Wednesday, October 2, 2013

MLB Trade Value: Pitchers (Part 1)

With October (the greatest month of the sports calendar) upon us, I thought that I would give you a four-part column about the highest trade values in baseball. Sure, this is something that you can get your fill of at Grantland or Fangraphs, but everyone’s take is going to be different, and this column will make one important distinction that differentiates it somewhat from the more popular trade value lists out there.

That distinction is that I will be giving you separate lists for pitchers and position players. One of the reasons that Bill Simmons’ NBA trade value column works so well is that to a significant degree, basketball players are fairly interchangeable. Sure, guys play different positions and have different skill sets, but all basketball players have to play offense and defense, and perform to some extent the same tasks. That is also why I think that determining NFL trade value is so difficult, because there is almost no overlap between the responsibilities of each position on the field.*

*Also, NFL trades are rarer than Yeti sightings.

Thus, determining the respective trade value of pitchers and position players are two different exercises. Not only do pitchers affect the game in vastly different ways from their hitting counterparts, they also suffer from significantly higher rates of attrition due to injury, something that is reflected in the length (and usually the dollar figure) of their contracts as compared to their hitting brethren. Among the dozens of pitchers that were considered for this list, for example, only two (Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez) are currently guaranteed a salary in 2019. Among a roughly equivalent group of position players, thirteen will receive guaranteed money in 2019 (no options), while three (Evan Longoria, Elvis Andrus, and Joey Votto) have money coming to them through at least 2022. The two groups of players are valued differently, so they will be split up here. We will start with the pitchers, and then move on to the position players. Before we begin with the honorable mention pitchers and numbers 30-16, some guidelines:

Only players under contract or team control through the 2014 season were considered. If you find yourself puzzled by the absence of Robinson Cano or Jacoby Ellsbury (for example), their impending free agency is the culprit.

Players must have at least debuted in the majors and be on the 40-man roster, preferably with enough of a track record that they have at least exhausted their rookie eligibility this year (I believe I made one exception out of sixty players included). Apologies to Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Carlos Correa, Jameson Taillon, etc.

Age, salary, and length of contract/team control were all major factors, as was (obviously) skill level and the likelihood of developing or carrying those skills forward. Since player payrolls are much more disparate in baseball than in the NFL or NBA, the best player may not necessarily have the highest trade value. Clayton Kershaw is pretty indisputably the best pitcher in baseball, for example, but there are very few teams that would consider trading for him with the idea of making him the richest pitcher in baseball history (a price that he will surely command).

Lastly, I consulted closely with my good friends (and baseball sounding boards) Clay and Justin on this project, and their commentary will be duly noted throughout. On to the pitchers who got left off, from easiest to toughest…

I'm not sure that you'd want Jered Weaver's contract ($54 million over the next three years) and declining velocity unless your team is a) really rich and b) plays in a big park that limits home runs. That eliminates just about everyone except the Dodgers and Giants.

Arizona giving up on Trevor Bauer wasn't a red flag for me (hey, they gave up on Justin Upton, too), but I would like to see him throw some more strikes (1.740 WHIP in his eight career starts) before I really believe in him.

We don't know how well Brandon Beachy will recover from his Tommy John surgery yet (although from the looks of this analysis, he might be the second coming of Daniel Hudson), and it might be late 2014 before he's back to 2012 form.

Anibal Sanchez is a perfectly paid third starter on a good team ($82.2 million through 2018). The problem is, he's a luxury for all but about five or six teams outside of Detroit.

Kris Medlen is no longer doing his best Greg Maddux impression, although he remains a good pitcher under team control for two more years, part of a young and deep Atlanta staff.

Craig Kimbrel is just 25 and has posted four utterly dominant seasons as the Braves’ closer. Did you know that his LOWEST K/9 to date is this year’s 14.1? That is ridiculous. And yet…I can’t watch him throw and not think about how his mechanics may be a ticking time bomb (as detailed here by my friends at Baseball Rebellion), and that's before we even get to how much less valuable relief pitchers are than starters.

Yovani Gallardo has ability (with both his arm and his bat) and a very team-friendly deal ($11.25 million next year with a $13 million team option for 2015), but suffered a puzzling meltdown this year at the age of 27. I would bet on him to bounce back, but my suspicions have been raised.

The Royals would be stupid not to pick up James Shields' $12 million option after another great season, and he would have a lot of value as a one-year rental for a contender. However, his strikeout rate has declined noticeably from last year's career high, and he'll be 32 in December.

