The Colorado Rockies made another trade with the Oakland A’s this afternoon, acquiring outfielder Matt Murton in exchange for minor-league infielder Corey Wimberley. The trade didn’t merit a spot on ESPN’s Bottom Line, and you’ll likely only see about 5-6 paragraphs on it in the Denver papers tomorrow. Outside of Denver and Oakland, it’s almost an overstatement to call it a footnote trade, the kind of deal that shows up in agate type on the back page next to the Gil Thorp cartoon.
So you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that not only does this trade matter, and not only could it very well be a precursor of things to come, but it’s got the potential to be a real steal for the Rockies.
First, a word on Wimberley. The 24-year old has a career .312/.378/.372 line in 1,376 AB over four levels of the minor leagues. He was drafted out of Alcorn State in the sixth round in 2005 and stole 36 bases in 67 games with rookie-level Casper, batting .381. Since then, Wimberley’s minor league career has shown him to be a speedster (181 steals, including a Texas League-leading 59 last year, with a 77% success rate) with no power whatsoever (only seven career home runs and 62 extra-base hits). He batted .291/.370/.345 at AA Tulsa last year, but he was repeating the level after a .268/.323/.348 line in 2007. His speed is truly his only plus attribute, as he has shown defensive shortcomings all over the diamond. You’ll find him as the 26th rated prospect in the Rockies section of the 2009 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. If there’s a big league future for Wimberley, it’s as a 25th man who gets enough infield hits to sustain a .265-.270 average and makes a lot of pinch-running appearances – and he has to improve his defense if he hopes to get there. Though he’s an exciting player, he’s not a big loss.
Murton, on the other hand, had a very underwhelming 2008 himself. He hit just .186/.219/.229 in 70 AB split between the Chicago Cubs and Oakland. He was part of the trade that sent Rich Harden to Chicago, and at the time, it looked like the freedom Murton needed after having been crowded out of the Cubs outfield picture. But Murton went 3-for-30 in green and gold and quickly proved himself to be just as redundant as an Athletic as he was as a Cub.
As far as the Rockies are concerned, Murton’s not a redundancy, but a part that could fill a very real hole on the big league roster. I have been campaigning for the Rockies to pick up a right-handed hitting outfielder since I suggested they make a play for Rocco Baldelli in this earlier post on this blog. Aside from Ryan Spilborghs, the presumed Opening Day center field, the Rockies are void of righty swingers in the outfield. Brad Hawpe, Seth Smith, Carlos Gonzalez and Scott Podsednik all hit lefty, and Dexter Fowler is a switch hitter. Ian Stewart, who is expected to see some time in left field this year with Garrett Atkins occupying the hot corner, is a lefty, too. This is precisely where Murton comes in. He’s a corner outfielder with a lifetime .311/.382/.484 line against southpaws. That’s no small sample size, either – that’s 322 AB in 157 games, about a season’s worth of work. Before the Cubs crowded him out of their outfield, Murton looked like a legit big league hitter, batting .296/.367/.455 with 28 homers in 830 AB over three seasons with the Cubs. But only one of those seasons – 2006, in which he hit .297/.365/.444 with 13 homers in 455 AB – was a true full-season opportunity.
Given a chance, Murton can swing the bat. And a move to Coors Field sure won’t hurt him, either. The Rockies need Murton’s power from the right side because somebody’s got to give Hawpe or Smith the day off in the corners against a left-handed pitcher.
But, as you can see above, there’s a logjam in that Rockies outfield. Hawpe and Spilly are entrenched, but that’s about it. Smith deserves a shot in left, Podsednik figures to make the team as the best defensive option in center field and a good pinch-running option, and then there’s Stewart, who will be one of the five-best hitters on this Rockies team provided he gets his at-bats. If the only place for these at-bats is left field, then that’s five outfielders, and no room at the inn for Murton.
Except, what if that’s not where the Rockies are planning to play Stewart in 2009?
When defense is factored in, Stewart projects to be a better option at third base than Garrett Atkins, right now, and into the future. With Todd Helton expected to be ready for Opening Day, Atkins’s role as a security measure at first base is no longer necessary. And with Jeff Francis having set a drop-dead date for potential surgery on his left shoulder that would cost him much of the 2009 season, the Rockies could use an extra starting pitcher. See where I’m going with this?
Today’s trade may appear to be insignificant on its surface. But it’s not. For one, Murton can hit. For two, the Rockies need a right-handed hitting outfielder who can hit lefties, and Murton is exactly that, so they need him on the big club. And thirdly, to make room for him in the outfield picture, they have to remove Ian Stewart from that picture. And the only way to do that is to trade Garrett Atkins for a starting pitcher. And I believe that the seeds have been planted for such a move with the trade for Murton today.