Yesterday, Keith Law confirmed an interesting old trade rumor, noting that he was in the room in 2002 when Steve Phillips offered J.P. Ricciardi a straight up swap of David Wright for Jose Cruz Jr, which Ricciardi then declined. Given how their careers have gone since, the obvious reaction is that this was a massive blunder by the Blue Jays. However, they didn’t have any way of knowing the future, so they were left to make decisions based on the information available at the time. So, let’s go back in time and look at the proposal as it would have been viewed at the time.
In 2002, Cruz was coming off the best season of his career and in the middle of his physical prime. While we don’t have UZR data for 2001 on the site, his career fielding numbers paint the picture of a guy with good enough wheels for a corner but not enough ability to play center field regularly – a classic tweener, basically. Combined with the best offensive performance of his career (a .367 wOBA that featured both power and speed), that kind of player is worth +3 to +4 wins, and Cruz had the kind of skillset that should have aged well.
He regressed in 2002, but was still an above average player, posting a +2.5 win season and showing the core skills that could have led to a rebound in the future. There were certainly reasons to value Cruz Jr as a player.
However, trade value isn’t just about the on field value, but factors in the contract status as well, and Cruz was headed towards free agency. So, in reality, the Mets were offering Wright for a several month rental during a season in which Toronto was not a contender (they stood 20.5 games out of first place on July 31st, 2002).
So, the Blue Jays wouldn’t accept Wright as enough value in return to deal Cruz in the final year of his contract, choosing instead to keep him for the remainder of the season and let him walk as a free agent after declining to offer him arbitration. Due to that decision, they didn’t receive any compensation when the Giants signed him as a free agent the following winter.
In other words, they basically didn’t value Wright as a prospect much at all. Should they have?
During the 2002 season, Wright was a 19-year-old in the low-A South Atlantic League, a year removed from being a supplemental first round pick. He hit .266/.367/.401 in the pitcher-friendly league, but the combination of little power and a lot of strikeouts were concerns. There were reasons for optimism and pessimism, which isn’t particularly surprising for a teenager that was several years from the majors, but Wright was a prospect, even if not an elite one.
If you want to compare that offer to a recent transaction, the current version of Felipe Lopez is actually not a bad comparison for what Cruz was – talented but inconsistent on an expiring contract, a solid player but not a star. Lopez was traded for a pair of fringe prospects, and the general consensus was that the D’Backs got as much as they could, given the market for Lopez’s services. Certainly, neither Cole Gillespie or Roque Mercedes were near the level of prospect that Wright was in 2002.
Even without the benefit of foresight, it really is tough to see what Ricciardi was thinking by turning the deal down. When you’re trading a guy with an expiring contract, you expect the player coming back to have some kind of issues, and Wright’s were of the kind that could be eliminated with further development. If Cruz Jr wasn’t in their future plans (as indicated by the decision to not offer arbitration), having a prospect like Wright in the system seems like a much better alternative to letting Cruz Jr play out the string before moving on.