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In the Ross Stripling trade, shades of Happ?

What’s past is prologue? History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes

ALCS Game 2: Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians

As July 20th, 2012 dawned, the Blue Jays sat at 45-47, nominally in the hunt for the newly expanded postseason at 3.5 games behind the second wild card spot albeit it with five teams jammed in between them and Detroit. Despite a spate of injuries decimating the pitching staff, the Jays managed to stumble along, neither collapsing but not capable of putting together a run. They had stayed within five games of .500, not only for all of 2012 but 2011 as well (a stretch of over 250 games).

There was a split in the fanbase on what the front office should do heading into the deadline. On one hand, they weren’t that far out, and making a serious push to break an almost 20 year drought would generate interest and revenue. The flip side was that there were so many teams they had to outplay that it was a pretty long shot, and in any event with a system bursting with prospects at the lower levels, the best days were ahead anyway. If something compelling presented itself, fine, but with so many contenders and few clear sellers, that didn’t seem likely.

And so it was that Alex Anthopoulos acquired J.A. Happ from the rebuilding/tanking Astros. A monster ten player trade, with a couple veterans on expiring contracts changing hands on each side, but the core was Happ for essentially five prospects: catcher Carlos Perez, LHP David Rollins, RHP Asher Wojciechowski, RHP Joe Musgrove and a player to be named later (sound familiar?).

Happ was a somewhat familiar name to Blue Jays fans, having been rumoured to be a component of the Roy Halladay trade in late 2009. He was moved instead to Houston for Roy Oswalt, and at that point in his career had thrown 550 innings to a 4.19 ERA (104 ERA-), roughly 5 WAR. That is, he was a decent mid-rotation starter, and with 3+ years of service at the beginning of 2012, the Astros had team control for two more years (2013-14. But mired deep in their rebuild, they found more value in bolstering the farm system.

Acquiring Happ was a thus a move that could help in 2012, but was at least as much about the next couple seasons. In fact, Happ pitched out the bullpen for the couple weeks as a brutal losing streak ended aspirations, before making six starts and ending the year on the DL. Over those next two years of control, he pitched 250.2 innings to a 4.34 ERA (107 ERA-), basically in line with his track record at the time of the trade (an extension retained his services for 2015 before which he was traded for Michael Saunders, but that doesn’t factor into a trade analysis).

It struck me in the aftermath of the trade deadline that there were real parallels between the Happ move in 2012 and the trade for Ross Stripling this past summer at the 2020 deadline. Given the largely negative reaction to the Stripling trade — myself included — I think it’s worth revisiting the former for lessons it can teach about how to think about it. (Note: I thought through this and wrote a large portion of this article right after the deadline; largely it’s looking at how things stood then as opposed to what the intervening month of baseball has revealed).

I wasn’t a big fan of the first deal at the time. As outlined above, Happ was fine, and none of the prospects individually represented a shockingly high price or devastating loss. Wojciechowski went 41st overall in 2010 and seemed to have put it together in Dunedin; Perez was posting good offensive production ate age 21 in Lansing and was lauded defensively; Musgrove had gone 46th overall in 2011 and was off to a decent debut in Bluefield.

But cumulatively, it seemed to me there was a very good chance that at least one of them would end up at least as good as Happ, except for twice as long and with those added years being the dirt cheap ones most valuable to a team. So when the PTBNL turned out to be RHP Kevin Comer, whom the Jays gave a $1.65-million bonus the previous summer to buy him out of his commitment to Vanderbilt, it really tip it over into a very expensive acquisition.

With the benefit of eight years in the rear view mirror, we can more fully assess what the Jays gave up. Wojciechowski has ended up a journeyman replacement starter/swingman (5.95 ERA in 198 innings). Carlos Perez carved out a couple years as a backup catcher, but his bat too leaves him around replacement level (56 wRC+ in 670 PA). Comer washed out entirely.

But one of those prospects did make good. Though waylaid by potentially devastating injuries for a pitching career (rotator cuff and sprained elbow ligament), Musgrove’s career got back on track in 2013 and he moved rapidly towards the big leagues. He’s established himself as at least a solid mid rotation starter, with 496.2 career innings at a 4.33 ERA (104 ERA-, but a more impressive 91 FIP- suggesting a little more upside). That’s even with an abbreviated 2020 of just 40 innings, and with two more years of control.

Truthfully, in part the Happ trade was a good lesson in the nature of prospects. The summer of the 2012 was the height of the “Lansing 3”, 2010 draftees who were dominating low-A and looking like the nucleus of the late-2010s. The 2011 draft was supposed to be one of the deepest in memory, and the seven top 80 picks Anthopoulos had accumulated in the hands of the expanded scouting operation that had found those guys was supposed to churn out a further embarrassment of riches to secure the Blue Jays place in the sun.

