The Win-Win Trade of Jorge Soler and Wade Davis

Yesterday, while ruminating about the Royals opportunities this winter, I suggested the following.

If I’m Kansas City, I’d rather send Davis to a team like the Cubs or Dodgers, a team that doesn’t really have a ninth-inning guy with whom they’re currently comfortable, and would pay a bigger premium for the upgrade they’d get in their bullpen. The idea of swapping Davis for Jorge Soler and something else is more interesting to me, for instance. Soler is, in some ways, the outfield version of Kolten Wong at this point; a mid-20s guy who hasn’t shown he can be an above-average regular yet, but has a long-term deal at cheap prices that makes him somewhat useful even if he just is what he is. Except Soler still has mythical upside: if he figures out how to hit like people think he could hit, his value would skyrocket.

The Royals, it seems, had similar thoughts.

The deal isn’t done quite yet, because reviewing the medicals on a guy who went on the DL twice last year with elbow problems is no minor matter. But assuming the Cubs are confident that Davis is healthy enough, the deal sounds like it will go through, and likely as a one for one.

So, let’s talk about Soler and Davis. In a challenge trade, it’s usually hard to pull off a win-win deal, given that the performance of the two players isn’t going to be identical. This one, though? This looks like this could work well for both teams.

The Cubs side of this is easy; they could use another high-quality reliever, and they don’t have anywhere to play Soler, so his upside and value are mostly wasted in Chicago. With Kyle Schwarber set to get the bulk of the time in left field, Soler was in line for the weak side of a platoon, and even then, the Cubs have potentially better options, with Ben Zobrist’s flexibility allowing them to play Javier Baez at second and stick Zobrist in left field on days Schwarber isn’t in the line-up. Soler, realistically, might have ended up in a pure bench role, playing right field when Jason Heyward is hurt or struggling, and serving as a pinch-hitter when he isn’t.

So, instead, they will turn a player they didn’t really have much use for into a guy who, when healthy, is one of the best relievers in baseball. For the record, here are the five lowest wOBAs allowed by RPs since the start of 2014.

Lowest wOBA, 2014-2016
Name IP wOBA
Wade Davis 182 0.211
Andrew Miller 198 0.212
Aroldis Chapman 178 0.221
Zach Britton 209 0.222
Mark Melancon 219 0.226

There’s Davis at the top, hanging out with Miller, ahead of Chapman and Britton, and pretty far removed from the next tier, which is led by Melancon and the not-pictured Kenley Jansen. Davis’ recent track record is spectacular.

But, of course, there are reasons the Royals — a team not punting 2017 — are willing to trade Davis. Those DL stints in July were scary, especially because flexor bundle strains often are followed in the not too distant future by the words Dr. James Andrews. Davis’ strikeout rate has gone from 39% to 31% to 27% the last three years, and his wOBA allowed is driven in large part by a complete lack of home runs; he’s only given up three in the last three years, thanks to the lowest HR/FB rate in baseball. Davis has dominated, but especially more recently, it’s been more Melancon’s kind of domination than Chapman’s or Jansen’s.

So, yeah, there’s risk here. Davis has been great, but his greatness going forward is a little less certain. But while other teams are risking $60 to $100 million, there’s appeal here with Davis because it’s just one year. The Cubs aren’t making a long-term commitment, and assuming he’s healthy, the Cubs can use Davis as their workhorse reliever like they used Chapman, then let someone else worry about the long-term effects.

Of course, instead of giving up cash to get their bullpen upgrade, the Cubs are giving up talent. And while Soler hasn’t yet turned into what he looks like he could be, he’s a great fit for the Royals, because even if he doesn’t take a huge leap forward, he’s still a valuable piece for a team that needs to fill holes and doens’t have a lot of money to spend.

For instance, let’s look at what Soler is right now. From 22 to 24, he’s been a slightly above average hitter, combining high-quality value on contact with not quite enough contact. He’s a guy who hits the ball hard but doesn’t hit it often enough, and that limits his offensive upside to some degree. But how different is he from Mark Trumbo, really?

Trumbo and Soler
Mark Trumbo 1574 7% 25% 0.224 0.290 0.253 0.309 0.477 0.336 110
Jorge Soler 765 9% 28% 0.176 0.330 0.258 0.328 0.434 0.329 106

Yes, Trumbo has played full time, while Soler has been limited to part-time duty due to injuries and the fact that the Cubs had better options. Trumbo was better last year, and you want to weight recent performance more heavily. But Trumbo is also almost 31, while Soler is about to turn 25. Their skillsets are similar. Soler could easily have a Trumbo-esque season if he can stay healthy enough to get 600 plate appearances next year, and Trumbo has already reportedly turned down a four year deal worth $50-$60 million from the Orioles.

