A thousand years from now, when historians look back at the 2014 MLB season and its ties to the next big thing, they’ll focus on two turning points. First, they’ll commemorate the third of 50 World Series that the even-year overlord Giants will win over the course of a century. Second, they’ll reflect on Tommy John surgery reaching its peak before giving way to the golden age of pitcher health — and world peace.
Of course, the Giants and the Tommy John epidemic have already left lasting impressions in the present day. This was the year that Madison Bumgarner ascended from staff ace to all-time postseason legend, and the year that T.J. surgeries piled up at a record pace, felling many of baseball’s brightest young arms. Both occurrences helped spark a big change in the way we view the league’s best players and most valuable commodities.
And on that note, welcome to the third edition of Grantland’s MLB Trade Value, where we’ll try to answer the question that hangs over so many sports debates: Would you trade this guy for that guy? More than simply listing the best current players with the best current stats, this ranking seeks to account for multiple other factors. Talent and track record matter, but so do age, health, and contract status. The perfect Trade Value player is an established star who’s still young enough to carry growth potential, has no significant injury history, and has an affordable contract that brings numerous years of team control. Ultimately, this is a thought experiment: If every team made every player available via trade, which guys would fetch the greatest return?
While we’ve used rigorous statistical analysis to help find the answers, this remains a subjective exercise. For instance, when considering the trade value of a 22-year-old mega-prospect with six years of controllable service time (three at the league-minimum salary) versus that of a 10-year veteran who’s widely regarded as the best pitcher in his league and who’s owed nearly $26 million a year for the next five seasons, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. A rebuilding or low-revenue club might jump at the chance to land Kris Bryant, while a richer team gearing up for a playoff push would have a tough time turning down Felix Hernandez.
We’ll do our best to balance all of those factors. We’ll also acknowledge the growing trend of small- and mid-market teams locking up young stars, the resulting thinning of the free-agent market, and the corresponding spike in demand for elite players. We’ll call on conversations with executives and talent evaluators from across the sport. And we’ll prepare to read all the hate mail you send to email@example.com.
Oh, and for the first time, we’ll make minor leaguers eligible for inclusion.
Trade Value Rules
1. Contracts matter. David Price is a better pitcher than Yordano Ventura, but Price will be eligible for free agency at the end of the 2015 season, while Ventura isn’t even arbitration-eligible yet and will be under team control through 2019.
2. Age matters. Jose Bautista and Giancarlo Stanton put up similar numbers in 2014, but Bautista is 34 and, as great as he is now, probably won’t be great for too many more years. Stanton is 25 and just starting to harness the full scope of his powers, so he has more trade value.
3. It’s all relative. If every team started shopping every player as a trade candidate, which guys would attract the biggest return from any of the other 29 clubs? For instance, if we’re comparing the trade value of Manny Machado and Troy Tulowitzki, we’re not concerned that the Rockies have a solid third baseman of their own in Nolan Arenado, or that the Orioles already have a capable shortstop in J.J. Hardy.1 Instead, we want to know this: If every team were allowed to bid on Machado and Tulo, which player would net the greater return?
And in Machado for that matter, though that ship may have sailed amid Hardy’s three-year extension.
4. Positional scarcity matters. If a shortstop and first baseman put up comparable offensive numbers, the shortstop is the more valuable player, since it’s much tougher to find someone with the defensive chops to handle short than one who can man first. That’s already accounted for in the Wins Above Replacement metric, which you’ll see referenced occasionally here, but it bears repeating.
5. Defense, park factors, and other variables not immediately apparent in superficial stats matter. These are not fantasy baseball rankings, so a player who hits 30 home runs isn’t necessarily more valuable than one who hits 20, or even five.
6. The list runs in reverse order. If Yu Darvish is no. 17 on this list, it means the Rangers likely wouldn’t trade him for anyone ranked 18 to 50, but would have to at least consider swapping him for the players ranked 16 to 1.
Note: All contract figures are via Cot’s.
