2021 Trade Value: Intro and Honorable Mentions

Design by Luke Hooper

Every year since time immemorial (fine, for just over a decade), FanGraphs has produced a trade value series with one goal: rank the top 50 players in baseball by their value in a potential trade. To the surprise of no one, we’re doing that again this year. Over the coming days, we’ll release our list, taking performance, age, and contract into account.

That’s right — we, not I. In past years, the list has been compiled by a single FanGraphs writer — Dave Cameron, Kiley McDaniel, or Craig Edwards. This year, for the first time, it’s a two-person job. We (Ben Clemens and Kevin Goldstein) worked together to construct this list. That was useful for several reasons. First, it led to fewer obvious omissions as we started compiling the top 50. Those likely would have been smoothed out over time, but having two pairs of eyes was incredibly useful at getting an initial list together.

Second, the two of us have different but (we believe) complementary skillsets. The worst collaboration would be one between two people whose views align exactly. We share similar overall viewpoints — we both think in terms of surplus value, for some amorphous definition of “value” — but the particulars vary in useful ways. Our perspective has been colored by our respective experiences. Kevin’s experience on the scouting and team sides (and mostly both at once) tilt his evaluations, while Ben’s outsider perspective and quantitative bent tilt his. Several times in our process, that disagreement sharpened the list.

Aside from that two-headed approach, our process was quite similar to previous iterations of this exercise. We considered a broad spectrum of inputs: estimates of current value, projections of future value, age, contract status, positional scarcity, and pretty much any other data we could get our hands on were all considered. We solicited input from others at FanGraphs, and also consulted a number of team sources for sanity checks and final calibrations.

The central question we considered boils down to this: how much value could a team expect to get in trade for each player on the list? That helps with some of the thorniest questions of trade value, because baseball isn’t like basketball, where every team is one Kevin Durant away from contention. Because the gap between the haves and have-nots is so wide, and because teams need so many players to compete, a rebuilding team might not even make an offer on Mike Trout. Likewise, a team in win-now mode likely wouldn’t surrender the players necessary to pry Adley Rutschman away from the Orioles, even if they could. The timelines simply don’t match up.

As such, we’ve attempted to consider the value a player could be expected to return in trade rather than whether you’d trade Player X for Player Y. That’s how the trade market works — baseball trades are almost never like-for-like, but rather swapping value in one window for value in another. Would the team with the 15th ranked player trade them for the 16th? Maybe! But that’s not the point of the list.

One knock-on effect of that valuation: big contracts are less debilitating than you might think. Sure, 25 of the 29 other teams might not be willing to take on Trout’s contract. But the four that would be interested would be really interested, and that’s all we care about: the highest value that someone would offer in return for a player, not how many teams would offer that value. When you inevitably find yourself saying “Hey, why is this guy here, my hometown team wouldn’t even consider him,” remember that it’s all about maximum value, not the average value across all 30 clubs.

You could imagine a separate list that considers an average of each team’s valuation of each player. That list would look quite different, because every team could use a pre-arbitration pitcher like Brandon Woodruff, or someone like Nick Madrigal who will stick around forever at a comparatively low cost. More and more teams consider themselves to be cash-constrained (whether they actually are or not), or at least hesitant to take on big contracts. As long as there’s no hard salary cap and star players are in short supply, there will still be a top end market, though, and we chose to base our rankings on that maximum achievable value rather than attempt to average across every team.

Lastly, this year, we’re handling the honorable mentions slightly differently. In the past, there’s been a separate section for players who were on last year’s list but no longer make the top 50 cut. This year, however, we’re going to group those players in with the rest of the honorable mentions of a similar ilk, rather than use a hypothetical distinction (whether they were on last year’s list) to break them out. Players denoted with a * were on last year’s list, with their 2020 rank in parentheses. Without further ado, here are this year’s honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

Stars With Big Contracts
Nolan Arenado
Zack Wheeler
George Springer
Christian Yelich* (15)
J.T. Realmuto
Bryce Harper
Manny Machado
Francisco Lindor

It wouldn’t be crazy to put any of these eight on the list — particularly Wheeler, Lindor, Harper, and Machado. A team looking for a big splash could certainly achieve it by adding anyone here with the possible exception of Springer, who hasn’t been able to stay on the field this year. But as Arenado’s trade this offseason showed, teams are hesitant to take on long-term deals unless they’re for the very best in the game. Lindor and Wheeler are nearly there, and we had advocates for both players, but Wheeler has only done it for a year and Lindor’s contract leaves little margin for error, particularly given his uneven year so far. – BC

