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The case for a complete rebuild

An option that has 0% chance of happening

San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the prospect of the Cardinals selling at the deadline. Seung Hwan Oh and Lance Lynn are the two most obvious trade chips: both are free agents at the end of the year. Trevor Rosenthal makes sense as well. He’s been lights-out for most the year, projects to cost nearly $10M next year (his final before free agency), and great relievers fetch a hefty price at the deadline.

There were two other players I also named as possibly being worth trading. Michael Wacha is healthy and pitched well to start the year, but two weeks ago it was a lot easier to see a sell-high opportunity in trading him. There’s also Jedd Gyorko, who is still controlled for a while but could also be a potential sell-high candidate in a rare Cardinals down year.

Today though, we’re taking this a step further. Some fans have floated the idea of a complete rebuild. It’s not necessary by any means, this team isn’t horrible. It also has approximately zero chance of happening. That doesn’t mean it’s not an intriguing idea though, and it’s the one we’re going to talk about today.

It’s an unrealistic idea because teams in the Cardinals’ position don’t usually go full-rebuild. A lot of fans have been very vocal in their displeasure of the current product, but I still argue that Cardinals fans are just spoiled. It’s a natural consequence of their incredible run of success in this millennium. There’s an ocean of difference between what the Cardinals are now and what Braves, Cubs, and Astros fans spent years experiencing. Each of those teams currently sit in an enviable position, but it wasn’t without it’s costs. However, I do think the magnitude of the value the Cards would be trading, plus the fact that they already do have an above-average farm - something the other teams didn’t - would make it a much more expedient rebuild than those three.

The closest example is probably the Braves, but they also only had one year each remaining of core players Justin Upton and Jason Heyward. The Cardinals have no one as valuable that is about to leave. Oh and Lynn are nice of course, but they’re not franchise-altering departures. Many of the players I’ll be suggesting the Cardinals trade have four or more years of control remaining. However, not all years of control are created equal, as we’ll soon see.

There’s also the fact that the volume of trades the Cardinals would be making is kind of unrealistic to expect in a single deadline. Some of their best trade chips are infielders, and many contenders are set on that front. Pitchers get hurt constantly, so arms are always in-demand at the deadline. Forecasting the position player market is more difficult. That is probably the biggest practical reason why this wouldn’t work: there could easily not be four buyers seriously considering infield upgrades this July, and that’s the amount I’m suggesting the Cardinals trade.

One infielder that’s getting a lot of attention when it comes to a possible trade is Matt Carpenter. The idea is that he’s a great hitter now, but he’s also 31 and his best days are probably behind him. It hurts me on a fundamental fan level to think about trading Matt, I find players with his profile to be a lot of fun to watch (at the plate that is). Still, I get the idea, and I’ll find new Cardinals to love.

To calculate his and other’s value, we’ll have to set a number of stipulations. I found the average cost of a win in the latest offseason to be $9M, and Dave Cameron has found the cost of in-season wins to be double what it is in the offseason. We’ll use a 5% inflation rate and discount future production by 8%, which are both standard. We’ll use Fangraphs’ depth chart projections for a player’s expected production, and use an average aging curve for pitchers and position players after 2017. We’ll also assume these deals occur at the trade deadline, not right now.

With all that said, here’s how Carpenter’s value shakes out:

Matt Carpenter Contract Value Calculation

Matt Carpenter 2017 2018 2019 Total
Matt Carpenter 2017 2018 2019 Total
Price of WAR $18.0 $9.5 $9.9 $11.2
Projected WAR 1.0 2.5 1.8 5.2
Projected value $17.5 $23.2 $17.9 58.6
Salary $3.3 $13.8 $16.8 33.8
Projected Surplus Value $14.2 $9.4 $1.2 24.8
Projected NP Surplus Value $14.2 $8.7 $1.0 23.9

This might look a little underwhelming to you. I think the projections are a bit lukewarm on him, and have for a while now. They see him as a 3 WAR/600 PA player right now. Carpenter has a team option for $18.5M with a $2M buyout in 2020, but his starting point plus an average aging curve has him declining to the point where it’s not worth the $16.5M extra. So that year isn’t shown here, and the $2M buyout was added to his 2019 salary.

