MLB Trade Value ’08: #46 – #50

One of the annual pieces I’ve been writing for the last few years is a baseball takeoff of Bill Simmons’ Trade Value column. Essentially, the concept is to put together a ranking of the most valuable individual assets in the game – this is, pretty much across the board, a different discussion than who the best players in the game are. Age, contract status, and salary all come into play, as they do in real life.

In most cases, our evaluations of value are a lot different than what GMs find when they engage in trade negotiations. Johan Santana is obviously one of the best pitchers on the planet, but as the Twins found out when they put him on the market last winter, the list of inferior players that they couldn’t trade Johan for was very, very long. That was because he was a year away from free agency and a large paycheck, which significantly devalued him on the trade market, even though he’s still a terrific talent.

So, this list is my attempt to figure out what players have the most value in the league. Essentially, the best way to look at a player’s placement on this list is “would you trade him, straight up, for any of the guys listed ahead of him?” I’ve asked that question about every player on this list, and done so from what I would perceive the perspective of both current organizations would be. Over this coming week, I will lay out my view of the 50 most valuable assets in Major League Baseball.

This morning, we start at #50 and work our way up five spots to #46.

Ranking, Player, Position, Franchise, 2006-2008 WPA/LI
50. James Loney, 1B, Los Angeles – 2.55 WPA/LI
49. Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Chicago Cubs – 4.63 WPA/LI
48. Johan Santana, LHP, New York Mets – 8.24 WPA/LI
47. Clay Buchholz, RHP, Boston – 0.51 WPA/LI
46. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington – 1.20 WPA/LI

There’s a nice group of good, young, cheap first baseman with solid all-around games, but Loney is the the one I’m hanging my hat on here, with apologies to Casey Kotchman, Joey Votto, and Conor Jackson. If he grows from gap power to legitimate long ball hitter, he’ll be a perennial all-star.

Zambrano is a horse who has thrown 200 innings a year since 2003 and has never posted an ERA over 4.00. He’s been hugely valuable to the Cubs and is signed to a below market contract for a front line pitcher. However, his strikeout rates and velocity are tumbling, and you have to wonder if decline is on the way. You’d love to have Zambrano on your team, but the risk is real.

Santana is one of the easier players to place on this list because he was just traded in a very public negotiation war between several of the highest payroll clubs in baseball. What we found out is that, while everyone wants Johan, no one is willing to give up even one of their best young players to get him. Boston’s list of untouchables was longer than the Magna Carta, and the Yankees repeatedly put together offers that excluded the pitching prospects that everyone else actually liked. Johan’s great, there’s no doubt, but he’s also expensive and slightly less great than he used to be.

After tossing a no-hitter in his second career major league start, Buchholz is one of the kids that Boston put on their off-limits list. The talent is real, but the polish just isn’t there yet, and he has found himself back in Triple-A refining his game. With some improved command, Buchholz has the potential to be the one thing every team covets – a starting pitcher with knockout stuff that makes the league minimum.

Zimmerman could be a top ten player on this list, honestly, as his all around package of skills project extremely well for the future. An elite defensive player with a real bat, Zimmerman just hasn’t performed as well as we would have hoped given his quick success in the majors. He turns 24 in September, and while the potential is still Hall-of-Fame caliber, the current value just isn’t there for a club to give up an elite talent for Zimmerman right now.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

19 Responses to “MLB Trade Value ’08: #46 – #50”

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  1. Carson says:

    Teams (Well, not the Mariners) are getting smarter by the day and not giving up tons of prospects for one guy.

    I’m interested to see what happens at the trading deadline this year. I have a feeling we’ll see a lot more teams looking for contract renegotiation windows. Otherwise, teams like the Reds may not get what they think they can in return for a guy like Adam Dunn, and I doubt they get much of anything for Griffey.

    I wonder how much the market would change if teams could trade draft picks.

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  2. philosofool says:

    On Zambrano: I wonder if too much millage was placed on that arm too early. The THT had an article after Buehrle got signed in which they noted the effects of lots of innings on young arms, and they projected Buerhle to toss fewer than 100 innings within 4 years. Zambrano may be in the same camp.

