Friday, October 4, 2013

MLB Trade Value: Position Players (Part 1)

Well, after spilling nearly 9500 words just talking about the trade value of pitchers across two columns, it's time to dive into position players. Unlike most trade value columns, we're splitting pitchers and position players because they're valued differently and have such different functions. If you're unfamiliar with the guidelines for this column, here they are, reprinted from Part One of the pitchers' version:

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. Apologies to Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, Miguel Sano, 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).

Who missed the cut? In order of elimination...

Adrian Beltre is still one of the best third basemen in the game, but he is 34 and signed for two more years beyond this one, with a vesting option for 2016. You never know when the wheels might fall off the bus.

Starlin Castro is still just 23 (!!!) and signed to a team-friendly contract, but he seems to be moving backward rather than forward.

Ryan Zimmerman is right in the middle of his peak and will be earning a reasonable $14 million for the next five years (plus $18 million in 2019), but that becomes much less reasonable if he has to move to first base because of lingering shoulder issues.

Matt Kemp is getting paid like an MVP, but the trouble is that he now seems to be the MVP of the disabled list.

I still think Ryan Braun will come back next year and be a valuable bat, but I'm not ready to commit to a guy who a) will probably see some drop in performance and b) might get beaned by every major league team, making him perhaps baseball's first ever looming concussion risk.

Jose Altuve recently signed a cheap deal to stay in Houston through 2019 at no more than $6.5 million per annum. But is he a poor man's Dustin Pedroia or a homeless man's Dustin Pedroia?

Jay Bruce has a pedigree (first-rounder in that loaded '05 draft), a pretty fair contract ($34.5 million spread over the next three years with a $13 million team option for 2017), but he's showing a disturbing trend of more strikeouts and fewer walks as he enters his prime.

Whatever my friend Zach (a Cardinals fan) may say, Allen Craig does not possess inherent clutchiness, is already 29 years old, and has yet to play a full season in the majors (his high was this year's 134 games).

I really like Ben Zobrist, the super-utility man whom the Rays have on team options for 2014 ($7 million) and 2015 ($7.5 million). The Zorilla, however, is also 32 years old.

Matt Wieters may never come close to living up to the hype, although he remains a top-five defensive catcher (with Los Hermanos Molina, Salvador Perez, and Jonathon Lucroy) with some pop.

Speaking of Jonathon Lucroy, he's perhaps the best pitch framer in baseball not named "Molina" as well as the owner of a .280/.328/.481 line across four seasons, and to top it off, he's cheap (less than $10 million for this season and the next three COMBINED). However, he made it to 100 games in 2013, for only the second time in his career, and he's 27. That's worrisome.

Adam Jones is on the hook for $75 million from 2014-18, which is perhaps a little much for a 27-year-old with a .322 career OBP who's not actually a great defensive center fielder.

Alex Gordon is one of the more underappreciated players in the game, with an excellent glove in left field and a pretty decent bat, but he will turn 30 during spring training.

Joey Votto, may be the best left-handed hitter in baseball, but he also will be making $25 million when he's 39 years old, and his power output has dropped significantly over the past year and change. No thanks.

Just a year older than Andrelton Simmons but already in his fifth full season in the majors, the 24-year-old Elvis Andrus is probably the best defensive shortstop in the American League (at least until J.J. Hardy leaves the Orioles and Manny Machado moves over from third base). Andrus, however, suffered through a poor 2013 with the stick, hitting just .271/.328/.331 (needing a late-season charge to get that high), close to his worst numbers across the board. The lack of doubles (17) for a speed guy is concerning, but hopefully it is just a one-year blip and he will return to something more like last year's .286/.349/.378 effort. One area where Andrus has showed notable improvement this year is in his base running. After three years of swiping bases at just over a 70% clip (barely acceptable, especially for someone with his wheels), Andrus went 42-for-50 in 2013. The Rangers have gone all in on the prize of the Mark Teixeira trade six years ago; when his current three-year, $14.4 million deal ends after next season, he will start a $118 million contract that keeps him in Arlington through 2022, with a vesting option for $15 million in 2023. A single win these days goes for about $4 million dollars, and Andrus is worth two of those with the glove alone. If he hits more like he did from 2010-12 going forward, this contract should turn out to be a bargain for Texas, but it's not a good sign when a guy with offensive questions already takes a big step backward.

