If you’ve read any of the dozens of articles over the years trying to create a framework for player asset values (putting a dollar amount on a player’s value), you’re aware of the biggest weakness of this genre of article. Take a star player, run him through a marginal-value analysis, and you’ll be disappointed in what it says about his trade value. Before we jump into the Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen trades, follow me down a thought-experiment rabbit hole.
Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball and Steamer projects him as a six-win player next year. Using the roughly $9-10 million at which a win is currently valued on the open market, Kershaw is likely to produce something between $50 and $60 million of value next year; let’s call it $55 million. Would multiple teams bid that amount for his services on a one year deal? Probably yes, because there’s some surplus value at that salary for which the formula fails to account. It doesn’t consider, for example, either extreme payrolls (i.e. the Dodgers’ on one hand, the A’s on the other) or more critical spots on the win curve (moving an 87-win team to a 93-win team is worth far more revenue-wise than 65 to 71).
So what would the A’s bid? They had an $86 million payroll last year, and they obviously wouldn’t give nearly two-thirds of it to one player. Oakland’s value for Kershaw would likely be whatever the maximum is that they would pay for any player, but that number is much lower than what the Dodgers would spend, maybe $20 million. Granted, these are extreme cases, but it illustrates the limitations of using a one-size-fits-all dollar-per-win calculator in specific instances, even if it works fine in aggregate.
More Granular Valuation
I point all that out to illustrate the fact that players aren’t worth the same to every team. Kershaw’s value, on which we all basically agree, varies by $30-40 million from the A’s to the Dodgers on just a one-year deal. So wouldn’t it follow that the A’s and Dodgers would value other players differently, too?
The Dodgers spent $265 million on players last year for 25 roster spots; that’s $10.6 million per player. The A’s spent $86 million, or $3.4 million per player. If the A’s want an everyday, league-average left fielder and think free agency is the best way to acquire such a player, they’d be forced to spend something like $8-12 million per year — essentially three of those $3.4 million allotments — to do it. For the Dodgers, such a signing would only require the use of one such allotment.
With this in mind, it’s probably reasonable to say that a league-minimum, league-average rookie left fielder is worth more to the A’s than the Dodgers for a few reasons. The roughly $10 million in savings from the free-market alternative to the rookie is almost 12% of the A’s payroll. It’s less than 4% of the Dodgers payroll, however. The Dodgers can still essentially afford any player before or after signing the free agent, but the A’s now can get a couple extra market-priced role players or another average starter, instead of minor-league-deal types whom they’d be forced to use without this rookie.
The further implication with the rookie left fielder is that he offers five additional cost-controlled years after this original one, compounding that one-year edge. For a team in the midst of a short-term rebuild (maybe not looking to compete this season, but targeting the next one or one after that), those upper-minors prospects — or, similarly, MLB players with just a year or two of service — who profile as a 50 or 55 FV type are more valuable to a low-payroll team than a high-payroll one.
The Pirates at 30,000 Feet
The Pirates spent just under $110 million in payroll last year, 25th in the league, not far ahead of 29th-place Oakland. The Pirates were projected for roughly 81 wins before the Cole trade, a clear third in the NL Central and essentially tied with three other teams a few games behind Arizona for the second Wild Card. Arizona looks poised to make a move to contend this year and the Giants looked poised to make moves, so before this trade, the Pirates needed to improve by six to eight wins for a reasonable shot at contention.
With projected arbitration raises, the Pirates (before trading Cole) were committed to about $103 million for 2018, leaving roughly $7 million to spend. You can see how the numbers don’t add up here. Unless they were going to mortgage the farm system, it would have been impossible to spend just $110 million and make this team a contender, unless a lot of things feel their way in-season, which it would be foolish to expect.
The industry belief until these trades occurred was that the Pirates were trying to sell off their short-term assets (contracts that end in 2018 or 2019) so they could reload. This would mean trading Cole and McCutchen primarily, possibly Josh Harrison and a few others. The Pirates would add some assets via these trades, clear some payroll space, and make way for upper-level prospects (OF Austin Meadows, RHP Mitch Keller, SS Kevin Newman, and maybe a few others) to get their feet wet. Depending on how well that process goes, you could see another window open in 2019 or 2020 with a core the team could afford for multiple years. If you assume the payroll isn’t going up and there’s no moral hazard to sacrifice everything to win now, this is the smartest long-term plan.
