Thursday, October 3, 2013

MLB Trade Value: Pitchers (Part 2)

Yesterday we covered honorable mention pitchers and the guys ranked 30-16. Today we move on to the fifteen pitchers with the highest trade value.

15) Justin Verlander

Before you get indignant and angry with me, hear me out. Verlander is already 30 years old, and currently signed to the longest and most expensive contract of any pitcher in baseball ($160 million for the next six years, plus a $22 million vesting option for 2020). That's a lot of money for anyone, let alone someone who's starting to show some cracks in the armor. Verlander's walk rate is at its highest since his outlier 2008 season, and his .317 BABIP is almost a career high. That may be due to the fact that despite his four outstanding pitches, his fastball velocity has dropped to its lowest level (93.7) since, well, 2008. He's still striking out as many batters as usual and keeping the ball in the yard, but seems to have become a touch more hittable this year. Perhaps leading the league in innings pitched three of the last four years has worn him down a little (total innings from 2009-12; 953.2, plus another 48.2 over the last two postseasons). It could just be a minor blip, and Verlander could make me look pretty stupid for sticking him way down here. But let's just be safe. And hey, even in a down year, Verlander is still worth 4.8 fWAR, meaning he's still an All-Star caliber pitcher.

14) Gio Gonzalez

More than perhaps any other star pitcher on this list, Gonzalez is a high-wire act who keeps Nats fans constantly on the edge of their seats. Gio's LOWEST walk rate was last year's 3.43, more than double that of teammate Jordan Zimmermann's figure this year. But more often than not, Gonzalez can get himself out of his own messes, punching out 8.83 and 9.35 per nine in 2013 and 2012, respectively. With a fastball that he can dial up to 96 and one of the sharpest curves in baseball, Gonzalez certainly has the weapons to keep hitters off-balance and rack up Ks (in addition, his changeup is becoming a useful weapon as well). He just has to throw those pitches for strikes often enough to keep those hitters honest.

All things being equal, however, you get a great bang for your buck for a 27-year-old southpaw who's got Cy Young-caliber stuff. He's making $6.25 million this year and $31.5 over the next three, with a team option for $12 million in 2017 and a $12 million vesting option in 2018. That is a terrific bargain, provided that he doesn't do this any more (in case you missed it the first time).*

*Justin had him much lower, asserting that 2012 was a career year. Maybe it was, but he wasn't far off of that pace this year, and he's still 27 and cheap.

13) Felix Hernandez

Gets the nod over Verlander for the following reasons; age (at 27, King Felix is three years younger) and contract (years are the same, but Verlander is making slightly more with a bigger option at the end). It's scary to think that Hernandez might actually be getting better still; his walk rate is at a career low (2.04), and his strikeout rate is at a career high (9.53). The Mariners certainly think so. King Felix will make just over $155 million over the next six years, meaning that Seattle expects to build a contender around him. Still, if the Mariners ever held a fire sale, every contender and pretender in baseball would have them on speed dial. Hernandez can throw a 95-mph sinking fastball, along with a slider, change, curve, and cutter. He has a perfect game on his resume, and it's not unreasonable to think he has another no-hitter or two in his future.

Of course, one thing that bears watching is his durability. King Felix's innings totals since 2009? 238.2, 249.2, 233.2, 232.0, 204.1. That's a lot. At his current pace, he would hit 3000 innings pitched right around the end of the 2018 season, with a year to go on that big contract. Curious as to how many non-knuckleball pitchers have reached 3000 innings since the advent of the five-man rotation? Eighteen.* Most arms have an expiration date, as Roy Halladay has discovered and CC Sabathia may be discovering now. Let's hope that Hernandez doesn't reach his anytime soon.

*In order: Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer, Jack Morris, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz, David Wells, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, Andy Pettitte, Chuck Finley, Livan Hernandez, Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch, and Danny Darwin. How many of them had logged 1800 major league innings before their 28th birthday like King Felix has? ZERO.

12) David Price

Price may be the most likely person on this entire list to get traded within the next year, because unless he follows Evan Longoria's lead and signs a below-market extension, he will soon be too expensive for the low-budget Rays to keep around. Additionally, Tampa Bay has the depth to replace him, especially with Chris Archer emerging this year. Price is making a hair over $10 million this season, with two more arbitration raises forthcoming as he enters his peak years (he's currently 27 years old). However, don't mistake the Rays' pitching surplus and low budget for a possible discount on a guy who won the Cy Young Award just last year. Tampa Bay has a history of extracting maximum value from any team dumb enough to trade with them. If a very good pitcher like James Shields (plus Wade Davis) can net them a top-five overall prospect and three other valuable pieces, you can bet that an elite pitcher such as Price will cost at least that much on his own.

