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The Most Inexplicable Trade Ever?

The Vernon Wells trade elicits a wide variety of reactions, as best shown by the amazingly awesome word clouds created by Sam Miller, but if I were to use just one word to sum up the trade, it would probably be “inexplicable”. This isn’t one of those moves where there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the coin – this is the kind of deal where it is almost unanimous that the Blue Jays took the Angels to the cleaners. No matter how hard you squint to try to find positives in Wells’ game, it’s still just a complete head-scratcher that the Angels would agree to take on a contract that size for a player of his abilities. This deal got me thinking – when was the last time there was this kind of near-unanimous reaction to a trade? In short, is this the most inexplicable deal in recent history?

I polled our writing staff over the weekend for comparable “what on earth are they doing?” trades, and here were the three that I’d consider most inexplicable.

3. Cliff Lee for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez

This one gets an asterisk due to the fact that, while a separate transaction, it was essentially part of a larger plan that included the Phillies acquiring Roy Halladay and signing him to a below market extension. Getting the best pitcher in baseball, and then getting him signed to a team-friendly contract on top of that, softened the blow of a deal that otherwise made no sense.

While Ruben Amaro‘s rationalization was that he couldn’t neglect his farm system after trading a crop of good prospects for Halladay, the majority opinion was that the prospects that the Phillies got back weren’t all that special to begin with, and that they would have been better off just stacking Halladay and Lee together. Of course, the Phillies ended up doing just that by signing Lee this winter, so Amaro’s decision will end up looking like a lapse in judgment that only cost his team one year of Lee’s services. The deal was weird, and not a good idea, but the actual cost of losing Lee for one season doesn’t begin to approach the cost that the Angels just absorbed by taking on Wells’ deal.

2. Bartolo Colon for Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore.

While it’s easy to look back in hindsight on prospect-for-rental deals that didn’t work out all that well for the team surrendering young talents who turned out to be stars, this deal was nutty from the start. Colon was a good-not-great starter whose performance didn’t match his stuff, and the Expos were just 40-36 when they made the deal, seven games behind the first place Braves and six games behind the wild-card leading Diamondbacks. They had allowed more runs than they had scored and had won just 68 games the year before, so there weren’t a ton of reasons to expect the team to go on a tear and chase down the teams in front of them.

And yet, despite some long odds of making the playoffs and Colon’s impending free agency, Omar Minaya decided to surrender Phillips, Lee, and Sizemore to try and make a run at a post-season berth. Prior to the season, Baseball America had ranked Phillips as the 20th best prospect in the game, while Sizemore had been rated as the organization’s third best prospect, with Lee coming in 11th on the same list. But Lee was experiencing a breakout season, and on the 2003 version of the list, he ranked as the 30th best prospect in baseball. Phillips moved up to #7 on that list, by the way.

The Expos essentially surrendered two premium prospects and a highly thought of 19-year-old for three months of Colon’s pitching. In terms of deadline deals, it is the classic example of why teams need to do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding to just “go for it”. But there were extenuating circumstances, as the Expos were candidates for contraction and the future of the team was in doubt. While Minaya should have been more cautious with the organization’s future, there were legitimate doubts about whether the franchise would still exist by the time Phillips, Lee, and Sizemore were ready to contribute. While it was a bad deal for the Expos, there was at least some justification for the attempt to win now.

1. Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir.

Two years later, the Mets made an even more stunning deadline deal to acquire pitching help for the stretch run. Well, they tried to acquire pitching help, anyway. Instead, they ended up with Victor Zambrano, who could only be described as lousy. His numbers at the time the Mets traded for him – 6.75 BB/9, 7.66 K/9, 45.2% GB%, 5.42 xFIP. He fluked his way into a not-awful-but-still-not-great 4.37 ERA for half a season, but Zambrano was simply not a good pitcher.

He also wasn’t healthy. Due to a bum elbow, he would make just three starts for the Mets the rest of the season, throwing a grand total of 14 innings. For the right to have a bad pitcher sit on the disabled list, the Mets surrendered Scott Kazmir, their best prospect and one of the game’s best young arms at the time. Before the season, BA had rated him as the 12th best prospect in the game, and it promoted him to seventh on the same list the following year.

The reaction to the deal was almost total outrage from Mets fans and uniform glee from Rays fans, similar to what we’ve seen in Anaheim and Toronto over the weekend. But while the Mets sold Kazmir for pennies on the dollar, he was a pretty risky asset to begin with. Twenty-year-old pitching prospects have dramatically high attrition rates, and the Mets had reasons to be concerned that he wouldn’t live up to the hype.

Victor Wang’s research on prospect valuation in 2008 estimated that a top 10 pitching prospect was worth about $16 million in value, less than half of what a top 10 hitting prospect was worth. While they were surrendering a lot of potential with Kazmir, they were also moving an asset who had a high probability of producing little to no long term value. Even if we assume that Zambrano had no value himself, the loss of Kazmir only set the Mets back by an amount equivalent to about four months of Vernon Wells’ paycheck.

That’s why I’m forced to conclude that the deal the Angels made on Friday is the most inexplicable trade we’ve seen in recent history. This deal is worse than the Lee trade, worse than the Colon deal, and yes, even worse than the infamous Zambrano-Kazmir swap. The long term cost to the Angels franchise will be felt for years, and we may eventually look back at this deal as one of the worst trades of all time.