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What if the Cardinals went all-in with trades?

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The asking prices for Chris Archer and Manny Machado are sky high. What if the Cards bit down and paid up?

Tampa Bay Rays v Detroit Tigers
Chris Archer, pitching in front of a lot of empty seats at Comerica Park.
Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Over the weekend, a VEBer had a bold suggestion: trade whatever is required for Chris Archer and Manny Machado (even if substantial overpays are required), be really good in 2018, use an ample free agent budget to patch holes as they arise in the near future, and trust in the Cardinals’ lauded player development system to rebuild the farm by the time a new generation of players was needed. After an initial knee-jerk “no way” reaction, I wondered if this was actually a decent idea. At the very least, I wanted to try to map out this path with some rigor instead of just dismissing it out of hand — it’s a great thought experiment if nothing else.

Many will be familiar with this already, but for those who aren’t, here’s the general framework for how most (all?) MLB teams analyze trades in 2018:

  • An MLB player’s trade value is equal to [projected production] x [cost of replacing that production in free agency] - [salary]. In simplified terms, if a player is expected to produce 10 WAR, the cost of a similar free agent would be $100M, and he’s due $60M under his contract, he has a “surplus” value of $40M — that’s his value as a trade asset.
  • Prospects also have projected surplus value, based on the historical performance of similarly-graded prospects prior to reaching free agency. An only somewhat dated list of prospect values can be found here; note that for a pitcher and hitter with the same grade, the hitter is worth more, because the attrition rate of pitchers is higher.
  • Making a trade is just a matter of balancing MLB asset value and prospect value on each side of the ledger. Teams’ internal prospect and player valuations can and do differ from the public’s, but it’s a good rule of thumb that has proved out over the course of many trades.

Now here’s how we should expect a cost-be-damned, all-in-on-trades approach to play out.

The Trades

Machado’s value is easy. ZiPS projects him for 5 WAR, Steamer for 6, so we’ll say 5.5. The price of production this offseason is something like $10M per WAR. Machado will be paid $16M, which makes his surplus value about $40M. However, if a team acquiring him doesn’t extend his contract or re-sign him as a free agent, they will receive a compensatory draft pick worth $5-10M.

Baltimore’s reported ask — “two quality, controllable starters” — may be reasonable or may not be depending on what it means. For now, let’s just assume Baltimore is putting some level of premium on Machado (why no trade yet, if not?) and say this will require $60M in value.

Chris Archer is an even bigger fish. Last summer, Dave Cameron pegged him the #16 most valuable trade asset in baseball. By comparison, Christian Yelich was #27. Yelich was just traded, for a prospect package worth about $125M. The “whatever it takes” price would be like $150M in value for Archer.

So whatever the particulars are going to each team, we’re looking at $210M in total value going out the door to add Machado for just 2018, and Archer for 2018-21. It makes sense to move Jedd Gyorko either as part of a Machado trade or alongside it (the way Piscotty and Grichuk were shuffled out after the Ozuna trade), and he’s worth $20-30M, so let’s call it a net loss of $185M in prospect value.

Here are the Cardinals’ top 20 prospects with grades from FanGraphs most recent prospect list, along with my best guesses for new acquisitions Max Schrock and Yairo Munoz. Dollar values are based on my quick and dirty mental update of this (which Ben did a much more thorough job on) — we can quibble over individual values, but on a population level this should be pretty close. (And as we’ll see, the population level is what matters.)

Cardinals prospect values

Rank Name FV Value
Rank Name FV Value
1 Alex Reyes 60 $40M
2 Carson Kelly 50 $25M
3 Jack Flaherty 50 $20M
4 Jose Adolis Garcia 50 $15M
5 Tyler ONeill 50 $20M
6 Andrew Knizner 45 $12M
7 Harrison Bader 45 $12M
8 Ryan Helsley 45 $10M
9 Jordan Hicks 45 $10M
10 Edmundo Sosa 45 $10M
11 Dakota Hudson 45 $10M
12 Junior Fernandez 45 $10M
13 Max Schrock 45 $10M
14 Yairo Munoz 40 $8M
15 Austin Gomber 40 $8M
16 Oscar Mercado 40 $8M
17 Randy Arozarena 40 $8M
18 Dylan Carlson 40 $5M
19 Wadye Infante 40 $5M
20 Delvin Perez 40 $5M

So the Cardinals’ top 20 prospects have a combined value in the order of $250M. These two trades would require about 75% of that. You can get to the ~$185M in required value however you want — but know this: you aren’t saving the ones you really care about (except Max Schrock, save him!). Trades like these require headliners. Maybe you can keep Bader and Helsley, or Garcia and Hudson, or something like that — but you’re not going to be able to just throw volume at these teams and keep the best assets like Reyes, Kelly, and Flaherty. They’re gone. This is what gutting a system looks like.

The Outlook

Let’s go year by year in a hilariously useless attempt to predict baseball. Because of the extreme volatility of relievers, I’m not going to attempt to project the bullpen and will instead assign it 4 WAR per year after 2018, which reflects an average bullpen; same with the bench, which will receive 2 WAR.

