Over a month ago when now-debunked rumors surfaced that the Cubs and Nationals were interested in a deal that would have sent Jordan Zimmermann to the North Side, I immediately questioned, well, for what, exactly? Sure, Zimmermann is a hugely valuable pitcher, one of the better arms in all of baseball, but there were too many obstacles keeping a (to my mind) sensible deal from happening.
The Nats are coming off a great year and are still on the upswing, expected to be clear leaders for the NL East this season and possibly for some years after that. The Cubs are attempting to build a contender for 2015, but would they really give up some of the best prospects in baseball for one year of control of Zimmermann? It seemed contradictory to everything they’d been working toward over the past few years. And unless the Nats are going to turn around and sign someone like Max Scherzer, they’d likely want someone(s) who could immediately aid them in a potential 2015 World Series run.
A question kept gnawing at me: How do teams really value ‘five-plus’ players—players who have one year remaining on their contracts—on the trade market?
It turns out I wasn’t the only one who had such a question. After making this move:
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was peppered with questions about acquiring an impact player with just one year of control remaining on his contract. Why did they decide to give up four players and acquire Samardzija rather than just spend money and go after a free-agent arm?
“This is the guy we wanted, this is the guy who fit for us,” Hahn said of the northwest Indiana native and former Cub. “This is the guy we felt was a perfect complement to (Chris) Sale and (Jose) Quintana, and feel at the same time that has the ability to fit in seamlessly within our clubhouse, obviously knows the market, and has had success in the market.”
Hahn was very clear as to what the White Sox were acquiring in this deal: one year of Samardzija and exclusivity in negotiation rights; so, basically, a little less than a year of time to convince Samardzija that re-signing with the White Sox was in his best interests.
“It’s difficult to quantify, but does it put you in a better position (to re-sign the player)? I believe it does,” Hahn said last week at the Winter Meetings. “Because there’s a level of familiarity, there’s hopefully a level of trust. There’s a level of understanding of the direction of the club, whereas the player needs to get familiar with others once they enter the free agent market. It certainly isn’t controlling, it certainly doesn’t put you leagues ahead of everybody else. But we think there’s a benefit to it, there’s certainly a benefit to it. If you’re not going to be competitive on the dollars, then it’s probably not going to matter in the end.”
And that’s likely the most important part of what Hahn said: Any deal that Samardzija might sign with the White Sox would likely be at or very near what he’d command on the open market. It’s unlikely that the opportunity to re-sign Samardzija weighed heavily when the White Sox considered what they’d be willing to part with for his one year of services. As Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein noted, most people outside of baseball tend to overvalue that exclusive negotiation period.
“Probably not as much as you might think,” Epstein said when asked how much teams value the opportunity to possibly extend a player when deciding how much to give up for their services. “You get to know the player and he gets to know the situation, but sometimes when players get within a year of free agency, it’s hard to get them off that opportunity.”
And while Hahn did say it was something they looked at, the White Sox didn’t pay much extra for that right. Hahn did point out that getting Ynoa in return made the deal more palatable.
“It was a balancing act. There’s no exact science to calculating the value of what we truly were receiving versus what we were giving up,” Hahn said. “But I think in the end, once we got to the four-for-two structure and received a prospect back in the deal, we all felt more comfortable with it on our side.”
The Samardzija deal turned out to be the first of a few moves involving similarly controlled players, and at the time Hahn wasn’t sure how other teams would value their five-plus players.
“I think everyone is trying to not rob Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, from their perspective,” Hahn said. “If you’re going to move a guy who’s proven and you’re a club that’s hoping to contend, you’re looking to address major-league needs through that. We haven’t found a lot of prospect-based deals for one-year rentals, and I think that makes sense because clubs aren’t looking to do that. With the way we all value our prospects, it’s a little difficult to do that for just a one-year basis.”
When it came to giving up top prospects, Hahn was spot on.
- Cincinnati Reds traded RHP Alfredo Simon to Detroit Tigers for SS Eugenio Suarez and RHP Jonathon Crawford.
- Cincinnati Reds traded RHP Mat Latos to Miami Marlins for RHP Anthony DeSclafani and C Chad Wallach.
- Detroit Tigers traded RHP Rick Porcello to Boston Red Sox for LF Yoenis Cespedes, RHP Alex Wilson and LHP Gabe Speier.
