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Should the Cardinals Trade Matt Carpenter?

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An in-depth look at the value in trading the best Cardinal in the post-Pujols era.

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Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Ben Godar wrote a great piece here about the benefits of a Yankees-style rebuild. In another great article, A.E. Schafer doubled down and strengthened the case last week. They’re spot-on. Given the middling state of the franchise right now, the notion of selling off parts at this year’s deadline is very compelling. The quandary, however, is the case stlcardsfan4 made last week. Specifically, on a case-by-case basis, most of their obvious tradable assets have degraded in value to the point that deals would represent selling low, and none of them are going to bring back anything that would make much of a difference in the immediate future (2018-2019). If you deal them in most cases, you’re simply adding some lottery tickets to your farm system. In a few cases (Marcell Ozuna, Jedd Gyorko, Kolten Wong, Jose Martinez), you’re also creating holes on the 2019 roster, which increases the odds that 2019 is a reboot season. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but doing so should move you forward to a winner in 2020 and beyond. Lottery tickets might do that, or they might just be quad-A chaff. There’s one particular case I want to discuss, though- a single player who might fit the slim overlapping section of the Venn diagram between meaningfully rebuilding for the future and receiving proper value via trade. Matt Carpenter is the best trade chip they have if they want to achieve both ends- finding assets to help in 2020 and selling players at their best value.

Matt Carpenter’s Discounted Surplus Value

Let’s dig into this a little bit using the D-Rays Bay surplus value calculator, developed based on research by Vince Gennaro, Sky Kalkman, and Matt Swartz most recently (and brought to my attention by our own Tyler Kinzy in his Jose Martinez article). For Matt Carpenter’s 2018 projected WAR, I’ll start with his 2.8 fWAR through Monday’s games. Then, we’ll average the rest of seasons projections from ZIPS (2.0), Steamer (1.6), and Depth Charts (1.9). That’s a 1.8 average rest-of-season WAR that we can add, giving us 4.6 WAR for 2018. Technically, he’s up to 3.0 since I did these calculations (with a 1.8 rest of season projection), but through Monday’s games will be good enough for us.

He’s also under contract through 2019 (with an option for 2020), so we’ll need a projection for next season. Tom Tango’s Marcel is fairly simple and would give us a generic baseline. If I’ve used this description for Marcel correctly, and Matt Carpenter truly does finish with a 4.6 fWAR this year, Marcel projects a 3.4 fWAR for next season after you adjust for the aging curve. That’s possibly a little on the high side, but not unreasonable.

For his 2020 option year, he’s due $18.5M if the team picks up the option. I’ve plugged a 2.5 fWAR into the calculator for 2020. Given his age, his career production, and that he’s on pace for his best season this year since 2015, I think 2.5 is reasonable, insofar as any projection two years into the future is reasonable.

My last step is to show a pro-rated amount for Matt Carpenter’s 2018 rest-of-season value. His discounted surplus this season, if he ends up at 4.6 fWAR, is $37.1M. But obviously, anyone trading for Matt Carpenter at the end of July isn’t getting the full value. I took the $37.1M and multiplied it by the 35% of the season that would be remaining if he were traded in the last week of July.

Here’s how this all shakes out via the calculator:

Matt Carpenter Surplus Value

Year Salary (actual) Projected WAR Average $/WAR Value Discount Surplus Pro-Rated 2018
Year Salary (actual) Projected WAR Average $/WAR Value Discount Surplus Pro-Rated 2018
2018 $13,500,000 4.6 $11,000,000 $50,600,000 $37,100,000 $12,985,000
2019 $14,500,000 3.4 $11,660,000 $39,644,000 $21,972,480 $21,972,480
2020 $18,500,000 2.5 $12,359,600 $30,899,000 $9,687,979 $9,687,979
Carpenter $46,500,000 10.5 $4,234,756 $121,143,000 $68,760,459 $44,645,459

We can also try this by removing the option year. To do that, we’d add the $2M buyout either to his 2019 salary or as a $2M line item for 2020 with 0 fWAR. The difference in those two formats is about $1.8M in surplus value, with the discounted value coming in at $34.9M if the money counts toward his 2019 salary and $33.1M if it’s a 2020 line item. For the sake of argument, I’ll split the difference and go with a nice, round $34M.

