La Stella Trade Provides Clues to Valuation of Bonus Slots

On Sunday — while much of America watched football, and at least one American (the author, in this case) shopped for boxed wines at a local discount grocer — the Atlanta Braves traded Tommy La Stella to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for right-hander Arodys Vizcaino and the right to spend about $800 thousand more internationally (without penalty) between now and July 2nd.

At face value, and perhaps even below face value, the motivations for the trade are somewhat obscure — insofar, that is, as Chicago very famously has a surplus of promising young infielders while Atlanta, now more than ever, lacks a reliable option at second base. That said, it’s probably wise to proceed with any further consideration of this deal under the assumption that all the actors in it are behaving rationally, as Chicago and Atlanta — in particular with the elevation of John Coppolella’s influence in the latter’s front office — have smart and well-informed decision-makers.

In terms of incentives for making such a trade the Cubs have the most glaringly obvious one. Because they far exceeded their international spending limit in 2013-14, they’re forbidden during the present international signing period from offering more than a $250 thousand bonus to any one prospect. Despite that, however, they were still assessed bonus slots — one for $2.3 million, one for $458 thousand, one for $309 thousand, and so on — like all the other 29 major-league teams. These slots, logic would appear to dictate, have value to the Cubs only as a tradeable asset. Otherwise, they would merely disappear come July 2 of this next year.

So, the Cubs’ impetus for trading their bonus slots is strong. Whatever value could be extracted from them would, in some sense, be surplus value. The surplus value, in this case, takes the form of infielder Tommy La Stella. As a rookie last year, La Stella played in 93 games, 86 of them in a starting capacity at second base for Atlanta. In 360 plate appearances, he recorded an 84 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR, exhibiting — as one would have expected based on his minor-league resume — an advanced approach, limited power, and fringe-average second-base defense.

Steamer projects La Stella to perform better in 2015, calling for a 97 wRC+ and a 1.4 WAR per every 600 plate appearances from La Stella. That’s a nice addition. And because he lacks any sort of carrying tool, he’s more valuable than traditional scouting evaluations would indicate. That said, he’s also unlikely ever to develop into an indispensable starter on a championship-level club — which the Cubs might very well be in the near future. So, despite the fact that he joins a team with a nominally crowded infield — one that includes Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro, Addison Russell, and Luis Valbuena — there remains no urgency for the Cubs to move anyone via trade to make room for La Stella.

The Cubs have already indicated their comfort with the status quo by converting Arismendy Alcantara to center field. Jed Hoyer spoke to their so-called surplus in further depth with reporters on Sunday, saying “How [all the current infielders] fit may not be clear but that was the case with Chris Coghlan last year and he worked his way into the lineup.” Except for the fact that he’s unable to play shortstop, La Stella has the opportunity to fill a bench role — probably including outfield, at some point — more than competently.

The implications of the trade for Atlanta are slightly more complex, it would seem. For, while the Cubs’ biggest problem might be finding playing time for La Stella, Atlanta now has one fewer second baseman than it used to, and they didn’t have any impact options there to begin with.

As noted above, La Stella made 86 starts at second base last year, with Uggla coming in second place on the club by that measure (with 33) and Phil Gosselin third (17). While Gosselin made the majority of starts down the stretch, that was also during an interval when Atlanta had clearly excused themselves from the the postseason race, when the club’s focus might have been less on winning ball games and more on examing what the organization featured in terms of talent.

La Stella was an improvement over Uggla insofar as he wasn’t actively losing games for the club. And even if he’s projected to improve upon his 2014 figures, he remains unlikely to produce markedly above-average numbers. If the Braves front office is hoping for that, La Stella isn’t the answer.

