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Troy Tulowitzki, At What Cost?

The St. Louis Cardinals need a shortstop and have a surplus of talent with no obvious places to fit onto their roster. The Colorado Rockies have a superstar shortstop but need more good players than they currently have. These facts have people — including noted scribe Ken Rosenthal — speculating about what a Tulowitzki-to-STL deal might look like. In fact, it is probably now the most interesting trade rumor of the off-season.

For their part, the Rockies say that they aren’t interested in trading Tulowitzki. When you have one of the best players in the game signed to one of the most team-friendly contracts in the game, there shouldn’t be a huge sense of urgency to unload said player and contract. Over the summer, I rated Tulowitzki as the 13th most valuable trade chip in baseball, sliding in between Miguel Cabrera and Stephen Strasburg. For the Rockies to move Tulowitzki, the offer would have to be substantial.

The Cardinals have substantial talent though. Matt Adams looks like a nice player, but he’s blocked by Allen Craig at first base. Trevor Rosenthal wants to start, but there isn’t an obvious spot for him in the rotation at the moment. If Jaime Garcia is healthy by next spring, the Cardinals won’t even have room for all the starters they already have, not even counting the potential for Rosenthal or Carlos Martinez to transition back out of the bullpen. The team also has Kolten Wong now blocked by Matt Carpenter at second base, and if they end up re-signing Carlos Beltran, they’ll probably have to trade Jon Jay whenever Oscar Taveras proves ready for the big leagues.

So, yeah, the Cardinals have expendable talent that is basically the envy of every team in the sport. They have enough depth that they can probably target any player they want and make a serious offer that at least forces the other club to listen. The real question, though, is should they?

Tulowitzki is a great player, even with his regular health problems that limit his playing time. Steamer projects him as a +5.5 WAR player over 600 plate appearances in 2014, and even if we knock that down to 500 PA — that’s about what his career average per season is — that still puts him in the +5 WAR range, and +5 WAR over 500 PA is better than +5 WAR over 700 PA, because there is room for the player who takes the missing playing time to add value as well. Tulowitzki paired with a reasonable backup projects as something like a +6 WAR combination. That’s excellent, clearly. Better than any possible alternative the Cardinals could explore, in terms of expected production. Tulowitzki is the best shortstop in baseball, and it isn’t even really close.

But before we simply suggest that the Cardinals should just pay whatever it takes to get Tulowitzki because he’s the best, we have to at least understand the relative cost differences between trading for him and pursuing a lower cost alternative. The options on the table aren’t Tulowtizki or another season of Pete Kozma; it’s Tulowitzki or pursuing a lower key acquisition that would represent a more minor but still significant upgrade.

Let’s start with the easiest comparison; Stephen Drew, the top shortstop on the free agent market. The FanGraphs crowd expects Stephen Drew to sign for $33 million over three years, and signing him away from the Red Sox would cost the Cardinals their first round pick in next year’s draft, which currently stands 31st overall. Let’s assume that, to actually win the bidding, the Cardinals would need to add on an extra year to that expectation, so let’s say Drew would cost $44 million over four years, plus the draft pick. If we put a huge amount of value on that pick — the Cardinals have historically been very good at turning picks into assets — than maybe we bump the total cost of adding Drew for the next four years up to $50 million.

Over those same four years, Tulowitzki will command $76 million in salary, plus a $2 million assignment bonus that he gets if he’s traded. And then, beyond those four years, he’s due an additional $58 million for three more seasons, which would cover his seasons from ages 33 to 35, plus a buyout of the option for his age-36 season. It’s certainly possible that Tulowitzki will be worth $19 million per year from 2018 to 2020, but those seasons have to be seen as a liability at this point, not an asset. For a player with his durability issues, guaranteeing years 5-7, even at discounted prices, is probably not something a team should want on their books.

So, just in terms of price, Tulowitzki already costs an extra $30 million in salary for the expected length of Drew’s contract, and then comes with some kind of negative value for the extra guaranteed years at the end. Depending on how risk averse you are in terms of long term commitments, maybe you’d value those as something like $10 or $20 million of additional costs, so we could push Tulo’s total cost up to $40 or $50 million more than Drew. Basically, he’d be twice as expensive.

But he’s more than twice as good. Steamer projects Drew to be worth +2.0 WAR over 600 plate appearances next year, which is an exact match for his career average. $44 million (plus the value of the forfeited draft pick) doesn’t get you anywhere near the production of Tulowitzki at $78 million (plus the value of the extra salary commitments), and that’s before opening the whole can of worms about whether additional wins constrained within one player should be valued linearly or exponentially. And this is why the Rockies are going to want so much for Tulowitzki. It’s not like they can just trade him, then easily acquire another shortstop at a lesser price that will give them most of what they lose by trading Tulowitzki away. He has a lot of trade value because he’s basically irreplaceable.

