It’s time for the FanGraphs annual All-Star break tradition: distract ourselves from a lack of baseball by arguing about a subjective list of speculative value. Yes, it’s Trade Value time again. This is actually the 10th year I’ve done this list, as my first one came back in 2005, and it included immortals like Daniel Cabrera, Felipe Lopez, and Bobby Crosby. I moved the list to FanGraphs back in 2008, so this will be the seventh edition here on this site.
As always, I’d like to acknowledge that this project has been borrowed from Bill Simmons, who does his own NBA Trade Value series at Grantland. It’s a fun project, and one I’m glad he popularized.
As a quick overview for those who might be new to the series, he’s the basic concept: which players would bring the most return in trade if they were made available by their current clubs? To answer this question as best as we can, we not only look at a player’s performance — both now and in the future — but also the amount of years a team would be acquiring a player for, and how much that player would earn in salary before he could become a free agent. The most valuable assets in the game aren’t just great players, but they’re great players who offer significant value for multiple seasons at salaries below what comparable players earn on the open market.
Of course, because every team has a different priority and varying access to resources, a player’s trade value will not be the same to all 30 organizations. There are players that have significant value to one franchise that another team would have no interest in, and so, we have to try and measure aggregate demand, not just the specific question “would this team trade Player X for Player Y?” Instead of viewing a player’s trade value as specific to a franchise, it’s more accurate to think of this exercise as kind of like an auction; if each MLB player was put up for trade, with their current contracts remaining in place, who would generate the most interest?
Clearly, current value is going to be highly important here, and over the years, I’ve received feedback from people in the game that teams think more short-term than I used to believe. The most aggressive teams in trades are often the ones trying to upgrade their roster in the present, and this is where the most egregious overpays often come, so players who are significant contributors in 2014 get a significant bump in value. However, long-term performance and costs are still significant factors as well, so this isn’t just a list of the 50 best players in baseball right now. Trade value is a combination of short-term and long-term value, and a player’s future salary and years of team-control are big factors in how teams view a player’s long-term value.
For more reference on this series, I’d suggest reading through last year’s posts; they should help you get a feel for the relative emphasis of short-term and long-term value. Also, try to keep in mind that this list is completely subjective, and there’s no real way to measure a player’s aggregate trade value; we’re guessing the best that we can, but we’re still guessing. Feel free to disagree with the rankings, and come up with your own list if you’d like. I think I have some feel for what baseball executives value, but this is all just my opinion, and if you find one of my picks objectionable, you may very well be more correct than I am.
This exercise is supposed to be fun. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s a thing to talk about while MLB takes baseball away from us for a few days.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about a few guys who won’t be appearing on this year’s list, but are notable enough that I want to explain why they missed the cut. For brevity’s sake, I’ll group them into a few categories.
The Free Agent Class of 2015
There is not a single player on this year’s Trade Value list that is eligible to become a free agent after next season. While players like David Price, Justin Upton, Johnny Cueto, and the recently traded Jeff Samardzija are all very valuable trade chips, a year and a half of performance is almost never enough to get back the kind of core player that will appear in the trade value series. You can get a very good prospect for these guys, or a few good-not-great prospects, but teams aren’t giving up above average big leaguers in exchange for eight months of baseball. There just isn’t enough long-term value attached to a player who is 15 months from free agency to command the kind of bidding war that would lead to a greater return than players with significantly more quantity to offer.
And, obviously, this same philosophy knocks out any player who will be a free agent after this season too. Jon Lester would net the Red Sox a nifty package in trade, but with only a few months left until he hits the open market, teams just aren’t going to pay premium prices for a rental.
Great Players, Problem Contracts
This category basically covers two players who prominently appeared on last year’s list, but will not make the cut this season due to extensions they’ve signed since. The two players? Miguel Cabrera and Clayton Kershaw.
Few players in baseball can match either one for short-term value, but both have problematic contracts, though for differing reasons. Cabrera’s is the traditional one; the Tigers extended him at a very high price covering years where he is likely to be unproductive. Even ignoring his 2014 salary, he’s due $270 million over the next nine years, and there just aren’t very many teams in baseball that can even think about affording that kind of contract. And the ones who can aren’t really great fits, as almost all of the high payroll teams already have money significant money tied up at 1B/DH. Cabrera’s a great player, but the contract extension basically killed any chance of a significant bidding war by taking so many teams out of the running. Of course, the Tigers aren’t trading Cabrera, so they don’t care about his trade value, but for this list, we do.
Kershaw’s a different story. He’s expensive too, but that’s not why he missed the cut this year. Teams would still line up to pay him $30 million a year, as he’s the perfect combination of young and great. However, the Dodgers agreed to put a clause in Kershaw’s contract that makes him virtually impossible to trade. if he is traded, he then has the right to void the deal and become a free agent at the end of the season. If the Dodgers traded Kershaw now, he’d be a free agent this winter. If they traded him this off-season, he’d be a free agent next winter. Either way, any team trading for Kershaw would be acquiring a rental, and no one can justify paying what it would take to get him for one year of team control.
Current Injuries Nuking Value
There are some really good players that, if healthy, would have been easy choices for the list. But they aren’t healthy, and teams are reticent to pay premiums for players with health risks. Carlos Gonzalez ranked 10th on this list a year ago, but won’t appear this season due to his recurring injury problems. Michael Wacha almost certainly would have been on the list before he went to the DL with a mysterious shoulder problem. Wil Myers might not have made the cut either way, but he wasn’t even strongly considered given his lack of present value.
There are injured players on this year’s list, but they are the kinds of injured players where the upside is so great that teams would still pay for just the future value knowing the recovery timeline. For guys who were going to appear towards the back half of the list, injuries that limit their short-term value almost universally pushed them off the list. It’s hard to have premium trade value from the disabled list. Not impossible, but difficult.
I Just Can’t List Everyone
There’s nothing wrong with these guys. In fact, all of them made a preliminary version of the list at some point during the compiling of the final version. The margin between the guys at the end and the guys not listed is so small that it’s basically inconsequential. You could realistically argue for any of about 20 or 25 guys to fill the last 10 spots and not get much of an argument from me. At the end of the day, though, I had to pick 50, which leaves a few very good players on very reasonable contracts out in the cold. With all due respect, I offer my apologies to the following:
Adrian Beltre: $34 million in salary over next two seasons, and already 35.
Adam Jones: Good player, good contract, but not a star and not a steal.
Garrett Richards: Amazing first half. Not enough of a track record. Super-Two.
Todd Frazier: Good player, not a great one, and only arb. seasons left.
Jose Altuve: Super fun, great contract, but upside is a bit limited, unfortunately.
George Springer: Power is great, but rest of his game needs work.
Jason Kipnis: Power is what makes him valuable; power currently missing.
Brandon Belt: Took too long to get good, and already into arbitration years.
In a few hours, we’ll unveil the last 10 guys who did make the list, and do 10 more each day until we get to the top 10 on Friday. I hope you enjoy the series as much as I enjoy doing it.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.