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MLB Trade Value Rankings, Part 1

The hot stove is cooking, so it's time for the delicate process of rating MLB's top 50 most valuable assets

In theory, no sport makes it easier to rank players’ value than baseball does. The game’s statistical revolution started 55 years before Moneyball, when Branch Rickey lured Montreal Royals stats keeper Allan Roth to the Dodgers, making Roth the first full-time statistician in major league history. The ensuing six and a half decades allowed future Allan Roths to create and refine a series of advanced metrics, to such an extent that we could measure a player’s worth by how many games he helped his team win. Other sports would eventually follow suit. But where value in other sports could be dictated by hard-to-measure factors such as help defense, interior lineman blocking, and proper spacing on a three-on-two rush, baseball remained the simplest to track: pitch ball, hit ball, catch ball. Incorporate factors such as age, salary, and service time, and you could take it a step further, ranking baseball’s top trade commodities.

Then the Dodgers — the new, $2.15-billion-to-get-a-seat-at-the-table Dodgers — had to go and screw everything up.

Welcome to the first edition of Grantland’s MLB Trade Value Rankings. The premise of this column is simple: If every team declared every player in baseball available to be traded, who would fetch the biggest return? The execution is trickier. Baseball’s service-time rules play a huge role in determining trade value, given that players come cheapest in the first six years of their major league careers, and players most often peak in their mid-to-late 20s — often just before they become eligible for free agency. Still, bang for the buck isn’t the only factor considered when ranking players here. An exorbitantly paid superstar might not attract much interest from lower-revenue clubs like the A’s and Pirates. But one über-rich buyer can be enough to dramatically alter a player’s trade value. The Dodgers raided their farm system and absorbed the hideous contracts of Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, all for the privilege of paying Adrian Gonzalez $135 million for what may well turn out to be six-plus years of decline. That move reminded us that certain teams will spend big to try to win a World Series, without regard for any mythical marginal-dollars-per-marginal-win championship. So, given the likelihood that at least one team would pay through the nose to land a well-paid star player, you’ll see a few nine-figure contracts spliced in with various underpaid, 20-something stars (see the sidebar for a full list of Trade Value rules).

With a nod to NBA Trade Value creator Bill Simmons and NFL Trade Value maestro Bill Barnwell, let’s see if we can do this without engendering any Michael Keaton third-clone Multiplicity comps. Just have to crank up the official MLB Trade Value anthem … and we’re off.

Honorable Mention

Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, Trevor Cahill, Mat Latos, Lance Lynn, Jarrod Parker, Matt Harvey, Trevor Bauer: Each of these pitchers is talented, has three or more years of service time left with his current team, and/or is signed to an attractive contract. Hellickson would seem to have a strong case, offering four more years of team control, plus the 10th-lowest ERA among any qualified starting pitcher over the past two years at 3.02. But there are real questions about his core skills given his other numbers: strikeout rate under six per nine innings, strikeout-to-walk rate of less than 2-to-1, home run rate of 1.1 per nine innings, plus a .242 batting average on balls in play and 82.4 percent strand rate, both of which are way better than league average (low .292 and low 72.5, respectively) and suggest Hellickson’s either benefiting from a combination of luck and bullpen/defensive support, or he’s figured out a way to pitch differently than just about anyone else in the majors, at least over the past two years.

The two names to watch for next year’s Trade Value Rankings are Harvey and Bauer. Harvey struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings in his first 10 big league starts, and he could become the leader of an excellent, young pitching staff in the near future if he continues his progress and fellow top prospect Zack Wheeler makes The Show as expected in 2013. Bauer and 21-year-old lefty teammate Tyler Skaggs (plus a few other ’12 rookie pitchers) have electric arms and serious upside. We just need to see more evidence that they’ll fulfill their potential.