See Ya: Players Who Fell Out of the Top 50
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Ryan Braun (no. 50 last year) was the most divisive player on the 2013 list following his PED suspension, and whether due to a comedown, injuries, random variance, or all of the above, he wasn’t the same player in 2014 … Jean Segura (49) posted a .325/.363/.487 first half and .241/.268/.315 second half in 2013, and the latter proved to be far more predictive … Adrian Beltre (46) is a future Hall of Famer with a legendary fear of having his head touched, and he barely missed the cut this time despite being 35 and having only one year (plus a vesting option) left on his contract … Carlos Santana (45) is a valuable hitter even when he bats just .231, and he has a very favorable contract, but an influx of younger talent knocked him off the list … Jay Bruce (43) was the fourth-worst full-time player by WAR in 2014 … Ian Desmond (42) will be a free agent after the 2015 season … Gio Gonzalez (41) is no longer cheap … Patrick Corbin (40), well, oy.
Matt Carpenter (37), arguably the toughest omission of all, is a pitch-spoiling and on-base machine, one of the toughest outs in the game, and under team control through 2020 (including an option year); he also slugged .375 last season and will be just shy of 35 years old when his contract ends … Matt Moore (34) missed most of the year following Tommy John but has such a team-friendly contract that he could claw his way back onto this list next year … Jurickson Profar (32) boasts an enviable combination of talent, youth, and affordability, but lost his season to a nasty shoulder injury … David Price (30) will be a free agent at season’s end.
Clayton Kershaw (29) is still a highly desirable commodity despite the $193 million owed to him over the next six years, but the clause in his contract that grants him free-agency rights at year’s end if he’s traded in-season or the same rights at the end of a full campaign if he’s dealt in the offseason substantially undercut his trade value … Chris Davis (28) just hit .196 … Justin Verlander (27) isn’t Justin Verlander anymore, and paying him $28 million a year over the next five seasons could be a real burden … Jason Kipnis (25) is just 27 years old and a good bet to bounce back in 2015, but his 2014 was ugly … Carlos Gonzalez (24) got hurt, again … Wil Myers (23) regressed badly as a sophomore, but as with Kipnis, we should expect better things ahead … Dustin Pedroia (22) knows that the Red Sox want him to be a lifer, but that emotional attachment can’t mask his alarming slugging average trend (.493 to .474 to .449 to .415 to .376 over the past five seasons) or the fact that his insistence on playing through injuries, while admirable, hasn’t always helped his team.
David Wright (19) turns 32 later this month and hit eight home runs last season; while he’ll probably knock more balls out of the reconfigured Citi Field next year, he’s no longer a huge bargain … Miguel Cabrera (9) is still an absolute joy to watch as he pummels baseballs; his new contract, however, will eventually prove to be an absolute nightmare.
This Year’s Honorable Mentions
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Todd Frazier (Not Ranked), 3B, Cincinnati Reds: Like Carpenter, Frazier is an excellent hitter at a position light on them. He’s also arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and under team control for three more years. Kyle Seager just got a $100 million contract from the Mariners, and it’s fair to argue that he, Carpenter, and Frazier, three fairly comparable players, should all be grouped together instead of strewn across three categories. But no one said this was fair!
Alex Cobb (Honorable Mention), SP, Tampa Bay Rays; Lance Lynn (NR), SP, St. Louis Cardinals; Tyson Ross (NR), SP, San Diego Padres: All three of these excellent pitchers are under team control through 2017. A handful of players cracked the top 50 despite offering only two years of control, and it’d be fair to argue that the extra year should count for more. But the gap between nos. 75 and 36 on this list is much narrower than the gap between nos. 35 and 1.
Jacob deGrom (NR), SP, New York Mets; Garrett Richards (NR), SP, Los Angeles Angels: It takes a hell of a lot for a pitcher to make the top 50. DeGrom set the league on fire as a rookie, posting a 2.69 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning. But hitters cracked more line drives off him than against all but 11 pitchers with at least 140 innings, and his minor league track record isn’t nearly as impressive as what he did in 2014. Richards, meanwhile, was easily one of the 10 best starters in the AL on a per-inning basis, and he owns an electric, high-90s fastball that can be nearly unhittable. But he wrecked his knee late in the season, casting some doubt on his ability to be as dominant in 2015, and he’s a Super Two player who’s arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason. This might seem like nitpicking, but considering what happened to young stalwarts like Jose Fernandez, Moore, Jarrod Parker, Corbin, and Richards in 2014, it’s also a reminder of how tough it is for pitchers to excel year in and year out.
