First things first, let me make one thing clear: I know this was never going to happen. This is a purely hypothetical exercise. Also, to answer the question the headline provides, yes they could have beat this if they really wanted to. That’s not strictly what I’m trying to accomplish with this post. A more accurate, but unwieldy headline would probably be “Could the Cardinals beat the offer and not come away as the loser?” Which is certainly a matter of interpretation - hard to believe a team that gets Mookie Betts would be the loser in a trade - but I’m curious both how fair this deal on both sides is and if the Cardinals could beat this while still being a fair deal.
Let’s work out the value of the trade that actually happened. Mookie Betts is projected for 6.0 WAR by ZiPS, which is probably about as high as these projections will get if your name is not Mike Trout. Betts is under team control for only one more season, and then he becomes a free agent. In 2020, his salary will be $27 million. He has a surplus of $27 million for 2020 ($9 million per win estimate). The qualified offer to a team like the Dodgers is worth $4 million, since they would receive a pick after Compensation Round B if they fail to sign him.* David Price is projected for 2.4 WAR and is set to be paid $16 million for the next three seasons by the Dodgers. He has a surplus value of $4.2 million thanks to the Red Sox chipping in half the salary.
*In news to me, the Red Sox - if they were to keep Betts - would have been over the luxury tax and teams over the luxury tax get a compensation pick after the 4th round no matter what the players signs for. So the draft pick from losing Betts is nearly useless to them.
The Dodgers gave up Alex Verdugo and Kenta Maeda for the surplus of $35.2 million. That’s not really the relevant aspect of seeing if the Cardinals could beat that since the Red Sox received Brusdal Graterol from the Twins, with the Twins receiving Maeda. The Cardinals don’t have a comparable player to Maeda anyway, but they probably have someone vaguely comparable to Graterol, at least from a value perspective. In any case, I’ll look at it from both the Dodgers and Red Sox perspective.
Verdugo is projected for 2.0 WAR, primarily due to only being projected for 476 PAs, and less because he’s a league average player. Verdugo is a tough player to value for now. He missed the final two months of last season due to a “back/oblique/core injury” and says his goal is to be ready by Opening Day, which means the issue still lingers. He was a top 50 prospect before the 2019 season and had a 2.2 fWAR season in just 377 PAs, so clearly he’s talented and proven himself.
Former VEB editor Craig Edwards created a handy chart for valuing prospects. Fangraphs has Verdugo as a 50 grade position player, however they were much lower on him than most sites, ranking him 117th overall, while Baseball America ranked him #35, Baseball Prospectus #19, and MLB.com #35. That coupled with his performance in the big leagues, I feel comfortable giving him a 55 position player grade instead and use that valuation. Craig figured that 55 grade position player prospects are worth $46 million, but Verdugo has a year less of control than most prospects, so I have his valuation as worth $35 million. There’s an argument he should be lower because of his lingering injury issues, but I think that’s reflected in his low projected PA total in ZiPS, so I didn’t feel the need to count that double against him.
Maeda is also complicated. Maeda was projected for 2.1 WAR and has 4 years, $12 million remaining on his contract. Yes, you are reading that correctly. Maeda is getting paid $3 million per year for the next four years. However, he does have performance bonuses. He’s getting an extra $1 million because he got traded (for just 2020). He gets $150,000 for making the Opening Day roster every year. He can make up to $6.5 million in incentives for games started, and up to $3.5 million in incentives on games pitched. That’s going to be tricky for the three years after, but for 2020 at least, I’ll just use the projections.
For games started, they have 24 with 34 games overall pitched, but I think he’s walking into an entirely different situation in Minnesota, so we’ll just give him the 25 games started so that’s an extra $3.5 million. They also have him down for 138 innings, which would be an additional $1.25 million. So basically his 2020 salary is expected to be $8.9 million in 2020. This is just my rough estimates, but I’m going to estimate his next 3 years’ salary to be $7.65, $5.9 million, and $5.65 million. Basically I’m predicting his innings and starts to fall as he gets older, as most projection systems would do. So that’s 4 years, $28.1 million. He’s projected for 2.1 WAR. Projecting his WAR for 0.5 less each year, that gives him a surplus of $20.5 million.
So that’s $55.5 million in value the Dodgers traded. The surplus is $35.2 million going back to them. But this is clearly a win now trade, and most of that value they traded is tied up in the future. I’m not arguing that the deal favors the Red Sox actually, as perhaps the difference in value suggests. The Red Sox had a 61% chance to make the playoffs according to ESPN before the trade. They just got 4 wins worse for 2020. So their odds are probably closer to the single digits now. That’s not a trade that makes sense.
Before getting into what the Red Sox received, to give you an idea of what $55.5 million in value is in prospects, it’s Dylan Carlson and then some. Carlson is a 55 grade position player prospect, which is worth $46 million, which means the Cardinals would still need to give $10 million in value. So to beat that value, using Craig’s chart, you’d need to add in, let’s say Andrew Knizner and Zack Thompson, which would put the overall value at $58 million.
Now, as to what the Red Sox actually received, they received Verdugo, whose $35 million surplus is unchanged and Graterol. Graterol is a 50 grade pitching prospect according to Fangraphs and as such, is worth a surplus of $21 million. I’ll spare you from scrolling up, but I calculated Maeda’s value at $20.5 million, and I’m going to have to pat both myself and Craig on the back for somehow nailing the valuations here. So if you have any doubt that teams do in fact value prospects this way, well here’s your proof. Red Sox preferred the huge upside prospect, the Twins preferred the more proven guy.
The value the Dodgers gave up and the value the Red Sox got is the same essentially. Teams all value players the exact same now. And to answer the above question, assuming money was no concern, I don’t think they could or would have, especially with the Dodgers involved, who probably would have just upped their offer more if the Cards were in competition with them.
But for the sake of discussion, I’ll try to present a hypothetical trade. So obviously the Cardinals are not beating the Dodgers in prospects and value, but here’s where the interests of two teams line up really well - if not for a pesky no trade clause. Betts plays RF and so does Dexter Fowler. So it only makes sense that a trade for Betts would include Fowler, whose playing time would be tanked by trade not including him. And conveniently, Fowler makes $16.5 million. Red Sox are reportedly paying $16 million to give away Price and that really conveniently fits with Fowler’s salary. Plus, unlike the Dodgers, Fowler is under contract for just two more years, so the third year, the Cardinals pay the full $32 million salary.
However, the Cardinals 2020 salary is currently $170 million and acquiring both Betts and Price, even accounting for Fowler’s loss of salary, is still putting the Cardinals 2020 at $212.5 million. Even in this fantasyland I’m operating in, the Cardinals are avoiding going over the luxury tax. The luxury tax is $208 million, so the Red Sox would need to throw in an additional $5 million. So Fowler (with -$17.3 million in value) for Betts/Price (-$12.8 million) plus $5 million means $9.5 million. But the Dodgers paid an extra $20 million in surplus so the Cards will too. I assume the Red Sox want an OF prospect with some upside, and I figured Tyler O’Neill’s value at $23 million in the past, so he gets the nod. That leaves $6 million, and since the Red Sox got a pitching prospect, the 45+ value Zack Thompson fits.
So there’s the offer: Mookie Betts/David Price/$5 million in cash for Dexter Fowler/Tyler O’Neill/Zack Thompson. DFA any of Yairo Munoz/Tyler Webb/Rangel Ravelo/Brett Cecil and add Dylan Carlson to the 40 man on Opening Day and have an OF of Carlson/Bader/Betts with Lane Thomas and who gives a shit backing them up. The Cardinals would instantly become huge division favorites. I want to live in that reality.