Putting The “Trade” in the Trade Value Series

Last week, FanGraphs wrapped up our annual Trade Value Series. As a window into teams’ valuation of players, it’s an invaluable resource, built as it is from a mixture of industry sources. One thing it isn’t, though, is a list of players we realistically expect to be traded. The top 10 players on the list, for example, have an average of six years of team control remaining, and all of them except Vladimir Guerrero Jr. play for teams that are currently contending. They’re great theoretical trade pieces, in other words, but not likely to actually be traded.

That conundrum, the fact that the most valuable players are among the least likely to be traded, has always been a feature of the exercise. Mike Trout topped the list for five straight years at one point, for example, and was quite literally too valuable for teams to be able to acquire, even if the Angels had been willing to deal him. Evan Longoria, likewise, was a repeat Trade Value champion, but his first extension with the Rays made him so valuable to the team that they couldn’t even contemplate moving him.

Most of the time, then, the Trade Value Series is more of a Theoretical Value Series. Most isn’t all, however, and that’s where this article comes in. One of the benefits of having 12 years of trade values is that we can look at things that don’t happen all that often. If only 1% of top-50 players get traded, we should still have six results in our sample. With the benefit of aggregation, then, let’s take a look at how often the trade in trade value comes into play.

The first question you probably have is how often a player on the Trade Value list gets traded at all. The answer to that is tricky. For example, here are the number of Top-50 and honorable mention players traded within the next year after appearing on a FanGraphs Trade Value list:

Three players a year isn’t all that many, and that’s benefiting quite a bit from 2014, when five honorable mentions (David Price, Justin Upton, Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester, and Wil Myers) were all traded, many of whom were rentals who wouldn’t make the list as it’s currently compiled. Two to three players a year seems like about the right amount, and that tracks with 2018, when J.T. Realmuto, James Paxton, Jean Segura, and honorable mention Chris Archer were dealt.

Of course, the first year after appearing on the trade value list isn’t the only time a player can be traded. What if we expand the window to two years out from an appearance on the list? Paxton and Archer, for example, made the 2017 list before being traded in 2018. Let’s add that to the graph:

Of course, years don’t stop at two, so let’s add another category: trades that occur more than two years after a trade value appearance. Paul Goldschmidt was number three on the list in 2014, and was traded after the 2018 season. The same player, of course, can appear on the list more than once: Goldschmidt was also on the list in 2015 and 2016 (traded three-plus years later) and in 2017 (traded two years later):

There’s one last category to add to the list, one that Longoria belongs to. You see, Evan Longoria was traded, but not on the initial contract that was so valuable to the Rays. No, he was traded after signing an extension that changed his remaining years of team control and salary. He was still Evan Longoria, of course, but when it comes to trade value, he was importantly different. Let’s add players traded after signing an extension or new contract to the three-plus years group:

The last few years of rankings haven’t had time for every player on the list who will be traded to get dealt, but looking at earlier years gives a good estimation of how many players will be dealt at some point. Not to put too fine a point on things, but you can expect half of the players on a given Trade Value list to be traded at some point. Of note, I didn’t count any players who reached free agency at any point before being traded — Brian McCann, for example, appears on several past lists from his first stint on the Braves, but he left them as a free agent, so his subsequent Yankees-Astros trade doesn’t count.

Still, knowing how many players get traded from the list doesn’t tell us everything. Take 2018, for example. Sure, four players were traded, but only Realmuto was even in the top 25, at 24th. Paxton clocked in at 48, Segura at 49; Archer was an honorable mention. Those are good trade chips, sure, but hardly the jewels of the majors. What about the big guns, the top-10 trade chips?

Sorry to disappoint you, but those players basically don’t get traded. No top-10 player on the Trade Value list has been traded within a year of appearing on the list. The highest-ranked player traded within a year was Chris Sale, who came in 15th in 2016 before being shipped off to the Red Sox in a trade that included No. 26 Yoan Moncada. Two other top-20 trades have occurred — 2014 Josh Donaldson, whose trade remains one of the weirdest trades of the past 10 years, and 2010 Zack Greinke.

