Grand Cards: Robertson Gone: Tigers Choose One Basket for All Their Eggs

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Robertson Gone: Tigers Choose One Basket for All Their Eggs

Oh boy.

So I was eating lunch with some co-workers when the headline caught me: Nate Robertson was traded to Florida for LHP Jay Voss and Cash. As the bottom line ticked away this factoid appeared:

Detroit 6 Baltimore 5 5th Inning. Willis: 4.1 IP, 7H 5ER 4BB 3K

Oh boy.
2009 DAV Detroit Tigers Nate Robertson
I always liked Nate Robertson. Back in 2006 he was a tough-luck, hard working, awesome facial-haired pitcher. He was my wife's "Tiger" in the "Who's Your Tiger" campaign. He started gum time. He was the only Tiger who actually bought a house in Michigan and lived there year round. Ironically, today's Detroit Free Press announced that Brandon Inge will now be living in Michigan full time.
In recent years, pitcher Nate Robertson has been the only Tiger to live in Michigan year-round. He resides in Canton.
No more.

Somewhere along the line, the wheels fell off. Robertson went from being a serviceable major league starter to a fringe major leaguer in a matter of months. As he wasted away as a generally ineffective bullpen lefty last season, it turned out that he was suffering from any series of maladies, including bone chips and a groin issue.

Flash forward to this spring. Bone chips removed and Groin healed, Robertson, in his 19-odd innings of Spring Work outpitched, by a not insignificant margin, the other two main contenders for the open spots in the Tigers rotation. With Robertson, Willis and Bonderman all proud owners of $10 Million+ contracts, it was widely believed that 1) someone would get traded or 2) someone would fill up a bullpen slot.

What is interesting is that the pitcher that ultimately did get traded was the one most "coveted" (as much as any one of these pitchers can be coveted) by other teams for precisely the reason that you wouldn't want to trade him: he looked the best.

2009 Allen & Ginter #AGR-DW Dontrelle Willis Relic

There is a concept in economics known as sunk costs. They apply to things that will need to be paid for no matter what, and it the general theory is that the sunk cost shouldn't influence strategic decisions because they are fixed either way. The Tigers are not foreign to this concept. Last year, they cut Gary Sheffield and his multi-million dollar contract for one reason: they thought that they were better without him. He was getting paid no matter what, so the question was whether they were better off with Sheffield and his contract alone, or with Sheffield's Contract and a different player and his contract. They chose the latter.

This season, monetarily, Bonderman, Robertson and Willis all had similar sunk costs, and presumably, their contracts shouldn't have factored into any decision. However, you begin to wonder whether there is some ego or emotional factor that swayed Dombrowski to stick with Willis. Perhaps a glimmer of hope that his signing wouldn't turn out to be a total failure?

In other words, blatant disregard for Willis as a sunk cost.

Rob Neyer parses this by assuming that the Tigers are not motivated by ego or hubris or what have you in his brief update on the trade:
Early rumors are that the Tigers are paying almost all of Robertson's $10 million salary this season. Considering Voss's presumed future, that means Dave Dombrowski is essentially betting that Dontrelle Willis will be better than Robertson this season. (emphasis mine)

Assuming that Dombrowski is consistent in his application of economic theory, and recognizes sunk costs for what they are, this trade says one thing: We think that Dontrelle Willis will be better than Nate Robertson.

Whether that position has any merit remains to be seen. The brief flashes of Willisian brilliance this spring have been encouraging, but really no different than say, 6.1 innings of excellence for example. When I see a walk rate that is as high as ever, and wild pitches and all of the inconsistency that has plagued Dontrelle Willis over the last two years, I have a hard time of saying that 20-odd innings of good-not-great performance is the type of encouraging sample size that I like to see.

But this is the basket in which the Tigers have placed their eggs (two baskets really, as Bonderman--who arguably pitched the worst of the three this spring--is a huge risk too) by making the trade.

Now, I'm not saying that it is a bad trade. But when I see a player who loved Michigan, was pitching well and could have served as a lefty in the bullpen (move over, Brad Thomas) get shipped out for a low-level prospect with limited upside and the Tigers are playing the bulk of his salary, I start to question whether it was something that needed to be done. When this is done alongside the human question marks that are Willis and Bonderman, you need to wonder whether Robertson isn't more valuable as insurance in the Tigers organization than he would be to any other team.

But hey, the eggs are where they are. Willis (and Bonderman) are in. Robertson is out. I'm not calling myself a pessimist, but let's just say this: I hope Eddie Bonine keeps himself stretched out.

*it is worth noting that I probably would have felt this way no matter which of the three players were traded, and clearly Robertson was the only player that had any trade value whatsoever. It is more a question of depth. With the salaries all sunk costs it seems like the trade doesn't net enough for the team to sacrifice the depth of another starter option. Through a combination of random chance and likelihood of failure, it seems to me like the Tigers would want as many viable starters as they can get, but that's why Dombrowski gets paid the big bucks, I guess.