In a vacuum, you could probably make a decent enough case in favor of exchanging Alex White for Wilton Lopez. As Jeff wrote last week, Lopez is the game’s most extreme high GB/low BB reliever, and this skillset allows him to be an effective late-inning reliever. Lopez is a quality arm, and he can be a key piece of a good bullpen. Meanwhile, White has been pretty lousy during his first 150 innings in the big leagues, and there’s a decent chance that he ends up in the bullpen himself. As one person noted to me on Twitter last night, the Rockies traded a guy I’ve projected as a reliever in the past for a better reliever.
There’s just a few problems here. The primary one regards the health of Lopez’s right arm. The reported deal with the Phillies that never materialized last week apparently included Philadelphia having some significant concern over his elbow, and a couple of folks here in Nashville have said that Lopez flunked a physical at the trade deadline that nuked a trade for him back in July. When there’s smoke, there’s often fire, and the fact that Lopez spent a month of the 2012 season on the DL with an elbow issue suggests that there’s almost certainly something there worth worrying about. Without access to the medical information and people who can intelligently interpret it, we can’t say to what degree Lopez is damaged goods, but it is clear that other teams have serious concerns about how long Lopez’s elbow is going to last before he needs surgery.
However, predicting injuries isn’t something anyone has mastered, so let’s just assume for now that Lopez is going to stay healthy. Even with that assumption, it’s not clear that this is a significant upgrade for Colorado relative to simply shifting White to the bullpen.
Like Lopez, White is a ground ball pitcher, and during his run up the minor league ladder, he showed good command of the strike zone. That hasn’t carried over to the big leagues, but there’s a significant difference between starting and relieving, and White didn’t get a lot of time in the high minors to prepare for life in the Majors — he’s thrown about one half of a season in Triple-A between his time there in 2011 and 2012. While there are reasons to think he might not stick as a starter, he has the ability to be a very similar reliever to Lopez, only he’s younger, presumably healthier, cheaper, and under team control for an extra two years. If the Rockies really wanted a right-handed groundball reliever and didn’t think White would stick as a starter, then they could have simply shifted White to the bullpen, where scouts have projected he’d be a successful arm since his days at the University of North Carolina.
And that’s before we get into the fact the Rockies aren’t exactly in a position to extract value from a reliever who likely has a short shelf life. They were 64-98 a year ago, and while they should be better next year with the return of Troy Tulowitzki, it’s hard to see them as anything other than a rebuilding team. They just don’t have enough talent around Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez to put a winning team on the field, and the marginal difference between having Lopez and White in the bullpen is unlikely to manifest itself in any significant way next year. Even if it’s a +1 win upgrade, that win is probably not going to be the difference between Colorado making the playoffs or watching at home, and so while it’s still worth making intelligent upgrades, the Rockies shouldn’t be borrowing from their future to make those kind of small upgrades right now.
White’s future might not be that bright. If Lopez can keep his elbow in tact, he’s a good bet to be a solid reliever, even in Colorado. But I just don’t see why the Rockies should be using young talent to acquire bullpen upgrades when their team is in need of near total reconstruction.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.