James Shields and Matt Cain: Shields ranks fifth in innings pitched and 13th in WAR over the past six seasons, second and ninth in those categories since 2011. He’ll likely deliver a great deal of surplus value over the final two years of his contract, given he’s owed a relatively modest $23 million to $25 million (depending on incentives) over those two club options. If the Rays opt to trade Shields this offseason to address their depleted lineup, they’d get a lot in return.

The Giants control Cain’s rights for a full six years, assuming they pick up his 2018 option. But the big right-hander will make $121 million over that span. There are only a handful of pitchers on Earth who’ve been as good, and durable, as Cain has been over the past seven seasons, and he’ll have just turned 34 when this contract expires, hardly ancient by baseball standards. But pitchers are inherently riskier investments than hitters given their greater propensity for injury and fluctuations in their performance. The Giants made a good gamble in signing Cain, especially given everything that’s happened since: We now have a new national TV contract that doubles every team’s annual take, and the Dodgers have ushered in a potential new world order (watch what happens after 2014, when current luxury tax violators have reset their penalty clock by ducking under $189 million in payroll and every team suddenly gets an additional check for $25 million every year). But a good gamble isn’t the same thing as a can’t-miss deal. If the Giants put Cain up for trade tomorrow, there’d be plenty of interest.

Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo: First basemen need to hit a metric ton to rise to the elite level, given the production of their peers and the related lower barrier to entry required to play first base compared to up-the-middle positions. Freeman, Goldschmidt, and Rizzo have all produced intriguing numbers early in their careers and offer multiple years of team control. But it’ll take some absolute raking to knock off some of the league’s similarly productive shortstops, catchers, and center fielders.

Carlos Gonzalez: If you own CarGo in a keeper fantasy league, you’re likely spitting Yoo-hoo out of your nose in anger right now. Thing is, being a consistent .300 hitter and 20-20 man isn’t enough to make you a true superstar when you play half your games at Coors Field. Gonzalez may well earn the five years and $71 million he has left on his contract, but he’s unlikely to ever be a screaming bargain.

Alcides Escobar: Strongly considered for top-50 status, thanks largely to what could turn out to be one of the most prescient contracts handed out by any team in years. Escobar is guaranteed a mere $9 million over the next three years. The Royals then hold two more options at $5.25 million and $6.5 million, meaning the maximum they’d owe through 2017 is a shade under $21 million. Escobar is already an above-average everyday player, a not-yet-26-year-old shortstop who makes decent contact and runs the bases spectacularly well. If he stays at this level, he’ll be a nice bargain for the next half-decade. If he develops some power and draws a few more walks, he could become an absolute steal.

Yoenis Cespedes: Close, really close. Coming off a rookie season in which he hit .292/.356/.505 and approaching Opening Day 2013 as a 27-year-old, we might see some big-time numbers from Cespedes next year, assuming he can avoid the disabled list. He’s owed $30 million over the next three years, then becomes a free agent, per a special provision in his contract that overrides the usual six years of major league service time teams normally get for players. Cespedes is one of the very last players left off this list, but there’s very little gap between him and, say, nos. 46-50 in the rankings.

Adrian Beltre, Todd Frazier, Pablo Sandoval: Is it too late to expand this list to 60? Only Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, and Ryan Braun have produced more value for their teams over the past three years than Beltre has. He also missed 51 games in 2009 and 38 in 2011 and turns 34 in April, making him enough of a risk at three years, $51 million (plus a $16 million voidable option) to leave him a bit short of the top 50.

If you’ve read Grantland’s baseball coverage long enough, you probably know that I’m completely in the tank for Todd Frazier. A relatively unheralded prospect compared to the Trouts and Harpers of the world, Frazier still put up shiny numbers in his rookie season, hitting .273/.331/.498 with 19 homers in 128 games. I’ll show my non-stathead side and say the guy played with some serious verve too, like the time he hit a home run zero-handed. Still, this being an objective exercise, we have to look at the facts: Frazier turns 27 in February, struck out just under three times as often as he walked in 2012, plays so-so defense, and put up decent but unspectacular numbers in the minors. As Grantland colleague Rany Jazayerli (one of my three consiglieres/sounding boards for this project, along with Baseball Prospectus’s R.J. Anderson and FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron, who writes an excellent trade value series of his own) put it, Frazier “could easily go full Marty Cordova next season” — meaning he could turn out to be another late bloomer who fares well in his rookie year, then never plays that well again.

