In Part 1 of our MLB Trade Value series, we looked at the Top 50 players from last year who missed the cut this time around, as well as our Honourable Mentions.
Today, we’ll run down 50-26, then tomorrow we’ll tackle the Top 25. Onward!
No. 50: Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (Last Year: 20)
Altuve was going to land in the Top 10 until the Astros tossed him a five-year, $151 million contract extension, by far the richest deal ever handed out by the franchise. The megadeal locks Altuve up through his age-34 season, at an effective salary of more than $30 million a year.
That extension is phenomenal news to an Astros team that’s oozing with talent, and poised to make more runs at World Series hardware. It’s a trickier one for our purposes, with Altuve going from the most underpaid veteran player in the game (he was owed a ludicrously low $12.5 million through 2019) to one of a handful of players topping the $30 million-a-year mark.
Make no mistake. As with defending NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, and Sandy Koufax heir Clayton Kershaw, Altuve is well worth his spot in that lofty and exceedingly rare salary company. If the Astros lose their minds and make him available in a trade tomorrow, well-heeled clubs such as the Yankees and Dodgers will be beating down GM Jeff Luhnow’s door to get the reigning AL MVP. Still, most teams probably wouldn’t feel comfortable shelling out all that money and the mother lode of prospects it would take to secure Altuve’s services, as great as he is.
With all of that in mind, the man who’s earned his own unit of measurement gets the always-fun hammer spot at No. 50. and a place in our hearts for doing insane stuff like this.
No. 49: Lance McCullers, P, Astros (Last Year: Not Ranked)
You want to hear a wide swath of different opinions on one player? Listen to what just a few of the talent evaluators and experts we spoke to had to say about McCullers:
“Lance McCullers should be a lot higher and could be a Top 30 guy.”
“A lot of questions whether he can hold up as a starter.”
“McCullers has good stuff, but he’s also 25 come October and has never thrown more than 125 innings in a season. Plus, he’s 6-foot-1.”
…with another exec adding McCullers should be ranked lower, and another talent evaluator saying he’s underrated.
The thing is, multiple seemingly contradictory descriptions can be true at the same time. It’s true that McCullers doesn’t have the huge, projectable frame that scouts often seek in a pitcher. It’s also true that he broke into the majors three years ago, still hasn’t made more than 22 big league starts in a season, struggles to pitch effectively deep into games and is plagued with back troubles that raise health-related red flags. He fell apart badly as last season wore on, posting a 3.05 ERA in his first 16 starts, then a ghastly 8.23 mark in his final six.
On the other hand, McCullers’ stuff is nasty, led by a wipeout changeup that makes the right-hander borderline unhittable against left-handed hitters. Find a pitcher who strikes out more than 25 per cent of the batters he faces, with a groundball rate above 60 per cent, and you’ve got the makings of stardom, other shortcomings be damned. McCullers was the only starting pitcher in all of baseball last season to check off both those statistical benchmarks.
No. 48: Carlos Carrasco, P, Lindors* (Last Year: Not Ranked)
In 2017, Carrasco topped 200 innings and flashed a park-adjusted ERA 27 per cent better than league average, punching out 28.3 per cent of the batters he faced. He’s also signed to a preposterously affordable contract, owed just $26.5 million over the next three seasons, assuming Cleveland picks up its two club options.
So, why isn’t he higher on his list? Health concerns. He’s dealt with a litany of injuries during his career, and the industry scuttlebutt is that he signed a below-market, long-term contract as insurance against future injuries. Cleveland will still gladly take a pitcher who, when healthy, has the stuff to be one of the 10 best in the game.
*I won’t be calling the Cleveland baseball team by its chosen nickname, and will instead refer to that team as the Lindors, in honour of one of the best and most delightful-to-watch players in baseball.
No. 47: Jose Quintana, P, Cubs (Last Year: 28)
Three years of a better-than-average starting pitcher for less than $30 million combined (assuming his employer picks up its club options in 2019 and 2020) is a helluva deal. But the spikes in Quintana’s walk and home-run rates last season were disconcerting enough to dampen enthusiasm over his career-best strikeout rate (especially when that K rate isn’t backed by a big uptick in swing-and-miss rate). This is all small beer for the loaded Cubs, who don’t have to lean on Quintana as their No. 1 starter…or even their two, or three.
No. 46: Yoan Moncada, 2B, White Sox (Last Year: 31)
Is there anything in the baseball world more seductive than prospect rankings? Baseball America declared Moncada the second-best prospect in the game heading into last season. So when a precocious 22-year-old getting his first significant look at big league pitching batted a respectable .231/.338/.421 (four per cent better than league average on a park-adjusted basis), we declared it a disappointment.
