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A trade proposal for top prospect Rafael Devers of the Red Sox

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We talked selling in general; now let’s get into the specifics

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Baseball is weird. If someone before the season told you that going into the All-Star break the Cardinals would be just two games back of the Cubs, and have a similar BaseRuns record, you’d assume the Cardinals were having a great year. Instead, the Cards are currently third in the division, thanks to the Cubs faltering and the Brewers’ surprisingly cromulent start.

Technically, the Cardinals have only under-achieved in terms of actual wins and losses. I’m writing this on Friday, during the game. At the moment, by BaseRuns, the team should be three games above .500, rather than three under. That’s right about what the preseason projections expected by this point. But other than tell us that the team is better than the winning percentage suggests, that doesn’t matter, the damage is done.

The Cardinals currently sit at just a 21.5% chance of reaching the NLDS, either by winning the division or winning a Wild Card spot as well as the Wild Card game. Again, that’s going into Friday, not today. On July 16th of last year, the team sat at 23.6%, and I recommended not selling. It wasn’t a decision I was excited about, but the guys they would have been marketing at the deadline weren’t playing well anyway. The point is, the Cards are still stuck in-between, not close enough for buying to be a slam dunk, but not out of it enough that the only option is to sell.

There’s still more baseball to be played before the team decides what to do, but it is fast approaching. Newly promoted General Manager Michael Girsch would be wise to establish both buying and selling discussions with teams, setting things up for whichever direction they take in three weeks.

The Cardinals don’t have to - and won’t - do a complete rebuild, though it is an enticing option for a number of reasons. A more minor sale could push the current farm from solidly above-average to one of the top 4 farms in the game without completely giving up on the current squad. Seung Hwan Oh and Lance Lynn are both gone at the end of the year anyway. Trevor Rosenthal is gone at the end of next year, when he’s projected to earn nearly $10M pitching about 60 innings if things go right. Michael Wacha has injury concerns, but if he’s pitching well and appears healthy, this might be the best time to sell-high on him.

Another player I considered was Jedd Gyorko. Gyorko can be controlled through 2020, not exactly a short-term asset. He’s performing well though, and it would be nice to cash-in while he’s probably playing better than he should be expected to. In 727 plate appearances as a Cardinal, he’s been worth 4.6 WAR, a 3.8 WAR/600 PA rate. The projections expect regression, seeing him as a 2.6 WAR/600 PA player going forward. Most, if not all teams rightfully expect regression going forward, but it’s not that hard to imagine teams valuing him higher than his projection. The only problem was, that was the only trade that could create a hole on the 2018 team.

Jedd plays multiple positions, but third seems to be his best spot. He spent most of his MLB career at second, but that was only because the Padres had Chase Headley manning third at the time. He’s not limited to third of course, and the team could also market him to teams that need a second-baseman. But let’s just work with third for now. Using Fangraphs’ depth chart projections as a guide, there’s one team that could very well be interested in Gyorko:

The contenders are mostly set at third, with the exception of the Red Sox. The next closest contending team is the Angels, who have a lot of holes but few prospects that could bring back real improvements.

Boston has given three players more than 100 plate appearances each at third: Pablo Sandoval, Devin Marrero, and Josh Rutledge. In terms of WAR to date, Marrero leads the pack with 0.1 WAR.

Even with a dumpster fire at third, the Red Sox are a strong team. They got that way from a strong influx of prospects built up by previous heads of the team. Current Head of Baseball Operations Dave Dombroski also traded away much of the remaining farm, in the name of putting together a World Series caliber team.

They have the 5th best win-loss record, the 8th best BaseRuns record, and the 4th best projected winning percentage going forward. They have the second best projected rotation, and the 7th best projected bullpen. Besides third, they’re mostly set on the positional side:

First base is kind of a concern. DH has dropped off with the retirement of David Ortiz, but with the positional adjustment, it’s hard for any DH to supply a lot of value. Third base is easily the biggest spot for the Red Sox to upgrade.

