This winter brought the coldest Hot Stove season that any of us have seen since the dark days of collusion in the 1980s. Whatever the reasons for that slowdown, it’s no fun to watch tensions run so high that player agents start hinting at large-scale walkouts and spring training shutdowns.
Now here’s the good news, friends: We’ve found a place where anything is possible. A place where we can dream on blockbuster deals. A place where we can have fun throwdowns over my favorite player vs. yours. A place where frustration is replaced by delightful debates, the kind we used to have when we were kids debating the merits of baseball card trades, where mutton-chopped Yaz and headless Omar Vizquel could do battle in our imaginations.
Welcome to the sixth annual edition of my MLB Trade Value series. The premise of this series is simple: If every player affiliated with an MLB organization suddenly became available for trade, who would fetch the most in return? The most important deciding factor is skill, but the analysis goes much deeper than that. A player’s age is important. So is his health record. Contract status is pivotal, since teams would pay the most for an elite, young player who can’t test free agency for several more years. Hell, if we can find an objective way to prove that Player X puts more butts in seats than Player Y, we’ll take that into account too. (Spoiler: That’s really, really tough to do.)
We lean heavily on statistical analysis, but mostly ignore context-dependent stats like RBI, wins, and saves. That means we adjust offensive numbers for park factors, consider how players tend to age, take health records very seriously, and look for analytical markers that might not show up fully or immediately in a player’s stat line (e.g. upticks in fastball velocity for pitchers). Because we’re comparing pitchers to outfielders, 20-somethings to 30-somethings, thousandaires to multi-millionaires, there will be plenty of nuance, interpretation, and yes, opinions here. Would you rather have Jon Gray for the next four years or Jacob deGrom for the next three? Do you want Trea Turner for five seasons or Francisco Lindor for four?
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To gain more perspective, I polled some general managers, assistant general managers, and other talent evaluators and then re-crunched the numbers and contracts. The result is a list of the 50 most valuable players currently employed by MLB organizations (minor leaguers were considered; players in Japan, Cuba, college, high school and elsewhere are not), as well as some honourable mentions who just missed our list. We split the rankings into multiple parts: Here, we’ll hit the players who fell off last year’s list and the honourable mentions.
Starting March 23, we’ll dive into this year’s top 50, with separate columns for Nos. 50–26 and Nos. 25-1.
Before we get to the rankings, here’s a quick look at the rules.
1. Contracts matter
Giancarlo Stanton was a better hitter than Christian Yelich last year, but Stanton’s new team owes him $295 million over the next 10 years (including guaranteed option buyout money), while Yelich’s new team owes him just $58.3 million over the next five years (counting his 2022 club option).
2. Age matters
Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant put up similar offensive numbers last season while playing the same position. But Donaldson is 32 years old and Bryant is just 26, meaning Donaldson’s production might start to slip soon, while Bryant might be just now entering his prime.
3. It’s all relative
If every team started shopping every player as a trade candidate, which players would attract the biggest return from any of the other 29 clubs? For instance, if we’re comparing the trade value of Anthony Rendon and Cody Bellinger, we’re not concerned that the Dodgers already have an excellent third baseman in Justin Turner, or that first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is coming off a monster season for the Nats. Instead, we want to know this: If every team were allowed to make offers for Rendon and Bellinger, which player would net the greater return?
4. Positional scarcity matters
If a catcher and first baseman put up comparable offensive numbers, the catcher is the more valuable player, since it’s much tougher to find someone with the defensive chops to squat for 130 games a season than one who can man first. That’s already accounted for in the Wins Above Replacement metric, which you’ll see referenced occasionally here, but it bears repeating.
5. Defence, park factors and other variables not immediately apparent in superficial stats matter
These are not fantasy baseball rankings, so a player who hits 30 home runs isn’t necessarily more valuable than one who hits 20, or even five.
6. The list runs in reverse order
If Aaron Nola is No. 33 on this list, it means the Phillies likely wouldn’t trade him for anyone ranked 50-34, but they would have to at least consider swapping him for the players ranked 32-1.
With all that laid out, let’s discuss the players who missed the cut and this year’s honourable mentions.
(Thanks as always to Bill Simmons, who came up with the idea to rank all NBA players by trade value many years ago and urged me to start an MLB Trade Value series. Special shoutout to Dave Cameron, who did his own MLB rankings for several years before the Padres snatched up his services this winter — mazel tov, Dave!)
Before we get to this year’s list, here’s a quick rundown of the players we ranked in the top 50 last season who fell short this time.
Kyle Schwarber, OF, Cubs (50)
We knew that defence would be a concern, after Schwarber struggled both behind the plate and in left field in his first brush with the Majors. We knew that durability could be a concern after a knee injury cost him most of the 2016 season. We knew that hitting left-handed pitching could be a challenge, given how he fared against southpaws initially. Schwarber can overcome all of those weaknesses when he’s crushing right-handed pitching. When he hits just .221 with a .317 OBP against them, as he did in 2017, that makes the task much tougher — even when he’s still mashing taters.
