It’s the All-Star break, which means no baseball for four days. And, around here, the All-Star break means that I spend five days writing about the most valuable trade chips in the game, as it’s once again time for our annual Trade Value series. This is actually the 11th 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 eighth edition here on this site.
As always, I’d like to acknowledge that this project has been borrowed from Bill Simmons, who did his own NBA Trade Value series at Grantland, and Jonah Keri has taken up the torch over there, doing a baseball version once the regular season ends. It’s a fun project, and one I’m glad Simmons 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 aren’t getting paid like great players. Naturally, this causes this list to skew very young, as MLB’s pay scale is geared to take money from inexperienced players and give it to veterans. Given that teams also like to build around young stars, this causes many of the most valuable trade chips in the game to be guys at the beginnings of their careers.
Of course, every team has a different priority and varying access to resources, so 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 specific franchise, it’s more accurate to think of this exercise as something like an auction; if each MLB player was put up for trade, with their current contracts remaining in place, who would bring back the most overall value to their franchise?
Clearly, present on-field value is going to be highly important here. The most aggressive teams in trades are often the ones trying to upgrade their roster in the short-term, and this is where the most egregious overpays often come, so players who are significant contributors in 2015 get a significant bump in value compared to players whose value lies more in the future. 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 from our position; 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.
And as a reminder, 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. Enjoy it, and don’t get too worked up over whether a guy ranks 28th or 41st. These guys are all so good that they’re not getting traded, so this is all a big hypothetical anyway.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about some 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 2016 (And Most of 2017 Too)
There is not a single player on this year’s Trade Value list that is eligible to become a free agent after next season. In fact, only two players who made the cut are eligible for free agency the year after next, and both of them are near the very end of the list. There are just too many good young players in baseball right now that are producing at a high level and are locked up for 3+ years, and with very rare exceptions, teams are not giving up high-upside guys who can perform in the big leagues for short-term upgrades. So, while Michael Pineda is obviously the kind of guy who would get a lot of attention if the Yankees put him on the trade blocks, I think there are more than 50 guys in the game that wouldn’t be available to them in a straight-up deal.
Even guys with all three arbitration years remaining are somewhat scarce, as the trend towards locking up the best young players in the game early means that there are a lot of guys out there who are essentially untouchable, given their production and their locked-in prices. The guys who made the list with only arbitration years left are some of the most dynamic young talents in the game today, and while I would have liked to have found room for guys like Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martinez, there are just too many highly productive players who are locked up long-term.
Great Players, Problem Contracts
If money was no object, every team in the world would love to have Miguel Cabrera. He’s amazing, and he’s still in the conversation for best hitter in baseball, even at age-32. But last year, the Tigers gave Cabrera a $248 million extension that doesn’t even start until next year. The deal guarantees him $32 million in his age-40 season. It’s just too much money for too many years that aren’t likely to be productive for most franchises, so while a few teams would happily take Cabrera off the Tigers hands, there aren’t enough of them to create a real bidding war. Cabrera’s great, but that extension wasn’t so great, and limits his trade value to a large degree.
And then there’s Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw’s a different story. He’s expensive too, but that’s not why he missed the cut. Teams would still line up to pay him $30 million a year, as he’s the perfect combination of youth and greatness. However, the Dodgers agreed to put a clause in Kershaw’s contract that makes him virtually impossible to trade; if he is moved during the years covered by his current deal, he then has the right to void the contract 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. This clause makes Kershaw absurdly valuable to the Dodgers, and far less valuable to anyone else.
Value Nuked by Injury
There are a good number of players who were on this list a year ago but were injured since this series ran last July. Yu Darvish, Adam Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg, David Wright, Devin Mesoraco, and Alex Cobb all made last year’s Top 50, but are currently on the DL and have seen their value take a big hit in the last 12 months. Troy Tulowitzki isn’t on the DL, but he had another trip back there after the list was published last year, and hasn’t played up to his usual standards this year, so he falls off the list despite ranking sixth a year ago; in retrospect, that was simply too aggressive a rating for a guy with his health track record.
Several of those guys probably wouldn’t have made the cut even if they were healthy, but these guys are all good reminders of how fragile trade value can be. For guys who have slid way down the list, health is often the primary reason.
Value Nuked by Sucking
It isn’t the only reason, though. Sometimes, healthy players who looked quite promising a year ago just stop playing well. Billy Hamilton and Gregory Polanco both looked like guys with enough bat to dream about their all-around games a year ago, but Hamilton has started hitting like a pitcher in the last year, and Polanco hasn’t shown enough power to justify his continued presence on this year’s version. Yadier Molina isn’t sucking, but he’s also not hitting like he did a few years ago, and at 32, he might be morphing back into the glove-first guy he came up as. Julio Teheran has stopped inducing weak contact and has developed a nasty home run problem, so while he’s still young and the contract is enticing, it’s tough to put a replacement level performer on the list.
While Molina is likely a permanent alumnus of this club, the other guys are young enough to get back to what they looked like a year ago. But they’re just going to have to play better first, because teams generally don’t pay premiums for guys who they see as bounce-back candidates.
Not So Cheap Anymore
For years, Evan Longoria ruled this domain, locking up the #1 spot from 2008 through 2011, finally falling to #4 in 2012, #5 in 2013, and #9 a year ago. This year, he headlines the list of guys who remain productive players but have started to reach a point at which they’re more good players than great players, and their prices are no longer so low that they can justify ranking ahead of younger players who can offer similar levels of performance. Longoria’s defense allows him to remain a very good player overall, but he turns 30 in a few months and is finally pulling in some salaries that move the needle a little bit for lower revenue clubs. He’s still clearly worth more than he’s being paid, and will be for several years to come, but Longoria isn’t as great or as cheap as he once was, and so he’s been surpassed by the ridiculous wave of talent that has entered MLB over the last couple of years.
Others falling into this category: Kyle Seager, Matt Carpenter, Dustin Pedroia, and Adam Jones. They’re all still excellent players, and you’d take any of them in a heartbeat, but they’re not quite franchise talents and they requires significant portions of a team’s budget. They all have a lot of trade value, but just not quite enough to slide into the Top 50.
I Just Can’t List Everyone
There’s nothing wrong with these guys. The margin between the guys at the end and the guys listed below 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, in addition to all the quality players already named above:
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.