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Thursday, June 30, 2011
Mark Ellis and the three-way trade of 2001

By Christina Kahrl

Seeing Mark Ellis get dealt away is sort of a bittersweet thing if you have any rooting interest in the A’s. It’s been a little more than 10 years now since Oakland got him in the huge three-way deal that put Cory Lidle, Johnny Damon and Ellis in Oakland. The deal also sent Ben Grieve -- once considered proof of the A’s draft-day genius -- to the then-Devil Rays, and dispatched Roberto Hernandez, Angel Berroa and A.J. Hinch to the Royals. It was huge news at the time, and another example of Billy Beane’s willingness to wheel and deal.

Mark Ellis
Mark Ellis owns a career batting average of .265 after nine seasons in Oakland.
In retrospect, it was a deal that left almost everyone disappointed. Grieve’s power evaporated in Florida, leaving the D-Rays stuck with a slow twenty-something DH who didn’t "H." The Rays realized all of 2.0 WAR, wins above replacement, from adding Grieve -- across three seasons, and the former first-round pick was out of the majors before he was 30. In Berroa, the Royals briefly possessed the blue-chip prospect they thought they’d gotten in the deal. He gave them 4.0 WAR in 2003, he won the Rookie of the Year, and all seemed well. Berroa then “contributed” -0.2 WAR over the next three years, making him less valuable over his Royals career than he was in his first season. Hernandez gave the Royals 1.4 WAR across the last two expensive seasons left on his old deal, costing the Royals $12 million for an adequate performance as the team’s closer. Hinch was the definition of doing no harm, or much good (0.0 WAR) before earning his release from the Royals’ backup backstop duties.

Not that the A’s had much to brag about. Damon was in his age-27 season and a year removed from free agency, so if you thought he was going to break out because of his age or his walk year, you were disappointed -- his 2.7 WAR was decidedly worse than his two previous seasons for the Royals. However, it was everything else the A’s got in the deal that made this a massive win for Beane and for Oakland. Damon’s departure as a free agent to Boston gave the A’s the pick they used on Nick Swisher in 2002, and Swisher eventually became Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney, and Fautino De Los Santos. Lidle was more valuable than Damon per year in his first two full seasons in the rotation (6.6 WAR, 3.74 ERA in 59 starts) before his final year of arbitration eligibility priced him out of the A’s budget. He was dealt to the Jays for junk, so not every offshoot of this trade blossomed.

Then there’s Ellis. At the time he was acquired, he was a minor-league shortstop whose arm and range were perhaps a bit short for short. But he was a patient hitter with a line-drive bat and managed a .302/.406/.409 season in Wilmington in the Carolina League, a tough park. The A’s had him skip Double-A in 2001, and in 2002 he was ready to take the place of aging scrappers like Frankie Menechino and Randy Velarde. He’d miss time to injuries over the years, but between his modest power and plus defense, he gave the A’s 21.8 WAR, or 3.3 per 162 games -- more valuable than Damon had been, certainly, and not shabby for a tacked-on talent in the transaction. You didn’t have to be an A’s fan old enough to remember Dick Green, but it helped, and watching Ellis play, you were almost certainly a fan.

So, Ellis has been shipped off to Denver as a 34-year-old with a slowing bat and a spotty track record for staying healthy. That’s not a bad thing in itself. Jemile Weeks owns the keystone in Oakland these days. While the A’s had to eat some of Ellis’ $6 million in salary, they had more use for the roster spot than wait out the end of his deal and send him on his way. He wasn’t going to be offered arbitration, so there was no possibility of picks to reap. Getting a PTBNL and Bruce Billings, a 25-year-old organizational arm with low-90s heat and a low upside outside of situational ROOGY-dom is a decent return as these things go; this year Billings held Double-A righties to a .670 OPS with a 26 percent strikeout rate. Billings may never don an A’s uniform outside of spring training, but that’s what you get in most deals these days. Expectations for who the PTBNL might be ought to be set low, but you never know.

As a fan, seeing Ellis wind up a Rockie gives me some small additional cause to hope the Rox make one of their second-half charges back into contention and beyond. His glove should be an asset -- especially now that the brief, mad Jonathan Herrera craze has long since worn out its welcome -- and hitting in Coors and in the National League might help put some life back in Ellis’ bat. Getting both Ellis and Lidle in the big three-way trade of January 2001 became yet another minor coup, one of the many things behind Beane’s reputation as a canny trader before Moneyball, and it makes for a nice reminder that sometimes it isn’t the name players in the deal who deliver -- or have to.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.