Julio Teheran, P, Braves (48)
Michael Fulmer, P, Tigers (46)
The Braves signed Teheran to an extremely affordable contract that could keep him inexpensively in Atlanta for three more years. But a low price tag alone does not deliver value, not when Teheran ranked as third-worst in the National League in fielding-independent pitching among pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
Fulmer’s just 24 years old, and does a good job of preventing both walks and home runs. But it’s tough to sustain success with one of the league’s lowest strikeout rates; tougher still when an elbow injury cuts your season short, as it did with Fulmer after just 25 starts last year.
Trevor Story, SS, Rockies (43)
2016: .272/.341/.567, 122 wRC+
2017: .239/.308/.457, 81 wRC+
Going from being 22 per cent better than league average to 19 percent worse than league average offensively is a good way to fall out of favour and off our list.
Kyle Hendricks, P, Cubs (40)
Hendricks’ bout with hand tendinitis doesn’t look like a lingering concern after he flashed a microscopic 2.19 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly 4-to-1 after last year’s All-Star break. Still, Hendricks’ decent but not great strikeout rate, along with an uptick in homers allowed, made him closer to a 4.00 performer by fielding-independent metrics, his misleading 3.03 ERA notwithstanding. At age 28 and with his controllable service time now down to three years, that’s not good enough to stay in the Top 50.
Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers (39)
2017 regular season: .212/.331/.407, 11 homers in 102 games
2017 World Series: .333/.400/.944, 3 homers in 6 games
Exciting numbers for people in the narrative business, less so for a player trying to prove his long-term worth and ability to excel over larger stretches of time.
Kevin Kiermaier, OF, Rays (38)
Ender Inciarte, OF, Braves (37)
Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Red Sox (35)
Adam Eaton, OF, Nationals (34)
Odubel Herrera, OF, Phillies (33)
When you’re a centre-fielder who relies heavily on defence to prop up your value, you’re going to get dinged when that glovework starts to wane. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, Inciarte went from being the fourth-best centre-fielder in the majors at run prevention in 2016 to just 13th-best in 2017. Meanwhile, Herrera has sunk from sixth to 15th since 2015. This could have more to do with random variance than any kind of skills erosion, but the competition to make our list is formidable.
Losing a step defensively (or at least falling off due to the same kind of random variance that can drop a player’s batting average from .300 to .260 from one year to the next) isn’t the only reason this group misses the cut this year. Kiermaier and Eaton are both on team-friendly contracts, but both also need to prove they can stay healthy for a full season.
As for Bradley, his offensive numbers fizzled after two straight strong showings in 2015 and 2016. Any of these five players would still be worthy trade targets, they’d just be a bit outside our Top 50.
Aaron Sanchez, P, Blue Jays (32)
Is there a support group for great pitchers who go through seasons like the one Sanchez just had? Do world-class hurlers in top physical shape who do everything in their power to stay strong, healthy, and productive, only to get sidelined by a malady as maddeningly frustrating as blisters, get together every other Tuesday to curse the Gods for their misfortune?
Do 2017 blister sufferers such as Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, David Price, Jake Arrieta, and Johnny Cueto spend their days on the shelf mournfully listening to Violent Femmes, staring out into the void, reading Nietzsche and contemplating the cruelty of existence? Do they all head over to Rich Hill’s house to talk about a medical problem that’s often mocked by media and fans, but completely real and dangerous for ultra-talented humans who make their living throwing baseballs? Who brings the everything bagels and SunnyD?
Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves (30)
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox (29)
Expectations can be a pain in the ass sometimes. Swanson was the No. 1 pick in the draft three years ago and a top three prospect in all of baseball coming into last season. A steep dropoff in his numbers last year following a terrific 38-game debut a year earlier now has the baseball world hinting he might be a disappointment — never mind that he’s still just 24-years old with less than 700 major league plate appearances under his belt.
Same goes for Xander Bogaerts, the consensus No. 2 prospect in all of baseball four years ago who’s batting stats slipped in 2017 — never mind that he’s amassed more than 2,600 major league plate appearances, has an All-Star berth and two Silver Slugger awards under his belt, and is still somehow just a year and a half older than Swanson is.
Merely making it to the big leagues is a huge accomplishment. Finding even a modicum of success at the highest level is even more impressive. And writing players off when they’re barely old enough to rent a car (or a few months away from being able to do so) can be even more irresponsibly rash than declaring them can’t-miss superstars in the first place. Swanson and Bogaerts didn’t make this year’s list. That doesn’t mean they can’t have multiple years of big league success ahead of them.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates (24)
At the start of last season, you could have argued that the Pirates boasted the best and/or most promising all-around outfield in baseball, or at least the best/most promising next to Miami’s. A year later, Andrew McCutchen’s on another team (as is the Marlins’ entire starting three). Starling Marte is a busted PED user, and Polanco is now 26-years old with nearly 2,000 Major League plate appearances on his resume, with few signs of offensive progress.
Addison Russell, SS, Cubs (23)
Key offensive indicators (K rate, BB rate, AVG, OBP) slipped in his third Major League campaign, and allegations of abuse swirled around him for much of the season too.