Jose Bautista, as you are probably aware of by now, is one of the all-time late bloomers in baseball history; he has hit 149 of his 208 career home runs after his 29th birthday, a four-season stretch that has seen him make all four All-Star games and twice finish in the top five in MVP voting. He also plays a solid right field and can fill in at third in a pinch. And for all that, he costs the Blue Jays just $14 million per year between now and 2015, with a team option for the 2016 season. As long as he keeps hitting along the lines of the .268/.390/.572 line he's put up since the start of 2010, that deal is a major win for the Blue Jays, and an attractive trade piece should they ever decide to sell. Of course, the caveat here is that for every Raul Ibanez who maintains his power through his mid-thirties, there are twenty who do not. Joey Bats will turn 33 in October, and it's likely that he will never again approach his .302/.447/.608 season of 2011. But even if you're just getting 35 or so bombs instead of 40-50, that's a good lineup piece to have. He might have even made the list if he could prove the ability to stay on the field.

Anthony Rizzo took a step back (like the other young talented Cubs) in his first season as a regular, hitting .233/.323/.419 this year after .285/.342/.463 in 87 games in 2012. He also just turned 24, so we can wait a little longer for the eventual development. Even if his ceiling is, say, in the .290/.350/.490 range (I would certainly expect his power to go up playing half his games in Wrigley), less than $6 million AAV per year of that from your first baseman is a great value, but for now he's not quite ready to make the list.

Can you believe that Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki were the left side of the infield together in college? I can, because I saw them during Pepperdine's annual home-and-home with the Dirtbags of Long Beach State. I will admit that I tried some heckling of the duo (one of my best friends was pitching that day) that ended when Longoria bombed a ball about 350 feet. Tulo has trouble staying healthy, but is inarguably the best overall shortstop in the game when he's actually in the lineup. The Rockies are paying him $130 million until 2020 (with a $15 million option for 2021) to be their franchise player, so it would be nice if he could stay on the field a little more often.

Last season Ian Desmond's slugging percentage jumped 124 points to .511 from his previous career average of .387, largely thanks to swatting more home runs in 2012 (25 of them) than in his previous three seasons combined (22). That jump is looking pretty real these days, as Desmond posted a .280/.331/.453 line with 20 bombs this season, and he just turned 28. He is also a good enough shortstop that he has kept Danny Espinosa's glove over at second base (at least when he's been in the majors), and has 85 steals in 108 career tries (21-for-27 this year). He also made just $3.8 million this year with two more years of arbitration to go before free agency. That means his price tag will start going up pretty rapidly unless the Nationals start talking about an extension. Desmond does carry some concerns, namely his on-base percentage, which has never been higher than .335 and is .318 for his career. That latter number ranks him twentieth among shortstops during his career time frame, behind such offensive luminaries as Jamey Carroll and Ryan Theriot, and not far ahead of Alexei Ramirez, who couldn't walk to the grocery store. His .326 career wOBA (weighted on-base average), however, is a much more respectable tenth over the same time frame, and has been .362 and .341 over the past two seasons. He still has prime seasons in front of him, and apart from one injury last year has stayed healthy throughout his career. So if the Nationals ever want to trade him, they will find suitors.

After three seasons of drastically different performances, it seems that "Eric Hosmer" might be English for "Pablo Sandoval." Hosmer got back on track after the Royals hired George Brett as their interim hitting coach (principally to fix him), finishing the season at .302/.353/.448 after an absolutely horrific start. He's also young (almost 24) and only just hitting arbitration for the first time this winter, but I would like to see one good full season before I'm fully on board. Still, I'd say that he has more trade value than Rizzo right now because although both have been wildly inconsistent, Hosmer is not locked into a contract that will pay him (however cheaply) for six to eight more seasons. And so now we reach the final 30, a list which has shifted mightily just in the past two months. We'll start with...

