The Rays’ Not So Simple Arithmetic

The other day, the Rays traded David Price — 2012 Cy Young Award winner, homegrown star, and overall great guy — to the Tigers in a three-team deal that netted them soft-tossing fifth starter Drew Smyly, former top prospect turned utilityman Nick Franklin, and 18 year old Dominican shortstop Willy Adames.

On the surface, it looks absolutely atrocious, and there’s no way to avoid that. Most people look at the Rays’ previous trades, and compare their return from Matt Garza and James Shields. Since both are good-but-not-quite-Price caliber pitchers, one would think the Rays should have gotten a much better return than they did. And they didn’t. There’s no sugarcoating that. It is widely accepted that the Royals overpaid for Shields, and you could argue the Cubs did for Garza. But history is history. Heck, we even got more out of Victor Zambrano!

I wish we could see if the Garza or Shields trades worked out, but the minor leaguers that determine this are still hanging in the balance. Hak-ju Lee, from the Cubs, is in AAA Durham after recovering from a nasty ACL injury. He was the centerpiece of the Garza deal. Chris Archer, also from the Cubs, has yet to finish a full season. Similarly, from the Shields deal, neither Wil Myers nor Jake Odorizzi has played a full season; Patrick Leonard and Mike Montgomery have shown promise but are still a ways away from making a big league impact. So we have to resort to analyzing this year’s trade as it looks right now.

Drew Smyly has an obvious role: he will fill in the spot Price vacated. No, he’s not Price, but he’s a legitimate young big league starter right now and that is important. The consensus has him as a high-floor-low-ceiling type, not likely to develop too much further but not likely to be relegated to long relief. Over the past three years, his WAR is at 1.8, 1.9, and on pace for 2.0 this year. So if you have him under team control for four years, you could reasonably expect him to bring a total of 8.0 WAR to Tampa Bay. I will use the conservative (and inaccurate) yet convenient figure of $5 million per WAR and put the 4-year value of Drew Smyly at $40 million.

Nick Franklin was a 1st round draft pick and blossomed into a top 100 prospect….who currently holds a career .214 big league average and an even more atrocious 0.34 BB/K ratio. Upon his acquisition, Tampa Bay talking heads proclaimed him to be the next Ben Zobrist. The comparison is not unfair — utilityman, can play multiple positions, solid all-around, a nice touch of power and speed. FanGraphs has him in the mid 3’s for WAR over the next four years. As it was with Zobrist, this is entirely possible if he can draw walks at the big league level, post consistent power numbers, and maintain his defense and speed. If. He could be a quad-A player if he doesn’t put it together. But still, let’s assume he will hold a starting job and mark him down to a total of 12.0 WAR over four years. Using the same constant as above, we get $60 million for four years of Franklin.

Rumor has it that Andrew Friedman wanted Willy Adames as the key piece of the deal. Sure enough, Adames instantly found himself slotted as the Rays’ #2 prospect. As an 18 year old in a league with guys well older than him, Adames has held his own and then some — posting a 112 wRC+. Being better than average as one of the youngest players in the league is promising. Here, the Rays are testing their player evaluators. They evidently believe in Adames, but a lot can go wrong between now and his projected MLB debut. Adames is the crapshoot, the pie-in-the-sky. While I could, I’m not going to assign him a WAR value, mostly because of the abnormally high risk and my inability to calculate it. But it is something, and he could even turn out to BE the key piece of this deal.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.

David Price is having a career year — while the traditional numbers are lagging, he has a career-low FIP at 2.93, and is on pace for 6 WAR in 2014. In previous full seasons he has averaged 4.3 WAR (that’s it?), and he is projected to be right around there for the next four years. Let’s put him at 17 WAR over the next four years. That means his services would be worth $85 million were he to become a free agent today.

Price, while being a bargain over the past few years, could earn $20 million per year next year. That is barely less than he is worth on the hypothetical free agent market, and that is approximately the market value of his next four years. That’s great for a team that can pay that, and on the open market someone WILL pay that, but the Rays simply can’t. He is also likely to be a depreciating asset who will be a worse and worse bargain for whatever team he signs with. Price leaves at the height of his career and at the point of the Rays’ most leverage. Meanwhile, Smyly and Franklin are much more flexible and can be under team control for the next four years. Rays fans are getting used to this pattern of salary dumping, and they will have to — unless their available payroll magically doubles sometime soon.

