JP Howell's ETA? Should we expect the Royals to take it slow with him or will he fly through the system like Greinke?

A: (Will Kimmey) He'll go as fast as he's capable of. There's not a rotation of Cy Youngs in KC, and I'm not saying Howell will be that either, but it's not like he's got a lot of road blocks. A lot of people can hate on Howell because he doesn't have great velo, but he can take his four, five-pitch repertoire and make it work like 10 pitches because he can add, subtract and locate. I hate to keep bringing Greinke back up, this has to be the fourth time in this chat, but it's a similar feel for pitching for Greinke and Howell, who's the consummate crafty lefty. He'll be a solid middle of the rotation guy because of his guys and guile, and at worst he's going to reach the majors as a shutdown LH setup guy because his breaking stuff can eat up lefties."

Rationale

Like I said above, the Rays were in full rebuilding mode during the 2006 season and while this move wasn’t a salary dump, it was a swap of talent from an area of perceived organizational strength (outfield depth) to an area of weakness (pitching depth).  For the Royals, it was a swap of talent from an area of perceived depth (with Grienke and others "stocking" the system with pitching depth) to an area of weakness.  Gathright had also been around the Devil Rays for an extended period of time without ever blossoming into the star many had forecast, and the new front office most likely believed he was never going to rise as far as the other outfielders in the system at the time.

Gut Reaction

At DRaysBay, this trade was initially received with plenty of bad feelings.  Gathright was toolsy and had been a top prospect in the organization for so long, many fans believed we were selling low on him.  Howell had displayed limited success in his time in Triple-A and in the majors up to that point, and many pointed to his 83-85 MPH fastball as a sign that he could never become a successful major league pitcher.  Although these reactions did change at DRB after getting a chance to see Howell pitch for the rest of the season, the initial reaction to the trade (and I’m sure how it was viewed by the general public) went something like this:

"But everyone was blinded by his [Gathright’s] poor play this year, including the Rays front office, and because of that we sold low, extremely low, and gave away a player for less than his value. When you don't have a good offer, you don't take one. You don't take the "best offer", you wait and let your player come back to becoming what he has shown he can be in the past. I would love to have J.P Howell if we traded a player of lesser capability for him or plucked him off waivers, but trading Gathright for him was too much, and it is a move that I think the DRO and Rays fans will come to regret."

Current Knowledge

We can delve into the numbers and evaluate Gathright’s hitting ability, which was obviously sub-par at the time, but there are two other facets of this trade that bear more scrutiny: the age of the players involved, and Howell’s velocity. Gathright was 26 when he was traded, which is quite old for prospects.  Since most players hit their peak around age 27, Gathright likely didn’t have much growing and developing left; while his tools had made him an attractive prospect at ages 22 and 23, he never grew into those tools and made them valuable.

Also, Howell’s velocity (or more specifically, lack thereof) was a huge concern at the time, and it skewed the public’s view of him.  Since then, we’ve seen how players like James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine (the 2008 version) can have great success without an overwhelming fastball velocity, but at the time, the lack of velocity seemed to doom Howell.

Outcome

Gathright played out the remainder of the 2006 season as the Royals’ centerfielder, and stuck with them until after the 2008 season, when he was let go as a free agent.  He reached his peak talent in 2007 when he racked up 1.1 WAR in 228 at-bats, posting quality defense and a .318 wOBA; however, during that same year, his talent of the base paths seemed to disappear (9 for 17 on stolen base attempts).  He was helped along by a .365 BABIP, though, and returned to his previous baseline in 2008 (.280 wOBA).  Since being released by the Royals, Gathright has floated between clubs, splitting 2009 between the Cubs, Orioles, and Red Sox.

Fernando Cortez made the majors briefly with the Royals, but he was released in July of 2007.  He was picked up by the White Sox in 2008, was released again, and now he’s back in the Rays’ minors.  He played the 2009 season with the Montgomery Biscuits.

There’s not much to be said about J.P. Howell.   After losing out to Edwin Jackson for a rotation spot in 2008, the Iceman has become one of the best relief pitchers in the American League.  He’s racked up 4.0 WAR during his years with the Rays, and he’s under team control for another four years.

Ramifications for the Present

Since this trade worked out so well, there is little that needs to be said going forward.  The new front office made a great trade, getting a young, promising pitching prospect in return for an aging outfield prospect that had done little to live up to his hype.  They weren’t blinded by history or Gathright’s tools, and weren’t dissuaded from Howell because of his velocity.  It was a really, really smart trade.

Conclusion

I don’t think this trade could have worked out any better for the Rays, and in retrospect, it was a really, really smart trade at the time.  I had never realized that Howell had been so highly touted and drafted so high, and I think everyone (except the Rays’ front office) really overvalued Gathright at the time.  So although it’s easy to claim this as a victory for the Rays considering the outcome of the trade, it was also a very shrewd trade at the time.  If it occurred today, I would consider a resounding win for the Rays.

All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs.

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