The Pittsburgh Pirates are in town. Kind of a big series, too, seeing as how the Pirates entered Tuesday night's game a scant five games back in the standings, with nine contests left between the NL Central's top two clubs remaining in 2015.
As I write this, Pittsburgh has just taken a 2-1 lead on the Cardinals, because Carlos Martinez made one of the oldest mistakes in the book and threw Aramis Ramirez a breaking ball in the strike zone. We've known for more years than I care to count at this point that Ramirez has a slider-speed bat and is vulnerable to heat, but will make you pay if you come into the zone with anything less than your best offspeed stuff. That's a frustrating way to get beat, and especially so when it's not at all a new thing.
Anyhow, I'm not here to write about what the Cardinals and Pirates are currently doing. Rather, having what appears to be the two best teams in not only the NL Central, but probably the National League as a whole together for this very important series has me thinking about a topic I've been on about a lot lately, but relates to these two teams in a pretty specific way right now. So if you're tired of hearing me talk about the relationship between financial resources and talent in baseball, you might want to tune the rest of this column out. (Please don't; if I fail to hit my quotas on pageviews, time spent on page, and comments generated for the month, Ben has threatened to have my legs broken.)
The Cardinals and the Pirates both added significant pieces to their respective lineups this offseason. The Cardinals added Jason Heyward via trade from the Atlanta Braves, both to fill the void left by the late Oscar Taveras and because they saw an opportunity to potentially add a long-term building block that may have been a bit undervalued at the time. The Pirates added Jung-ho Kang, a shortstop straight out of Korean baseball, via the posting process, which we're all much more familiar with when it comes to Japanese players. Pittsburgh paid $5 million up front for the opportunity to negotiate with Kang, then signed him to a four year deal worth $11 million.
I'm associating these players with each other not only because they were both new acquisitions for their respective clubs during the offseason, but also because each has been among the most valuable players for said clubs in 2015. To wit, Jason Heyward has been the most valuable Cardinal, according to Baseball-Reference, with 3.8 WAR created in 426 plate appearances, putting him on pace for a five win-ish season. Kang, however, has been only the second most valuable player on the Pittsburgh club, due primarily to the awesome force of nature that is Andrew McCutchen. Still, Kang is barely behind McCutchen, and has produced 3.5 wins in just 341 plate appearances. So, you know, Jung-ho Kang has been nothing short of amazing for the investment.
And it's that investment I find so interesting. The Pirates, in bidding that $5 million for the posting rights to Kang, primarily outbidded the St. Louis Cardinals, who were reportedly very interested in the services of the infielder. I don't think it's ever been reported what the Redbirds' bid for Kang was, but we know it was less than $5 million. Still, they were wading into mostly uncharted international waters, both for the franchise, which has really only ever had one Asian signing of note, that of So Taguchi, and for baseball period, which has yet to see more than a smattering of Korean players in general, and never one coming over via posting, so far as I know.
There were concerns about Kang at the time, mostly positional, as it was doubtful he would play shortstop at the major league level, but also about how well he would hit MLB-level pitching. The shortstop thing is still a bit of a question, as he looks adequate but not really much better than that there, but he looks, to my eye, like an above-average at least third baseman. Oh, and the hitting thing? Yeah, that doesn't seem to be a problem. At all.
In other words, the Pittsburgh Pirates' four year, $16 million total investment (positing fee and contract), looks like it could be one of the biggest steals in all of baseball. And not just this year. Historically.
Consider this: Kang has been worth roughly three and a half wins this season, in something like half a season's worth of plate appearances. Now, the games played (94), is more than half a season, so I'm willing to concede he's probably played more innings total than his PAs would suggest, so let's just say he's on pace to be something like...a five-ish win player. Okay?
Major league baseball teams, at this current moment, are paying something like seven million dollars per marginal win of value on the open market. It might be a shade less, but not much. It's over $6.5, I know; I'm not sure if an end figure has been completely arrived at just yet. At the trade deadline, of course, that cost skyrockets, with teams occasionally spending two or even three times as much in terms of value to acquire what they need, due to market constraints. It's expensive to pick up wins at the deadline, is what I'm saying. But for the purposes of this exercise, we're really only concerned with the offseason costs.
Going with that ~$7 million per win figure, Kang has already been worth something approaching $25 million this season. You may object to using WAR to do dollar valuations, but this is roughly what the market says. And remember, he's been worth $25 million a little over halfway into the first season of a four year deal that will pay him a total of $11 million. Pittsburgh's total investment is less than what they've already gotten out of Kang, and he has better than three seasons left in which to produce.
Now, compare that to Jason Heyward. The Cardinals paid dearly for Heyward in the offseason, giving up Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins to bring the J-Hey Kid to town, along with Jordan Walden. I don't want to mess too much with Walden here, so how about we just call it Walden for Jenkins and Heyward for Shelby, okay?
Heyward is making $8.3 million this year in salary, according to Cot's. He's also closing in on 4 WAR for the season, so holy crap is that ever a deal. At a little less than four wins, Heyward has been worth slightly more than Kang, say...$27 million. Ish. That's a whole lot of surplus value.
Oh, but wait. In addition to the money the Cardinals are paying Heyward this year, they also gave up Shelby Miller for him. Shelby's valuation is a bit tougher to pin down, as FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference see him quite differently. By the FIP-driven WAR metric of FanGraphs, Shelby has been a very solid performer, accumulating 2.5 wins in 145 innings. B-Ref, however, which uses a runs allowed-based WAR, has him at a remarkable 3.9 wins already this season. I've been using bWAR so far for this column, simply because it's easier to look at what I'm looking at on that site than on FanGraphs, but in the interest of not overestimating the value of players to make things look worse than they are, I'm okay being conservative with Shelby and going with the 2.5 fWAR figure.
