Last summer, Zack Greinke was the big fish at the trade deadline. A legitimate ace who could make a difference in the playoffs, Greinke was the guy everyone wanted, and the Angels eventually coughed up three players — including 2013’s breakthrough shortstop Jean Segura — in order to rent his services for the final two months of the year. Other high profile acquisitions included Hanley Ramirez, Hunter Pence, and Ryan Dempster, as teams loaded up with big names for the stretch run. However, in looking back at how the remainder of the season played out, none of those names turned out to be the most important acquisition of the deadline: that title goes to Marco Scutaro, and he should be a lesson for buyers this month.
When the Rockies traded Scutaro to the Giants on July 27th, he was hitting just .271/.324/.361, mediocre numbers for a hitter playing anywhere, much less one who got to spend half of his time playing at altitude in the most hitter friendly ballpark in the Major Leagues. At 36-years-old, Scutaro looked like he was just done as a big leaguer. His defense limited him to second base, he’d never hit for any power, and as a .270 hitter who didn’t walk much, Scutaro looked like a utility guy off the bench at best.
After all, he didn’t make the big leagues until he was 26, and he didn’t lock down a starting job until he was 28. Scutaro has been defying the odds his entire career, and it was inevitable that he was going to run out of juju at some point. So, when we saw him put up half a season of replacement level performance, it didn’t look like a slump; it looked like the end for a guy who peaked as a solid role player to begin with.
When the Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez despite his mediocre performance in Miami, it was considered “buying low” in hopes that a “change of scenery” would restart his career. These are the kinds of phrases that get tossed around when a team trades for a slumping player in his 20s. If he’s on the wrong side of 30, though, the consideration that it might just be a cold streak is hardly considered. We assume that any older player going through a rough stretch is struggling because his skills are eroding. As Scutaro showed, however, old players can slump too, and we should be wary of writing off players in their mid-30s with strong track records just because they had a bad couple of months.
For teams who want to try and repeat what the Giants did with Scutaro last year, here are a few players worth going after, even though they aren’t that young and their first half performance doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.
Alfonso Soriano, OF, Chicago Cubs
Soriano is 37-years-old and posting an 89 wRC+, his worst offensive performance since 2009. At 2.8%, his walk rate is actually the lowest he’s posted since becoming a regular in 2001, and it’s not like he’s been a particularly patient hitter throughout his career. In addition to the lack of walks, his .174 Isolated Slugging percentage would be his worst mark since his rookie year. The power seems to be eroding, and that’s really the only tool that has been able to keep him a productive player through the second half of his career.
However, we shouldn’t just assume that Soriano’s power is gone for good. He had 67 extra base hits a year ago, and half of those went over the fence. His .237 ISO in 2012 was actually higher than his career average of .229, so this is not the continuation of any kind of recent trend. Soriano’s hitting for less power this year, but there’s no reason to think that his ability to launch home runs has completely disappeared.
Because that’s really all Soriano does well at this point, he’s not any kind of offensive savior, and should probably only be expected to produce at about the rate of a league average hitter. However, for teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, getting league average offense from a corner outfield spot would be a tremendous upgrade, and Soriano is unlikely to cost much of anything in trade. With about $27 million left on his contract — he’s scheduled to make $18 million at age-38 next year — the Cubs will have to pick up almost all of his remaining money in order to move him, but a contender could do worse than taking a shot on Soriano rebounding in the second half.
Scott Hairston, OF, Chicago Cubs
Hey, look, another Cubs outfielder. Hairston doesn’t have Soriano’s name value, but his skillset is very similar. At 33-years-old, Hairston has a nice track record as a guy who mashes left-handed pitching, but his aggressive approach at the plate limits his value to a part time role. Signed by the Cubs over the winter to serve as a platoon outfielder, Hairston has hit just .160/.224/.372, and has basically fallen out of the Cubs line-up at this point.
However, his offensive downturn is almost entirely based on hitting balls right at people. His walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power are almost identical to his marks from last year with the Cubs, when he posted a 118 wRC+ and was a high quality role player. His batting average on balls in play, however, is a staggeringly low .132, 155 points below his 2012 mark and easily the lowest of any hitter with at least 100 plate appearances this year. BABIP is much less predictive than other measures, especially over 100 plate appearances, and Hairston could easily go back to mashing left-handed pitching in the second half. For a team looking for a platoon outfielder, Hairston would be a nice low cost option.
Shaun Marcum, SP, New York Mets
Marcum, once an excellent pitcher in Toronto, has seen his career derailed by shoulder problems, and he’s currently dealing with both neck and shoulder tightness that could land him back on the disabled list. At 31-years-old and with a fastball that now averages just 85.3 mph, along with his current 5.03 ERA, it’s easy to see Marcum as a washed-up has been that doesn’t have the stuff to get big league hitters out anymore.
However, Marcums’ xFIP is 4.26, almost a dead on match for the 4.21 mark he put up a year ago when his ERA was 3.70. Even with his stuff degrading, his rate of home runs on fly balls (6.5%) is at a career low, and his strikeout rate is hanging around league average thanks to his excellent change-up.
Marcum is not an innings eater by any stretch of the imagination, but for a contender who is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, Marcum could throw 50 to 75 decent innings and will likely not cost much in terms of prospects to acquire. He’s not going to fix your entire rotation, but if a team is looking for an adequate stop gap to help get them through the stretch run, Marcum could be a useful piece, even if he hasn’t looked great in the first half.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.