Zack Greinke makes a lot of money for a guy who's no longer the ace he was five years ago, and it's telling that this winter it was all but assured that he would wind up with the Dodgers.

He may be the best pitcher who could also conceivably make an NFL roster, but Jeff Samardzija is just a little too old (28) and a little too ordinary to make this list.

I remain unconvinced that Hyun-Jin Ryu is anything more than a decent third starter, and his body (6'2", 255) is of a type unlikely to age well.

Aroldis Chapman almost made the grade only because we know he can start and significantly increase his value, even if the Reds ultimately chickened out on making the move. Chapman seems pretty comfortably entrenched striking out 15 per 9 out of the bullpen; even two-thirds of that rate as a starter would rank second in baseball, behind Yu Darvish and just ahead of Max Scherzer, the rejuvenated A.J. Burnett (!!!), Jose Fernandez, Anibal Sanchez, and Matt Harvey. Chapman's other rates aren't as inhuman as last year (he's walked a lot more guys, for example), but he's still a menace (as Nick Swisher can tell you). If only Cincinnati would man up and make him a starter again before it's too late. Given his age (25) and contract ($3 million next year, a $5 million player option in 2015 and then one year of arbitration), he would leap at least halfway up this list as a starting pitcher. Alas. 

CC Sabathia would have made it thanks to his consistency and durability except that after a dozen years, it appears that he has finally slammed into the same wall that Roy Halladay did before him. At least he still makes the list of "30 biggest pitchers." Normally I'd be inclined to give someone having one down year a pass (we'll get to that later), but Sabathia's decline started last season with his first-ever trip to the disabled list.

If only Clay Buchholz could stay healthy; the 28-year-old has yet to make 30 starts in a season, and only twice has taken the hill more than 16 times. After six seasons of this, he qualifies as brittle. With the injuries have come some difficulties in maintaining his performance year-to-year; you're never quite sure whether you'll get the pitcher of 2013 (8.17 K/9, a microscopic 2.6 HR/FB %, and a 2.59 FIP thus far), or the more pedestrian 2012 version (6.13 K/9, a 13.0 HR/FB%, and a 4.65 FIP). That said, he's getting slightly less than $20 million over the next two years, with team options of $13 million and $13.5 million for the two years after that. That's an attractive contract for a pitcher this talented, because if he does completely break down, you don't really lose anything.

Speaking of health issues, shoulder injuries are much tougher to come back from than, say, Tommy John. Modern medicine seems to have solved the elbow (and knee), but as Johan Santana can tell you, the shoulder is much more complex, which is why I worry about Michael Pineda, although Clay argued for him to be included thanks to his relative youth and talent.

And finally, Homer Bailey, our toughest omission, seems to have finally figured it out for the long term, although it took him a while to get there and he only has one year of arbitration left. Still, in one of the worst pitcher's parks in baseball, Bailey has logged a 3.40 ERA and 1.113 WHIP this season, with 196 strikeouts in 204 innings. It will be interesting to see if the Reds offer him an extension this winter to avoid arbitration and free agency. On to the top 30...

30) Mike Minor

Doesn't have the track record of Derek Holland (see #27) yet or the moments of excellence like Buchholz, but is still just 25, with one more year before he hits arbitration. And if 2013 is an indication of his development, the Braves might want to think about buying out those three upcoming arbitration years. Minor has slashed his walk rate to 2.0 per nine, while striking out a tick under 8.0 and allowing just a .271 BABIP. The southpaw is the youngest and arguably best of the new Atlanta crop of arms (with Medlen and Beachy), barring one (we'll get there) and has also stayed healthy to this point in his career, which cannot be said for either of the others.

29) Justin Masterson

At the age of 28, Masterson is enjoying his best season yet in Cleveland, with a strikeout rate that has leapt by two batters per nine innings (from 6.94 to 8.94), while his other rate stats have remained largely the same (he's also stranding runners at a higher rate than any since his time as a setup man in Boston). Perhaps he has become more aggressive now that the Indians have improved the defense behind him from last year's putrid group into something much more respectable, but whatever the case, the Indians need to strike now if they're interested in continuing to build a contender (or else trade him post-haste). Masterson has his last arbitration raise coming this winter, and although he may never be an ace on a 95-win team, he's a very competent second banana. The biggest jump in his development has probably been his ability to start getting lefties out; his career .284/.362/.418 line includes this year's .249/.343/.361 number. If he can keep that up, he won't have to worry about ever going back to the bullpen.

*Clay didn't know what to do with Masterson, and frankly, I almost had no idea myself.