What teams might be interested in pursuing Price this winter? Well, here's the list of teams that could give Tampa Bay at least one top-shelf, cost-controlled young player, another top prospect, and a couple other pieces that also might want to upgrade their rotation for a pennant run next season, listed in approximate order of need/likelihood to make a deal: Baltimore (Dylan Bundy/Kevin Gausman & Jonathan Schoop), the Dodgers (Joc Pederson & Zach Lee - plus they're the Dodgers and always in the conversation to pull off something of this magnitude), Texas (Jurickson Profar & Jorge Alfaro), Washington (Anthony Rendon & Lucas Giolito), Detroit (Nick Castellanos & Jonathon Crawford), and Cincinnati (Billy Hamilton & Robert Stephenson).

Well, you might say, what kind of pitcher are you getting for that kind of haul? Last year's Cy Young version, or this year's far more ordinary one, with the 3.57 ERA and just 7.3 strikeouts per nine? I believe that this season is an outlier; his K rate and strand rate are both at their lowest since his rookie season of 2009, and his home run rate is a career high. Those last two in particular are likely to regress back to the norm, especially the home run rate (13.1% of his fly balls have left the yard, an oddity for a guy who pitches his home games in an extreme pitchers' park). Price still brings the heat in two varieties, plus a curve, change, and cutter. I'll bet on the Price of the future being a lot more like the 2012 model than the 2013 version.*

*Again, not a reflection on Price's talent, but Clay convinced me that he should drop this far because he's about to get priced out of Tampa Bay.

11) Cliff Lee

He might be the oldest pitcher on this list (34), but he's still a top-ten-caliber guy, and has a shorter contract than any of the aforementioned veterans ($25 million in 2014 and 2015, with a $27.5 million vesting option for 2016). If both he and King Felix were made available, Lee would probably have more interested suitors simply because of the shorter and more palatable length of his contract. At this point, you know what you're getting with Lee, and his skill set should age well, particularly when you're not always sure that he's breaking a sweat. Ever since his breakout 2008 season, he has relied on pinpoint command and movement to baffle hitters (walks per nine since 2008: 1.37, 1.67, 0.76, 1.62, 1.19, 1.34. His ranking across baseball in those years? 1st, 4th, 1st, 7th, 1st, 3rd.). As long as he can do that and change speeds, he should continue to be an elite pitcher.

10) Jordan Zimmermann

What a weird pitcher to rank, and perhaps the most underrated good pitcher in baseball, as he's only the third-most recognizable starter on his own team. Zimmermann throws gas (average fastball velocity of 93.1 mph) and throws it often (67% of the time, higher than most starters), although he can surprise hitters with a dirty slider. But he also strikes out just 6.34 batters per nine, easily the lowest of anyone on this list. Nor is 2013 necessarily an aberration; in the preceding two years that figure was 7.04 (2012) and 6.92 (2011). Zimmermann gets away with his low strikeout rate by having excellent control, with a walk rate of 1.34 per nine this year, and one that has been lower than 2.00 in each of his three full seasons. He does a good job at generating weak contact off of his pitch movement, if not a ton of swings and misses; his career WHIP is 1.168, and it wouldn't even be that high if not for some struggles in his 2009 and 2010 cameos. But after almost 500 innings over the past three years, it seems safe to predict that this is the caliber of pitcher the 27-year-old is. He's only making $5.35 million this year, with two more years of arbitration (he was a Super Two) coming. The Nationals may have erred in not inking Zimmermann to a long-term extension after last season; he's a pretty good bet to be a Cy Young finalist this season (although he shouldn't win it), which can only increase his leverage. In order to get him to sign such an extension this winter, the team will probably have to offer an average of $12 million or so per year (at least), which would be a good bargain for a 3-to-5-WAR pitcher in his prime seasons.*

*Clay's take: "The most underrated good pitcher in baseball."

9) Matt Harvey

For all their comical missteps as a franchise, the Mets have historically been adept at identifying and grooming talented young pitchers (at least if we overlook the Isringhausen/Pulsipher/Wilson shipwreck of the '90s). Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Dwight Gooden, and Ron Darling all got their start as major league pitchers with the Mets, and Harvey has caused the kind of hysteria among Mets fans not seen since Doctor K's heyday in the mid-eighties. Harvey is that rare creature who was so much better than his minor league opponents that he got bored; he rang up a 4.53 ERA at AA Binghamton to close 2011. Ever since his debut a year ago, however, he has been one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball (261 punchouts in 238 innings across 36 starts), and this season he upped the ante by cutting his walk rate by more than half, to only 1.6 per nine, for a sterling 6.16 K/BB ratio. Harvey keeps the ball in the yard (4.7 HR/FB %) and has allowed a .276 BABIP in his career, all of which led to a Pedro-esque 0.931 WHIP this season. Harvey's fastball averages over 95 mph, and he can crack triple digits on the radar gun. Add a 90-mph slider, a curve, and a change, and opposing hitters have little chance.