2018: The Cardinals have one of the worst farm systems in baseball, but one of the best teams. By projected WAR, it’s something like: OF1 Ozuna (4), OF2 Pham (3.5), OF3 Fowler (2), 3B Machado (5.5), SS DeJong (2), 2B Wong (2), 1B Carpenter/J Martinez (3), C Molina/Kelly (3.5), SP1 Archer (4), SP2 Martinez (4), SP3 Weaver (3), SP4 Wacha (2.5), SP5 Wainwright (1.5), Bullpen (5), Bench (2).

  • Projected wins: 94.
  • Projected payroll: $165M.

2019: Wainwright and Machado are gone. The former is adequately replaced internally, the latter by Josh Donaldson for 5 years and $150M. Still a great team, but now aging must be begin to be applied (arbitrarily, by me) across the roster: OF1 Ozuna (3.75), OF2 Pham (3.25), OF3 Fowler/Bader (2), 3B Donaldson (5), SS DeJong (2), 2B Wong (1.75), 1B Carpenter/J Martinez (2.5), C Molina/Kelly (3), SP1 Martinez (4), SP2 Archer (3.75), SP3 Weaver (3), SP4 Wacha (2), SP5 Mikolas (2), Bullpen (4), Bench (2).

  • Projected wins: 89
  • Projected payroll: $168M.

2020: Now there are challenges. 40% of the rotation (Mikolas and Wacha) hits free agency, along with Ozuna. Austin Gomber and Ryan Helsley are still around but look like back-end options at best. They sign a midrotation SP (which now costs 4/76) and cross their fingers on the 5th starter. Pham and Fowler are getting older and injuries are an issue, so they re-sign Ozuna to lock in a good, durable OF: 6 years, $144M. Wong’s getting expensive and Max Schrock looks decent, so they trade Wong. They are still a wild card contender but clouds are building on the horizon.

Roster: OF1 Ozuna (3.5), OF2 Pham (2), OF3 Fowler (1.5), OF4 Bader/Arozarena (1), 3B Donaldson (4), SS DeJong (2), 2B Schrock (1.5), 1B Carpenter/J Martinez (2), C Molina/Kelly (2), SP1 Martinez (4), SP2 Archer (3.75), SP3 Weaver (2.75), SP4 Free Agent (2), SP5 Helsley/Gomber (1), Bullpen (4), Bench (2).

  • Projected wins: 86
  • Projected payroll: $185M

2021: Articles with the words “Cardinals” and “rebuild” in the title are appearing, but they still end with question marks. Molina retires. Matt Carpenter leaves in free agency, and at age 32 Jose Martinez no longer looks like an adequate full-time replacement. They use the Molina money to pursue an above-average replacement 1B, but that costs them 5 years and $130M. A 2018 draftee SP has arrived and looks average, but Luke Weaver has a Tommy John and they need another free agent starter — 3/54 gets that done.

Roster: OF1 Ozuna (3), OF2 Pham (1.5), OF3 Fowler (1), OF4 Bader/Arozarena (1.5), 3B Donaldson (3), SS DeJong (1.75), 2B Schrock (1.5), 1B Free Agent (3), SP1 Martinez (4), SP2 Archer (3.5), SP3 Free Agent (2), SP4 Free Agent (2), SP5 Draftee (2), Bullpen (4), Bench (2).

  • Projected wins: 81
  • Projected payroll: $190M

2022: Time to push the big red button.

Archer is a free agent. Fowler’s contract ends and Pham is a free agent, which does free up some dollars. But they have $134M committed to just six players (Martinez, Donaldson, Ozuna, and the three biggest FA signings), plus around $50M in lesser free agents, arbitration, and minimum salaries to cover, and they just lost 6 WAR off what was only a .500 club. The farm is back up to average, but not yet more. Let’s say two patented Average Cardinals Farm Products arise to replace four of those lost wins — that still leaves them spending (in 2022 dollars) about $25M a year in AAV just to tread water. The payroll would have to soar past $250M to become a realistic wild card contender. At some point, simple prudence (if not frustrated ownership) says it’s time to reset. Maybe they’d take one more shot while they still have what’s left of the core. Maybe that pushes the sell-off back to July 2022, or even back to December. But it’s inevitable at this point.

This is how the Phillies happened. This is how the Tigers happened. This is how the Giants are happening right now, before our eyes. The reason teams mostly avoid this strategy isn’t because they’re cheap or don’t care — it’s because it so often doesn’t work.

***

This is a silly attempt to guess and un-guessable future. Things could go way better, or way worse, than I predicted here. I’m just sketching out a reasonable, 50th-percentile-type future. But here’s the point: what the Cardinals would have achieved in this scenario by cashing in almost all of their farm in January of 2018 is an average of 87.5 wins per season from 2018-2021, and a full rebuild commencing sometime in the calendar year 2022.

And here’s what the Cardinals have achieved the past four years, with a strategy that has rarely made moves as aggressive as their fans (including me!) often want: an average of 89.75 wins per season from 2014-17, with a club that looks about that good again for 2018. And no rebuild in sight.