Jose Quintana (NR), SP, Chicago White Sox; Chris Archer (NR), SP, Tampa Bay Rays; Marcus Stroman (NR), SP, Toronto Blue Jays: These three came even closer to making the top 50, with Quintana and Archer signed to incredibly cheap contracts and Stroman posting numbers that rivaled deGrom’s (on a fielding-independent basis) while carrying a better pedigree, being three years younger, and succeeding in the AL. Archer in particular got multiple endorsements from MLB talent evaluators, with one describing him as “young, athletic, cheap, and signed to an extremely reasonable contract,” and another saying, “He fits in the 40-50 range for me with the contract and the stuff.” We just couldn’t find room for them, nor for 2014 breakout pitchers Dallas Keuchel, Matt Shoemaker, Collin McHugh, Phil Hughes, and 10 other names you’re probably shouting at the screen.
Here are some rapid-fire comments on the rest of the Honorable Mentions:
George Springer (NR) blasted 20 homers in just 78 games and offers six years of control, but he also struck out once every three plate appearances … Billy Hamilton (NR) and Juan Lagares (NR) are breathtaking outfielders who generate so much value with their gloves that they nearly made the cut despite unimposing bats … Adam Jones (NR) is a great player who’s a bargain at four years, $62 million, but his .311 OBP is a dagger … Corey Dickerson (NR) and Marcell Ozuna (NR) will be on next year’s list if their 2015 numbers match their 2014 stats … Brian Dozier (NR) slugged just .387 after the All-Star break, meaning his out-of-nowhere first half might be another Segura situation.
Corey Seager (NR) and Addison Russell (NR) just missed earning MLB call-ups last season, but should make an impact soon … Joc Pederson (NR) and Javier Baez (NR) got their much-anticipated promotions in 2014, but still carry enough question marks to remain outside the top 50 … Travis d’Arnaud (NR) is a young, cheap catcher with power and good defensive skills, making him an incredible value and the player in this section most likely to make me regret leaving him out of the top 50 … Lorenzo Cain (NR) fields like Hamilton and Lagares and would be a top-50 lock if his postseason hitting were bound to carry over into 2015; unfortunately for him and fellow playoff breakout Eric Hosmer (HM), playoff performance is highly variant and unpredictable because of the small sample size.
Group 1: Bats!
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50. Devin Mesoraco (NR), C, Cincinnati Reds
Like the next two guys on this list, Mesoraco is a potent hitter who offers somewhat limited team control, in his case three more years. Unlike those two, Mesoraco is just entering his prime, heading to arbitration for the first time this offseason. He broke out in his age-26 season, cranking 25 homers in just 440 plate appearances and slugging .534, good for 10th among 209 batters with at least 400 PAs. Also, he’s a catcher, and he topped Buster Posey and all others at the position in park-adjusted offense last season. Given Mesoraco’s ascent and the pending upheaval in Cincinnati — Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Mike Leake are all a season away from free agency, while trade rumors have swirled around Bruce — expect the catcher to become a cornerstone for the Reds and a very rich man.
49. Edwin Encarnacion (47), 1B, Toronto Blue Jays
48. Jose Bautista (NR), RF, Toronto Blue Jays
Alex Anthopoulos has made some unfortunate moves as Toronto’s GM, signing Ricky Romero to a long-term deal only to see the lefty fall apart, flipping Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco, and stripping the farm system bare with two blockbuster 2012 trades that failed to net playoff teams. But man, the contract extensions he gave Bautista (in 2011) and Encarnacion (in 2012) look like strokes of genius, leaving the Jays with one of the game’s most potent power combos for tens of millions less than these two would make on the open market. Bautista and Encarnacion are entering their age-34 and -32 seasons, respectively, but they’re also set to make just $28 million and $20 million the next two seasons, including their no-brainer club option years in 2016.
