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A Frictionless Model of the Cardinals as Sellers

Let’s sell off everything that isn’t nailed down, using math.

Why Luke Weaver? Read on, friends. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It’s trading deadline season, which means two things when it comes to articles. First, you’ll get the nuts-and-bolts types- the Cardinals should acquire an impact reliever, what could the Cardinals get for Jose Martinez, those kinds of things. Second, you’ll get more high-minded looks at which direction the team should go in. I’m going to try to attempt to do the second type today, so bear with me.

One of the defining features of rebuilding roadmaps is a series of trades the team should make. From a writing standpoint, this makes a ton of sense. People love them some trades. There’s a problem with pure transactional analysis, though, that I think makes it hard to judge things as a whole. When I run into a similar problem at work, I refer to it as an additive error problem. Essentially, if you judge a series of independent observations with a small but consistent-in-direction error, you can end up with an overall assessment that’s pretty skewed one way or another. Let’s take a practical example. Imagine that you’re exchanging five dollars worth of goods with someone who only has a stack of two-dollar bills. You’re going to be getting either four dollars or six dollars from them, depending on whether you think your goods are worth slightly more or less. That seems fine; mis-valuing a deal by one dollar isn’t huge in the grand scheme of things. If you are selling five sets of goods each worth five dollars, though, the errors can start to add up. Now your pessimistic versus optimistic cases are 20 or 30 dollars- a huge spread.

The way around this type of problem is to change the way you look at your analysis. Instead of thinking of five independent transactions, just sum up the value of the stuff you’re selling. Then you just compare that sum to something with an accepted value, and there’s your less-biased cost. That’s what I’ll be doing today. I’m going to go through lists of soft, medium, and hard sell candidates for the Cardinals and add up their surplus value. Once that’s done, we’ll head to the prospect store and see what we can buy. Some methodology notes: I’m using Fangraphs’ DepthCharts projections for the rest of this season, then extrapolated DepthCharts projections with an aging curve added for all future seasons. When players are eligible for arbitration, I’ll estimate payouts as a percentage of their fair market value. I’m using an estimate of $9 million per win. I’ll be ignoring players with negative surplus value- we’re figuring out what we can get by selling talent, not figuring out what we can do for Bill DeWitt’s bottom line. Relievers get a 4x multiple on their WAR this year to reflect playoff value. I’m ignoring both inflation and present value- we’re looking for a pure frictionless market that sums up all the cashflows, and while these are reasonable considerations, I think they do more to muddy the analysis than to help it. Finally, I’ll be using prospect values from this Fangraphs article when we do our shopping at the end.

Soft Sell

Bud Norris is an easy member of this group. He projects for .2 WAR the rest of the way and is a free agent after this year. Nice and simple start. Miles Mikolas is another member of the soft sell brigade, and a slightly tougher case. He’s projected for another win worth of value this year. If you prorate that out to 180 innings for next year that’s 2.6 WAR, and I then subtract .5 wins for aging, making him a 2.1-win pitcher for next year. I get that people like him more than that, but I’m sticking with average public valuation models for every player- if someone values Miles Mikolas like peak Roger Clemens, let’s ship him out, but I want this analysis to be realistic. Finally, Jose Martinez absolutely belongs in this camp. There are even arguments that you would sell him while trying to contend, but if the Cardinals punt this year I think they should flip him immediately. He’s projected to be worth .6 wins the rest of this year, a further 1.1 next year (more playing time but aging), .6 the year after, and pure replacement the year after that. He’s also comically cheap, so that helps. Let’s see it all in tabular form:

Soft Sell Surplus Value

Player Adjusted WAR Salary Surplus
Player Adjusted WAR Salary Surplus
Bud Norris 0.8 1.3 5.9
Miles Mikolas 3.1 10.6 17.4
Jose Martinez 2.3 2.1 18.5

Great. That’s $41.7mm worth of value right there. That works out to a 55 future value hitter plus a throw-in of some type, or maybe a 60 FV pitcher plus the same throw-in. Let’s say Carter Kieboom or Sixto Sanchez, just for the sake of argument. Totally reasonable return.