30) Matt Carpenter

After a season in which he should very well be an MVP finalist, Carpenter would rate higher than this if he wasn't about to turn 28; it's quite possible that we've seen his best work, and even if he has another year to go before arbitration, you don't want to start paying the big bucks to a guy right before he turns 30. Still, Carpenter is a very valuable piece, a capable lefty bat (he led the majors in runs, hits, and doubles this season) who can handle any infield position save shortstop, and fill in at the outfield corners as well. That kind of versatility makes it easy for a manager to write out his lineup, especially for Mike Matheny, who had to deal with prolonged absences from third baseman David Freese and first baseman Allen Craig this year. While I doubt that Carpenter will be an MVP candidate again, he is quite clearly the kind of player who can provide borderline All-Star hitting while helping his team maximize its entire roster, and is another in a long, long line of late-round draft finds for the Cardinals (Carpenter's name was called in the thirteenth round in 2009 out of Texas Christian) that have had productive big league careers.

29) Starling Marte

Who's ready for a Marte Partay? The young Dominican outfielder has played a key role in Pittsburgh's surge this year to...the best record in baseball? Marte is fast (41 steals and 10 triples this year), a rangy outfielder (10.2 UZR), and has provided some pop at the top of the Pirates' lineup (12 home runs). He also has two more minimum-salary years after this one before he hits arbitration, so he's dirt-cheap, and that's before you factor in that he should develop a bit further given that he's just 24 years old. Even if he never gets better and all he produces are carbon copies of this year's .280/.343/.441 line with his speed and defense, he should provide plenty of value in the five years before he hits free agency.

28) David Wright

Older than most of the others on this list (three years older than Evan Longoria, for example, who plays the same position), but ranks here anyway because if the Mets did ever trade him, there would be riots in the streets, and the Wilpons would stand at least even odds of getting lynched. Translation: he ain't going anywhere fast. Even though he's just 31, Wright already ranks in the top five in Mets history in virtually every offensive category: WAR (1st), batting average (2nd), OPS (3rd), games (2nd), runs (1st), hits (1st), total bases (1st), doubles (1st), homers (2nd), RBI (1st), walks (1st), and even stolen bases (5th). He's been an outstanding third baseman essentially since he broke in way back in 2004, with between 4.2 and 7.1 rWAR every full season except a concussion-shortened 2011 (2.5). He's the most important player in Mets history not named Tom Seaver (yes, including Strawberry and Gooden), he will someday have a statue in front of Formerly Citi Until the Wilpons Went Bankrupt Field, and I don't think I can talk rationally about one of my all-time favorites any more.

27) Christian Yelich

It's rather infuriating to watch Jeffrey Loria's minor league development staff churn out prospects who are even better than their tender years would suggest (see Stanton, Giancarlo, and Fernandez, Jose), then immediately dump them as soon as they get even the tiniest bit expensive. Yelich was the Marlins' first-round draft pick three years ago, and he joined the club in July for 62 games as a 21-year-old who looks at least five years younger than that. In those 62 games, he hit .288/.370/.396 with 1.4 WAR, and as his frame fills out (at 6'4" and 195, Yelich is built, well, exactly like me at present), he should add power and give Miami a nice right-left punch with Stanton until the latter gentleman's inevitable trade demands are accepted. Because of his late call-up, Yelich won't be eligible for arbitration until 2016, and free agency until 2019. Despite this incredible bargain, we're going to leave him here for now because a) he only has 62 major league games under his belt and b) we just know that he won't stay in Miami once he does get into arbitration.

