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When Should San Diego Trade Adrian Gonzalez?

While it has generally been assumed that Adrian Gonzalez won’t be in San Diego much longer, the Padres front office confirmed these beliefs with some public comments last week, stating that Gonzalez’s asking price was not something they could afford and suggesting they would listen to trade offers for their star first baseman this winter. The question is no longer whether the team will trade Gonzalez – it is simply a matter of when. For Jed Hoyer, the biggest decision they will make all winter is whether to start the season with Gonzalez at first base. Should they?

Buster Olney laid out a few reasons for why San Diego should consider keeping Gonzalez on his blog last week. The main points: Gonzalez is good for attendance, they have a chance to contend with him on the team in 2011, and they might find a desperate team at the deadline who is willing to overpay to make a final playoff push. These are all valid points to consider in the decision making process. But even factoring those things in, I think the Padres should deal Gonzalez this winter, assuming they get a fair offer.

Gonzalez is one of the game’s most valuable assets over the next 12 months, offering a combination of elite performance and a laughably low salary. If we estimate that he’s a +5 win player, and that the going rate for players of his ability is around $5 million per win, one season of Gonzalez is worth about $25 million or so. He’ll actually earn $5.8 million in 2011 before he hits free agency, where he’ll qualify as a Type A free agent. The additional value of the compensatory draft picks would add another $6 to $8 million in value, so having Gonzalez around for one year is a savings of $25 million or so.

In real terms, there’s probably additional value to some franchises who aren’t capable of taking on a high salaried star, or taking the long term risk that comes from signing one as a free agent. For those teams, trading for Gonzalez represents one of the only real options they have to add a star player. You could make a good argument that a team like Tampa Bay should be willing to pay a premium for Gonzalez above and beyond the difference between his market value and his actual salary.

In other words, the Padres are sitting on a goldmine. They should be able to do very, very well when they trade Gonzalez. Even as just a one year rental, they should be able to command either an elite prospect or a couple of quality young major league players. There will be teams willing to sacrifice something in the neighborhood of $30 million in value to acquire a full year of Gonzalez’s services.

Keeping Gonzalez represents a pretty significant risk. For one, his performance could suffer next year, driving down his value around the league. 18 position players had at least +10 WAR between 2008 and 2009, representing the best players in the game. As a group, they averaged 5.69 WAR per 600 PA in those two seasons. In 2010, those same players averaged just 4.36 WAR. Injuries derailed the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Chase Utley, and Chipper Jones, while players like Mark Teixeira, Lance Berkman, and Alex Rodriguez simply weren’t as good as they had been in prior seasons.

Gonzalez is a terrific player in his prime, but those players still struggle from time to time, and they also get hurt. Either of those scenarios coming to pass in the first half of 2011 would significantly damage what the Padres would be able to get for Gonzalez at the trade deadline. In a worst case scenario, an injury could put him on the DL during July, essentially shutting down the summer market for Gonzalez entirely.

Even if we assume there is only a 10 percent chance that Gonzalez lands on the DL, and maybe another 10 percent chance that he fails to hit like he has the past two seasons, that’s still a 1 in 5 shot at a significantly reduced asset. This does not even account for the reduction in amount of games Gonzalez would be able to play for his new team, nor does it take into consideration a potential repeat of 2010, where the Padres choose to keep Gonzalez for a playoff run that may not pan out.

Could they extract a little bit more value out of a desperate team at the trade deadline than they might be able to get this winter? Perhaps, if everything falls exactly right – Gonzalez stays healthy, plays well, the Padres fall out of contention, and the right contender needs a first baseman to put them over the top. That is, however, an awful lot of ifs for a marginally better outcome.

If the Padres can trade Gonzalez for something approaching $30 million in value this winter, they should say yes. The risks of keeping him outweigh the potential benefits for a team in San Diego’s position. The theoretical maximum return would probably come from a July trade, but the risk associated with attempting to get the best possible deal simply isn’t worth it. Take 95 percent of the best possible outcome now and let someone else absorb the risk that comes from having that much value tied into one player. The Padres aren’t the kind of franchise that can afford to have their most valuable asset wiped out with one bad break.