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The Cardinals should zig while the Cubs and Brewers zag

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Other teams are already muscling up, canceling out any potential big upgrade for the Cardinals

Chicago Cubs v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

As you have most likely already heard, the Cubs pulled off the first big trade of the season, acquiring Jose Quintana from the White Sox. His long resume of high-level production, a dirt-cheap contract that runs through 2020, and proven durability all contribute to making him quite the trade chip. Dave Cameron ranked him 42nd best trade value in the industry.

Cameron’s ranking are based on the teams’ perceptions, and the fact that he knows a lot of people that work in the game makes his list immensely interesting. The math likes Quintana better than that though. Using his current projection, an average aging curve, the price of WAR in the last offseason, Dave Cameron’s analysis that the price of in-season wins cost double what they did in the offseason, 5% inflation and 8% discount to future production, here’s what Quintana’s value looks like through 2020, when he becomes a free agent:

Jose Quintana contract value calculation

Jose Quintana 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total
Jose Quintana 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total
Price of WAR $18.0 $9.5 $9.9 $10.4 $11.0
Projected WAR 1.9 4.4 3.9 3.7 13.8
Projected value $34.2 $41.1 $38.4 $38.3 $152.0
Salary $2.5 $8.8 $10.5 $10.5 $32.3
Projected Surplus $31.7 $32.3 $27.9 $27.8 $119.7
Projected NP Surplus $31.7 $29.9 $23.9 $22.0 $107.6

Word is that the White Sox held on to Quintana last winter because they couldn’t get a deal similar to Sale. Sale is better, but Quintana isn’t much worse, and offered an extra year of control. By waiting until the deadline, the White Sox should also benefit from an in-season premium.

They didn’t quite get the Sale deal, but it was similar: a consensus very high-ranking position player along with a high quality and high-upside pitching prospect. Then both deals included two unranked players. Let’s take a closer look using my aggregated top prospect list:

Top prospects in Quintana deal

rank Prospect Pos. Value MiLB FG 100 BA 100 BP 101 361 MLB
rank Prospect Pos. Value MiLB FG 100 BA 100 BP 101 361 MLB
8 Eloy Jimenez OF $64.90 Grade A- 60 14 9 20 11
76 Dylan Cease RHP $19.80 Grade B+ x 97 x 64 73

On the surface, this looks like something of a steal for the Cubs. The lists that my list are based on came out before the season though. Fangraphs’ ranking is a score on the 20-80 scouting scale, not the player’s spot on their top 100. Eloy Jimenez started out the year in High-A, and ran a 131 wRC+ before the trade. Baseball America’s midseason list has him at 5th right now, up from 13th. Baseball Prospectus was much more incremental, going from 9th to 8th. Depending on how the rest of the outlets rank Jimenez, he may be as much as a $70-75M asset right now.

If you’re wondering why ESPN’s Top 100 isn’t shown, it’s because they publish their entire list behind paywall. I want people to know exactly what rankings led to each prospect’s value, and I wouldn’t feel right publishing that without Keith Law’s permission.

Dylan Cease made the back half of four of six top 100’s in my aggregate list. His value is nice, but it is easily topped by the secondary piece in the Sale trade. That piece was Michael Kopech, a consensus top 50 prospect.

The other two players - Matt Rose and Bryant Flete - didn’t appear on any top prospect list. They weren’t even mentioned on Minor League Ball (who mentioned 48 Cubs in total) or Fangraphs’ (46) Cubs top prospect lists. That doesn’t mean they have zero value but it doesn’t seem like they should be worth more than a few million.

Considering that we know the market already wasn’t valuing Quintana the same as Sale, this looks almost fair. The Cubs traded their best two prospects, they didn’t have a combo as good as Moncada/Kopech without using MLB pieces (Ian Happ for instance). The Cubs got off a little light though, and as a Cardinals fan that annoys me.

