Someone’s Going to Trade for Dylan Cease

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be honest: Dylan Cease is in the general baseball consciousness to such an extent right now because it’s all we have. The free agent class of 2023-24 was weak to begin with, and Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto have already signed. Juan Soto is now a Yankee. Tyler Glasnow got traded. Cease is such a focus because the shiniest free agents are gone and because if your team isn’t going to spend any money – Hi there, O’s! – he’s the best imaginable improvement.

Cease is a good pitcher with flaws. He’s a strikeout machine thanks to his glorious slider, and he’s made every start available to him for four straight years. He also walks far too many batters – partially thanks to his glorious slider – and despite sitting 95-97 mph, his fastball is remarkably hittable. Add that all up, and his aggregate numbers over that four-year span – 3.58 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 12.3 WAR in 585 innings – are excellent. But he always feels one bad start away from regression, one batter realizing that slider is unhittable away from a six-walk outing.

All that is to say that Cease probably isn’t the no-doubt ace that his 2022 season portended, but he’s a very good pitcher nonetheless. Steamer thinks he’s somewhere between the 21st and 40th best pitcher in baseball, which isn’t as good as his results, but I’m willing to take the over on that projection because a lot of it seems to rely on his home run prevention declining meaningfully. If your team has Cease as their second-best pitcher in 2024, they’re probably ecstatic about the top of their rotation. If they have him penciled in as their best pitcher, they might still be okay! He’s good, is my point.

Okay, that part of the article is done. If you’re a fan of a contending team, you should want Dylan Cease on it – duh. Now here’s the less fun part: You’re not going to like the kind of trade package he fetches in return. Depending on which rumors you’re listening to, the White Sox are looking for multiple top Reds prospects, interesting Orioles guys, or much more than just Vaughn Grissom (before the Braves sent him to Boston).

From a raw surplus value perspective, that’s gonna sting. You can do the math yourself. Let’s say Cease accrues 6 WAR over the next two years, a rosier outlook than Steamer’s. Let’s further say that he makes $20 million in that time; $8 million this year and $12 million next year. You can apply a generic $8.5 million per WAR to get the broad outlines of what that might run you on the open market. It won’t be a perfect approximation, but that would put him around $50 million in value, $30 million more than he’s actually making.

Getting to employ someone like Cease for far less than he’s worth – and having the certainty of adding him to your team for two years with no commitment thereafter – is wildly desirable. It’s so desirable, in fact, that teams will have to give up that other thing they enjoy so much to get him: prospects. It’s a fairly straightforward transaction. For the right to employ Cease at a rate lower than he’d make were he a free agent, the White Sox want the right to employ some prospects at rates lower than they’d make were they also free agents.

How many prospects? We don’t yet know. Looking at recent trades for pitching, however, we can get a ballpark idea. For one year of Glasnow plus exclusive negotiating rights for an extension, the Dodgers surrendered Ryan Pepiot, who’s probably a 45+ FV guy in our prospect grading terminology, and Jonny DeLuca, more of a 40+ FV, though I have him as a 45 myself. They also agreed to pay $12 million to Manuel Margot, though I’m mostly going to ignore that for simplicity’s sake.

Glasnow is a better pitcher than Cease when available. I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial statement – projection systems agree, and Glasnow has handily outproduced Cease on a per-inning basis in the past five years. He’s also made a scant 60 starts in that window and never eclipsed 120 innings in a season, so there are certainly injury concerns. Cease has made more than twice as many starts in that same stretch – he debuted in 2019 – and thus has been more valuable despite worse numbers. If Cease and Glasnow were both going to be free agents after the 2024 season, I’d probably surrender more for Glasnow, but you get an entire extra year of team control with Cease. How much more? Double sounds about right given the money and years of control.

A similar deal went down at last year’s trade deadline: two-plus years of Justin Verlander (at a $40 million rate after the Mets kicked in salary) for Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford, 50 and 45+ FV prospects respectively. Another comp: the Pablo López/Luis Arraez swap from last offseason. Like Cease, López was two years away from free agency when he got dealt. I think the Marlins let him go for too little, but even then, he and two prospects (Jose Salas and Byron Chourio) got traded for Arraez, a top 50 trade target, at least in my estimation, at the time.

In other words, pitchers with high upside and multiple years of team control remaining don’t come cheaply. If you interpolate those trades, plus a few similar ideas (Max Scherzer to the Rangers, Luis Castillo to the Mariners, even Frankie Montas to the Yankees), you can start to get an idea of what might get Cease out of the black and white and into a new team’s jersey. Let’s take the average of those trades; we’re probably looking at a 50 FV prospect and meaningful extras beyond that, perhaps a 45+ FV or riskier 50 FV type, or multiple lower-level prospects.

