Holding Court: Haggling at the Trade Market

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The Nationals enter this offseason with two holes at the bottom of their rotation. In year’s past, short term free agent fixes have had mixed results and relying on young players to build on the previous year’s success is what got the bench in trouble last year. I hope the Nats don’t make the same mistake with the rotation this year. So far it sounds like they aren’t. The Nats are reportedly looking into trade scenarios and since everyone else is tossing out their two cents, I figure I would too. There could be a couple big fish to had, headlined by the Rays’ David Price and Max Scherzer (although I don’t believe Scherzer is actually available, but I’ll get to that shortly). Both would fit nicely between Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez and would give the Nats’ a rotation to rival any in the game. But what would that luxury cost?

Looking back at previous trades, we can get somewhat of a picture of what Tampa might ask for in exchange for the next two seasons of Price. I’ve looked at three recent big-time trades to get a sense of what the market could be: the Rangers getting half a year of Matt Garza at last year’s deadline deadline, the Royals getting James Shields last offseason and the Brewers acquiring Zack Greinke from Kansas City after the 2010 season.

While the Shields trade involves the Rays, the Greinke trade from ‘10 might be the closest comparison because it involved a front-line starter with two years of team control – just like Price. I’ve included the Garza deal because it’s the most recent and illustrates the rising price of starters on the free market. Supply and demand is a son-of-a-bitch.

First let’s recap these trades in reverse chronological order (the numbers in parenthesis are the prospect rankings within the original organization as ranked by John Sickels of Baseball America at the time):

Cubs trade Matt Garza to the Rangers for:

3B Mike Olt (#2)

RHP Justin Grimm (#5)

RHP C.J. Edwards (#17)

RHP Neil Ramirez (#18)

Rays trade James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City for:

OF Wil Myers (#1)

RHP Jake Odorizzi (#4),

LHP Mike Montgomery (#5)

3B Patrick Leonard (N/A).

That’s quite a haul with three of the top five prospects needed to get Shields and Davis, although this deal was about Shields – Davis was just a sweetener to get the deal done. It also shows the Rays will get creative to get what they want.

Now the Greinke deal – the Royals trade Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt to the Brewers for:

SS Alcides Escobar (#2),

RHP Jake Odorizzi (#7),

OF Lorenzo Cain (#13), and

RHP Jeremy Jeffress (#30).

Yuniesky Betancourt was thrown in with Greinke to give the Royals a warm body to play shortstop but his value was, and still is, minimal.

What struck me was how closely Garza’s package was to the other two pitchers, despite much less team control. That tells me that the price for such a commodity is going up. I believe it’s safe to say that any package for David Price will have to include, at minimum:

  • two top five prospects and
  • two top 20 prospects.

But considering that Price will be far and away the best pitcher available this offseason (again, I don’t think Scherzer can be had) I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rays top all three of these deals if they decide to move Price. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team’s top prospect included in any deal.

And there’s the rub: do you trade away your future for two years of Price? Any deal for Price might have to include one of the the top three – Anthony Rendon, Lucas Giolito and AJ Cole, in addition to three more top prospects.

Giolito, while only in rookie ball, was reportedly hitting triple digits and has Strasburg or Harvey-like upside. AJ Cole is coming off a great season in AA and could be in line for a major league promotion at some point next year. And Rendon is already on the major league roster with a bright future ahead of him. The Hot Stove rumors are saying Rendon would have to be included for Price, but also keep in mind, he would just be the biggest piece – more guys would have to be included as well. Considering this high price – which still might not be enough depending on what other teams are offering – I think the better path would be to look at other starters on the trade market who could give you almost as much value as Price at a fraction of the cost.

While Price’s numbers are similar to the last few years, his strikeouts per 9 innings fell over a strikeout and a half (offset by 1 fewer walk per 9) and his fastball velocity dropped 2 mphs. Price also failed to pitch 200 innings for the first time since 2009. Perhaps 2013 was just a blip on the screen, but the drop in velocity is not a good sign and if I were Rizzo, I wouldn’t bet the farm on him regaining his former self. At least not for the price it will likely cost. MLBTradeRumors has estimated Price getting $13.1M in arbitration, and his 2015 number will be more than that, so it’s not like Price comes dirt cheap, like other pre-free agency pitchers. There’s no way I’d give up Rendon or Giolito in any deal for an expensive player with only a year or two of control, if I were Rizzo. Perhaps you could work something out around Cole and Goodwin, but even then, it’s a big risk for the Nats to take on a guy coming off of a down year. And there’s no guarantee Price will sign an extension. He comes with two years of control and only the right to negotiate, nothing more.

The other big rumor is that Matt Scherzer is on the market. But I doubt that seriously. Detroit could move Drew Smyly back into the rotation if they think they can’t extend Scherzer, but even in that case, I don’t think the Tigers will dump their best pitcher when they’re so close to winning a World Title. The Tigers could get a haul similar, although slightly less, to what I’ve laid out for Price, despite only one year of control considering last year’s performance (and what the Cubs got for Garza). I’m sure Scherzer would have a dominant season in the National League, but I think this is all a ploy. Detroit wants to win now and keeping Scherzer means they get to run out the best rotation in baseball for one more season. He’s not going anywhere. But Rick Porcello is another matter.