How This Applies to the Cole and McCutchen Trades
The reaction to the Cole trade hasn’t been that positive for the Pirates. That’s mostly because certain top prospects Pittsburgh asked for — Gleyber Torres of the Yankees, Kyle Tucker of the Astros — weren’t in the final deals for Cole and McCutchen. As I suggested in my last article, this ultimately isn’t surprising: in an era when nearly all teams value young players “correctly,” if not overvalue them, landing a top prospect often isn’t an option.
As a consequence, lower-payroll teams are forced to, in deals like this, focus on a long-term asset or assets with a good chance to appreciate in value. Felipe Rivero’s value has gone up since the Pirates acquired him, so this doesn’t just mean prospects. Building on the earlier example of the minimum-salary starter’s value to the low-payroll team, it compounds due to the multiple years of control and again if that club can get multiple starting-caliber players at once, particularly if they are young enough to improve and turn into difference makers.
This strategy isn’t unique to the Pirates, of course — not even in their own division. The Reds, for example, weren’t contending last year and had high waiver-wire preference along with roster spots to give players a chance. As a result, they stumbled into Adam Duvall, Scooter Gennett, Scott Schebler, and Eugenio Suarez. All four have become useful pieces, even as competing teams were unable to give all those guys a chance to develop.
The Brewers, meanwhile, have been good at stockpiling one- to two-win players either by acquiring them when they’re undervalued or by helping them turn into an asset. When the big-league team isn’t a contender, agents/players find an organization more attractive for minor-league deals since the talent gap between depth pieces and starters is smaller. If a core player hasn’t had a payday before, the club has a chance to double down on his success story with an extension, like Rivero just did with the Pirates (who can now comfortably allow him to rack up saves with no arb hearings coming). There are a lot of little edges to exploit beyond draft position for a club that isn’t contending.
If a club follows that strategy along, it’ll end up where the Cardinals did, with a glut of low-end starting-caliber players (or solid, not spectacular prospects) whom they can package together to get a well above-average player (like Marcell Ozuna) to supplement their core when they see a competitive window opening. If the Pirates execute their plan and the players they acquire appreciate in value, those newcomers will be contributors to a playoff team. Or the plan may fall short but if enough player improve, these now-proven big leaguers can be flipped in a cascade of trades (liked the Braves did with Jason Heyward), to improve the chances of opening a window a year or two later.
The latter isn’t an ideal outcome for the Pirates, but it allows them to be flexible and act when the window opens, rather than dictating it has to happen in a certain year, like what the Giants are doing now. Organizations need margin for error in terms of timing when they lack margin for error in payroll.
Eno already examined what Cole can do to regain his old form (a point on which others agree) and why the Astros are more likely to help him achieve that goal than the Pirates. Jeff covered the McCutchen trade and the current hierarchy of the NL. I’ve compared notes (see below) with Eric Longenhagen on the prospects the Pirates received (RF Jason Martin, 3B Colin Moran, LF Bryan Reynolds and RHP Kyle Crick) while KATOH also weighed in on the trades.
Martin (40 FV) is a classic fourth-outfielder prospect, a lefty-hitting tweener who can play all three positions but fits best on a corner and has a chance for a 50 bat with 50 game power and solid-average plate discipline after a swing adjustment between in 2016 to lift the ball more. He’ll likely spend 2018 in Double- and Triple-A (which is a reason why he wasn’t taken in the Rule 5 draft), so a 2019 role as a platoon outfielder could be in the cards, with six years of control starting when he’s called up.
Moran (50 FV) was the sixth-overall pick in 2013. He hasn’t quite lived up to the pedigree but worked himself into a solid player with improvements last season. He made a swing change in 2017, lifting the ball more and getting more athletic in his swing, along with quieting his hands, which allowed him to handle premium velocity better — a big issue for him until the adjustment. He projects as a 50 or 55 bat with 50 game power. Moran has below-average range but above-average hands and arm, so he’s around average at third base, even if he isn’t super athletic. He’s also played some first base. He’s big-league ready with very little service time, so that’s six years of a potential starter, including two or three of those years at the league minimum.
Michael Feliz (45 FV) has four years of control remaining and has been a quality middle-relief option who could be more of a setup man if it turns out getting hit around last year was more bad luck or fixable flaw rather than fatal flaw. He works 95-97, touching 99 with good extension, a solid-average slider that he buries well, average command, and a below-average changeup that he largely ditched last year. His fastball is pretty straight, so possibly switching to a sinker (an en vogue move in Pittsburgh) could solve some of those issues.