Good Players Approaching Free Agency
Joey Gallo* (42)
Aaron Judge* (27)
Trea Turner
Max Muncy* (35)
Cody Bellinger* (9)
Germán Márquez* (22)
Jorge Polanco* (38)

Six of these seven players made last year’s list, but contract considerations removed them from our rankings this year. Gallo and Judge will both hit free agency after next season, and while they’ll provide a ton of value over that time frame (and Gallo will likely be moved by next week’s deadline), it’s hard to accumulate top-50 trade value in such a short time frame. Turner fits the same mold; he’s having his best season yet, but he’s a free agent after next year, which limits any potential return in trade.

Muncy and Bellinger both have one more year — they’ll hit free agency after the 2023 season — but they were on the list largely for how good and cheap we expected them to be in 2020 and ’21. Muncy’s contract is backloaded, and Bellinger is making top-tier arbitration money thanks to his 2019 MVP season. They’re both still excellent players, and we had both on the list at one point, but in the end we relegated them to the honorable mentions.

Márquez isn’t exactly “nearing free agency,” but he too has a back-loaded contract that pays him only $7.5 million this year, as compared to $17.5 million (counting buyouts) by 2023. He was also on the back end of the top 50 at one point, and he’d look right at home there — the cutoff between Top 50 and Honorable Mention is more art than science. Polanco is an even more tenuous fit in this category, but we had to put him somewhere. His bonkers 2019 appears to be more outlier than true talent level, and his contract is solid but hardly an overwhelming bargain. – BC

If They Were Healthy
Nate Pearson* (44)
Dustin May* (50)
Tyler Glasnow

Pitchers break sometimes. Pearson is a tremendous talent who has made only six starts this year — five in the minors — and hasn’t pitched since June 16. If we could guarantee his health, he’d absolutely rank higher, but he’s missed enough time in the past two years that you have to worry about his future availability. May was off to an excellent start to 2021, but it’s hard to imagine a player currently rehabbing from TJ commanding a huge haul in trade. If he comes back on schedule next year, though, he’ll be right back in the discussion. Likewise, Glasnow was having his best season, but tore his UCL. He hasn’t definitively decided on surgery yet, but that ticking time bomb severely limits his value, though he’d be a slam dunk for the list if healthy. – BC

Team-Controlled but How Good Are They?
Sandy Alcantara
Cavan Biggio
Jazz Chisholm Jr.
Max Fried
John Means
Casey Mize
Cedric Mullins

Many of these players had support in the industry but fell just short due to questions about just how much upside they possess. In terms of the position players, Cavan Biggio and Jazz Chisholm Jr. both present considerable uncertainty about their hit tool; both have career averages south of .250 with concerning strikeout rates. Cedric Mullins received some limited support but there were just too many questions about how real his 2021 performance is. If he keeps this up, he’ll certainly show up next year; he isn’t eligible for arbitration (the whole process for which could change with a new CBA) until 2023. Among the arms, Sandy Alcantara, Max Fried and Casey Mize each had some limited support, but ultimately missed because they feel more like solid rotation pieces than future stars, while Means’ injury, age, and lack of pure power stuff created just enough pause to keep him out of the top 50. – KG

Team-Controlled but Value Is Down
Pete Alonso* (20)
Luis Castillo* (32)
Matt Chapman* (13)
Paul DeJong* (29)
Gavin Lux* (26)
Jesús Luzardo* (45)
Yoán Moncada* (7)
Chris Paddack* (21)
Blake Snell* (30)
Gleyber Torres* (8)

If these players built on (or in many cases, simply maintained) their previous production, we’d be preparing full write-ups, but for a variety of reasons they have declined anywhere from a bit to, well, quite a bit. Pete Alonso is the king of the home run derby but also hasn’t slugged over .500 since his tremendous rookie year; for a first baseman, that leaves him in the middle of the pack for his position. Meanwhile, Matt Chapman has gone from an amazing to a simply very good defender, while his bat has slipped significantly. Paul DeJong makes sense as a fringy defender at shortstop when he’s hitting 30 home runs, but less so when he’s struggling to stay above the Mendoza line and posting a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Gavin Lux just hasn’t done enough in the big leagues, while Yoán Moncada and Gleyber Torres have seen their power go missing in action. Luis Castillo certainly would have returned to the list if his April and May had looked like his June, as he’s shown a return to form of late. Meanwhile, Jesús Luzardo has not seen such a turn around and is suddenly back in Triple-A, where his struggles have continued. A pair of Padres finish the list: Blake Snell, whose command continues to back up, greatly impacting his ability to go deep into games, and Chris Paddack, who is still looking to find a dependable secondary pitch to offset a fastball that is far too hittable. – KG