First the Tigers would consider trading Scherzer. Now they’ll think about trading Scherzer or maybe Porcello. Oh really? Trading Porcello has always been the Tigers plan. He’s due to make close to $8M this year with one more year of arbitration after this one. They tried to move him last year and now they’re at it again. It also makes a lot more sense for them to move him instead of Mad Max. Again, they can move Smyly back into the rotation, save a little bit of money to spend on a closer, and they can move a groundball pitcher whose talents are being wasted pitching in front of a bunch of DH’s.

A number of similar starters changed teams since last offseason, including Ervin Santana, Tommy Hanson, and Jason Vargas – all for middle relievers, but the one who most resembles Porcello is probably Ian Kennedy. Kennedy was acquired at last year’s trading deadline, but his salary is similar to Porcello and he also had one more year left under control. Kennedy posted WARs of 2.9, 4.9, and 2.9 between 2010-12, the last three full seasons before the trade. Porcello has garnered 2.6, 3.0, and 3.2 WAR over the same time span. The Padres were able to get Kennedy for a package of lefty reliever Joe Thatcher (0.6 WAR in ‘13), AA reliever Matt Stites (#20 by Sickels) and 2014 compensation round B draft pick, worth about $800K in draft dollars (think Jake Johansen, the Nats 2nd round pick in last year’s draft, now a top ten prospect). Because Porcello is a Super Two, he’s gotten expensive so I think that balances out the extra half-year of Porcello up for grabs this offseason.

Considering this dramatic drop-off in price, the Nats should have a shot at Porcello without having to give up Rendon, Giolito, Cole or Goodwin. It may take a reliever like Storen or Stammen (Clippard is too expensive) or a young starter like Taylor Jordan or Tanner Roark plus a prospect in the 6-15 range – guys like Zach Walters, Nate Karns, Sammy Solis, Robbie Ray and Matt Purke. Of course, each team has it’s own needs so it’s tough to know exactly who the Tigers would want, or what other teams would offer, but perhaps Storen and a prospect would get it done. At that price, I’m all for it.

I typically don’t like groundball pitchers because you have to get a lot of them to be successful, if that’s you’re only weapon. Only 12 pitchers got more than 51% groundballs and of those, only 5 posted WARs above 3.0 and three of those guys had K/9 rates over 9. So really there are only two elite groundball pitchers – guys with over 54% GB rate and less than 8 K/9 – Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. Both guys had higher ERAs than FIPs playing in Detroit. Porcello would be much more valuable on a team with solid infield defense, not to mention a move to the National League. If anything, his ERA over 4.00 (due mostly to an abnormally high HR/FB rate which should normalize) could keep his price down.

Porcello has improved each of the last three years and he’s done it by getting more and more groundballs. His percentage of groundballs has climbed from 51.4% to 53.2% to 55.3%. His velocity has bounced around a little bit, going up in 2012 then back down in 2013, so that’s not the reason for his improvement. He also improved his K/9 rate from 5.46 to 7.22 in 2013 – not great but a lot better. The big change for Porcello last year was pitch selection. He basically replaced his slider, a negative pitch for him, with his curveball, a break even pitch. In addition to neutralizing his worst pitch, emphasizing the curveball improved the value of all of his other pitches. Here are his pitch values for the last two years, with the percentage thrown in parentheses:

            4-seam FB       2-seam FB        Slider                  Curveball            Changeup

2012:  -4.1 (21.6%)      1.8 (45.2%)       -18.6 (15.4%)      1.2 (3.7%)           0.3 (13.7%)

2013:  -3.3 (22.2%)      6.3 (39.2%)        0.0 (6.3%)          -0.2(16.5%)         3.0 (15.1%)

While the curveball was actually less valuable when being used more, it made every other pitch better and most importantly, it kept him from using a slider that sucked. The two-seam fastball became a real weapon which most likely explains the increase in groundballs and his overall success in general. Porcello is only 25 years old, so there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue this improvement.

Nobody loves strikeouts more than me, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat. If you prove you can get your pelts with groundballs then I’m all for it. Porcello could be the guy to provide the upgrade the Nats need at a cost they can live with. Once the fourth spot in the rotation is taken care of, the last spot becomes much more manageable. Getting one of Detwiler/Roark/Jordan to pan out is has a lot better odds than hoping two of the three do.

Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann both need extending, which may preclude the team from signing a big, long-term deal with a free agent, but trading to fill one of the rotation spots with a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher on a short term contract keeps their salary commitments reasonable for the long term, while also improving the club in the near run.

Trading for Gio Gonzalez required giving up a package of prospects that was painful at the time, but it’s hard to argue it hasn’t worked out for the Nats. Porcello shouldn’t be nearly as painful to obtain but he could also pay off big for a club trying to take the next step forward.

Call about Scherzer. Leave with Porcello. Make it happen Mike. #inrizzowetrustorbust

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One thought on “Holding Court: Haggling at the Trade Market

  1. Pingback: Holding Court: Doug Fister, Ted Lerner and the Luxury Tax – A Story of Hope | Nationals 101

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