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Jocketty’s Lament, or: A Trade that Won’t Happen, and Why

Heading back to an earlier era of Cardinal baseball, to check out an historical parallel.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Morning, all. Hope all the Pagan Picnic attendees had fun yesterday, and anyone going today enjoy. Be careful in the heat, though; so far as I know Wiccans have yet to come up with a circle of protection against heatstroke. Me, I went yesterday, and today will be attending the Strawberry Festival in Kimmswick, Missouri, to help balance out my Saturday of heathen debauchery (and by debauchery I mean I had two more beers than I probably should have and bought a bar of handmade soap that doesn’t really smell as good as I thought it did, so watch out for me), with an afternoon of nauseating small town wholesomeness.

Anyhow, if we turn our attentions from my weekend activities to the baseball world, we quickly find my weekend activities are significantly more enjoyable to discuss. To wit, today the St. Louis Cardinals will play their 54th game, marking the official completion of the season’s first trimester, and they will need to win this evening’s tilt to simply make it back to .500 as they pass this first pole.

As we pass this important milestone of the season, we might usually take a big sweeping overall look at the club. Where they’re strong, where they’re weak, what changes need to be made, etc. And maybe some of my fellow writers will do that. After all, there are plenty of very talented and insightful people authoring posts on a regular basis for this site, and any one of them could go deep down the rabbit hole of roster construction as it pertains to the current and future El Birdos of 2017.

However, I have a slightly different tack I want to take this morning, to try and examine just what it is the Redbirds need and why it will likely prove to be so difficult to acquire.

So what we’re going to do is jump into our hypothetical time machine, and we’re going to go back about, say, fifteen years. On the way back, we’re going to pass a bunch of Cardinal teams from earlier in John Mozeliak’s tenure, and then we’re going to pass a bunch of Walt Jocketty teams. We may, if we look fast enough, notice a funny thing about the 2006 championship club as it relates to this current iteration of the franchise; namely, that ‘06 club had elite-level talent at the top of the roster in the form of one multiple-time MVP, two other players who deserved MVP awards at some point but were denied by Barry Bonds and his physician, and a starting pitcher who had won the Cy Young award just a year before. On the other hand, the depth of those clubs absolutely sucked. Think about this: we remember the 2006 Cardinals fondly because they won a World Series, but they barely snuck into the playoffs, and had to trade for Ronnie Belliard at the deadline because Junior Spivey hadn’t worked out for them. There was darkness at the edge of that town, is what I’m saying. Contrast that with the club of ten years later, which is hard up for star power but would never, ever need to trade for whatever the 2017 version of Ronnie Belliard is. (Although we could trade for the actual Belliard and have a mid-2000s Cleveland Indians middle infield reunion, which could be fun, I suppose.) It’s hard to find two more different team-building philosophies. Not saying one is superior to the other, but the game is moving toward the depth uber alles approach, for whatever reason.

Anyhow, we’re going to land ourselves back sometime in the early 2000s. It’s not important to get an exact date, of course, even in terms of a single year. Let’s just pretend it’s around 2001, okay? Walt Jocketty is the GM of the Cardinals, John Mozeliak is running the draft or international scouting or maybe still throwing batting practice. Not totally sure. Not that important.

But let’s say we’re here in the early 2000s, and the Cardinals of Walt Jocketty have this exact roster situation the Redbirds of 2017 have. Namely, the early 2000s Cardinals have a roster with a ton of depth, a lot of quality major leaguers, plenty of guys who are average or a little better, but no stars. If we wanted a contemporary example, let’s say the whole team was composed of various Edgars Renteria. Good players, yes, but not elite players by any means.

So what would the Walt Jocketty Cardinals of 2000ish do with a roster full of these good, solid, but not great players?

Simple. Make a trade for a star. You know, like, say, Jim Edmonds. Who was coming off four consecutive seasons of 4+ WAR, and then an injury-plagued age 29 season in 1999.

Or we could go forward a couple years and make the other big deal of that era. We could make the Scott Rolen deal. Now that’s an elite talent. Edmonds was great in Anaheim, but really blossomed into one of baseball’s best once he got to St. Louis. Rolen, on the other hand, in his first five full seasons with the Phillies, had been worth approximately 22 wins above replacement, including a 7 WAR campaign as a 23 year old in ‘98. Scott Rolen was one of the game’s best players, and the Cardinals were able to acquire him.

