Trading JJ

So I've been thinking about this for a little while, now, what with JJ's name being the one that's coming up the most often. I wasn't sure what would go on with him as far as offseason dealings were concerned after last year's injuries and trouble throwing strikes, but the M's have made him available and there appears to be a market, so it's worth discussing the idea.

For the longest time, I've thought that the best thing to do with JJ is to hold out for good value during the offseason and, if no one comes up with a strong offer, let him try to improve his status during the summer so you can attempt to move him again later on. And while I stand by that, after witnessing the Francisco Rodriguez contract and various other deals and rumblings, I think we have to re-consider how we define "good value", at least in terms of what it would take for us to be willing to say goodbye. Because the more I think about it, the lower that "good value" gets.

Let's look at it like this. Let's put JJ's current trade value at X. It doesn't matter what X actually is - it's just a number, or a player, or a group of players, or something.

(A) The Mariners decide X isn't enough, and they hang on to him. JJ pitches well for the first few months, and come July X has increased by 10%. There's less time for him to make an impact, and teams might be less willing to give up a young ML-ready player or two than they were over the winter, but overall his effectiveness elevates his value.

(B) The Mariners decide X isn't enough, and they hang on to him. JJ struggles, or gets hurt, and come July X has decreased by 80%. A team might be willing to take a flier on a guy a year and a half removed from being awesome, but overall JJ has stabbed his value in the nuts.

Faced with those theoretical black-and-white percentages (this is just an example), the breakeven rate for hanging on to JJ is 1 - (.1 / [.1 + .8]) = 89%. In other words, the Mariners would have to be at least 89% certain that JJ would follow path (A) in order to justify keeping him around. Alternatively, they'd have to believe that an effective JJ would be worth more than 1.1*X around deadline time. Whichever the case, were the M's to keep JJ through the winter, they'd be doing so because they believed there was a really good chance that he'd improve his value by pitching well out of the gate.

I don't need to tell you that that's an awful big risk. Relievers are volatile. Particularly the ones coming off disappointing seasons in which they got injured. There's no guarantee that JJ's ever going to get back to what he was in 2006 and 2007, and the downside inherent in giving him the opportunity is enormous. One more rough stretch or DL stint and his value goes through the floor.

While we know that JJ could destroy his value by struggling, what we can't say is whether his value would even increase by that much were he to resume pitching well. I thought that teams might be a little wary around him given his iffy 2008, but from all indications, he's still considered to be an upper-echelon closer with a very affordable price. How much could he possibly improve on that? It doesn't seem like front offices are very concerned by his injuries at all, so I have to wonder just how close his value is to its ceiling. Because the nearer it is, the less sense it makes to hang on to him through the winter. Why take that kind of risk when there's only minimal upside?

(Also, while the list of teams seeking a closer will change mid-season, it's impossible to predict who else will be available.)

The more I think about it, the more I come around to the idea of trading JJ away. I mean, I love everything about the guy, and I'm not saying the M's should deal him if the best they can get in return is Jeff Larish, but if you can get a Matt Joyce from the Tigers or someone equally interesting from the Brewers, I think you have to pull the trigger. For one thing, teams just don't look like they're going to give up much more for a closer, and for another, that's already good value - Joyce, for example, would give us six years of team control over a left-handed league-average outfielder with upside. That's quite a return for a reliever with injury concerns who turns 32 in February. What more could you want?

JJ was a phenomenal closer at his peak, and he may resume pitching at the same level again in 2009. He's a volatile player, though, and holding on to him into the season runs the risk of pulling the rug out from under his value before we get the chance to cash him in for someone who can help this team win a pennant. Zduriencik, if nobody offers anything good then by all means feel free to stand still, but if there's adequate talent to be had, I implore you to seize it without thinking twice. Because for as much as we love JJ, and for as much as he's meant to this organization, it's the right thing to do, and at the end of the day, that's the only thing that matters.

If the Mariners trade JJ and move Morrow back to closing, that would be bad, but we would have to view those as two separate decisions, because the former in no way obligates the latter.

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