Moncada’s combination of skill and impressive minor league numbers at every level as one of the youngest players there (.285/.390/.470) still bode well for a dynamic big league career. If on the other hand players such as Moncada and the guy right behind him in last year’s rankings (Dansby Swanson) fail to fulfill the massive potential bestowed on them by ranking systems, maybe we’ll start to become slightly more skeptical about those numbers in the future.
Eh, probably not.
No. 45: Rhys Hoskins, OF/1B, Phillies
We can theorize all we want about how certain classes of players are valued. But you’ll find no truer gauge of value than the Hot Stove. On that front, players with Hoskins’ skillset become far less attractive than they might have been 15 or 20 years ago. Sure, Philly’s rookie masher lit up the league with 18 homers, a .396 OBP, and a .618 slugging average in his first 50 major league games. But his natural position is also first base and the market didn’t think too highly of players who play non-premium positions, even when they’re oozing with power.
That’s to say nothing of Hoskins’ outrageous 31.6 per cent home run-to-flyball rate being completely unsustainable, and the risk of Hoskins getting Schwarbered as an offensively gifted masher who gives a ton of his value back by playing a position he can’t handle, with the Phillies signing Carlos Santana and pushing Hoskins to an outfield corner.
Then again, Hoskins offers six years of controllable service time, he might be a Top 10 home-run guy even as his HR/FB rate regresses, and hey, if Kyle Schwarber can show up to camp weighing about a buck-fifty, maybe there’s hope for all of us.
No. 44: Robbie Ray, P, Diamondbacks (Last Year: Not Ranked)
Few teams in the past decade engineered as dramatic a pitching turnaround as the Diamondbacks did last year. Now Arizona could get more run-prevention help, with the team planning to store game balls in a humidor, in the hopes of suppressing offensive numbers at run-happy Chase Field. Ray will be an interesting case study on how and if the humidor affects game play in the desert.
The 26-year-old lefty posted the highest flyball rate of any Diamondbacks starter last year. He also walked an ugly 10.7 per cent of the batters he faced, and benefited from a fluky-looking 84.2 per cent strand rate. On the plus side, he led all NL starters by punching out 32.8 per cent of the batters he faced, his fastball-slider combination becoming absolutely deadly.
No. 43: Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox (Last Year: Not Ranked)
Among the countless statistical concepts that Bill James introduced to the baseball world, my favourite might be the one he called signature significance.
If you wanted to learn how statistical analysis works in sports, you might start by focusing heavily on the dangers of small sample size — how overreacting to numbers amassed over a short period of time is a bad idea, because those numbers could be a fluke that will regulate in the long run. Signature significance posits that a few events are so rare and so extraordinary, they could help us predict the future… even when said events occur in a single game, or even a single at-bat.
Devers is baseball’s current poster child for signature significance. Sure, he’s immensely talented, he raked at double-A, then earned his call to The Show before his 21st birthday. But the feat he pulled off August 13 might’ve been more impressive and could be predictive too. Facing Aroldis Chapman down one run in the ninth inning, Devers got a 102.8-m.p.h. fastball up in the zon .and he hammered it, high and deep and over the wall in left for a game-tying, opposite-field, can-you-believe-what-just-happened?! dinger.
That pitch was the fastest one ever hit for a home run, and marked just the second time in Chapman’s entire career that he’d surrendered a long ball against a left-handed hitter.
That’s a helluva feat. One that makes you wonder if Devers might be bound for greatness.
No. 42: Eloy Jimenez, OF, White Sox (Last Year: Not Ranked)
No. 41: Gleyber Torres, 2B, Yankees (Last Year: Not Ranked)
No. 40: Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres (Last Year: Not Ranked)
No. 39: Victor Robles, OF, Nationals (Last Year: Not Ranked)
That word of caution about over-hyping prospects sure didn’t last very long. Not when we’ve got four players who’ve yet to play a Major League game ranked higher than (among others) two excellent pitchers in their prime signed to hugely team-friendly contracts.
Still, with even huge-revenue teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers seeking out cheaper roster solutions to avoid absorbing luxury tax-related penalties, wildly talented young players who can crack the majors and make an impact right away while costing the league-minimum salary become massively valuable.
Robles is a five-tool centre fielder who’s remained a National despite heated interest in his services from other teams and the Nats facing a potentially urgent now-or-never scenario, given the age and pending free agency of several indispensable Washington players.