These three trades illustrate how unlikely a trade of a top-20 player is. In the cases of Sale and Greinke, a team that was going nowhere happened to sign a generational talent to a below-market extension just before that player reached another level. If the Braves go south and Acuna and Albies go supernova, that would be roughly the same situation. Donaldson — I mean, I don’t have enough space to rehash that trade here, but it seems safe to say Billy Beane thought he was playing nine-dimensional chess on that one. Not a lot of lessons there, aside from not trading a controllable MVP candidate for literally Brett Lawrie.

Even two years out, top-10 players rarely get traded. There’s Sale, who was sixth in 2015 (an extra year of team control was worth nine spots) and Troy Tulowitzki, who was sixth in 2014 (a bit high, in this author’s estimation) before being traded in 2015 (when he was an honorable mention). For the most part, though, even a year removed from peak value, top-10 players are unlikely to be traded.

That’s not to say that top players are never traded — the moves mostly just happen much later. Longoria was traded after signing a new contract. 2010 runner up Jason Heyward was traded with a year remaining until free agency, as was perennial high-finisher Andrew McCutchen. Manny Machado, Justin Upton, Hanley Ramirez — all were tremendously valuable trade chips at one point, and all were traded significantly later.

Another interesting footnote is the number of top-50 players who have been traded for each other. There’s the Sale-Moncada trade, of course, but there are also other examples. Lucas Giolito (No. 41, 2016) was part of the package the Nationals sent out to acquire Adam Eaton (HM, 2016). Max Scherzer (No. 44, 2009) and Curtis Granderson (No. 22, 2009) were part of the same three-team swap. Wil Myers (No. 37, 2012) was swapped for James Shields (No. 39, 2011), who likely would have been a 2012 honorable mention if Dave had included them that year. These trades are really the only way you’ll ever see top trade chips exchanged for each other — players at extremely different phases of their career being swapped between teams at different ebbs of the competitive cycle.

Lastly, what’s a 12-year retrospective without some shenanigans? The 2011 list was shenanigans central. Michael Pineda was No. 32 that year, and the Pineda-Montero trade remains one of the most interesting challenge trades I’ve ever seen. The other four top-50 players who moved that year were, if anything, even wilder. Ubaldo Jimenez, the highest-ranked 2011 player traded at No. 25 (think 2019 Kris Bryant), was traded for a pair of top-100 pitching prospects. He was having a disastrous year at the time, and never really recovered. Still, though, that seems like a normal trade for a volatile player. It gets better.

Colby Rasmus placed No. 41 on the 2011 list. He was one of the best young hitters in baseball, combining a sterling prospect pedigree with enough speed that he was expected to stick in center. He was traded for… I mean, he was traded for some guys, basically. The Blue Jays sent Octavio Dotel, Edwin Jackson, Corey Patterson, and Marc Rzepczynski to the Cardinals for a package headlined by Rasmus. None of those players were prospects, or particularly high-value players. As the story goes, Tony LaRussa demanded that Rasmus be traded due to a rift that developed between the two. If that trade happened today (No. 41 Brandon Woodruff for two No. 5 starters and a LOOGY), we’d never hear the end of it.

As Billy Mays would say, “But wait, there’s more.” Trevor Cahill made the list (No. 35) as a cost-controlled starter with ace upside. Mere months after signing Cahill to an extension, though, Billy Beane sent him to the Diamondbacks for Jarrod Parker, a high-upside pitcher who was recovering from Tommy John surgery. Parker hurt himself in 2013, had a second TJ in 2014, re-injured his arm while rehabbing, and never pitched in the majors again. Cahill, meanwhile, has been worth 9.9 WAR in 11 seasons. He topped out at 2.4 WAR in 2012.

