Welcome to the kick-off of this year’s Trade Value series. If you haven’t already, read the intro and get yourself acquainted with what question this is trying to answer, as well as an incomplete list of guys who missed the cut for one reason or another.
There will be a couple of formatting changes this year. Instead of doing two posts per day, with five players in each post, I’m consolidating those posts into one longer list per day. Additionally, instead of having a player listed and then some paragraphs about his ranking, I’m going to list all ten players in a table at the top of the post, and then write about all ten in more of an article style than a selection of blurbs. Having all of the names available in a single table makes for easier comparison of some relevant facts, and in past years, the player capsules started to feel pretty repetitive by the end. Hopefully, this cuts down on some of the redundant text. We’ll find out, I guess.
A few quick notes on the columns in the table. After the normal biographical information, I’ve listed Projected WAR, which is essentially a combination of ZIPS and Steamer’s current rest-of-season forecasts extrapolated out to a full-season’s worth of playing time. For non-catcher position players, this is 600 plate appearances; catchers are extrapolated to 450 PAs. For pitchers, this is extrapolated to 200 innings. It is not their 2014 WAR, or their last calendar year WAR; it is a rough estimate of what we might expect them to do over a full-season, based on the information we have now.
The two columns to the right of that give you an idea of the player’s contract status. “Controlled Through” includes all years before a player accumulates enough time to be eligible for free agency, all guaranteed years of a contract already signed, and any years covered by team options that could be exercised in the future. Player options and mutual options are not included, as the assumption is that players of this caliber will generally opt-out of their current contracts if given the chance.
The “Contract Dollars” column includes the base salaries of each player in the controlled years going forward, starting from 2015 — the 40% of 2014 salary remaining is not included in the calculation — including the value of team options, since we’re assuming that they will be picked up. In many cases, players have incentives for various accomplishments that affect the base salaries, but those are not accounted for here, simply because of the tedious work of calculating all those incentive prices and the fact that $100,000 for an All-Star appearance or $500,000 for an MVP-finish there aren’t going to change the overall calculations. This column is not an exact representation of their future earnings, but should be close enough for our purposes.
For players who are under team control but not under guaranteed contract, I’ve listed out which arbitration years they still have remaining. There are a few players who have both guaranteed contracts and arbitration eligibility remaining, but we’ll deal with those cases in the article when a simple line in the chart doesn’t explain their situation perfectly.
Finally, “Last Year” notes where a player was ranked on this list last year, or if he wasn’t on the 2013 Trade Value series, then he is denoted as unranked. As you can imagine, there’s a lot more turnover at the end of the list than the beginning.
Alright, enough fooling around; let’s get to the list.
|Rank||Name||Age||Position||Projected WAR||Controlled Through||Contract Dollars||Last Year|
|48||Kyle Seager||26||3B||3.4||2017||Arb1 – Arb3||Unranked|
|47||Alex Cobb||26||SP||3.1||2017||Arb1 – Arb3||Unranked|
|43||Devin Mesoraco||26||C||3.0||2017||Arb1 – Arb3||Unranked|
|42||Corey Kluber||28||SP||3.8||2018||Pre-Arb – Arb3||Unranked|
As noted in the intro, there is essentially no meaningful difference between the guys at the end of the list and the guys who just missed. A reasonable person could easily prefer Adam Jones to Starling Marte, or Adrian Beltre to Edwin Encarnacion, or Todd Frazier to Kyle Seager. We’re hair splitting. It’s the nature of the list format.
Overall, this group has a few traits in common, though no group of 10 players will be perfectly identical. As a whole, though, this group is made up of above average players, but guys who probably aren’t ever going to become franchise cornerstones. Note that the average age here is 26 and the average projected WAR is 3.1; these guys are close to being in their physical prime, and are not quite at the level of a true star, though they are valuable contributors.
The guys you could argue for breaking out of that good-not-great section include Kluber and the younger guys on the list: Marte, Teheran, and Archer. These guys might have a bit more upside than average, but they also come with additional risk; Marte’s offensive profile provides a lot of seasonal variability, while the other three are pitchers. Kluber’s also 350 innings into his big league career and has a .332 BABIP, so his trade value probably doesn’t quite match his FIP-based WAR value. If you were going to pick a guy from this section who could be significantly higher next year, Kluber would probably be the best bet, but he’s also a pitcher and I probably would have said the same thing about Shelby Miller a year ago.
