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D-Baut out, Grimsley in: a grisly trade?

Yesterday the Orioles traded Double-A pitcher Denny Bautista for reliever Jason Grimsley from the Kansas City Royals. Bautista, who flopped in a two-game stint with the major-league club last month, was one of two pitching prospects acquired from the Marlins in the Jeff Conine deal last August. (The other, Don Levinski, has been ineffective at Single-A Frederick due mostly to shoulder problems.) As part of the deal, Grimsley signed a one-year contract extension for 2005, apparently for $2 million.

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This swap looks like an attempt by the Orioles to save face and stabilize their pitching staff after last week's seven-game losing streak dropped Baltimore to last place in the division. The Birds need pitching help, having by far the worst ERA in the American League at 5.45 (KC is next at 4.96). The injuries of Rick Bauer, Eric DuBose, and Kurt Ainsworth have left the staff short on arms with no ready replacements at Triple-A Ottawa. (That is not entirely true. Bruce Chen and Aaron Rakers have put up respectable stats for the Lynx and merited a look-see. But neither is a great prospect, and since neither is on the 40-man roster, someone would have to be removed from the Orioles' roster for one of them to be called up.)

A well-travelled and well-grounded newcomer

Grimsley will probably help the Orioles, but he is not going to make everything all better by himself. At 36 years old, Grimsley (who as far as I can tell is unrelated to ex-Oriole hurler Ross Grimsley) is at best a stopgap. His career strikeout and walk rates are below average, but he has been somewhat effective because his sinking fastball is excellent at coaxing ground balls out of hitters. Grimsley's career ground/fly ratio is an exceptional 2.23 (the major-league average is about 1.2). From 2001-2003 it was an even more impressive 3.41, and in 2004 to date has been an eye-popping 7.88, topping all AL relievers. If he keeps that up, it would be advisable to use an outfielder as a fifth infielder while he is pitching.

Grimsley's pitches, not surprisingly, also tend to stay in the park; his career gopherball rate is a mere 0.75 HR/9 IP (ML average about 1.1). And he has been particularly effective against right-handed batters, holding them to a .679 OPS from 2001-2003. Needless to say, Grimsley will keep the Orioles' infielders on their toes when he is pitching. The tall grass at Camden Yards should aid his grounder-heavy style. But like any pitcher who depends so much on his defense, his performance is subject to some fluctuation.

Grimsley essentially steps into the late-inning, right-handed relief role that Mike DeJean squandered. However, it bodes ill for Grimsley that DeJean, another sinker specialist, has fared extremely poorly for the Birds this season, and that the Orioles' defensive efficiency has been one of the worst in the majors. It would have been wise to wait before handing Grimsley that contract extension. But as long as Grimsley doesn't pull a DeJean, he should add at least a modicum of quality to the bullpen by taking key innings away from DeJean and others.

Denny, we hardly knew ye

It's too soon to give a definitive verdict on this trade, but the Orioles paid a high price—probably too high—to get Grimsley. Bautista, 23, was one of the organization's top prospects—Baseball America ranked him #5 last winter—and was one of the closest to the majors. Observers have built an aura of praise around him because of his mid-90s fastball and his discipleship under the great Pedro. Despite his two ugly games against the Yankees last month, he put up fine numbers in the Eastern League after being sent back down, and it looked like he could make a meaningful contribution to the Orioles in 2005. Although Bautista has struggled with his command at times, high-strikeout pitchers like him do not come along often, and they should not be ceded easily.

On the other hand, the honchos in the B&O Warehouse seem to like their minor-league pitching depth enough to take the risk of dealing a high-upside prospect like Bautista. John Maine, Dave Crouthers, Chris Ray, Hayden Penn, and others have made some noise in the minors lately, so Bautista had some company in the upper ranks of the Birds' young arms. And as the Orioles well know, young pitchers are notoriously susceptible to injury and inconsistency, making them enticing trade fodder but more often disappointments in the long run, so Bautista's continued success is not assured by any means. Add to that the foundering major-league staff and the pressure to avoid the stigma of last place in what is supposed to be a year of improvement, and the motivation for the trade becomes more apparent.

Still, decent relievers are relatively easy to acquire, and had the Orioles shopped around, they probably could have obtained a pitcher roughly equivalent in quality to Grimsley while surrendering a lesser prospect (or prospects) than Bautista. It's difficult to justify exchanging Bautista, a possible building block who could contribute several years of wins down the road, for a season and a half from a journeyman reliever like Grimsley. What makes the trade even less defensible is that Bautista-for-Grimsley is the kind of trade that a contender would make to improve its chances of reaching the postseason. But the Orioles are not going to contend for a pennant this year, and barring several significant developments, they will be hard pressed to contend next year, so Bautista would have been more likely than Grimsley to contribute to a winning team in Baltimore. The Orioles just weren't willing to bite the bullet at the major-league level, as the Royals have done, and wait a while longer for their prospects to develop.

For this trade to work in the Orioles' favor, Grimsley needs to pitch well for at least the next year and a half—no sure thing, given his inconsistent track record—and help the team return to contention next year, while Bautista essentially must fail as a big-leaguer. That combination of outcomes is possible, but not probable. The Orioles pulled the trigger too hastily on this one.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 22, 2004 2:25 PM.

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