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To trade or not to trade: position player edition

With the glut of position players in or near the majors, I went through each and decided whether they made sense to trade.

St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Over the offseason, the Cardinals are very likely to trade multiple players currently on their 40 man roster. They simply have too much team control among their position players and hitting prospects in the high minors. Position players on the 40 man who have at least 4 years of team control in the system include: Luken Baker, Alec Burleson, Brendan Donovan, Jose Fermin, Nolan Gorman, Moises Gomez, Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, and Masyn Winn. That does not include high minors prospects Cesar Prieto, Thomas Saggase, or Victor Scott II, all of whom should be in AAA next year. Or Nolan Arenado, under contract for four years himself.

Among that group, four players are MLB starters for just about every team, three deserve a long look at starting (Burleson, Walker, Winn) and by the way we still have Tommy Edman (2 years until free agency), and Dylan Carlson (3 years), and among the names who I don’t consider MLB starters on Opening Day 2024, you figure at least a couple of the rest will be in that group by 2025.

And that doesn’t include catcher, which has an overflow of depth problems of its own (two catchers who can’t be sent down and Andrew Knizner, who has played his way out of getting sent down). If you consider Contreras’ ideal situation a catcher/DH hybrid, you can’t really even rely on the DH too much, which means you have 11 players for 8.5 spots next year (Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill haven’t been mentioned) and that number is likely to stay at 11 when they depart (assuming they aren’t traded).

My point? Someone is getting traded among this group, and probably multiple someones.

It’s always tricky trying to figure out the ideal time to trade someone, because you never really know when their highest value is. We sometimes talk about how the Cardinals sold low on Tommy Pham, but the ideal time to trade him was legitimately a year and two months later, so the logic to trade him while productive was sound, just not the timing. But you can never perfect good timing.

So today, let’s go through the list of position players, and ignoring specific possible returns, see who makes sense to trade. Catcher has its own issues, so I’m going to ignore that for today. I will attempt to answer a few questions, obviously using my own assumptions. The questions include:

  1. Does this make the 2024 team better?
  2. Will they get fair value in return for this player?
  3. What are the odds the player has better value in the future?

The first question assumes the Cardinals intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2024, which is not even assumption, it’s a fact, so whether or not you want the Cardinals to blow it up or whether you assume they have no shot at the playoffs next year, the Cardinals will not operate that way. The second question assumes the market isn’t necessarily going to value everyone like they should. And the third assumes players can rebuild value or lose value through how they play. Let’s begin.

Alec Burleson

Makes sense to trade now? Maybe

Burleson is trickier to answer than you’d think. I know some of you don’t want to trade him because his batted ball data suggests better results, but other teams know that too. He’s not a given to be undervalued by the market. Also, is he even that valuable? His xwOBA is just .325 and he has an OAA of -6 in the corners in just 435 innings. He might be a 120 wRC+ hitter, but if his baserunning (-3.8 BsR) and fielding take away that much value, he’s an average player at best.

I sound harsh, but I am actually more on the Burleson fan train than not, but there is enough doubt in mind about him, that if he is remotely part of the reason the Cardinals can trade for a starter (he wouldn’t be the main piece obviously), I don’t hesitate. Even though I do believe in his bat, I don’t know that there’s a ton of downside to trading him and I don’t know that he doesn’t still have value due to his low strikeout rate and how often he hits the ball hard (even though it hasn’t necessarily resulted in as strong of x stats as you’d think).

Also, we still have a month to play and it’s possible, he increases his value by ending the season strong.

Tommy Edman

Makes sense to trade now? Not really

I’m not saying I wouldn’t trade Edman at the right price, but I am highly skeptical he returns appropriate value. His style of play is just not that highly valued. He is a below average hitter who gains the majority of his value from defense and baserunning. Throw in his versatility, and you hit the trifecta of things not valued like they probably should. Also you’d kind of be selling low. Hypothetically for instance, if Edman has another 5 WAR year, you might be able to get more value from him later. So I kind of think he fails both #2 and #3, not to mention, trading a potential 4 WAR player is likely to make your 2024 team worse unless he returns a SP of some similar value, which would kind of surprise me honestly.

