2022 Trade Value: Intro and Honorable Mention

Design by Luke Hooper

Baseball’s annual rituals have been around for so long that they feel like an immutable part of the fabric of life. Pitchers and catchers reporting, the All-Star break, September playoff chases and, of course, FanGraphs leaving your favorite player off of our top 50 trade value rankings, which we do to spite you (and them) specifically.

I kid, of course, but today does mark the first installment of our annual Trade Value Series. In the following days, we’ll release our list, taking performance, age, and contract into account. Dave Cameron, Kiley McDaniel, and Craig Edwards all helmed this exercise at various points in the past, and after tag-teaming with Kevin Goldstein last year, I’ve taken over on my own.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t gotten help. I considered a broad range of inputs: estimates of current value, projections of future value, age, contract status, positional scarcity, Statcast data, and anything else I could dream up. From there, I solicited feedback from the rest of the FanGraphs staff (special thanks are due to Dan Szymborski for his ZiPS assistance and Sean Dolinar for his technical wizardry) and consulted with several outside sources, both public- and team-side, to compile the final order. Make no mistake, this is still my list, and it’s an inherently subjective estimation, but I’d like to think it’s an informed one.

The central question I considered is straightforward: how much value could a team expect to receive in return for each player on the list? It’s not who would solicit the great number of offers, or the highest average value of the trade offers a team would receive if they put this player on the trading block – it’s who would fetch the highest return if the entire league were making trade bids on each player.

I think this is an important distinction, particularly in baseball. Not every team is in the same place in their respective competitive cycle. To pick a topical example, Juan Soto is the biggest name available heading into the August 2 deadline, but the Royals probably aren’t preparing a bid for him. They aren’t a single Juan Soto away from contention, and he’ll be a free agent after 2024; the amount of value a team would have to surrender to acquire Soto only makes sense if they can get the most out of his contributions in the next few years. Likewise, not every contender boasts the depth, either in prospects or big leaguers, necessary to pry Oneil Cruz loose from the Pirates. If you’re going to be playing in October, you might need the very players it would take to secure Cruz’s services.

In recognition of that, these rankings are my attempt to consider the maximum value each player would command on the trade market, rather than whether you’d trade the player ranked 36th for the player ranked 35th. That means that big contracts aren’t necessarily debilitating; sure, not every team would be willing to take on Yordan Alvarez’s recent extension, but the teams that are interested would be very interested, and the competition between them matters more in terms of trade return than whether every single team would get involved.

You could imagine a separate list of universally desirable players, cost- and team-controlled young stars who will stick around at under-market rates. Every team could use Jazz Chisholm Jr. or Jeremy Peña; pre-arbitration major league contributors appeal to every franchise. More and more teams consider themselves to be cash-constrained (whether they actually are or not), and even if your team operates with wider budget latitude, adding a player on a bargain deal allows the front office to spend elsewhere. But as long as there’s no hard salary cap and star players are in short supply, there will still be a top end to the market, and I’ve attempted to account for that in my rankings.

That’s a lot of words about the process of making this list, and there will be plenty more in the comments accompanying each ranked player. For now, though, let’s get to the honorable mentions.

Cutting the list off at 50 players was an arbitrary decision made a decade ago, but it’s one I completely support; you have to draw the line somewhere, and 50 does a good job of getting the best players on the list while also leaving space for the merely very good. The distance between the 45th-best trade value in baseball and the 60th-best is slim, and in the eye of the beholder. You could make an argument for any of the players in the honorable mention section belonging on the back end of the list. In fact, either someone I consulted or I made that argument about each of these players. I’ve also included a separate section of players who made the list last year but fell off and aren’t honorable mentions this year. For all the players who appeared on last year’s list, their 2021 ranking appears after their name in parentheses.

Departing the List, Not an Honorable Mention
Alex Bregman (9)
Jacob deGrom (10)
Jack Flaherty (27)
Lucas Giolito (28)
Alex Verdugo (35)
Ian Anderson (39)
Nick Madrigal (44)
Max Kepler (45)
Xander Bogaerts (46)

This is a mixed bag of players, with divergent reasons for falling off the list. Bregman and deGrom are getting both more expensive and closer to free agency (deGrom can opt out after this year, in fact), and both have had down seasons, either in terms of performance or availability. They’re still excellent, but just the wrong fit for this kind of list. The same is true for Bogaerts, who was already a borderline inclusion thanks to his ability to opt out after this season. He’s great, just not a great trade chip.

Flaherty and Madrigal have been hurt and ineffective. Giolito, Verdugo and Anderson have been healthy but ineffective. Kepler is putting together a nice season, but he’s just too close to free agency at this point for what he is, which is a totally solid major league contributor. If his contract had another year of team control on it, he’d probably be pushing the back of the top 50.

A quick note on Madrigal: I think we had him ranked too highly last year, but he’s also regressed meaningfully, largely (in my opinion) due to injury. I’ll be watching his career closely, but he might be the name from last year I feel the most wrong about in retrospect.

Great Players With Big Contracts
Bryce Harper (HM)
Zack Wheeler (HM)
Gerrit Cole (15)
Matt Olson (31)
Manny Machado (HM)

All five of these players would command trade returns in excess of the surplus value you’d get by simply adding up their projections, assigning some monetary value to that production, and subtracting out their salaries. Teams are willing to pay up in trade when they’re acquiring stars; witness the recent Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Trea Turner/Max Scherzer trades.