That will probably make the prospect huggers of the world irate. Craig Edwards’ 2018 prospect valuation estimate pegs that return at something in the $40 million – $50 million range. Those numbers have likely crept higher, too, given five years of inflation in the interim, though I’ll note that he used a $9 million per WAR number in estimating it, so it’s not too far from what I was already calculating.

These trades sound like a lot! The rumored package that GM Chris Getz wanted from Cincinnati was two 45 FV prospects and a 45+ – Rhett Lowder, Edwin Arroyo, and Connor Phillips. I wouldn’t be surprised to see several of those players bumped higher on our updated Reds list, either; Lowder and Phillips have some helium, though Lowder’s is based exclusively on his college career, as he still hasn’t made his pro debut after being drafted seventh overall this past summer.

The deal that pries Cease from the White Sox might not quite match that haul, but it certainly doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility to me. The reason for that is reflected in all those previous trades: Teams covet elite starting pitching more than almost anything else in baseball, and they’re willing to give up a commensurate amount of talent when trading for it.

Think of it this way: Hitters who have been roughly as good as Cease get traded sometimes, but they never get traded for this much. Eugenio Suárez has been an above-average contributor, and like Cease he followed a sublime 2022 with an iffy 2023. He got salary dumped, though he’s only due $13 million this year (with a club option for 2025). Sean Murphy had been much better than Cease when he got dealt, and give or take the confusing nature of the three-team trade, I think his return roughly mirrors Verlander’s. Average position players on short deals just aren’t that desirable in trade, regardless of what the WAR numbers might say.

But not every team needs a Suárez type bat. Contending teams in particular do a good job of generating those types of players, either via platoon or just because they can find free agents or minor league talent that can fill the void. To give you an idea of this, I looked at Dan Szymborski’s 2024 ZiPS projections for the 16 teams in baseball with the best odds of winning the World series (teams 15 and 16 are tied, otherwise I would have done 15). I looked at the projection for their weakest position player, as well as their fifth starter:

Playoff Hopeful Depth
Team Worst Hitter WAR Position 5th Starter WAR
Dodgers 1.8 LF 1.2
Braves 1.1 LF 1.0
Yankees 1.8 1B/DH 1.5
Astros 1.4 1B 1.2
Rangers 1.5 DH 1.4
Phillies 0.5 RF 1.8
Orioles 1.5 1B 0.8
Twins 1.6 LF 1.4
Blue Jays 1.3 3B 1.4
Mariners 1.0 RF 1.6
Cardinals 2.1 RF 1.5
Rays 1.3 DH 1.1
Diamondbacks 1.9 3B 1.1
Mets 0.5 LF 1.0
Cubs 1.6 DH 1.3
Red Sox 1.5 C 1.5

The worst hitters are better, in aggregate, than the fifth starters. And that’s the ninth-best hitter on the team, not the fifth-best. Here’s each of those teams’ fourth starters, the lowest slot that would appear in a postseason rotation, as compared to the position with the fourth-highest projected WAR:

Playoff Hopeful Mid-Level
Team 4th Hitter WAR Position 4th Starter WAR
Dodgers 3.9 DH 2.6
Braves 4.0 CF 2.2
Yankees 2.9 3B 2.0
Astros 4.5 LF/RF 1.9
Rangers 2.8 RF 1.5
Phillies 2.6 DH 2.7
Orioles 2.9 SS 1.6
Twins 2.9 2B 1.7
Blue Jays 2.7 RF 1.8
Mariners 2.4 3B 2.3
Cardinals 2.9 2B 1.8
Rays 2.9 LF/1B 1.8
Diamondbacks 3.2 RF 2.1
Mets 2.8 C 1.2
Cubs 2.6 LF 1.7
Red Sox 2.4 1B/DH 1.8

Here, the fourth-best position players project to add a lot more value than the fourth-best pitchers. That’s just the way baseball works these days. Pitcher workloads are limited, and there are a lot of mid-level guys soaking up innings that used to go to the very best. If you look at the second table, 10 of the 16 teams are sporting fourth starters with WAR projections below 2.0, and that’s using our Depth Charts playing time, which is quite generous overall.

In other words, Cease will likely fetch more in trade than you’d “expect” given how good he’s been because his position is scarce. If you think he’s a 3-WAR guy, that’s the equivalent of the 25th-best pitcher in baseball. A 3-WAR hitter? That’s Triston Casas or Arraez, 58th and 59th in projected WAR respectively, with 3.0 each. Arraez even has two years of team control remaining, just like Cease. But teams would give up more for Cease, hands down. That scarcity really matters. You just can’t get guys like Cease. You can’t get guys like Arraez, either, to be fair, but you can generally do a better job of replicating their performance.