In the week since the Samardzija deal was consummated, the above deals have all transpired, each involving a five-plus pitcher. Simon has one year of semi-success as a starter and brought back a weak-bat utility infielder and an arm who hasn’t pitched above A-ball and profiles as a reliever. Latos netted a pitcher whose ceiling is a back-end starter, but likely ends up a reliever, and a 23-year-old catcher who played in High-A last season.
The Porcello/Cespedes deal appears to be pretty straight-forward. Both teams expect to contend in 2015, the Tigers are in need of outfield help, and the Red Sox need pitching after losing out on Jon Lester. The Red Sox had to kick in some prospects, who don’t appear to be game changers, because the structure of Cespedes contract doesn’t allow for a qualifying offer, meaning the Tigers would be left empty-handed if he were to depart via free agency next winter.
“This probably sounds obvious, but a lot of it depends on what that team holding a five-plus wants out of it,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said when discussing what he believes will be an ongoing trend in baseball of five-plus players hitting the trade market. “If they want young players that have potentially seven years of control then it can be a challenging thing to match up on. If they’re looking for maybe a player at a different position who has some service time, that fit can be almost easier, because both teams are giving up less control years. The prospect deal can be hard to match up on because you’re giving up so much control for only one.”
Like Hoyer said, the deal the Red Sox and Tigers made almost seems easier, but getting impact prospects for one of these players? In today’s game, it’s becoming rarer and rarer to see them moved in general, let alone for a player with a year of control left.
The one thing the above trades don’t include is someone who’s accepted to be a truly elite pitcher, an arm who is contending for a Cy Young, like Zimmermann, David Price, or Johnny Cueto, all of whom are five-plus players this year. So we’re left wondering exactly what the top-tier pitchers with one year remaining on their deals might fetch on the trade market.
Porcello is a step below that level, a very young arm who has taken steps forward each year of his career. The deal he was involved in is easy for us to understand; it hardly takes any analysis at all. However, one could argue that Samardzija is in that ‘elite’ category (and I would), and his return, in terms of both likely impact and team control, was easily the largest.
But even in that case, Hahn admitted that keeping his more prized prospects, like Tim Anderson and Francellis Montas, was very important to them. And Billy Beane seems to march to the beat of his own drum when it comes to the market value of players, indicated by both this deal and the fact that he’s one of the few GMs out there who would give up a top prospect (Addison Russell) for a year-plus of a player (Samardzija).
“I think there’s sort of an acceptance period when you’re shopping a really good player who’s got just one year of service left, sometimes you’re marking that player, you’re thinking about the possible return with that player’s resume in mind, his impact on your organization,” Epstein said. “The other side is focusing on that one year of control. So there’s a disconnect there and I think it takes time to come to terms with that it’s just really one year that you’re putting out there. It can be frustrating at times. It’s one of the reasons we put Jeff on the market aggressively when we did, because with one year left you can really face limitations sometimes. Or you can roll the dice, try to contend, try to get a good performance and hope supply and demand is in your favor at the trade deadline the way it was for (Matt) Garza a couple years ago for us a couple years ago.”
Hoyer echoed those sentiments, adding that ideally teams would move players who they weren’t able to extend at the four-and-half-year mark. However, that wouldn’t make sense for teams in contention, thus leading to the robust five-plus market we’re witnessing at the moment.
If reports are true, we’ve already seen the disconnect that Epstein mentioned above, with the Nats asking for 11 years of control of potential impact talent from the Mariners for a year each (and expensive years at that) of Ian Desmond and Zimmermann. The Tigers and Reds have already made their moves, so it’s unlikely we'll see Price and Cueto dangled this offseason. Zimmermann appears to be the only impact, five-plus arm who is currently available.
With Beane having moved Samardzija, the question becomes, is it really that he see things differently than the rest of the league? Or perhaps, as Epstein alluded to, there’s a mental hurdle that GMs must overcome when negotiating a deal involving these types of players. Maybe Beane is one of the few GMs who is willing to put aside what that player had been worth to the organization, accept that it's no longer of primary relevance in potential trades like these, and understand that getting both impact talent and numerous years of control just isn’t feasible.
If it’s the latter, and GMs trying to acquire five-plus arms aren’t willing to up their offers, my guess is the earliest we see Zimmermann suiting up for an organization other than the Nationals is next winter. When it comes to determining the value of the top-tier, five-plus arms on the trade market, the only thing that’s clear is that it’s quite difficult to come to a consensus on the matter.