28) Chris Archer (code name: Duchess)

It's baseball's most meme-friendly (and .gif-friendly) player! The Rays picked up Archer from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal, when he was a promising AA pitcher.* Archer made his debut last year and delivered some promise (36 strikeouts in 29 innings) and concern (13 walks). This year he has emerged as yet another in the Rays' long line of dangerous young pitchers, allowing no more than three earned runs in his last ten starts after a rough first outing, and being borderline unhittable throughout the month of July (three earned runs total and just seven walks in thirty-seven innings, including shutouts against the Astros and Yankees). Along the way, he has become a reporter's dream and a minor flashpoint for old-school types who don't like his enthusiasm and exuberance on the mound.

*To recap; Tampa Bay turned Delmon Young into three years apiece of Garza and Jason Bartlett, then turned Garza into Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Sam Fuld, and Brandon Guyer. They also swapped Bartlett for four young players the same winter. One head case gave the Rays two linchpins on their first run as contenders and then seven young prospects. Why does anyone trade with these guys again?

Archer has a 95-mph fastball (two-seam and four-seam) that he can crank up to 99 to go with a slider and changeup, and has gotten plenty of use out of his secondary pitches (627 sliders and 146 changeups thus far), which can leave opponents looking something like this.

27) Derek Holland

Through five seasons, he seems to be up to the rigors of pitching half his games in the Arlington bandbox, even leading the American League in shutouts in 2011. He's also made a noticeable improvement this year at the age of 26, coming close to career bests in both strikeout rate (7.95) and walk rate (2.84), and also in strand rate (75%) despite the highest BABIP of his career (.305). The Rangers have him for $3.2 million this year and just $22.8 million over the next three (with two option years after that), a very cheap price for an All-Star-caliber pitcher just beginning to enter his prime. As a bonus, he sports one of the more comical mustaches in baseball. Holland has sometimes struggled to stay healthy himself, however. His only previous 30-start season thus far was in 2011, and he has never reached 200 innings pitched. Still, he's more consistent and more durable than Buchholz (for example), two years younger, and with a cheaper contract. That's a lot to like.

26) Michael Wacha

The Cardinals are so absurdly loaded with young pitching (more on this later) that the 22-year-old Wacha, with his 2.78 ERA and 65 strikeouts in as many innings, almost didn't make it on this list, for want of innings pitched. He was a first-round draft pick last year, the Cardinals' reward for letting Albert Pujols accept the Angels' giant offer in free agency. The 6'6" Wacha has an over-the-top downhill delivery that, as the Nationals' radio team pointed out last week, is reminiscent of Justin Verlander (also reminiscent of Verlander was how he held the Nats hitless for 8 2/3 innings, striking out nine and walking two before Ryan Zimmerman got an infield single). Wacha isn't quite the same level of power pitcher (his fastball averages 93 and can reach 97), but he has a wicked change and a useful curve. After such an impressive debut, it would be hard to imagine that he doesn't have a stranglehold on a rotation spot next year for St. Louis.

25) Max Scherzer

Here's a perfect example of someone developing along the normal age curve. Scherzer, about to turn 29, has seen his strikeout rate gradually rise since he reached the majors, while his walk rate and homer rate have fallen, along with his BABIP (probably a good thing considering some of the defensive butchers behind him). Now he's striking out a shade under ten batters per nine, walking slightly more than two, and has an FIP of 2.74 and an ERA of 3.00, a particularly impressive figure given that he pitches in front of the fattest infield in the game. 

Now, I really did want to stick him higher than 24th, but this great season he's had will cinch a hefty raise, and with that extra $25 million coming in national television money, baseball's best heterochromian pitcher is about to get really expensive. Scherzer is approaching his last winter of arbitration, so Mike Ilitch has to think about ponying up in order to keep the Tigers pitching staff together. He shouldn't get Verlander dollars, but should probably be making more than Sanchez's $16.8 million per year. If the Tigers think that, say, five years and $110 million is too much for them (particularly if they want to re-extend Miguel Cabrera), they should hear from plenty of parties interested in Scherzer's services (say that five times fast).

24) Cole Hamels

There's a narrative that exists out there that Hamels has been disappointing this season. Well, if you only want to believe in traditional stats, sure. Hamels was 8-14 this season with the third-highest ERA (3.68) of his career. But if you look a little closer, you'll find that he was essentially the exact same pitcher, only the rest of the team around him was either old (Michael Young, Jimmy Rollins), decrepit (Ryan Howard, Delmon Young), or simply bad with a glove on (Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf). Hamels' ERA rose even as he posted the best home run rate of his career (9.4%, respectable in Citizens Bank), in part because he stranded just 72.5% of base runners (which figures in front of such a bad defense). His FIP of 3.29 was almost exactly the same as 2012's 3.30, when the Phillies took the impending free agent off of the market with a seven-year, $153 million deal (plus an option for 2019). 