But that doesn’t make him infinitely valuable, and it doesn’t mean that the Cardinals should just start throwing good young talent overboard because he’s the best they can do. If we accept the projections, then Drew instead of Tulowitzki leaves roughly a +3 WAR gap, and the salary difference isn’t enough to expect the Cardinals to be able to make up those missing wins by signing another player to fill a hole. But those dollars do have value, and we’re talking about an annual salary difference of $8 million per year, not even counting the extra commitment Tulo requires that Drew would not. Even if you think that the Cardinals would have to waste that money on a free agent who isn’t a dramatic upgrade over what they currently have, that should be expected to buy them at least one win, and perhaps two if they spend it well. The salary difference alone does make up a significant chunk of the gap between the two shortstops.

And that’s before we get to the talent going to Colorado. Rosenthal suggests that a deal should include Allen Craig, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, and a fourth prospect, with the Rockies picking up “a chunk” of Tulowitzki’s remaining contract to sweeten the pot. I like Ken Rosenthal a lot, and I say this with all due respect, but that would be absurdly slanted in favor of the Rockies.

Craig, by himself, projects as a +3 WAR player for 2013, and he’s due to make just $2.8 million in salary next year. Miller projects as a +2 WAR starting pitcher, and will make something close to $500,000. Rosenthal projects as +1 WAR reliever, and again, league minimum. The three of them combine to project for about +6 WAR at $4 million in salary, or essentially, 100% of the value of Tulowitzki’s personal performance for about 25% of the cost.

Yes, you can make a case that it’s better to have +6 WAR in one player than +6 WAR from three players, especially when you have the depth that the Cardinals have. Matt Adams could replace Craig, and not be awful. Jaime Garcia could replace Miller, and might be good too. Carlos Martinez could replace Rosenthal at closer. The Cardinals wouldn’t replacing these guys with +0 WAR players. But these would all be downgrades, and not just at those three spots, because they’d also have to replace the three replacements. We can’t just ignore the fact that the Cardinals would be losing significant value in having Adams as a part-time player and bench depth, or that keeping Miller means that the Cardinals wouldn’t have to scramble for starting pitchers when the injury prone Garcia lands on the DL again. Or that not having Rosenthal around would significantly weaken the team’s bullpen, as Rosenthal and Martinez is better than just Martinez.

Maybe this isn’t a +6 WAR downgrade, since the Cardinals have viable replacements. But it’s probably at least a +3 WAR downgrade, since in each case the replacement — and the cascade effect of replacing the replacement — puts inferior players into more prominent roles. Tulowitzki and the replacements might project out to +9 WAR or so, but guess what, so does signing Drew and keeping those guys in their current roles, and using the cost savings to find another useful outfielder. I don’t see any real way in which trading that package of players for Tulowitzki actually makes the Cardinals a better team than signing Drew, and that’s just considering 2014 value, not any of the long term value that the team would be punting by trading some of their best young talent.

That kind of price just doesn’t make any sense for St. Louis. In fact, I’d suggest that they probably shouldn’t even bother trying to talk the Rockies out of their star shortstop, even if they decide Drew is not the piece that they want. If they really want to spend $130 million over seven years on a +5 WAR player, just sign Jacoby Ellsbury as a free agent, and then use Jon Jay as bait to get a decent stopgap shortstop. Same net effect on the team, but you get to keep Miller, Rosenthal, and Adams as well.

Troy Tulowitzki is a great player, and is an extremely valuable trade chip. But let’s keep in mind the magnitude of the improvement. For basically half the salary, the Cardinals could simply sign a decent free agent shortstop and keep all their good young players, making up the missing value through adding an additional outfielder to go with Stephen Drew and not depleting their depth through trade. Or they could make a big splash by signing a different high quality free agent and making a less obvious trade that filled their shortstop hole temporarily. Or they could ship off one of their extra starting pitchers for an underrated shortstop like Erick Aybar.

It isn’t Tulowitzki or bust for the Cardinals, and there’s no need for them to pay an exorbitant price just to get the best shortstop possible. The Cardinals have sustained a winning team because they emphasized value over splash. Troy Tulowitzki would be a big splash, but at the rumored price, he’d do more harm than good. There are better paths to long term success than mortgaging the future for one player, even a great player like Tulowitzki.