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 the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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