Group 2: Head-Scratchers
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47. Kyle Seager (48), 3B, Seattle Mariners
Shifting Seager only one spot might seem like puzzling inertia considering he just signed a seven-year, $100 million extension that will keep him in Seattle through 2021 (or 2022 if the club picks up his option). He would have been first-time arbitration-eligible this winter, positioning him to earn about $30 million over the next three years if he continued to produce at his 2014 level, so the M’s essentially inked him to a four-year, $70 million extension. Since we’re talking about an emerging power hitter who smashed 25 dingers despite playing his home games at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field and who also flashes an impressive glove, that $70 million could look very reasonable for his age-30-to-33 (or 34, with the option) seasons. So while a $100 million price tag might knock most non-household names off the list, it’s a smart investment for a durable player coming off a 5.8-WAR season at a scarce position.
46. Jose Altuve (NR), 2B, Houston Astros
Here’s what Altuve did in 2014:
- Led the majors with a .341 batting average
- Led the majors with 225 hits, the most by a second baseman in 78 years
- Led the AL with 56 stolen bases (in 65 attempts)
- Posted a 7.5 percent strikeout rate, the second-lowest in the majors
He did that all in his age-24 campaign, he’ll be paid a measly $10.5 million total over the next three seasons, and it’s pretty much a lock that the Astros will pick up his 2018 ($6 million) and 2019 ($6.5 million) options, meaning they’ll control his rights through his twenties with no commitment beyond his prime years.
So why isn’t he even higher? Here’s one NL executive’s assessment: “Different evaluators will treat a player with his unique skill set differently. Certainly a net positive asset value, but not close to my Top 50.” Another talent evaluator (mostly) jokingly called Altuve “Jeff Keppinger with wheels.”
For all of his gifts, Altuve remains a flawed player. His career walk rate is just 5 percent, which is pretty insane for someone who’s so small that there’s a unit of measurement named after him. He lashed 47 doubles in 2014 but managed just seven homers in 707 plate appearances. And according to multiple advanced stats, including Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, he’s one of the worst defensive second basemen in the majors despite his speed and athleticism. Though he’s an elite base stealer and baserunner, he didn’t become a star until his batting average jumped 58 points, a figure that was largely due to a 44-point jump in batting average on balls in play that’s hard to explain when looking at his stationary line-drive rate.
It comes down to this: If Altuve is really a .340 hitter, he’s probably one of the 20 most valuable commodities in the game. If he’s really a .280-.290 hitter like he was before 2014, he’s a nice fantasy baseball player but little more than a league-average player in real life. And if he’s somewhere in between, he’s no. 46.
Group 3: The Kids Are All Right
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45. Gregory Polanco (NR), OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
44. Jorge Soler (NR), OF, Chicago Cubs
43. Byron Buxton (NR), OF, Minnesota Twins
Evaluating young players’ trade value is a fickle exercise. On the one hand, a top minor league prospect offers the incredibly valuable proposition of six years of team control, with three of those years at or near the league-minimum salary. On the other, even the top blue-chippers can’t provide a big league track record, meaning we’re forced to rely on scouting reports and minor league numbers to assess their worth. For every can’t-miss prospect who pans out, there’s a Lastings Milledge or a Brien Taylor. So while top prospects who are still in the minors or just entering the majors might seem like immensely valuable properties, we have to bake plenty of risk into their evaluations.
Polanco exemplifies both sides of that coin. Baseball America’s no. 10 prospect entering the season, Polanco posted video-game numbers at Triple-A to start the year and became a symbol of hope for Pirates enthusiasts eager to see the team build on its first playoff berth in two decades. Those fans grew disgruntled as the calendar turned past Memorial Day, but then a funny thing happened: The Pirates finally called up the 22-year-old on June 10 … and Polanco stunk, hitting just .235/.307/.343 in 312 plate appearances while occasionally looking less polished defensively than anticipated. What’s more, the toolsy, 6-foot-4, 220-pound right fielder has just 41 homers in 2,000 minor league plate appearances. Still, the upside is considerable: Polanco is pre-arbitration and under team control through 2020, with the skills to blossom into a star who could help give Pittsburgh the most dynamic outfield in baseball.