As a Mets fan myself, I am ecstatic about the prospect of at least five more years of Harvey, even if there's a strong possibility that 2014 will get wiped out by Tommy John surgery (for what it's worth, a fully healthy Harvey probably would have jumped two spots in these rankings). I worry about the Wilpon family's financial status in the wake of losing a ton of their money to Bernie Madoff and committing a fair chunk of what's left to make David Wright a career Met, but I think they'll find it possible to extend the 24-year-old Harvey sometime before he hits arbitration after the 2015 season (and there will be rioting by Mets fans if they don't).

8) Shelby Miller

After elbowing his way into a crowded Cardinals rotation this spring, Miller has spent the summer proving that he belongs in the majors, striking out 169 batters in 173 innings and emerging as the Cards' second-best pitcher after Adam Wainwright. Miller also sports a walk rate of less than three per nine, meaning that he strikes out almost three times as many batters as he walks. The scary thing is, he's got more weapons than he has shown in 2013; thus far this season he has thrown his fastball nearly 75 percent of the time, blowing even the Zimmermanns of the world out of the water. Miller sports a slider that he has not shown even once this season, relying on the odd curve, cutter, or change when he's not pumping 94-98-mph heaters. Miller has such confidence in and command of his fastball that he can throw the exact same pitch to two equally dangerous hitters from opposite sides of the plate (Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki) and freeze them both for strikeouts.

As a rookie, of course, Miller has two more seasons beyond this one at minimum salary levels before arbitration. He's only 22 and one of the leading candidates for Rookie of the Year (although like Zimmermann and the Cy Young, he shouldn't win), as well as the number two pitcher for the deepest staff (and deepest team, period) in the National League. Even if Miller never signs an extension, he will hit free agency after he finishes his age-27 season. Barring injury, he has an incredibly high ceiling and great value.

7) Stephen Strasburg

By now, there's very little that remains to be said about the most hyped pitching prospect of his generation. Casual fans and idiot talking heads might be tempted to look at his 7-9 record this year and proclaim the recently-turned-25-year-old Strasburg a disappointment, but that would be categorically wrong. In sixteen of his twenty-nine starts in 2013, the Nationals provided him with between zero and two runs of support. In those sixteen starts, Strasburg ceded a grand total of twenty-two earned runs, or a little more than one per outing. What is more encouraging is that the Nationals are finally lengthening Strasburg's leash with regard to his innings. In 45 starts from 2010 through 2012, Strasburg pitched seven innings (and no more) just seven times. This season he had fifteen such outings, including five of eight innings and his first complete game shutout.

Detractors out there might point to his reduced strikeout rate ("only" 9.6 per nine, down from a career average of 10.5), but he didn't see any kind of corresponding increase in base runners; his WHIP was 1.045, a tick below his career rate of 1.072. That was largely thanks to his BABIP dropping from .311 to .262 this season. What is mildly concerning is that Strasburg, with perhaps the best collection of pitches in baseball, has a bit of a tendency to turn into a nibbler against lefties. To be fair, this was markedly more pronounced both last year and at the start of this season than it is now; perhaps it has taken until recently for him to fully regain the confidence in his stuff to get anybody out. Even after getting zippered, he can still reach back for 98-99-mph gas, and his changeup has been clocked at a preposterous 94.2 at least once this season. Check out those .gifs again and tell me who you think has a chance against a 94-mile-per-hour changeup dive-bombing out of the strike zone like that.

As for Strasburg's trade value, he will taste arbitration for just the first time this winter. Reticent by nature, there has been little to no talk of an extension, and of course Strasburg's agent is Scott Boras. While it is near certain that he will go through arbitration at least once, Boras may recognize that his client's previous injury and high-torque mechanics leave him at more risk if he doesn't have an extension. It's not unheard of for Boras to agree to an extension before free agency; Jered Weaver is one prominent client who did so. And given all that the Nationals have invested in Strasburg since drafting him in 2009, such a deal might actually be beneficial for the pitcher and team alike.