But there is an interesting outcome from this trade. After this, last year’s trade for Chapman, and promoting Happ and Albert Almora, the Cubs system is finally looking a little bare. Of course, every system would look bare after all the promotions they’ve made over the last few years, but still. Here’s their remaining top prospects from the preseason aggregate list:

Remaining Chicago Cubs top prospects

rank Prospect Pos. Value MiLB FG 100 BA 100 BP 101 361 MLB
rank Prospect Pos. Value MiLB FG 100 BA 100 BP 101 361 MLB
94 Trevor Clifton RHP $18.30 Grade B+/B x x 87 x x
151 Oscar De La Cruz RHP $12.30 Grade B x x x x x
200 Jeimer Candelario 3B $7.05 Grade B- x x x x 92
211 Mark Zagunis OF $6.50 Grade B- x x x x x

The Cubs no longer have a consensus top 100 prospect. They’re very obviously playing for the next few years. That’s not a bad idea of course, but being an in-division rival, the Cards’ strategy has to take the Cubs into account. Young, good players still in pre-arbitration are better than prospects, and the Cubs have a lot of those.

I have written several pieces each on the Cards selling and buying at the deadline. I’m still not completely sure what they should be doing, but it’s nice to be able to write about both, as you’re doubling your potential article ideas. It always sounds really nice to see the Cardinals go really big. Acquire Donaldson or Machado! Do it Mo! I mean Girsch! Who doesn’t want to see their favorite team be competitive over the last two months of the season, and hopefully make it to the glorious post-season? Flags fly forever, and awesome postseason memories really help cement our love for our favorite team.

At the same time though, selling has it’s rewards. And another team in the division, one that is probably still better than the Cardinals, is flooring it. The Cubs just acquired one of the best assets on the market, so if you thought before that the Cardinals should make a big move, you should now think they have to make two.

And that’s just the Cubs. At this point, we have to consider the Brewers, who are still 6 1/2 games in front of the Cardinals. They haven’t made any big moves yet, but they certainly have the ammo. My aggregate list gave them the fourth best farm going into the year. While there isn’t yet any indication they’re going to make big moves, they’re going to do something. They’re not going to ignore the fact that they’re winning the division, and that the second-place team, who is kind of a sleeping giant right now, just made a big improvement.

This doesn’t stop at Milwaukee either. The Rockies have a decent farm themselves, ranking 14th on my aggregate list. Their ranking sells them short, as they sat near the back of a pack of 12 teams bunched up behind the top 4 (Braves, Yankees, White Sox, and Brewers) and their top prospect value was 30% above average team. The Diamondbacks have one of the worst farms, but they have some pieces to work with, and they’re not just going to sit on their hands.. Those teams currently sit 8 12 (Diamondbacks) and 7 12 (Rockies) on the Cardinals in the Wild-Card race.

And that’s just the National league. Not yet taking yesterday’s results into consideration, Fangraphs’ playoff odds give 11 A.L. teams at least 11.5% chance to make the playoffs. OK, the bottom half of those teams don’t have that great of chances, and some of those teams will end up selling. But it’s not easy to give up on the possibility of making the playoffs. Everyone can still remember the 2011 Cardinals. The playoffs offer the teams big extra revenue, with the ability to charge incredibly high ticket prices relative to the regular season. On top of that, the extra excitement among the fan base often leads to higher attendance and ratings the following season.

For every team that goes for it though, the incentive for any specific team to sell gets greater. If everyone’s buying, the few sellers are going to clean up. Are the Cardinals in a position to do that? As I’ve talked about before, trading Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Seung Hwan Oh, and Lance Lynn could boost the farm system. When I calculated their Net Present Surplus Value, they came out combined to about $80M. Adding $80M to the Cards’ farm ranking would put them about where the White Sox (who were 3rd) ranked preseason. Of course, the White Sox may contend for first in the midseason lists. After this deal, signing Luis Robert, and whatever other deals they strike before the deadline, their future outlook looks pretty amazing.