Before proceeding, I want to address an item here about the fragility of these numbers. Everything revolves around his rest-of-season projection, which gets him to 4.6 fWAR this year, leading to a 3.4 fWAR next season. If he were to collapse the rest of the way and post, say, a 0.7 fWAR, suddenly his 2019 projection becomes 3.0. Combined with his 3.5 fWAR this year, his discounted surplus value over the next year and a half is $26.4M. In other words, there’s some risk- there’s always risk- that comes with acquiring Matt Carpenter.

The truth is that if he’s bad enough that they want to reject the 2020 option, he’s not going to be worth the surplus value shown above for 2019. That guides us to our answer. Matt Carpenter’s discounted surplus trade value is $44.6M if they want to keep him after 2019, with the caveat that if he goes bust in 2019, the acquiring team has an escape hatch. There’s also the baseline $26.4M surplus value if he has a bad second half this year. This gives us a baseline for the type of talent that would come over in return. Before we tackle that, we have another item to address.

Who Needs Matt Carpenter?

The great part about Matt Carpenter is that he can hold down every infield position except shortstop. He’s not quite the super sub that Ben Zobrist was when he was dealt in 2015, but he’s in the same general ballpark. That being the case, we’ll use Baseball-Reference’s WAR by Position page to identify teams that have needs at third base, second base, or first base.

Our list of contending teams includes Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Seattle, and the Yankees in the American League. For good measure, I’ll throw in the A’s and their ~15% playoff odds. In the National League, I’ll include Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, Arizona, San Francisco, and the Dodgers. I’m excluding Milwaukee and the Cubs because there’s no chance the Cardinals would deal Matt Carpenter to either of those teams. I’m going to include the Rockies here as well. Their playoff chances aren’t great, but they might see Matt Carpenter as an addition for 2019.

Here’s how this looks. I’ve highlighted any of the teams listed above ranked 20th or lower in the league in bWAR at first base, second base, or third base.

We can eliminate a few of these right away. The Nats have first base options coming out of their ears once Ryan Zimmerman returns, including former Cardinals Mark Reynolds and Matt Adams. They aren’t likely to shift from their second base plan of hoping Daniel Murphy gets healthy and using Wilmer Difo as their safety net. The Giants aren’t moving on from Evan Longoria already. I doubt the Diamondbacks would care to address third base with Jake Lamb and Daniel Descalso handling those duties. They could probably stand to address other issues first. The Dodgers aren’t afraid to get creative, but aren’t hurting for second base alternatives between Chase Utley, Logan Forsythe, and Max Muncy. There are rumors that they’re looking at multiple second basemen (Brian Dozier, Scooter Gennett, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Josh Harrison) per MLBTR. But I still feel safe taking them out.

Seattle could use Carpenter the most, as a first baseman, but it’s contingent upon whether or not they want to keep giving chances to Dan Vogelbach and Ryon Healy. Carpenter would be a 1.5 to 2 win upgrade over either. Cardinals’ leadership has been known to deal with Jerry Dipoto in the recent past and Carpenter fills an obvious need for them. They make a lot of sense as a potential destination, particularly with the whole C the Z thing they have going on (here’s another great read about it from a few years back- one of my favorite reads I discovered this week).

Cleveland’s potential involvement is contingent on how they view Jason Kipnis, whose contract situation is a slightly more expensive version of Carpenter’s while providing much less value over the last year and a half. They could also try to plug Carpenter in at first base as an upgrade over Yonder Alonso, or they could DH him from time to time. Still, Alonso and Kipnis are under contract for several years (Alonso through 2020, Kipnis through 2019 with a 2020 option). Carpenter would be a bold upgrade opportunity, but it would come with the caveat that Cleveland would probably have to move on from one of Alonso or Kipnis for 2019. Carpenter’s rest-of-season projection is about one win more than either Alonso or Kipnis for this season.