In his age-18 season, Tatis batted .281/.390/.520 in 117 games at single-A. There are concerns he might eventually outgrow playing shortstop, but his combination of huge bat, precociousness and the up-the-middle position he plays makes him immensely valuable.
Torres made it all the way to triple-A last summer, before turning 21. He’ll probably end up at second base or third given the presence of Didi Gregorius on the big league roster, but Torres has already shown he can hang at any of those three positions.
Jimenez’s case is a little different. He doesn’t play a premium position the way the other three top prospects in this cluster do. But he hit a ludicrous .312/.379/.568 in 89 games across three levels last year. After coming over to the White Sox organization in the summer trade for Jose Quintana, he batted an even more obscene .348/.405/.635 in 195 plate appearances. He did all that before reaching his 21st birthday. You live with average defence at a corner-outfield spot in exchange for that kind of absurd offensive potential.
All of that is just too much potential to pass up, unless those prospects’ employers get offered a player from among the very small group of elite talents to follow.
No. 38 Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays (Last Year: 13)
No. 37 Manny Machado, SS, Orioles, (Last Year: 12)
No. 36 Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals (Last Year: 14)
No. 35 Clayton Kershaw, P, Dodgers (Last Year: Not Ranked)
Now here’s the trickiest question: Would you rather have one year of an established superstar player, or six-plus years of players with the upside to be stars, but also the uncertainty that comes with a complete lack of Major League track record?
I’d never included walk-year players in the Top 50, until this year. As one exec put it: “Is there an argument that on a one-year deal these players have a chance to provide exceptional value through their performance?”
There certainly is. In a game that diffuses its heroes as widely as baseball does, acquiring any one player, even while trying to fortify an already great roster for a run at the World Series, guarantees nothing. Still, that doesn’t by any means make pursuing a star player a year away (or less) from free agency a futile cause. We’ve seen far too much evidence of teams expending top prospects for that kind of rental to think any differently, and we’re often talking about players with far, far dimmer resumes than, say, Kershaw’s.
Throw in at least the possibility that this kind of bold move for a full year exposes the star free-agent-to-be to your organizational culture, and the kind of gentle persuasion that can convince a star player to commit long term, and yes, I’ve rethought my position on walk-year players not being possible Top 50 guys. Because of factors ranging from playoff readiness to payroll-to-risk tolerance, many teams might not trade a Top 5 overall prospect for a year of a star. Most likely, most teams wouldn’t.
But a select few would. And while there’s no way in this subjective, hypothetical exercise to say with total certainty exactly how much that handful of suitors would give up for an all-world rental, we’re going with somewhere between four kids brimming with talent who’ve never played a Major League game, and a bunch more 20-somethings who add a little experience to their own impressive talent.
No. 34: Christian Yelich, OF, Brewers (Last Year: 18)
No need for a theoretical here: The Marlins traded Yelich this off-season, and the return was a little lighter than we might’ve figured a year earlier, when Yelich cracked the Trade Value Top 20. The Brewers sized up their target, who is 26 years old, owed $58.3 million over the next five seasons (counting a club option), with excellent on-base skills, solid baserunning, superb defence, and so-so power (his only notable weakness) and decided he was worth four prospects, led by the promising duo of Lewis Brinson and Isan Diaz. That’s a pretty good haul, but also one that’s a little lighter than many might have been expected.
No. 33: Aaron Nola, P, Phillies (Last Year: Not Ranked)
Scan the world of baseball’s cognoscenti and you’ll find near-universal agreement that Nola is about to light up the league. We’re pretty sure Lemon Zester Quarterly just named Nola a breakout pitcher to watch in 2018. That kind of across-the-board enthusiasm can be almost enough to make you a bit suspicious.
Now try finding good reasons not to get excited about the Phillies’ young ace. Nola is 24-years old and offers four years of controllable service time. He whiffed nearly four batters for every one he struck out last year, with better than a strikeout per inning. He’s a prolific worm-burner with a career 51 per cent groundball rate. His sinker-curveball-changeup repertoire creates a kaleidoscope of wicked horizontal and vertical movement.
The final step would be to shake off the nagging injuries that have curtailed his time atop the mound. If he can crack 200 innings for the first time this year, a dark horse run at Cy Young contention could be next.
No. 32 Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals (Last Year: Not Ranked)
No. 31 Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks (Last Year: 11)
If we’re willing to consider the trade value of players who can only be kept for one season, we certainly have to do so for players who can test the open market after two more, too.
Rendon dramatically improved his batting eye last season, netting a career-best .301/.403/.533 line that, combined with excellent defence, made him one of the top all-around players in the game. Goldschmidt rebounded from a 2016 power drop to tie his career high of 36 homers. He’s one of the best all-around players in baseball, he’s in his prime, and he’s owed a very affordable $25.5 million over the next two years.
