The Enormous Trade Value of Stephen Strasburg

It’s no secret the Nationals have been having a lot of conversations behind the scenes. For much of the offseason, there’ve been rumors the team was open to moving guys like Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. As hard as it was before to see the Nationals deliberately making themselves worse in the short-term to get better in the future, now the situation has changed — with Max Scherzer on board, the Nationals could subtract and still come out ahead. And with a new ace in the rotation for a while, it’s possible to see a different name on the move: Stephen Strasburg.

No, nothing is on the verge of happening. No, the Nationals don’t need to trade Strasburg, or anybody. They might well elect to go ahead and steamroll through the NL East, preparing for a deep postseason run with an October roster that’s absolutely stacked. On the other hand, there are things like this:

Odds are, Strasburg won’t get moved. But the odds he does get moved aren’t 0%, or even close to that low. So it’s worth wondering: just how high is Stephen Strasburg’s trade value?

I know it seems crazy to think about a contender dealing away a pitcher like Strasburg. But it seems a lot less crazy with Scherzer than without him, and remember, the Nationals, at the moment, would have to put Tanner Roark in the bullpen. Tanner Roark is good! I just played around with the depth charts, and if you were to take Strasburg away from the Nationals right now, it would cost them something like two projected wins. Not nearly enough to put the division in real jeopardy. The postseason rotation would be worse, but if the team’s healthy, already a good starter or two would be absent from that group. And, while the Nationals would then have to figure out their starting staff next winter, with Zimmermann and Doug Fister free agents, they’re already going to be free agents, and there’s organizational depth. Plus whatever Strasburg would bring back.

So, then. We’re just thinking, here. Strasburg is two years away from free agency. He’s going to earn $7.4 million in 2015, so he should earn something like $20 million over the next two years combined. Now for the controversial part.

I know a lot of you hate the concept of “surplus value” when discussing potential trade assets. I get it — the reality is a lot more complicated. Understand that it functions just as a simple tool. It lets us try to put numbers to something, serving as a starting point. Think about a given player. Let’s say he’s a 5-win player! Think about that player earning $1 million a season. Now think about that player instead earning $30 million a season. The first version would have a lot more trade value, and that’s what surplus-value calculations try to capture. For a real-world example, Zimmermann will make $16.5 million this season. Would he not have substantially greater trade value if he were instead signed to a $5-million contract? Every team in baseball has to think in terms of surplus value, even if it doesn’t use those exact words.

This is a table, of estimated Stephen Strasburg surplus values. It assumes combined salaries of $20 million, and it assumes 5% inflation between the next two years. On the left, different Strasburg performance projections. On top, two different estimates of the current cost of a win on the market. Note that, if you combine Steamer and ZiPS, Strasburg is projected to be a little better than a 4-win player in the season ahead.

Surplus Values $7m/WAR $7.5m/WAR
7.0 WAR $30m $34m
7.5 WAR $34m $38m
8.0 WAR $37m $42m
8.5 WAR $41m $45m
9.0 WAR $45m $49m

The numbers move around in the vicinity of $40 million. This doesn’t include the value of a potential compensation draft pick. Nor does this include the value of an exclusive long-term-contract negotiation window, if you think Strasburg would actually be open to that. Now you’re looking at surplus value closer to $50 million. Potentially even higher, depending on how you feel about scarcity.

At $50 million, you’re talking about the value of extremely good prospects. Which is probably obvious — Strasburg should bring back an extremely good package, in a deal. That’s called “passing the smell test”. This is the last update I’ve seen on estimating prospect value. When you’re dangling a pitcher like Stephen Strasburg, almost no one in the minors would be rightly considered off-limits.

Also not surprisingly, it’s tough to find comps for Strasburg’s situation. A year ago, the Rays were open to moving David Price with two remaining years of team control. Price, like Strasburg, is amazing, but he was due a lot more money. In Strasburg’s two years, he should make about $20 million. Price’ll make about $34 million. Price didn’t get moved until the summer. A year ago, the Cubs were open to moving Jeff Samardzija with two remaining years of team control. Samardzija, like Strasburg, was looking at relatively low salaries — around $15 million, combined — but Strasburg profiles as the better pitcher. Samardzija didn’t get moved until the summer.

If you go back further, you find James Shields. The Rays moved Shields to the Royals when he had two remaining years of team control. The Royals figured he would earn between a combined $21 million and $24 million. So, Shields was an affordable ace. On the one hand, Shields was older than Strasburg is, and he was less visually impressive. On the other hand, Shields was more of a proven, durable workhorse, in the better league. You don’t need me to review what the Royals surrendered to get their man.

It would take some sort of comparable haul to get Strasburg today. Maybe not a haul that looks as good as that one did at the time, but something quite close. Strasburg will cost less money, even a few years later. And every team in baseball could afford him. The same couldn’t be said of, say, Cole Hamels. The Padres, for example, could have real difficulty finding the financial flexibility to allow Hamels to fit. The Padres could pay for Stephen Strasburg. The Astros could pay for Stephen Strasburg.

It’s the other cost that makes it so hard. Let’s rewind a year!

Mark Bowman:

With this year’s free-agent pool not containing an ace, Price has stood as the only one that has been available (via trade) since the World Series concluded. If there were any doubts about the fact the Rays are looking for a significant return in exchange for Price, they were confirmed when the Braves learned the cost would likely include Alex Wood, Christian Bethancourt and at least two other top prospects.

While thoughts of landing Price might have only existed in the fantasy world, the Braves were genuinely interested in finding out what it would take to bring Samardzija to Atlanta. That interest quickly died when the Cubs indicated they would be looking for a return package that included either Jason Heyward or Justin Upton.

Bob Elliott:

The belief is that the Jays have been talking to the Cubs about right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who was 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA in 33 starts for the Cubs last season. He walked 78 and struck out 214 in 2132/3 innings.

All the Cubs want are top prospects Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and a third player.

Most teams in baseball make sense as potential Strasburg fits. There’s not a single team he wouldn’t make substantially better. But every team in baseball, at the same time, is reluctant to part with upper-level young talent. So it’s harder to spot the actual fits. You’d probably be talking about a team that’s been very aggressive in trying to win soon. A team that clearly values wins right now higher than the overall market.

Maybe that really is the Padres. In which case, you’d be talking about a package that presumably begins with Austin Hedges. Or Matt Wisler, or Hunter Renfroe, or maybe a couple of them. If you look at the Red Sox, they wouldn’t want to give up Xander Bogaerts or Mookie Betts, since they factor heavily into the mix immediately. So the package would begin with Blake Swihart or Henry Owens. With the Blue Jays, it’s Daniel Norris and more. You could even dream up a fascinating exchange between the Nationals and Cubs involving Strasburg and Javier Baez. That wouldn’t be crazy. I mean, that would be crazy, but a different sort of crazy.

Stephen Strasburg could get traded. Probably, Stephen Strasburg will not get traded, but very seldom do we end up in a situation where a deal like this could feasibly happen and make real sense. Part of me wants Strasburg to stay where he is, just to see how good the Nationals could be. And the other part wants him to go, because I want to see what this sort of trade package looks like in real life.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Average Phillies Fan
9 years ago

Hamels for Strasburg and Ian Desmond

9 years ago

You must be a league mate of mine with an offer that solid.

Fat Mac
9 years ago

You’d have to throw in ryan howard my friend.

Ruben Amaro, jr.
9 years ago

Brilliant dude. I’d have a job for you if you were over 40.