Near Misses
Bryan Reynolds
Jared Walsh
Austin Meadows* (37)
Carson Kelly
Jesse Winker

All of these players have value comparable to the last few players in our top 50, though they get there differently. Reynolds has a ton of team control remaining and has been good in two of the last three years; his middling prospect pedigree led people to expect regression when he debuted, but his production looks more real than not at this point.

Walsh has monstrous raw power and strikeout issues, which sounds like a lot of replaceable first basemen, but the power is high even for that cohort and his strikeout issues aren’t insurmountable, driven as they are by aggression rather than a contact deficiency. Only his lack of positional versatility keeps him out of contention for a higher spot.

Meadows had several advocates and only our lack of comfort with his ability to hit lefties kept him this low. He’ll hit arbitration next year and puts up the kind of numbers that arbitrators love, but “my player is producing so much that he’s getting paid well” is a nice problem to have. He had a brutal 2020, but I’m fine calling it a wash given the strange circumstances of the year.

Kelly has seemingly been on the verge for years. He’s absolutely mashing this year … when he plays. He’s been injured quite a bit, and health is a skill, which kept him from a higher ranking, but keep an eye on him to see if his newfound power sticks when he’s back.

Speaking of newfound power, Winker went from Sir-Walks-a-Lot to one of the premier sluggers in the game seemingly overnight. A complete lack of defensive value and the fact that he’s only in Cincinnati through 2023 kept him from finishing higher, but if the NL adds a DH this offseason, things might be looking up. – BC

Prospects, Prospects, Prospects
CJ Abrams
Vidal Bruján
Henry Davis
Logan Gilbert
Jarred Kelenic
Alex Kirilloff
Luis Patiño
Julio Rodríguez
Spencer Torkelson
Andrew Vaughn
Bobby Witt Jr.

Some of these players have already gotten their big league careers going, others have merely reached Double-A, and one, Henry Davis, has yet to begin his professional career. This in an exceptionally talented group of players, but as Jarred Kelenic has already shown us this year, and as many superstars have shown in the past, the path from elite prospect to major-league success can be an exceptionally bumpy one. We’ve been spoiled by the Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. types of the world. For most, the transition is a struggle and will continue to be. None of these players belongs on the list this summer, so call it the group most likely to ascend to consideration over the next two years. – KG

Interesting Players I Want to Write About
Keston Hiura* (46)
Brandon Lowe
Mike Yastrzemski

Hiura was on the 2020 list after a sterling ’19, but he simply hasn’t hit since then. A recent hot streak gives me hope that some mechanical adjustments could point him back in the right direction, but I’m in the wait-and-see camp until he can get his strikeouts under control. He’s striking out more than a third of the time even during this recent run of good production, and that’s scary.

Lowe is under team control for essentially forever, and his contract is exceedingly favorable — he could be a Ray until 2026 if they exercise both team options. He’s also a career 126 wRC+ hitter, and in a “down” 2021, he’s slugging .461. But talent evaluators worry about his whiff-happy game, and his strikeout rate perpetually feels like it’s on the verge of sinking him. There’s also disagreement about his defense — if he can’t handle second base, the offensive bar goes way up. He’d be on my personal top 50, but I get why not everyone agrees.

Speaking of my personal top 50, I lost count of the number of times I shoved Yastrzemski up the list only for Kevin, one of our writers, or one of our team sources to push back. There seems to be a broad consensus that he’s been figured out, but I just don’t get it. He walks a lot, doesn’t strike out that much, and hits for power. He plays a credible right field and a not-so-credible center. Sure, he’s 30, so the good times won’t continue forever. But he’s not even arbitration eligible until 2023, and to me he’s a first-division outfielder. Industry consensus has him off the list, so he’s not on there — but consider this my minority report. – BC

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Thom with an Hmember
2 years ago

Expected to see John Nogowski on here, but pleasantly surprised to know he must be top 50.

Cave Dameron
2 years ago
Reply to  Thom with an H

He’s number 69 and will get his own article.

2 years ago
Reply to  Thom with an H

Easily top 1 based on what I just watched this weekend.