Coming up with trade proposals can be tough. Each team has their own system for evaluating players, and there’s rarely enough public information to gauge it. There’s also the fact that you have to find teams that match. At the trade deadline this is easier. For the most part, a team is either a buyer or a seller. Then we’re talking about one team giving up big league talent for prospects.
The offseason can make things more difficult. With the second Wild-Card, fewer teams are looking to give up on a season before it begins. Teams like the White Sox, who project as below average could have an unexpectedly good season and be right in the race. They could then make a move or two at the deadline to solidify things and make a push for some October success.
Thus, while there is talk of the White Sox selling this winter, and they still very well might do so, I would bet against it. Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, and potential Cardinals target Adam Eaton are probably not changing teams unless someone really blows them away. If things don’t go well, there’s always the trade deadline, where the sellers can hold a very strong position.
To have success in the trade market, you have to identify a team that has a hole your team can fill. I think a great example of this in action was the David Freese trade in the 2013-2014 offseason. The Angels needed a third baseman, and had an excess of outfielders. The Cardinals needed an outfielder, and with the promotion of Kolten Wong to the major league level in late 2013, the Cardinals had an extra infielder. Freese and Fernando Salas ended up heading to Anaheim for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk. I'd say the Cardinals got the better end of it, but it was a win-win trade for both sides.
Now let’s bring ourselves back to present time. The Cardinals are in need of an outfielder. Losing Jason Heyward, Jon Jay, Bourjos, Matt Holliday, and Brandon Moss over a span of 13 months will tend to do that. After the emergence of Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver, the impending return of Lance Lynn, and picking up Jaime Garcia’s option, they have an excess of pitching. Naturally, the Cardinals need to find a team short on pitching, but with an extra outfielder. In a historically weak pitching market, that could give the Cardinals a nice upper-hand.
So I decided to try to find such a club. Using the depth chart projections provided at Fangraphs, I wrote some code to assign every starting pitcher to their respective team, similar to what Fangraphs does here. From there, I cut every team down to just the pitchers projected to be in the top 5 in starts made in 2017. Then, I ranked those five by projected FIP. The best pitcher would then be a team’s number 1, and so on. Of course, team’s don’t line up their opening day rotation based on public projections, but this gives us a good idea.
I then grabbed every number 5 pitcher from every team and ranked those pitchers by projected FIP. This should give us a good idea of what teams would be most improved by adding a starting pitcher. Here’s the results:
The Cubs have the best 5th starter, because why not, they have the best of everything. By this method, that’s John Lackey. The Cardinals are close behind in third. The Rangers, White Sox, Reds, Twins, and Phillies bring up the rear.
This method isn’t perfect though. If a team had four solid starters, and a few low-end guys that they could see battling it out for a fifth spot, then they might not be that hard-pressed to trade for a pitcher. A team’s front office also just might like their 5th starter much more than the projections. This method also ignores any impact that could from pitching prospects likely to be called up mid-season. So to cast a wider net, I did one for fourth starters too:
Again the Cardinals place well. A lot of the teams with the worst fourth starters also had some of the worst fifth starters. The Rangers, White Sox, Reds bring up the rear on both lists. The Reds are an awkward fit because of being in-division. It’s tempting to say, "Hey, the White Sox have a need for pitching, and the Cardinals could use Adam Eaton!", but, it doesn’t make all that much sense for the White Sox, who would just have another hole to fill after trading Eaton.
Now we’ll look at what teams have an outfielder to give up. So I did the same thing above, but this time it was to find how the 30 teams ranked in terms of fourth outfielders. Here’s each team’s fourth outfielder by WAR/600:
Again the Cubs place first, due to Wilson Contreras getting time as an outfielder. You might also notice the Cardinals in a four way tie for last place. Like the Reds, it’s hard to see the teams making a trade with each other. Right after that though, comes the Marlins. The Marlins’ back of the rotation isn’t horrible, but their fourth and fifth starters do place 20th and 18th respectively using this method. Let’s look at first at the Marlin’s projected rotation:
It may not be the dumpster-fire you might have assumed it was after the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez, but it’s not very good either. They have three pitchers projected to start the year in the rotation that are probably below average. One of two lone bright spots, David Phelps, has been a reliever for much of his career. The other, Wei-Yin Chen, had his worst year of his five year career in 2016.
