clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Chapman deal shows difficulty of upgrading the Cardinals' bullpen

the cost for relief pitching is apparently still rising

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

With less than a week until the non-Waiver Trade Deadline, the Cardinals have yet to make a move. There are barely even any rumors about actions they could take. If you visit and sort by Cardinals rumors, you'll quickly be bored. The first article is pure speculation about the Nationals possibly looking into Trevor Rosenthal, which in my opinion is incredibly unlikely. The next article is about a minor league deal with 30 year-old Quad-A talent Efron Navarro, not exactly the sexiest transaction of the year.

It's not unlike the Cardinals to move quietly. Often, when the Cardinals make a big move, nothing is known until the physicals check out and the ink is dry. However, there's an entire industry of writers and tweeters whose sole job is to speculate wildly every trade deadline and hot stove season, and even those guys have very little to say about the Cardinals this year.

It makes sense when you think about it. Earlier in the month I wrote about how the Cardinals were too close to sell, but at the same time, adding meaningful value to this roster is difficult. Going by Fangraphs' Depth Chart projections, the team's 8th best position player by WAR/600 PA is Brandon Moss, at 1.8. There are a minimal amount of position players out there that could meaningfully upgrade that total, and the teams that do have them will have a significant asking price. The team's 13th best position player by this method is Jedd Gyorko at 1.3 WAR/600 PA, so just adding depth to the bench would be difficult.

The rotation has no opening, so most of VEB's analysis on possible trade targets has centered on relievers. Unfortunately, the reliever market is even more of a seller's market than expected. The Cubs decided to pay the steep price, and while they'll enjoy the services of one of the game's best relievers for a few months, its reasonable to wonder if the Cubs will have any remorse over the move in the future. I'll show you what I mean.

The writers at The Point of Pittsburgh have done some great work trying to determine the cost of a top prospect. Baseball America has been making top 100 prospect lists since 1990, so they used their lists as the source data. Here's the Surplus Value they calculated for different ranges of prospects, separated based on whether the prospect is a pitcher or position player:

One neat thing about this list is that it shows that at every range, pitchers were over-valued compared to their position player counterparts. Anyway, the Cubs had to part with shortstop and their number one prospect, Gleyber Torres, and a few more minor pieces, in order to acquire rental and relief sensation Aroldis Chapman. Chapman will only be around for the rest of the season and play-offs, but having him pitch the ninth of every remotely close play-off game is obviously valued highly by the Cubs' front office.

How highly? Torres is currently a regular on top prospect lists, ranking 27th on Baseball America's list, 24th according to, 26th by ESPN's list from Keith Law, and 34th by Baseball Prospectus. Those ranking mostly put him in the "26-50" range of position players, which averages nearly $40M in surplus value. He's also near the front end of that arbitrary range though, and with the "11-25" group averaging over $60M in surplus value, it's easy to make the case that his value, according to public prospect lists, exceeds $40M, and is perhaps closer to $50M. These valuations include a Net Present Value (NPV) calculation in order to discount future production.

Even when accounting for in-season wins being worth double the regular off-season price, according to public calculations of reliever WAR, there is no chance Chapman's contributions will offset that expected value. Going back to fangraphs' Depth Chart projections, Chapman is expected to be worth about a win the rest of the year. Taking $8M/WAR and doubling it for the in-season premium only gets you to $16M.

Of course, the usual caveats about trades apply. Torres isn't guaranteed to be an average of similar prospects before him. He's an individual, and all it takes to get a deal done is the opinion of the seller and the interested buyers. Perhaps the Cubs weren't high on Torres, and they do already have several cheap years of control of middle-infielders Addison Russell and Javier Baez, not to mention just signing Ben Zobrist in the off-season. Still, if the Cubs simply decided Torres was the guy who was most logical to move, you'd think they could have received more in return for the consensus top prospect.

There's also the fact that, perhaps relievers are more valuable than their public WAR totals imply. Here's one thing that keeps coming back to me: one of the game's most data-driven and cash-conscious franchises in the game, who over the last three years has easily been the best performing low-salary team in the game, is paying its closer $9.65M, in his walk year, to pitch at most about 70 innings.That's the Pirates, and Mark Melancon.

One of the cheapest franchises trading a $9M+ reliever seemed like one of the most likely events of the last off-season, but no move was made, and unless the Pirates decide to bail on their Wild Card chances and sell at the deadline, he'll be a Pirate on August 1st. Maybe there's something out there we're missing with regards to reliever value, but even so, it's still a stretch not to see the Chapman deal as an overpay.

With the Cubs setting the price for relievers even higher than expected, it's even more unlikely that the Cardinals would add a high-end reliever. For instance, Andrew Miller has been even better than Chapman this year, and comes with two additional years at $9M a piece. Considering he's one of the best in the game currently performing like it, that's quite the discount relative to the current valuation of relievers in the majors. The Cardinals have one clear top prospect, plus some back-of-the top 100 prospects depending on the source. The Yankees could easily ask for Alex Reyes as a starting point. Here's the Cards prospects that appeared in the latest Baseball America Top 100:

While it would be the surprise of the deadline for the Cards to part with Reyes for a reliever, the asking price for many of the relievers performing well could legitimately be one of the other three prospects shown on the above list. While that sounds ridiculous, the market has also been ridiculous. Using the system devised at The Point of Pittsburgh, along with the in-season premium, one of those three might be worth it to acquire Chapman, but obviously that wouldn't have been enough to get it done.

All this does really is re-enforce the viewpoint of some that you should simply never trade for relievers. I don't go quite as extreme, as I believe the Cardinals should essentially be dumpster diving for buy-low deals that the market passes over. I still like my idea to acquire Jorge de la Rosa and move him to the bullpen, as I believe the cost of that type of deal will be much less than a reliever that will put up similar results. That's just speculation on my part, and considering the weird actions the Rockies' front office constantly takes, we just don't know what the asking price will be for de la Rosa.

All of this is to say, it continues to look difficult to upgrade the bullpen at a price the Cardinals can accept. The Cards' pen has so far ranked 14th by FIP-, so it's not quite the dumpster-fire that their 22nd place performance in Win Probability Added (WPA) indicates. In addition, the projections think the pen will pitch to a 3.67 FIP the rest of the season, compared to the 3.84 figure they've averaged so far. They also can bring up Alex Reyes or Luke Weaver, though the fact that they declined to do so for Sunday's start against the Dodgers at least indicates that they don't consider either a foregone conclusion. This bullpen is very capable of improving without a major outside addition.

The team could benefit by adding another great reliever to go along with Seung-Hwan Oh, but I'd be surprised if they were prepared to part with Harrison Bader, Luke Weaver, or Jack Flaherty in order to do so. That could mean they'll only be able to pick over the scraps leftover by the rest of the market. The Cubs may be betting as hard as they can on 2016, but the Cardinals are in a completely different situation. The front office should continue to do their due diligence in finding an upgrade they like, and I think in the end they end up with someone that is an improvement, if not of the high-end attention-grabbing sort. However, if the team makes no moves at the deadline, you should not consider it a failure, but the result of discipline amid an extreme seller's market.