Sure, you can put more position players on the field than pitchers, but that doesn’t really capture the way baseball works, particularly for teams with playoff hopes. Starters pitch a much higher percentage of innings in the postseason and not having enough is a disaster, whereas you can handle one weak position in your lineup more easily. Elite pitching is just scarcer, and thus more valuable in a world with multiple teams vying for the same pool of arms.

Teams don’t have to like it. In fact, they pretty clearly don’t like it – half of the reporting around Cease this offseason has been teams anonymously noting that the White Sox are asking for too much. If you take a strict, surplus value-maximization view of the world, those teams might be right. In the real world, however, the White Sox have something that everyone else wants, and even if everyone’s crying about it now, I think that some team is going to give them what they’re asking for by the time the season starts.

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

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2 months ago

Someone asked yesterday if the value of pitching prospects is actually higher than that of position player prospects. Pitching prospects produce less WAR because of injuries, but they also are scarce for the same reason.

I would say the answer to this is yes. There is no world where Connor Phillips (who walks everyone), Rhett Lowder (who hasn’t even pitched in the minors yet), or Edwin Arroyo (who had a roughly league-average line in high-A this year, although he was only 19) should be a dealbreaker for a guy who was a 4-win pitcher in both 2021 and 2022. The Reds should have already said yes to that. But it makes sense if pitching is so scarce that teams are asking for prospects in return, and if teams are so desperate to hang on to their pitching they don’t want to trade them either.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I mentioned this in another comment (with source, waiting on approval/moderation), but the issue is that the package asked for from the Reds was actually Phillips, Petty, Lowder, Arroyo, and Jorge.

That is an absurd request, and every piece of information that’s come out since has been that the White Sox haven’t budged on their asking price. I’d be extremely hesitant on the package of Lowder, Phillips, and Arroyo but understanding (even if personally I wouldn’t do it), but adding in Petty (who is back up to 99 mph this offseason) and Jorge (who has been one of the best hitters at every level he’s been at & has CF experience now) makes it an absolute dealbreaker.

I don’t blame the Reds and other teams for rejecting the White Sox with that kind of demand.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

As I said yesterday, I think this is true on the lower end, so for the majority of players, but not on the high end. There are not really every FV65-70 pitching prospects, and even 60s are rare, and teams would take equivalent position players over them every time because those are the guys who we see in the 2nd chart (the 4th best hitter on the team, or better). Their impact is enormous.

But in the middle and the bottom, teams not only are already getting less per 5th starter than per last-guy-in-the-lineup, they also need like 4x as many of those guys between rotation and bullpen and injury. A contending team only wants a couple of these guys who are in the 1.8-2.2 win range to round out its bench and the back of its lineup. It would take 2 whole bullpens full of them if it could, because they expect to use so many pitchers in a given season. Just having 8 for a bullpen plus a 5th starter isn’t enough – they want like 15-20.

(I appreciate this is repeating what I said in the other thread, but since you raised it here it was worth repeating for the people who hadn’t read that thread)

We are in a situation right now where the position player pool is sufficient for expansion, but the pitcher pool is not because of how many pitchers each team uses in a year. We still don’t have enough decent pitchers even for the teams we’ve got. I hope they do not expand any time soon, because it will be a repeat of the double expansion in the 1990s: it’ll introduce a huge number of wholly unqualified pitchers to MLB, and offensive levels will skyrocket back to PED-era numbers. This was the main cause of the offensive explosion of the 1990s to begin with, and imagine how much the league average pitching performance would drop if the *next* 60 pitchers who aren’t good enough to make the league right now got to pitch, too. You’d be back at 5.5 r/g territory.

Last edited 2 months ago by mikejunt
2 months ago
Reply to  mikejunt

sounds fun!

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Dylan Cease was not actually a 4 win pitcher in 2021, just as he clearly wasn’t a 3.7 win pitcher in 2023. fWAR consistently overrates starters with one dominant pitch who get a lot of strikeouts, when their xERA and SIERA are almost always significantly worse than their FIP.

In reality, Cease is a ~2.5 win guy thanks to his durability, but his age and declining fastball velocity, plus having no above average offering to complement his slider, makes me pray that the Orioles hold firm and don’t give anything of substantial value for him.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
2 months ago
Reply to  jdbolick

…he’s put up 11.8 rWAR and 10.8 RA9-WAR over the last 3 seasons.

Maybe try again?

2 months ago

6.4 of which came from a 2022 performance that he will never come close to ever again, as his slider command and movement both regressed heavily. Cease was worth 3.0 in 2021 and 2.4 in 2023. Assuming that he stays healthy, he will be a 2-2.5 bWAR pitcher in each of the next two seasons.