As we see here, it’s not like we can expect an exact transfer of value. Maybe they end up with around $100M by this method, or maybe it’s more like $60M. The Cardinals have shown themselves to be strong evaluators of pre-MLB talent, so I trust them to do well. With each team evaluating talent a different way, and each team having a specific, unique, limited assortment of assets to trade, expecting it to be precise is a fool’s errand. This is about ballparking quantified value.

Going past those four, the team could deal others. While many of the remaining Cardinals are signed for several more years, three weeks ago we found four very good reasons for why even long-term controlled players have most their value tied to the short-term:

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.

The Cardinals aren’t going to do a complete rebuild, for one it’s just not likely that they’d be able to move every trade-able player in such a short period of time. However, the Cardinals should be open to dealing pretty much any MLB player that isn’t Carlos Martinez, should the right offer come along.

Selling at the deadline doesn’t mean a rebuild. Lynn and Oh are gone at the end of the year anyway. If you just trade those two along with Wacha and Rosenthal, then fixing things isn’t that difficult. Luke Weaver takes one of the open spots in the rotation, and the Cardinals sign someone in a crowded 2017-2018 free agent pitchers market to take the other spot. Then you have to remake the bullpen in Rosenthal and Oh’s absence, which is tough, but doable.

Trade any other major league talent, and you might be creating too many holes. But they’d still have a whole offseason - when the market for MLB players relative to prospects is cheaper - to fill any holes created. They’d also have a nice new prospect windfall to spend from to fill that hole. Or, they could trade Jedd Gyorko and Rosenthal for Red Sox top prospect Rafael Devers, opening a hole that could be filled in less than a year’s time. At this point, though, it looks more like the Red Sox end up with Todd Frazier and David Robertson.

Every time I write an article on the Cards’ selling, I feel compelled to make this statement: this is a good team. They hold a 47-43 BaseRuns record, before accounting for yesterday’s loss. BaseRuns is more indicative of true talent level. However, this just might not be the Cards year, standings-wise. That’s OK really, 2013 and 2015 were both years where they outperformed their BaseRuns record. You win some, you lose some, and I’m sure I’m not alone in having some great memories of watching those teams.

Thing are going remarkably well for three N.L. teams that the experts and preseason projections thought were more pretender than contender. The Cubs under-performing may be the biggest surprise of the year, but the Cards may have already missed their chance to take advantage of it.

The Cubs have already made one substantial win-now decision this year, adding to their loss of Gleyber Torres last year. Quintana is controlled through 2020, and projects to be a bargain even that year, but this still weakens their long-term picture. Maybe they pull the trigger on Sonny Gray, and really empty out the farm. They’ve made some loud declarations that they’re going to do everything they can to win the next few years.

The Brewers entered 2017 with a strong farm, and likely to add to that by flipping some major leaguers for more prospects at the deadline. Now, they’re probably going to be subtracting from that farm, in the name of competing right now. And why not? It’s got to be exciting to be a Brewers fan right now. Their team is contending way earlier then anyone thought they would. They’re also in on the Sonny Gray sweepstakes. Before, it was easy to see the future Brewers as similar to the 2013-2015 Pirates: a budget-limited team that’s smart enough to play at the top of the division. Now, they could be taking from that future to hold off the reigning World Series champions in the present.

With that in mind, new GM Michael Girsch will have to decide: what’s best for the Cardinals? The Cards could empty out their farm in the name of catching the Brewers and going head-to-head with the Cubs the next few years. Or they could make some minor improvements at the deadline. They’d preserve the farm, but they’d also be going into a situation where most likely, they’re not going to reach the playoffs.

Or, they could zig while the Cubs and Brewers are zagging. “Waiting out the Cubs” may not be the most inspirational strategy, but it may be the best shot of long-term success. I’m tired of half-measures, and this just doesn’t seem like the right time to go all-in. Retreat for now, and create a better long-term picture.