Over at Fangraphs this week, Dave Cameron wrote an excellent series of articles ranking MLB players by trade value. These articles were very hypothetical in nature, since most, if not all, of the players ranked were unlikely to be traded. Personally, I found this topic fascinating, so I thought that I would do a similar, Cardinals-specific piece on players with the most trade value.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Cameron's trade value series, here's a helpful excerpt from his introductory piece explaining the concept of trade value.
As a quick overview for those who might be new to the series, he's the basic concept: which players would bring the most return in trade if they were made available by their current clubs? To answer this question as best as we can, we not only look at a player's performance — both now and in the future — but also the amount of years a team would be acquiring a player for, and how much that player would earn in salary before he could become a free agent. The most valuable assets in the game aren't just great players, but they're great players who aren't getting paid like great players. Naturally, this causes this list to skew very young, as MLB's pay scale is geared to take money from inexperienced players and give it to veterans. Given that teams also like to build around young stars, this causes many of the most valuable trade chips in the game to be guys at the beginnings of their careers.
Of course, every team has a different priority and varying access to resources, so a player's trade value will not be the same to all 30 organizations. There are players that have significant value to one franchise that another team would have no interest in, and so, we have to try and measure aggregate demand, not just the specific question "would this team trade Player X for Player Y?" Instead of viewing a player's trade value as specific to a specific franchise, it's more accurate to think of this exercise as something like an auction; if each MLB player was put up for trade, with their current contracts remaining in place, who would bring back the most overall value to their franchise?
Clearly, present on-field value is going to be highly important here. The most aggressive teams in trades are often the ones trying to upgrade their roster in the short-term, and this is where the most egregious overpays often come, so players who are significant contributors in 2015 get a significant bump in value compared to players whose value lies more in the future. However, long-term performance and costs are still significant factors as well, so this isn't just a list of the 50 best players in baseball right now. Trade value is a combination of short-term and long-term value, and a player's future salary and years of team-control are big factors in how teams view a player's long-term value.
In looking at the Cardinals, the good news is that there are a lot of good players to choose from. There are very few bad contracts on this team, and most non-bench players would probably have some sort of value in a trade. If I wanted to, I could include Cardinals prospects in this analysis. A good case could be made that Alex Reyes and Stephen Piscotty have a higher trade value than most players on the Cardinals roster since they are still young and would come with at least six years of team control. For this article, though, I made the arbitrary decision to limit my analysis to players who are currently on the major league roster.
Before I get to my top five players, I thought I would say a little bit about some players who just missed the cut. A couple of years ago, Yadier Molina would have easily been near the top of this list, but he is no longer the bargain he once was. Molina is still underpaid relative to the market at $15 million a year, but he is a catcher on the wrong side of 30 who is declining offensively. Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright are in similar situations of getting paid somewhat close to what they're worth. Holliday signed his contract as a free agent and Wainwright signed his extension a year before becoming a free agent, so it's not surprising to see either of them making close to market value at this point in their careers.
In fact, if there was one Cardinals player in the free agent portion of his career who would have a chance of cracking the top five on the team in trade value, it would be Jhonny Peralta. Peralta is a year and a half into his four year, $53 million contract, and according to Fangraphs' dollar-WAR metric, he has already been worth $57 million. Because his contract is front loaded, Peralta is only owed $30 million through the end of 2017. Barring a collapse in performance, Peralta will likely remain a bargain for the Cardinals through the end of his contract.
Three other players who missed the cut are Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Randal Grichuk. While these three players are young, talented, and cost-controlled, they weren't quite on the same level as the top five players on this list. Rosenthal and Siegrist have limited value as relievers, and Grichuk is still too much of a question mark going forward.
With that, here are the five Cardinal players who, at this point in time, would have the most value in a potential trade.
5. Lance Lynn
Controlled though: 2017
Guaranteed dollars: $18.5 million
Despite spending a couple of weeks on the disabled list, Lance Lynn is quietly having perhaps the best year of his career. He has already accumulated 2.4 fWAR and has a career low FIP of 2.80. He is under team control for the next two and a half years and is only making around $7 million a year due to the three year deal he signed covering his arbitration years. As a 3-4 win pitcher, Lynn is easily worth double that amount, if not more, on the open market. Doing some quick math, it looks like Lynn could approach $50 million in surplus value for the Cardinals over the next two and half years, assuming he doesn't have any catastrophic injuries. Lynn will certainly cash in on the free agent market in a few years, but for now, the Cardinals can enjoy getting his peak years at a very low cost.
4. Matt Carpenter
Controlled through: 2019 (option for 2020)
Guaranteed dollars: $47.5 million
Carpenter signed a team friendly extension after his career year in 2013, buying out all his arbitration years as well as three free agent years. While Carpenter will likely never match his 2013 performance (6.9 fWAR, 146 wRC+), he is still a very valuable 3-5 win player for the Cardinals going forward. Having a core player like Carpenter locked in at a low cost going forward will be a huge plus for the Cardinals. Given the amount of money that free agents are making these days, it is quite possible that even Carpenter's $18.5 million option for 2020 could look like a bargain in a few years.
3. Michael Wacha
Controlled through: 2019
Unlike Lance Lynn and Matt Carpenter, Michael Wacha is still making the league minimum in 2015, and he is not set to receive arbitration until 2017. After some concerning peripherals at the beginning of the year, Wacha started striking out batters at the rate we were used to seeing, and his excellent first half earned him a spot on the All-Star Team. Wacha is emerging as a potential top of the rotation starter, and if he can avoid the shoulder injury that plagued him for much of last season, he will provide a lot of value to the Cardinals in the next several years.
2. Carlos Martinez
Controlled through: 2019
Most of what I said about Wacha applies to Martinez. Martinez's team control/salary situation is identical to Wacha's, so deciding how to rank these two pitchers comes down to which one I think will be better going forward. For what it's worth, Dave Cameron ranked Martinez 47th and Wacha 37th. Personally, I would take Martinez over Wacha going forward, but I could easily say the opposite on any given day. As of right now, Martinez edges Wacha in xFIP (3.14 to 3.47) and SIERA (3.32 to 3.61), and his strikeout rate is six percentage points higher. Martinez's lack of injury issues (especially compared to Wacha) also bodes well for him going forward. I still think Martinez has the upside to be even better than he has been, especially if he can lower his walk rate. Given the dramatic improvements he has made from last year to this year, I think Martinez has a decent chance of taking another step forward and reaching that upside in the coming years.
1. Kolten Wong
Controlled through: 2019
This may come as a surprise to some of you, especially since Dave Cameron didn't include Wong in his top 50, but I am particularly high on Wong going forward. He is only 24 and has already posted 2.2 fWAR so far in 2015. He gets on base, hits for some power, runs the bases well, and plays good defense, and when you put all of this together, you have an above average regular and borderline All-Star. Like Wacha and Martinez, Wong is under team control through 2019, so he won't be eligible for arbitration until 2017. In terms of trade value, I put him first because he has a high floor as a regular at an up the middle position and can provide value to a team in several different ways. The lower injury risk for position players was also a factor in ranking Wong ahead of Martinez and Wacha.
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All in all, I feel pretty comfortable saying that those five players have the most trade value of all the players currently on the Cardinals roster. The order could be up for debate, especially with Martinez, Wacha, and Wong, who I think could each provide a remarkably similar amount of value to the team going forward. With that said, I would be stunned if any of these players were actually traded. Players on lists such as these are rarely traded because they are so valuable to the team that they are already playing for. In theory, though, any player be available for the right price, so every now and then, it can be helpful to assess one's assets and ascertain how much a player is truly worth in a trade.