So what would be the equivalent of the Scott Rolen deal today? Well, that’s easy. The 2017 version of Scott Rolen is Josh Donaldson. Both play third base, both are among the best at the position. The Phillies of 2002 were worse off than the Blue Jays of 2017, but Toronto is still in a very precarious position, as they face an uphill battle in a division full of titans. The Jays are almost at .500 now after a brutal start, but even so it might be time for Toronto to refresh an aging roster and move in a different direction. Trading Josh Donaldson would go a long, long way toward doing that.

Therefore, what the Cardinals should do is call up the Toronto Blue Jays, and make them an offer they can’t refuse. First, we’ll offer Marco Gonzales, which is espanol for ‘Bud Smith’. Then we’ll move on to the talented young second baseman who’s established himself as a solid but unspectacular player but is showing signs of moving himself into that next tier up. That would be Kolten Wong, which is Hawaiian for Placido Polanco.

Now we need a Mike Timlin. Timlin was a journeyman reliever who was always pretty good, and managed to pitch for close to two decades. Weirdly enough, probably the closest thing the Redbirds of 2017 have to Mike Timlin is Brett Cecil, who they just signed away from the Blue Jays. So let’s look elsewhere, and just conclude we need a good, above-average reliever. How about we go with Seung Hwan Oh, especially since he seems interested in playing elsewhere before his career comes to an end.

So there’s your package for Josh Donaldson. Now, one could argue Rolen was a free agent at the end of the 2002 season, and Donaldson is under club control (albeit arbitration-eligible and likely to be quite expensive), for next season. However, Rolen was younger than Donaldson by a few years, so there’s a little added value there. Still, even if we wanted to to add on a little to that package we could put in something like a Luke Weaver.

Now, what do you think would happen if the Cardinals were to offer the Toronto Blue Jays Kolten Wong, Marco Gonzales, and Seung-Hwan Oh for Josh Donaldson? Would the Blue Jays buy into a long-term solution at second base, an interesting young arm, and a valuable reliever? In a word, no. No they would not.

What would happen is this: the Blue Jays would run the calculations on what Donaldson is going to make next season, combined with what he’ll make the rest of this year, and then compare that to his projected value. The rest of season projections for this year are wonky in terms of playing time, but let’s just peg his 2018 at something like 5.0 wins. If he’s a fiveish win player next year (which would be very conservative, based on his last couple seasons), then he should be worth about a win and a half over a couple months this year. So we’ll say he’s going to be worth 6.5-7.0 wins total from the trade deadline of 2017 to the end of 2018, when he’ll become a free agent.

Those sevenish wins are currently being priced at something like $56 million on the open market. There’s a tax on value added at the trade deadline, too, which could push that number even higher, but let’s just ignore that for now. It’s not super necessary for the point. He’s making $17 million this year, of which two months would be about $6 million. What he’ll get in arbitration next year I have no idea, but it will probably be a lot. Twenty million? Twenty five? If we say $25 million, then the total contract number an acquiring team would pay would be about $30-31 million. So we get roughly $25 million in surplus value.

If we return to our trade package, we see that Kolten Wong, the headliner, is signed through 2021 (option year for ‘21), for about $33 million. Add on the not quite a million he’ll make in two months this year, and it’s about 34. Kolten has been roughly a 2.0-2.5 WAR/600 PA player so far in his career, so from the first of August 2017 through the end of 2021 we’re probably looking at close to 10 wins above replacement. Particularly considering Wong is smack dab in the prime of his career, he could easily eclipse that number, but we’ll just ballpark 10. That’s roughly $80 million worth of value using present WAR/$ values, which will probably only increase. (I say probably, because the near future of baseball economics is a little cloudy.) So using those numbers, we get about $45 million or so in surplus value.

Which means that Kolten Wong is —

Wait. Seriously?

Kolten Wong on his current deal is worth something like twice as much surplus value as Josh Donaldson on his?

Even if we bump Donaldson up substantially from five WAR in terms of next year’s projection, it’s really hard to get him to a place where he’s even as valuable as Kolten Wong. A player with one year of control and a big salary just isn’t worth as much as a guy with a four year team-friendly contract, even if their relative qualities are pretty widely separated. And if you think Wong is really breaking out with the bat this year, the numbers only tilt further in Kolten’s favour.