The reality is the market pays for Soler’s current skillset, more than it probably should. So even if he never really takes the leap, the Royals could likely increase his value simply by getting him in the line-up everyday next year. If he’s healthy enough to hold down a regular job, and he hits 25 or 30 home runs, Soler’s value will go up simply because he’ll be a proven power hitter at that point.

So the Royals turned a high-risk reliever they can replace with a guy whose value has plenty of room to go up. And that’s assuming there’s no huge breakout. If he takes a leap forward and turns himself into, say, Justin Upton, well then the Royals will have picked up a potential All-Star for one year of a reliever with a bad elbow.

Of course, there’s the chance that he’s just Yasmany Tomas instead. Maybe Soler continues to show that the defense is a legitimate problem in the outfield, and the power isn’t enough to offset the contact issues, making him a league average hitter. It’s not like this is a risk-free acquisition, and if the Royals trade Jarrod Dyson away and give his playing time to Soler, only to see him be a +0 to +1 WAR player, they’ll be worse off in 2017, even without accounting for the loss of Davis in the bullpen.

But this is a risk the Royals need to take. In order to contend next year, they’re going to need a few breakouts like they got in 2015, and Soler gives them another guy that you can see taking a big step forward. This turns some short-term value into long-term value without necessarily making themselves significantly worse next year. And they pick up a guy that could be flipped for even more value next winter, if they decide he’s more Trumbo than Upton.

So, yeah, the Cubs have to be happy that they turned a guy they didn’t need into a reliever they did need. But I like this for the Royals too. Soler would probably get something like 4/$50M as a free agent, but he’ll be paid $16 million over the next four years instead, so even without a breakout, this improves the Royals long-term position. And there’s enough chance of improvement that this could turn into a huge win for Kansas City.

So, yeah, a one-for-one win-win. You don’t see these too often, but I think both sides are making a deal that makes sense for their organization.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Shirtless George Brett
5 years ago

The thing that gives me pause with this deal is Soler’s contract.

The benefit of good young players under contract, as Dave mentions, is that they are cost controlled and therefore provide a lot of surplus value. Which is especially important for a relatively mid level payroll team like the Royals.

The way Soler’s contract is structured though it almost guarantees to minimize the amount of surplus value the Royals, or anyone, can get because it contains a clause that says he can opt out of his contract for arbitration if he wants as soon as he is eligible (which would be after 2017 assuming he plays all year and my math is correct) So if he out plays his contract (AKA: provides a lot of surplus value) he is just going to go to arbitration and get a new deal more in line with his new production thus putting a big dent in that surplus value.

Even if the Royals just plan on flipping him after 2017 it would likely still affect his trade value.

5 years ago

Arbitration isn’t free agency though. Players under arbitration are still only paid a small fraction of what they would get on the open market.

Shirtless George Brett
5 years ago
Reply to  Los

Obviously that is true. But I think it is a pretty safe bet that if Soler becomes Mark Trumbo like this piece speculates then he gets a significant raise from the $4 million a year he is due in 2018, 2019 and 2020. To use Trumbo as an example he went from $4.8 million to $6.9 million to $9.1 million through arbitration (the orioles actually avoided arbitration last year by signing him for 1 year 9.1 million but still).

Sure, it won’t be free market money but it will likely be significantly more than he is currently signed for. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where that $16 million he is supposed to make in 18, 19 and 2020 actually becomes $22 or $25 million (or more) through arbitration. And anything above what he is signed for eats into that surplus value which is the point.

5 years ago

If soler becomes so good that he gets expensive in arbitration it would be a win anyway for the royals.he is expensive then but also good.however if he doesn’t become good he stays cheap. Win win for the royals

5 years ago
Reply to  Los

Players in arb though are getting somewhat close to their FA value in the final year or two, using the newer 40/60/80 rule. Still below market but not a small fraction

5 years ago
Reply to  Shauncore

I really kinda miss Johnforthegiants trolling all the Cubs articles. Perhaps he’s found a life.

'Tungsten Arm" O'Doyle
5 years ago
Reply to  LandofMods

Old trolls never die. They just tweak their user name a little bit.

5 years ago

Even with those caveats you mentioned, SGB, this move pays immediate dividends for 2017, perhaps (hopefully) more than keeping a $10M closer with cheaper in-house options. With the relative wealth of arms in the bullpen, and saving several million in the process, KC is no worse off, with the potential of coming out much further ahead (unless Soler breaks his leg in spring training, or something). Soler may not want to risk the rest of his contract ($16M) for a one-year payday.

