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April 13, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Trading Evan Longoria

by Tommy Bennett

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Evangelism

Some things in life can be compared to one another. Despite a common aphorism, apples and oranges are an excellent example of two items that can be easily compared (I'm an apple guy myself). You can compare them on the metrics of sweetness, durability, longevity, shareability, and even aesthetics. Perhaps as a reflection of all possible attributes of each fruit (including costs of growing, demand, weather, and transportation), we can compare the two on the altar of the almighty dollar. (Although, of course, the market is most liquid for frozen-concentrated orange juice.) Other types of things cannot be reasonably compared in such a way. Take the classic example of incommensurable values: the life of a mother and the life of a nun. The virtues of motherhood are distinct from and incommensurable with the virtues of the convent.

It is a basic faith of quantitative baseball analysis that baseball players are commensurable goods. Whether the comparison is across eras, positions, leagues, or teams, sabermetricians labor to establish a single baseline of commensurability for all players. I don't want to spoil the ending, but the early returns have been sensational. We now have easy ways to compare players across all-time in the easy-to-grasp metric of wins (WARP3). We have ways to translate wins into dollar amounts (Nate Silver's MORP, with Matt Swartz's forthcoming updates). Critics of this approach tend to doubt the possibility of commensuration of players who can be so different. How, they wonder, can we say exactly whether Prince Fielder is worth more than Ichiro Suzuki? They are such different players that the comparison is a sham, the argument goes.

Part of the reason why it is important to be up front about our valuations is because implicit valuations happen all the time. Every trade and free-agent signing is a data point in a broad comparison of players to one another and to dollars. In fact, those very data points are what enable people much smarter than myself to develop these sophisticated and powerful metrics. Even casual arguments among fans can provide information about those particular fans' valuations of players. It's very clear, no matter what your individual valuations may be, that not every player is worth exactly the amount he is paid. Some players are really great bargains, some are paid fairly, and some are paid more than they are worth on the field. That got me thinking.

Ball on a Budget

This year, I participated in the sort of fantasy league that appeals only to the most spreadsheet-bound type of fan. Run over at my old digs, the Ball on a Budget league gives each manager $60 million in salary and a 25-man roster to fill out. It proceeds via snake draft, but the trick is that each player must be paid the amount he will earn in 2010 (irrespective of incentives and bonuses). For both pitchers and hitters, the only scoring category is Wins Above Replacement.

Now, let's see if you can guess who the first overall pick was. Got a guess?

Evan Longoria, who is set to earn $950,000 this year, was worth 7.9 WARP last year. He was the consensus first pick for a very good reason. Even entering the third year of his contract extension, his contract represents an enormous bargain over what he would earn on the free-agent market. Part of that is because the Rays took an impressive gamble: exactly six days after he was called up to the major leagues, Longoria had signed his current deal, which covered his six team-controlled seasons and gave the Rays options in each of his first three free agent-eligible seasons. Even if all the options are exercised, the total value of the contract over nine seasons would still be just $44 million.

Thanks to the peerless Jeff Euston, here is a breakdown of the Longoria deal:

2008: $500,000
2009: $550,000
2010: $950,000
2011: $2M
2012: $4.5M
2013: $6M
2014*: $7.5M
2015*: $11M
2016*: $11.5M
*Team option year

Let's be conservative. PECOTA's weighted mean projection for Longoria this year calls for him to be worth just over six WARP. Let's say he's worth five wins a year for each year of the deal. Given what we know about the cost of a WARP, that would make Longoria worth about $25 million per year. Netting out the salary he is owed and assuming a fixed $25-million value, from 2010-16, Longoria will be worth about $130 million over the next seven seasons. Pretty good, right?

But how good? I got to wondering whether there is any player whom the Rays could be offered that would get them to consider trading Longoria. This question is quickly disposed of, since no player combines Longoria's a) proven track record, b) low service time (two years), and c) guaranteed contract with team options.

Like Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock

What if we let a package contain two players? Then it starts to get interesting.

Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg

Zimmerman is under team control through the 2013 season, and is set to earn $41.2 million over the next four seasons. PECOTA is less optimistic about Zimmerman than it is about Longoria, pegging him for five wins this year and declining faster than his Tampa Bay counterpart. If we take Zimmerman to be a 4.5-win player over the next four seasons, he'll provide just under $50 million in value to the Nationals. What about Strasburg? He's unquestionably the most popular Senator in Washington, and my goodness what a curveball. But most estimates of his value on the free market hovered around $50 million prior to the 2009 draft, and he'll still hit the arbitration escalators on the back end of his contract. It's pretty tough to predict his value, but let's put it this way: In order to make this deal work for the Rays, they'd have to value Strasburg at something like five wins per year after discounting for injury risk for each of the next six seasons. Such a performance would effectively make Strasburg Tim Lincecum East, and while such a performance is possible, it probably isn't close to the most likely outcome.

Hanley Ramirez and Mike Stanton

Ramirez is a sensational player, and probably the second-best position player in the game right now. WARP ranks him just a notch ahead of Longoria going forward, but he is owed substantially more money. Under contract through 2014, Ramirez is owed a total of $64.5 million over the next five seasons. At a six-win-per-year clip, he projects to provide surplus of about $85 million to the Marlins. As for Stanton, different studies have produced different figures for the value of prospects. Victor Wang, for example, has valued a top-10 hitter (which Stanton is) at about $36.5 million. PECOTA likes Stanton more than that, and depending on when he is called up to the majors, could be worth more than $50 million. The trick is the "could be." In fact, Stanton would have to be worth $45 million, or the equivalent of about two or three wins per year on average over the next six years, to make the deal worthwhile. Again, it's possible, but it would come at considerable risk (risk which would probably not be compensated for). Unlike the previous deal, this deal does not give the Rays a clear replacement at the hot corner, although playing Ramirez at short would give them even more flexibility with their backup infielders; they could assuredly find 162 games' worth of third basemen on their roster.

Brian McCann and Jason Heyward

McCann is under contract for three more years, with a team option for the fourth. If the option is exercised, he'll be earning $32.5 million through 2013. As a 4.5-win player, he'll provide a net surplus of just under $60 million to the Braves. Heyward, on the other hand, is harder to predict. Players like him don't come around too often, and they tend to be pretty good when they do. Over the next six years, PECOTA likes Heyward for an average of just over five wins per season, which is extremely good. If he were to put up such good numbers, he'd be worth about $95 million (or so) in surplus, but again, I'm not adjusting for risk. He'd need to be worth at least $90 million to justify the Rays parting with Longoria for this package, and I'm not sure he would be after accounting for risk. This package also doesn't provide a clear replacement for Longoria at third, although the Rays have roster flexibility enough to fill the holes, while McCann would represent a massive step up behind the plate.

Question of the Day

 Those are some pretty impressive trade packages, and I'm not convinced any of them are a clear take for the Rays. If you were running the Rays, would you accept any of those trade offers for Evan Longoria? Would you definitely reject any of them?  

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