Nolan Arenado/Paul Goldschmidt

Makes sense to trade now? Not one bit

There is no way trading them doesn’t make the 2024 team worse. That’s for starters. But admittedly that isn’t the argument the proponents of trading them are making, they just have different opinions of how likely it is that the Cardinals return to form. But let’s say that the Cardinals have just a 10% chance of returning to form (and I think it’s much higher). I still don’t think it’d be worth it.

Goldschmidt, who is somewhat likely to underperform his 2023 ZiPS (4.4 WAR), is projected by ZiPS for 3.1 next year. If he underperforms, it’s likely less than that. At $10 million per win, he’s “worth” $31 million on the open market, which gives him a surplus value of $5 million. That’s a 45 future value prospect. Michael McGreevy in other words. I like Michael McGreevy. We don’t need more of him though. We need more Tekoah Roby’s, which Goldschmidt wouldn’t return. And that’s assuming he’s projected for 3.1 WAR, which he likely won’t be. He’s more likely to be closer to exactly market value.

Arenado is a little trickier, whose 2024 projection is 4.3 WAR. But that’ll likely take a significant hit. He will have underperformed his 2023 projection by a win, unless he finishes strong. For example Goldschmdit was originally projected for 4.4 WAR in 2019, and that jumped down to 3.1 for 2020 after a 3.4 WAR season. Now I don’t know what his 3-year projections were as of the beginning of 2019, but it was probably 3.8 or so, so I’m pretty confident it dropped by at least half a win.

The same will happen to Arenado (who originally had a 5.6 WAR projection this season.) Before the season, he was projected for 4.3, so now it’ll likely be around 3.7 or so. The 0.5 drop doesn’t really work once you reach Arenado’s age - his 3-year right now falls from 5.6 to 4.3 to 3.6, so let’s just say his four-year projection is something like 3.7-3-2.5-1.9. That might even be high. Because boy does it start dropping fast once you reach a certain age. Goldschmidt right now is 4.4 to 3.1 to 1.9.

So that admittedly guesstimate of 12.3 WAR would produce $111 million in value, and taking away the $15 million the Rockies still owe, Arenado is being paid $109 million. He has essentially a market value contract right now. You’re simply not rebuilding your farm system by trading Arenado and Goldschmidt, even though it sure feels like it would. That’s why you don’t trade them.

Make no mistake, Goldschmidt and Arenado being market value contracts at this point in their contract is incredible, but yeah you aren’t getting back much without eating into their contracts, which takes away from the budget of signing starters.

Tyler O’Neill

Makes sense to trade now? No actually

If you can actually get a team to trade for O’Neill’s potential - with some injury risk factored in - sure it makes sense. We don’t know what his market is. This entire article is theoretical. At least on the surface, the risk/reward doesn’t really seem worth the bother of trading him. He has the potential to be an All-Star caliber player, and whatever the odds of that happening are, the risk is... that you actually have to use up the depth you have and miss out on an okay prospect? Depending on how the trades remove the depth, the Cardinals actually have a perfect team constructed for an injury prone, high variance position player who has a fairly high floor when he is on the field.

If he actually manages to return an MLB caliber starter, sure he does make sense to trade. But not for the sake of trading him, and not for a prospect return. In my opinion anyway.

Dylan Carlson

Makes sense to trade? No

I mean this one is fairly simple. It seems pretty likely that Carlson will have more value in the future than this offseason, despite less years of team control. Again I cannot stress enough, he makes sense to trade if a team values him as a roughly league average outfielder with three years of cheap control, but in all likelihood, the Cardinals trading him would be giving the other team a relative bargain.

Moises Gomez/Luken Baker/Juan Yepez

Makes sense to trade? Absolutely

I’m showing my bias here, but I don’t believe in any of these guys, and besides there isn’t a role for them. Literally anything you can get, trade them. If they can be the final piece for a starting pitcher, more the better. I just don’t envision their trade value improving, and they won’t play enough here to boost that value even if they do have more in the tank.

