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The benefit of cash in this market

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you’ve probably been wowed by the price the Nationals paid for Adam Eaton. If not, they gave up one of the very best starting pitching prospects in the game (who is MLB-ready), another pitching prospect considered in the top-50 overall (and also MLB-ready), as well as the pitcher they just took in the first round of the 2016 draft. A similar package of pitching from the Cardinals would have meant Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, and Junior Fernandez.

To be fair, I’m lower than most on Eaton, and there are a decent amount of writers and community members here who have supported trading for him. I don’t think I’ve heard any Cardinals fan say they wish the team would have matched the Nationals offer though. The crazy thing is, this was the Nationals best option. The team decided that steep price was better than trading Giolito and Dunning (the first and third best prospects in the Eaton trade) along with a third unknown player to the Pirates for Andrew McCutchen.

With Eaton, Ian Desmond, and Carlos Gomez off the market (and presumably little chance of the Pirates and Cardinals working out a deal for Cutch), options are getting whittled down. Two names are capturing most the attention right now: Dexter Fowler and Jarrod Dyson.

Dyson is a very intriguing option, and I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it before two of my fellow VEB writers, but who knows what the trade market will demand. As a great base-runner and defender, but weak hitter, Dyson is projected for 2.3 WAR/600 PA and has been stuck in a fourth outfielder role for years. With just a $2.5M salary for 2017 before reaching free agency, a $8.5M/win market implies he’s about a $17M surplus value. If the Cardinals can get a deal done just with some lower level lottery tickets, or a package marginally better than the one they received for Garcia, then sure, that sounds like a great move. But with the trades (and reported near trades) so far, I’m not holding my breathe. Besides, I can’t think of a type of player that Matheny would mismanage more than a weak hitter whose base-running and defense make him an above-average player.

Which brings us back again, to Fowler. Fowler only costs cash, well almost. He’ll also require draft pick compensation, a value of about $10M. That pales in comparison though, to the value of Alex Reyes or Luke Weaver. Of course, Fowler will cost more in terms of dollars, but does that bridge the gap? MLB Trade Rumors guessed Fowler would get $65M over four years, with Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron at $70M over four. Fanraph’s crowd-sourcing projects’ median contract matched MLB Trade Rumors. At the same time, from the outside looking it, that’s about what Fowler’s market is shaping up to be.

Eaton instead is owed just $19.9M over the next three years, plus an option for $8M over the buyout in 2020, followed by a $10.5M option or $1.5M buyout in 2021. For simplicity, let’s assume one option is picked up but the other one isn’t. That makes Eaton owed $29.5M over the next four years. That means Fowler would be getting - on the high end - $40M more than Eaton. Add on the draft pick compensation and it’s $50M.

To avoid that extra $50M, the Nationals paid a prospect package that would have crippled the Cardinals’ farm. With Jaime Garcia and Matt Holliday off the books, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and Jhonny Peralta all gone in the next two years, and a fancy new TV contract boosting payroll possibilities, I’d much rather the Cardinals pony up $50M in cash and retain Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, and Junior Fernandez’s possible future contributions.

Adam Eaton and Dexter Fowler are projected similarly in overall value, and are similar outfielders with strong base-running, questionable defense, and proven high-BABIP hitting. One big difference is that Eaton is entering his age 28 season, with Fowler being 31. One might think that would mean Fowler is sure to age a lot quicker than Eaton. But it’s actually pretty similar. Players are declining in their late 20’s, just not as quite as much as early 30’s. Here’s Eaton’s aging curve, presented as the average decline from 28 to 31, next to Fowler’s which is 31 to 34:

Both age groups age pretty similarly, at least compared to public perceptions of those two ages. Eaton does have that fifth year of control, but if he ages like the average 28-31 year old, he won’t offer all that much surplus value in that option year.

There’s also the fact that Fowler’s on-base percentage would look sooo good at the top of the lineup. Here’s his projected OBP for 2017, and alongside it I added what percentile that is among hitters projected to recieve at least 500 PA next year. I then built an average aging curve for OBP, and applied the average decline by year for Fowler’s next three years after. I then added the percentile that that OBP% would be in the 2017 projections. Keep in mind that this is based on Steamer, the lower of the two projections systems on Fowler:

Fowler could add a high-OBP for years to come. Fowler may cost an amount that makes a lot of fans uncomfortable, but the prospect package for similar production makes me quesey. At the same time Justin Turner’s market has stalled, with the Dodgers being the only big bidders, and unwilling to add a fifth year. Both come with compensation attached, but the Cards only lose their second rounder for signing a second. If they are going to sign one, it makes sense to sign a two.

All the MLB teams are swimming in a ridiculous pile of cash right now. Sign Fowler, sign Justin Turner, and keep all our prospects while solidifying the chance the Cards take home a Wild-Card spot. Let the prospects get closer to the MLB level, and maybe we find a point in time where it makes sense to make a big trade that puts us on a similar tier as the Cubs.