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Acquisition Costs for Impact Position Players in July

If history holds true to form, what would it cost the Cardinals to acquire a solid (or better) everyday player?

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I put together a Cardinals trade season primer. We’re now a little closer to July, the Cardinals have been showing signs of life after showing a lot of signs of death. They are such a crazy, maddening team right now. In my article, I pointed out that they may try to bolster the offense to scrub out some of the inconsistencies. That being the case, it may be instructive to look at recent July trades for impact position players to determine what type of value is given up to acquire these players.

Before I dig too deep, let’s first establish some definitions for what I mean when I say “impact position player” and give ourselves a time frame. I also want to define the dollar value of some of these returns.

Time Frame

The time frame part is easy. I’ve included any deals made from 2012 to 2017 in the month of July. Those six years are admittedly a little arbitrary, but going much further back gets you into a different market. Teams are valuing players differently now than they have, using different sets of data than they have, with different priorities than they have. Moreover, there were more teams prior to 2012 operating with different values for players. For instance, in 2011, the O’s were run by Andy MacPhail, the Astros were run by Ed Wade, the Twins’ GM was Bill Smith, the Cubs had Jim Hendry, and the Dodgers had Ned Colletti. Those are just a few examples of older guard GMs who were operating teams in 2011. By 2012, Smith, Wade, Hendry, and MacPhail had been replaced by Terry Ryan, Jeff Luhnow, Theo Epstein, and Dan Duquette. Epstein and Luhnow are certainly new guard, Duquette- for all of his flaws- was on the cutting edge of advanced metrics in the 90s, and Ryan... well, three out of four ain’t bad when it comes to infusing new life into franchises.

I might have started with 2013 for a simple five years of data. Alas, 2013 had no impact bats traded unless you count the smoldering ashes of 37-year old Alfonso Soriano’s career. Going back to 2012 gets us two more that qualify.

Impact Position Players

Defining an impact hitter can be a little murky. Where I initially landed was any player with 4.0 fWAR (Fangraphs WAR) or better from the previous season through the time they were traded. This amounts to about 1.6 seasons to collect 4 fWAR. I stretched it a tiny bit to 3.8 to include J.D. Martinez, whose defense suppressed his fWAR to 3.8 from the beginning of 2016 until he was traded. It’s a fair break because no other player in our sample falls right on that lip. Everyone else is comfortably above or below 3.8 fWAR.

It’s worth noting that a player with 3.8 fWAR over 1.6 seasons is not exactly an “impact” player in the way you might think of a franchise-transforming player. It’s really more of a very solid performer. On the low end, it’s a 2.4 per year WAR guy, which Fangraphs would classify as a “solid starter.” On the high end of our sample, we have a few 6 to 7 fWAR players (over their previous 1.6 seasons), about 3.75 to 4.5 fWAR per year, or right around All-Star quality. Additionally, since I’m looking at fWAR and not wRC+ or wOBA or even OPS+, I’m conceding that players can be impact players without being impact hitters.

There’s one more caveat here. I’m including Jonathan Lucroy’s 2016 trade, but not his 2017 trade. Technically, he qualifies in 2017- he had collected 4.8 fWAR from opening day in 2016 through when he was dealt to the Rockies in 2017- but he had degraded badly by the time of the trade. Of the 4.8 fWAR, only 0.2 had been collected in 2017, and he was dealt to Colorado for a scratch off ticket (a 19 year old rookie-level outfielder, outside of the Rockies’ top 10 prospects, let alone the BA Top 100). Including that deal is not going to be instructive.

Using those parameters- 3.8 fWAR or better, traded from 2012 to 2017 in July- nets us 11 total deals. Each has their own level of complexity. We’ll take a look, and then apply what we learn to potential targets for this July. But first, a quick note about how to value the returns.

Valuing the Returns

Finally, we need to put some general dollar values to the returns these teams received. For any player inside the Baseball America Top 100, we can use Point of Pittsburgh’s extremely useful research, found here. For players outside of the BA Top 100, I’ve very arbitrarily assigned $4M of surplus value to minor league hitters and $3M of surplus value to pitchers. I’m basically saying that a player outside of the top 100 has a 1 in 5 shot of being as valuable as a top 75 to 100 prospect. Feel free to poke holes in it- I don’t mean to hold it up as any type of concrete evidence. Rather, it gives me a simple placeholder for minor leaguers with higher attrition rates and/or lower regard with scouting services. I’m a graphic designer by trade, not a mathematician.