A team in full rebuild mode might not empty the prospect cupboard to acquire either Rendon or Goldschmidt. But plenty of teams would jump at the chance to land a do-it-all, Top 10 player of their ilk.
No. 30: Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves (Last Year: 47)
You know you can rake when you fracture your wrist, miss six weeks with the injury, struggle initially after your return, and still hit a sizzling .307/.403/.586 with 28 home runs in just 117 games. Freeman’s one of the highest-paid players in baseball, as he’s set to earn $21 million in 2018, and $86 million through 2021.
He’s worth every penny and then some. Since Opening Day 2016, only five players (all-world hitters Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Jose Altuve, J.D. Martinez, and Josh Donaldson) have produced more at the plate than Freeman has.
No. 29: Jon Gray, P, Rockies (Last Year: 45)
There are multiple tools here that suggest an imminent breakout. Gray’s struck out one-quarter of the batters he’s faced through the first 319 innings of his big league career. He chopped his walk rate to just 6.5 per cent last year. He’s throwing a curveball more often now, offering a pitch he can use to challenge lefties and complement his bread-and-butter fastball and slider (opponents hit just .200 overall against his curve in 2017).
The Rockies finally broke through last season thanks largely to the organization’s all-encompassing emphasis on arm strength, and Gray was the poster child for that mile-high pitching surprise.
Unfortunately the elephant in the room remains his home park. Gray hasn’t just posted significantly higher ERAs and batting averages on balls in play due to the pitching menace that is Coors Field. The more silent killer is the effect that Coors can have on health. Maybe Gray suffers a foot injury that limits him to just 20 starts no matter where he pitched last year.
But it’s hard to argue against Colorado’s altitude making it harder for pitchers to rest and recover between outings. We adjust for park effects to understand that Gray’s seemingly decent-but-not-great 3.67 ERA was actually a terrific 27 percent better than league average last year once normalized. We also get to daydream about how flashy Gray’s numbers might look if he pitched anywhere else.
No. 28: Byron Buxton, OF, Twins (Last Year: 44)
Buxton is an all-world defender, a human vacuum cleaner who’ll make diving catches in front of himself, running grabs at the wall and everything in between. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, Buxton was about as valuable in the field last year as Corey Seager was at the plate.
Buxton’s speed, athleticism, and incredible defence have always been a given, with the what-if scenario being: what if he finally figures out how to hit?
We may soon find out. Buxton closed out 2017 on fire, batting a torrid .300/.347/.546 in the second half. His batting eye still needs major work, with Buxton striking out nearly five times for every one walk even during that terrific second-half run. But he still showed improvements last year in both his swinging-strike rate and his ability to lay off pitches out of the strike zone. Given how stellar he is at every other facet of the game, if Buxton can approach those second-half numbers over a full season, he becomes an immediate MVP candidate.
No. 27 Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Blue Jays (Last Year: Not Ranked)
No. 26 Shohei Ohtani, Babe Ruth, Angels (Last Year: Not Ranked)
The rise of ultra-skilled big men such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, and Kristaps Porzingis launched a new term in NBA circles: “unicorn.” In baseball circles, a hitter who walks far more often than he strikes out and dominates high-A ball at age 18 is rare enough to earn the same horned nickname. And if there was ever a baseball unicorn, a player who’s primed to become the first since Babe Ruth to star as both a high-upside pitcher and a lineup regular with serious power, would be that guy.
In Guerrero’s case, the path to stardom depends on him harnessing that supernatural plate discipline, strong frame and the pedigree of a Hall of Famer’s son into consistent power production (he hit a fairly modest 13 home runs at A-ball last season) and a predictable defensive position (he’s a half-decent gloveman at third base, but many feel he’ll end up playing a less demanding position in the future).
As for Ohtani, it’s impossible not to salivate at his potential. He throws four different pitches for strikes, led by a fastball that can reach the high-90s and a devastating splitter. His offensive game is only slightly less promising, with a combination of power and speed that’s exceedingly rare in its own right.
Skeptics will wonder about his lack of track record when it comes to racking up big innings counts, as well as his high strikeout rates at the plate. Read through the frustration that the Dodgers felt after falling short on their efforts to land the prized two-way star, though, and you begin to see the unicorn potential here.
2018 MLB Trade Value Rankings
If every player affiliated with an MLB organization suddenly became available for trade, who would fetch the most in return? With his sixth annual MLB Trade Value Rankings, Jonah Keri lists baseball's most desirable assets.