This trade is a reminder that the Rays are one of the most efficient teams in baseball because they have to be. They cannot just look for the best players; they must look for the BEST VALUE players. A player is only valuable IF AND ONLY IF the player is under team control. Smyly and Franklin, on paper, add up to be just as valuable as David Price right now, for a fraction of the cost. So while it was no secret that the mediocre Rays had to dump salary this year, what shocked me was how actually valuable these three players could end up being.

This is still not a perfect trade, even if the trio performs as expected. What took everyone by surprise was the lack of name recognition. Where were the “untouchable” prospects? Where’s the upside? While Bryant, Buxton, and Correa are all legitimately untouchable, it was presumed that the Rays would get a combination like Taveras/Miller, or Gausman/Harvey, or Pederson/Seager. All six of those were floated among the talking heads of baseball, with many more possibilities abound, all six stayed put. Did the Rays wait too long to pull the trigger? I personally would have taken Russell and McKinney for Price, but instead the Rays lost one buyer when the A’s landed Samardzija.

Did they ask for too much in return? It is possible that they tried to, and they lost another potential buyer in the Cardinals upon their acquisition of Masterson. It is very plausible that the Rays, in trying to rip off Major League Baseball like they have previously, forced themselves into a buyers’ market instead of a sellers’ market. While the arithmetic above shows that they didn’t get totally ripped off, it is absolutely plausible that at one point they were offered much more than what they ended up getting. This is a disappointment, because the Rays HAVE to maximize every asset that they have to compete.

Finally, the David Price trade also puts this good ol’ fashioned arithmetic to the test one more time. By trading for two big-league ready players that add up to Price’s value, Friedman is not-so-subtly hinting that he plans on contending right now, but on a budget. Even if Smyly and Franklin add up to Price’s mid-4 WAR per year in 2015, will the Rays end up contending? If they are good enough to make the playoffs, will their plethora of #3ish starters be good enough to match up against Hernandez/Iwakuma, Kershaw/Greinke, or…uh….Scherzer/Price? I doubt it. And this is where Friedman’s arithmetic meets it match. The Rays have been right at the top of the pack in regular season wins after 2008, but have not won a playoff series in that stretch. Friedman’s math could very well be just fine for the regular season, when there are large enough sample sizes for a team to tend to be better than the other guy over 162 games, but not for the postseason, where if you’re not better than the other guy in this exact five-game series, you’re kicked to the curb.

We are still waiting on word whether a trade from before the 2011 season has worked out, so it will be a long time before we know for sure who “won.” Therefore, the only way to truly measure success is by on-field performance, and Drew Smyly and Nick Franklin surprisingly do add up to David Price’s value as far as we can tell. Before we know who won for sure, the Rays will probably have to make more tough decisions with more players to make the most of their precious money. They will probably contend, too, but if the last few years are a precedent, there won’t be any ring deliveries to St. Petersburg anytime soon. Maybe this is the tragedy of being a small-market team. Maybe, as we’ve seen with the Moneyball A’s, small-market teams just aren’t normally destined to go deep into the postseason. We should feel somewhat sorry that teams like the Rays have their hands tied, and feel sorry that Friedman only has so much room to maneuver. Meanwhile, the rings go to St. Louis and San Francisco and Boston.

With every stars-for-prospects trade as a contending team, Andrew Friedman bets on the Rays being more valuable than the sum of their parts.

With every year the scrap heap Rays rumble and tumble into contention, Andrew Friedman proves his mettle as a wise, pragmatic GM that can overcome the odds.

But with every good-but-not-great season, Andrew Friedman also cements his legacy as the genius whose arithmetic didn’t quite add up.

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Jeremy was a shortstop in Little League with a fringe-average arm and plus-plus glasses. A longtime Rays fan and Tropicana Field supporter, he now studies urban planning at the University of Illinois. He might get a Twitter...someday.

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Matthew Murphy

You mention the Rays’ “plethora of #3ish starters”. This is true to some extent, but while the Staff may not have a true ace right now, I think that Cobb is good enough to hold his own at the top of the rotation, projecting as about a 3-WAR player.
While there may not be a single standout behind Cobb, the team has two clear above-average starters in Smyly and Archer, another who’s already approaching 2 WAR on the year and has the 11th best K% in league (Odorizzi), and the guy who was supposed to be the ace of the future (Moore).
Perhaps most importantly, Cobb is 26, and the other four guys are all either 24 or 25. Maybe a good way to find a #1 or #2 pitcher is to have four #3s who are 25 or younger and hope that one of them can figure things out.