Transaction Report 6/21/06
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The Move-The Rays traded Triple A Durham CF Joey Gathright and Durham infielder Fernando Cortez to the Kansas City Royals for Triple A Omaha left-hander J.P Howell.
The Analysis-First of all, let's just get one thing out of the way. I don't care about Fernando Cortez. Nothing against the guy personally, but he isn't and never was a part of this organization's future, and his .222/.265/.271 line at Durham did nothing to change that opinion. The Royals can have him, for all I care, and if he was actually a deal-breaker that would have stopped the process, the Royals still are a joke, new management be damned.
That said, strictly looking at this trade straight-up, Gathright for Howell, I don't like it. Statistically, Howell had some great years in college, there is no doubting that, as he put up ERAs of 2.52 and 2.13 with Texas. I would by lying to you if I said I didn't like those numbers. However, that would be something to rely on when drafting. Because he has has pitched in the minors since being picked 31st overall in '04, we have more of a track record to go on. And that track record also looks good, up to a point. He had a 2.77 ERA in the Pioneer League with Idaho Falls, an impressive 1.96 ERA in the hitter-friendly California League, a 2.50 ERA with Wichita in Double A, and a 4.06 ERA with Omaha, which, while not sounding that impressive, is actually decent when you take into account the PCL's extreme hitter-friendliness.
However, he hit a road block after all of those good stops, it is called mismanagement, and Rays fans are used to that word when it comes to pitchers. He was rushed up to the majors to make 15 starts towards the end of 2005 with a Royals team going absolutely nowhere, and put up a 6.19 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, and 4.85 BB/9. Now, he did show signs of life with a 6.69 K/9, but there is no doubting he pitched poorly through no fault of his own due to mismanagement.
After this, the Royals sent him back to Omaha this season, and he just hasn't been the same. His ERA has gone up, now at 4.75 and his WHIP is at 1.47 ,however his control remains, as his 33/14 K/BB rate attests. Now that isn't terrible, but it certainly isn't glowing.
Even though Howell, by my own admission, was rushed to the majors and was screwed on that account, he has been a spectacular failure in the only major league innings he has pitched, and who is to say he would have been that much better even if he had been kept on a good developmental track?
The most important factor, however, is his stuff. He throws a fastball at 82-85mph, that is the first thing that sticks out. Normally pitchers with that velocity are quickly shown the door. Hell, I have seen faster readings on the speed pitch games in ballpark concourses. However even despite this velocity, he can still be a good pitcher if he has decent secondary offerings. His other offerings include a slider, change, and split-finger fastball.
However those offerings, while decent for the most part, aren't good enough to outweigh his lack of a go-to fastball. His slider is not sharp, and he does not have an out pitch that will be able to put hitters away. You can have success without a shutdown fastball, but you have to have good secondary pitches to compliment it, and in my opinion, Howell does not possess this. Add this to the fact that he was recently complaining of shoulder soreness, and I just don't like his chances.
Now, you may be saying 'well, even if what you say is true, it isn't like Gathright was anything special, what do we have to lose, take a gamble on him'. Well, this statement, which seems to be a common sentiment, from what I can gather, is undervaluing Gathright a lot.
Gathright had his struggles this year, of that there is no doubt. He was hitting .201 this year, and you just can't do that and keep a spot on a major league roster. But can anyone honestly say they expected that to continue? He hit .276 last year in over 50 more at bats, he hit .250 in '04 which, while not acceptable, is certainly an indication that his average was abnormally low.
And there is one thing to garner out of Gathright's line this year. And IsoOBP of .104, for a .305 OBP. That isn't impressive on the whole, but when you consider how low his average was, it shows that he had developed some plate discipline, and while his average is due to come up based on prior stats, his discipline had a good chance of sticking. Hell, he is still third on the team in walks, one behind Aubrey Huff, and he hasn't been on the team for several weeks.
At the very least, Gathright could have been a valuable late inning pinch-runner and hitter, as he was hitting leftys at a .353 clip last year. At the very worst, he would have been a good guy to have on the back end of the bench, and at best, he shows some of the skill he had during his 10 day stint at the beginning of the '05 season, and his trade value soars. Granted, that is very unlikely, but there was a chance, and even the worst case scenario makes it one worth taking.
So far, I have gone through Gathright's hitting and discipline, but I have yet to go over the best part of his game. Speed. Simply put, Gathright was the fastest player in baseball, hands down. Even faster than Crawford. I have never seen a player as fast as him, and that is a huge threat in itself. If he could keep working on his bunting skills, he could be even more of a major threat. His speed got him to the big leagues, and it still is there.
If Gathright can gain bunting skill, hit .250-.275, and maintain his plate patience, all of which are very much possible, he is easily a very valuable bench player, if not a starter, and most importantly a trading chip. Lost in his struggles this year was a long track record of better play. He had hit higher than .300 in each of his minor league stops but one coming into this season, and, hell, had a .271 major league average coming into this season. He isn't as bad a hitter as his numbers may suggest, and if he can salvage his plate discipline that he found this season and hopefully improve his defense, he is a major threat.
But everyone was blinded by his 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.
Story [St. Petersburg Times]
2006 Minor League Stats [MiLB.com]
Career Stats [The Baseball Cube]
Major League Stats [Fan Graphs]