Over the holidays, I had a lovely conversation with a research physicist at a dinner party. I travel in weird circles- by which I mean his parents live next door to my parents. In any case, at some point the conversation turned to superconducting magnets, his line of work. When he went to describe them, he couldn’t wait to ask “Do you know how magnets work?” Good news, my scientist friend- I do not! “Well, each magnet is made up of many tiny magnets.” I’m not going to lie to you, that wasn’t what I was hoping for. I’m not going to say that that non-answer crushed me- but it didn’t NOT crush me, if you catch my drift. Basically, I just like knowing how things are made, and the turtles-all-the-way-down dodge was pretty disappointing. Did I end up figuring out how magnets actually do work? I did not, because I fell into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, but that’s not the point here. What is the point here, you ask? Well, fair question, friend. I set out to learn how a different thing is made, and I’m going to tell you about it. The incredibly off-topic introduction was a pure distraction tactic- today, we’re going to talk about how teams acquire star players, and you’ll be relieved to hear that they aren’t made up of tiny stars- Jose Altuve is already an indivisible baseball unit, and you just can’t get smaller than that.
How to acquire a star player has been a focus of Cardinals fans (and presumably ownership) for almost the entirety of the current core’s time in the majors. The words “Big Bat” get thrown around with reckless abandon every winter- as in, if only the Cardinals could acquire One Big Bat to hold down the lineup. Nevermind that they have done just that the past two years- the team’s remarkable depth makes the suggestion pretty much self-evident. When you have a team full of league-average players, stars are basically the only possible upgrades. The Cardinals have tried the most obvious route, trading for an established star, in three of the past five offseasons. As we’ve heard ad nauseam this winter, free agency can occasionally offer bona fide stars. Maybe you’ve heard of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado? Another pretty popular view is that you should tank and get your stars in the draft. Easy as cake, right? Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Great British Bake Off, but baking a cake is incredibly hard. Lastly, maybe you could trade for a star player when they’re still a prospect. Prospects are easy to come by, right? Just hand over your spare reliever or whatnot and collect a Gleyber Torres coupon.
All of these views are correct. You can get a star player in any of these ways. I didn’t even cover international free agents, later-round draft picks, or trading for lesser-regarded players that blossom into prospects. That doesn’t mean much without context, though. To get an idea of which of these routes make sense, I decided to go to the tape. For this study, I looked at all the players who were worth 4.5 or more fWAR in either 2017 or 2018. That’s 62 stars and also one Scooter Gennett, oddly enough. If a player accumulated 4.5 or more fWAR with two teams, I put him on there twice, one for each team, but if that player was on one team the whole time, I only listed them once. Mike Trout doesn’t count twice, in other words. This isn’t foolproof science, obviously, but the idea is just to point us in the general direction of where the Cardinals can acquire talent, not to provide a foolproof solution. Let’s start our tour of baseball’s upper class with the draft.
Stars Acquired in the Draft
|Draft- Top 5||5|
The top of the draft is a pretty obvious way to give your team a superstar boost. Alex Bregman? Bryce Harper? Steven Strasburg? Top-two picks. Clayton Kershaw was picked seventh. Anthony Rendon was the sixth pick of his class. You get the idea. How does talent break down after that, though? Well, above is a quick chart of 4.5+ WAR players by when they were taken. While the first round is clearly the place to be, teams are acquiring top talent all throughout the draft. Again, to be clear, this is only players who hit 4.5 WAR for the team that drafted them, so it’s by no means an exhaustive list. That last bucket, 4th round and later, has been very good to the Cardinals in the past- in fact, two of the eight players there are Tommy Pham and Matt Carpenter, who put up 4.5 WAR seasons in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Jacob deGrom, Charlie Blackmon, Paul Goldschmidt- there’s talent available in these later rounds, and the Cardinals have another potential star in the wings in Paul DeJong, a fourth-round pick himself.