That doesn’t mean you can ship out just any old star and get the world in return. You won’t see Stephen Strasburg on this list, or even someone in the Corey Seager/Francisco Lindor tier. In my estimation, all of the players in this group are at least arguably good contracts, and all fit the mold of someone who could immediately be one of the best few players on a contending team.

I don’t think any of these players would command a return that exceeds anyone in the top 50 – that’s why they’re honorable mentions – but consider this a reminder that exceptional players command a slight premium in trade relative to soulless, bean-counting estimations.

Excellent Pitchers Nearing Free Agency
Walker Buehler (8)
Julio Urías (29)
Aaron Nola (36)
Pablo López (49)

I ordered these pitchers by their ranking last year, but they can be split into categories based on remaining years of team control. Urías and Nola will be free agents after the 2023 season; that’s not enough remaining team control to merit a top-50 trade return. Nola looks like the better of the two, but I’d be happy plugging either in as my number two starter. I just wouldn’t do it if I had to give up more in trade than I would for anyone ahead of them on the list.

Buehler and López have more team control remaining, but I’m not sure they’re as good. That’s a strong statement for Buehler, who was near the top of the list last year, but being on the 60-day IL with an elbow injury is a horrid sign for his future health, and his performance this year before he got hurt left a lot to be desired. He could make me look foolish, but given how risk-averse modern front offices are, I don’t think he’d fetch a giant haul in trade right now. López has been awesome – he easily could have made the list – but in the end, he fell just short of the mark. Of this group, he’s the player I could most see making me feel silly this time next year.

Excellent Position Players Nearing Free Agency
Rafael Devers (37)
Ramón Laureano (40)
Tim Anderson (47)
Jeff McNeil (50)
Jorge Polanco (HM)

I could write extensively about each of these five; they’re all fascinating cases, and I’m not at all confident I made the right decision in leaving them out of the top 50. Devers is basically Juan Soto with every lever turned down slightly, right down to having one less year before free agency, but he’s one of the best hitters in the game, and could easily fetch a premium in trade due to that. I agonized over whether to tuck him into the bottom of the list, but in the end, I deemed him just short of the mark.

Anderson was on several early iterations of the list, but I finally moved him down among the honorable mentions. There’s basically nothing not to like; he’s consistent and reasonably durable. He also has two club options left on his contract after this year, and they’re affordable. I’m not numbering the honorable mentions, but he’d be in the low 50s if I were.

Laureano, Polanco, and McNeil are all on reasonable deals, and all three have plenty of team control remaining. They’re first division starters and are underpaid relative to their contributions. Good teams would happily run any of them out every day. There are a lot of similar players in the top 50. But all of those players have just a little bit extra, whether it’s that they’re under team control for another year, or slightly better now, or both.

An Outfielder I’m High On
Trent Grisham (34)

I started with Grisham towards the back of the top 50, and every subsequent revision pushed him down. You have to be an excellent center fielder to hit like Grisham has this year and still be a premium player, and he’s more very good than elite out there. I hope I’m wrong, because when he’s at his best on both sides of the ball, he’s one of the best outfielders in the game, but a year of almost never seeing that would certainly chill his value in a trade. I don’t regret shoving him up the list last year, because an above-average hitter who can play center field is incredibly valuable, but he’s hitting .200/.294/.337 since last year’s All-Star break, and that’s not going to get it done.

Arbitrary Category for Middle Infielders
Jonathan India
Tommy Edman
Andrés Giménez

Truly, I have no idea what to make of India. Before the season started, he certainly would have been on the list, and his 2022 has been marred by injury, which is hardly a reason to downgrade his performance. But between some defensive questions and a change in his approach at the plate, I (and most of the people I talked to for cross-checking purposes) am worried about the downside possibilities here; if his defensive value is lower than anticipated, there’s not much room for the bat to decline. Maybe it’s just injury, and he’ll be back better than ever in 2023, but for now, the balance of risk and reward tilts towards risk, which tilts towards being an honorable mention instead of on the list proper, though he was the last cut I made.

Edman would pretty obviously belong on this list if it were a top 80. I think he fits solidly somewhere in the 60s; clearly a good player with a team-friendly contract situation. I’m mentioning him here to point that out. Giménez was briefly in my top 50 during one revision, but I don’t think he belongs just yet. If the thump he’s shown this season is real – and that would be incredible, given the power numbers he’d previously produced – he’s one of the best 15 shortstops in baseball right now. If it’s not, he’s a player in the Edman mold, a great defender with a solid bat.

Young Players on the Cusp
Francisco Álvarez
Corbin Carroll
Michael Harris II
Gunnar Henderson
Logan Gilbert (HM)
Nolan Gorman
Hunter Greene
George Kirby
Nick Lodolo
Eury Pérez
Trevor Rogers (41)
Keibert Ruiz
Spencer Strider
Spencer Torkelson (HM)
Daulton Varsho
Jordan Walker

This is a mixed bag of just-debuted, recently-debuted, and yet-to-debut studs who could all easily be on the list a year from now. For instance, this range last year included Bobby Witt Jr. and Julio Rodríguez — I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that both feature prominently on this year’s ranking. All of these players have standout skills and could dominate, but none of them are proven producers just yet. This is the part of the list that I’m least sure about, because it’s the place where public-side analysts have the least information. Could a team covet one of these players and swap someone at the bottom of the top 50 for them? Absolutely. But I’m not sure which player on this list is the one with the most helium, so I’m hedging by placing them all in this category.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Heck yeah, Ben!