The answer probably isn’t in the system, either — at least not for the 2015 iteration of the Braves. Here are the four players currently on Atlanta’s 40-man roster who are also capable of playing second base — plus also Jose Peraza, who’s been mentioned by name as another candidate:

Jose Peraza 600 .268 .297 .347 80 -13.9 6.6 1.2
Tyler Pastornicky 600 .258 .306 .351 85 -10.0 -0.4 0.8
Phil Gosselin 600 .260 .300 .350 82 -12.1 1.7 0.8
Ramiro Pena 600 .241 .297 .335 78 -15.5 0.3 0.3
Elmer Reyes 600 .236 .265 .329 65 -23.7 6.6 0.1

Entering just his age-21 season, Peraza already owns the most encouraging projection among this group*. Given that he’s recorded only 200 plate appearances at Double-A or higher, however — and probably requires further time to develop — it’s likely that he’ll spend much of 2015 in the minors. So, unless one of the other four listed takes a significant step forward over the next three months, it’s almost certain that Atlanta will have to address their second-base situation — for 2015, at least — by way of free agency.

*Note, however, that Peraza receives a generic shortstop’s positional adjustment here for his defensive projection, even though he (a) made the majority of starts in 2014 at second base and (b) is likely to play that position as a major leaguer, too. Which is to say: the figure here might be a shade optimistic, even if one assumes that Peraza is a plus defender at second base.

And this is where we can learn something about the extent to which Atlanta values the $832 thousand in international bonus slots they’ve acquired from Chicago. For, if we assume that Atlanta must turn to free agency with a view towards addressing their second-base hole, then we can estimate — in a general way, at least — how much Atlanta values those international picks and/or the flexibility that a larger cap allows them.

We’ll assume, for the moment, that finding a player comparable to La Stella on the open market would cost about $9 million (i.e. 1.5 wins at roughly $6 million a win). Instead of just keeping La Stella, however, the Braves have created a situation where they’re now probably compelled to pay full market value for whatever wins they’ll get out of second base. Whoever that next second baseman is, the Braves will be compensating him not for his full projected win value, but his full projected win value minus the total La Stella would have provided. So a two-win player — likely to be paid $12 million in free agency — would actually be receiving, from Atlanta’ perspective, $12 million for half a win; a three-win player, $18 million for 1.5 wins; a four-win player, $24 million for 2.5 wins; and so on.

In this hypothetical scenario, what this means is that Atlanta values a combination of Arodys Vizcaino and those international bonus slots at something like $9 million. That established, by estimating the value of Vizcaino, we can isolate the likely value of those bonus slots to the Braves. How much do we think? He features promising stuff, but has an injury history and also struggled both with Triple-A and major-league hitters in 2014. Maybe $2 million for a Vizcaino-type? Maybe $1 million? Maybe not even that much?

This is all quite speculative, of course. But even if we think a team would pay $2 million for a year of Arodys Vizcaino, that still leaves about a $7 million surplus — i.e. the price tag on the $832 thousand in bonus slots now available to Braves care of the Cubs. That’s a factor of about 9x — about three times what Dave Cameron has used in off-the-cuff estimates previously.

Of course, those figures are founded on the assumption that Atlanta’s and Steamer’s evaluations of La Stella are identical. It’s very possible they’re not. As noted above, La Stella features little in the way of traditional tools. Kiley McDaniel’s assessment of La Stella features only one grade of 50 or above. The rest are 40s; the Future Value grade, also a 40. That’s about a one-win, bench-type player — and probably not one for whom an exact dollars-to-wins calculation is appropriate. Nick Punto, for example — still projected for 2015 to produce about 1.0 WAR in 600 plate appearances — received $3 million last offseason to fill exactly that kind of infield bench role for Oakland. Performing our speculative arithmetic while valuing La Stella as a $3 million asset instead of a $9 million one — and assuming, meanwhile, that Vizcaino is worth the league minimum — results in a $2.5 million valuation of that $832 thousand in international bonus slots. That’s a factor of about 3x — or the rough figure Cameron has generally used to translate bonus money to open-market dollars.

Regardless of the precise valuation, that money will be appreciated by the club’s overhauled international scouting department. And it appears as though the cost was worth the benefit of that flexibility in this case for Atlanta.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Phantom Stranger
8 years ago

I think the Braves didn’t believe they could live with La Stella’s poor defense and lack of power in the long run. If given enough at-bats on a poor team, La Stella likely will develop into a .300 hitter with above-average on-base skills.