How might the Sox value Gyorko? Let’s use his projection, along with an average aging curve, $9M as the price of a win in the latest offseaon, 5% inflation, and an 8% discount to future production. We’ll double the price of in-season WAR, based on Dave Cameron’s research. We’ll also assume this deal happens at the deadline, not right now. Here’s how Gyorko’s value comes out:

Jedd Gyorko Trade Value Calculation

Jedd Gyorko 2016 2017 2018 2019 Total
Jedd Gyorko 2016 2017 2018 2019 Total
Price of WAR $18.0 $9.5 $9.9 $10.4 $10.9
Projected WAR 0.9 2.4 2.0 1.3 6.5
Projected Value $15.9 $22.8 $19.6 $13.0 $71.4
Salary $1.3 $6.5 $10.0 $13.0 $30.8
Projected Surplus Value $14.6 $16.3 $9.6 $0.0 $40.6
Projected NP Surplus Value $14.6 $15.1 $8.3 $0.0 $38.0

This is down a few million from when we looked at his trade value last month. His projection has dropped a little in that time. 2020 is an option year, but he doesn’t project to be worth it, so his $2M buyout is added to his 2019 salary. Still, Gyorko offers two years of strong value, and another decent one at a position the Red Sox have a black hole at. Despite a fairly pessimistic projection, Gyorko is still a decent value.

Of course, the Sox do have another internal option at third, namely top prospect Rafael Devers. Devers is only 20 years old and has only a little over 300 plate appearances above A-ball. However, those plate appearances have been mighty impressive, as pointed out by Dave Cameron. Devers’ wRC+ is one of the best marks any 20 year old has ever had in Double-A.

The best move for the Sox might just be to promote Devers. He might not be completely ready, but he’s an improvement over the current options, and won’t cost the Red Sox anything in a trade. That’s probably what most teams would do.

The Red Sox aren’t most teams though. They have an impetus to win now, as shown by trading a significant prospect haul including then-top prospect Manuel Margot for closer Craig Kimbrel in the 2015-2016 offseason. They also traded top prospect Anderson Espinoza for Drew Pomeranz at last year’s deadline, and then traded one of the best prospects in the game in Yoan Moncada, as well as Michael Kopech and two other pieces for one of the best pitchers in the game in Chris Sale last winter. They’ve also blew away the Cardinals’ offer for David Price with $217M over seven years back in the 2015-2016 off-season, though the team hopes Price will opt-out after 2018, collecting $90M along the way.

Since the 2015-2016 offseason, the Red Sox have dealt the 3rd, 18th, 32nd, and 39th best prospects on my aggregate prospect list, which aggregates six public top prospect lists as well as the implied valuations of those rankings. The total surplus value of those players comes to over $200M by this method, and if kept intact they would have entered the season head-to-head with the Braves for the best farm in the game. Instead they have about an average ranked farm, but with Benintendi counting for half their top prospect value, who is already playing with the MLB team.

But having the best farm isn’t the end goal in Major League Baseball. The point of a farm system is to produce MLB talent, whether by promotion or trade. And that’s what the Red Sox have done. Sale and Pomeranz have combined for 7 WAR, 74% of their rotation’s production, which ranks 4th in the league. Their bullpen ranks 5th so far in WAR, with 58% of that coming from Kimbrel. The Red Sox just aren’t the same team without these trades.

The Sox could bet on Devers, but would doing so be too risky in their win-now mind-frame? Can you imagine the questions asked of Dombroski if he comes up short of a deep postseason run while relying on a prospect to fill the team’s only hole, after all the investment in winning in the present? The Red Sox could see Devers as a great future value, but what about the next couple of seasons? If the Red Sox are going to blow up their farm system to compete right away, they might as well go full throttle. Let’s look at who is still left:

Red Sox top prospect value

rank Pos. Team Value MiLB FG 100 BA 100 BP 101 361 MLB
rank Pos. Team Value MiLB FG 100 BA 100 BP 101 361 MLB
1 Andrew Benintendi OF $87.80 Grade A 65 1 3 1 x
12 Rafael Devers 3B $61.20 Grade A- 55 18 13 8 15
52 Jason Groome LHP $27.40 Grade B+ 55 43 29 32 38

Andrew Benintendi technically won’t be a prospect on the midseason lists. That’s not a bad thing, the job of a farm system is to turn prospects into major leaguers. It’s just that he probably won’t get traded at this point, he’s a contributor to the everyday lineup, a small part of the reason they’re considered one of the best teams right now.

After that is Devers, who comes in at significantly more than Gyorko. And that’s based on the ranking that came out before the season. When these lists were released, Devers hadn’t yet made the jump from High-A to Double-A, long considered the toughest jump in the minors. Now he’s obliterated the league. He’s certainly raised his stock higher than the $61.2M valuation shown above. The top 7 prospects on my aggregate list have a value of $69M or more, that’s probably about where he sits now.

