Harden versus Gallagher

When the A’s decided yesterday to trade Rich Harden to the Cubs for a package of players that lacks a guy that you could point to as a potential star, they knew they were giving up one of the most talented arms in baseball. When Harden’s been healthy, he’s been lights out, blowing opposing hitters away and reminding the world that he’s still a force to occasionally be reckoned with.

Most of the reactions that I’ve seen so far are along the lines of “that’s it?”, expressing disappointment that the A’s dealt Harden away for what most see as a group of guys with limited upside. However, I think this deal makes a lot of sense for an A’s team that wants to continue to win in the near future while also solidifying their long term ability to compete. To show what I mean, let’s take a look at projections for Harden and Sean Gallagher going forward.

Based on his performance when healthy, and his numerous issues that have led to extended time on the DL, most of the preseason projection systems had Harden tabbed for between 50 to 100 innings pitched and a FIP of between 3.15 and 3.99. He’s already been able to throw 77 innings with a 2.70 FIP this year (even though a good part of that is an unsustainably low HR/FB rate), so if we add this new information to what we knew heading into 2008, we’d probably project Harden going forward as something like a guy who will throw 100 IP per season with a 3.25 FIP. That makes him one of the league’s best pitchers for about half a season, which sounds about right.

We knew a bit less about Gallagher, since the projections had to be built with the help of minor league data and a small sample of major league performance, but ZIPS and CHONE pegged him for a FIP between 4.9 and 5.1 over 120-140 innings while being unsure which role the Cubs would use him in. In 12 appearances this year (10 starts), he’s thrown 58 innings and posted a 3.98 FIP, so again, adding that new information and adjusting for the switch from the AL to the NL, we’d probably project Gallagher in Oakland for something like 180 innings a year with a FIP around 5.00.

Harden is obviously the better pitcher, but we have to account for the difference in durability as well, so let’s add Harden’s theoretical replacement into the equation. The A’s are one of the best organizations in baseball at finding spare parts to put up solid performances in their rotation (their defense and home park don’t hurt), so let’s assume that Amalgamation Of Harden Replacements will make up the 80 inning difference by posting a 5.50 FIP, a tick or two above league wide replacement level.

That brings the combined totals for Harden + Harden Replacements to 180 innings with a 4.25 FIP, compared to the 180 innings we were projecting from Gallagher at a 5.00 FIP. That’s a difference of three-fourths of a run per nine innings, which while significant, adds up to a grand total of about 15 runs over the course of an entire season.

Fifteen runs, or roughly 1.5 wins – that’s the entirety of downgrading from Rich Harden to Sean Gallagher, based on the assumptions I made above. If you don’t like the numbers I used, feel free to plug in your own, but unless you’re very bullish on Harden’s health, you’re going to come to the conclusion that the swap will cost the A’s at most two or three wins between now and the end of 2009, when Harden’s contract expires.

For giving up those two to three wins in the next year and a half, the A’s receive club control over Gallagher from 2010 to 2013 (his ’08-’09 years are already counted above), control over Murton from 2008 to 2011, control over Patterson from 2008 to 2014, a potentially useful prospect in Josh Donaldson, and they save approximately $8 million in salary.

The A’s sold two to three wins for four years of a guy who projects out as a league average pitcher, three years of a useful platoon outfielder, six years of a potentially useful utility player, a young catching prospect, and $8 million in cash. And they’re getting killed for it?

If Beane spends the $8 million he saved on a free agent this winter, he’ll be able to buy back at least one of the wins he surrendered in this deal, and probably closer to two, erasing almost the entire difference between Harden and Gallagher just with the financial savings. Even if Murton, Patterson, and Donaldson are all busts, the A’s are still just about as good in 2009 as they were with Harden, meaning they picked up Gallagher’s age 24 to 27 seasons for free.

I’m not a huge Sean Gallagher fan, as my rather conservative projection above shows, and after running through all this, but if I was the A’s, I still might have considered swapping Harden for Gallagher straight up. The fact that they got Murton, Patterson, and Donaldson as sweetner is just a bonus.

This deal is a win for the A’s, even if it doesn’t necessarily seem like it. They don’t take much away from their 2009 team while making the 2010 to 2013 squads potentially a lot better.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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You didn’t make any reference to Gaudin. How does his value play into this trade? Isn’t he a solid 4/5 starter or long reliever?