Climbing up the ranks, you can see that great players are available pretty much anywhere in the draft, albeit somewhat randomly and not in huge quantities. Nolan Arenado was a second-round pick. Trout himself was picked in the back half of the first round. High draft picks are valuable, and hitting them right can set your team on a path to success, but there’s truly talent all throughout the draft. It’s not as easy as getting a top-ten draft pick, either; those do work out at a higher rate, but still quite rarely.
International Free Agency
This could easily be a subset of the draft, but five stars were acquired as international free agents. The Cardinals have developed Carlos Martinez from this market, and Elehuris Montero and Malcom Nunez have me excited for what’s to come from this pipeline. It’s not quite the same, but paying attention to international amateurs has already netted the Cardinals Jhon Torres, and they appear to be focusing more and more on talent acquisition in this manner.
Stars Acquired by Trade
|Trade- As Star||8|
|Trade- As top prospect||6|
|Trade- As throw-in||5|
As you can see in the table above, one pretty foolproof way to have a star player on your team is to literally go out and trade for a star player. Bam! Simple as that, right? Not so fast, my friend. The number of stars who were acquired as top prospects, mostly in trades for established stars, is almost as high. Chris Archer and Carlos Carrasco headlined trades for more established stars early in their careers. If you think that giving up a cost-controlled stud in a trade for an established star is bad, the names included as throw-ins will terrify you. Corey Kluber was a throw-in to a trade. Aaron Hicks was traded straight up for John Ryan Murphy. Chris Taylor was acquired for essentially a bag of baseballs. These trades can change the direction of franchises, but they feel near-random, so it’s probably not a thing you can plan on. Still, though, either trading for a star or trading for a top prospect has been alright for acquiring great players.
Ah, free agency, the last refuge of scoundrels. Surprisingly enough, five free agents hit 4.5 WAR or more over the last two years- Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, J.D. Martinez, Lorenzo Cain, and Justin Turner. Of these five, only Turner wasn’t a marquee acquisition- the other four were acquired at their peak and continued to produce. Obviously, there are two guys this year who are decent bets to provide star-level value in the years to come. There are pitfalls to this approach as well (witness Dexter Fowler and Albert Pujols), but the upside of hitting on a free agent can be sizable. While it may not be a stable way to assemble a whole team, the free agency market seems totally acceptable as a way to add one capstone player to your roster.
Look, Scooter Gennett is weird, okay? This shouldn’t exist but does.
What does this all mean? Well, it’s pretty clear there’s nothing conclusive in this. Free agency accounted for as many stars as the top of the draft. Trading for a star wasn’t conclusively better than trading one for prospects and vice versa. Signing a bunch of international free agents could work, but so could hitting on later rounds of the draft. All of the various myths of how teams can obtain impact players have a grain of truth to them. You can draft wisely. You can fleece rivals in trades. You can develop lower-round picks. You can sign them in free agency. It seems fairly clear to me that there’s no one best way to acquire top talent, which fits with the piecemeal way teams go about doing it. My one takeaway from this exercise is that when people say there’s one obvious solution, it’s worth looking into. This pile of inconclusive data isn’t really doing much for me- and it’s absolutely not what I expected to see when I started looking. Is this somehow conclusive? Most definitely not. It suggests, though, that rules of thumb are probably not the right way to think about team building- it’s just too complex and varied. The Cardinals have looked like a team in need of one transcendent talent for a few years now, star turns by Pham and Carpenter notwithstanding. They’ve drafted, looked to the international market, traded for stars, and tried to sign talent in free agency. In Miles Mikolas, they even came pretty close to acquiring a 4.5 WAR player of their own. They just- they just haven’t hit yet. There are two marquee free agents available this winter that could change the course of the franchise or act as a lynchpin of future Cardinals lineups. If the team misses on them, however, there are other avenues. Lastly, here’s a quick table summing up all the ways to get your stars.
Stars by Method Acquired
|Draft- Top 5||5|
|Trade- As Star||8|
|Trade- As top prospect||6|
|Trade- As throw-in||5|