Tommy Pham, everyone’s favorite King of the Red Asses, is now gone. He was dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays for a trio of prospects. Justin Williams, Roel Ramirez, and Genesis Cabrera are headed to a farm system near you. Others have and will write about the types of players the St. Louis Cardinals acquired from a more raw, quantitative point of view. I want to look at it from a qualitative point of view. Using only readily available information, how valuable are these prospects? And how does that value weigh against Tommy Pham’s surplus value?
Tommy Pham’s Surplus Value
There are a lot of potential issues with gauging Pham’s surplus value, not the least of which is that he’s exiting his pre-arbitration years after the 2018 season. We have no baseline for what he’ll make in his first year. We can start with Kevin Pillar, who is a decent comp for Tommy Pham. Pillar had accumulated 8.4 fWAR before his first arbitration year, while Pham will be around 10 depending upon how the rest of 2018 goes. That said, Pham is also older.
For purposes of this exercise, we’ll project Tommy’s 2019 salary at $4M- a little higher than Pillar’s $3.25M award. Using Point of Pittsburgh’s 25/40/60 rule of thumb, that means we’d expect Tommy Pham to receive arbitration salaries of $6.4M and $9.6M in years 2 and 3 before reaching arbitration. Now we have a backbone for Pham’s value. The next step is to project his surplus value plugging in some projected WAR figures for the next few seasons.
This brings us to issue number two. ZIPS rest of season has him at 1.0 fWAR from now until the end of the season, which would get him a 2.5 fWAR for the year. The best, easiest way I can find to project his future- specifically his arbitration years from 2019 through 2021- is using Baseball Prospectus’ pre-season long-term forecast. Their version of WAR (known as WARP) projected him for 2.1 wins in 2019, 2.2 in 2020, and 1.6 in 2021. Plugging those values in to the D-Rays Bay surplus value calculator, after pro-rating his 2018 rest of season value, gets us $51.0M of discounted surplus value remaining on Pham’s contract.
In fairness, those Prospectus projections were created coming off of a 6.1 fWAR/5.2 Prospectus WARP season. It’s quite likely they would dip a little bit coming on the heels of this year’s 1.5 fWAR + 1.0 ZIPS projected rest-of-season fWAR year. If we arbitrarily decrease his future projections by just 10%, his discounted surplus value slips to $44.8M.
There are a handful of ways we can gauge the return value of Justin Williams, Roel Ramirez, and Genesis Cabrera. Point of Pittsburgh has their table extrapolating value for top 100 prospects. Last year, Dave Cameron at Phamgraphs... er... Fangraphs provided prospect values based on FV (future value) scores. These are both tremendous tools.
The problem is that none of these three players are top 100 prospects, sapping some value of the Point of Pittsburgh resource. Justin Williams was tagged with a 45 FV grade before the season. Referencing the Cameron article places him as worth $11M. Genesis Cabrera came in at 40 FV (80 grade name, though), which doesn’t register in Cameron’s table. The lowest rung of pitchers listed- 45 FV- have $13M of value. Let’s arbitrarily cut that by 25%, and then round up. That would place Cabrera as worth $10M of value. Ramirez doesn’t have a readily available prospect grade, so even the $10M value that we assigned to Cabrera seems generous. Mind you, Ramirez is highly intriguing because of his high K rates in the minor leagues. But he seems at best to be a dart throw minor league reliever. Since we need to claim something for his value, we’ll call it $3M. If you’re keeping score at home, here’s how it looks:
Prospect Return for Tommy Pham
Combined with the $44-51M projected value of Pham’s remaining contract, that’s a sizable gap in value. Some combination of two things is happening here.
Possibility #1: The Cardinals have a higher valuation for Williams, Cabrera, and/or Ramirez
This would hardly be shocking, especially since I’m merely looking at FV data available on Fangraphs. The Cardinals scouting department has their own evaluation methods. That said, even if you project Cabrera and Williams as 50 FV prospects, that only brings the prospect return up to $37M, still shy of Pham’s discounted surplus.
Possibility #2: The Cardinals and/or the open market projects less future value for Tommy Pham
This one has more plausibility. There are a lot of question marks with Tommy Pham. We all love him for succeeding in spite of those question marks, all while telling those question marks to kindly go make love to themselves. But it wouldn’t take much of a drop from those Prospectus projections to bring his surplus value down to the $26M of value we see headed to St. Louis in this deal, in the table above. For instance, I docked him 10% simply for slipping from his high 2017 peak to his 2018 season- ergo the $44M surplus value instead of $51M. If the lost value was 25%- fWAR of 1.4, 1.5, and 1.0 from 2019 to 2021 for Pham- then his discounted surplus falls down to $30M for the remainder of his contract. I’m doubtful Pham would fall like that, or even further, but there are always error bars and collapse rates. Tommy Pham’s possibility for collapse is probably higher than most simply because of his limited playing time prior to 2017 (we know less about him as a player) and the potential recurrence of the eye issue. He’s also entering his age 31 season in 2019, meaning his remaining arbitration years are age 32 and 33.
Even taking these possibilities into account, this seems like a low return for Pham. It’s not as bad as you’d think at first blush, but the bag still feels light. I’m certainly willing to concede that the trio may have a brighter future than we know. I’ve already seen folks postulating that Williams alone is another hard contact %/high exit velocity hitter, which would seem to be the Cardinals’ preferred type. His swinging strike percentage is solidly average this season. Cabrera and Ramirez, combined with the Shreve/Gallegos/Elledge acquisitions, seem to imply that the front office is going full Hank Scorpio in their present and future bullpen rebuild. That’s another article for another day, though. For now, thank you for your service, o’ King of the Red Asses. The next time I see you play, I’m going to cheer as loudly as I possibly can.