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A Defense of Jay Bruce

As a Jay Bruce owner and sympathizer — or maybe that’s Jay Bruce-owner sympathizer — I feel compelled to at least take a half-hearted hack at Dave Cameron’s trade value rankings.

While I’ve agreed with his rankings thus far — not that my assessment means much to anyone other than me — I must at least challenge Mr. Cameron on his omission of the mighty Bruce.

To be fair, Cameron spent just a couple of sentences on the Cincinnati slugger in his Just Missed the Cut post, so a detailed reasoning wasn’t available. Regardless, I spent some time looking through Bruce’s numbers in an attempt to craft a credible, albeit tentative argument against his exclusion.

Here’s what I found:

Truth be told, the Reds outfielder has not done a whole lot to help his cause recently. While his power numbers remain streakily Brucian, they do not make up for his sliding peripherals: His strikeouts are way up. His walks are way down. His good-not-great batting average is buoyed by a career-high and likely unsustainable BABIP, and his defense has gone from Gold-Glove caliber to doesn’t hurt to have him out there.

So, what reasoning could I possibly have to combat that mountain of evidence? Well, let me channel my inner Hawk Harrelson and talk about Bruce and The Will to Win … Don’t stop reading! I was just kidding!

Bruce’s value truly begins with his durability. From 2010 to the 2013 break, he has played in more than 95 percent of Cincinnati’s scheduled games, almost 10 percent more than Cameron’s No. 50 — I told you this was tentative — Austin Jackson and +10 percent more than No. 43 Jason Heyward

I know 10 percent doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but when the Tigers and Braves have to plug in replacement level players like Andy Dirks and Reed Johnson for a month, the loss stings.

Complementing Bruce’s durability is his age. Despite six seasons in the bigs, he turned 26 years old a few months ago, and it can be argued he has yet to enter his peak years.

I’m not trying spin any yarns about the mythical breakout of players turning 27, but I am saying Baseball-Reference lists Reggie Jackson as Bruce’s No 1. comparable player through their age-25 seasons. A quick look back at the HOF’s numbers tells us it took him quite a few years to get those strikeouts under control.

Maybe Bruce never will, and maybe he, as many predict, becomes Adam Dunn (No. 7 on the same list), but let’s not be so quick to dub him Big Donkey Part Deux just yet. He still has plenty of time to right the ship and develop into a more well-rounded player.

Finally, Bruce’s contract is relatively team-friendly, considering the two-time All-Star has been in the majors in this his sixth season. This year, he’s a bargain at $7.5 million, and while his contract jumps to an average of about $12 million per season for the next three — and a team-controlled fourth — years, that’s not out of line for what sluggers of his caliber are paid.

Consider No. 45 on Cameron’s list, Edwin Encarnacion (breakout age, 29, by the way), whose track record is essentially 2012, is making about $10 million the next three seasons.

So, are these factors and his strong counting numbers evidence enough for Bruce’s inclusion on Cameron’s list? Maybe. However, more convincing arguments admittedly could be made for Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmerman.

But without a doubt, Bruce is a fringe top-50 trade value player; his durability, youth and contract certainly warrant the debate, if not a spot on Cameron’s list.

Trade Chris Sale? Odds Say No

I have a bone to pick with Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, and it’s not about the bow ties. I respect a man who can rock a bow tie, especially when he’s doing it for some great causes.

I do, however, have a problem with his column encouraging the White Sox to deal Chris Sale.

It’s not that the idea is without merit; he provides some solid reasoning, but when you consider all of the factors at play, moving the youthful all-star doesn’t make enough sense.

Sale, 24, has less than 500 innings on his resume, a career K/9 rate near 10 and an ERA sitting at 2.89 to boot. Even if the return has the seductive appeal Rosenthal calls for in a proposed swap, the possibility of whiffing is too high for the Sox.

Pitching – young pitching – is the lifeblood of a successful franchise. Ask the low-budget Rays and Athletics how they stay competitive with baseball’s Big Boys. Or if hardware is more your thing, take a look at San Francisco and St. Louis.