A $25M Net Present Surplus Value (NPSV) is nothing to sneeze at of course, but it’s probably less than what some were thinking. According to my Aggregate Top 219 prospect list, which aggregates six public Top Prospect lists as well as the values those rankings imply, that’s the same value as the 62nd ranked prospect, Isan Diaz of the Brewers. Not that this makes the Brewers a match of course, this just gives us an idea of his value.

Besides, deals like this typically involve more than one prospect to spread out the risk and value. You could instead think of it as the 99th ranked prospect ($17.6) and the 201st ranked prospect ($6.5M). Those specific prospects aren’t even on the same team, this is just a way to ballpark what the projections think he could bring back. The Cardinals have their own prospect valuation system that they follow anyway, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s better than the public. If you think Carpenter is more like a 3.5 WAR player, he projects to be worth $38M. That’s like a 58th ranked prospect ($25.2M) and a 139th ranked prospect ($12.8M).

Next up, we’ll take a look at Aledmys Diaz. To project Diaz’s future salaries, we’ll assume the Cardinals renew his 2017 salary ($2.5M) in his last pre-arbitration year, and then give him arbitration salaries based on The Point of Pittsburgh’s research. Controlled through 2020, here’s how Diaz’s value grades out:

Aledmys Diaz Contract Value Calculation

Aledmys Diaz 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total
Aledmys Diaz 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total
Price of WAR $18.0 $9.5 $9.9 $10.4 $10.9 $10.9
Projected WAR 0.8 2.1 1.7 1.5 1.1 7.2
Projected value $14.6 $20.2 $17.3 $15.6 $11.6 $79.3
Salary $0.8 $2.5 $4.3 $6.2 $7.2 $21.1
Projected Surplus Value $13.8 $17.7 $12.9 $9.4 $4.4 $58.2
Projected NP Surplus Value $13.8 $16.4 $11.1 $7.4 $3.3 $51.9

I wouldn’t have guessed Diaz’s value would top Carpenter, but I like to go where the numbers take me. Maybe the league doesn’t feel similarly, but Diaz is at least playable at short depending on your opinion, and wouldn’t be a headache at third or second either. I don’t love his contact quality, but he also makes a lot of it, and had quite the 2016 campaign that might still stick in some decision-makers’ minds. Diaz isn’t projected as well as Carpenter right now, but he costs less, is controlled for longer, and is at a better part of the aging curve.

In terms of prospects, this calculation implies Diaz could net something like the 40th ranked prospect ($30.4M), a 140th ranked prospect ($12.5M), and a 168th ranked prospect ($8.8M).

We’ve already talked about trading Kolten Wong when I contemplated what it would take to acquire Josh Donaldson. Let’s review though:

Kolten Wong contract value calculation

Kolten Wong 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total
Kolten Wong 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total
Price of WAR $18.0 $9.5 $9.9 $10.4 $11.0
Projected WAR 0.8 1.9 1.5 1.3 5.4
Projected Value $13.5 $18.1 $15.0 $13.3 $59.9
Salary $0.8 $4.0 $6.5 $11.2 $22.5
Projected Surplus $12.7 $14.1 $8.5 $2.1 $37.4
Projected NP Surplus $12.7 $13.0 $7.3 $1.6 $34.7

Wong is also a better asset than Carpenter, at least according to the host of objective stipulations I set here. In terms of prospects, this is like the 67th best prospect ($22M) and the 138th ranked prospect ($12.9M). For more on Wong’s trade value, check out the Josh Donaldson article linked above.

