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Yu Darvish as an ace rental

Putting together some prospect packages that could return one of the best pitchers in the game

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Baseball is crazy. Just a few weeks ago, the Cardinals’ current position was unfathomable. After a 3-9 start, they’ve went 14-5, and lead the N.L. Central by half a game. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to entertain the idea of the Cardinals being sellers at the deadline at their lowest point. We can safely put that idea on the shelf for at least a little bit.

The Rangers also got off to a poor start, but they’ve yet to pull themselves out. At 13-19, they’re 8 games behind the Astros in the division and four and a half games out of the Wild Card. That, combined with the fact that they’re projected to play below .500 from here on out means they’re looking at an increasingly small chance of playoff baseball in 2017. Here’s their projected playoff odds from Fangraphs:

The Rangers don’t need to wave the white flag anytime soon, but they’ve dug themselves into quite a hole. As such, attention has turned to the possibility of the Rangers dealing staff ace Yu Darvish, who is set to reach free agency at the end of the season.

Darvish is one of four great starting pitchers set to be free agents at the end of the year. Masahiro Tanaka, Johnny Cueto, and Jake Arrieta will join him, but all play for teams with playoff aspirations. The Giants are ten games under .500 as I write this, so maybe Cueto ends up available, but he wouldn’t be a normal rental, as he has an opt-out decision to make at the end of the year. It also wouldn’t be Giants’ style.

Darvish is appealing for a number of reasons. For one, he has the second best strikeout rate in baseball since entering the league in 2012. He’s the 12th best projected pitcher overall going forward, and almost all of the pitchers projected better than him play for contenders. The one exception is Jose Quintana, who I wrote about last week. Darvish is the best rental available, and Quintana is the only trade chip that rivals him in terms of expected production in 2017.

At the moment, the Cardinals are ahead of the Cubs in the standings. OK, even including that, the projections see the Cubs ending the year 8 games better. Let’s say the Cards are still neck and neck with the Cubs at the deadline. Dealing for Yu Darvish would give the team an indisputable ace down the stretch and for any potential playoff baseball. If Darvish could help stave off the Cubs and skip the Wild Card game, that would be huge, and we’d all be very happy that the Cardinals doubled down on 2017 and added him. If the Cards lose the division but make the Wild Card game, they have one of the best pitchers in the game to start it.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t forget about Carlos Martinez. He’s not quite as good as Darvish, but he is the 18th best projected pitcher going forward, nothing to sneeze at. Due to a wealth of off-days at the end of the year though, it actually makes sense to have two aces. The team could plan on having Carlos Martinez start the last day of the season if needed, and set Darvish up to pitch in the Wild Card game. If the Cards advance, Carlos Martinez would be able to start Game 2 of the NLDS on normal rest, which would also allow him to start Game 5 on normal rest. I know, I’m getting way ahead of myself here, I just think it’s an interesting wrinkle to the way the schedule plays out in early October.

What is a pitcher like Darvish worth at the deadline? Dave Cameron of Fangraphs recently wrote on the topic. Looking at past rent-an-ace deals, the precedent is a top-50-ish prospect, along with two interesting but unranked pieces. To look at trade value in a new way, I developed an aggregate Top 219 prospect list, based on six public top prospect lists. Using public research, I attached Surplus Values to each player, based on the public consensus. This gives us an apples to apples comparison of MLB players and prospects.

First though, we’ll look at Darvish’ value. Usually, we use a $9M price of WAR, along with the players projection and salary, to find a player’s Surplus Value. At the trade deadline though, prices are higher. In another piece by Dave Cameron, he finds the price of wins at the trade deadline to be double what they were in the off-season. So we’ll use $18M as the price of a win for Darvish as a rental. Here’s what his deadline-adjusted trade value looks like:

Yu Darvish Trade Value Calculation.txt

Yu Darvish Now At deadline
Yu Darvish Now At deadline
Price of WAR $18.0 $18.0
Projected WAR 3.3 2.0
Projected Value $59.4 $35.6
Remaining Salary $8.0 $3.3
Projected Surplus $51.4 $30.8

I provided one column for the trade value at this moment, and one pro-rating his projection over the last two months, right after the deadline. Trade talks aren’t really a thing right now, and if they were, the Rangers wouldn’t be partaking anyway. The deadline is the more important of the two, as it should be much closer to when a deal would be made.

Again, Cameron mentioned a Top-50ish prospect and a couple of interesting throw-ins. On my aggregate top prospect list, the 50th best prospect - Jorge Mateo of the Yankees - comes in at an estimated value of $28.5M. The precedent and the numbers seem to agree pretty well on this one.

Here’s the Cardinals prospects that appear on my aggregated list, along with their estimated Surplus Values:

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

Alex Reyes’ value here isn’t adjusted for the fact that he’s had Tommy John Surgery since most of these rankings came out, but he’d still be a bit of an over-pay for Darvish. The next best is Carson Kelly. Based on his valuation here, Kelly doesn’t quite get the Cardinals all the way there on Darvish. However, these rankings are based on lists that came out before the season started. Kelly is so far is having the best season of his career at the plate, with a 156 wRC+ at Triple-A at the time of this writing. It’s certainly possible he rises on these lists, to the point where he’s a legitimate main piece for Darvish.

