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2011 Trade Value: #50-#46

After yesterday’s recap of last year’s list, and the lessons taken from it, we’re off to the races again with the 2011 Trade Value series.

To maintain transparency and avoid any kerfuffles this time around, I want to be clear that this column was inspired by Bill Simmons, who tackles this same topic for the NBA. Thanks for the fantastic idea, Bill.

Before we get to the last five spots on the list, let’s talk briefly about what question this list is attempting to answer. Trade value is not an easy thing to measure, and it differs for each team – the Yankees will be interested in an entirely different type of player than the Astros, for instance. Winning teams with high payrolls will give up prospects that rebuilding teams would never move, while for some teams a premium player with a salary to match just isn’t someone they’d be willing to add to their payroll. No teams will put the same value on the player, so we have to answer something a little more broad than “would this team trade Player A for Player B”, because if we’re talking about the Yankees and the Royals, we’re answering a specific question that has a lot of extra variables in it.

So, instead, I’d say the goal of the list is to measure the league-wide demand for a player’s services if that player was made available in the trade market. There are a few players that every single team in baseball would call about if they were put on the block due to their abilities and their contract status. The demand would be astronomical if they were actually gettable, and in most cases they’re so valuable they just won’t be traded.

Beyond those elite guys that are fairly easy to put near the top of the list, though, there are players who have some big positives, but also a significant negative that depresses their value to some franchises. For some guys, that may be a high salary with a long term commitment, or they could be near the end of a contract and be looking for a big extension in the near future. For others, the contract might be the asset itself, with the player having some kind of wart in his game that would keep some teams from actually thinking he’s worth a premium return. Others have off-the-field issues that might cause teams to discount what they’d give up to get them.

I try my best to weigh these factors and determine which teams would see as the biggest determinants in whether he’s a player they’d make a real push to acquire. That said, sometimes this involves hair slicing or making judgment calls, and not everyone is going to weight things the same way, which is fine; this list is intended to spark conversation and interesting discussion, and reasonable people can disagree over placement. Just try to keep in mind that there’s not a huge difference between spots on the list, and in many cases, a guy could move up or down by a decent margin and still have it be reasonable.

If you get bent out of shape because someone is #43 and you think he should be #41, you’re probably reading too much into specific placement on the list. In eyeballing the list, to me there’s a pretty clear top 15 or so, then there’s a big jumble where you could make a lot of different judgment calls than I do. There were also a few guys who I couldn’t believe I had to leave off the list (there’s no Jered Weaver, Cole Hamels, Matt Kemp, or Eric Hosmer for instance – it killed me to exclude them), but I ran this by a bunch of smart people who offered good feedback, tried to weigh the pros and cons as best we could, and this is what we came up with.

Rank – Player – Position – Team – Past 3 Calendar Year WAR

#50 – Brett Gardner, LF, New York: +12.8 WAR

Whether you agree that Brett Gardner is an elite player or not, he’s been an outstanding player for the Yankees the last few seasons. You don’t have to buy into UZR to agree that he’s a terrific defender who would be playing center field for nearly every other team in baseball, and he’s been an above average hitter at the same time. There just aren’t that many guys who add value on both sides of the ball at the level that Gardner does, and with three more years of team control and a skillset that probably won’t allow him to command massive salaries in arbitration, Gardner is one of the best bang-for-the-buck players in MLB as well.

#49 – Alex Avila, C, Detroit: +4.3 WAR

You can count the number of left-handed power hitting catchers in Major League baseball on one hand, so Avila brings a rare skillset to the table to begin with, but he also draws walks and is a quality defender, and he’s currently establishing himself as one of the better backstops in the game at age 24. If Avila had a longer track record to go off of, he’d probably be 20 or 30 spots higher on the list. Right now, there’s still some question as to how sustainable his current performance is, but he could regress a bit and still be a highly valuable asset. With four more years of team control after 2011, he’s an asset both short term and long term, and he’s the kind of player that nearly every franchise in baseball would be interested in if the Tigers made him available. He just needs to keep this up for another year or so in order to really establish himself as a premium Major Leaguer, but if he does, he’ll be much higher on this list next year.

#48 – Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington: +3.8 WAR

Espinosa was a tricky one for me. On one hand, he’s the clear 2011 National League Rookie of the Year, providing significant present value in his first year in the big leagues. But a decent amount of his value is tied up in his defense at second base and an HBP-driven on base percentage. If he continues to give up his body to get on base at this rate, he may have long term health concerns, but if he stops getting plunked so often, his production could suffer. In addition, teams generally don’t value defense at non-premium positions quite as highly as they should, and while Espinosa could probably handle shortstop, the fact that he’s playing second while the Nationals use Ian Desmond at shortstop probably doesn’t help the perception of his ability to make the transition. He’s a quality player with a lot of long term value, but I doubt teams would value him at the same rate as which he’s produced in the big leagues to date.

#47 – Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas: +8.6 WAR

Some people see Andrus as a no-bat guy who makes a lot of baserunning mistakes, but he’s still a 22-year-old who is in the conversation for best defensive infielder in the game, and his offense is better than people give him credit for. He doesn’t have much power, but he’s a high contact guy who will take some walks once in a while and is a high percentage base-stealer, so while he’s not going to scare anyone at the plate, he’s a useful offensive player, especially for a shortstop. Toss in the quality of the glove and his age, and Andrus could be a well-above average player for years to come. His early ascension to the majors means he’ll be arbitration eligible at year’s end, but like Gardner he won’t be able to point to gaudy numbers to demand a huge raise, and he should still be able to provide three years of significant surplus value in the future.

#46 – Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs: +4.0 WAR

If I could find a plurality of people who were convinced that Castro would be able to stay at shortstop in the long run, he’d probably rank higher, but even with the questions about his glovework, it’s hard to overlook what Castro has done offensively in the big leagues at such a young age. You just don’t see many middle infielders who can be a league average Major League hitter at ages 20 and 21, and even though it’s heavily BABIP driven, there’s potential for him to be a pretty solid big league hitter for a long time. He has terrific contact skills and more power than you might expect from a guy his size, and if he improves his approach at the plate, he could be a terrific top-of-the-order hitter well into the future. If he’s a second baseman, he won’t be quite as valuable, but there’s still time for him to improve at shortstop and prove he can stick there, and the Cubs have until 2016 to figure out where he fits best.