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December 16, 2007

Reviewing the Lee-Cordero Trade

On July 28, 2006, Texas traded set-up man Francisco Cordero, outfielders Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix, and minor-league pitcher Julian Cordero to Milwaukee for outfielders Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz. Heading into that night’s home game against Kansas City, the Rangers were 51-51, two games behind Oakland and 1.5 back from Los Angeles. After the series with the Royals, Texas would depart for a potentially make-or-break road trip against Minnesota, LA, and Oakland.

The Rangers had decided they could live without Cordero, who lost his closer’s role after a disastrous April, and needed a more potent and consistent bat than Mench’s if they hoped to win the West. Cruz had excelled in AAA but at age 26 still hadn’t seen many MLB at-bats.

Meanwhile, the Brewers had lost 11 of 15 to fall hopelessly behind the suddenly hot Cardinals and six games out of the wild card. More hopeless was their perceived chance of re-signing free-agent-to-be Carlos Lee. Though the front-line acquisition of Cordero gave the appearance of “win now,” it was really a trade for 2008. Also, Cordero, Nix, and Mench were originally selected during GM Doug Melvin’s administration in Texas.

Press and blog reaction was mostly favorable. My initial thoughts:

In short, I like it. Yes, Lee will be a free agent and almost certainly will find himself in another uniform next season, but so will the players Texas relinquished. Now 28, Mench appears to have topped out as merely average outfielder. He does have two arbitration years remaining, but neither will be cheap since he makes $2.8 million already. Nix is three years younger but has stalled in AAA. Perhaps Texas wrecked his career in 2003 by calling him up from AA as a 22-year-old despite his unspectacular stats, but that’s a philosophical discussion for another time. Cordero had probably pitched himself out of next year’s team option [$5 million].

The wildcard is Cruz, who is three months older than Nix and a bit old for a prospect. Still, he’s batted .302/.380/.525 for AAA Toledo with good patience and a terrible strikeout rate.

(In hindsight, I’d retract that Cordero comment. I didn’t anticipate how much teams would be willing to spend on relievers.)

What Happened To Texas?

Lee and Cruz would play that very night; Lee went 2-4 as DH and Cruz pinch-hit for Rod Barajas. Despite their presence, Texas lost two of three to the dreadful Royals, who were 35-66 entering the series, and found themselves three games out of first entering the road trip.

Texas went 5-5 away from home against three winning clubs, acceptable on its face but insufficient for a team trying to win a division. Down 5.5 games after the trip, Texas won eight of its next ten, but Oakland did the same. Then, the infamous three consecutive losses to 49-75 Tampa Bay essentially closed the door. Another torpid September resulted in a 13-game deficit by season’s end.

Lee batted .322/.369/.525 with nine homers and 35 RBI as a Ranger. Management postured that they wanted him for the long haul, but it never rang true. Some desperate team (Houston, it turned out) would offer a ridiculous contract. Plus, his roly-poly effort on a Grady Sizemore blooper that became an inside-the-park home run cemented his status as a DH-in-waiting, and the 30-year-old didn’t look the type to age gracefully. Texas politely thanked him for his effort and took the compensation picks.

Cruz became a classic 4A hitter. Batters can make a living in the PCL with the solitary talent of killing mistake pitches. In the Majors, it’s not enough. He’s still with Texas, 27, out of options, and seemingly destined for waivers or the transactions wire.

What Happened To Milwaukee?

Cordero immediately stepped into Milwaukee’s closer role and saved 16 games in 28 appearances. He walked a few too many, but otherwise he pitched brilliantly. Cordero recovered quickly from his April meltdown and had provided superior relief with Texas ever since, so his excellence with the Brewers was no surprise. Milwaukee gladly picked up his $5 million option, and Cordero was among the best closers in 2007, though not without some drama. In June, he returned to Arlington for an interleague series. Entering the 9th with a 3-0 lead, and having allowed only one run all season, he allowed six consecutive two-out baserunners and lost the game. He blew another save the following night in a game Milwaukee eventually won.

Kevin Mench wiped out in his first session with the Brewers (.230/.248/.317) and came close to being non-tendered. Retained but mostly relegated to the short end of a platoon, he publicly complained about his lot in life while batting a tepid .267/.305/.441. Milwaukee set him free this winter.

Laynce Nix’s batting eye never improved. In AAA, he’s consistently batted .270 with pretty good power and a decent walk rate. In the Majors, his pitch selection drifts toward randomness, resulting in a .230 average and atrocious BB/SO ratio. Nix has 35 strikeouts and no unintentional walks in his last 104 MLB appearances. The Brewers outrighted him after the 2007 season.

The other Cordero, Julian, didn’t pitch in 2007. I don’t know what’s happened to him.

Milwaukee was the darling of the NL in June 2007, pacing the league with a 43-31 record and leading the Central by 8.5 games. Pythagoras had them at a more modest 40-34, however, and regression and injuries led to a 40-48 finish and second place. Division-mate Cincinnati offered Cordero $46 million for four years of service, an offer Milwaukee respectfully declined to exceed.

Who Won?

As with this article, I’ve compared the value of this trade using Win Shares and Wins Above Replacement Player.

F. Cordero 6 10 16
Mench 0 8 8
Nix 0 0 0
J. Cordero 0 0 0
-- '08 pick 1 0 0 0
-- '08 pick 2 0 0 0
Lee 7 0 7
Cruz 3 4 7
-- Beavan 0 0 0
-- Borbon 0 0 0

Texas Win Share Deficit: 10 (about three wins)

WARP 2006 2007 TOTAL
F. Cordero 3.8 6.0 9.8
Mench -0.2 1.7 1.5
Nix -0.1 -0.4 -0.5
J. Cordero 0.0 0.0 0.0
-- '08 pick 1 0.0 0.0 0.0
-- '08 pick 2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Lee 2.2
Cruz 0.7 2.3 3.0
-- Beavan 0.0 0.0 0.0
-- Borbon 0.0 0.0 0.0

Texas WARP Deficit: 5.6 (almost six wins)

Superficially, Milwaukee got the better of the deal. Texas won 2006 with Lee, though not by much, but by 2007 had only a failing Cruz on its roster. In terms of value per dollar, it’s nearly a tie. Milwaukee spent about $10.5 million on Cordero, Mench and Nix, getting 2.2 wins shares and 1.0 WARP per million in salary. To date, Texas has forked out $5.6 million on Lee, Cruz, and the two players drafted with its compensation picks, equivalent to 2.5 win shares and 0.9 WARP per million.

In truth, neither team has won, given that the point of the trade was to supply the missing piece for a trip to the postseason. We won’t know the ultimate winner for years. Remind me to revisit the trade in 2012, when we can assess whether Blake Beavan and Julio Borbon have paid off more than the compensation picks Milwaukee will receive in the 2008 draft.

Posted by Lucas at December 16, 2007 01:21 PM