Excluding Sandoval was excruciatingly tough. The Panda is 26 years old, owns a combined 123 OPS+ over the past three seasons, and fields his position well. Oh, and he’s the defending World Series MVP, after doing something only Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, and Albert Pujols had ever done before. Problem is, Sandoval offers only two years of team control, albeit at a very team-friendly price of $14 million. If we could reliably predict Sandoval’s stats in 2013, that would probably be enough to bump Panda up a few spots on this list. But check out these stat lines from the past four seasons:

So what are we getting next year? Should we expect 150-plus games played, or multiple trips to the disabled list? A .300 hitter, or something less? The massive power threat we saw in Game 1 of the World Series, or the guy who hit just 25 homers combined in 2010 and 2012? Someone who produces at a near-elite level, or a player who’s a shade above average, after factoring in both numbers and playing time? We don’t know, so Sandoval falls a bit short.

Craig Kimbrel: Relief pitchers, by and large, are pitchers who couldn’t hack it in the rotation, so they get pushed into a much easier job. They should more or less never win major awards like the Cy Young or MVP, and shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, save for once-in-a-generation Mariano Rivera/Dennis Eckersley types.

Two-plus years into his big league career, Kimbrel is testing those boundaries. In his first 160⅓ innings with the Braves, Kimbrel has struck out 283 batters, walked 62, allowed 84 hits and six homers, and posted a 1.46 ERA. He’s just 24 years old, and Atlanta controls his rights through 2016. Teams pull Fernando Rodneys out of the hat every year, something that’s much tougher to pull off with starting pitchers and makes breaking the bank for relievers a bad idea more often than not. Still, Kimbrel’s unmatched dominance since the start of his career makes him one of baseball’s most valuable trade commodities.

Group 1: A Difference of Opinion

50. Jered Weaver
When trying to assess a player’s trade value, you first have to ask, “By whose standards?” A subset of general managers might have one point of view, and you might have another. For the most part, these rankings reflect both personal opinion and likely industry consensus. There are a handful of times, though, when you’ve got to stick to your guns.

This is one of those times. By any traditional measure, Weaver is a bona fide ace. Over the past three seasons, Weaver owns the second-best ERA among all qualified starters at 2.73, places ninth in innings pitched (648⅔), and is tied for fourth in wins (51). But there are small, subtle signs of concern here. First, the injuries. A remarkably durable pitcher over the course of his career, Weaver sat out more than three weeks with a back injury last season, then missed a start in September with shoulder tendinitis. Then there’s the drop in velocity, with Weaver’s fastball dipping one or two miles per hour over the past two seasons, according to multiple sites that track such things. It might be a simple blip related to those one-time injuries. Or it may be that we’re now dealing with a right-handed starter whose fastball averages in the high 80s, one with roughly league-average strikeout rates throughout his career (save for a random uptick in 2010) who makes up for his suppressing hit and home run rates thanks to strong defenses and a ballpark that’s friendly to all pitchers, especially one as fly-ball happy as Weaver. The Angels should be happy to have Weaver for the next four years at $70 million. But the subtle signs of possible skills erosion combined with a skill set uniquely tailored for his home park mean he probably wouldn’t be as strong an asset for most other teams, and falls behind a bunch of other pitchers higher on this list.

Group 2: The Rookie of the Year

49. Wade Miley
Well, my Rookie of the Year anyway (Bryce Harper is a fine pick, too). Miley is a rich man’s Todd Frazier, an unheralded 26-year-old rookie who put together a legitimately strong season but isn’t a sure thing to keep it going. Still, it’s conceivable that Miley’s a different pitcher now than he was in the minors, having sliced his walk rate nearly in half to an elite 1.7 per nine innings. Plus the D-backs own his rights for the next five years, with the next couple coming dirt cheap.

