2015 Trade Value: #20 to #11

Introduction
Players #50 to #41
Players #40 to #31
Players #30 to #21

In doing the penultimate article in this series, I can’t help but feel like this would be a perfectly acceptable Top 10 in some other years. We have some of the very best pitchers in baseball mixed in with a couple of true superstars, plus some young position players who already look like franchise cornerstones. The fact that these guys missed the top 10 isn’t any kind of knock against them, but a testament to the remarkable amount of young talent that is currently taking over the game. Not all of these guys are going to have long, outstanding careers, but with so many great young players, it feels like we’re heading into some kind of golden era.

As a reminder, in addition to the player’s biographical information, I’ve added a summary of his contract situation, and as a new feature this year, Dan Szymborski has provided me with five year ZIPS forecasts for all of the players on the list, which I’ve listed along with their 2016 projection. Of course, not every player listed is under control for the next five years — some are locked up well beyond that time frame — but this should offer you a pretty decent view of what a player is expected to do both in the short-term and the longer-term, according to Dan’s forecasting system.

For the contract details, I’m only displaying future obligations beginning with their 2016 salary. I’ve tried to ensure that these are as accurate as can be, but they were also collected manually, so there probably will be some mistakes; there are plenty of weird clauses and options that make aggregating all this information particularly annoying. Also, we’re not including things like All-Star bonuses or incentive escalators, as this is intended to give more of a big picture view than be a precise accounting of the exact cost of a future player. A few hundred thousand here and there won’t change the rankings.

Also, keep in mind that some players have contracts that give them a guaranteed minimum, but they are also able to opt-into arbitration when they are eligible. This is pretty common now with prominent international signings, and so some of these guys will probably earn more than their contracts currently call for, but I’ve still just included the guaranteed minimum in the future salary commitment because we don’t know for sure that they’re going to opt into arbitration yet.

Finally, we’ve also included a nifty little graphic at the bottom that visualizes a lot of the information contained below, so if you want to see the projections and contract status for everyone together, you can get a summary of that at the bottom. The chart goes out five years, so some players have additional value beyond what’s displayed, but it should give you a good overview of what each player offers going forward.

Alright, on to the list.


#20: Jacob deGrom, SP, New York
Controlled Through: 2020
Guaranteed Dollars: None
2016 ZIPS WAR: +3.9
Five year ZIPS WAR: +18.4
Last Year: Unranked

When I laid out the list and saw that I was going to put deGrom in the top 20, I expected to have to spend a few paragraphs defending the decision, given that he’s only a little over a year away from being considered a mediocre prospect with limited upside. Then, helpfully, he did this on Tuesday night.

This isn’t the same guy who was running average strikeout rates in the PCL. Even from his time in the majors after getting promoted last year — which was excellent, of course — his stuff has ticked up, and he’s now sitting 95 a 90 mph breaking ball. And no one can hit him. Over his last 33 starts — his most recent full season’s worth of work, basically — he’s thrown 217 innings with a 2.28 ERA/2.34 FIP/2.87 xFIP. That’s +6.6 WAR, or the equivalent of what David Price has done over his last 33 starts. What I’m trying to say is this kid is pretty good.

As a late-developing guy who already had Tommy John surgery, deGrom is older than most guys with this short a track record, but at 27, he’s not exactly long in the tooth. And, again, age isn’t a huge deal for pitchers. Even with the fact that he kind of came of out nowhere and has only been doing this for about 14 months, I’m buying in on deGrom as one of baseball’s best pitchers. And with five more years of team control, he’s a long-term asset even without a long-term contract. There is a decent chance he ends up as a Suepr Two after next year — with 139 days of service last year, he’s going to be right near the cutoff point, so it could go either way — and if he gets four arbitration raises, he’ll get kind of expensive by 2020, but there’s a ton of present value here and plenty of long-term value as well.


#19: Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland
Controlled Through: 2021
Guaranteed Dollars: $37.5 million
2016 ZIPS WAR: +5.2
Five year ZIPS WAR: +22.0
Last Year: #42

Since I quoted the last full year stats for deGrom, it’s probably only fair to do so for Kluber too, since his are particularly absurd. Over his last 33 starts, he’s thrown 237 innings with a 2.65 ERA/2.19 FIP/2.46 xFIP. By FIP, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball the last 365 days; if you use RA9-WAR instead, holding him responsible for the failures of the Indians defense, he falls all the way to fourth. Like deGrom, he developed late and isn’t as young as you might think (he’s 29), but there are few pitchers better than Kluber right now.