Devers is a third-base prospect, though there is some concern he could move to first at some point. Fangraphs prospect guru Eric Longenhagen thinks “Devers has elite bat speed and, despite a noisy, high-effort swing, has been able to keep his strikeout totals down thanks to terrific hand-eye coordination and barrel control”.

Perhaps they could attempt to deal Jason Groome or some unranked prospects instead for a short-term upgrade at third, while still keeping Devers as the long-term option. Maybe they could get a rental like Eduardo Nunez. Again though, is that too much of a half-measure for a team in their position?

You’d have to see Gyorko as a 3.6 WAR/600 player right now - almost just as good as his results in St. Louis thus far - in order to justify a one-for-one swap with Devers. That’s probably not going to happen. Indeed, he’s closer to Groome’s value than Devers. But Gyorko gets you a good chunk of the way there. Add on Trevor Rosenthal, and things get interesting:

Trevor Rosenthal Trade Value Calculation

Trevor Rosenthal 2016 2017 Total
Trevor Rosenthal 2016 2017 Total
Price of WAR $40.0 $21.0 $26.4
Projected WAR 0.5 1.2 1.7
Projected Value $19.3 $25.5 $44.7
Salary $2.1 $9.9 $12.0
Projected Surplus Value $17.2 $15.6 $32.7
Projected NP Surplus Value $17.2 $14.4 $31.6

According to the projections and the public prospect rankings, Gyorko and Rosenthal combined come out at around the same value as Rafael Devers. You might notice that the “Price of WAR” amounts for Rosenthal are much higher, that’s because he’s a reliever, and reliever WAR is valued much higher than WAR from position players and starting pitchers. Dombroski’s deal for Kimbrel shows that he doesn’t think differently on the subject

The Red Sox don’t exactly need a bullpen upgrade, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Kimbrel is about as good as it gets in terms of getting three outs in the ninth inning. Former Cardinal and amazing dancer Joe Kelly has been better than expected, as has Matt Barnes. Both are projected the rest of the way to have an FIP about half a run worse than they’ve been so far though. Can a win-now team afford to bet on Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes handling high-leverage situations down the stretch and in October? They’re fine relievers, but there’s enough high-leverage situations to go around that Rosey would be very useful even if they don’t regress. Check out the average leverage index for each part of the bullpen over the last five years:

Average leverage index by order

leverage order average leverage average FIP-
leverage order average leverage average FIP-
1st 1.81 79
2nd 1.49 85
3rd 1.28 89
4th 1.12 95
5th 0.98 93
6th 0.87 101
7th 0.77 102

Kimbrel is way better than the average team’s highest leverage reliever, but by the projections, Kelly and Barnes rate more around average for second and third best relievers. Teams typically have four relievers end up with a higher than average leverage, and slotting Rosey behind Kimbrel would make the Sox well above-average at all four spots.

Instead, the Sox could fill the third base hole spectacularly, with a one-for-one swap of Devers and Josh Donaldson. About a month ago, I found his trade value to be about $70M, right around where Devers is valued here. Then they could still deal Groome or some unranked prospects for a bullpen upgrade.

But the Blue Jays might not be sellers, Donaldson’s dealt with injuries this year, and there’s the whole awkward issue of trading in-division. Taking the proposed deal here instead also bolsters their late-inning game, while still holding on to Groome for future upgrades.

So the Red Sox get two strong players that will help them fend off the Yankees for the division as well as raise their chances of a deep playoff run. Gyorko fills their only hole, and Rosenthal supercharges their bullpen before the playoffs, when bullpens suddenly become much more important. They lose a big-time prospect, but prospects often bust, and he’s not that likely to be a huge contributor over the next couple of years anyway, when the Red Sox are clearly pushing very hard to win.

The Cardinals lose a currently great reliever who has had his ups and downs. They also lose an infielder that they were counting on to help them stay competitive in 2018 and 2019. However, they get a stud prospect that scouts think should stick at third for at least a little while, and has the bat to play first anyway. He could easily be with the big league team by mid-2018.

This is only one of innumerable possible move that both teams could make, so don’t bet on it happening by any means. Such a move would require the Cardinals to raise the white flag on the 2017 season, but that’s looking more and more like the best decision. Once you get past that, this looks like great deal for both sides.