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.
|10||Jose Bautista||OF||Blue Jays|
|15||Brett Lawrie||3B||Blue Jays|
|31||Chris Sale||SP||White Sox|
|34||Dustin Pedroia||2B||Red Sox|
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.
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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