26) Andrelton Simmons 

I wasn't prepared to put Simmons on this list because he doesn't hit much (.256/.304/.400 in 206 career games), but oh manhis work with the glove is something else. Simmons is, with the season he's had (he saved 41 runs more than the average fielder this year, best all-time among all players at all positions), unquestionably the best defensive shortstop in the game. In those 206 games, he's posted 7.8 rWAR with his glove alone, meaning that even if he never came to the plate once in a season he would still be deserving of a top-five MVP finish. That's incredible. It doesn't hurt that he's only barely 24, so he still has time to develop into a competent hitter; I think the Braves would be ecstatic if he could average .270/.330/.410 or something like that (it should be noted that he did provide some pop with 17 home runs on the season). He's also under team control for five more years at what should be reasonable prices. There's not a team in baseball that wouldn't put up with his currently mediocre hitting if it meant he would be the linchpin of that team's defense for the next several years.

25) Austin Jackson

Miguel Cabrera owes one of his crowns to Jackson's offensive breakout last year, when he hit .300/.377/.479, career highs across the board. This year, Jackson regressed back to .272/.337/.417, almost exactly in line with his career slash numbers, and also stopped running, stealing just eight bases on the season (although he is not encouraged to run often, as this year especially pitchers would gladly put Cabrera on an empty first base in order to take their chances with Prince Fielder). Plus, he still strikes out a lot for a leadoff hitter; he whiffed 129 times this year, a career low (and a high number for someone with only a dozen home runs). No, where Jackson provides the greater part of his value is in his defense. Surrounded by a mostly regrettable cast of butchers (Cabrera, Fielder, the left fielder du jour, etc.), Jackson provides defensive stability as an excellent flycatcher who helps Detroit's deep pitching staff look even better. In addition, he won't turn 27 until February and has two more years before he can become a free agent, so he should continue to be a relative bargain for the Tigers in the immediate future.

24) Evan Longoria

The best all-around third baseman in the game when healthy, Longoria was the first big star to commit to a career in Tampa Bay. He's so locked in that he's under contract through 2022 with a team option for the following year. However, that "when healthy" qualifier is a little concerning; he only missed three games this season, but he previously hadn't played 150 games since 2010. He's a .275/.357/.512 hitter throughout his career, with terrific range and a cannon arm at the hot corner, all of which are vastly important to the Rays (there have been entire seasons, and stretches of several seasons, when Longoria was the only truly dangerous bat in the lineup). His peak value is certainly outstanding; from 2009-2011, Longoria amassed 22.7 rWAR, which is three straight years of MVP-level years (his highest finish on the ballot was sixth in 2010). And at 28, he still has peak value in the tank, and should continue to build his resume as the best player in Tampa Bay's brief history.

23) Dustin Pedroia

One of the best short players in baseball history, Pedroia is listed at 5'8" but is probably more like 5'6" or 5'5". I would venture to say that he's the best player under 5'9" since at least Kirby Puckett, and perhaps since Joe Morgan. He's become both the symbolic and actual leader of the Red Sox, a gritty-looking group that largely seems less athletic than your average NCAA Division III team.* Pedroia was a rarity; an overlooked prospect (because of his height, he was drafted in the second round despite starring as a shortstop at tradition-rich Arizona State) who rose quickly and established himself as a viable major leaguer almost immediately, winning Rookie of the Year in 2007 and following that up with an MVP campaign in 2008. Petey is a terrific defender who collects lots of doubles (287), steals some bases (119), and can reach the Green Monster often enough with his max-effort swing (99 homers) to give you above-average power for his position (.301/.369/.453 career). Just a couple months ago the Red Sox extended him for $109 million through 2021. He's amassed 38.1 career rWAR, and apart from 2010 has been healthy throughout his career. It all adds up to one of the two or three best second basemen in the game. 

*I mean, look at those guys: Pedroia, Ortiz, Napoli, Saltalamacchia, Gomes, Nava...perhaps no baseball team, with the possible exception of the Tigers, looks more like a beer league softball team. I think my high school team (renowned for its fatness) had more physical specimens than the 2013 Red Sox.

