Washington Nationals Trade Makes New York Mets Look Foolish

Brandon HeikoopSenior Analyst IFebruary 9, 2008

“You know how I know you’re…” making an incredible deal???

When you trade a below-league average catcher who is owed just under $10M for the next two seasons and a player who had been “on the trade block for many months” (MLB.com).

Even if the Nationals would have received some low level, low ceiling, old prospects, this trade was still essentially a victory for them. But given they moved Brian Schneider and Ryan Church for Lastings Milledge (ESPN.com), the talented and toolsy soon to be 23-year-old outfielder—and then were able to turn around and pick up Johnny Estrada makes an incredible move (MLB.com), that much more incredible.

Let’s break this deal down from the start…

The Mets moved a reliever whom had about a 50-50 chance to be a contributor to the teams bullpen to the Milwaukee Brewers for Mr. Estrada (MLB.com). This move was made, as per the words of Omar Minaya, because Estrada is a switch-hitting, former All-Star who has been a consistent .300 hitter. Quite high praise from a GM who decided 10 days later they wanted a black hole hitting catcher on the roster as well.

If you are keeping track, when the Mets traded for Schneider they had 3 catchers on the 40 man roster, not one of whom you would consider playing at another position. Given the team had just signed Roman Castro (not to mention overpaying at $2.3M a year) there was no way he was leaving town, so the choice was either recently acquired Schneider or recently acquired Estrada. Both have a rather hilarious ring to it.

To summarize, the Mets moved Milledge, Estrada and Mota for Church and Schneider. Really?

But how much water does that truly hold? Who are these players and why does it matter that Minaya made this move? Furthermore, you may be asking yourself, “, you still haven’t explained how the Nationals made an incredible transaction?”

Fair enough. As mentioned, the Nationals were looking to move Church, so essentially anything they received for him would have been gravy. Church, who isn’t a terrible outfielder, also is not an imposing OFer and will presumably start the season as the Mets starting right fielder. He has a career 113 OPS+, which according to a study performed by The Hardball Times would make him about 8 points better then the middle of the road right fielder. However, if you decide to look into Church’s split stats, you can see that he has been protected from left handed pitching (891 plate appearances vs. 241). In other words, he hasn’t ever been an everyday player. His OPS+ also sits comfortably at about 25 points less against lefties then against righties. So even if he was given an everyday job, he would be a black hole against south paws. Essentially, the Mets are looking at a player slightly below league average to man RF-nice grab!

Who is this Brian Schneider character? He is a catcher who has been a burden offensively for the last two seasons, which is saying a lot considering how low the bar is for catchers (83 OPS+ vs. 105 for right fielder). However, maybe Minaya signed him to be a defensive presence, figuring that Estrada was not going to hit that much better so the defensive improvements would be worth his while. Schneider, according to The Hardball Times’ defensive Win Share measure (admittedly, this is not the best stat, however there really is not a ‘best’ stat for defensive abilities), has ranked 11th, 25th, and sixth over the last three seasons. This statistic is a cumulative total, so the rankings are not perfect. Given Schneider has finished 15th, 18th, and 22nd in at bats among catchers over this same period of time, it is safe to say Schneider is well above average defensively.

Summary, the Mets acquired a below league average right fielder and an above average defensive catcher. Who put money on the Mets to win the World Series after acquiring those two studs?

I imagine fewer people did that than those who jumped ship after finally losing it with Minaya.

How about what they gave up?

Mota, as I mentioned, was really never much of a factor for the Mets bullpen. He was going to be behind Wagner, Sosa, Heilman, Wise, Sanchez, Smith, Feliciano, Schoeneweis and my personal favorite Burgos-a hard throwing, fearless reliever. Thus, moving him was inevitable, and like the Nationals moving Church, getting anything was about all they could ask. However, Mota is still semi-reliable and netting an Estrada or some low level minor leaguer is better then nothing. That said the Mets essentially got nothing except for a bill in the mail for Estrada and ‘cash’.

Estrada is not an elite catcher. However, he has put together two solid seasons. At $1.25M for 2008, he will do an excellent job of keeping the seat warm while 23-year-old Flores takes another season to develop. No one is going to mistake Estrada for the 90s version of Pudge, but for my money (or prospects), I would take him over Schneider. Why? Outside of being an absolute dud with a glove, a catcher can make up for his defensive short-comings with his bat.

The last piece, which I actually have a difficult time believing he was moved for so little, is Milledge. The 22-year-old has been rated as a grade A- prospect in 2006 and a grade B prospect in 2005 (although admittedly low) according to John Sickels. If the grades don’t mean enough, Sickels tosses Milledge up against Delmon Young. The results: Young over Milledge by a hair. Mind you, this was in 2005 as both players were entering their age 20 seasons, but this does not change the fact that Milledge rated as not much worse than the bat-thrower.

Entering the 2007 season, Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus ranked Milledge as the Mets #3 player under age 25. He was rated below the two obvious players (Wright and Reyes), but ahead of Martinez and Pelfrey, all of whom rated as “Excellent Prospects”.

This is a trade we will look back at in three to five years and wonder exactly what the Mets were thinking. It will be comparable to when the Indians traded Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese for Travis Hafner. The fact that the Nationals were also able to land Estrada for less than 25 percent of what they were paying Schneider makes this an incredible steal.

I enjoyed how Minaya tried to make up for it with this blunder.