The Trades

Note- the number of players in the BA top 100 and the number of players ranked 1-5 or 6-10 in the organization overlap. Meaning players are double counted here- a top 100 player is also (usually) ranked 1-5 in the organizational rankings.

Rentals- One Player Acquired

Seven of the 11 deals can be categorized as rentals- the impact hitter acquired was scheduled to become a free agent after the season. Of those seven, four involved only one player coming back to the acquiring team. Those deals were:

July 22, 2014
Chase Headley (to the Yankees), 4.5 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 0.4 seasons left on contract
For: Jabari Blash and Bryan Mitchell (to San Diego)
Value Acquired: $7M surplus value, zero Baseball America Top 100 prospects, zero prospects ranked 1-5 in the organization, zero prospects ranked 6-10 in the organization

July 28, 2015
Ben Zobrist (to the Royals), 6.2 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 0.4 seasons left on contract
For: Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks (to Oakland)
Value Acquired: $18.1M surplus value, one BA Top 100 (76-100), one prospect ranked 1-5 (organization), zero ranked 6-10 (organization)

July 31, 2015
Yoenis Cespedes (to the Mets), 6.8 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 0.4 seasons left on contract
For: Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer (to Detroit)
Value Acquired: $6M surplus value, zero BA Top 100 prospects, zero ranked 1-5 (organization), zero ranked 6-10 (organization)

July 18, 2017
J.D. Martinez (to the Diamondbacks), 3.8 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 0.4 seasons left on contract
For: Dawel Lugo, Jose King, Sergio Alcantara (to Detroit)
Value Acquired: $12M surplus value, zero BA Top 100 prospects, one prospect ranked 1-5 (organization), zero ranked 6-10 (organization)

That’s a real mixed bag for our straight rentals group. The Royals gave up a pitcher ranked in the 75 to 100 range of the BA Top 100, but that was the only player in the BA Top 100 to be dealt for any of these players. Two of these deals (Martinez and Cespedes) didn’t even warrant an organizational top 10 prospect in return, let alone a BA Top 100 player.

The flip side is the Cespedes return, which looks bad on the face of it. It didn’t include an organizational top 10 coming back to Detroit. What it did include, though, was Michael Fulmer, who has been worth 7.6 fWAR to the Tigers since the trade despite his lack of prospect prestige, and it’s just a tick below the 8.6 fWAR the Mets have gotten out of Cespedes. The second player- Luis Cessa- has also been a 6th starter type for the Yankees (the Tigers traded him for Justin Wilson). For a rental of Cespedes, the Tigers flexed their scouting muscle to get two future MLB pitchers (one good one) despite low prospect prestige.

Beyond that, the best you can hope for with a rental is one return piece at the back of the BA Top 100, and it took a player like Zobrist (6.2 fWAR for the previous 1.6 seasons) to get it. More likely, you’re going to get the KFC 3-piece of prospects- two or three greasy low-value prospects. Maybe you get lucky and one of those pieces is extremely filling.

Rentals- Multiple Players Acquired

Three of the eleven deals fall in this group, where an impact position player with pending free agency at the end of the season was acquired for prospects, and the selling team sweetened the pot with another player to get a better prospect package in return.

August 1, 2016 (pre-deadline)
Josh Reddick (to the Dodgers), 4.3 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 0.4 seasons left on contract; also acquired Rich Hill
For: Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas, and Grant Holmes (to Oakland)
Value Acquired: $25.7M surplus value, one BA Top 100 prospect (51-75), zero prospects ranked 1-5 (organization), two ranked 6-10 (organization)

August 1, 2016 (pre-deadline)
Jonathan Lucroy (to the Rangers), 4.6 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 0.4 seasons left on contract; also acquired Jeremy Jeffress
For: Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Ryan Cordell (to Milwaukee)
Value Acquired: $89.3M surplus value, two BA Top 100 prospects (one top 25, one 51-75), two prospects ranked 1-5 (organization), zero ranked 6-10 (organization)

