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Trading Michael Wacha

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With this year’s dynamics, he’s pitched his way off the team in a good way

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs
michael wacha pitches his last, or second to last, or like 50th from last game as a cardinal, i dunno
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Before he got REALLY rich owning the Yankees, George Steinbrenner got regular rich in the shipping business. He did it the same way shippers have for centuries: by picking up goods where they are cheap, and carrying them to where they are expensive. That fundamental economic concept – exploiting exchange rates by buying and selling identical assets in different markets – is called arbitrage.

The market for baseball players presents many opportunities for arbitrage. The biggest one happens annually at the trade deadline, when contenders’ sense of their own needs is sharpened and sellers’ obstinance about keeping their MLB-level assets is dulled. By the trade deadline, the best-laid plans have had time to go awry, and year after year we see teams making “all in” trades they’ve never have contemplated in December. If you’ve got the right stuff to sell, prospects are cheap.

I can’t guess if the Cards will buy for 2017 or aim at 2018 and beyond; that depends on the next week of games. But I can tell you that right now, either way, the Cardinals should look hard at the market for Michael Wacha.

The market for controlled starters appears to be HOT HOT HOT

It looks so far like this year’s most expensive and thus arbitrage-worthy asset is controllable starting pitching. Exhibit A is the Cardinals getting Tyler O’Neill for Marco Gonzales.

Ben Markham wrote an indispensable post in April detailing how to estimate the cash value of prospects. According to Ben, O’Neill entered the year valued at $30-35 million, and Gonzales entered the year valued at… maybe $5 million? Let’s say (generously) Gonzales has now got $7 million in value, which puts him near the back of a top 200 list. And although O’Neill’s early-season struggles hurt him with the prospect rankers, even if you bump him down to the level of a “just missed” top 100 guy like Harrison Bader, O’Neill’s worth something like $15 million. That’s twice as much as Gonzales.

After the Gonzales-O’Neill swap, Mariners GM Jerry DiPoto said this:

We have talked to every team in the league regarding starting pitching, and the league demand greatly exceeds the supply. And as a result, the asking price — you think we gave up a lot to get David Phelps? The starting market is particularly high in what the asking prices are in return. We’re going to be realistic in what we can afford to let go. If we are to give away the types of asks that are being requested in return for starting pitching, we want someone who’s not just sustainable for 2017 but for the foreseeable future.

It would be rash to generalize from one trade and say there’s a 100% premium being placed on controlled starting pitchers right now. But DiPoto is considered a good GM, so take him at his word. In a world where the best return you can get when offering O’Neill is Gonzales, anybody looking to buy prospects with SP should be pleased.

So: right now, there’s a premium (of some amount) on controllable starting pitchers. The Cardinals have two controllable SPs who can be traded: Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha. I’ll set aside a Martinez trade, which is a whole different animal. What about Wacha?

Wacha has a lot of value, and there’s no reason the Cardinals can’t get fair value for him

Let’s dispel some fictions. First, Michael Wacha isn’t some mediocre pitcher that contenders wouldn’t want. In fact, he’s directly comparable to one of the most-discussed names on the pitching trade market this year:

A is Sonny Gray, and B is Michael Wacha. The parallels are further detailed in this excellent Fanpost by Andrew St. John (and noted even earlier by VEBer Jimmy’s Frosted Tips). I urge you to read those things, and won’t step on their analysis. It’s sufficient to say Wacha’s track record is good enough to support an ask similar to what the A’s want for Gray. Andrew St. John put Wacha’s estimated surplus at around $60 million; I get a slightly lower number ($50M) on the back of my envelope, personally, but neither number is unreasonable.

And Wacha’s injury history doesn’t look like much of a hurdle, when you look at recent history: take Boston’s acquisition of Drew Pomeranz. Pomeranz struggled with injuries and had never managed more than 150 innings in a single pro season prior to 2016, and threw just 316 from 2013-15 (compare that to Wacha, with 428.1 IP from 2014-16). But Pomeranz pitched well in the first half of 2016, and brought back Anderson Espinoza – a top 20 prospect.

