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Michael Wacha is Sonny Gray-lite

Amid the rumors of the trade deadline season, the Tyler O’Neill/Marco Gonzalez trade will go largely unnoticed by the national media. Two sort of contending teams swapped prospects, what’s there to care about? Well while not a blockbuster, the deal does give us some insight into how the starting pitching market is shaping up. Jerry Dipoto undoubtably shopped around for starting pitching, only to find the asking prices to high for his taste, and opted to potentially overpay for a controllable starter in AAA. Enter Sonny Gray. The Athletics starter has been one of the better pitchers in baseball since entering the league in 2013, but struggled mightily in 2016 and hasn’t fully rebounded in 2017. Teams like the Astros, Yankees and Brewers have all been linked to Gray, but reports suggest that the A’s want too much in return. If teams are scared off by the cost to acquire the bigger name arms, the Cardinals should consider dealing Michael Wacha.

The similarities between Wacha and Gray are striking. Wacha is 26, Gray 27. Both debuted in 2013, getting off to hot starts to their careers. Both have struggled at times, but been generally very good, and are controlled through the 2019 season. Consider the following lines:

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Sonny Gray

699.0

7.70

2.87

0.80

3.45

3.58

3.59

Michael Wacha

585.2

7.99

2.87

0.81

3.73

3.56

3.82

Gray has thrown more innings, not surprising since he’s been generally healthy and Wacha has dealt with recurring shoulder issues. But the peripheral rate stats are basically identical, as are their FIP’s. Gray has outperformed Wacha by ERA for his career, so while they’re the same pitcher in a piece by piece sense, Gray has been better able to outperform his peripherals.

Now the next question is, what is each pitchers trade value? To determine each players surplus value in a trade, we have to set some guidelines for our evaluation. Let’s use Fangraph’s Depth Chart projections, assume $9M current price of WAR, 5% inflation, 8% discount on future performance, and double the price of WAR in-season. I don’t have access to a pitcher’s average aging curve, so for simplicities sake let’s assume both pitchers replicate this seasons production through their final two years under team control. Since both players are in their mid-to-late 20’s, it’s not a huge assumption. To calculate what each player will earn in arbitration, we’ll use the 25/40/60 rule consistent with The Point of Pittsburgh’s research.

Michael Wacha:

Year

Salary

WAR

Value

Surplus

Net Surplus

2017 (ARB 1)

$1.4M

0.9

$16.2M

$14.8M

14.8M

2018 (ARB 2)

$4.2M

3

$28.5M

$24.3M

22.4M

2019 (ARB 3)

$5.6M

3

$29.7M

$24.1M

22.2M

Total Surplus Value:

59.4M

Sonny Gray:

Year

Salary

WAR

Value

Surplus

Net Surplus

2017 (ARB 1)

$1.8M

1.2

$21.6M

$19.8M

$19.8M

2018 (ARB 2)

$5.4M

3.1

$29.5M

$24.1M

$22.2M

2019 (ARB 3)

$7.2M

3.1

$30.7M

$23.5M

$21.6M

Total Surplus Value:

$63.6M

Gray is the slightly more valuable pitcher, which makes sense since he’s been the marginally better pitcher over his career. He also doesn’t come with Wacha’s medical baggage, which must be taken into account. Wacha, however, is younger and should cost less through arbitration. Take that all into account and Wacha should be marketable as a palatable alternative for teams that find Gray too expensive. To get a sense of what each player could fetch in return from buyers like the Astros, Brewers, and Yankees, we’ll use The Point of Pittsburgh’s prospect valuations along with the Baseball America's Midseason Top 100.

Astros:

Player

BA Midseason Rank

Value

Kyle Tucker, OF

11

$62.0M

Franklin Perez, RHP

32

$29.8M

Francis Martes, RHP

48

$29.8M

Derek Fisher, OF

54

$22.4M

Forrest Whitley, RHP

58

$16.5M

Brewers:

Player

BA Midseason Rank

Value

Lewis Brinson, OF

16

$62.0M

Brandon Woodruff, RHP

43

$29.8M

Jose Hader, LHP

61

$16.5M

Luis Ortiz, RHP

67

$16.5M

Yankees:

Player

BA Midseason Rank

Value

Gleyber Torres, SS

3

$73.5M

Clint Frazier, OF

49

$38.2M

Chance Adams, RHP

56

$16.5M

Estevan Florial, OF

71

$22.4M

Justus Sheffield, LHP

73

$16.5M

Dustin Fowler, OF

89

$20.6M

Now let's tie these approximate valuations into what happening on the trade market. The Astros were reportedly in on Gray, but also wanted to acquire a bullpen arm in the package. The Athletics shipped Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle to the Nationals, which complicates things a bit. The current rumors link the Astros to Justin Verlander and Justin Wilson, but they don't want to part with Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley for the older Verlander. Given Luhnow's history with Wacha, he could be an alternative if packaged with a bullpen piece. Then there's the Yankees, who are reportedly very far apart with the A's on a deal, but may not want to dip back into their farm after acquiring Todd Frazier. The Brewers are also in on Gray, but inter-divisional trading is tricky and taboo. No scenario is perfect, but with the way the market is forming, it may make a lot of sense to move Michael Wacha.