Analyzing the Tommy Hanson for Jordan Walden Trade

Kevin C. Cox

Trading a starter for a reliever is not typically a great idea. However, in the case of the Braves trade of Tommy Hanson to the Angels for reliever Jordan Walden, risk is an extremely important consideration.

Just few years ago, Tommy Hanson was one of the most hyped pitching prospects in baseball, the jewel of the Atlanta Braves pitching-rich farm system. Entering the 2009 season, he was ranked the 4th best prospect in the game by Baseball America. His stock has been on a steady decline since then, mirroring the decline in his fastball velocity. His fall from grace has now culminated in a trade to the Los Angeles Angels, who sent just one player, reliever Jordan Walden, to the Braves for the former top prospect.

In isolation this deal appears incredibly lopsided. The Angels got a 26 year old starter who, despite his declining velocity, threw 174 innings last season and has a career ERA of 3.61 supported by a FIP of 3.77. Bill James projections tab Hanson for 160 innings in 2013 with a very solid 3.66 ERA and a 3.82 FIP. Getting this type of quality starter for a middling reliever like Walden, should be an absolute steal. However, the very fact that this trade took place is a good indication that Hanson’s shoulder issues are a very serious problem.

Atlanta appears to be cutting their losses here. Hanson has not turned out to be anything near the top-of-the-rotation talent he was once projected to be. The declining velocity has translated into an ERA, FIP, and xFIP that have gotten worse with each season. He is now a back end starter with just a flicker of mid-rotation potential remaining. He is also a huge injury risk. He has been plagued by recurring shoulder issues and there are a number of experts who feel that his mechanics are at the root of those issues. The Braves should know Hanson better than any other team and they want nothing to do with him. Given this information, this trade makes far more sense.

Jordan Walden is a potentially useful bullpen arm and he is young and he is cost controlled. He served as the Angels closer in 2011 and earned an All Star appearance but he lost the job early in the season, got sent to the minors, then the DL and then returned to a middle relief role. He has also seen his velocity decline, but he still averages 96.3 mph on his fastball and touches 99. He has his own mechanical issue, in the form of his jump-step delivery, but he appears to be less of injury risk than Hanson. As with many flame-throwing young relievers, Walden has fantastic strikeout ability- he has punched out 28% of hitters in his 114 career innings- but he also struggles with walks, allowing 10% of hitters to draw a free pass. The Braves will not need to consider Walden for the closer role with Craig Kimbrel around, but he could be an extremely effective bridge to Kimbrel and setup man Jonny Venters, further bolstering the Braves excellent relief core.

Should Hanson stay healthy and ward off any further decline, the Angels will be the clear winners here. However, the Braves almost certainly would have demanded more if they thought that was a possibility. Jordan Walden is not a game changer for the Braves, but he has value for them and getting a useful player like Walden is certainly better than getting nothing after Hanson breaks down completely. This trade is a gamble for both teams, but the risk for the Angels is far greater.

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