Medium Sell

In this level, we’ll add a few players with controllable years remaining who would be harder to replace on the big-league team. I’ll start with salsa enthusiast Matt Carpenter. He’s slugged his way to a bonkers 1.7 win projection for the rest of the year, followed by 3.5 and 3 wins in subsequent years. Already, the Cardinals have a lot of value in this tier. Next up is a fellow slow starter this year, Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna, unfortunately, didn’t follow his slow start by becoming the best hitter in baseball, and has seen his projections decline marginally as a result. He’s still projected for 1.1 wins this year and 2.6 next year, after which he’ll become a free agent. In his third year of arbitration, he can expect to earn 60% of a fair free agent salary. We’ll add him to our tab. Jedd Gyorko has some value left as well. He’s projected for only 100 AB and .4 WAR the rest of the way, but for this exercise we’ll assume he’s getting traded to a team that wants him to play a bit more and give him 150 PA, as well as 400 next year. That’s about the sweet spot for Jedd, anyway. My aging curve shows his 2020 option being declined, so I added the 1mm he’d be owed for early termination- at $13mm, it’s hard to imagine a team wanting a 32-year-old Gyorko unless he changes pretty dramatically. Finally, I’m throwing Kolten Wong in the mix here. This team is getting slashed pretty thin, but the people want to sell, and you have to give the people what they want. Wong’s worth a good deal more than you might think at first- his contract is bananas and he provides enough defensive value that his projected full-season line is in the 2 WAR range. Again, a table:

Medium Sell Surplus Value

Player Adjusted WAR Salary Surplus
Player Adjusted WAR Salary Surplus
Matt Carpenter 8.2 38.3 35.1
Marcell Ozuna 3.8 17.7 16.1
Jedd Gyorko 1.9 13.4 3.7
Kolten Wong 6.3 30.7 26.5

This level is getting down to the good stuff- 81 million dollars of surplus value. Let’s call this tier a 65 FV hitter as well as a 45 FV throw-in. Want some names? How about Eloy Jimenez, as well as our very own Andrew Knizner. What’s that? You don’t want one of our own players in our theoretical trade package? Fine then- Nicky Lopez, a long-term prospect crush of mine from the Royals, will have to do.

Hard Sell

This tier gets serious. It’s only three people, so we’ve got that going for us. That said, it’s three of my four favorite Cardinals. The first consideration is Tommy Pham. He could have swapped places with Ozuna above, but the team seems much more committed to Pham, and I think it’s unlikely they move both unless they really decide to cut things to the bone. I’m mostly staying away from providing player-by-player charts here, but for this top tier of selling I really think it’s worth seeing. I’ve applied a .5 win a year aging curve, and assumed arbitration values of 25%, 40%, and 60% of fair market value for the three years:

Tommy Pham Surplus Value

Year Age WAR Salary Surplus
Year Age WAR Salary Surplus
2018 30 1.3 0.21 11.5
2019 31 2.6 5.9 17.5
2020 32 2.1 7.6 11.3
2021 33 1.6 8.8 5.6

Pham is seriously valuable using my surplus model. As a controllable player who has already put up 1.7 WAR in an off-year, you can kind of see why. Still, though, I know Pham’s value is polarizing, so I wanted to show my work here. On a standard valuation model, he’s no joke. In prospect terms, Pham alone would fetch Keston Hiura, the Brewers’ number one prospect.

Next up is another player I really want no part of trading. Carlos Martinez, come on down. This is a tricky valuation case, as he’s currently on the DL, but DepthCharts has him starting 10 more games this year, and who am I to argue? Going forward, I’m prorating him out to 30 starts a year, a number he’s been sitting at pretty comfortably before this year. He also has a complex contract, and right now it looks like his option years won’t be picked up, but I added $10 million of surplus value to account for the optionality inherent in the team options:

Carlos Martinez Surplus Value

Year Age WAR Salary Surplus
Year Age WAR Salary Surplus
2018 26 0.9 4.3 3.8
2019 27 2.7 11.7 12.6
2020 28 2.7 11.7 12.6
2021 29 2.2 11.7 8.1
Options 30-31 10

That’s a surplus value to rival Pham’s- $47 million, to be precise. It’s hard to imagine a deadline trade for Martinez given his current DL stint, but at the very least it’s a start on valuing him if you’re intent on moving him this offseason.

Last and, in this tier, probably least respected, we come to Luke Weaver. He’s an odd case in that he’s still phenomenally controllable but some of the fanbase seems to be tiring of him already. I somewhat sympathize given the volume of interesting pitchers we have, but I consider myself a Weaver apologist, so I’d like to give him more time to get back to his old beastly self. That said, if we’re tearing things down to the studs, it’s probably worth moving a pitcher who is in the majors now for someone with a slightly longer timeline. Like Martinez, he projects to be worth .9 WAR in 10 starts the rest of the way. I’ve given him only 27 projected starts a year going forward to reflect a little more uncertainty about how his frame will hold up, as he’s topped out at 25 starts thus far in his career. Still, though, that’s a lot of value:

Luke Weaver Surplus Value

Year Age WAR Salary Surplus
Year Age WAR Salary Surplus
2018 24 0.9 0.2 7.9
2019 25 2.4 0.6 21.0
2020 26 2.4 0.6 21.0
2021 27 2.4 5.4 16.2
2022 28 2.4 8.6 13.0
2023 29 1.9 10.3 6.8

