Tyler Kepner recently wrote a blog post on Ross Ohlendorf and the trade that sent him to the Pirates, and Rob Neyer quickly caught on and riffed off of it, focusing instead on Jose Tabata:
Granted, the equation would look quite a bit different if Marte hadn’t fallen apart the moment the Yankees got him, and if Nady hadn’t missed most of this season with a serious elbow injury.
But even if both players had done exactly what we’d expected — Marte a serviceable lefty reliever, Nady an average (at best) American League outfielder — this deal still would have been a steal for the Pirates.
Or it would probably have been a steal, anyway. That’s what happens when you trade two marginal veterans for a quartet of talented young players. Ohlendorf’s good enough to start for the Yankees, right now. Karstens may yet find himself as a reliever. McCutchen may soon be as good as Ohlendorf. And Tabata … well, he’s the real prize, isn’t he?
Between the ages of 16 and 19, Tabata was routinely the youngest player in his league, and he routinely batted .300 (while drawing plenty of walks for a teenager). Everybody said Tabata couldn’t miss. Said he was the Yankees’ best prospect. Said they wouldn’t trade him, because he was their Center Fielder of the Future.
And then he got off to a lousy start in Class AA last year. He was still just a teenager, and probably was yet again the youngest player in his league. But he got off to a lousy start, and the Yankees needed Xavier Nady. Well, they didn’t need Xavier Nady. Nobody in the history of baseball has needed a player like Xavier Nady. (Not until after the fact, anyway. If the Yankees had qualified for the playoffs last season, afterward it would have seemed like they had indeed needed him.)
So the Yankees essentially traded Jose Tabata, so recently their very best prospect, to the Pirates for Xavier Nady. Someday, historians will read that sentence and snicker.
I love Rob, but there is a whole lot of WRONG in this little blogpost. Firstly, the idea that no one ever needs Xavier Nady is a bit silly, in that Nady is not a replacement level player, just a league average player. He was better than anything the Yankees had readily available, and therefore represented an improvement for the club. For a team that was in a playoff race at the time, the marginal improvement from Justin Christian to Xavier Nady was significant, and I am not sure how Rob can represent it as being anything but a net positive. Adding a lefty reliever like Marte was similarly a drastic improvement over the options the Yankees had at that moment, although the marginal upgrade was likely less than the one gained from adding an everyday player like Nady.
Additionally, let’s not rush to anoint these “talented young players” as stars quite yet. McCutchen has made one start and profiles as, at-best, a back of the rotation guy, while Karstens is the very definition of replacement level. Ohlendorf has improved, but he still has an ERA just under 4 in the AL Central, with a FIP of 4.74, and a K/9 of 5.57. He may turn into a good pitcher, but the performances of Brad Penny and John Smoltz in the NL after being awful in the AL East suggests that the level of competition is incredibly different in the two leagues. The three pitchers are exactly the kind of assets an organization with plenty of pitching in its system should be giving up to get pieces that can help in a pennant race. The key here is Tabata, who took a step forward this year but still has yet to flash the power that would make him an elite prospect.
While the Yankees were quick to give up on Tabata, it is important to note that he had a huge attitude problem with the Yankees that many felt would torpedo his career. Furthermore, you need to give up something of value to complete most trades, and Tabata represented that value here. He had enough question marks about reaching his talent that it made for a good gamble by the Yankees. Most analysts felt that the Yankees made a good or even great deal, and cited the unknowns regarding Tabata as their primary reasons for reaching that conclusion. Just to quote one pundit at the time of the trade:
I wasn’t thrilled with the Xavier Nady deal, from the Pirates’ perspective. Jose Tabata’s star seems to have fallen (though of course he’s still young).
Who said that? Why, Rob Neyer, of course.
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