Group 3: Great Players, Without the Great Contracts

48. Chase Headley
47. Matt Holliday

In a season that didn’t see a 20-year-old outfielder play better than anyone else on the planet, Headley might’ve garnered more attention for a gigantic breakout season. In 2011, he hit four home runs; he hit 31 in 2012, while also matching or setting new career highs in games played, hits, doubles, runs scored, runs batted in, walks, stolen bases, on-base percentage, and slugging average. If you need more convincing that his season came out of nowhere, check out this mid-April interview with Headley. Headley on his power potential: “I’m not a guy who’s going to hit a ton of home runs.” Headley on lessons he might’ve learned from former teammate Adrian Gonzalez: “It’s different with him because he could hit a fly ball to left field and hit it five rows deep. Where if I get the same pitch, take the same swing, and hit it the same, it’s caught on the warning track.” Even he had no inkling of what was coming. Expect some regression to the mean after this kind of monstrous performance jump, but let’s also acknowledge Headley for what he is now: one of the most valuable commodities in baseball, someone who’d fetch a king’s ransom if the Padres redoubled their efforts to trade him with two years to go before free agency.

Holliday isn’t a screaming bargain at $17 million a year for the next three years. But he’s one of the steadiest big boppers in the game, posting wOBAs of .391, .397, .395, and .378 over the past four seasons, with five or more Wins Above Replacement in each of those years. He turns 32 in January and isn’t the defender or base runner he used to be. Still, pencil him in for 25 homers and 35 doubles a year, with a career-long track record that suggests no major platoon-split concerns.

Group 4: The Braves Know How to Develop Shortstops

46. Elvis Andrus
45. Andrelton Simmons

As desperate as a few teams might be to add a big hitter to the middle of their lineup, they need only think back to July 31, 2007, to remember the downside to blockbuster deals. That day, the Braves dealt an 18-year-old Andrus, along with Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Beau Jones, for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay; Teixeira played one calendar year with the Braves, then was dealt to the Angels for … Casey Kotchman. Five-plus years later, Andrus has become a core player for the Rangers, a sparkling defender and swift base runner who hits enough to justify an everyday job, if not the no. 2 lineup spot that Ron Washington continues to give him for no good reason. Andrus has only two years before free agency, but he’s signed for just $11 million over those two years. With Jurickson Profar now up with the big club and Ian Kinsler locked in long term, Andrus is one of the few players on this list who’s a good bet to see his trade value tested in real life between now and next spring.

Bill Simmons’s distant cousin Andrelton (much better athlete, though inferior 17-foot jumper, surprisingly) is going to win a bunch of Gold Gloves in the next 10 years. The question is how will his bat play. A 49-game audition went well last season, with a .289/.335/.416 line supported by a solid 87.6 percent contact rate. Still, his six home runs between Triple-A and the majors in 2012 were a career high, and you’re probably not getting many walks here either. If Simmons merely becomes a rich man’s Brendan Ryan in Atlanta, that’ll be worth plenty. If he can repeat as a league-average hitter, you’re looking at a borderline star.

Group 5: The Catchers

44. Yadier Molina
43. Carlos Santana
42. Salvador Perez
41. Matt Wieters

Molina is the best of this bunch, an all-world defensive catcher who’s grown from a half-decent contact hitter into one of the premier offensive threats in the game, making him an MVP-caliber player at age 30. He’ll make $75 million over the next five years, and catchers tend to age their way out of the game or to another position by the time they hit their mid-30s, so we’ve got Molina a hair behind three younger receivers at more favorable prices. Wieters is the next-best player of the four, another elite defender with power from both sides of the plate, 26 years old and arbitration-eligible for the first time, with the Orioles almost certainly looking to extend him beyond 2015.