For clubs, like the Rays with limited capital, sustained success starts with two integral aspects: assembling a farm system with a deep stable of arms to develop (David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb) or deal (James Shields) and identifying your studs from your duds and controlling their futures into their free agent years (Evan Longoria). The better teams are at accomplishing those goals, the sooner they’ll be annually competitive.

Now the White Sox, not exactly an organization needing to pinch pennies, but certainly tightening the purse strings with an average home attendance of 14,000 fans fewer than in 2005 (as per Rosenthal’s column), have sort of skipped the stockpiling arms part, but with Sale, have correctly located a stud. The southpaw is in the first year of team-friendly 5-year $32.5 million contract, including two club options that would keep him in a White Sox uniform until he’s 30.

That gives the Sox – if they start right now – 6-1/2 years to rebuild around their ace. Plenty of time. The Giants were a last place, 71-win team in 2007. In 2010, behind former farmhands, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, they won their first of two championships. I understand the Giants already had those guys in their system, so it might take the Sox longer, but again, many teams have reversed their fortunes in fewer than 6-1/2 years.

But if you’re not convinced, I understand. I’m hoping this next section might do the trick. Let’s take a look at the specifics involved in the risk Rosenthal suggests the Sox take.

In 2011, writer Scott McKinney provided some wonderful insight into the success rate (using WAR) of baseball’s top prospects. Here’s the link to the article, but I’ll do my darndest to summarize it justly.

McKinney – piggybacking some work done by Victor Wang in 2007 – studied the production of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects from 1990 to 2003, giving each prospect a seven-year span to produce.

Here’s what he found: Right off the top, 70 percent of top prospects are destined for failure – qualified by an average per-season WAR below 1.5.

But we already know there is risk in dealing proven stars for prospects, even premium guys. That’s an inherent part of the game. It happens every season, and it always will.

Sure, but let’s look at the success rate of top 100 pitching prospects, which is what the White Sox should demand — even though GM Rick Hahn disagrees — to restock Baseball America’s 29th-ranked cupboard, which is practically barren of difference-making hurlers.

According to McKinney’s study, pitching prospects have a much smaller chance at success that position players. In fact, a pitcher ranked from 21-100 on Baseball America’s list fails at least 70 percent of the time with odds of failure increasing as the list moves toward #100.

In other words, the White Sox would have to land a Dylan Bundy- or Gerrit Cole-type pitcher (Baseball America’s preseason #2 and #7 prospects) in the deal to give themselves a better than 30-percent chance of succeeding at the major league level. Why would the Sox roll the dice on an arm like that when they have Sale’s locked up, if they choose, for the next 6-1/2 years?

In short, they shouldn’t. His contract is extraordinarily reasonable, and the frontline prospect(s) they’d receive in return would likely only be a couple years younger than Sale with no guarantee they’ll produce or sign a team-friendly contract.

OK. Now let me address the glaring hole in this argument: The Sox would surely receive more than one elite prospect in such a deal.

And many would justly argue that the best way for organizations to produce a high quantity of talent is to load as many proverbial bullets into the chamber as possible, hoping one or two’s projectile is a major league rotation/starting lineup.

I understand that mentality. In fact, normally, I agree with it, but that 70 percent failure rate for top prospects looms large, especially when trading the caliber of pitcher Sale is.

Let’s look at Baseball America’s top 10 prospects from 2006 (giving them seven years to produce, just like the study): No. 1 Delmon Young; No. 2 Justin Upton; No. 3 Brandon Wood; No. 4 Jeremy Hermida; No. 5. Stephen Drew; No. 6 Francisco Liriano; No. 7 Chad Billingsley; No. 8 Justin Verlander; No. 9 Lastings Milledge No. 10 Matt Cain.

I see this list and think: There was a time when the consensus was that Chad Billingsley was a better pitcher than Justin Verlander; that Brandon Wood was more a highly regarded shortstop than No. 25 Troy Tulowitzki; and that Lastings Milledge wasn’t playing in Japan.