    Here’s the article:

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  3. Mike says:

    I think you’re undervaluing Buchholz. Granted his career is about 65 innings, but he’s put up a 107 ERA+ so far, and he makes the minimum. I’d strongly consider putting him in the top 20 of this list. League average pitching for free is incredibly valuable. And actually, on that note, I’m anxious to see if Wakefield cracks your top 50 anywhere. His contract is ludicrous, has no risk whatsoever, and gets you league average pitching most years with a season of (lucky) brilliance here and there.

    I should say, this list could be generated programmatically, couldn’t it? Put it all in terms of dollars, and assume once a player hits free agency they are worth $0 since the bidding for them will create an efficient market. The only players in their 7th+ years that can be included are those who are signed to deals and make less than what they contribute.

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  4. Dave Cameron says:

    I’m looking at the whole list, and there’s just no way Buchholz is top 20 material. No way, no how.

    And, keep in mind, just because Buchholz pitched solidly for 50 innings does not mean he’s a “league average pitcher”. In fact, I’d argue that he’s just a bit above replacement level as a starting pitcher right now. He certainly has room for growth, but he’s not a league average major league starting pitcher.

    Wakefield won’t be on the list. He wasn’t even considered. I doubt he’d crack a top 150, honestly.

    And, while you could generate a list like this using a dollars per win formula, you would have to figure out how to weight the scarcity properly – there are five win players being paid like 4 win players who are more valuable than 2 win players being paid the league minimum.

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  5. Nathan says:

    Dave, I’m dying to hear your definition of “replacement level”. 3.10 FIP? A strikeout an inning? Career 2.40 minor league ERA? If yes to all three, then Buchholz is replacement to the max.

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  6. Dave Cameron says:

    Replacement level for an AL starter is something like 5.5 to 6.0 RA/9. Buchholz is better than that, but how much better right now?

    His command is a real problem – he’s currently a 4.0ish BB/9 guy. That’s not something that can just be waved away as inconsequential. He doesn’t have the ability to put his stuff where he wants it yet, and that’s why he averaged just over 5 innings per start during his time in the majors this year.

    Buchholz has talent, but there’s no reason to put any stock into minor league ERAs or small sample size FIP (check out his HR/FB rate). He’s just got real work to do before he’s a major league average starting pitcher.

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  7. Gej says:

    I’m assuming that Adam Wainwright is outside the top 40, but I was wondering if he was in consideration for this list. He’s a workhorse who is signed cheaply for the next few years. Thoughts?

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  8. Dave Cameron says:

    Wainwright was one of the last pitchers I left off. He’s a quality pitcher, but I just couldn’t find anyone on the top 50 that I would swap for him in a one for one deal. He’s in good company, though – C.C. Sabathia and Erik Bedard didn’t make this list either, so don’t take it as a knock against Wainwright. He’s in the next tier.

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  9. Sal Paradise says:

    If we’re ignoring the realities of contracts (like no-trade clauses, etc.), then I don’t see how Wakefield could be left out of the top 50.

    When you have inning-eaters who are far worse than Wakefield making over twice his salary (and many with multi-year deals!), I fail to see how infinitely-recurring $4 million 1-year deals for a player who hasn’t posted an ERA+ over 100 this millennium can’t be rated highly.

    2008 – 102/110
    2007 – 189/100
    2006 – 140/103
    2005 – 225/109
    2004 – 188/100
    2003 – 202/114
    2002 – 163/162 (!)
    2001 – 168/116
    2000 – 159/93

    Honestly, you wouldn’t want that for $4 million indefinitely over Ryan Zimmerman for 2 years?

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  10. Gene says:

    Sal –

    I’m not going to speak for Dave, but I suggest you peruse the rosters of some ML teams other than the Sox; you will soon find pitchers just like Wake – good guys under reasonable contracts who have some talent and have turned that talent into some sparkly ERAs over some years. Thing is, it’s just not such a rare commodity. While I don’t want to appeal to authority here, you can bet that there’s a good reason he’s on a perpetual $4mil 1 year contract.

