The 2012 Trade Value List, in Retrospect

Next week, I’m rolling out the latest version of our annual trade value series. Before we get into this year’s list, though, I think it’s instructive to look back at where players were ranked a year ago, and see if there are any lessons to be learned from the placement of various players. I would rather learn from history than repeat it.

Let’s just start with the list itself.

Ranking Player Position Team
1 Mike Trout OF Angels
2 Bryce Harper OF Nationals
3 Andrew McCutchen OF Pirates
4 Evan Longoria 3B Rays
5 Giancarlo Stanton OF Marlins
6 Ryan Braun OF Brewers
7 Matt Kemp OF Dodgers
8 Stephen Strasburg SP Nationals
9 Jason Heyward OF Braves
10 Jose Bautista OF Blue Jays
11 Troy Tulowitzki SS Rockies
12 Buster Posey C Giants
13 Jered Weaver SP Angels
14 Justin Verlander SP Tigers
15 Brett Lawrie 3B Blue Jays
16 Clayton Kershaw SP Dodgers
17 Felix Hernandez SP Mariners
18 Miguel Cabrera 3B Tigers
19 Madison Bumgarner SP Giants
20 David Price SP Rays
21 Gio Gonzalez SP Nationals
22 Mike Moustakas 3B Royals
23 Justin Upton OF Diamondbacks
24 Matt Moore SP Rays
25 Jason Kipnis 2B Indians
26 Joey Votto 1B Reds
27 Carlos Gonzalez OF Rockies
28 Jurickson Profar SS Rangers
29 Dylan Bundy SP Orioles
30 Ian Kinsler 2B Rangers
31 Chris Sale SP White Sox
32 Mark Trumbo 1B/OF Angels
33 Austin Jackson OF Tigers
34 Dustin Pedroia 2B Red Sox
35 Pablo Sandoval 3B Giants
36 Jay Bruce OF Reds
37 Wil Myers OF Royals
38 Matt Wieters C Orioles
39 Alex Gordon OF Royals
40 Johnny Cueto SP Reds
41 Starlin Castro SS Cubs
42 Yu Darvish SP Rangers
43 Adam Jones OF Orioles
44 Matt Holliday OF Cardinals
45 Ben Zobrist 2B/OF Rays
46 Robinson Cano 2B Yankees
47 Alcides Escobar SS Royals
48 Matt Cain SP Giants
49 Yovani Gallardo SP Brewers
50 Elvis Andrus SS Rangers

Players Whose Stock Has Fallen Significantly

Braun (#6), Kemp (#7), Weaver (#13), Lawrie (#15), Moustakas (#22), Upton (#23), Bundy (#29), Kinsler (#30), Trumbo (#32), Wieters (#38), Cueto (#40), Castro (#41), Escobar (#47), Gallardo (#49), Andrus (#50)

There are basically two types of players on that list (with Braun and Kinsler being the notable outliers): pitchers who got injured or have seen their stuff decline and young players who just haven’t hit much since the list was published.

Pitcher injuries are a fact of life, and short of just leaving out every hurler, I’m not sure there’s much to be learned from there. Jered Weaver’s contract probably got too much weight in pushing him ahead of younger pitchers with better stuff, but Weaver had been terrific in the first half of the year, and there’s only so much we can do to forecast future pitcher health.

The young hitters, though, might tell us something. In pretty much each case — Trumbo excepted — they are guys who could be terrific players as long as they hit at even an average level. They played up the middle positions or were terrific corner defenders, and they were almost universally elite prospects who showed real offensive potential in the minors. They were at a point in their aging curve where improvement could be expected, and they were already good players who looked like they could become great ones if the bat took a step forward.

Instead, the bats have either stagnated or gone backwards, and this group is a reminder that young players don’t all improve at the same rates, and a league average hitter in his early 20s is a league average hitter because he’s showing some kind of offensive deficiency, which may or may not improve. There’s a reason that hitters are the hardest things to scout, because there are a lot of things about hitting that aren’t physical, and only become apparent with experience.

This year, I’m probably going to grade players of this type a little more conservatively. The best players in the game are those who can play premium positions while also hitting, but it also can be difficult to look at young players at premium positions and figure out just which ones are indeed going to hit.

Players Whose Stock Has Risen Significantly

Posey (#12), Hernandez (#17), Gonzalez (#27), Sale (#31), Darvish (#42)

This is inherently a much shorter list, because time erodes a player’s trade value by taking away a year of team control — which is often at a well below market salary — and moves the player closer to free agency. Most players on the list are going to lose trade value every season unless they show real improvement over the past year, or sign a new contract that is far enough below the market price that it improves their value as an asset.

Posey and Hernandez both signed long term deals that bought out a bunch of free agent years, and while both extensions were pricey, they’re now elite players under team control for many seasons, with free agency no longer looming as a potential escape route. Sale signed a much cheaper extension, since he wasn’t anywhere near free agency, but also continues to dominate. Gonzalez, at age-27, is having his best season yet, while Darvish has shown better command and has pitched more like the #1 starter Texas expected than he did in the first half of last year.

Beyond that, though, the big jumps come from guys who didn’t make the list last year. We’ll talk more about those guys next week.

Overall Takeaway

While you’ll always look back and wonder why you missed something that seems obvious in retrospect, overall, I’m fairly happy with last year’s list. The most significant change in the evaluation process was to penalize star players on big contracts much less than I had in previous versions — all the money flowing into the game has made these players much more valuable — and in general, I think those guys have held their value pretty well. With most Major League teams now having access to decent sized revenue streams and the rise of the long term extension for elite players, it’s no longer so easy to purchase high quality talent in free agency, so trading for an impact player with long term control — even at high salaries — is more appealing than it used to be.

Of course, guys like Matt Kemp show the downside of this kind of player. A year ago, he looked like one of the game’s very best players, signed to a below market deal that covered most of the seasons which he should be expected to produce at a high level. A year later, he’s costing the Dodgers $20 million per year to play like the replacement level outfielder when he’s not on the DL. Kemp’s value has plunged over the last calendar year, to the point where a guy who almost made the top five last year is on the bubble for this year’s list.

Basically, there is no such thing as as a risk free asset. Everyone gets hurt, and even great players can stop playing like great players with little or no warning. When evaluating a player’s trade value, teams have to make the best bets they can, but the failure rate of even the best assets reminds us how unpredictable baseball really is.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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