The last trade, though, takes the brass ring. Kevin Youkilis was No. 29 in 2011, in the middle of his fifth straight season posting a wRC+ of 120 or higher. He was signed for 2012 with a team option for 2013 — a formerly excellent player entering his decline phase at age 32. Less than a year later, he was toast. The Red Sox shipped him to the White Sox more or less for salary relief, receiving two non-prospects and eating the majority of his remaining salary. He managed a 103 wRC+ in 2012 and a 78 wRC+ in limited playing time for the Yankees in 2013, and retired. For a 2019 comparison to work, Freddie Freeman would need to turn into a pumpkin post-haste, because there simply aren’t players with Youkilis’ profile on the Trade Value list anymore.

With that oddly detailed reminiscence of 2011 out of the way, let’s make some broad conclusions. First, some players on the 2019 list will likely be traded this year. Not many, most likely, but most years have seen at least one trade. Second, if you look back at the list in eight or nine years, a lot of the players will have been traded at a later point in their careers. This year’s cost-controlled young Matt Chapman might be 2023’s rental superstar, or the Rockies could enter a downturn and ship German Marquez and Trevor Story away.

Last, and most importantly, just looking at the trade value list and figuring out how many players have been traded doesn’t provide enough context. Look at the players who were actually moved, however, and there’s a clear pattern. Most of the trades on this list have been rebuilding or otherwise retooling teams trading valuable players they happened to have on otherwise barren rosters — think 2017 Christian Yelich or 2016 Sale, Eaton, and (2017) Jose Quintana. If you’re looking for a blockbuster move, then, look to teams with great players who aren’t playing so great. Well, that or look to Billy Beane and Dave Dombrowski. If this list has taught me anything, it’s that they are willing to shake things up.

Finally, here’s a table of all the data I used to create these graphs. I’ve broken out the three-plus year group and the group who signed extensions, though I’m not 100% sure I correctly grouped each player given the records I was working with.

Players Traded By Year
Year <1 Year 1-2 Years 3+ Years After Extension HM Trades Total (Top 50)
2008 0 3 10 7 0 20
2009 4 2 11 10 2 25
2010 1 4 15 10 2 28
2011 5 3 9 7 0 24
2012 2 1 15 5 0 23
2013 0 9 18 4 9 22
2014 6 4 13 3 6 20
2015 2 3 17 1 6 17
2016 4 4 8 0 5 11
2017 4 8 0 0 7 5
2018 4 0 0 0 1 3

We hoped you liked reading Putting The “Trade” in the Trade Value Series by Ben Clemens!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

newest oldest most voted
sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

On this list, I think the only players on the actual Top 50 list that have any real shot of being traded this offseason are deGrom, McNeil, and Snell. The Mets’ FO is clearly led by a guy who likes to shake things up, and the Rays have never been afraid to trade pitchers if they think they’re going to hit the wall soon. But even then, probably not.

dl80
Member
Member
dl80

That seems mostly correct on all counts.

I do think Trea Turner could get traded if the Nationals fall apart. Or if Rendon leaves, Zimmerman never recovers, etc.

They have Kieboom waiting for shortstop anyway.

averagejoe15
Member
Member
averagejoe15

I really don’t see a scenario where Turner gets moved even if the Nats fall out of it. Kieboom has shown nothing and the Nats still have enough talent (and money) to feel like contenders regardless of whether Rendon stays or goes. Plus if Rendon goes, Kieboom suddenly has a spot at 3B not to mention their poor production at 2B.

Zimmerman is more than replaceable at this point in his career and will have his team option declined next year regardless.

A team with a core of Scherz, Stras, Corbin, Soto, Turner, and hopefully an improved Robles will have a tough time conceding at any point IMO.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

You know I thought about him too. But while I think a lot of teams would absolutely move Turner if they fall apart, I don’t know that the Nationals have the stomach for rebuilding.