    If you’re having trouble finding any such guys, off the top of my head… Garland. There you go.

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  11. Dave Cameron says:

    Tim Wakefield turns 42 in a month. His contract may be infinitely recurring, but he is not. At best, you’re looking at 2-3 more years of average or below production. That has value, but really, the idea that he’s more valuable than any of the people on this list is really out there.

    Zimmerman isn’t a free agent until after the 2011 season, by the way. I have no doubt that Wakefield will be out of baseball before Zimmerman’s contract expires.

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  12. Sal Paradise says:

    Jon Garland is under a 3-year deal that bought out his arbitration years, and that’s still more than twice Wakefield’s salary. This is also the last year of that deal.

    Wakefield is signed for $4 million because he wants to stay in Boston. It’s really that simple. On the free market, I have no idea how much his skills would be worth. Yes, he’s not a rare commodity in the sense of the quality of his pitching, but his contract and his type of pitching are extremely rare.

    If Zimmerman has 3 years left, you’re probably right about him, but I still think quoting 150+ for Wakefield is a bit off. I don’t know how much longer Wakefield can pitch, but usually pitcher longevity is dictated by his fastball. Wakefield is one exception to that rule. He also gains a little according to the book blog as pitchers that relieve him tend to outperform expectations.

    I’m not saying that Wakefield should necessarily be up at the top of this list, but constant 1 year contracts for an above average starter is an amazing return due to the low risk, low cost and high value of his pitching.

    We’ll see in 3 years, won’t we?

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  13. gumbostu says:

    If Wakefield is signed to a reasonable contract because he only wants to stay in boston, doesn’t that make his trade value very low, as not only is he unlikely to sign a deal, but you’d only have him for half a season at this point, and then he’d hit free agency and if you were to sign him, he’d probably ask for a lot more. I would argue that the so called uniqueness of Wakefield hinders his trade value rather then augments it.

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  14. Dave Cameron says:

    I think you’re overestimating how hard it is to find a league average starting pitcher for a few million bucks. There are 72 starting pitchers in baseball running an ERA+ of 100 or higher right now (and, for the record, I hate using ERA+ to evaluate a pitcher, but that’s another argument that will only distract from the point). That list is peppered with guys who simply weren’t valued very highly or were acquired for next to nothing in the last year or two.

    And besides Jamie Moyer, all of them are younger than Tim Wakefield. Even knuckleballers meet their ends in their mid-40s, and he simply doesn’t have much left of a future in baseball. He’s got a couple of years, at most, left in the tank, and his skills are not that hard to replace.

    Even just picking a bad team like Kansas City, we can find a ton of players who clearly have more value than Tim Wakefield and aren’t on this list. Really, even as a Boston fan, can you imagine saying no if the Royals offered Alex Gordon, David DeJesus, Billy Butler, Zach Greinke, or Luke Hochevar? That’s just five players off of a terrible team, one that doesn’t have much talent, that Wakefield doesn’t even come close to matching in value.

    Imagine if we went through every roster in baseball and repeated that exercise? We’d get past 150 very quickly, and we still wouldn’t be talking about Tim Wakefield.

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  15. Sal Paradise says:

    Perhaps I’m over-thinking this, but I thought not only of value as in talent, but value as in value considering team situations.

    If in 2008 at the trade deadline there are 6 divisional races up for grabs between 20+ teams, then Adam Dunn’s value just skyrocketed. On the other hand, if there are no real races yet save the wild card, you’ll see his value plummet. On the other hand, in that latter case, players that are cost-controlled and low-risk become massive assets to under-performing teams.

    If I were the Red Sox, then of course I’d love to trade Wakefield for DeJesus — money isn’t really an object, and DeJesus has more upside. A marginal win for the Red Sox is worth vastly more than a marginal win for the Royals.

