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Luke Weaver: The Cardinals biggest realistic trade chip

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If the Cardinals want to make a big move, Weaver may be the way to do it.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Cardinal nation continues to talk off-season moves. A little while back, I took a shot at measuring the value Jedd Gyorko would provide to another team. I came to the conclusion that he’d be worth something similar to prospect ranked in the back of a Top 100 prospect list.

That’s nice, but what most of us what to know is how the team can make a big upgrade to the big league roster. The Red Baron looked at the team’s tradeable inventory a couple weeks back. He mentioned that, among the assets the team was likely to trade, Luke Weaver might be the team’s best trade chip. That’s not counting Alex Reyes, Delvin Perez, and Carson Kelly, players the Baron (and myself) doubt the team would move.

Anyway, I agree completely with The Red Baron. Weaver is right at the sweet spot of his value. He’s definitely big league ready. He had some rough starts near the end of the year, and he may have a high ERA (5.70), but his strikeouts and walks - the most relevant stats over a 36 inning sample - were very strong, striking out over 11 per nine while walking less than three per nine. That gave him a 3.34 xFIP, much better than the league average of 4.19.

He’s controlled for six more years until free agency, and he’ll spend the entirety of that time under 30. That makes him a great long-term asset. The overlooked part of his value though, is the short-term. He offers average or better production the next three seasons at the league minimum salary. In a pitching-starved free agent market, a lot of teams looking for pitching will have to trade for it. Luke Weaver fits into every team’s offseason budget.

It bears pointing out that I like Weaver. I don’t think he’s bound to break or bust or anything like that. It has more to do with trading from depth. If the Cardinals pick up Jaime Garcia’s option, they'll have eight major league-ready starters to choose from, not even counting some acceptable depth in the form of Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales behind those eight.

However, I do find the saying "You can never have too much pitching" to be very true. On average, a full-time starting pitcher has 40% chance to hit the D.L. in any given season. The team did give a start to Mike Mayers last year. In September, I worried that the team might stick Alex Reyes in the bullpen for 2017 - like they did with Carlos Martinez in 2014 - rather than just keeping him and Weaver at Triple-A awaiting inevitable injuries. I think that would be a mistake, as the team will likely need at least seven starters to make a significant amount of starts in a single season.

While the team currently projects to be stocked full of pitching in 2017, Lance Lynn and Garcia are set to leave to free agency at the end of the year. Adam Wainwright is set to leave the following year, to be followed by Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez the year after that. Of course, you’ve likely heard the news that El Gallo is interested in an extension, but I prefer not to count my chickens before they hatch. We also just don’t know how much to count on Michael Wacha’s health at this point.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the Cardinals need to hang on to Weaver, just that he’s not simply spare parts, unlikely to be needed. The deal he’s involved in needs to reflect the fact that this could open up a hole in the future. Here’s a look at the value he offers over his team-controlled time:

Here, I used his current Fangraphs depth chart projection for 2017. From there, I applied a league average aging curve. I’ve used this method in the past, but this is the first time I used one for pitchers, so I’ll share with you the results of my attempt at that. From 2006 to 2016, my program matched up every time a pitcher threw 50 or more innings as a starter in back-to-back years. I grabbed every player’s IP and WAR, and calculated a WAR/200 IP statistic, and I tracked how every pitcher aged. Here’s the results:

Anyway, Luke Weaver’s production cracks $100M in worth using this method. Of course, that doesn’t count how much he’ll get paid. If he ages according to the average aging curve (no one does, but we’re trying to find the average outcome) he’d probably make something like what Michael Wacha will make in arbitration. According to MLBtraderumor.com’s arbitraton projection system, that’ll be around $3.5M in his first year.

You’ve probably heard of the 40/60/80 rule; it's a rule of thumb that states that in a player’s three arbitration years, a player will earn about 40% of their worth in the first year, 60% in the second year, and 80% in the third year. This is just the general average; different skills are valued differently in arbitration than they are by WAR calculations.

However, excellent blog ThePointofPittsburgh.com did their own research on the cost of arbitration, finding the rule to be more like 25/40/62. Using Wacha’s projected first year arbitration salary, and giving raises commensurate with this rule gives us a projected cost of a little less than $18M. Add in his league minimum salaries the first three years, and Weaver will still on average cost less than $20M over the next six years. Throw in some inflation and even if we're short by a few million on Weaver's arabitration projection, he's still about a $80M asset.

That’s a pretty big amount. For instance, let’s compare that to VEB’s favorite trade acquisition target: Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier is entering his first of four years of arbitration as a Super Two. His projected salary for 2017 is $2.1M. In the same article as linked above, TPoP found that Super Two players make 18%, 33%, 50%, and 69% of their value from the first year to the fourth. We’ll start with his $2.1M projected cost, and use that method to determine the average raises Kiermaier will recieve over his pre-free agent years. Here’s his valuation:

Weaver isn’t good enough to bring back Kiermaier on his own, but his value is big enough to be considered the main piece of a package that brought him in. There may be no other team in baseball that would value a league average player at the minimum salary as highly as the Rays, who consistently rank near the bottom in total payroll. However, the Rays are one of the few teams not in a position to trade for pitching.

They already have six pitchers under control for next year who project as above-average. They also already have a set infield, with Evan Longoria, Matt Duffy, Logan Forsythe, and Brad Miller projected to start around the infield. So Gyorko, the team’s other convenient trade chip, wouldn’t be all that interesting to them either. The Rays could use a catcher and probably some outfield help, and the Cards don’t have either to give, without creating another hole to fill.

Of course, the Rays could trade for Weaver and then turn around and trade from the resulting depth, but one shouldn't assume the Rays would want to do that. At the very least, they’d want to feel like they were getting a great deal on Weaver in order to make it worth their while. Trading their best projected position player is going to make it hard for them to feel that way.

So maybe the Rays and Cardinals don’t match up well as trade partners. But that doesn’t mean Weaver isn’t a good trade chip. A lot of teams are going to want pitching this off-season, and the ones that miss out on the "top" of the pitching free agent market will have to trade for it. The Cardinals are in an enviable position, with more pitching depth than most.

Maybe the team instead trades Jaime Garcia, who isn’t anywhere near the trade chip Weaver is but also keeps the team’s options open in the future. That's definitely the safer move. Trading Weaver for a big upgrade is enticing though, and if the team can make it the next two years with the pitching they have, they  can upgrade the rotation if necessary in a loaded 2018-2019 free agent class. If the Cardinals want to make a big upgrade for 2017, trading Weaver may be the way to get it done.