Losing 30% of that as the partial price of J.A. Happ felt like a gutpunch to that idyllic future of boundless prosperity. While the fundamental analytical frame was solid — Musgrove turned into at least as good a pitcher as Happ — in hindsight the expectations for those draftees were almost certainly unduly elevated by what Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Roberto Osuna and others were doing at the time.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of even the top draftees will have no material major league value, and it’s a matter of time in terms of how long it takes to establish that. Especially with high school prospects, the first year in pro ball is when perceptions of their value change the most in transitioning from amateur scouting to intensive player development. In that respect, the reaction to the cost of the Happ trade was at least as much a reality check about the value of the vaunted 2011 draft class (which in the end wasn’t all it was cracked up to be) as a reflection of the value of Happ.

Like Happ, Stripling has a solid track record, with 387 innings as a swingman from 2016-19, age 30 at the time with two more seasons of arbitration. His 3.51 ERA (87 ERA-) actually represented a more impressive level of performance than Happ, albeit in a role that likely sheltered him by limiting his exposure (and thus limiting his innings and total contribution).

The major difference of course, is that Stripling was struggling mightily at the time of the trade. Of course, it amounted to one bad month in the most unprecedented of seasons, and there were signs nothing was fundamentally broken, which could mean a compelling buy low opportunity. But given that at an individual level aging is less a matter or curves than falling of cliffs, the possibility of an impairment in performance level is quite real.

In return, the Blue Jays sent their 2019 second round pick (52nd overall) Kendall Williams and another player to be named later. We should soon learn who that is, and that will certainly impact the value assessment, but for now we’ll assume it’s a decent, but lesser prospect. Williams is obviously a long ways off (probably 2025 ETA as an established MLB player) and there’s so much that could go wrong, but the raw stuff is top notch and his short pro debut at least suggests he isn’t a case where he has no ability to use it.

In other words, the return in the Stripling deal is less quantity but probably more quality than the Happ deal, for a pitcher with perhaps a little more upside but also a lot more risk. Arguably, Williams could be considered akin to Musgrove or Comer alone, and so the cost is significantly lower. But it’s important to remember that it’s no longer possible to hoard premium draft picks or spend unlimited amounts on international players, so their opportunity cost to acquiring high upside prospects is much higher.

One lesson from the Happ trade is that this might simply be a reflection of Kendall Williams having lost value. Yes, they were clearly high on him as an amateur a little less than a year ago. But now player development has had a year from him. If they’ve much lower on him, then selling now could be salvaging value before impairment is entirely apparent.

The flip side is their counterparty in this trade is Andrew Friedman and the Dodgers’ front office/player development machine. Perhaps it’s not a case that they’re super-bullish on Williams, it’s just nonetheless a compelling lottery ticket for essentially spare parts and a pitcher superfluous to their needs. But it’s not comfortable being on the other side of that.

With Happ, original focus of the deal was its implications for a postseason push in 2012, and in that context it was questionable in terms of moving the needle. It made far more sense when the Jays pushed their chips in that winter, and he fit in as a really solid option at the backend of the rotation. Likewise, while the focus with Stripling was mostly about the extent to which he bolstered (or not) the pitching for the postseason push in 2020, it really should be more about how he helps an ascendant franchise in 2021-22 (indeed, he wasn’t relied upon much the last month post-trade even with a depleted staff).

But what ultimately leaves a bitter taste that I can’t shake is the feeling that the Jays gave up more than should have been the cost. Stripling was nearly moved to the Angels in the wake of the Mookie Betts trade, with Joc Pederson and Andy Pages for Luis Renfigo and two unnamed prospects. Renfigo is a serviceable young infielder and certainly has some value, but was never considered a top prospect.

And that was before Stripling had a terrible start and burnt one of three years of control. That means he should command less, especially as a standalone. Granted, we don’t know who the two prospects the Dodgers were getting, and maybe they really moved the dial (but likewise, we don’t know who else the Jays are giving up). I just don’t see any way the Jays didn’t pay a much richer valuation.

The rebuttal is that the Dodgers were motivated sellers then, trying to dump salary to land a much bigger fish so it’s not comparable. But when that leg of the deal collapsed, the Dodgers were able to keep those guys without compromising the bigger trade. So clearly, they didn’t absolutely have to move those guys, it was a case of preferring a different combination of value — that is, a normal trade basis. And even were that the case, if the Jays liked Stripling a lot, why didn’t they inquire then when the Dodgers were motivated?

But at this point it’s water under the bridge. Now we are left to hope Stripling’s 30s are as productive as Happ’s 30s.


If Stripling turned into Happ and Kendall Williams into Musgrove, all things considered

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  • 40%
    It would be a good deal for the Jays
    (188 votes)
  • 14%
    It would be a bad deal for the Jays
    (66 votes)
  • 45%
    It would be a fair deal
    (214 votes)
468 votes total Vote Now