Ace Trades Don’t Always Work Out

Forget the Robinson Cano contract, and press pause on the Masahiro Tanaka posting saga, because no possible move this winter has the potential to shake up the game more than Tampa Bay following through on plans to move ace pitcher David Price.

There’s just so much intrigue involved: Who might get him? When would he be traded? And perhaps most importantly, just how massive of a return would the Rays demand? While Tampa fans certainly don’t want to see him go, it’s a bit easier to stomach when they can dream about prospects like Jurickson Profar, Corey Seager or Taijuan Walker wearing Tampa blue.

Perhaps the Rays will be able to pull off another heist like they did last year by swiping Wil Myers and several other prospects from Kansas City for James Shields and Wade Davis, but the sobering truth is that it rarely works out that way. The recent history of teams dealing ace starters very often ends up with a team shipping out its best pitcher for very little return at all.

But what defines an “ace”? There’s no industry standard for the term, of course, so for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll need to set some ground rules. We’ll limit our boundaries to pitchers traded since 2008 who had put up at least one season of 6.0 RA9-WAR in either of the two full seasons prior to the trade, or in the season of the trade itself. That gets us 23 pitcher seasons from 14 pitchers, encompassing 17 trades. (Cliff Lee was traded three times; Zack Greinke twice.)

For the sake of brevity, we’ll eliminate Josh Beckett and Ian Kennedy, both of whom had seen their value drop precipitously by the time of their trades. We’ll also skip last winter’sR.A. Dickey and Shields deals, since it’s simply too soon to draw conclusions, though the latter deal certainly looks good for the Rays. Now we have a list to work from.

We’re left with 13 trades involving topflight pitchers since 2008. How many have actually worked out? It’s overly simplistic to just add the WAR and make a judgment that way, so that shouldn’t be taken as more than adding some context, but it does make for an interesting comparison.

Worked out well …

 

The Wins

Ace From To Return Return WAR
Dan Haren D-backs Angels Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin, Joe Saunders (Matt Lindstrom), Rafael Rodriguez 8.3
Zack Greinke Royals Brewers Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Odorizzi 9.2
Greinke Brewers Angels Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena 2.6

 

There are really only three deals that stand out as nice wins, with the gold standard being the 2010 deal that sent Dan Haren from Arizona to the Angels less than a year after a top-five Cy Young finish. At the time, it was seen as a big win for the Angels, but while Haren was very good for a year and a half and mediocre for another, the Diamondbacks receivedPatrick Corbin, who broke out in a big way in 2013; Joe Saunders, who contributed more than 400 innings of decent ball; and nicely regarded prospect Tyler Skaggs.

 

 

Really, these two Angels deals, in addition to the first-round picks they sacrificed to sign all their big recent free agents, are more to blame for their current situation than anything else. It’s difficult to compete when you’re constantly moving young talent elsewhere.

… not so much

 

The Losses

Ace From To Return Return WAR
*Dunn and Vizcaino were later involved in larger trades for Dan Uggla, Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson, not fully accounted for here.
Jake Peavy Padres White Sox Aaron Poreda, Adam Russell, Clayton Richard, Dexter Carter 0.9
CC Sabathia Indians Brewers Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson 5.4
Johan Santana Twins Mets Carlos Gomez (J.J. Hardy), Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey, Philip Humber 4.0
Cliff Lee Indians Phillies (w/ Ben Francisco) Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Jason Knapp 3.9
Lee Phillies Mariners Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, J.C. Ramirez -0.6
Roy Oswalt Astros Phillies Jonathan Villar, J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose (Brett Wallace) 0.6
Javier Vazquez Braves Yankees (w/ Boone Logan) Melky Cabrera, Mike Dunn, Arodys Vizcaino -1.1*
Lee Mariners Rangers (w/ Mark Lowe) Blake Beavan, Justin Smoak, Josh Lueke (John Jaso/Mike Morse), Matthew Lawson 2.3
Ubaldo Jimenez Indians Rockies Drew Pomeranz, Alex White (Wilton Lopez) 1.8
Roy Halladay Blue Jays Phillies Travis d’Arnaud (R.A. Dickey), Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor (Gose) 1.9

 

Ten of the 13 trades haven’t quite worked out as well, with the obvious caveat being that in some cases, young players may yet change the score. In most cases, the cumulative value that came back to the teams didn’t equal even a single year of their departed ace.

Generally, what we see here is a whole lot of prospects who just never amounted to anything, with a great example being the CC Sabathia deal in 2008. Matt LaPorta was the big get for Cleveland, but he was a huge bust, putting up negative value in more than 1,000 plate appearances, and he didn’t even see time in the bigs in 2013. The only real value the Indians got was from Michael Brantley, who has been a good-but-not-great outfielder for a few seasons. Just three weeks after the trade, Cleveland did far better by trading three months of decent third baseman Casey Blake to Los Angeles for catching prospect Carlos Santana, who has established himself as one of the better young hitters in the game.

The Roy Halladay deal looked good at the time, since all three prospects were highly regarded. But Kyle Drabek blew out his arm and his future remains uncertain; Travis d’Arnaud was of course part of the Dickey deal, while Michael Taylor turned into Brett Wallace and then Anthony Gose, who has speed but massive plate discipline problems. Even when players involved have panned out, it’s been for other teams, like Carlos Gomez, who has developed into a star for Milwaukee, or Melky Cabrera, who was horrible in Atlanta before finding success in Kansas City and San Francisco.

Then there’s Cliff Lee, who was famously traded three times for a total of 11 players within the span of a year, starting in July 2009. Nearly as famously, all three trades turned out to be enormous busts for the teams that let Lee go. Believe it or not, the most productive player involved in any of the deals may have been Lou Marson, who gave Cleveland a few seasons of decent play as a backup catcher before being non-tendered on Monday.

The most highly regarded prospect at the time was probably first baseman Justin Smoak, who has spent nearly 2,000 plate appearances since then proving that he’s merely a replacement-level player. The others have been slowed by injury, legal issues or just plain mediocrity.

Obviously, this isn’t an exact science, particularly since Price has two full seasons of control left while some of these pitchers had only one or even less — and if there’s any front office that has shown it knows how to trade an ace, it’s Tampa’s. But the Myers trade, immediately panned by nearly every non-Royals observer, is the baseball equivalent of a lightning strike. It’s going to be difficult to expect that kind of return to happen twice.




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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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