Next up, we’ll look at Stephen Piscotty:

Stephen Piscotty Contract Value Calculation

Stephen Piscotty 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 Total
Stephen Piscotty 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 Total
Price of WAR $18.0 $9.5 $9.9 $10.4 $10.9 $11.5 $11.0
Projected WAR 0.6 1.5 1.1 0.9 0.4 -0.3 4.3
Projected value $10.9 $14.4 $11.1 $9.2 $4.9 -$3.2 $47.3
Salary $0.3 $1.0 $7.0 $7.0 $7.2 $8.2 $30.7
Projected Surplus Value $10.6 $13.4 $4.1 $2.2 -$2.3 -$11.4 $16.5
Projected NP Surplus Value $10.6 $12.4 $3.5 $1.7 -$1.7 -$7.8 $18.8

The projections don’t like Piscotty, if you haven’t noticed. He projects to decline below replacement level by his last guaranteed year, which as you can see kind of breaks my calculator. The Cardinals obviously think he’s better than the projections; they just handed him this deal a few months ago, and not much has changed since. He’s the one player here that I’ll say the Cardinals should keep for now, provided that this calculation accurately portrays his value in the trade market. So I won’t include him going forward. Besides, someone’s going to need to stay, there’s about to be a lot of openings.

He’s had a 118 wRC+ for his career, but is projected for a 109 wRC+ going forward. If you think right now he’s about the hitter been at the Major league level right so far, that’s 3/5th of a win improvement over a full season, which would boost his value all the way to $47M.

At 26 he’s deceptively old, in that the aging curve going forward isn’t as friendly as you might think. The average decline per year over the years featured here is 0.4 WAR, though the highest decline comes in the final year.

OK, here’s a big one. Even those advocating for a complete rebuild aren’t talking about this. In my defense, pitchers break and no one knows what the future holds. You might as well sell while the value is sky-high. Here is Carlos Martinez’s trade value:

Carlos Martinez contract value calculation

Carlos Martinez 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 Total
Carlos Martinez 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 Total
Price of WAR $18.0 $9.5 $9.9 $10.4 $10.9 $11.5 $12.1 $11.0
Projected WAR 1.3 3.8 3.4 3.0 2.5 2.3 1.8 18.1
Projected value $23.5 $35.8 $33.6 $31.0 $27.8 $26.3 $22.0 $199.9
Salary $1.2 $11.5 $11.5 $11.5 $11.5 $17.0 $18.0 $82.2
Projected Surplus Value $22.3 $24.3 $22.1 $19.5 $16.3 $9.3 $4.0 $117.7
Projected NP Surplus Value $22.3 $22.5 $18.9 $15.5 $12.0 $6.3 $2.5 $100.0

Wowza. Dave Cameron’s annual top 50 trade value series is around the corner, and I’m interested to see where Martinez would place. He’s young and great enough that both his options project as surplus years, despite being well in the future. The total Net Present Surplus Value is almost an exact match for what I calculated Chris Sale’s value was when he was dealt to the Red Sox, though since he was traded in the offseason there was no in-season premium. He’s also controlled a lot longer than Sale which helps.

Even if the Cards did go full rebuild, Carlos would still be off the table. For one, he’s someone Cardinals fans would show up and tune in for every five days even if the rest of the team was bad. He’s just that good. He could also easily be the next face of the franchise. And he’s still young and under control for six years after this one, so what’s the rush?

However, check out his NPSV by year. 45% of his worth comes in 2017 and 2018. In this scenario, Martinez could still be part of the next great Cardinals team. But is it worth it to spend his most valuable years on a team that’s in the middle of a rebuild? In terms of prospects, Carlos could command the 6th ($69.9M) and 41st ($30.1M) ranked prospects in the game.

Okay, let’s add all of these totals up along with the players we already considered trading two weeks ago. As a reminder, that’s Lynn, Oh, Rosenthal, Wacha, and Gyorko. Here’s everyone’s NPSV, and the grand total:

Cardinal Trade chips and value

Trade Chips NP Surplus Value
Trade Chips NP Surplus Value
Carlos Martinez $100.0
Aledmys Diaz $51.9
Jedd Gorkyo $41.1
Kolten Wong $34.7
Trevor Rosenthal $33.2
Matt Carpenter $23.9
Michael Wacha $22.5
Seung Hwan Oh $15.8
Lance Lynn $9.5
Total $332.6

Trading all of these players this deadline would result in an amazing haul. For context, here’s how each team graded out when I made the aggregate list at the beginning of the year:

The Braves have the best farm in the game at about $375M. They’re also in a tier on their own, although Dansby Swanson probably isn’t considered a prospect anymore. Prospects graduate, change teams, and raise or lower their own value through performance, so the prospect values shown here are just a snapshot in time from when the prospect lists were released before the season. Thing have undoubtedly changed since then.