So what in the world are we to make of this? If the Cardinals called up Toronto and offered Kolten Wong, Marco Gonzales, and Seung-Hwan Oh for Josh Donaldson, it’s pretty apparent they would be overpaying, perhaps massively, for maybe the best third baseman in baseball, depending on what you think of Arenado and Manny Machado.

And yet, can you imagine the howls of the Toronto fanbase if such a deal were made? It would not be pretty, I wouldn’t imagine.

Here’s the thing, though: no matter how upset the Toronto fanbase might be, the fact is the Cardinals’ front office of 2017 would not be able to justify making such an offer based on pretty much any model of player valuation one can imagine.

Now, in the old days, it might be possible. If the Cardinals were to offer that deal and, rather than simply making the trade, make a certain negotiating period part of the deal, then maybe we could see our way to a trade. Offer the Blue Jays those three players, get an exclusive window, and offer Donaldson a five-year contract for $130 million. Buy out his final arb year and four seasons beyond that. You get to potentially lock a superstar up for big money (but not unreasonable money, obviously, looking at his production), for five years in exchange for a big lump of surplus value already locked in.

But here’s the next problem: when was the last time a club executed a trade-and-sign like this? I don’t honestly recall. No free agent to be is going to make this kind of deal. And further, the Cardinals signed Scott Rolen to a long term deal in September of 2002, just before he was set to become a free agent. Do we even think Donaldson would be interested in something like that? Tough to say, but we’re seeing fewer and fewer of those deals signed by players getting close to free agency. You sign your guys in years 1-3, or you don’t sign them at all, it seems.

We also have the aging curve to contend with here. Donaldson is 31 years old. He’ll play all of 2018 at 32. So if a five-year contract were in the offing, it would be for his age 32, 33, 34, 35, and 36 seasons. The Cards just handed Dexter Fowler $80 million for ages 31-35. How likely does it seem they would hand even Josh Donaldson $130 million (or more!), for 32-36? Jim Edmonds was a Hall of Fame caliber player in his 30s, but it’s harder to bet on that now than it used to be, it seems. Maybe not. But it seems like it.

So we have a trade offer for a superstar that seems ludicrously light, yet would actually be a big overpay for the team getting the superstar. We could try to negotiate a long-term deal, but considering how unlikely it seems a deal would be reached prior to free agency, we’re forced to conclude the only value you’d be getting in return would be the one year and two months of team control that doesn’t even justify Kolten Wong straight up. And even if it all worked out, you’d be betting on a third baseman to maintain star-level production into his mid-30s, which, you know. Jhonny Peralta says hi. And then hurts his hand waving hello.

Could the Blue Jays’ front office justify moving Josh Donaldson for that package? And would the Cardinals’ front office be willing to ignore the equations that tell them Kolten Wong on his deal is worth way more than eight months of Josh Donaldson?

Well, remember those Facebook relationship statuses they used to have? (They might still have them; I just haven’t used Facebook in years.) This one warrants an ‘It’s complicated’.

Fifteen years ago, Walt Jocketty made a hell of a deal for Scott Rolen, completing the MV3. He traded a useful but not top prospect lefty, an emerging star second baseman (who, admittedly, I don’t think had quite as favourable a contract as Wong, but was also just flat-out better), and a quality veteran relief arm. In 2017, I think that package would be unlikely to be presented, would create a public relations fiasco if accepted, and would not offer nearly enough certainty to the team acquiring the star to make them ignore the math. The trade of Josh Donaldson to the Cardinals to give them their star centerpiece player probably won’t happen, but it isn’t because John Mozeliak is an inferior GM to Walt Jocketty. If anything, I think Mo has proven himself a more capable builder, or at least a much more flexible one in terms of taking a variety of approaches to value creation.

It won’t happen because it’s complicated. And finding a way out off the treadmill of mediocrity (to steal an NBA term), for the Cardinals is going to be complicated, I think.

Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe it’s only complicated because we’ve been conditioned to care about surplus value and the efficiency of the club, and maybe we should really just want our team to get the best players they can. Maybe worrying about the WAR/$ figure of one’s favourite team is a shitty, unsatisfying way to root for a club.

Or maybe not.

It’s probably complicated.