The other two catcher rankings are the ones likely to elicit the most hate mail. In the first draft of this list, I had Santana considerably higher. Twenty-six-year-old switch-hitting catcher, career .806 OPS, signed for peanuts at four years, $18 million with an affordable $12 million option that would keep him in-house through 2017. By any objective standard, that would seem to make him a monumental bargain. Except the Lords of the Realm might not agree. There are the obvious concerns, such as Santana’s subpar defense, which (along with a semi-platoon designed to get him more at-bats) contributed to his playing 66 games at first base in 2011, with 21 at first and 27 at DH in 2012. Then there’s baseball’s continuing bias against low-average, high-walk hitters, even when we thought that was all behind us. The early buzz around Nick Swisher suggests he’ll be disappointed in his free-agent haul, while the cash-stuffed Rangers thought so little of Mike Napoli’s three-true-outcomes offense that they didn’t even make him a qualifying offer this offseason, meaning they think a one-year deal for a shade over $13 million is an overpay. If the Jered Weaver ranking constitutes ignoring the herd, consider the Santana ranking a case of acknowledging it.

Which leaves us with the hipster pick, Salvador Perez. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s an incredible value. The Royals signed the 22-year-old Venezuelan to a deal that will pay him just $6 million over the next four years; if they exercise all three club options on him, Kansas City will control his rights through 2019 for a grand total of $21 million. An inanimate carbon rod would earn out on that contract. But Perez brings actual skills to the table. He puts the ball in play constantly, with a contact rate just under 89 percent and just 16 unintentional walks in 463 career plate appearances. He’s shown improving power, swatting 11 homers in 76 games last season. And he draws high marks for his defense.

Still, I spent half a weekend agonizing over where to rank Perez, and initially had him outside the top 50. That triggered the following Gchat exchange with noted Royals fan and talks-with-his-hands excitable fellow Rany Jazayerli:

Rany: Salvy.

Me: eh

Rany: 4/6.25 with 3 team options!

Me: I am aware

Rany: Maxes out at 7/21!

Me: He MIGHT become good

Rany: Highest batting average in MLB history for a 21-year-old catcher (.331) last year! Holds franchise record for longest hitting streak by a catcher AND most career pickoffs — and he’s played in 115 career games! Hit .300 or more (min: 100 PA) in two seasons by age 22! The only other catcher ever to do that: Ted Simmons. He has 8 career pickoffs — 3 last year, 5 this year. Led the AL in pickoffs even though he missed half the season.

Me: Doesn’t walk, .320 BABIP to date

Rany: A .320 BABIP isn’t that out of line.

Me: For a catcher? Yes.

Rany: His BABIP this year was .299 and he was still great — because his power went up while his contact rate didn’t go down.

Me: Right I like the power

Rany: He has 4.1 WAR in 115 career games. Think about that. You want to be bold — putting a Royals catcher no one’s heard of on the list over a RoY candidate [Todd Frazier] this year is bold.

All right Rany, you win. If Salvador Perez evolves into the next Yadi Molina while making the equivalent of tree fiddy, you get all the credit. If he crashes and burns, blame it on me. That’s the Canadian way.

Group 6: The Token Expos Draft Pick

40. Ian Desmond
He still has a miserable batting eye, and it’s tough to know what to make of his defense, given one year of positive UZR isn’t enough to establish him as a plus glove man. But Desmond cracked 25 homers, stole 21 bases, and hit .292/.335/.511, a huge breakout year for the 27-year-old shortstop. If those gains are real, three more years of Desmond to go with Bryce Harper, a loaded pitching staff, and an able supporting cast would make the Nationals the odds-on favorites in the NL East for the foreseeable future.