Still, the Cardinals could almost acquire an entire best farm in baseball for these nine players. But they’re not starting from scratch; they already have nearly $200M in prospect value, compared to a $155M average. If the Cardinals made these moves and received the values estimated here, they’d have the undisputed best farm system in the game in a tier with no one else, including the Braves who are already head and shoulders above everyone else. Prospects break your heart, but in this scenario the Cardinals would put themselves in a position that would probably top their own system in 2012-2013, as well as the Cubs in 2014-2015.

Again though, these players are controllable for several more years. It’s one thing to trade those about to reach free agency, but why not just hold onto controlled and proven MLB commodities with an eye towards staying competitive? Well, for one they’re at their highest values now. As you can see in the examples above, this is for several reasons:

  • The in-season premium values current wins at by far the highest rate, despite inflation.
  • The Net Present Value adjustment gives an accurate discounting of future value, something that’s included in the prospect values as well.
  • On average, players only decline over almost all ages, including all of the ages we’ve considered here.
  • The salaries of all these players, and almost all players (Jhonny Peralta’s contract being a notable exception) rise over time.

To more clearly illustrate this, I took each player’s NPSV by year and converted each year into percentages of their overall NPSV. We’ll exclude Oh, Lynn, and Rosie as moving any or all of those three would be reasonable without initiating a full-scale rebuild. Here’s the results:

Yearly Net Present Surplus Value

Trade Chips NP Surplus Value 2017 NPSV% 2018 NPSV% 2019 NPSV% 2020 NPSV% 2021 NPSV% 2022 NPSV% 2023 NPSV%
Trade Chips NP Surplus Value 2017 NPSV% 2018 NPSV% 2019 NPSV% 2020 NPSV% 2021 NPSV% 2022 NPSV% 2023 NPSV%
Michael Wacha $22.5 43.6% 38.0% 18.3% x x x x
Matt Carpenter $23.9 55.5% 34.1% 3.9% x x x x
Kolten Wong $34.7 36.6% 37.5% 21.0% 4.7% x x x
Jedd Gyorko $41.1 36.3% 39.2% 22.4% 2.2% x x x
Aledmys Diaz $51.9 26.5% 31.6% 21.4% 14.3% 6.3% x x
Carlos Martinez $100.0 22.3% 22.5% 18.9% 15.5% 12.0% 6.3% 2.5%
Total $274.1 32.0% 31.1% 18.8% 9.3% 5.6% 2.3% 0.9%

This was the end result I was interested in when I started this project, and I was shocked by the result. This collective, on average, has a third of their value tied up in the 2017 season, even by the time we reach the trade deadline, two months before the end of the regular season. More than 60% of their current value projects to evaporate in the next year and a half. If you decide to part with even a few of these guys, it’s tough to imagine the team being competitive. This might be a “Go big or go home” situation.

If you decide you just can’t part with Carlos Martinez, well, you’d still have a top two farm in baseball, and the percentages at the beginning would jump even higher. If you exclude El Gallo, the 2017 NPSV% jumps all the way to 37.6%, with 2018 hitting 36.1%.

Again, this has zero chance of happening, for a number of reasons. The fact that these players hold so much value is also evidence that the team just doesn’t need to rebuild. They have about an average team right now, with a lot of players in team-friendly contract situations. They also already have an above-average farm. Those teams don’t typically push the restart button. If they did though, it would be pretty neat.

Maybe the Cardinals should just trade their short-term assets at the deadline, and re-up in the offseason by trading from their depth of prospects for a high-end piece or two in the off-season. That’s certainly a much more likely approach. Still, that doesn’t mean a complete rebuild isn’t an idea worth exploring.

note: I’m not sure why the player and team links get screwy at the end. Hopefully this is only occurring in the editor, and you don’t know what I’m talking about right now. If not, I’m sorry they look so weird, but I can’t figure out how to fix them.