Could Brett Wallace be the next Jason Giambi?
The Brett Wallace versus Jemile Weeks debate can finally end. The Oakland A’s now have both players in their suddenly more potent minor league system. On Friday, the A’s swung the deal that many predicted they wouldn’t be able to make, sending outfielder Matt Holliday to the St. Louis Cardinals for a package of three prospects, Wallace, pitcher Clayton Mortensen and outfielder Shane Peterson.
It has been assumed almost from the moment the ink dried on the Oakland A’s trade with the Colorado Rockies last winter that Matt Holliday would be dealt again at the trading deadline. Those assumptions were challenged during the first part of the season, when Holliday got off to a slow start with his new club and the whispers began that he couldn’t hit outside of Coors Field. Holliday heated up after a slow April, however, and suddenly a trade seemed more viable. But the question remained, would Oakland be able to get more value in a mid-season deal for Holliday than they would taking two first-round draft choices over the winter when Holliday signed elsewhere? Right now, the answer appears to be ‘yes.’
With the St. Louis Cardinals looking for a big bat to hit behind Albert Pujols in their attempt to win a mediocre National League Central, the Cards’ attentions turned to Holliday, a player that they had attempted to acquire last winter before Oakland swooped in and netted him for Huston Street, Carlos Gonzalez and Greg Smith. From the outset, Oakland was reportedly interested only in deals that included Cards’ top prospect Brett Wallace, a Triple-A third-baseman who the A’s almost drafted last season in the first round. The Cardinals reportedly balked at the idea of including Wallace at first, but with Holliday swinging the bat well, the NL Central race tightening and manager Tony LaRussa pressuring ownership to acquire another big bat, St. Louis’ tune eventually changed.
Remarkably, the A’s were able to net more than just Wallace for two-plus months of Holliday’s services. They were also able to acquire pitcher Clayton Mortensen, a 2007 supplemental first round pick, and outfielder Shane Peterson, a 2008 second round pick. Sacramento IF/OF Eric Patterson has been recalled to Oakland to fill Holliday's spot on the 25-man roster.
Every fan in baseball knows who the Cardinals are getting in this trade. Holliday, despite his troubles in the American League this season, is an impact bat that is a rare commodity in baseball. He is also a good base-runner and an above-average defensive left-fielder, both attributes that will endear him to his new manager and to the rabid fanbase in St. Louis. But who did Oakland receive? Let’s take a look.
Any discussion of this trade has to begin with Wallace, the former Arizona State third-baseman. Wallace is a native of the North Bay and reportedly grew up rooting for the A’s. Last season when Oakland held the number 12 overall pick in the draft, the A’s had two players on their draft board at the time of the pick: Jemile Weeks and Wallace. They went with Weeks, who has played well as a pro when he has been healthy, but he has struggled with injuries that have slowed his progression in the system somewhat. Meanwhile, Wallace dominated Low-A and Double-A last season and finished the year playing in the Arizona Fall League, where he was one of four 2008 draft picks to participate and he was named to the AFL All-Prospects team. Both Wallace and Weeks were named to the US team at the recently completed MLB All-Star Futures Game, which took place, ironically, in St. Louis.
Wallace is a prototypical Oakland A’s hitter from the height of the “Moneyball” era (i.e., 1999-2002). The left-handed hitter doesn’t have great footspeed, but he has an excellent understanding of the strike-zone, great plate coverage and good power. Since he was drafted, scouts have projected Wallace as a middle-of-the-order hitter in the major leagues, a notion that hasn’t been diminished by his body of work in the minor leagues thus far.
The only question that scouts have had about Wallace has been where he will play defensively. Currently, he is a third-baseman, although many scouts project him as a first-baseman down the road. He has a big frame and isn’t particularly quick, but he has thus far held his own defensively at third. Gold Gloves are probably not in his future, but if Wallace can manage to be an average third-baseman, the A’s are likely to be happy to live with his defense to get his bat in the line-up at a premium position. Wallace has been in Triple-A since mid-May and is batting .293 for the Memphis Redbirds in 62 games. Between Double-A and Triple-A, Wallace is batting .289 with 11 homers, 35 RBIs and a 796 OPS in 94 games. He had a 957 OPS in 54 games at Low-A and Double-A last season. Wallace should report to Triple-A Sacramento, and could be in Oakland sometime this season. At the latest, he should make his major league debut early next year.
Mortensen fits the new Oakland A’s “prototypical player” profile: a polished pitcher with a plus sinker. He was the 36th overall pick in the 2007 draft out of Gonzaga. Mortensen has been on the fast-track through the Cardinals system ever since, reaching Triple-A as a 23-year-old last season. He has spent virtually all of the 2009 season in Triple-A, where he is currently 7-6 with a 4.37 ERA and 82 strike-outs in 105 innings. Mortensen has one major league appearance, a start versus the San Francisco Giants earlier this season. He allowed six runs (two earned) in three innings in that big league debut.
Mortensen’s fastball has, as mentioned earlier, good sink and good velocity, sitting in the 90-94 range. He is a groundball machine, especially versus right-handed hitters, although he has struggled at times versus lefties. He also throws a slider and a change-up. Both pitches can be effective, but have been inconsistent for Mortensen. Command has also been an issue at times for the right-hander, although he has had better command this season than he did last year. Mortensen projects to be a mid- to back-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues or a set-up man who is tough on righties and can induce a lot of groundballs.
Peterson, the Cardinals second round pick in 2008 (56th overall), has a similar profile to current A’s top prospect Sean Doolittle. Like Doolittle, Peterson competed collegiately at a top program (Doolittle was at Virginia, while Peterson was at Long Beach State) and both played in the field and pitched for their college teams. Like Doolittle, Peterson is a left-handed hitter and thrower who can play first-base and the corner outfield spots.
Since being drafted by St. Louis, Peterson – like Wallace and Mortensen – has been on a fast track. After competing in the Rookie Pioneer League last season, Peterson began the 2009 campaign in High-A. Competing for Palm Beach of the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Peterson hit .298 with a 795 OPS and was named to the league’s All-Star team. He was recently promoted to Double-A and is batting .284 with a 743 OPS in 18 games for the Springfield Cardinals. The 21-year-old has a patient approach at the plate, a line-drive stroke and a good glove at both first and in the outfield. Although not a speed-burner, Peterson is also a good baserunner and has 12 stolen bases in 13 chances. His arm is a big asset in the outfield. Peterson is a native of Temecula, CA, and attended Chaparral High School, where he was a teammate of current Stockton Ports’ first-baseman Steve Kleen.
In terms of current impact, this trade is lopsided in favor of the Cardinals, as St. Louis now has a much better chance of making the post-season than they did before the deal, while Oakland will continue its quest not to finish in last place. However, the long-term impact for Oakland could be tremendous. Since Jason Giambi left the A’s after the 2001 season, Oakland has been searching for a middle-of-the-order hitter who can bat for average, power and walk around the bases. They briefly found that hitter in Frank Thomas in 2006 and Thomas almost single-handedly lifted the A’s into the post-season. Wallace has the potential to be a Giambi-like middle-of-the-order hitter and could be a fixture in the A’s line-up for the next several years. Mortensen and Peterson don’t share the same ceiling as Wallace, but both have good chances at major league careers. While no team likes to be a “seller” at the trade deadline, Oakland appears to have done as well as it could have hoped to at this time of year.