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Soler was never rated as highly as Polanco (let alone Buxton), even getting overshadowed by flashy prospects Bryant, Baez, and Russell within the Cubs system. But he made it to the Show at age 22 last summer and punished the ball, belting five homers, eight doubles, and a triple in just 89 at-bats, with three of those five long balls traveling 420 feet or more. He doesn’t quite have the well-rounded tool set that Polanco and especially Buxton do, but at a time when power is at a premium throughout the majors, the Cubs have a player with major pop who’s ready to be their Opening Day right fielder four months from now — and take aim at Waveland Avenue for years to come. In 2012, the Cubs signed Soler to a nine-year, $30 million contract, with a clause that would allow him to opt out of the deal and into arbitration when he became eligible. If he continues to hit at anywhere near the level he did in his first brush with the bigs, that’ll surely happen after the 2017 season. In either case, the Cubs control his rights through 2020.
Buxton is a couple of weeks shy of his 21st birthday, has exactly three at-bats above Single-A ball, and just completed a 2014 season in which he suffered wrist and shoulder injuries, a concussion, and a dislocated finger. So he obviously carries risk and uncertainty. He’s also a five-tool phenom with off-the-charts speed and defensive ability, plus serious offensive potential. Of all the players in the top 50, Buxton represents the most pure projection, and it’s not particularly close. Consider this ranking a happy medium between the colossal bust or perennial MVP candidate he could become.
Group 4: Where Have You Gone, Brooksie?
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42. Manny Machado (7), 3B, Baltimore Orioles
He’s six months younger than Bryant, yet he has already established himself as an above-average hitter and off-the-charts fielder capable of Brooks Robinson–level feats at third base. However, two major knee surgeries in the last two seasons have to cast at least some doubt on his future mobility, not to mention durability. Though very few of the players on this top 50 will actually get traded anytime soon, it’s nearly impossible that Machado would. For the O’s, ditching him now would mean giving up on a potentially all-world talent at the worst possible time; for a trade partner, acquiring him now would require taking an enormous leap of faith given the huge return the O’s would want for him, especially since he won’t enter arbitration until after the 2015 season and is under team control through 2018. For now, the best anyone can do is wait and hope.
Group 5: Imagining a Blockbuster
41. Xander Bogaerts (31), 3B/SS, Boston Red Sox
40. Mookie Betts (NR), CF, Boston Red Sox
39. Cole Hamels (NR), SP, Philadelphia Phillies
We’ve already discussed why the Red Sox threw all of that money at Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez: Good bats have become really tough to find, the AL East is there for the taking, and Boston can always shop for arms later. Though the free-agent market for starting pitching remains robust with Max Scherzer, James Shields, and ex-Sox Jon Lester still available, rumors indicate that Boston might attempt to address its pitching needs via a big trade — and no trade candidate has garnered more headlines than Hamels.
The 30-year-old left-hander (who turns 31 on December 27) has been one of the game’s best pitchers for the better part of a decade, ranking fifth in innings pitched, fourth in strikeouts, and ninth in WAR since 2007. He’s durable, he pounds the strike zone, and he carries virtually no platoon split, meaning the Sox or any other team could trade for him without worrying about opponents stacking their lineups with right-handed hitters. Though Hamels is a notch below, say, Kershaw, he’s indisputably an ace.
The tough question is figuring out what an ace is worth. On the one hand, context matters, and right now the landscape is saturated: In addition to the three top-tier free agents, Jordan Zimmermann, Cueto, Latos, Ian Kennedy, and Andrew Cashner might also be available via trade, and they’re all better-than-average starters who likely won’t be that far off Hamels’s level in 2015. On the other hand, Hamels offers four years of team control (and possibly five thanks to his 2019 club option) and won’t cost a team its first-round draft pick as compensation.2 Hamels is owed $22.5 million a year through 2018, which arguably means he can be had at a slight discount compared to his true market value.
Of course, since the Red Sox stunk last season, their first-rounder is protected.
