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The price for Jose Quintana

You’re probably not going to like it.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

After a rough start of the year, the Cardinals are back in the thick of things, like usual. If that continues to be the case as the season goes on, you can expect the Cardinals to once again be buyers at the deadline. If the Cardinals are mostly competing for a Wild-Card spot, then they probably just make some minor moves to shore things up. A sensible bullpen upgrade, or maybe a 4th or 5th starter if the rotation suffers injuries. Minor moves represent the most likely scenarios.

We’ll have plenty of time to talk more realistic upgrades when the deadline gets closer. For now, let’s talk about something fun, if a bit unrealistic. Let’s talk about the Cardinals making a big move at the deadline.

One of the best trade candidates out there is Jose Quintana of the White Sox. Since 2013, Quintana has been worth 18.3 WAR, the eighth highest total among pitchers. Of course, the White Sox were on the selling end of the two biggest trades of the off-season. First came Chris Sale, one of the few pitchers better than Quintana since 2013. On an extremely affordable deal for the next three years, Sale was one of the biggest trade chips to be moved recently. Using his projection before the season, $9M for the price of a win, 5% inflation, and an 8% discount rate for future production, here’s how Sale and his contract situation grades out:

Sale just cracks the $100M mark. The Net Present Value adjustment is new to my contract calculations. When talking about free agent signings, we don’t need to bother with adjusting to Net Present Value. The team doesn’t pay the player for that year’s production until that year.

However, when talking about trades, teams are exchanging assets at that moment. And if you’re looking at a player’s value at that moment, you have to adjust future production to a Net Present Value. Wins today are more valuable than wins tomorrow. The only exception is a team in the middle of a rebuild. Regardless, those rebuilding teams reap the rewards of a marketplace that puts greater emphasis on the present.

What we need next, is a way to value the prospects that went to the White Sox in exchange for Sale. That was the goal of my aggregate Top 219 MLB prospects list I released a couple of weeks ago. There, I used six public Top prospect lists, along with public valuations for different types of prospects, in order to give every prospect that appeared on one of these lists a dollar value based on the public consensus.

Of course, this is just an estimation, based on public sources. But these scouts often used to work for a team and/or often receive input from team-affiliated scouts, so there is a feeling that these lists reflect the teams’ views themselves. Opinions on any individual prospect surely differs from team to team, but we can view a prospects’ surplus value here as something close to the average opinion of him among the teams.

With all that out the way, here are the top two prospects the White Sox received for Sale, along with how they graded out on my aggregate ranking:

The return for Chris Sale.txt

rank Prospects Pos. Surplus Value MiLB FG BA BP 361 MLB
rank Prospects Pos. Surplus Value MiLB FG BA BP 361 MLB
3 Yoan Moncada INF $86.50 Grade A 70 2 5 3 1
39 Michael Kopech RHP $31.00 Grade A-/B+ 55 32 36 26 14

The deal also included Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz, but these two didn’t show up in any of the six source lists. The two are probably valued somewhere around $8-$12M combined. Not insignificant, but also not vastly changing the context of the deal.

Yoan Moncada, as a toolbox of a position player who has had success in the upper minors at a young age, is a great asset. Only Andrew Benintendi and Dansby Swanson are in the same tier as Moncada at the moment. Alex Reyes was the only Cardinals prospect anywhere resembling something close to Moncada in value, but that was before news that he would burn a year and a half of service time recovering from Tommy John Surgery.

Michael Kopech comes inbetween pre-TJS Reyes and Moncada. A significantly valuable second prospect helped secure the Red Sox losing only two top tier prospects. That’s an advantage the Cardinals won’t have.

We can also look at the Nationals’ trade for Adam Eaton, which came just days after the Sale deal. Here’s a look at Eaton’s value, using the same constructs we used with Sale:

Eaton is under control in 2021, at a price of $10.5M. It’s not shown here because according to the projections and an average aging curve, Eaton on average will decline to a point that he wasn’t worth the option minus the buy-out. This doesn’t factor in that Eaton will now miss the whole season, something the Nats of course didn’t know about when they made the trade.

The Nationals likely disagreed with the projections’ opinion of Eaton, who was worth nearly 13 WAR over the previous three years. If you think he’s about a win better than the projections, that’s an extra $40M, though I was bearish on Eaton. However, to analyze this trade we have to see it from the perspective of the Nationals, who likely valued him much better than the projections. So we’ll ballpark his Surplus Value at something more like $75M-80M. Let’s look at the return in that deal:

The return for Adam Eaton.txt

rank Prospects Pos. Surplus Value MiLB FG BA BP 361 MLB
rank Prospects Pos. Surplus Value MiLB FG BA BP 361 MLB
17 Lucas Giolito RHP $53.10 Grade A-/B+ 60 25 10 4 9
54 Reynaldo Lopez RHP $26.30 Grade B+ 55 31 30 x 43
150 Dane Dunning RHP $12.30 Grade B x x x x x

Three top prospects, totaling a value of just over $90M. Lucas Giolito ranked as the second best pitching prospect and just behind Reyes, so the best after Reyes tore his UCL while on the big league roster. The White Sox also got a near-consensus Top 100 prospect and a pitcher that might be just outside the Top 100 with most sources.

The values in both deals are pretty close, but favoring the sellers: $100M to ~$125M and ~$75M to $91.7M. That makes sense as there is less risk involved in major league players. If a team could just convert their prospects into big league talent at any given time, it would be too easy. That’s why a premium is involved, even after adjusting to NPV. Another team is needed to facilitate such a move, a team that is willing to take the hit in the present for a better future. That only describes a few teams at any given time, allowing them the better bargaining position.

