RC Analysis: The Pena Trade

The Royals on Friday afternoon pulled the trigger on a trade for a new shortstop. Kansas City sent minor league hurler Erik Cordier to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for shortstop Tony Pena, Jr. Below is our analysis of the trade, which we find to be a perfect example of trading high upside risk for a better known commodity.

When RC first learned of the Tony Pena trade Friday afternoon, we were a little uneasy. There is no question that Erik Cordier is a high bounty to give up for a shortstop who has yet to prove an ability to hit, and it is no secret that Cordier was one of our favorite pitchers in the Royals' system. Nevertheless, as the dust settled a bit, and we began thinking about the deal, we ultimately concluded that it makes sense on at least a couple of different levels.

First, let's look at what the Royals gave up. Among all the pitchers in the Royals' system, there are few with comparable upsides to Cordier. Indeed, if Cordier had been able to maintain his health and log more than 87 total innings over the past three seasons, he very well might be one of the top pitching prospects in baseball by now. Cordier's fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he had a game or two last season in which he consistently threw 97-98 mph. His changeup is a potentially plus pitch, and his curve, while inconsistent, shows promise.

Cordier was one of our favorite pitchers, and we wish him well

Of course, injuries have played a defining role in Cordier's career thus far, and he missed the entire 2005 campaign with a knee injury. He bounced back well, and he was dominant in stops at Idaho Falls and Burlington last year before being shut down with elbow pain. The initial MRI showed no damage, but when Cordier continued feeling discomfort, the subsequent MRI revealed the need for Tommy John surgery. As a result, Cordier will miss the entire 2007 season, but he should be ready for a full workload by the time spring training rolls around next season.

There is uncertainty surrounding any pitcher coming off a major surgery like Tommy John. While most pitchers make a full recovery, some never regain the command they had prior to the operation. Cordier has once already shown the ability to come back after missing a year, and we have to assume he's capable of doing it again while making a full recovery. If he does, this trade will look less attractive from the Royals' standpoint. Nevertheless, there's still a significant risk that he won't, and for the Royals, that was enough to use him to address a weakness on the Major League club.

If Pena proves to be a reliable defensive shortstop, then he's clearly an upgrade over Angel Berroa. Any offense he provides will be merely a bonus. Of course, one of the reasons the Royals wanted Pena is because Dayton Moore and the scouting team saw steady improvement in Pena's offensive game, and they don't feel that he's yet reached his offensive potential. True, he's 26-years old, but keep in mind, Pena has only been playing organized baseball since 1999. His learning curve is therefore even longer than typical minor leaguers, and there is certainly a chance that he could still develop into an acceptable bat at the Major League level. And of course, Dayton Moore and Rene Francisco are in a better position to judge Pena than anyone, having a relationship with him that stretches well back into their days in Atlanta.

Pena's bat is still improving

But don't the Royals already have a slick-fielding, weak-hitting shortstop in Andres Blanco? Yes they do, but our impression is that the Royals feel that not only is Pena more sure handed than Blanco, but he also has greater upside at the plate. Blanco certainly did come into camp stronger this spring, but he's still a guy who has hit just four home runs above the rookie ball level in his entire career. Pena hit .282 in Triple-A last year against tough International League pitching, and he's looked very solid this spring.

Also, keep in mind that the Royals figure to have a solid offensive team in the future, with or without a shortstop who can hit. Indeed, with the thumpers in the minor leagues ready to supplement Mark Teahen, Ryan Shealy, and David DeJesus in the lineup, the Royals are in a position to place a premium on a defensive shortstop, and Pena appears to fit the bill nicely. This fits perfectly with Dayton Moore's philosophy of building a team around power on the corners and defensive ability up the middle, and the Royals can live with a shortstop who is a below average hitter, as long as he can catch the ball consistently.

Hopefully we'll no longer have to hold our breath when a pop-up is hit to short

Ultimately, we wouldn't go as far as saying that we like this trade. The simple fact is, there are some things we like about this trade – namely, having a shortstop that can catch the ball – and other things we don't like, such as having to surrender a promising young pitcher for a player who the Braves were considering placing on waivers. Of course, the Royals weren't the only team interested in Pena, so it took a prospect with Cordier's upside to get the deal done.

It will hurt to have to watch Cordier develop in the Braves organization now, but there is little question that this trade did upgrade the Royals' Major League team. Odds are that even if Cordier becomes the pitcher he is capable of becoming, it will be at least three years before he's helping the Braves in the Major Leagues. Hopefully by then the Royals will be in pennant races of their own with Pena firmly ensconced at shortstop, and this trade will be little more than an afterthought.

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