5 years ago
Reply to  KCDaveInLA

Also, I will miss Wade Davis 🙁

Shirtless George Brett
5 years ago
Reply to  KCDaveInLA

Oh I’m not criticizing the trade. I agree that it is a good deal for the Royals. Davis had to go and Soler is good return. It will actually be nice to not have a AAA players in RF for once. I just think there is more to the deal then mentioned in the article.

5 years ago

I think this is a good point, but it’s not as if arbitration will award him what he would get on the free agent market (which is his “real” value).

As a bad example, Kole Calhoun got $3.4 million to avoid arbitration with the Angels last year, and that was after two 4-win seasons in a row. Soler is nowhere near the player Calhoun was/is, so he’d likely get closer to $1-2m in his first year, unless he makes a dramatic offensive improvement. And if he does, he’ll still likely be only in the $3m range, and worth well more than that.

Even with arbitration every year, one of two things happens:

1) Soler plateaus and remains an average or slightly above average hitter with mediocre defense. He gets something like $2m/$4m/$8m for the next three years. If he plays full time, he’s about a 2-win player each year, that’s $48 million (or more) value for those years, and only costs the Royals, or another team, $14 million. That’s $34 million surplus.

2) Soler continues to walk more, strikeout less, and hit for decent power, and gets his defense to average and becomes a 4-win player, much in the same vein as Calhoun. Then he gets $3.5m/$7m/$15m in arbitration. He’s worth close to $100m but is only paid about $26 million, providing close to $75m surplus.

Even if my arb estimates are way off, which they probably are, he’s definitely not going to get paid as much as he is worth on the open market.

And the Royals have a few options to keep his price down: 1) manipulate his service time this year and have him start in the minors (he’s at 2.033 years right now and probably wouldn’t be Super 2 after this year if he’s at 2.9) OR 2) they trade him anytime before he gets real expensive OR 3) they release him if he gets expensive and isn’t hitting.

I don’t think there’s too much downside here for the Royals. The Cubs have a ton of downside risk with Davis’s health, but Soler’s surplus value wasn’t going to do much for them, so this didn’t really cost them much.

Dave T
5 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Calhoun isn’t a very good comp for Soler in arbitration, because arbitration panels are notoriously old school and focused on baseball card stats.

Soler has a skill set that will be relatively well-paid in arbitration if he takes a step forward. If Soler moves his production up to being a 2-3 WAR player, that will be because he hits for a lot of power. Soler will still be a below average corner OF defensively, however.

Calhoun has certain skills that add WAR but net him little if anything in arbitration: above average corner OF defense and above average base running with few SB’s.

5 years ago
Reply to  dl80

His arb is also based off his previous years salary and can only go down 10% so like 4 mil is his lowest possible arb salary.

5 years ago

He’s due 3/$14M 2018 onward — even if he breaks out big-time in 2017 and opts out of the contract, he’d have 3.033 years of service.

Last year, here were the top settled amounts for position players +/- 25 days of that:

$5.0M Manny Machado
$2.1M Jose Iglesias
$2.0M Freddy Galvis
$1.7M Matt Adams

Machado got that after a 6.8 fWAR season at age 22 and 16.6 fWAR career to that point. If Soler ends up getting elite levels of pay through arbitration it is because he’s a massively valuable player.

Would you rather pay him 4/$40M because he puts up three 6+ win seasons or get him for 4/$18M because he’s morely been good? I’ll take the former every day.

Shirtless George Brett
5 years ago
Reply to  rosen380

Trumbo, who Soler is compared to in the article, went from $4.8 million to $6.1 million to $9.1 million through arbitration.

If Dave’s comp is accurate and Soler becomes a version of Trumbo then it is not hard to see him getting more than the 4 million a year he is owed on his contract for 18, 19 and 2020. If you want to use Trumbo as a model you would have Solar making 6 million in 2018, 9 million in 2019 and say 11 or $12 million in 2020.

That is ~$11 million more than he is signed for. Using Dave’s free market estimate of 4/50 for Soler then by his contract Soler has $21.5 million in surplus value for 18, 19 and 2020. Using those arbitration numbers though it would actually only be about $10 million. So that is over 50% of his surplus value gone. And he would not even have to be that good to get those raises (See: Trumbo, Mark).

5 years ago

But Dave’s estimate of 4/50 is if he doesn’t improve at all offensively. And if he doesn’t improve, he’s not getting 6/9/12 in arbitration.

Shirtless George Brett
5 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Where does i say that? It says his current market value is 4/50. If your argument is that he would be worth more if he gets better then you could say that about literally every single contract ever signed.

The point is that he may be signed for 4/16 right now but with his profile he almost certainly will make more through arbitration and probably get much closer to his market value.