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Bourjos for Lannan? Surely You Jest.

Toward the end of his weekly Sunday notes column for the Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo included the following write-up on John Lannan:

Lannan, 27, is a terrific option as an end-of-the rotation starter now that Washington has signed Edwin Jackson. There is a lot of speculation that the Nationals will deal him to the Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos, with Mike Trout on the way to play that position in Anaheim. But the Nationals could also move Jayson Werth to center and sign a right fielder. It now appears that Yoenis Cespedes is not in their plans and they have cooled on B.J. Upton. Lannan, who went 10-13 last year with a 3.70 ERA and a (high) 1.462 WHIP, would be a good option for a team like Boston, but the Red Sox don’t seem to have the center fielder to give back, especially with Ryan Kalish unable to play until June. “It doesn’t have to be a center fielder,’’ said one major league source. “They don’t have to get a center fielder in that deal as long as they get a center fielder some other way. The Red Sox make a lot of sense.’’

Again, with emphasis added:

There is a lot of speculation that the Nationals will deal him to the Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos…

The report doesn’t say who is doing that speculating, or how much they’d had to drink prior to suggesting that swap, but Cafardo’s a good reporter and we should give him some benefit of the doubt that he’s not just publishing the rantings of his partially-sane neighbor. The sentence suggests that the speculation is coming from within the game itself, and he quotes a “Major League source” a few sentences later, so let’s assume for a second that the speculators have some inside knowledge.

That still doesn’t make this suggestion any less crazy. Regardless of what kind of faith you put in defensive metrics, Bourjos still grades out as a highly valuable property. As a 24-year-old in his first full season in the Majors, he hit .271/.327/.438, good for a 111 wRC+ – a better mark than the one posted by Adam Jones and Chris Young, just to name a few. Even if you include his poor results from his rookie season of 2010, Bourjos has still been a league average hitter during his time in the big leagues, and his abilities at the plate pale in comparison to what he can do in the field.

One of the fastest players in baseball, Bourjos can really cover ground in the outfield. UZR has rated him at +24 runs in just over 1,700 big league innings – even if you regress that heavily, you’re still going to project him as a +5 to +10 defender in center field going forward, which makes him one of the most valuable defenders in the sport. A guy who can simultaneously be a league average hitter and a premium defender at an up-the-middle position is an extremely valuable piece, usually checking in between +3 and +4 wins in full season value.

Have we mentioned that Bourjos is under team control for the next five seasons and will make something close to the league minimum for the next two years?

Yes, the Angels have Mike Trout and a perceived logjam in the outfield. Yes, you can make a case that having Trout and Bourjos play side by side will lead to some diminishing returns in defensive value, and that perhaps the Angels should consider moving Bourjos to help solidify other positions on their roster – though, to be fair, teams like the Rays and Yankees have done quite well playing multiple center field types next to each other, and there’s no reason why the Angels can’t follow this same path with Bourjos and Trout. But, even if we assume that the Angels should entertain offers for Bourjos, the idea of swapping him for John Lannan is still absolutely insane.

If you evaluate Lannan strictly by run prevention, he is a slightly above average starting pitcher. In 750 innings in the big leagues, he has a career ERA- of 98, compared to a league average of 103 for starting pitchers as a whole since 2007. That’s decent. It’s not great, but it’s okay, and okay has value for a team looking for stability at the back end of their rotation.

However, Lannan’s stuff and peripherals suggest that evaluating him strictly by his run prevention might not be a great idea. His carer xFIP- is 108, a bit below average for a starting pitcher, and he was demoted to the minors in 2010 when he failed to sustain his lower-than-average BABIP history. There’s clearly some downside here, and Lannan’s not exactly a guy you can count on for a 98 ERA- going forward.

In fact, Lannan is basically the east coast version of Joe Saunders, another groundball lefty who throws strikes, eats innings, and has generally produced better than expected ERAs without striking anyone out. When you look at their numbers side by side, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. The market thought so much of Saunders’ value that he was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks, then was mostly ignored in his pursuit of a multi-year contract in free agency. He eventually returned to Arizona for $6 million on a one year deal.

Lannan is due $5 million in 2012, and will follow in Saunders footsteps next winter – if he has another typical season, he’ll likely be a non-tender candidate, as teams generally prefer not to pay upwards of $10 million for these kinds of soft-tossing back-end starters. If Lannan has any surplus value above and beyond what his salary calls for him to earn, it’s minimal at best. For instance, Jeremy Guthrie – a better version of this pitcher-type who has cut his teeth in the AL East – was just swapped for a pair of middling arms with limited club control already making salaries near their actual value, and Gutrhie’s resume and stuff are both superior to Lannan’s.

The idea that the Angels would trade one of the most valuable young center fielders in baseball for one year of a fairly compensated #5 starter is kind of hilarious. The Angels have spent the winter remaking themselves as legitimate contenders in the AL West – there’s no reason for them to undo that by just giving away their starting center fielder and making their team drastically worse for both the present and the future in the process.

If the Nationals want to pry Bourjos from the Angels hands, they’ll have to do a lot better than peddling a starter they no longer want. For five years of team control of a guy like Bourjos, a more realistic return would be offering up someone like Jordan Zimmermann – as a super-two with only four years of team control remaining and a history of arm problems, the Angels might be wise to even pass on that kind of offer. But, it would at least be an offer that Jerry DiPoto would have to consider.

This Lannan for Bourjos thing, though? Even if they put Drew Storen and a couple of prospects in the deal, it should still be an automatic no. Bourjos is good, young, and cheap – Lannan is none of those things, and it’s not even clear that he’s obviously better than current fifth starter Jerome Williams. There might be industry speculation about that kind of swap, but it’s not speculation that should be taken overly seriously.