So it’s probably worth trying to deal for Hamels. The next question, though, is what’s it worth giving up to get him. The Red Sox would undoubtedly prefer to move a player like Yoenis Cespedes, who’s young and talented but under team control for just one more year. But the teams dangling starters — and the Phillies in particular — are understandably more interested in up-and-comers like Bogaerts and Betts, who are 22 years old, pre-arbitration, and under team control through 2019 and 2020, respectively.
The notoriously optimistic Bill James Handbook reckons that Betts, a 5-foot-9, 155-pound dynamo, will resemble peak Wade Boggs next year, projecting him to hit .321/.405/.493. Though the Sox would have to weigh the long-term implications of losing a player as young, talented, and cheap as Betts, they could lose him and still easily populate the outfield next season. They’d have a much tougher time replacing Bogaerts at shortstop, where new signee Ramirez is not — repeat not, not, not — the answer. Maybe Bogaerts’s offensive struggles (.240/.297/.362) last season were growing pains stemming from the then 21-year-old being jerked between two positions (short and third). But even though they’re no longer rookies, both he and Betts are still prospects, carrying all the question marks that come with the territory. Meanwhile, Hamels could easily add five wins to the record of whichever team is bold enough to trade for him.
In the end, it’s tough to see the Red Sox trading Betts or, especially, Bogaerts for Hamels or anyone else, but it’s a fun thought experiment.
Group 6: Two Years … or Five to Seven?
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38. Starling Marte (HM), OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
37. Carlos Gomez (33), OF, Milwaukee Brewers
36. Stephen Strasburg (15), SP, Washington Nationals
Marte’s a bit of an odd duck: The talented outfielder is just 26 and is coming off a year in which he hit .291 with a .356 on-base percentage, but he was nonetheless derided for his lousy batting eye by two assistant GMs I spoke with. Tear into the details and that critique starts to make some sense: Marte has struck out nearly five times as often as he’s walked in his first 1,293 major league plate appearances (24.7 percent K rate, 5.1 percent BB rate) and was only marginally better than that in 2014 (24 percent K, 6.1 percent BB).
Much of his on-base success stems from his lofty hit-by-pitch totals: Since Opening Day 2013, he leads the majors with 41 plunks, ranking just ahead of HBP dark arts master Shin-Soo Choo. The thing is, getting hit by pitches is a real, sustainable skill, which in Marte’s case could help alleviate some of the issues caused by his poor K/BB rate. Even if his 2014 production represents his ceiling, he still brings tons of speed, rangy defense, solid on-base results, and slightly above-average power at a deep discount, as he’s owed just $26.5 million through 2019, plus $24 million total in 2020 and ’21 if the Buccos pick up his option years.
So would a team rather have all of those Marte years, or two years of Gomez or Strasburg?
Gomez, who turns 29 this week and will earn just $17 million over the next two seasons, is one of the best all-around players in the majors. The Gold Glove–caliber center fielder broke out at the plate in 2013 and has swatted 47 homers and stolen 74 bases over the past two seasons. While single-year defensive stats can be misleading,3 seeing where Gomez ranks among the game’s best players by WAR since 2013 is an eye-opener:
According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Gomez’s defense in center field was worth an astonishing 26.5 runs above average in 2013, and a far more modest 7.8 runs in 2014.
1. Mike Trout: 18.3
2. Andrew McCutchen: 15.0
3. Josh Donaldson: 14.1
4. Carlos Gomez: 13.4
5. Miguel Cabrera: 13.0
Meanwhile, Strasburg continued his climb toward elite status, setting full-season career bests in 2014 for innings pitched and walk rate to go with his nasty swing-and-miss stuff. He’s just two and a half months older than Marte, making him a rare commodity: a young, healthy, top-of-the-rotation starter. On the other hand, he’s also represented by Scott Boras, all but negating the possibility of a contract extension before he hits the open market following the 2016 season.
So is there more value in getting a handful of cheap years from a player with one of the funkiest skill sets in the league, or two years from legitimate stars destined to hit the open market? It would ultimately boil down to each team’s taste and need, but that doesn’t mean we should stop having the debate.