I mean, wow. I certainly didn’t expect to see Weaver’s value come out that high. The cost is just so low that I see where it comes from. Even if you think that 86.4 million of surplus value is too much, though (and I certainly do), something like 60 million wouldn’t be crazy for a league-average pitcher with five years of cheap control left after this year. I’m not sure I was ready for Weaver to be one of the Cards’ most valuable trade chips, but here we are. Now, look, I totally expect to get pushback in the comments, and more for this valuation than for any other. I’m not editorializing with these, though. I’m applying one consistent set of valuations and sticking to them. I think I’ve already erred on the side of caution by cutting a quarter of Weaver’s surplus value. You, dear reader, might think Luke Weaver is bad and shouldn’t be in our rotation. The cruel robotic projection systems love him, however, and my money’s with them for this exercise.

So, selling this tier in-season is going to be either side of impossible. Martinez is hurt, Weaver isn’t really a piece a team would add for the stretch run, and I can’t see the Cardinals trading Pham for full value midseason due to his injury history, as the acquiring team would probably want to take a while kicking the tires. This is a very interesting list for the offseason though. There’s something between 160 and 180 million dollars of surplus value here, and that is a serious haul. Allowing for the fact that Vlad Guerrero Jr. is probably a 70 FV at this point and putting Weaver at the low end of his range, that’s still Vlad and Brendan Rodgers, two of the top ten prospects in all of baseball.

Taken in its entirety, an aggressive selloff would yield the Cardinals a lot of new assets. By my count, this ten-player selloff would produce between 280 and 300 million dollars of surplus value. Spending at the very top of the market, that is a 70 FV hitter, two 65 FV hitters, and two 55 FV hitters- as I mentioned earlier, something like Vlad Jr., Brendan Rodgers, Eloy Jimenez, Carter Kieboom, and Christian Pache. If the Cardinals could pull off this mega-trade, they’d immediately have the best farm system in baseball, anchored by three top-10 prospects who could be in the majors soon. There are all kinds of obvious problems with this analysis. We can’t get those exact players, because some of them aren’t for sale and we can’t just go to the prospect store with our surplus dollars and start buying. Still, though, it’s a great top-level idea of what each tier looks like. The in-season sale tier gets us one prospect who projects as a future regular- think Tyler O’Neill, or maybe a new Kolten Wong. The tier that hurts a little adds more value, a future regular with maybe a little more upside. Cutting right to the core of the team yields a true bonanza, though. If the Cardinals are trading one or more of those core three players this offseason, expect a return highlighted by guys you know who project as potential future All-Stars. No, the Cardinals aren’t getting Vlad Jr., because the Blue Jays won’t be buying. Maybe the Astros are buying and dangle Whitley and Tucker, though. Maybe Gleyber Torres becomes available if the Yankees win the Machado bidding. There’s a ton of surplus value at the top of the Cardinals, more so than I would have expected.

When I look at this final analysis, I’m honestly pretty surprised at how well the Cardinals do in a teardown. The real world isn’t frictionless, of course. I could see $50 million of surplus value wasted trying to construct exact trades. The broad strokes of things are interesting, however. The team left over after selling all these guys would be pretty awful. It would look something like Voit/prospect/DeJong/Munoz in the infield, O’Neill/Bader/prospect in the outfield, and Yadi behind the plate. The rotation would be insanely thin- Flaherty, Wacha, Gant, Hudson, and Poncedeleon maybe? It would be raw, that’s for sure. Ironically, the bullpen would barely change. That team is pretty awful, and probably a few years away, but I guess I’m more convinced than before that I’d do it for the right prospects. If the Cardinals tear all the way down, I could see them being contenders again by 2020 if everything broke right. They’d be just godawful in 2019, though, and having everyone develop right by 2020 is probably asking a bit much. Whether you prefer that or the current incarnation of the Cardinals is a matter of taste. One thing I feel comfortable saying the Cardinals shouldn’t do, though, is the medium sell. That seems to combine all the disadvantages of the soft sell, which doesn’t return that much, and the hard sell, which cripples the team’s short-term prospects. When Norris and JMart are inevitably traded, I’ll live with it. Hands off my Matt Carpenter, though, unless you’re burning the whole thing to the ground.

One final note: I excluded Dexter Fowler, Greg Holland, Brett Cecil, and Michael Wacha from the trade analysis. The first three have underwater contracts that yield no surplus value, and Wacha’s injury history and uncertain present is just too confusing to handle in a paint-by-numbers analysis like this.