Joe Musgrove (55 FV) has been a roughly league-average/No. 4 starter for his 25 big-league starts and projects to be that or a little better going forward. He works 91-95 with a sinker that touches 98 mph with plus life, he gets great plane from his high arm slot and backs it up with an above-average slider and changeup, along with average command. There’s nothing plus here except Musgrove’s control; he pounds the zone, is durable at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, and can be a cost-effective third or fourth starter starter for his five remaining years of control. There’s also some feel for his craft, as there’s plus control and some scouts think he throws a four-seam fastball, sinker, cutter, slider, curveball, and changeup, though it’s likely different versions of three main pitches.
McCutchen (60 FV) didn’t change an enormous amount from 2015 to 2017, despite wild swings in his WAR. He’s lost some explosion and athleticism, as you would expect at age 31, and there was a well-publicized positioning issue that torpedoed his defensive metrics in 2016, along with some nagging injuries. In 2017, McCutchen fixed the positioning issue and made more contact at the plate, putting up a line that better reflects his true talent level than 2016. He’s not that MVP-level monster of old, but he’s still very useful to a contender.
Crick (40 FV) went 49th overall in 2011 and has had maddening command issues from day one, with the Giants finally moving him to the bullpen in 2017. He’s pared down a four-pitch arsenal to just a four-seam fastball and slider, but he has 40 command of these pitches. He works 94-97, touching 98 mph, and his slider is above average to plus, but his heater is straight and he has trouble throwing the slider for a strike. He was unsustainably lucky in a big-league debut and, like Feliz, seems like a good candidate for a sinker and/or different general approach, something with which the Pirates have had some success in the past, possibly with an eye to turning Crick into another Matt Albers.
The switch-hitting Reynolds (45 FV) still has the same questions on him as he did coming out of Vanderbilt: can he chase fewer sliders off the plate and can he shed the tweener label to profile as an everyday player? He projects for average game power (from slightly above-average raw power) and has a fine ability to select pitches, but there’s some stiffness that limits his ability to make contact outside the zone, particularly on good offspeed stuff, while he has no trouble hitting fastballs and mistakes. Call it fringy to average offense overall and he’s lost a step since college to where he’s now an average runner/defender with a 40 arm that only plays in left field. That offense is more fourth-outfielder-level output, but maybe a subtle mental/mechanical adjustment and the current baseball gets him to solid-average offense? Either way, it’s somewhere on the platoon/fourth-outfielder to low-end regular spectrum.
So Who Won the Trades?!
With the McCutchen trade, you’re dealing one year of a three-win/60 FV outfielder at a $12.5 million (the Pirates tossed $2 million in the deal), so the value traded isn’t enormous; rather, it’s enough to get a solid potential everyday prospect, which is what Pittsburgh got in Reynolds. Crick is more of a toss-in with upside who needs a change of scenery to see if he can make adjustments, which is the kind of guy who fits the Pirates aforementioned plan more than Crick fits their preferred type of player per se. I’m not nuts about those two players, but McCutchen’s name recognition far outstrips his actual trade value at this point.
With Cole, the Pirates traded two reduced-price years of guy who was an ace in 2015, a No. 2 starter in an injury-shortened 2016 and No. 3 starter in 2017. I think he’ll improve next year, so that’s a real asset to a contending team of any market size. You can choose to focus more on the 11 cost-controlled years of projected starters plus a useful reliever or the two cost-controlled years of a 65 FV/four-win-type starting pitcher, but both teams executed their plans, which are sound for their situations.
I’ve been asked a number of questions about two facets of the Cole trade. First: did the Pirates get enough/should they have gotten a bigger-name young player? Second: is this an example of a progressive team taking quantity over quality that I referenced in my last article? The answer is we don’t know yet, but probably not. I know the Pirates value their top prospects maybe as much as any other team, so the reports of targeting Gleyber Torres/Miguel Andujar/Clint Frazier from the Yankees or Forrest Whitley/Kyle Tucker from the Astros passes the smell test.
That said, we don’t know if Pittsburgh took this trade over a one-for-one deal for Tucker, for example. I would assume Torres, Tucker, and Whitley weren’t even on the table to be discussed, and I wouldn’t take Frazier alone over this package (it sounds like the Pirates agreed), while I think Andujar alone is worth about the same as this package (but it sounds like he wasn’t on the table, either). Maybe the best answer was to wait until the trade deadline and see if other, more desperate bidders emerged, but it’s impossible to know that and there’s at least a 50% chance that Cole’s value would go down in the interim (injury, regression, or just trading half-a-season less of him), drawing even less in return.
It seems like the Pirates tried to keep this window pried open as long as they could, then once they got a feel for the market of their best assets, they took what was available so they could move forward to creating the next window.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.