If Shelby is a 2.5 win pitcher already, that's another ~$17 million in value. So add that to Heyward's salary, and the Cardinals are paying something like $25 million for his season. That's still pretty good value, considering how awesome Jason has been.
But wait, he said, there's more. Shelby isn't done pitching this year, and even having cooled off some from his early-season dominance, still looks pretty good. ZiPS projects him for another 0.6 WAR the rest of the season, which would put him just slightly over 3.0 wins for the year. Personally, I think he'll probably pitch a little better than that the rest of the year, and end up closer to 3.5, but even at three even you're talking about a pitcher worth roughly $20 million this season. So you're inching closer to $30 million in value the Cards paid for Jason Heyward's 2015. Oh, and Shelby is under team control for three more years after this one. Now, he will start getting more expensive soon, as the arbitration process kicks in and his salary quickly escalates, but still. Let's leave Shelby's salaries out of it. If he settles in as a ~3 win per season pitcher (which seems reasonable, even a bit conservative), then over the course of the four years Atlanta has him he will have produced something like 12-12.5 wins, depending on where he ends up this year. Like I said, I don't care to delve too deeply into what Shelby might get paid over those years; it's too complicated and assumes no multi-year contract is reached and all that. So let's just go with the wins.
To get one year of Jason Heyward, a year which will likely be worth five wins or so, the Cardinals gave up a possible twelve wins or more in value over four seasons, plus paying Heyward his 2015 salary. Again, I don't want to speculate on what Shelby will cost over those four years, but if he's a 12.5 win value total over that period, that's roughly $90 million on the open market.
Now, I'm definitely not questioning the Cardinals' decision to trade for Jason Heyward; I thought it was a good deal at the time, and having seen the team with Heyward installed in right field, I like the move better now than I did then even. Still, they gave up a lot of value to get him, and he could walk after this season, netting the team just a draft pick at the end of the first round.
Now go back to Kang. Again, the Pirates outbid everyone for his services, at $5 million plus the $11 million contract over four years. He's already produced something like $9 million more than his whole contract, in half a season. Should we have known, or expected, this kind of production from Kang? Probably not, honestly. But he was certainly a good enough hitter that teams, including our own Cardinals, were interested.
Back in the offseason, when the Cards were considering what to bid for Kang, I'm sure they pored over the numbers and video they had on him, and came up with what they thought was a good value. And it was something less than $5 million, at least for the upfront fee. But think about this: if the Cardinals had decided, "You know what? We think we have an idea of about what his value is, and where the market will price him, but we want to be really sure we get him. So, let's bid ten million bucks, because nobody else is going to be even close to that," would any of us be anything less than over the moon about the deal right now? If they had doubled the winning bid, and then handed him the exact same four year $11 million deal Kang actually got from the Pirates, he would still have already been worth more than the entire contract and posting fee in half a season.
And then, consider how different the Cardinals would look right now. When Matt Adams went down, the Cards could have simply moved Matt Carpenter across the diamond to first base, allowing him to fulfill his destiny of turning into Keith Hernandez, and played Kang full-time at third. We would probably be looking at the new more-or-less permanent arrangement there, as well, as Carpenter's solid third base defense and fringy arm would make him a monster at first, and at least by the eye test (and extremely SSS defensive ratings), Kang looks like a very good third baseman to me. Consider also that such an arrangement would have allowed the Cards to not make a rash deal at the deadline, meaning Rob Kaminsky would most likely still be a member of the St. Louis farm system. Sure, the value there is strictly hypothetical at this point, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't at least consider it.
Of course, there's also the chance, I suppose, that Kang wouldn't have turned out to be the player he appears to be if the Cardinals had won the bidding on him. Perhaps he would have never gotten the opportunity to establish himself, seeing as how Pete Kozma is a future Hall of Very Good player, at least, if not perhaps worthy of even higher accolades. And it's clear Mark Reynolds is an integral part of the roster, since his constant swings and misses create a cooling breeze that is important in Busch Stadium during the hot summer months. Still, given the player Kang appears to be, you have to believe that even the most stubborn coaching staff would have been able to figure out they just might have something pretty special on their hands.
I am most definitely not criticising the Cardinals' front office for going after Jason Heyward in the offseason,and paying the price to get him. I liked it then, I like it now, and I hope they pony up the dough to keep the J-Hey Kid wearing Cardinal red for the next five, seven, or even ten years. Nor do I want to bury the front office for not getting Kang, even though they clearly liked him. He could have easily turned out to be nothing at all, or at least a much lesser player than what we're seeing. Neither of those things are my intention.
But I think this is illustrative of a bigger picture point in baseball. The Pirates came up with a remarkable player this offseason, and they spent only money. If they put him on the market right now, with such an affordable contract and what looks like an extremely well-rounded, valuable game, I can't imagine the value they could extract from potential buyers. The Cardinals, too, came up with a remarkable player this past offseason; one I hope will be around for a very long time. The Redbirds, however, paid in talent, and did so dearly. I'm not complaining about the talent they acquired, nor the price they paid, honestly. I just wish they had gone a little further -- or even a little further than a little further -- in spending only money, and we were looking at a potential 5+ win third baseman not named Matt Carpenter on the roster, an intriguing lefty starter still in the farm system, and a current major league infield in which Kolten Wong and his potential 3+ win season looks like the weakest link.