Nolan Gorman

Makes sense to trade? Unfortunately, yes

I’m being objective on this one. I do not want to trade Gorman. And I don’t really think the Cardinals will. But...he fits the boxes. Will he make the 2024 team worse? You might take a hit with whoever replaces him, but he’s probably returning a starter of similar caliber if not better and his production can be replaced, at least in the very short term. (By his probable 2024 projection anyway. Longer term, it will likely be much harder) Will he receive fair value on the trade market? Yeah probably. He is going to be very, very highly valued because his game is very highly valued. He was originally projected for 2.4 WAR by ZiPS in 139 games and he has 2.4 WAR in 104 games. His projection next year (before the season) was 3 WAR. Good chance it’s higher now.

Will he have more value in the future? That’s tougher to say. The other team will be trading for a 3+ WAR player right now with 5 years of team control and two of them are league minimum. And Gorman’s projection has factored in that he will be more than a 3 WAR player in the future (it’s 3.3 for 2025, pre-ZiPS update). I think I’m also making the case to not trade him by sharing how valuable he is, but the point is: while he will become a better player I do think some of his trade value already assumes that, so I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s likely he has more value in the future.

Brendan Donovan

Makes sense to trade? No

He might have been a yes before his injury. The injury likely doesn’t affect much in the future, but I find it difficult to believe his value wouldn’t take a slight hit. And he was already the type of player who would be undervalued. His non-prospect status will likely make teams skeptical that he can continue what he’s doing. And that skepticism will probably keep his trade value below what it should be. I don’t even really think you have to completely buy into 125 wRC+ Brendan Donovan to still think he wouldn’t return appropriate value.

Prospect edition

Cesar Prieto - Yes

Prieto’s main issue is that it’s kind of hard to see how he is anything other than a bench player in this organization. It’s not that I think his game can’t work, but I don’t know how he catapults above the other infielders. He also has some serious flaws that limit his potential. He’s not adding anything defensively and he chases a whole bunch. He’s very good at making contact, but making contact on balls not in the strike zone is not usually a good outcome. He’s arguably a more extreme version of Alec Burleson offensively with less power.

Thomas Saggese - Maybe

He would seem to be an obvious no, seeing as he’s a not particularly well-regarded prospect given his performance, and his performance is Barry Bonds in Springfield right now. But.... those are the public prospect rankings. I find it difficult to believe there aren’t multiple teams out there valuing Saggese as a much better prospect than what we’re told, especially after this 2nd half with Springfield. And also because of how on fire he is right now, it’s entirely possible this is the peak of his value.

I don’t really know if he’s reached centerpiece of a trade for a SP, but he could take up a decent chunk of value for one. Also if you have no intention of trading Gorman, Winn, or Donovan, he absolutely makes sense to trade.

Victor Scott II - No

I suppose I could make the argument that I did with Saggese here, but there’s a few differences. For one thing, I have less reason to believe other front offices are valuing Scott a lot higher than the public rankings. His bat still has question marks and his main attributes are still defense and speed. The other thing is... the Cardinals already have a Saggese type in the majors. He’s not really adding something the Cardinals are missing. Victor Scott is. They don’t have an elite defender in CF. They have a few guys who are acceptable out there, but they are ideally in the corners. And even if you’re as high on Edman in CF as I am, Edman is here for two more years, which is right about the time Scott might be ready.

Jordan Walker

Makes sense to trade? N/A

If the rumors are true that ownership was behind Walker making the Opening Day roster, I don’t know what trade would have to exist for them ownership to approve trade, but it would probably exceed what Jordan Walker’s actual trade value is by a good amount. So it’s just not happening.

Masyn Winn

Makes sense to trade? No

There is a fundamental issue to trading Winn: with an excess of middle infield options for the future, trading Winn does not actually open up a spot for another guy, because nobody else can play SS. Which means, once Edman leaves, you’d need to make another move to get a SS and trade more of your middle infield depth when Donovan, Gorman, Prieto, and Saggese all can’t play 2B. There really isn’t a SS in the system particularly close to the majors past Winn.