When Cleveland general manager Frank Lane traded reigning American League home run champion - and huge fan favorite - Rocky Colavito to the Tigers for batting champion Harvey Kuenn just before opening day 1960, Lane was famously quoted saying "I just traded hamburger for steak."
It was a trade that was heavily criticized at the time, inasmuch as Colavito was seen as far more of an impact bat than Kuenn. By the time their careers were over - Kuenn was done as a regular by '64 and retired after '66, while Colavito's last year as an everyday player was '67 and he retired a year later - it was clear that Colavito was the better player. Kuenn batted .303 for his career, and Colavito finished with 374 home runs. But if you're someone who views Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as the measuring stick, it's not even close: Kuenn 24.3, Colavito 46.4. A blowout.
The reason I bring up the Kuenn-for-Colavito swap is this: if a GM wants to deal, or otherwise replace a player, he'll find a reason to do it even if he has to make one up. Reds GM/owner Bill DeWitt said Frank Robinson was "an old 30" when he traded him to Baltimore in December 1965. (DeWitt, by the way, was the Tigers GM who traded Kuenn to Lane for Colavito.)
The Phillies' recent signing of former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million deal - a huge number for a closer whose name isn't Mariano Rivera - guarantees that this year's closer, Ryan Madson, is indeed an ex-Phillie. It was thought that Madson had agreed to terms on a four-year $44 million deal with the club, but that deal went south when GM Ruben Amaro couldn't get ownership to approve it. (Doesn't that sound fishy to you? It's like when you reach a deal with a car salesman and he tells you he has to clear it with his sales manager. C'mon, now.)
So with Madson back on the market, once again we hear rumors that the Nationals are among a handful of teams interested. We'd heard the same thing weeks ago, with the point being made that Madson's old teammate, Jayson Werth, was trying to sell Madson on coming to Washington.
Unless I've missed something, the Nationals have a closer named Drew Storen, who just racked up 43 saves. Last summer, we heard that the Nats were apparently willing to trade Drew to the Twins for Denard Span, a deal they're happy they didn't make when Span had concussion symptoms plague him the second half of the season. Storen was pretty consistent as the closer - not perfect, by any means, but solid by most measures.
When the Storen-for-Span rumors were flying, I chatted with a number of big league scouts I know well to find out why Storen was considered expendable at such a young age. I heard a number of comments, but the one that came up most often was "Well, the Nats may think he's a little on the short side."
Drew Storen is listed as being 6-foot-2 and 180 lbs. Mariano Rivera is listed as 6-foot-2 and 185 lbs. I've never heard anyone say Rivera is "a little on the short side." Have you?
Ryan Madson is listed at 6-foot-6, so he's four inches taller than Storen. He's also seven years older. Is his stuff any better than Storen's? Well, his change-up is outstanding, one of the best in the game. And maybe the additional height gives him better tilt on his other pitches. But overall, Storen's repertoire looks pretty solid, with the mid-90s fastball and plus slider. Is Madson an elite closer, an eight-figure salary guy after his first shot at the gig?
I don't think so. If the Nats had an offseason basketball team, you might think twice, but not on baseball skills alone.
There's a degree of cost certainty with Storen that makes him the more attractive candidate for the Nationals as they are currently constituted. If there's a deal out there that would net the Nats an everyday high on-base percentage leadoff hitter/centerfielder who's in his late 20s, and Storen is the only route to that swap, that's one thing. But don't use height as a legitimate reason to move Storen to make room for Madson.
I strongly suspect that Madson ends up elsewhere anyway - and letting your high-salaried players dictate who else is on the team sets a dangerous precedent - but in this game, you just never know.