Here’s another comp: Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and others) for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Samardzija and Hammel were both considered mid-rotation guys, like Wacha, and the A’s gave up Russell and more for two total player-seasons of control. Wacha has 2.5 years of control to sell. The Cardinals would be justified in looking for something headlined by a legitimately elite prospect.

What could the Cardinals get?

Good stuff. Setting Wacha’s surplus value at $60M (the team that values a guy highest is the one that gets him) and assuming there’s a modest premium on controlled SPs right now, it’s not unreasonable to hope for a return of $75M or so in value. Instead of stabbing at specific trades, here are some teams that may be in the market, and the types of assets that might make up a package, with rough surplus values using Ben Markham’s methodology (updated from the preseason as appropriate). I’m leaving pitchers in close proximity to the majors out, because duh:

  • Houston. This is an obvious target, to me – they’re known to be looking for a SP. They also have a budding oversupply of outfielders. OF Kyle Tucker ($65M), OF Derek Fisher ($30M), SP Franklin Perez ($30M), and SP Forrest Whitley ($20M) are the big fish there. [EDIT: As of last night, the Astros are reportedly out of the market for starting pitchers. So scratch this one, probably. Too bad.]
  • The Yankees. Michael Pineda just went down with a TJ, and they’re on the Wild Card bubble. SS Gleyber Torres ($75M), OF Clint Frazier ($40M) are the obvious guys, and various ~$20M names like SP Justus Sheffield, OF Dustin Fowler, or OF Estevan Florial could come up.
  • Colorado. They’re known to want pitching. They’ve supposedly made SS Brendan Rodgers ($65M) off-limits, but we’ll see. It’s either him or an agglomeration of guys like OF Raimel Tapia ($30M), SP Riley Pint ($25M), and Ryan McMahon ($15M).
  • Cleveland. If they even want a starter, they have some fast-rising prospects to offer. C Francisco Mejia ($50M), OF Bradley Zimmer ($40M), and SP Triston McKenzie ($35M) are the highlights, but there’s a lot of interesting depth in that system right now.
  • The Dodgers. This depends on what happened to Clayton Kershaw’s back on Sunday. But if they suddenly have a need, obvious targets would be OF Alex Verdugo ($40M), SP Yadier Alvarez ($25M), and 2B/OF/compact human Willie Calhoun ($25M).
  • Tampa Bay. This is my favorite dark horse. They’ve been rumored to be looking for RP, not SP, but Blake Snell and Jake Odorizzi are 40% of their rotation and have stunk. SS Willy Adames ($70M) and 1B Jake Bauers ($30M) are the big names to look at here; adding a MLB-level middle infield option to Wacha (the Rays have gotten zip from second base this year) in exchange for Adames and two or three lower level guys would be a fascinating trade.

There’s not a name on that list that’s unrealistic. They’re all unlikely—the number of fair-but-unmade trades dwarfs the number of made trades—but if the Cardinals were to make Wacha available, it should not surprise anybody to see one or more of the names up there coming back.

It doesn’t matter (much) if the Cardinals are still in it

Fangraphs gives the Cardinals a 12% chance at reaching the NLDS right now. Even if that’s higher a week from now, they should look long and hard at Wacha’s market. Luke Weaver’s been great in AAA (27.3% K, 5.5% BB, 47.3% GB, 25.4% IFFB) and appears to have nothing left to prove in the minors. It’s not assured his stuff will hold up in MLB, but if it does, he’s basically Wacha. And if it doesn’t, well, the Cardinals were probably going to miss the playoffs regardless. Losing a couple percentage points in playoff odds (if that) doesn’t seem like a reason to forgo pursuit of names like Kyle Tucker and Willy Adames, and the Cardinals have money to spend in free agency if they want to rebuild SP depth after this year.

At some point, the time comes when it makes sense to cash out the front lines and move the depth up. For Michael Wacha’s spot in the Cardinals’ rotation, that time is now.