Due to the fact that he’s already pushing towards 30, Kluber’s more of a present value play than a long-term building block, but the contract he signed with the Indians this spring does give the team plenty of chances to reap some significant savings down the line if Kluber keeps pitching well. He’s now due just $35.5 million over the next four years, and if he ages well (or free agent prices continue to soar), they can pick up a couple of options for a grand total of $27.5 million in years five and six. Given that those options cover his age-35 and age-36 seasons, I’m not putting a lot of value on those years, and I think it’s probably more likely that most of his value comes during the next four seasons, but it does give the franchise some additional long-term upside if he ages particularly well.

When you have a #1 starter locked up long-term, you have one of the most valuable assets in the game. We’ve already written up Carlos Carrasco, and it says something about the Indians pitching staff that he’s not even the most valuable trade chip in that rotation.


#18: Buster Posey, C, San Francisco
Controlled Through: 2022
Guaranteed Dollars: $130 million
2016 ZIPS WAR: +6.2
Five year ZIPS WAR: +26.8
Last Year: #21

Early-career Posey relied on some unsustainable BABIPs to post elite offensive numbers, and it seemed like those probably wouldn’t last forever, especially for a catcher. And sure enough, after running a .368 BABIP in 2012, he’s posted just a .315 mark since. But along the way, Posey figured out a neat little trick; you can keep hitting .300 if you just never strike out. So now, Posey is one of the game’s elite contact hitters, only he also still hits the ball hard with regularity. And even as the Giants are slowly transitioning him towards more time at first base, his offensive profile is so good that he’s a star even when he’s not catching.

That profile is that of a guy who belongs higher up the list, but his contract is officially out of the super-cheap years, as the 6/$130m left on his deal is a pretty significant commitment, and would price some franchises out of the mix. On the other hand, given his level of performance and the rising market prices for players of Posey’s level, Posey’s clearly a $200 million guy (and probably more) if he hit free agency this winter, so teams with the financial capability to take his deal would be lining up to trade for the best catcher in baseball. So while he’s not cheap, he’s also still a huge bargain relative to the value he creates, and that’s why there’s probably no reasonable offer that would convince the Giants to part with him.


#17: Josh Donaldson, 3B, Toronto
Controlled Through: 2018
Guaranteed Dollars: None
2016 ZIPS WAR: +6.2
Five year ZIPS WAR: +26.9
Last Year: #17

The most common complaint leveled against this exercise is that I discount present value too heavily and put too much emphasis on contract cost and years of control. For a significant portion of our readers, I realize that trade value is mostly interpreted as the short-term performance a player offers, with the long-term production and cost being a secondary point of diminished importance. And because hardly anyone on this list ever gets traded, this exercise is almost entirely hypothetical, and neither side can really prove their case one way or another.

But Josh Donaldson was traded last winter, and he was traded for a package that was perceived to be way less than what a player like Donaldson should command. And even as the guy who most often argues for building teams through depth rather than paying premium prices for a few stars, I have to admit that the Donaldson return seemed light. In fact, the Donaldson trade — which brought back four players who weren’t even remotely considered for placement in this year’s series — was perhaps the most obvious quality-for-quantity (both in terms of individual players and years of control) trade we’ve seen in a while, given that he wasn’t traded under any kind of duress; the A’s clearly could have kept him for 2015 if they chose to do so, but they decided they’d rather have four quarters than a single dollar bill.

But I bet that if the A’s had a chance to hit the undo button on that deal, they would do so, even with a pretty decent half-season from Kendall Gravemen and Franklin Barreto looking pretty solid in the Cal League. While I’m probably more in agreement with the A’s depth-over-stars approach to roster construction than most, even from my perspective, that deal looks like a mistake. So rather than suggesting that the off-season trade is some supporting evidence for my argument that enough quantity can substitute for quality, I think the more realistic conclusion here is that the A’s underestimated Donaldson, and the Blue Jays came out the better for it. If this really was the market price for star players, then I think we’d see guys on this list move more often.


#16: Madison Bumgarner, SP, San Francisco
Controlled Through: 2019
Guaranteed Dollars: $21.75 million
2016 ZIPS WAR: +4.6
Five year ZIPS WAR: +22.3
Last Year: #18

After last year’s ridiculous postseason run, it’s easy to imagine other teams just telling the Giants to pick any five players in their organization if the Giants actually put Bumgarner on the market, especially given that the remaining four years on his contract — those two team options are getting picked up unless he comes down with the plague, and even then, they might still think about it — come with an AAV of around $11 million per year, or what a year of Alex Rios costs you in free agency. And despite the fact that he’s been destroying National League hitters since 2010, he’s still just 25.

So why is only 16th, a couple spots up from where he was a year ago? At the risk of being repetitive, this isn’t really about him. He’s pitched well enough to be higher up the list, but this top 20 is just so crowded with great young players that I just couldn’t figure out how to move him up. Going into this, I thought he’d end up in the 10-15 range, but some guys have just forced their way past him, and as good as he is, it’s still a tough sell for most organizations to build around pitching over hitting, given the risks involved. But if you wanted a good young pitcher as your franchise player, you couldn’t do much better than Bumgarner.