    But if I were the A’s, for instance, I would much rather have Wakefield than A-Rod. In fact, if I were any non-large market team I would probably pick Wakefield over almost any free agent (saving incredibly discounted contracts of which there are very few). Prospects who are MLB ready with little service time are obviously going to be highest on the list, but they are incredibly expensive in trade.

    That isn’t because Wakefield is a tremendous pitcher, but because he’s a league average pitcher who eats innings and is on a never-ending no-risk contract. Do you know of any other players in the same situation?

    The catch is the caveat I provided in my first post, about ignoring limitations like no trade and the like. The reason Wakefield is so cheap is because he will only play for Boston. He’d be making a lot more even with a one-year deal at another club.

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  16. Dave Cameron says:

    Certainly, there are some teams that can’t afford A-Rod, so for them, Wakefield would be more valuable. But there are a pretty large group of teams that can afford A-Rod, and for those teams, it’s not even close. Would the Yankees trade A-Rod for Wakefield? No, certainly not.

    I think there are two things going on here – I look at Wakefield as a guy who has 2-3 years left, tops, and you see a guy who could pitch forever. That, obviously, changes the dynamic. If Wakefield was signed a 3 year deal for $12 million, I’m assuming we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I don’t think there’s any value in assuming that Wakefield is still going to pitching, much less pitching well, at 46+.

    The other thing, I think, is that you’re underestimating the amount of players in the game who are both better than Wakefield and not an impending free agent. If you want, go through the rosters on baseball reference and just start picking names on a team by team basis of guys that you’d gladly swap Wakefield for. You’ll get to 150 in a hurry.

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  17. Chomps McGee says:

    I love it when Dave pwns baseball homers. Especially when those homers have a disturbing man-crush on a 42-year-old one pitch wonder. The real test of Dave’s homerness will be to see how highly he ranks King Felix. Top-10, no doubt, but even more probable, Top-5. But honestly, I’d trade Felix for Wakefield in a heartbeat! ;)

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  18. Sal Paradise says:

    I honestly have no idea how long Wakefield will pitch for, and you’re entirely right that he wouldn’t be discussed if he had a 3 year/$12 million contract. The whole value of Wakefield is in the contract and how long he can continue pitching. The Book Blog wrote about how most pitchers are no longer effective as right-handers when their velocity drops below 84-85 on the fastball:

    Wakefield is a glaring exception because of the knuckleball. There just isn’t much data at all on how long he can pitch for. Why 2-3 more years tops? So long as he can locate the knuckleball at the same rate he is and throw a fastball a good bit quicker for strikes, I don’t think he’ll have a problem staying in the game. It’s not as if his motion is prone to cause injury (save possibly blisters/broken nails), and I see no reason aging would kill his ability to pitch unless it prompted a sudden drop in his fastball velocity (which granted, it may).

    It has absolutely nothing with the team he plays for, and everything to do with his contract. It is a very very unique deal for a pitcher, and if he pitches for 5 years on that contract you would have to regard it as a bargain comparable to many of the others on the list. Charlie Hough pitched until 46 as well after all. That’s another 5 years for Wakefield.

    I understand entirely what you’re saying. There is plenty of league average pitching out there. And yes, it’s plenty possible to pick up a league average pitcher for a year if you need it. The problem is finding league average pitcher with as little risk for as long a term, and there simply isn’t anyone out there who provides equivalent value with those criteria.

    In 5 years if he’s still pitching with the same contract and relative effectiveness, can I get a mea culpa at least? And if he retires in 2-3 I will provide the same?

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  19. Toolsy says:

    I find the Wake post puzzling. He signs these deals (I had no idea) because he likes Boston, the FO, etc. Is that guaranteed not to change?

    If the FO treats Manny shabbily might he pick up his ball and go Chicago or something?

    And would any team deal anything of value for him? How much value does he even represent to a high dollar club like Boston? Honestly, he’s nice, but there are hundreds I’d rather have.

    One could draw a parallel to Elton Brand in the NBA, though I think that would be pushing things.

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