22) Yadier Molina

It seems like the youngest Molina has been around a while, and he has been the Cardinals' regular catcher since 2004, currently ranking 73rd among all modern-era catchers in games caught with 1195. Yet he is also just 31 years of age. Although he has caught between 111 and 140 games every season in the past nine, he spent some time this year on the disabled list with a sprained knee, not an ideal injury for a 5'11", 220-pound catcher with a lot of mileage on his legs. So that is cause for concern. There is no denying, however, that Molina is the preeminent defensive catcher in the game, and has been for several years; his career 44% mark of base stealers thrown out is the best mark among all active catchers, and just a tick behind Ivan Rodriguez' career percentage. He is universally revered by his pitching staff for his game-calling abilities, and is also an excellent framer of borderline strikes. All of those factors have contributed to him owning the National League's Gold Glove since 2008. 

What makes Molina shine, though, is not just his commitment to excellence with the tools of ignorance on, but how he has worked on his hitting to become almost as dangerous with the bat. As a 23-year-old in his second full season, Molina hit .216/.274/.321 in 129 games. Fast forward to 2013, and Molina hit .319/.359/.477, part of a rise that has seen him improve as a hitter every single year except for a minor blip in 2010. All of that hard work has turned him from an offensive afterthought into a perennial All-Star (five in a row) and now an MVP candidate (fourth last year and one of the leading contenders in 2013). Not only has he improved with the bat, but he has even flashed some running ability, stealing a dozen bases last year in fifteen attempts. Add it all up and you have one of the best and most valuable all-around players in baseball, under contract for $58 million over the next four years, with a $15 million mutual option for 2018. Provided that his knees hold up, that's not a bad deal for Molina's skills, and every team except the Giants and perhaps two or three others would kill to have him.

21) Freddie Freeman

He doesn't profile as a prototypical lumbering, 35-homers-a-year first baseman, but Freeman has established himself as an excellent well-rounded player at a young age, particularly in a breakout 2013 campaign. Freeman's slash line this year was a robust .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs, with the latter number tying his career high from the previous season. In addition to his hitting, the just-turned-24-year-old is a decent fielder, with excellent hands but limited range. If the Braves believe that his leap forward this year was real, they may want to act quickly; Freeman is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, and after a season that may see him land in the top five of the MVP balloting (I would slot him below Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw, Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt, Molina, and probably Votto myself), he stands to get a whole lot more expensive, and quickly.

20) Buster Posey

That is just a great baseball name. The only other thing a Buster Posey could be is an early twentieth century vaudeville comedian. Instead, he'll have to settle for being one of the very best players in all of baseball. Not many players have collected as much hardware in their first three seasons as the Giants' backstop, with a Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, MVP, and two World Series rings. Tampa Bay must still be kicking themselves for drafting Tim Beckham (five major league games, although to be fair he is still just 23 years old) over Posey, who then fell to the fifth pick (behind Pedro Alvarez, Hosmer, and Brian Matusz). Posey's 17.8 fWAR over his three-plus years (remember, his 2011 season was cut short after 45 games by a broken leg) is almost an MVP-caliber season's worth more than the trio drafted in front of him have combined for (12.8). Also, he's 26 years old, with his best years still in front of him, and despite the physical demands of catching his bat is good enough (career .311/.379/.498) to play at first base or left field should the Giants ever need or want to move him. And they will have him for a while, as Posey is signed to a nine-year, $164 million deal that will take him through 2021. Even at that rate, however, good catchers who can hit are perhaps the rarest commodity in all of baseball, and every team would love to have one like Posey.

19) Anthony Rendon

He's been having a fairly ordinary season among all the bright lights of the National League rookies (Fernandez, Miller, Puig, etc.), but Rendon was drafted as an extremely polished hitter by the Nationals with the sixth overall pick in 2011, and has shown flashes of it (.265/.329/.396 this year) while learning a new position on the fly. I will admit to ranking him higher than other people might because, living in Washington, I see a lot of him, and I like the way he approaches his at-bats a lot (and certainly better than several of his teammates do). Rendon was very patient as a rookie (he saw more than four pitches per plate appearance) and showed a willingness to spit on pitches that were just a little off the plate or that he could do nothing with.