6) Clayton Kershaw

As discussed in part one, because of the way baseball's salary cap works and the widely disparate player payrolls throughout the league, being the best pitcher on the planet doesn't necessarily mean that you have the most trade value. And Kershaw is the best pitcher there is. However, he's only got one more year of arbitration before he's a free agent, and is likely to get a giant raise and/or the first $200 million contract for a pitcher. That limits his market somewhat, although he still holds more value than Price due to his age (25) and higher performance at a similar current salary.

It's scary to consider that Kershaw could conceivably still get better, given that he is only 25, because this year he's been doing his best Pedro Martinez impression. To wit, this year Kershaw has struck out 224 batters in 230 innings while walking 52 and allowing a paltry 160 hits for a .195 batting average against and 1.88 ERA (2.44 FIP). His WHIP, assuming you weren't able to do the math in your head, is 0.922, which is Mariano Rivera-in-October-esque. He's a lock for his third consecutive top-two finish in the Cy Young voting (and should win it unanimously), and he cracked the 200-inning (and strikeout) mark for the fourth straight time. Kershaw is simply a brilliant pitcher, with absolutely the nastiest curve in baseball (his slider ain't bad either).

Any team that would attempt to trade for Kershaw would be doing so with the end goal of signing him to a lucrative extension, probably as the highest-paid pitcher in the game's history. A lot of teams wouldn't cough up the prospects necessary to obtain baseball's premier pitcher with the possibility that it might only be a one-year rental, but the ones that would do so would be willing to pay through the nose. Such a list might include the Tigers or Red Sox, for example, and very few other teams. It's altogether likely that Kershaw won't be leaving Chavez Ravine anytime soon, but isn't speculation the whole point of this column?

5) Yu Darvish

While the three guys above are all younger than the 26-year-old Japanese import, they're also on the rookie scale without extensions or arbitration as yet, so there's some uncertainty. Darvish, on the other hand, is getting $10 million this year and the next three, with a $1 million raise in 2017. That's it. For that investment you get 11.9 strikeouts per nine, a 1.073 WHIP despite 80 walks in 210 innings, and the coolest .gif ever. Those strikeout numbers (277 of them) led the American League, and Darvish also gave up fewer hits per nine than any other qualified pitcher. Like several of his Japanese forerunners, Darvish has several pitches at his command; six, to be precise. His four-seamer and two-seamer both average 93 and can touch 97, plus he has a slidercurvecutter, and splitter, all of which he is liable to throw at any point in the count.

You live with Yu's high walk totals because each of those pitches has so much movement (and comes from the exact same delivery) that it's hard to know what's a strike and what's not. He's an ace-level pitcher, getting paid like a decent third starter. If there ever comes a point where the Rangers need to sell some pieces, Darvish will have a lot of suitors, and command an armada of top prospects in return.

4) Chris Sale

There is probably no pitching commodity more valuable than a proven southpaw who happens to be very cost-controlled and has his peak seasons in front of him, and three of these last four guys fit that description exactly. Sale is just 24 years old, but ranks lowest because he's more expensive than Matt Moore ($32.5 million guaranteed through 2017 with two team options as opposed to $14 million guaranteed through 2016 with three cheaper team options) and slightly older than Madison Bumgarner, who has already been an instrumental part of two World Series winners (for comparison's sake, Bumgarner's $35.67 million deal runs through 2017 with a pair of team option years after that). Additionally, Sale's string bean build (6'6", 180) and unorthodox delivery might peg him as more of an injury risk than those two gentlemen.* Now, a comparative study:

Player A: 214.1 IP, 46 BB, 226 K, 3.07 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 1.073 WHIP
Player B: 214.1 IP, 56 BB, 240 K, 2.90 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 0.970 WHIP

*Justin: "His motion scares me." He would have dropped Sale about eight spots because of those concerns about his mechanics.

Which pitcher would you rather have? Although it's pretty close, you'd probably take Player B, right? What if I told you that Player B was almost five years older, pitched his home games in a more pitcher-friendly park (with his division's only offensive powerhouse behind him in the same division as Player A), and had one year of arbitration left before hitting free agency at the very peak of his powers? Then you'd probably jump on Player A, correct? That, in a nutshell, is the premise of this column. Player A is Sale, while Player B is Max Scherzer, about to make as much money in one year as Sale will over the next three.

Sale's unorthodox motion hides 98-mph gas and a slider that is equally good at fooling lefties and righties. He struck out almost five times as many batters as he walked (226/46 this year), sported a 1.073 WHIP, and kept the ball in the park pretty well (12.5%) given that he pitched half his games in the Comiskey bandbox, one of the best parks in baseball for home runs. Additionally, he appears to be adept at stranding runners; his 77% strand rate in 2013 was easily the lowest of his career. All of these numbers become even more impressive when you factor in the mediocre-to-pathetic defenders behind him, with not a single regular in Chicago's lineup rating as above league-average with the glove. Hopefully Sale stays healthy and has more seasons like this one that merit strong Cy Young consideration.