That leaves three teams. Both the Yankees and Red Sox have talented young third basemen who are performing admirably, if not exceptionally well. For the remainder of 2018, Carpenter would represent an upgrade over the Yankees’ Miguel Andujar (0.7 fWAR projection rest of season) and the Red Sox’ Rafael Devers (1.0-1.1). Where it gets interesting is that the Red Sox and Yankees each have another infield position where they’re struggling, which would allow them to rotate Carpenter between multiple positions. With Dustin Pedroia’s absence, the Sox have used a lot of Brock Holt (BROCK HOLT!) and Eduardo Nunez. Carpenter could give the Sox a large upgrade over that duo. The Sox may not want Carpenter at second base in 2019 when Pedroia returns, but it’s not like Mitch Moreland at first base is going to prevent a team from adding Matt Carpenter, even acknowledging the decent season Moreland is having.

For the Yankees, first base has been a disaster for them for three years now. Greg Bird (0.6 rest of season projection) is not an answer unless you’re asking the wrong question. There are rumors of a Yankee pursuit of Manny Machado, but Matt Carpenter would make for a wonderful backup plan. And his versatility allows him to make a broad impact in the Bronx.

The last team left is the Rockies, who are facing a DJ LeMahieu-sized hole at second base if he departs this off-season. They also have a crater created at first base by Ian Desmond. I don’t think the Rockies are a likely destination for Matt Carpenter, but he would make some sense if they decided to walk away from Desmond or just wanted an easy upgrade if LeMahieu leaves. He’d help their slim chances for 2018 and give them a head start on their 2019 squad.

The Return

We determined that his surplus value floats between $26M and $44M. We’re also talking about a late July trade, where the rate of future return tends to be around 1.5 times what you’d ordinarily expect. That being the case, I’ll proceed with the $44M figure for the type of expected return in surplus value. As always, I’m also going to use Point of Pittsburgh’s surplus value table for prospects.

There are any number of combinations in the Point of Pittsburgh table that get you to $44M. A hitter ranked #26-50 would get most of the job done ($37.6M), combined with an out-of-the-top-100 prospect. A combination of one hitter and one pitcher, both ranked in the #51-75 range, would get you $43.8M. You could take something on the lower end (say, a pitcher in the #75-100 range) and then fill in with the KFC three-piece bucket of non-top-100 lottery tickets.

Looking at the organizations above (Cleveland, Boston, Colorado, Seattle, the Yankees), here are some players who might fill the void. Prospect ranks are through Baseball America unless bearing an asterisk. One asterisk ranks are through MLB.com, and two asterisks are through Baseball Prospectus:

Values for Potential Trade Partner Prospects

Player Org Position Rank Surplus Value
Player Org Position Rank Surplus Value
Michael Chavis BOS 3B *64 $24.1M
Triston McKenzie CLE RHP 30 $32.2M
Peter Lambert COL RHP 98 $15.1M
Ryan McMahon COL 1B 47 $37.6M
Colton Welker COL 3B *86 $20.2M
Riley Pint COL RHP **77 $15.1M
Estevan Florial NYY OF 54 $24.1M
Albert Abreu NYY RHP 64 $19.7M
Chance Adams NYY RHP **51 $19.7M
Kyle Lewis SEA OF 55 $24.1M

There are some unaddressed top 100 names missing from that table. Cleveland has Shane Bieber and Francisco Mejia in the latest Baseball America Top 100, but Bieber has already arrived and isn’t going anywhere. Mejia is a top 25 position player- a higher surplus value than Carpenter alone. The same is true of the Rockies’ Brendan Rogers and the Yankees’ Justus Sheffield. Jonathan Loaisiga is the Yankee’s equivalent of Bieber. He has arrived and isn’t going anywhere.

This list doesn’t include non-top 100 players. More recent deadline deals have featured younger players outside the top 100 who are either headed to the top 100, or are productive future major leaguers regardless of prospect prestige. Cases in point: Josh Hader, Domingo Santana, and Brett Phillips going from Houston to Milwaukee; Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer from the Mets to the Tigers; and Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco going to Colorado in the Tulo deal. None were top 100 guys, but the return on all of them has been very solid.

If the Cardinals wanted to get a deal done for Matt Carpenter, there’s ample value to be acquired. And there’s a market for it, with Carpenter representing one of the top potential trade targets available. There’s also ample need, with a great fit in the Bronx and Seattle and a decent fit in Boston and Cleveland.

