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What I Learned From Last Year’s Trade Value Series

Beginning tomorrow, the 2011 Trade Value series will kick off here on FanGraphs, but before we go forward with this year’s version, I wanted to look back at last year’s list and see if there are lessons to be learned from some of the rankings. Obviously, things can change quite a bit in 12 months’ time, and many of the outcomes could not have been easily predicted last July, so we can’t just say “that guy got hurt, so it was a bad ranking.” However, I’m wondering if there are trends we can spot that might say something about what has transpired over the last year or perhaps some errors in logic I made that might have led to some rankings that don’t look so great in hindsight.

Before we talk about some of the things that we learned, however, it’d be helpful to revisit the list in its entirety. And so, here’s last year’s Top 50 Trade Value assets.

50. Domonic Brown, OF, Philadelphia
49. Phil Hughes, SP, New York Yankees
48. Ricky Romero, SP, Toronto
47. Martin Prado, 2B, Atlanta
46. Mat Latos, SP, San Diego
45. Miguel Montero, C, Arizona
44. Brian Matusz, SP, Baltimore
43. Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF, Tampa Bay
42. Geovany Soto, C, Chicago
41. Yovani Gallardo, SP, Milwaukee
40. Jered Weaver, SP, Anaheim
39. James Shields, SP, Tampa Bay
38. Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas
37. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado
36. Tommy Hanson, SP, Atlanta
35. Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit
34. Mike Stanton, OF, Florida
33. Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore
32. Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas
31. Buster Posey, C, San Francisco
30. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Texas
29. David Price, SP, Tampa Bay
28. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Cleveland
27. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles
26. Brian McCann, C, Atlanta
25. Jay Bruce, OF, Cincinnati
24. Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco
23. Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle
22. Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis
21. Carlos Santana, C, Cleveland
20. Zack Greinke, SP, Kansas City
19. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh
18. Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis
17. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Boston
16. Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Colorado
15. David Wright, 3B, New York
14. Colby Rasmus, OF, St. Louis
13. Robinson Cano, 2B, New York
12. Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee
11. Justin Upton, OF, Arizona
10. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia
9. Josh Johnson, SP, Florida
8. Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati
7. Jon Lester, SP, Boston
6. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington
5. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston
4. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida
3. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington
2. Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta
1. Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay

My initial reaction is amazement at just how much can change in a year. Regardless of whether you agreed with their exact position on the list or not, it was pretty much a consensus that Heyward, Strasburg, Ramirez, Zimmerman, Johnson, and Utley were absolutely premium trade pieces who their franchises just wouldn’t trade. Now, they’ve all dealt with injuries (and in Ramirez’s case, decreased performance that may or may not be related to the injury) that somewhat cloud their current trade value, and it’s likely that most of them won’t be quite as high on this year’s list as they were a year ago. And these guys were all in the top 10.

I don’t think I picked the wrong guys to put at the top of the list last year, but I do think these changes help illustrate just how volatile any one individual player is. It’s easy to look at guys like Pujols, Jeter, or Chipper and talk about how valuable having a true franchise player is, but those guys are the survivors — most guys who look like franchise players end up becoming something less than what they could have been had something not gone wrong. There are a lot of potential franchise players, but few actually go on to have that kind of career.

In looking back over last year’s list (and previous versions), I believe this reality is exposed. We can talk about aging curves and probability all we want, but there are a lot of guys who have ranked very highly in previous versions of this list based on their future potential and have never become the kind of player who would justify that lofty ranking. So, while I’m certainly still going to factor potential and long-term value into the ranking, I do believe that the evidence suggests that these factors have been overvalued in previous incarnations, and I’m going to give a bit more weight to present value than I have previously.

That doesn’t mean this year’s list is going to be all veterans and guys with expensive contracts — there is still huge value in having a quality young player under team control for many years at a below-market rate, and that kind of advantage will still be a significant factor in the rankings. It just shouldn’t be the only factor, and I’d like the list to better reflect the fact that there are quite a few teams in baseball who will give up a lot of future value for a chance to win in the present.

The other big takeaway from last year’s list? Either the Royals didn’t get nearly enough for Zack Greinke, or I vastly overrated his appeal as a trade chip. I’m open to either conclusion being true, but man, when you look at some of the guys I ranked him ahead of, and then you see what KC flipped him for… yikes.