July 19, 2017
Todd Frazier (to the Yankees), 4.6 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 0.4 seasons left on contract; also acquired Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson
For: Ian Clarkin, Tito Polo, Blake Rutherford, and Tyler Clippard (to the White Sox)
Value Acquired: $44.6M surplus value, one BA Top 100 prospect (top 50), one prospect ranked 1-5 (organization), zero ranked 6-10 (organization)

These are all very recent (last two seasons) and each one saw a sweetened package bringing back at least one top 100 prospect. In the case of Lucroy, likely because of the rarity of his being a catcher, it brought back two top 100 prospects, including the highest rated prospect in this entire sample- Lewis Brinson. The mild quandary here is that Holmes, Rutherford, Ortiz, and even Brinson have done very little at the MLB level since being dealt, despite their prospect status going into their respective trades.

Still, it’s noteworthy that a seller with a high impact rental (*cough*Manny Machado*cough*) can get top 100 prospects by including ancillary pieces, especially in the bullpen (*cough*Givens Brach Britton*cough*). In the Yankees case with Frazier, they did some serious one-stop shopping, picking up two very useful relievers. The cost: a top 50 prospect, a veteran MLB bullpen arm, and two lottery ticket prospects.

One Player Acquired, Multiple Years of Control

There’s only one of these, and we have to go all the way back to 2012 to find it.

July 31, 2012
Hunter Pence (to the Giants), 6.0 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 1.4 seasons left on contract
For: Nate Schierholtz, Seth Rosin, Tommy Joseph (to the Phillies)
Value Acquired: $7M surplus value, zero BA Top 100 prospects, zero prospects ranked 1-5 (organization), zero ranked 6-10 (organization)

If you’d like to know why this article began with a preamble about player evaluation and the economics of the game changing, and not wanting to go too far back to acquire data, I present to you a Ruben Amaro, Jr. trade from 2012. Schierholtz was a fourth outfielder with a few pre-arbitration years left. Rosin and Joseph had no traditional prospect shine on them. And for that, the Phillies gave up a player with 6.0 fWAR in a year and a half, under contract for another year and a half. This is the seedy underbelly of Ruben Amaro, Jr. they don’t show you on The Goldbergs.

Multiple Player Acquisitions, Multiple Years of Control

These are unique situations with a lot of moving parts.

July 25, 2012
Hanley Ramirez (to the Dodgers), 4.3 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 2.4 seasons left on contract; also acquired Randy Choate
For: Nathan Eovaldi, Scott McGough (to Miami or Florida or whatever they were called in 2012)
Value Acquired: $18.1M surplus value, one BA Top 100 prospect (76-100), one prospect ranked 1-5 (organization), zero ranked 6-10 (organization)

July 28, 2015
Troy Tulowitzki (to the Blue Jays), 6.3 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 5.4 seasons left on contract; also acquired LaTroy Hawkins
For: Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, Jose Reyes, Jesus Tinoco (to Colorado)
Value Acquired: $25.7M surplus value, one BA Top 100 prospect (51-75), one ranked 1-5 (organization), zero ranked 6-10 (organization)

July 30, 2015:
Carlos Gomez (to the Astros), 7.2 fWAR in previous 1.6 seasons, 1.4 seasons left on contract; also acquired Mike Fiers
For: Josh Hader, Domingo Santana, Adrian Houser, Brett Phillips (to Milwaukee)
Value Acquired: $14.0M surplus value, zero BA Top 100 prospects, zero ranked 1-5 (organization), two ranked 6-10 (organization)

If you want to know how the Brewers have vaulted into contention the last few years, look at their two trades on these lists. Lewis Brinson was acquired for two months of decline phase Jonathan Lucroy, and then Brinson became Christian Yelich. Hader and Santana came in return for the decline phase of Carlos Gomez. That’s about as shrewd as it gets. But I digress.

It’s hard to infer much from these three deals. The Tulo deal was incredibly unique because of the money he had left on his contract, as was Hanley Ramirez- partially because he was displeased with being a Marlin (who wouldn’t be). Gomez had multiple years of control and the Astros had depth to burn and a bad taste in their mouth from years of tanking. It created a unique scenario. Even then, none of the prospects were considered top shelf at the time, even if Hader and Santiago have since made big MLB contributions.