Group 7: Twentysomething Outfielders

39. Desmond Jennings
38. Justin Upton
37. Austin Jackson
36. Adam Jones
35. Jay Bruce
34. Alex Gordon

Pop quiz: Who’s the youngest of these six outfielders? If you said Justin Upton, the guy the Diamondbacks are trying to trade because he’s gotten expensive and he may have already had his best season, please collect the grand prize of a Nutri-Grain bar from the Grantland HQ break room. The 25-year-old right fielder has been something of an enigma through the first four full seasons of his career, putting up wOBAs of .385, .349, .385, and .341. There’s talk of a shoulder injury from two years ago that may or may not have fully healed, and a thumb injury that lingered longer than anyone let on in 2012. But Upton’s still a supremely talented player, and the D-backs set off a feeding frenzy when they recently made it known that they’d shop the final three years and $39 million of his contract for a juicy return. (The Rangers may have simply been playing hardball when they reportedly turned down a deal that would have had Upton and Elvis Andrus as the principals. But if push comes to shove, they absolutely should make that deal, given they can easily afford Upton’s contract, they have Jurickson Profar ready to replace Andrus, and Upton hitting in Arlington would be X-rated baseball.) We’ll say it right now: Justin Upton, not Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, or anyone else, will be the biggest acquisition of this offseason, if Arizona follows through with its trade plans.

It might seem weird that Jennings is actually the third-oldest of this crew, given he’s played just 212 major league games so far, about a season and a third all told. We’ve covered the reasons for the now-26-year-old’s slow ascension: The Rays can be painfully slow to call up their top prospects, and Jennings might not, in fact, become the star player that many expect. He’s shown flashes of all the right ingredients before, hitting for power, drawing walks, stealing a ton of bases, and showing enough range in left field to justify shifting him back to his natural position in center. We just haven’t seen all these pieces come together at once, nor have we seen Jennings cut down on the high strikeout rates that suppress his batting average and limit his overall value. If the Rays want to get back to the playoffs for the fourth time in six years, trading a top starting pitcher for Upton and getting a breakout season from Jennings might be the formula to make it happen.

As for the rest, Adam Jones could be highway robbery at six years, $85.5 million if his newfound 30-homer power is for real; Jay Bruce probably needs to progress to 40 homers a year to become a star, given the drop in his defense over the past two seasons; Austin Jackson’s become as important to Detroit’s fortunes as anyone short of Verlander and Cabrera, though his biggest test will be to see what happens when he’s not putting up .371 batting averages on balls in play; and Alex Gordon might be the best of the bunch right now, whacking 70 extra-base hits a year while showing a good batting eye, solid durability, ample base-running chops, and Gold Glove–caliber defense.

Group 8: The Yu Darvish

33. Yu Darvish
If you think $51 million is a lot to pay for the next five years of a 26-year-old ace who finished second in the majors in strikeout rate, posted a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and an opponents’ OPS of .626 in the second half last season, and may well improve now that he’s got a year of big league competition under his belt … remember that Jeremy Guthrie sought $34 million this winter, before signing for $25 million.

Group 9: If the Royals Can Ever Find Some Pitching, They’re Going to Be Freaking Terrifying

32. Mike Moustakas
Three Royals position players (Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and Moustakas) made this list. One (Alcides Escobar) just missed. Another (Wil Myers) almost certainly would have if we’d included minor leaguers who haven’t yet made The Show. When Myers and Johnny Giavotella come up and claim starting jobs in K.C. sometime next season, the Royals will have all nine starters at age 28 or younger, all signed at least through 2015. The 24-year-old Moustakas might have more upside than anyone currently on the major league roster, flashing a terrific glove at third and maturing into a 20-homer hitter in his first full season with the big club.

Unfortunately that still leaves one injury-wracked, talent-deprived pitching staff. If you want one Holy Shit move that would never happen but would be absolutely awesome if it did … it’d be Royals GM Dayton Moore handing Greinke a blank check to come back and destroy the league.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2


This article has been updated to correct information on Yoenis Cespedes’s contract.

Filed Under: Art, Baseball, General topics, MLB, Sports

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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