3) Matt Moore

Moore has, far and away, the least impressive major league resume of anyone in the top fifteen. So why is he sitting at number three? What makes him this valuable is his pedigree (he has been a Baseball America top overall prospect), his evident talent, his youth (24), and most importantly, his contract. In their infinite wisdom, Andrew Friedman and the other suits in Tampa Bay were quick to lock up Moore to a below-market deal that will look even cheaper for them once every team starts getting their $25 million in national television contract money starting next year (and, as a result, salaries will increase). Here's what the Rays will be paying Moore on an annual basis starting next year: $1 million, $3 million, $5 million, $7 million (team option), $9 million (team option), and $10 million (team option). If all the options are exercised, that's $35 million over six years for a lefty with top-of-the-rotation ability through his age-30 season. Conversely, if they want to cut bait early, Moore will cost them a mere $9 million over three years, well under half of what Verlander, King Felix, Adam Wainwright, or Matt Cain will make just next year.

Given the market rate for 1 WAR these days (a little under $5 million), the Rays will be paying Moore a little less than $6 million per year on average when he should easily be worth double that (or more as salaries increase). I would be willing to bet that any team wishing to sign a comparable pitcher to an extension this winter (let's use Miller as an example) would probably have to start with a total value (including options) of $50 million. That's a minimum of $2.5 million more per season, which can stock an entire bench or most of a bullpen (the major league minimum is right around $500K), or pay for one decent everyday player. And that's what that money is worth to the Rays, the most fiscally prudent team in baseball (no, the Marlins don't count).

So what kind of pitcher is Moore? Well, whereas Sale appears to be flying apart in three different directions when he pitches, Moore (apart from a high leg kick) looks like he is playing catch in the backyard. His fastball can nevertheless scrape 96, and his slider has become a weapon. He does, however, need to improve his command, as he has walked more than four batters per nine each of the past two seasons. Those high pitch counts have prevented him from finishing the sixth inning eight times thus far in 2013. But in the end, he's the ultimate low-risk, high-reward guy on this list, which greatly enhances his trade value.

2) Jose Fernandez

Arguably just as talented as Harvey, Fernandez is four years younger and starring already in the majors despite not playing above high-A last year. If you haven't yet read about his background and the harrowing story of how he defected from Cuba, do yourself a favor and correct that oversight. Fernandez this year struck out better than a batter an inning and allowing a BABIP of just .240, with an overall batting average against of .182. That is preposterous given that he can only just legally buy a drink. He's incredibly refined for someone so young; Fernandez can throw six pitches, although he has thrown a slider just five times this season and a cutter just once. His fastball currently reaches 99 miles per hour, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect it to tick up even a little more as his body strengthens (plus it moves). His curve is good enough to make even a polished hitter like Chase Utley look foolish. And his changeup almost looks like it knuckles (at 86 mph). And he's got personality!

The Marlins, of course, will keep Fernandez at the minimum for this year and the next two because Jeffrey Loria is a cheapskate. Then the phone will ring, and keep ringing, once he hits arbitration and becomes (presumably) really expensive. Keep in mind that once he does hit arbitration after the 2015 season, he will be younger than every pitcher on this list except Wacha, Miller, Teheran, and Cole is now. If he repeats his 2013 performance next year, I wouldn't be surprised to see him leap into the top spot, but for now it belongs to...

1) Madison Bumgarner

Like Moore, Bumgarner is an easy tosser, but his motion is more of the long and side-sweeping variety. With Tim Lincecum apparently done as an elite pitcher and Matt Cain experiencing some major struggles in 2013, Bumgarner has taken up the mantle of staff ace with aplomb. Bumgarner struck out 8.9 batters per nine, while walking 2.8, and allowed an absurdly low .251 BABIP (he's shaved 25 points or more off of his BABIP in consecutive years!). A five-pitch guy (two fastballs, slider, curve, change), Bumgarner reached 200 innings for the third consecutive year, and looks to be the kind of rotation mainstay who should be effective for the next decade (barring injury); you can't get much more valuable than that. Unless, of course, you've put that impressive major league track record together (and as a bonus, have collected two World Series rings) at a preposterously young age. In a related story, Bumgarner celebrated his 24th birthday two months ago. His number one player comp by age on Baseball-Reference? Clayton Kershaw.* Plus, you have to love a guy who gave his wife a cow before their wedding. No, really.

*Of course, number two is Steve Avery, who flamed out early.

Coming tomorrow: part one for position players.