What it Means This Year for the Cardinals

Much like last week, I’m going to turn to MLB Trade Rumors’ Top 50 as my starting place. Players qualifying as impact, using the definition above, break down as follows. The fWAR listed for them is from last season plus this season through Tuesday’s games:

Rentals: Manny Machado (5.2 fWAR), Adrian Beltre (3.9 fWAR)

Multiple Years of Control: J.T. Realmuto (6.6 fWAR, 2.4 years of control), Scooter Gennett (4.9, 1.4 years), Jose Abreu (4.8, 1.4 years), Whit Merrifield (4.6, 4.5 years)

If you squint real hard, Mike Moustakas may clear the 3.8 fWAR barrier by the time he’s traded. He’s at 3.2 now, and would be a rental. There’s also Nick Castellanos in a similar situation- 3.2 fWAR, with 1.4 years remaining on his deal.

If you were to comp these players out with players from the last six years*, you’d find Beltre and Moustakas somewhere just below Chase Headley (two prospects outside of the top 10) if traded by themselves. Either the Rangers and Royals would get something like two prospects in the 11-20 range of an organization, or they could do the KFC three-piece thing with bigger gambles.

*in other words, everything I’m going to say here has huge potential to look hilariously wrong in 5 weeks

Realmuto isn’t even worth discussing- the Cardinals don’t need him and he’s going to (rightly) cost a lot in prospects from the acquiring team. And that presumes the Marlins would even trade him. The Lucroy deal is a good starting position- two top 100 prospects.

Similarly, Merrifield is way too hard to handicap, and I’m not sure he moves the needle enough for the Cardinals to shift things around to accommodate him. He’s an intriguing player, but those 4+ years of control will not come cheap. And unless you think he’s about to break out in a big way, you might as well flip a coin between Whit and Wong (plus whatever prospects you’d have to give up to get Whit).

Gennett and Abreu are tough to comp simply because we haven’t seen guys like that traded mid-season over the last several years. In Gennett’s case, it’s moot anyway, as the Reds and Cardinals are unlikely to work out a deal of that magnitude. Abreu is having a very mediocre year so far, making him much more like 2017 Lucroy. If Luis Avilan were part of this deal, the Cardinals might be able to get it done with a couple of fillers and lottery ticket types. That’s assuming they’d even want Abreu, which would mean shifting Jose Martinez out to rightfield and leaving Bader/O’Neill/Fowler as backup outfielders, or trying to flip one of those four for something else. That seems unlikely, and it’s a scenario that also makes Castellanos unlikely.

That brings us to the big name- Manny Machado. Admittedly, there are some complicating factors. For instance, teams like the Dodgers may be desperate. And nobody on the list above even comes close to the talent of Machado. Still, talent or not, he has produced about like Zobrist, and he has the same level of cost control that Zobrist had at the time.

If you were trading for just Machado and nothing else, and market history holds true here, the high end would be something like the Zobrist package- a #75 to 100 prospect, plus a filler prospect. Or more realistically, you could try the Cespedes package- two high floor/low ceiling prospects without much prospect prestige. If the O’s are smart about this, they’ll package as many of their relievers as necessary together with Manny to try to get something in the Reddick/Frazier/Lucroy vein- a BA Top 100 player (two if the market can be whipped into a frenzy), plus two other prospects in the 6 to 10 organizational range.

Last week, I conjured up the snark and pointed out that it was probably another generic reliever year for the Cardinals. Since then, the Cardinals have won 4 of 5 games against two contenders, giving us all more whiplash. Looking at recent history, acquiring position players like the rentals on the MLBTR list is shockingly doable, which is admittedly a different tune from what I was singing last week.

Players the caliber of Moustakas, Beltre, and Abreu have been dealt for lottery tickets with low prospect prestige. I’m not sure that any of them are worth acquiring, although I could understand Moustakas simply from the standpoint that he’d add consistency to an inconsistent lineup. Even Machado, even with some of the diminished value from various Cardinals trade assets, could be done if the O’s aren’t hung up on Flaherty or Weaver and are willing to include some combination of Britton/Brach/Givens. How much the Dodgers get involved and how desperate the Diamondbacks are will probably dictate how high the asking price goes.

The bigger question is whether or not any of these moves, past Machado, is worth it. The more likely move, and the one with the most impact, is still bolstering the bullpen from the left side. I’ll look at reliever acquisition costs next week.