On the other end of the scale is Encarnacion, who basically has no “upside” remaining, and would be a short-term only play. However, because of the extremely friendly contract he signed with Toronto during his breakout season, he’d also be one of the cheapest sources of elite offense around, and given how much teams covet right-handed power these days, you can bet there would be a long line of suitors lining up for Encarnacion’s services, even given his limited defensive value and the fact that he’s on the wrong side of 30.
Speaking of defensive value, we have to talk about the two catchers on the list. You’ll note that Gomes is projected as a better player than Mesoraco and has already signed a below-market extension with the Indians, and he’s the same age, but is still ranked a few spots lower. This reflects the current reality that baseball teams simply pay for more offense than they do for defense, and players who accumulate their value with their bats are going to command a larger premium than those whose value is tied to what they do in the field.
Personally, I think I’d probably take Gomes over Mesoraco, given just how cheap his extension is and the extra years of team control. But keep in mind that the option years that the Indians hold on Gomes cover ages 32 and 33, and it isn’t any kind of guarantee that he’ll still be a productive player at that point. The difference in years of useful control may be less than what the chart makes it out to be, and while Gomes is certainly going to be cheaper, teams may be more willing to pay a slight premium to get the value from offense instead of defense.
The other positive in Mesoraco’s favor also applies to both Seager and Cobb. The biggest knocks against them are the the fact that all three are headed for arbitration without long-term extensions in place, and are only under control for three more years after this season. However, in each case, the arbitration awards are unlikely to match the player’s expected value, because they haven’t achieved the kinds of milestones that return big arbitration paydays yet.
Seager’s value comes from doing a lot of things fairly well, but he’s not great at anything. He’s a career .263 hitter, he’s never hit more than 22 home runs in a season, he doesn’t steal bases, and he won’t win a gold glove. The case for Seager is built on hitting well in a tough pitcher’s park, but that’s not the kind of argument that is going to win over a panel of casual fans who don’t know what park factors are.
The same is true for Cobb. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, but he’s never thrown more than 150 innings in a season and he has a career record of 29-20. The peripherals suggest that he’s a high quality arm, but the arbiters aren’t going to see his track record as being worthy of big dollars. With players like this, a long-term contract isn’t actually that beneficial, because the arbitration system itself will keep the player’s salaries in check without forcing the team to take on the risk of a multi-year commitment.
Teheran and Archer are on the other end of the spectrum. Their traditional stats are more impressive than their analytic numbers, and might not have appeared on the list had their teams been forced into the arbitration process. However, both pitchers signed deals that will keep their salaries to a minimum, and secure significant upside for the team even if they continue to outperform their peripherals.
And finally, we get the guy who doesn’t really fit any of the larger categories of his fellow players on this list. Michael Brantley was a very difficult player for me to rank, and I’ll readily admit that there’s a good case for him to be both 20 spots and 20 spots lower. His ranking here reflects essentially one half of a great season, and he’s never done anything remotely close to this before. His value is tied up primarily in making contact and running the bases, which teams usually don’t pay for, especially if it comes at a corner position. Neither ZIPS nor Steamer think this is a real breakout that is likely to continue, projecting him as closer to an average player than a star going forward.
That said, it isn’t unheard of for players to develop some power later in their careers, and Brantley was basically just a power boost away from becoming a good player. If he sustains even part of this increase in home runs, he looks like a three win player in his prime signed to a contract that will pay him a grand total of $19 million over the next three years. If the breakout is real, then the Indians can pick up an option for a fourth year at $11 million; if it’s not, they don’t have to. The risk here is minimal, and there is some legitimate upside if this is more legitimate improvement than good first half.
I don’t know which way Brantley will go. If the projections are right, he probably won’t be on the list again next year, but the chance that he’s going to keep enough of this up to be a very good hitter signed for basically no money gets him on the list this year.
Tomorrow, we’ll do the next 10, and we’ll start to analyze some much higher risk/reward imbalances.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.