A third baseman by trade, the Nats brought Rendon up to replace out machine Danny Espinosa at second base, even though Rendon has had three major ankle surgeries already and the switch meant that he needed to cover more ground. He's been competent enough there that the Nats might feel comfortable leaving him at that position, at least until Zimmerman's seemingly inevitable move to first base. Rendon inked a major league deal straight out of the draft, so like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg before him, he's making more than the minimum as a rookie ($1.8 million). He won't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2015 season, and is just 23. With his newfound positional flexibility, that makes Rendon pretty valuable as a potential trade chip, and he is still expected to develop into a middle-of-the-order bat going forward.

18) Carlos Gonzalez

Cargo offers a certain security, as he will make $63.5 million over the next four seasons, a very fair rate for a well-rounded outfielder who offers plus base running and defense to go with his bat. Gonzalez is a career .300/.357/.530 hitter who has definitely received a boost from playing all but 85 career home games at Coors Field (.339/.403/.630 in Denver, .269/.334/.450 everywhere else). That might very well give pause to a potential trading partner. But then you figure that anyone interested in trading for Gonzalez would feel confident that he would produce in any home park, if not to the level of his numbers at Coors Field (it should also be noted that three of the Rockies' divisional rivals play in extreme pitchers' parks, which account for 27-30 of his annual road dates and might depress his stats a little below generic road numbers). He should also age pretty well through his prime and beyond as an athletic outfielder, even if he's not capable of remaining healthy through a full season (his career best is 145 games). But as an all-around outfielder worth about four rWAR per season, he is very fairly paid through his prime (and not beyond).

17) Jason Kipnis

Here we have a front-runner for the most criminally underrated player in the entire sport. Kipnis has the following things working against him: he plays in Cleveland; he's a second baseman (an oft-overlooked position if your last name isn't Cano or Pedroia); he plays in Cleveland; he doesn't hit for a really high average (.288 this year, .269 career) or a ton of power (38 home runs in 337 career games); he plays in Cleveland; he doesn't have a memorable name; and he plays in Cleveland. So what does Kipnis do? He gets on base (.366 OBP this year, .349 career), runs well (66 career steals in 80 attempts), and provides enough pop with an above-average glove to be worth four-plus rWAR each of the last two years (5.8 this year). Even though he made the All-Star team this year, I'm willing to bet that a lot of people are unaware that he's been the third-most valuable player at his position in baseball this year, trailing only Carpenter (who spent a lot of time at third and first) and Cano. Also, he's not eligible for arbitration until after next season, so the Indians have him under control for four more years, and he's 26 years old. So there's that. You may not know anything about him now, but rest assured that damn near every team except the Red Sox and Dodgers (assuming they meet Cano's ridiculous asking price) would kill to have him, especially at the price.

16) Jean Segura

Can someone please explain to me how the Brewers, with three studs at up-the-middle positions (Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, and Segura) have been so terrible this year? Granted, the NL Central has morphed from a division a team could conquer with 85 wins into one of the deepest divisions in baseball, but the Brewers have been out of it since May. Segura was their reward for shipping Zack Greinke to Anaheim, and it looks as though the Angels will be ruing that deal for years to come. In his first full season, Segura batted .294/.329/.423 while stealing 44 bases and providing decent pop (12 homers) and defense at short. He technically wasn't a rookie, having notched 151 plate appearances a year ago, but the 23-year-old Segura doesn't seem to be generating nearly as much hype as several of his contemporaries (although to be fair, he did make the NL All-Star team). With five years of team control remaining, Segura should be a central figure in Milwaukee's rebuilding efforts going forward.

Coming tomorrow: the top fifteen position players.