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A look at the prospect price for Chris Archer

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Investigating a popular option for the Cardinals to consolidate talent

Chicago Cubs v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The offseason isn’t quite here yet, but that doesn’t stop talk about what the Cards could do. Generally, the number one word circulating about the Cardinals is consolidation. They’ve shown themselves to be among the best in the game at producing starting caliber players. A team with several holes at least has a straightforward plan for improving: find players to fill those holes. That’s not the Cards’ dilemma

Acquiring a high-end talent can be difficult. The hope is that the Cards can use their depth to deal several pieces for one elite talent. They have a lot of money to spend as well, with $107M in 2018 guaranteed contracts on the books for 2018, along with 3 Cardinals projected to earn $10M in arbitration. That’s assuming Trevor Rosenthal is non-tendered.

One name that has often come up in Chris Archer of the Rays. Archer represents a battleground in terms of pitcher evaluation. By FIP-based WAR, since 2014 Chris Archer rates as the 12th best pitcher in baseball (16.2). By runs against-based WAR (RA9 WAR) he ranks 29th (12.1). That’s a difference of a win a year, not an insignificant amount by any means.

The projections believe Archer does have some lack of ability to control contact quality against him, but not as much as seen thus far. They see a 0.13 point difference between his FIP and ERA going forward. Over 200 innings, that amounts to less than a 3 run difference over a full season, and some of that probably just has to do with playing in the A.L. East.

The Rays extended Archer before his breakout 2014 campaign and with less than one year of MLB service time, so Archer is on a steal of a contract. He’ll make less than $14M over the next two years, with dirt cheap options of $9M and $11M in 2020 and 2021. Archer is one of the best pitchers in baseball and making Brett Cecil-level money.

The question is, how much would it cost to trade for a Chris Archer? Well, first we have to know if he’s even available. The Rays constantly develop good starting pitching, and they also constantly trade good starting pitching. It’s basically certified baseball tradition at this point. It’s natural to assume Archer gets traded eventually.

Plus, their division is kind of ridiculous right now. The Red Sox are squarely in win-now mode and one of the best teams in the league. The Yankees are really good as well, and have an avalanche of young MLB-ready talent and the resources to supplement it by any means necessary. The Orioles and Blue Jays are both apparently trying to compete next year, despite the unlikelihood of matching up with those two. It probably makes sense for the Rays, who have by far the lowest payroll capacity of any of those teams, to lie low and play for tomorrow.

Still, Archer has four years remaining under contract. So while I’m sure they’d entertain offers, there’s no need to move him. It would take an offer that the Rays think legitimately make them better, long term.

There’s reason to believe such an offer would have to be stronger than the price the Cubs paid for Jose Quintana, and even the price the Red Sox paid for Chris Sale. That reason being that Chris Archer ranked higher than both of those aces in Dave Cameron’s latest top 50 trade value series. Archer ranked 16th, compared to 21st and 46th for Sale and Quintana respectively. Dave’s list is based on what he hears from people in the industry, so it seems applicable here.

The return for Sale and Quintana were the same general shape: one of the very best position player prospects in the game, along with a top 100 pitching prospect. Yoan Moncada headlined the Sale deal, and was pretty close to a consensus number one prospect at the time. Eloy Jimenez headlined the Quintana deal. While not quite as highly ranked as Moncada, he was a consensus top 10 prospect on the mid-season lists, which were coming out around the same time he was traded.

The distinction between a position player and a pitcher is important: Position player prospect futures are less likely to be derailed by injuries. That was just one of many interesting observations from The Point Of Pittsburgh’s research into the production of various types of top prospects. Here’s a breakdown of their research that I’ve shown here a few times:

Prospect surplus value by type

Rank Hitters Pitchers
Rank Hitters Pitchers
1-10 $73.5 $69.9
11-25 $62.0 $39.0
26-50 $38.2 $29.8
51-75 $22.4 $16.5
76-100 $20.6 $15.6

At the very top, there hasn’t been much difference between position players and pitchers. Every other category shows a significant difference between position players and pitchers though.

The problem here is that the Cardinals don’t have a prospect on par with Yoan Moncada or Eloy Jimenez. Here’s how Cards prospects performed on the most recent top 100 mid-season lists:

Cardinals top prospects by list

Prospect BA MLB pipeline FG KATOH KATOH WAR
Prospect BA MLB pipeline FG KATOH KATOH WAR
O'Neill x 96 JM 31 8
Flaherty 57 53 57 35 7.8
Kelly 51 36 52 46 6.6
Reyes 12 17 20 52 6.2
Bader x 99 x 61 5.7
Weaver 65 x x 72 5.3
Hudson x x JM x x
Sierra x x JM x x
Alcantara x x 84 x x
Perez x x 77 x x

The best rated Cardinals talent is Alex Reyes, but he’s a bit of a unique case. He’s probably one of few top prospects that only have five years of control remaining, compared to six and some change for a prospect that hasn’t debuted in the majors yet. He’s also returning from an elbow surgery, which would tend to put a damper on his value.

The team’s actual best trade chip might instead be Carson Kelly. He was ranked just outside of the top 50 by two scouting outlets and came 36th in another. The stats like him too, as evidenced by his 46th place ranking on Chris Mitchell’s KATOH prospect projection system.