This looks like the rare long-term contract that might actually work out in the end for the Phillies. Hamels has a perfectly good fastball that averages a tick over 91 miles per hour (which it has held at since he broke into the majors), but his biggest weapon is his changeup, one of the deadliest in the game to both righties and lefties. He's a good bet to pitch 200 innings, strike out close to a batter an inning, and hold a strikeout-to-walk ratio of about 4-to-1. He's 29 now, so older than most pitchers listed here, but profiles as someone who should continue to be a staff ace for a few more years, with the possibility of turning in a Tom Glavine-esque late-career run.

23) Julio Teheran

Destined to finish a distant third for the NL Rookie of the Year, Teheran is finally getting his chance in the rotation after spending some years as Atlanta's best pitching prospect. I feel like I've been hearing his name forever in trade/call-up rumors, but he won't turn 23 until January. Teheran is striking out a solid number of batters for someone so young (8.3 per nine) while walking a little more than two. However, his abnormally high strand rate of 82% makes his 3.09 ERA a little lucky (to be fair, he has at least five top-shelf glovemen behind him in Jason Heyward, the Upton brothers, Freddie Freeman, and of course Andrelton Simmons). He's currently very fastball-heavy and could stand to develop his off-speed offerings a little more (65% with just 5% use of his changeup this year), but that just described almost every young pitcher ever (he does have a nice hook). Barring injury, he should continue to grow and eventually become a very strong number two starter, if not potentially a legitimate ace. Better yet, the Braves have him for two more years at roughly $500K before he starts hitting arbitration, so there is a ton of time left to evaluate him before a possible extension.

22) Zack Wheeler

True, Wheeler walked far too many batters (46 in 100 innings), but that should be just growing pains for one of the most highly regarded pitching prospects in the game. You also have to give him some credit for pitching effectively in front of a bad team, particularly an outfield that usually consisted of Eenie, Meenie, and Minie, with Moe coming off the bench as the defensive replacement. Plus, he's 23, and his late call-up this year should keep him out of Super Two status and give the Mets a full six years of control starting in 2014, with the next three being dirt-cheap (which is why he slots in ahead of Teheran). Wheeler's changeup is still a work in progress (just 42 of his 1721 tosses this year), but he can dial the heat up to 98 and show off a pair of breaking balls (slider and curve). One thing is for sure; you won't see a pitching prospect of his caliber getting moved for a two-month rental of an aging outfielder again for a long, long time.* Thank you, San Francisco!

*As you may be aware of, I am a long-suffering Mets fan, but I have a question. Is it too early to get excited about their 2015 pitching staff (assuming Matt Harvey gets the zipper this winter)? They would conceivably have Harvey, Wheeler, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, and Noah Syndergaard (133 punchouts in 117 innings as a 20-year-old this year between high-A and AA). If they can find a competent outfield (Juan Lagares is a start), they might actually be competitive.

21) Gerrit Cole

Cole only had two more major league starts and seventeen more innings than Wheeler, but he's also a year younger and has delivered more impressive results (in a smallish sample, but still). The top choice in the 2011 amateur draft isn't striking out as many guys (just 7.6 per nine) than a pitcher with his stuff should, but he's also walking just over two, and throughout his rise through the minors has proven adept at avoiding home runs. Cole can reach the century mark on the radar gun, but his four-seam fastball is a little flat right now and prone to getting hit when it's below top speed. What will be really interesting to see is how well Cole responds to being thrust into the middle of Pittsburgh's first playoff rotation since he was in diapers. Given that the other Pirate starters are Jeff Locke (enjoyed a lot of luck before the inevitable regression), A.J. Burnett (in the midst of a renaissance now that he's outside of New York), Francisco Liriano (whose arm is perpetually living on borrowed time), and Wandy Rodriguez (a very average pitcher), a lot might be riding on Cole during baseball's best month.