For the record, don’t fixate so much on the specific players in the table above. It’d be crazy if the Cardinals actually executed a trade specifically for some combination of those players. Rather, they’re archetypes for the type of talent you’d get in return. There are a lot of hopes and breaking/already broken promises on this list. Riley Pint has missed most of this season with a forearm injury, and has looked bad to date as a prospect. Chavis has missed most of this season with a PED suspension, Kyle Lewis hasn’t broken through the way prospect mavens once thought he might, and Ryan McMahon has stumbled in his first pass at MLB pitching.

Florial, Abreu, and Welker are promising, but also currently playing in high-A. It’s tough to see them contributing before 2020. I’m sure these players will provide value in the aggregate, and one or two of them might break out. But just as there’s risk for Carpenter’s acquiring team, so too is there risk absorbed by the Cardinals when looking at these type of prospects.

Other Considerations

One positive to trading Matt Carpenter would be the depth added to the farm system, which is about to hit a lull. They’ve deposited a lot of players on to the MLB club over the last two years, and all of their top talent is in the high minors or several years away from making an impact. These things are cyclical for every team- high farm prestige, followed by low prestige, and then a return. The Cardinals have tried to crack the code to keep the farm productive at all times- to great effect- but 2019 is going to be challenging. The 2017 draft and hacking scandal punishment looms large. Adding a pair of top 100-ish prospects into the system would be a shortcut to replenish some of the prestige.

You also have to consider the 2019-2020 window for contention. The Cubs’ window is still open, and will remain so during 2019 and 2020. The same is true for the Brewers, who are well-run and on the brink of graduating more talent to the MLB club. The Reds are on a fascinating path, one that has seen historically comparable teams take sizable leaps forward in year #2 (2019 would be the Reds’ year #2). The Cardinals have the resources to play with any of those teams, but the opportunity cost for doing so is higher than normal. At some point, barring a change in circumstances like a drastic spike in payroll or an unexpected emergence of a star player within the system, they’re throwing good money after bad.

Another consideration is that the Cardinals have been a risk-averse franchise when it comes to acquiring prospects. This isn’t a bad thing. In 2013, I went to a Baseball Prospectus event at Busch Stadium where front office folks answered questions from attendees. It included then-Assistant GM Michael Girsch and Scouting Director Dan Kantrovitz. The question at the time was whether or not the Cardinals should deal Oscar Taveras- high-end outfield depth circa 2013- to the Rangers for Jurickson Profar, who was blocked by infield depth at the time and would have replaced Pete Kozma. The answer was that deals don’t work that way, that it’s best to know as much as you can about a prospect before committing to them. And they knew tons more about their own prospects than they did about those in other organizations. It’s a great point. You don’t know the full medical info for targets outside of the organization, you don’t know how they respond to coaching, you don’t know how they’ve been coached. There are a lot of variables.

There’s one obvious ramification to dealing Carpenter. If they trade him, it’s going to be harder to compete in 2019. They’re stuck on the hamster wheel of 85ish wins. As of today, until the organization proves they know how to extract more value out of this formula, there’s little reason to believe 2019 will be different. Subtracting Matt Carpenter means you have to replace 3-4 wins just to get back on the hamster wheel. Assuming they would pick up his 2020 option, it makes it a little harder to win in 2020. It’s a white flag for 2019 and possibly 2020. Which brings me to the question at the heart of it all.

Does trading Matt Carpenter for $44M in prospect value bring you closer to being a winner in 2019 or 2020 and beyond? It certainly won’t in 2019. He’s very valuable, but not valuable enough to bring back the kind of top-level, low risk prospect who will contribute significantly in 2019. The following season is a different story. In theory, prospects acquired could start paying dividends in 2020. But it’s far from a guarantee, and it’s highly unlikely that said prospects would provide the value Carpenter provides in 2020.

Should They Do It?

All of this boils down to:

  • If you think you can be a playoff team in 2019 or even 2020, you don’t trade Matt Carpenter for prospects. If you hold on to him, you’re going to have some major reconfiguring to do in the off-season. You would theoretically save some money by trading him, which you could use in the free agent market. Try finding a 3-4 win player on the open market for Matt Carpenter’s salary. You can’t.
  • If you have resigned yourself to needing a reboot with a .500ish expectation next season and stronger contention hopes in 2020 and beyond, you make the trade.