Kelly makes sense as a trade chip after extending Yadier Molina, though that doesn’t mean Kelly has to be the one moved. If the org likes Kelly better than the public consensus, it makes sense to hold onto him and let his value rise. Luke Weaver might be attractive as a headlining piece. Maybe the Rangers are open to splitting the value between two prospects, with a package of Harrison Bader and Sandy Alcantara.

Jack Flaherty is ranked a little worse than Alcantara pre-season, but one has to think Flaherty has some helium in his mid-season rankings after his fantastic start to the year. If you haven’t noticed, Flaherty has 40 strikeouts to just five walks in his first 39 13 innings at Double-A. Flaherty could start seeing similar rankings to Luke Weaver, giving him a valuation of over $20M.

Though they weren’t ranked on one of the six lists, seven Cardinals other than Paul DeJong received a “B-” ranking from propsect guru John Sickels. Those six are Austin Gomber, John Gant, Junior Fernandez, Edmundo Sosa, Connor Jones, Dylan Carlson, and Jake Woodford. That gives them the same value my system gave DeJong, $6.5M. Add one of those seven B- guys in with Flaherty, and maybe that get’s the deal done. Maybe you need to add in a C+ or C player in there too.

So maybe Bader, Alcantara, and a lottery ticket. Or maybe Luke Weaver, or Flaherty and Jake Woodford. Or maybe it just takes Kelly. The Rangers are weak at catcher behind Jonathan Lucroy, who is the team’s other obvious trade chip as he’s also a free agent at the end of the year. None of their five representatives on my aggregate prospect list are catchers. It might be a perfect match.

Either way, it’s a much smaller package than what’s required to land Jose Quintana, though of course that’s also because he’s not controlled through 2020. When I wrote about Quintana, some felt it was unnecessary, as the Cardinals didn’t exactly have an opening in the rotation at the moment. The same can be said of Darvish. Right now, the team has Luke Weaver, Marco Gonzales, and Jack Flaherty as options should any of the current five go down. Tyler Lyons and John Gant could be options later if they get healthy. However, pitchers get hurt a lot.

Before the season began, I used public D.L. projections to calculate that the Cardinals had just under a 40% chance of sustaining three or more injuries to the rotation. While that’s gone down since the team has made it a little over a month without injury, there’s still a really good chance that at least two Cardinal starting pitchers are going to get hurt over the next few months. It’s just the reality of doing what they do for a living.

However, let’s say the Cardinals do beat the odds, and make it to the trade deadline without a need to add another starter. Why not swap one out for another then? The Cardinals do have a potential rental of their own in Lance Lynn. If the team made Lynn available to a fellow contender, they could subsidize a trade for Darvish. Here’s how Lynn’s value grades out:

Lance Lynn Trade Value Calculation.txt

Lance Lynn Now At deadline
Lance Lynn Now At deadline
Price of WAR $18.0 $18.0
Projected WAR 1.8 1.1
Projected Value $32.4 $19.4
Remaining Salary $6.0 $2.5
Projected Surplus $26.4 $16.9

Before the season began, I outlined who the Cardinals would be interested in trading if the season went awry. Based on comparisons to recent trades, I argued that Lynn should be able to fetch a back of the top 100 prospect. His projected Surplus Value is right in-between the 99th and 100th prospects on my aggregate list. If the Cardinals were able to send whatever prospect package they received to the Rangers, it would leave them with only a $14M difference to make up. Harrison Bader might be enough to turn Lance Lynn into Yu Darvish. Or perhaps the Cardinals are low on Kelly, and manage to swap him for Darvish. Then, the team would keep whatever haul they received for Lynn.

There is a hidden cost to a Lance Lynn trade though. If he continues to pitch well, Lynn will be worth a qualifying offer at the end of the year, and he’ll be expected to earn enough even with compensation attached to turn it down. That means the Cardinals would pick up a draft pick as compensation if he signed elsewhere, a value of around $10M. Lynn himself was brought in thanks to a compensation pick the team received for Troy Percival, so it would be neat to see him complete the cycle. That rule only applies to players that start and end the year on the same team, so the Cardinals wouldn’t be able to tag Darvish with a qualifying offer. That cuts into the advantage of trading Lynn.

We’re getting way ahead of our ourselves though. Chances are the rotation will eventually suffer injuries, and it won’t be convenient to trade Lynn. It’s certainly an interesting scenario though, and one that keeps bouncing around in my head the last few days.

You might even think I’m getting way ahead of myself just talking about trade deadline deals at all. It is after all still more than two and a half months away. I can’t help myself though: The Cardinals are winning the division, and I’m already dreaming of a fourth N.L. Central championship in five years.

I know, it’s still an unrealistic dream, but you can’t stop me. If the Cardinals do continue to compete for the division, I expect them to make some moves. Flags fly forever, this division isn’t easy to win, and skipping the Wild Card game would be nice. And even if they do end up relegated to the play-in game, they might as well go into it with one of the best pitchers in the game.