Andrew Benintendi, OF, Red Sox (21)
Channelling my ninth-grade math teacher who demanded we always show our work, a quick behind-the-scenes on Benintendi: I had him ranked in the top 50, quite high on the list, in fact. He raked in the minors, crashed the big leagues as a massively-touted prospect,and landed a high-profile gig patrolling the space in front of the Green Monster. He’s still just 23-years old and has a bright future in front of him… but multiple execs I spoke to suggested I curb my enthusiasm a bit:
“Benintendi seems too high to me. We are talking about a 103 wRC+ for a guy likely to end up on a corner. I know he put up crazy minor league numbers and got there quickly and cool name and Boston etc., but I just don’t think this guy is crazy good.”
Starling Marte, OF, Pirates (19)
The Marte Partay will go on as planned, but we’ll be serving Bugles instead of surf n’ turf.
Madison Bumgarner (16)
An MLB Trade Value fixture since this column began many moons ago, Bumgarner’s exemplary health record (six straight seasons of 200-plus innings pitched, including his supernatural run through the 2014 playoffs) finally hit a speed bump, with shoulder and rib injuries cutting his 2016 innings output by more than half. With two club options left at $12 million apiece, he’ll still be a substantial bargain for a Giants team coming off its worst season in 32 years.
In addition to players such Bumgarner, Benintendi, and Inciarte who barely fell out of the top 50 after being there last year, here are a few other players who just missed the cut but are still worth highlighting.
Luis Castillo, P, Reds
Luke Weaver, P, Cardinals
Zack Godley, P, Diamondbacks
Jose Berrios, P, Twins
Jameson Taillon, P, Pirates
Five green pitchers with five-to-six years of controllable time, all of whom are highly skilled, with flashes of big league success already under their belt. Castillo is arguably the least touted of the bunch, but also brims with upside. In his 15-start debut season, the Reds right-hander flashed a superb 27.3 per cent strikeout rate and a worm-burning 58.8 per cent groundball rate. He’s 25-years old, healthy, and can’t test free agency until after the 2023 season.
Matt Olson, 1B, A’s
Matt Chapman, 3B, A’s
Very quietly, the A’s have assembled a corner-infield duo that rates as one of the most valuable in all of baseball, given their combination of skill, youth, and six years of controllable service time. Olson was a power-hitting terror in his debut season, smashing 24 homers in just 59 games, while slugging an incredible .651. We can safely cut back that Ruthian pace in future projections, while still noting that Olson’s mashed throughout his professional career, including his 37 homers at single-A ball in 2014. Chapman is an elite defender at the hot corner who’d be an important player in Oakland for years to come, even if he didn’t hit. Cranking 39 extra-base hits in 290 at-bats to open his big league career points to plenty of pop to complement that glove.
Andrelton Simmons, SS, Angels
Amed Rosario, SS, Mets
Orlando Arcia, SS, Brewers
The Angels will pay Simmons $39 million over the next three years, and get borderline Ozzie Smith-level defence and improving offence for their trouble. If MVP voters fully took defensive value into account, they’d recognize that Simmons was just as valuable last season as his Angels teammate Justin Upton, who walloped 35 homers and knocked in 109 runs in 2017. As for Rosario, he lacks both power and patience at the plate, but he’s a terrific gloveman in his own right who was a top-five prospect a year ago and at age 22 has plenty of time to improve offensively.
As for Arcia, here’s what one exec had to say:
“Arcia is a really good player, somebody who could be .300/25/25 with defence, the type where the more you watch him the more you like him. I get it, he doesn’t walk a lot, but I’d love to have this guy.”
Joey Gallo, 1B, Rangers
Tommy Pham, OF, Cardinals
Chris Taylor, OF, Dodgers
Travis Shaw, 3B, Brewers
Michael Conforto, OF, Mets
Breakouts are supposed to get us excited. When a player jumps to a higher level of performance, it’s easy to start dreaming about further progress, maybe even a possible leap to stardom around the corner.
We’re bullish on four of these 2017 breakout players, to be sure. Gallo’s light-tower power potential blossomed into a 41-homer barrage last year. Shaw slammed 31 dingers of his own in his first season with the Brewers. Pham hit a gigantic .306/.411/.520 in his first crack at everyday duty in the big leagues. Taylor did a pretty mean peak Ben Zobrist impression, batting .288/.354/.496 while playing five positions.
Still, doubts abound. Gallo’s 36.8 per cent strikeout rate ranked third in the majors last year, and an all-or-nothing profile doesn’t usually lead to true greatness. Shaw turns 28 after Opening Day, so he’s far from a prospect and might’ve already shown us his best effort. Pham spent a decade in the minors and turns 30(!) on March 8.
Taylor overhauled his swing to engineer his big breakout, but he turns 28 in August, and his .361 batting average on balls in play last year begs for a visit from the regression monster. Conforto probably makes the top 50 if not for injury concerns, headed by a shoulder injury (and resulting surgery) that’ll knock him out at least until May and could limit his productivity for considerably longer.
Bottom line: There’s no shame in being something like the 51st-to-60th-most valuable commodity in baseball.
Coming up tomorrow: We begin the countdown with players 50–26.