That premium is at it’s greatest at the trade deadline. That’s fundamentally because of two things: (1) the buyers do not have a robust free agent market to draw from and (2) teams in the middle of a playoff race are more sure of their playoff chances than in May.

That’s why the White Sox chose to hold onto Quintana, despite a very low chance of competing for the playoffs. The front office wasn’t getting the offers they wanted, so they gambled that Quintana doesn’t hurt himself between now and the deadline, and can extract a greater price even after he’s burned some cheap control. Let’s look at Quintana’s value at this moment:

Quintana is not quite as awesome as Sale, but the extra year of control makes him worth just a few million more. Sale turns out to be a great comp for him. The Cardinals don’t have the high quality prospects to match Moncada and Kopech as a top 2, but they do have substantial depth. Here’s all of the Cardinals prospects ranked on one of the six prospect lists:

Cardinals Top Prospects.txt

rank Prospects Pos. Surplus Value MiLB FG BA BP 361 MLB
rank Prospects Pos. Surplus Value MiLB FG BA BP 361 MLB
16 Alex Reyes RHP $55.70 Grade B+ 65 4 1 2 12
63 Carson Kelly C $23.10 Grade B/B+ 50 65 81 x 36
66 Delvin Perez SS $22.80 Grade B 55 86 79 59 87
67 Luke Weaver RHP $22.00 Grade B+ x 50 x 81 65
115 Sandy Alcantara RHP $15.30 Grade B/B- 55 x 40 x x
121 Harrison Bader OF $14.40 Grade B x x x x x
124 Magneuris Sierra OF $14.40 Grade B x x x x x
143 Jack Flaherty RHP $12.30 Grade B x x x x x
144 Dakota Hudson RHP $12.30 Grade B x x x x x
209 Paul DeJong 3B-SS $6.50 Grade B- x x x x x

That totals up to just under $200M in value. So the Cardinals have the chips to get Quintana, if they want to. It would, however, completely change the outlook of the system. That’s not the worst thing in the world. The point of prospects is to turn them into cost-controlled MLB players. The Cardinals would just be turning a huge chunk of their prospects into one, awesome, cost-controlled, young pitcher with a fantastic track record. And of course, this wouldn’t just be for the stretch run; Quintana is under control until 2020, when he projects to still be a $29M surplus.

What other teams can realistically be in the Jose Quintana sweepstakes? Here’s a chart showing each team’s total prospect Surplus Values, for prospects found on one of those six lists:

Of teams that have some chance of contending, the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, Indians, Cubs, Rockies, Blue Jays, and Mets have the capability to make a trade for Quintana using only prospects. However, the Yankees are the only team whose farm wouldn’t be basically completely drained by such a move. That’s 9 contenders. Of those, only a subset will have a serious interest in a big rotation upgrade. The Red Sox technically can as well, but doing so would require trading Benintendi, a part of their everyday lineup. That doesn’t seem likely. The Nationals, Orioles, Mariners, Rangers, Giants, Angels, Diamondbacks, Tigers, and Marlins are all teams with playoff aspirations in 2017 that simply don’t have the chips to acquire Quintana, whether they want to or not. Okay, the Marlins can by making Christian Yellich the main returning piece, and other teams can do similar things. That’s not the type of deal we’re talking about though.

You can mix and match prospect values to see what it would take to land Quintana. Using the Surplus Values involved, Reyes, Kelly, Weaver, Alcantara, and Bader comes to a total Surplus Value of $130M. That’s not including a proper discounting of Reyes’ value, but I also think Luke Weaver’s value calculated her is lower than in reality thanks to the fact that he’s already had success in the big leagues, unlike most prospects ranked in his range. The projections see Weaver as an above-average starter, and with six years of control, which makes for a lot more than $22M in surplus value. Some might see him as a future reliever though. There’s probably a wide range of opinions on Weaver among the teams.

The Cardinals won’t have Reyes for about 12 months, and Quintana is the quality of pitcher you hope Reyes becomes (but probably won’t). Trading Kelly is easier to do after extending Molina. Losing Bader (or Sierra) isn’t that bad when each of the starting three outfielders are controlled for at least another three years. It’s even more excusable if the Cardinals sign Luis Robert. Assuming Lynn leaves at the end of the year, Quintana takes what is currently slotted to be Luke Weavers’ 2018 rotation spot. Sandy Alcantara is very interesting, but his profile has a high bust rate.

Anyway, that value ends up being only very modestly better than the package the White Sox received for Sale in the winter, without the benefit of the trade deadline. It would also require that the Sox were cool with quantity over quality. So that deal may not even get it done. Maybe the Cardinals would need to replace Alcantara with Delvin Perez. Maybe they’d have to add on someone like Magneuris Sierra. It may sound absurd to trade six prospects for one player, but a lack of prospects at the very top end makes it the only course of action for an asset like Quintana.

That seems like a fair package, but is that something the Cardinals should pursue, given their current situation? Probably only if at the deadline they find themselves with a legitimate chance of stealing the division from the Cubs. The projections think the Cubs will be eight games better than the Cardinals going forward, so dealing for Quintana isn’t going to put the two on equal footing. The team would need to be several games over the Cubs by the deadline to justify such a move, and that’s looking less likely by the day.

If you were daydreaming of Jose Quintana in Cardinals red though, that’s the level of package it would probably take. Of course, I’m no Chris Correa, so I don’t know how the White Sox front office values specific Cardinal prospects. That complicates things a bit, but I think the methods used here gives us a better idea than we had before.