On the other hand, let’s look at their outfield situation:
Derek Dietrich is the fourth outfielder here. He’s mostly been a backup infielder in his MLB career until Dee Gordon went down in 2016, freeing up a starting spot. He played well enough that the team kept him in the lineup by moving him to the outfield once Gordon was healthy. With Martin Prado, Adeiny Hechavarria, Gordon, and Justin Bour around the infield, there’s no opening for Dietrich there. The team also has a still-not-completely-useless Ichiro Suzuki that could step in as the fourth outfielder if the Marlins traded someone. If they weren't comfortable with that, they still have a whole offseason to find someone they're comfortable with handling fourth outfielder duties.
Giancarlo Stanton isn’t going anywhere; he’s owed more than $300M, has a no-trade clause, and is the face of the franchise. His elite abilities and popularity is a reason for fans to come to the park regardless of their win-loss record.
Christian Yelich would also probably be non-starter. The Marlins are trying to win and he’s their second-best projected player. They liked him enough to ink him to a $49.5M/7 year deal prior to the 2015 season, buying out two free agent years plus an option on a third. However, just for heck of it, let’s estimate his Surplus Value using his projection, salary, an average aging curve, and the commonly accepted price of $8M per win and 5% inflation:
As you might expect, a 25 year-old, 3.5 WAR player who received an extension well before reaching free agency makes for a strong asset. A couple of weeks ago, I looked at Luke Weaver’s Surplus Value. As a slightly above-average pitcher controlled for six years - three at the league minimum and three suppressed by arbitration - Weaver also projects for a little more than $80M in Surplus Value.
However, due to the Marlin’s focus on the short-term, Yelich’s place as one of the best players on the team, and the high likelihood of the Marlins being higher than most on Yelich’s value, I doubt they’d be interested in a straight up swap of the two.
There’s also the fact that, as a pitcher with less than 40 innings in the majors, Weaver carries significantly more risk than Yelich, a position player with over 2,000 MLB PA to his name but still just in his mid-20’s. Perhaps the Cardinals could include Top-100 prospect Harrison Bader along with Weaver. While that seems like a fair deal in terms of value and risk going each way, it probably doesn’t fit with the Marlins’ need to be a competitive team in 2017.
So Stanton is such an impossibility that he’s not even worth discussing. Yelich is a long-shot but you never know. The much more likely scenario is that the Marlins are willing to deal Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna and the Marlins have had their issues, so Ozuna probably isn’t a favorite of the Marlins organization. He’s also scheduled to hit free agency a year before Dietrich and two (or three) years before Yelich, and has turned down extension offers from the team. So he may be the guy that it makes the most sense for them to move. Let’s look at Ozuna’s value:
Ozuna’s a player that can cause some debate. He’s been above average and below average at the plate in two seasons each, with his wRC+ by year going 92, 116, 90, and 105 from 2012 to 2016. For his career it’s 103, and projected going forward it’s 107. He’s spent most his time (3500 innings) in center, where he’s been essentially average among center-fielders. The advanced metrics like him a lot in right, though it’s not a big enough sample to read that much into.
Of course, it's much more fun to think about the team striking a deal for Yelich, but it's just not very likely. It's not often that a really good player is traded from a team trying to compete for a playoff spot. I continue to support signing Justin Turner to bring in a great player, while trading Jedd Gyorko for the best prospect package available to recoup the value lost (and then some) from forfeiting the team's first round draft pick on Turner. Ozuna would be more about filling a hole than making a big upgrade.
I don’t think it matters much whether Ozuna or Grichuk would man center. Ozuna would be replacing outfield innings that were previously going to Moss or Holliday, so it’s a big defensive upgrade either way. Who plays where will just be a product of the Cardinals' analysis of the two's defense. At a $36.6M surplus value, I would prefer the Cardinals didn’t trade Weaver straight up for Ozuna. Maybe the Marlins could add someone else in with him to make it worthwhile, but they have little depth and a barren farm system.
Perhaps the Cardinals could offer a different pitcher, but that would mean Wacha or Garcia, neither of which offer the type of value Ozuna does. Perhaps the Cardinals could trade Wacha and Garcia, while paying down all of Garcia’s salary. The Marlins are a cheap enough team that that might entice them.
I know it’s bad form to suggest trading off your favorite team’s less important players for some other team’s starting player, but Ozuna has his own risks and the Marlins have little payroll space or farm system to utilize. They’re one of few teams that should be open to that kind of offer, and they’d be trading from depth to patch two holes.
Of course, their scouting and analytic departments have their own valuations on the players in question, and they just might not like either of those two. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising for a team to not value Wacha to highly with his issues over the last few years.
It’s hard to construct a trade between two teams with so little information on how they value various players. The important thing is that the Cardinals and Marlins do make a lot of sense as trade partners. We’ll see if that allows them to find a trade that improves both teams’ outlook.