In all seriousness, what this says is that dealing with prospects, all prospects, is a crapshoot. And it’s a crapshoot not worth playing for the Sox who already have their silver bullet.

Rosenthal suggests in order for the Sox to pull the trigger on such a deal, they would have to hold out for the kind of haul Texas Rangers brought in when, in 2007, they traded Mark Teixeira for Atlanta’s farm system. In the trade, widely considered a coup for Texas, the Rangers received Baseball America’s preseason No. 36 prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia, No. 65 Elvis Andrus, No. 90 Matt Harrison, unranked Neftali Feliz, who was 17 at the time, and unranked  Beau Jones.

Since the trade, the highest-rated prospect of the bunch, Saltalamacchia, has accumulated a career (Baseball-Reference) WAR of 4.2. Andrus, despite two All-Star appearances, has never produced at an All-Star level with just one season with a WAR above 4. The lefty Harrison has produced a 9.2 WAR in his career; not bad, but not Sale. And finally there’s Feliz, whose impact was felt in 2010 and 2011 but whose value — WAR has never eclipsed 2.5 — was limited in a relief role. Add it all up, and Salty, Andrus, Harrison and Feliz have combined for 34.4 Wins Above Replacement in a combined 20.5  major league seasons (2008-today), giving the foursome a 1.67 WAR per season average, just barely avoiding failure by McKinney’s standards. Not exactly the steal it appeared to be a few years ago.

Sure, the players acquired in the trade did help the Rangers reach back-to-back two World Series, but what was the thing the Rangers were desperately chasing in 2010? An ace, and they unloaded their farm system to acquire one, getting Cliff Lee from the Mariners for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Matthew Lawson and Josh Lueke.

Sorry for the reminder, Seattle fans, but the White Sox should see how this deal worked out for the Mariners and stash Sale with Eric Snowden.

The Sox should sell whatever they can to begin the rebuilding process. Sell Jake Peavy. Sell Jesse Crain. Sell Alex Rios. But hold onto Chris Sale, the most effective and polished pitcher in the American League under 25 (1.01 WHIP, 1st; 9.8 K/9, 1st; 4.85 K/BB, 1st; Opponents OPS .597, 1st) who will lead their pitching staff for years to come.

The lefty has already produced a 14 WAR in 3-1/2 major league seasons — one abbreviated and one as a reliever. For comparison, Cy Young-winner Clayton Kershaw produced 18.1 WAR in his first four seasons, but pitched 716.1 innings, 300 plus more than Sale thus far.

And let me address what I’ll call a minor consideration Rosenthal makes as an argument for why the Sox should trade Sale. The sidewinder has an awfully violent motion and a rather slight frame; what if he breaks down?

My answer: It doesn’t matter. The risk involved in the trade remains far greater.

Even if the worst happens, and Sale tears his UCL and needs the king of all pitching surgeries, the Tommy John, there is a very good chance he comes back from it and pitches like he did pre-surgery. I’d cite such successful examples such as Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright, but I know there are examples to the contrary.

So, I’ll call upon an expert witness: Dr. Christopher Ahmad, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University and head team physician for the New York Yankees.

Last year, he told, “… the success rate of having Tommy John surgery is between 70 and 80 percent to full level of throwing.”

That’s not perfect. There are no guarantees. This is still a major injury and surgery is required, but it is still superior to the 30 percent success rate for prospects we looked at earlier. I understand what Rosenthal was getting at. Why let a stud toil on a middling team? Look at Felix Hernandez. Weren’t all those years in Seattle wasted? Yes. I can’t argue against it. And that might happen to Sale if the White Sox keep him around and don’t embark on a successful rebuilding mission. But what the Mariners knew and White Sox should know is rebuilding shouldn’t come at the cost of a Cy Young caliber 24-year-old. He’s the ground floor. He’s the building block. He’s where you start.