#15: Sonny Gray, SP, Oakland
Controlled Through: 2019
Guaranteed Dollars: None
2016 ZIPS WAR: +4.7
Five year ZIPS WAR: +23.3
Last Year: #31

Given the Donaldson trade, it’s probably not a big surprise that the A’s front office is having to make public proclamations that they aren’t trading their ace; if the A’s really were willing to regularly deal one-for-many, there are 29 other teams who would love to make that kind of deal for Gray. With Johnny Cueto attracting a lot of attention as a trade chip, you can imagine what a 25 year old version of that skillset skillset, with four years of remaining team control, would command if the A’s did put him on the block.

But it’s probably somewhat instructive that, given that Gray almost certainly has more value now than Donaldson did when the A’s made that deal, the A’s are still choosing to keep their young ace. Even in an environment dominated by pitching, guys like Gray aren’t easy to find. There aren’t any flaws here. He throws strikes, he misses bats, he gets groundballs, and he might be able to induce more weak contact than most pitchers. No matter what type of pitcher you like, Gray is at least somewhat that kind of pitcher. He might not ever lead the league in any one category, but being excellent at everything is a pretty good way to get outs on a regular basis.

When the GM who will trade anyone at any time won’t consider trading you, you’re probably pretty special. Sonny Gray looks pretty special.


#14: Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado
Controlled Through: 2019
Guaranteed Dollars: None
2016 ZIPS WAR: +4.6
Five year ZIPS WAR: +24.0
Last Year: Unranked

To call this a breakout year would be a hilarious understatement. Coming into this season, Arenado had hit 28 home runs in 244 games, a pretty modest total for a guy who plays half his games in Coors Field. This year? 24 homers in 85 games, along with the third highest ISO in baseball, behind a couple of guys named Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton. For at least the first half of 2015, Arenado has turned into a monster, adding prodigious power to his incredible defense and elite contact skills. While he’s only done it for three months, this season currently looks like a prime season of Adrian Beltre’s career, and there’s nothing wrong with a 24 year old Beltre clone.

Even with lingering skepticism about whether he can keep hitting for this much power going forward, ZIPS still sees Arenado as a star in the making, and while I’m generally a trust-the-projections guy, I’d probably take the over on the offensive forecasts. So if we’re looking at Arenado as a +5 WAR player even if he heavily regresses at the plate, you can imagine what he’ll be if he keeps more of his power than the projections expect. In terms of just pure performance over the next five years, there probably aren’t more than a handful of guys you’d want over Arenado.

But relative to some of the other guys ahead of him, his contract isn’t going to be quite as team-friendly, as he’s going to be a Super Two following this season, and with Scott Boras as his agent, expect him to take the four yearly raises before hitting free agency following his age-28 season. And with Coors-inflated raw numbers in the categories that arbiters are most likely to reward, those arbitration raises are probably going to be pretty large. The combination of a short track record and escalating arbitration prices with little hope of a long-term deal drives Arenado out of the top 10, but that’s no knock against him as a player; Arenado looks like a more-than-worthy successor to Troy Tulowitzki as the Rockies perennial All-Star.


#13: Gerrit Cole, SP, Pittsburgh
Controlled Through: 2019
Guaranteed Dollars: None
2016 ZIPS WAR: +4.1
Five year ZIPS WAR: +21.3
Last Year: Unranked

For the first couple of years of Gerrit Cole’s career, he couldn’t quite figure out left-handed hitters, and that flaw — along with an arm injury that had him on the DL at the time this list was published last year — caused me to miss the boat and leave him off last year’s list. While there’s no question that teams aren’t going to pay full freight for injured pitchers, Cole probably still should have been on the list on future value alone, and made the decision look even sillier by dominating after his August return. In 26 starts since that DL stint, Cole’s run a 2.65 ERA/2.63 FIP/2.89 xFIP, with that latter mark tying him with some guy named Felix Hernandez. And along the way, he figured out how to get lefties out too, so there are no nits left to pick.

Like Arenado, he’s only this low because he’s a Boras client who probably isn’t particularly interested in signing away any of his free agent years, so he’ll likely be testing the free agent market after the 2019 season. But that’s a problem for a few years down the line. Right now, Cole is turning into a legitimate ace, and with top-shelf stuff, injury is probably the only way he doesn’t have a good run as one of the premier pitchers in the game. He certainly looks healthy now, and as long as he stays that way, opposing hitters are going to be unhappy to see him on the mound.