20) Mat Latos

It seems easy to forget that Latos is all of 25 years old, as he's been one of the better pitchers in the National League since his breakout 2010 season. Yet here he is, showing signs of improvement (a career-best strikeout rate of 9.5 thus far) while suffering from an abnormally high BABIP of .315. If he keeps the punchouts up, Latos should notch his first 200-strikeout season this year, all while costing the Reds a paltry $4.25 million this year and $7.25 million next year before his final year of arbitration. Did I mention that he's made 30 starts each of the past three years, and according to Fangraphs, throws SIX different pitches? Sounds like a guy who deserves a pay raise beyond 2014. The Reds should find that money once Bronson Arroyo and his $16.5 million contract (yes, it's true) hit free agency this winter, but if they don't find it, Walt Jocketty's phone will be busy.

19) Patrick Corbin

Although his .246 BABIP that has led to a 2.31 ERA in a hitters' park is bound to regress at some point (this was written in July - those numbers did regress to .283 and 3.41), Corbin was a deserving All-Star this year, and shows a lot of promise for a 23-year-old in his first full big league season. Like Teheran, he's got two more minimum-cost years ahead before arbitration, but he also has logged 100 more innings already, which makes him a little easier to evaluate. Corbin has a big-breaking slider that he can use against lefties or righties, to go with 92-96-mph heat and a changeup.

Arizona got Corbin from the Angels in the Dan Haren trade, and the 2009 second-round pick is already paying dividends. Corbin's main weapon is a two-seamer that he throws for a strike over 70% of the time and uses to generate ground balls. He strikes out an acceptable if not overwhelming 7.6 per nine, and that low BABIP this year resulted in a 1.166 WHIP. In a season full of regression and other problems for the rest of the Diamondbacks' staff, Corbin was the stopper, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Arizona management look to work something out this winter.*

*As Justin said, "he's having an incredible year and he's super cheap."

18) Dylan Bundy

Remember what I said about players needing to have exhausted their rookie eligibility in order to make this list? Yeah, about that; I'm using a single exception on Bundy, even if he did just miss the season with Tommy John surgery and won't be back until after the 2014 All-Star game (at the earliest). He's still perhaps the top pitching prospect in the game, with 98-mph gas that moves, a knee-buckling curve and slider, and an impressive changeup. The Orioles haven't even let him use his cutter, arguably his best pitch, out of a mistaken belief that it would hurt his arm (whoops). And I haven't even mentioned that he won't be able to buy himself a drink until Thanksgiving. We'll err on the side of caution by sticking him here; if he returns from surgery as good as new, he'll be at least five spots higher a year from now.

17) Matt Cain

Of all the pitchers on this list, Cain might be the one whom I would least have expected to come apart at the seams this year. We're giving him the benefit of the doubt because of his age (28) and track record (very consistent), but there's no denying that 2013 has been a bit of a disaster for Cain. Despite posting the third-highest strikeout rate of his career (7.71) and a walk rate lower than his career norms (2.69 vs. 3.03), Cain's strand rate has cratered at the same time that his home run rate has spiked, leading to an almost-career-high 3.93 FIP and 4.00 ERA. Given that he pitches half his games in spacious San Francisco, one would expect those numbers to drop back down to something approaching his career averages (or lower). If everything normalizes, $80 million over four years (with a $21 million option for 2018) is a great price for
a pitcher this good squarely in the middle of his prime seasons. But if it doesn't, and even his park and defense can't save him? Yikes. Still, one off-year is acceptable, especially from someone who threw almost 250 innings last year when you factor in the Giants' World Series run.

16) Adam Wainwright

Now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright has seen his control come back actually better than it was before getting zippered. In fact, it's been so good that so far in 2013 Wainwright has almost as many starts (33) as bases on balls (34), for an impossibly low 1.29 walks per nine. That, combined with a low home run rate and comparable numbers everywhere else, has led to a 2.57 FIP and 3.01 ERA. Even if he will almost certainly regress in terms of walks allowed, he should still be an excellent pitcher going forward, although he is a bit of a decline risk at age 31. That said, he is the cheapest member of his contemporary group, with salaries of $19.5 million coming over the next five years. The Cardinals will be happy to pay him $4 million or less per win above replacement (Fangraphs version), to say nothing of his mentoring the Cardinals' stable of young, talented pitchers.* Also, as a Mets fan, I still shudder when I think about that hook.

*That list? It's scary: Shelby Miller (22), Joe Kelly (25), Michael Wacha (22), Trevor Rosenthal (23), Carlos Martinez (21), and John Gast (24) all spent varying amounts of time with the big league club this season. Waiting in baseball's best farm system are Tyrell Jenkins (21), Marco Gonzales (21), and Rob Kaminsky (19). Even if only half of those guys make it as average-to-good starting pitchers, the Cardinals will be able to carve out a strong rotation for the next few years.

Coming tomorrow: part 2 for pitchers.