The White Sox deal for Jeff Samardzija still hasn’t been officially announced, but everyone is acting as if it’s a done deal. Kenny Williams is openly talking about trying to sign Samardzija to an extension, and at this point, it seems like an announcement could easily come before I finish writing this post. The deal is expected to be centered around infielder Marcus Semien, with a couple of prospects heading to Oakland as well.
As has often been the case when a premium player gets traded lately, the perception of the deal seems to be slanted towards the buyer of the trade. Jeff Samardzija is really good, and while he’s only under control for one more year, it’s one cheap year with an exclusive chance to sign him long term. Or, failing that, the right to make him a qualifying offer at the end of the season and get a draft pick if he leaves via free agency.
And realistically, with starting pitchers, fewer years of team control can actually be described as fewer years of risk, and can actually be a feature rather than a bug. The White Sox might only be trading for Samardzija’s 2015 season, but the flip side of that coin is they’re not on the hook for his 2016-2021 seasons if he blows out his elbow. For franchises that have been burned by giving out big contracts to starting pitchers, Samardzija represented something like the best of both worlds.
And yet, at the same time that multiple teams were falling all over themselves to give Jon Lester $150 million, Samardzija was traded primarily for a lower ceiling middle infielder who was seen as a back-end Top 100 prospect at best, and has probably seen his stock fall a little bit with inconsistent MLB performance since. Marcus Semien and some stuff is not exactly an overwhelming return, and certainly seems to be less than what the Phillies are seeking in return for Cole Hamels, for instance. So, did we overrate Samardzija’s trade value, or did the A’s make a bad deal here?
The easy answer to that question is to just look at what Samardzija cost the A’s to acquire a few months ago and decide that the A’s didn’t get enough in return. After all, the same pitcher cost them Addison Russell in July, and Marcus Semien is no Addison Russell. But while Jeff Samardzija himself hasn’t changed in the last few months, his trade value has taken a nosedive, because instead of buying two playoff runs, the White Sox are only buying one. Additionally, they’re buying Samardzija in a market where teams have a plethora of alternatives, while the A’s bought Samardzija when there weren’t any quality free agents to sign.
Back in August, I looked at the cost of buying wins at the trade deadline, and my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested that prices may be as high as double what they were the previous winter. Samardzija himself is both less valuable now than he was in July, and the market price for acquiring talent is less than it is at midseason, so we can’t simply say that the A’s should have gotten a similar return to what they gave up few months ago.
So let’s try to quantify what Samardzija’s trade value might actually have been. Given the prices being floated for Lester, it seems that the going rate for an elite starting pitcher is probably in the $8 million to $9 million per win range. Samardzija conservatively projects as a +3 WAR pitcher for 2015, though you could argue for something closer to +4 WAR if you buy into his 2014 performance as legitimate improvement rather than career year. What’s the market rate for one year of a pitcher at this level? Those price estimates would suggest something in the range of $25 to $35 million on a one year deal; the latter seems more realistic, given what Lester’s about to sign for.
And that doesn’t even include the value of the qualifying offer, which adds another $5 to $15 million in value, depending on how aggressively you value draft picks. That leaves us with a combined value of somewhere in the range of $30 to $50 million. Let’s split the difference and just call it $40 million. We don’t see those kinds of salaries because teams would rather borrow from the future than hit up their owners for that kind of cash on a one year outlay, but given the amount of money in the game and the lack of risk that a one year deal brings, it’s a justifiable salary.
Samardzija is actually due $9-$10 million for 2015, so he brought about $30 million in additional value to the table. That’s a lot, certainly, but we can be fairly certain that teams value their elite prospects at more than that amount. The rumored price tag for Yoan Moncada, for instance, is in the $60-$80 million range, and that’s with all the extra risk that comes with evaluating an international player who hasn’t played in the states yet. The best prospects currently in the minors probably have a market value north of $100 million at this point.
So Samardzija wasn’t bringing back Addison Russell, or anything close to it. Not in the winter, when free agent alternatives exist, and not with just one playoff run left. So is Marcus Semien worth anything close to $30 million by himself? Maybe.
If you think he’s a league average second baseman right now, as Steamer projects him to be, then it’s actually a pretty easy argument to make. After all, Yasmany Tomas — who seems to project as roughly a league average outfielder — just got $68 million in guaranteed money from the Diamondbacks, and that contract included a fourth-year opt-out, so if he hits his upside, it really turns into $36 million for four years and then the D’Backs lose him to free agency. Semien’s skillset won’t be valued the same as Tomas’ right-handed power, but we have a very recent example of a team betting big on a 24 year old with no big league track record who doesn’t project as a superstar.
And while Semien’s skills may be valued less than Tomas’ skills, the contract terms are certainly far more favorable. Essentially, Semien is signed to a one year, $500,000 contract with five team options beyond that. If he plays well and they keep him through all five arbitration years, he’s probably going to make somewhere in the range of $20 to $30 million through his team controlled years, so to be worth $30 million in value above his paychecks, he’d have to be worth $50 to $60 million over those six years.
$10 million per year currently buys you Jason Hammel, Billy Butler, Nick Markakis, or Andrew Miller. Each of those four project for something like +1 to +2 WAR players in 2015, and each project to get worse as their contracts go forward. Is it unreasonable to expect Semien to be better than any of those four in 2015, or to improve as he reaches his prime? Steamer thinks he’s likely a +2 WAR player for 2015, on par or better than Asdrubal Cabrera, who the crowd projected for $33 million over three years. If an aging Cabrera is worth 3/$33M, is it really absurd to suggest that Semien would have a market value of 6/$50M?
As I noted in the piece about star player trade value last week, it seems like there’s currently a disconnect between the public and the teams themselves about the value of mid-level talents. If you think it’s an easy task to find capable +1 to +2 WAR players who can fill holes and perform reasonably well, then this trade makes no sense, because Marcus Semien would have little value. But Major League teams clearly do not think that it’s easy to find above-replacement-level pieces, because they’re paying a mint to get low-upside role players this winter.
Marcus Semien and some stuff feels like a light return for Jeff Samardzija, just like Drew Smyly and Nick Franklin felt like a light return for David Price, and Martin Prado and stuff felt like a light return for Justin Upton. At some point, we need to stop expecting the market value of very good players on short-term deals to be elite talents who could turn into superstars. Instead, it appears that the market value of these kinds of players is lower-ceiling, big league ready players who look like they could perform at roughly a league average level for multiple low cost years.
That kind of production might not be as sexy, but getting the equivalent performance of a $10 million player for the league minimum has legitimate value. Marcus Semien might not ever turn into anything more than just a nice little second baseman, but nice little second baseman aren’t so easy or cheap to acquire as we might think. As another trade piles up suggesting that this is what teams can expect in return for short-term frontline starters, we probably need to calibrate our expectations accordingly.
Jeff Samardzija is very good and very valuable. Marcus Semien is less good, but maybe not that much less valuable.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.