#12: Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles
Controlled Through: 2020
Guaranteed Dollars: None
2016 ZIPS WAR: +4.3
Five year ZIPS WAR: +21.9
Last Year: Unranked


#11: Mookie Betts, OF, Boston
Controlled Through: 2020
Guaranteed Dollars: None
2016 ZIPS WAR: +5.3
Five year ZIPS WAR: +26.7
Last Year: Unranked

When I started writing Pederson’s blurb, I realized I was probably better off just doing these last two together, because the comparisons — and the contrasts — between these two make this perhaps one of the most interesting decisions on the whole list.

On the one hand, you have Adam Dunn’s offense in a good defender’s body, a guy with incredible raw power and a discerning eye at the plate, but in a package that also comes with enough athleticism to play center field at a high level. On the other hand, you have a 5’9 converted infielder who makes his mark with speed and line drives, excelling by avoiding flaws in any part of his game. One is a specialist while the other is a jack-of-all-trades, with both having immediate success in the big leagues doing things their way.

But I would imagine there are probably going to be two divergent camps here, with some people squarely preferring the guy who hits monstrous home runs over the diminutive line-drive guy with no signature skill. And there is certainly an argument for Pederson, especially given the premium teams have historically paid for power; it is the commodity most often overpaid for in free agency. So if things were equal between them, Pederson would likely deserve the top billing in this pair, but I’m not quite sure things are equal here.

These are unquestionably two of the best young players in the game today, but historically, players like Betts have aged better than players like Pederson. It is simply easier to add strength and round out an all-around game that is is to fix a pretty significant contact problem, and with Pederson’s propensity for missing when he swings, he’s probably always going to strike out a lot. Short of taking his power game to a Stantonian level, it isn’t immediately clear to me how Joc Pederson is going to get better, and if the power wanes at all, it will take a good chunk of his value with it.

Betts, on the other hand, seems to have room for growth above and beyond what he already is. He consistently ran double-digit walk rates in the minors, but he’s become much more aggressive this year in response to big league pitchers throwing him a lot of strikes. As it becomes clear to opponents that feeding him pitches in the zone isn’t going to work, he should be able to get his walk rate up, and prime-Mookie may very well run even BB/K rates while spraying line drives all over the field. Given the relative optimism towards Betts from the ZIPS projections — and keep in mind, Steamer actually likes Betts more than ZIPS does, at least in the short-term — I think there are some real reasons to think that Mookie is likely to be the better player going forward. Not by a lot, but by enough to overcome the power premium, or make up for it anyway.

This isn’t to knock Joc Pederson at all; his five year ZIPS forecast puts him right between Gerrit Cole and Addison Russell, and he should remain an excellent player going forward. This is more about Betts just being a legitimate star; he actually has the eighth-highest five-year ZIPS projection of anyone on this list, ahead of Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Correa, and Kris Bryant, among others. Adam Dunn-with-defense is a player you absolutely want on your team, but if forced to choose, I’ll take the next Kenny Lofton, and I think there are probably just enough GMs out there that would agree to push Betts ahead by the slimmest of margins.

But in reality, there’s no wrong answer here. Pederson and Betts are both awesome, and both teams should be thrilled with their player. They get there in very different ways, and while I might prefer Mookie, there’s no shame in taking Joc’s side either. When we get to pick between young center fielders that are this good, the winners are the people who get to watch both whenever they want.

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Eminor3rd
Guest
Eminor3rd

Posey seems a little high to me with that big contract. Not that he doesn’t provide ample surplus value on the contract, but that the guys right behind provide so much MORE because of their insanely SMALL contracts.

Snow Leopard
Guest
Snow Leopard

I had the same thought. Thing of it is, when Zips predicts 26.8 WAR for Posey in the next five years, he’s a blue-chip bet to, barring injury, produce 26.8 WAR in the next five years. Some of the younger players still might go the career path of post-2012 Will Middlebrooks, post-2007 Jeff Francoeur, post-2008 Dice K, etc.

dustygator
Guest

Because you’re lucky if a player like Posey comes around once a generation.

Career to date (27.3 WAR)
Rest of season 2015 (3)
ZiPS 5 year projection (26.8)
Last two years of his deal (3.5 + 3)

You get to 63.6, a mere 0.1 WAR off of 5th highest all time catcher (Berra).

Catchers are prone to slowing/breaking down and moving off the position so any projections have a ton of volatility.

So yes, 8/$180M is very expensive. But there is literally no one else in the majors or even the pipeline who can provide what Posey will over the next 5 years.

tz
Guest
tz

He’s basically Joe Torre with a better glove, and Torre hit well enough to be valuable even after he stopped catching.

I don’t think he’ll plummet like Mauer did. Posey has more of a typical catcher’s build and should be able to take the normal wear and tear of the position for the duration of his contract.