Because the Cards’ top two prospects can’t match the top two traded in Sale and Quintana deals, as well as the fact that Archer and his contract is even more team-friendly than those two, the Rays would be justified in demanding both of those two plus more.

So, the Cards would need to get Archer by supplying more quantity, more depth to their trade than the other two. Technically, two other prospects were involved in the Moncada deal, but they didn’t make any top 100 lists, and they didn’t rate well on team-specific lists. The Cards would need to supply real prospects in order to meet the value provided for those two, let alone exceed those packages, which you’d assume they’d have to do to get an even better asset.

Trade comps can be useful, but this shows the limits of such analysis. To compare apples to apples, we’ll quantify the value of both established MLB players and prospects.

Using Archer’s current projection, an averaged aging curve, $11.1M as the best estimate for the cost of a win and 5.9% as the best estimate for the rate of inflation going forward, here’s how Archer’s contract grades out:

Chris Archer contract trade value

Chris Archer 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total
Chris Archer 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total
Cost of WAR $11.1 $11.8 $12.4 $13.2 $12.1
Projected WAR 4.6 4.1 3.9 3.7 16.4
Projected value $51.1 $48.6 $49.2 $49.0 $197.9
Salary $6.3 $7.5 $9.0 $11.0 $33.8
Projected Surplus $44.8 $41.1 $40.2 $38.0 $164.1
Projected NP Surplus Value $44.8 $38.1 $34.4 $30.2 $147.5

This passes the industry test, as Archer’s value calculated here is higher than what I calculated for Sale and Quintana back when they were being shopped. The WAR calculated here though is fangraphs WAR though, which is based on fielding-independent stats, ignoring his contact quality problems. Discount him for the same amount of his projected ERA and FIP split and his projected value drops to $135M. That still leaves him significantly more valuable than Sale and Quintana though.

However, Archer’s valuation isn’t on the same footing as the prospect Surplus Values calculated at TPOP. That’s because that work was done in 2016, and with an estimated cost of a win of $8M. So we’ll increase every prospect category by 39% ($11.1M/$8M), in order to truly make an apples to apples comparison. So you don’t have to do the math in your head, here’s an updated chart:

2018 updated prospect surplus values

Rank Hitters Pitchers
Rank Hitters Pitchers
1-10 $102.0 $97.0
11-25 $86.0 $54.1
26-50 $53.0 $41.3
51-75 $31.1 $22.9
76-100 $28.6 $21.6

Depending on the outlet, Kelly is either near the back of the 25-50 section, or near the top of the 51-75 section. An average of two would put him at a little more than a $40M value. The scouts put Reyes firmly in the 10-25 pitchers group, a $54M value. But his injury, burned service time, and relatively lukewarm KATOH projection all leads one to believe his value isn’t quite that high. Generally speaking, $40M seems like a decent over/under.

Unfortunately, this method indicates that Kelly and Reyes only gets the Cards a little more than halfway towards acquiring a Chris Archer. The Cards’ next best trade asset is probably either Jack Flaherty or Luke Weaver depending on the person being asked. The public scouts were still skeptical of Weaver at the time the midseason lists came out, but his success in the majors in the second half most likely raised his stock.

Flaherty is apparently a consensus just missed top 50 prospect according to the scouts, with KATOH considering his expected outcome brighter than that. An average of the 25-50 pitchers group and the 51-75 pitchers group puts him a little above $30M. Weaver is probably in similar territory.

So now we’re at Kelly, Reyes, and one of either Weaver or Flaherty. The problem is, we’re only about 80% of the way there according to the surplus values used here. Of course, the Cardinals and Rays have their own evaluations of all the players in question. This is just an exercise to see what type of deal might be fair, based on the best public estimates. Maybe Kelly, Reyes, and Flaherty is enough to net Archer, but it’s about the smallest package I can realistically imagine fetching him.

The Rays would be justified in wanting more. They don’t really need outfielders, but it be nice if they were interested in Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Harrison Bader, or Magneuris Sierra. Being that Archer is cheap, the Cards would still have the ability to further improve the team by signing Justin Upton or J.D. Martinez. Such a move would make the outfield depth the team currently enjoys a little more expendable.

Perhaps it would only take one of the above four outfielders. Maybe it would take two of them. Maybe it would take one of them as well as Dakota Hudson or Sandy Alcantara.

The point is that with the Cardinals’ lack of very top of the line prospects, it could take as many as five good prospects for the Cardinals to acquire an arm as elite as Chris Archer. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I’m not here to say that would be a mistake, only to try my best to come up with a realistic price. Archer is really great, enough that you can justify trading the futures of five decent prospects for four cheap years of him.

To have a better opinion on whether that’s a price worth paying, I’d want to take a closer look at Archer than what I have time for here. That to me is a separate, though of course related discussion. This is step one of the process.

With that, I turn this over to you guys. I think you’d have to jump at trading only Kelly, Reyes, and Flaherty for Archer, but how much farther do you go? Kelly, Reyes, Flaherty, Bader, and Alcantara actually looks closer to fair, but even that may not be enough, depending on how the Rays feel about Archer. Everybody wants a really great player, but how high a prospect cost are you willing to pay?