[Editor's Note: Josh Donaldson was originally left off this list. The author regrets the error and has updated the post, even though Billy Beane wishes he hadn't.]
One of my favorite traditions of the All-Star Break each year is Dave Cameron's Trade Value series, which kicked off at FanGraphs yesterday. It's a really interesting exercise, attempting to balance talent, control, and cost for every talented player, and the conversations it prompts can be really fun.
Unfortunately, it is mostly a hypothetical pursuit, since (as Dave makes sure to mention each year) almost none of these players get traded. By definition, every player on the list is attractive to almost every team, whether rebuilding or competing, thrifty or free-spending. While in theory any asset should be available for the right price, the team that has the young, cost-controlled superstar almost certainly isn't going to let him go.
Every once in a while, however, a player that made the list does get traded. I wanted to look back on those trades and see what they tell us about the tendencies of the league, or about my biases as an outside observer. I like working with Dave's list because he does a great job making it not a list of the contracts and players he likes most, but the contracts and players the 30 teams like most. Obviously the difference between #50 and #51 is fairly arbitrary, and Dave can make mistakes, but anyone who makes the list is perceived as an extremely valuable, blue-chip asset. I'm going to pick interesting players from each year, starting with 2014.
... except that nobody who made the 2014 list has been traded in the year since it was published. I think that should make Dave feel pretty good about himself, since that's definite confirmation that the players and contracts he picked are those super-valuable assets that are basically never traded. Years of control is also key, as the shortest contracts in the top 50 ran through the end of 2016 (2.5 years). These are not rentals who a seller is shipping off for some prospects.
Some of those players might get traded at this trade deadline -- Carlos Gomez (#33 in 2014) seems like the most likely candidate -- but in large part, that's because their contracts have lost more than 40% of their value to aging and the regular progression of time. Anyone who made the list and is later traded has almost always fallen off the list in the intervening period. Unfortunately, that means that this piece isn't going to be about the trade of a top-50 asset, because those are just so rare. Instead, we'll be looking at players and contracts who once were among the best and made the 2013 list. What changed to make them fall off, and what was their value like in the eventual trade?
Trade: Jackson from the Tigers to the Mariners; Nick Franklin from the Mariners to the Rays; Willy Adames and Drew Smyly from the Tigers to the Rays; David Price from the Rays to the Tigers; 2014 Trade Deadline
In 2013, Austin Jackson was 26, had almost 12 WAR through his first three seasons, and was in the middle of a productive fourth season. But as Dave mentioned in his write up, Jackson barely snuck into the list, despite being young and productive, because he was only controlled through 2015. He finished his 2013 fairly well, but 2014 saw his offensive and defensive value (in a small sample) dive. When he was traded, his contract had 1.5 years at fairly low arbitration prices, and his wRC+ was 100, making him a valuable center fielder but certainly not a premium asset.
Still, it's telling that he brought back the return that he did. From the Tigers perspective, they traded 1.5 years of an underperforming Jackson and a promising SS in Low-A for 1.5 years of David Price (#47 on Dave's 2013 list). Price has been worth 6.6 WAR over the past calendar year, the fourth-most valuable SP in that time, and while there's substantial risk in any pitcher, it seemed like a great trade for the Tigers then and a better one now. From the Mariners' perspective, a lot depends on how much you think they knew about Nick Franklin. The longer he remains on the cusp of major-league success, the more likely it seems he'll never cross over, but he still has the potential to be a very valuable player. Given Jackson's recent performance at the time of the trade, and his impending free agency, it felt like a fair price for the Mariners, if not a steal.
I think the general lesson to take from this trade is that top-50 players retain substantial value, even with fewer years of control and performance that has fallen somewhat, and that position players are inherently more valuable than pitchers of the same talent level.
This is another interesting trade, in part because both sides had a former top-50 contract, with Shelby Miller also making the 2013 list, at #32. Heyward has had a curious start to his career, with his power fluctuating between "decent for a good defensive outfielder" (the mid-.100s ISO territory) and "outstanding" (.200+). By the time he was traded, however, he was coming off a .113 ISO and a 110 wRC+, both the lowest of his career, and with only one year left on his contract any extension he signed was going to be close to what he would get on the free agent market.
Still, he has always been a good player, and even a single year of Heyward was enough to bring back 4 years of Shelby Miller. Miller had also had a confusing career, dominating during the 2013 regular season but riding the pine for the playoffs, and looking near-broken in 2014. He's rebounded nicely in 2015, and while the Braves couldn't have been certain of that, this trade seems to be another piece of evidence in favor of betting on talent and prospect pedigree, even if they don't match current performance. Given the year Miller's having, he's someone who feels like he could've made the 45-50 range of this year's edition without too much fuss.
Trade: Craig and Joe Kelly from the Cardinals to the Red Sox; John Lackey and Corey Littrell from the Red Sox to the Cardinals; 2014 Trade Deadline
A brief aside: the nature of this review is such that I'm picking players who are generally much worse than when they made the list. Craig at #40 seems ridiculous now, but at the time, it certainly wasn't. This is definitely cherry-picking, and I don't want this to seem like I'm mocking Dave.
All that said, this ranking definitely provokes a chuckle when viewed from 2015. At the time, Craig made the list as a productive player at a relatively low price (about $7mm per year for four years, plus a team option at $13mm for the fifth), but since then he's been below-replacement for more than a year and a half, and his salaries haven risen to $9mm and $11mm for the next two years.
It would be hypocritical to look at the above players, who went through down periods before rebounding, to ignore that possibility with Craig. John Lackey, is currently pitching for about $500,000, and has been worth 2.6 WAR over the past year, and while Joe Kelly isn't nobody, as more and more time passes this trade looks increasingly great for the Cardinals. I think at this point we can definitively state that players who fall off the list still carry a lot of value, at least in the mind of executives. That makes trades involving them really fun -- one side is going to look really smart, and one side is not.
Matt Kemp (2012)
Ranking: #7 (!!!)
This is completely unfair of me, and I want to reiterate that I'm not trying to pick on Dave -- I think his assessment had good process behind it, and absolutely reflected industry consensus at the time. However:
It took about a month for Kemp's 8 year/$160 million contract to look like a steal... He's not the best center fielder around and his lingering hamstring problems are a concern, but Kemp is still a 27-year-old five tool superstar who might just be baseball's best overall player when he's on the field... He probably can't keep hitting as well as he has so far in 2012, but then again, we said that last year too.
is a hilarious quote to read, with the massive advantage of three years' perspective. At the time, Kemp was coming off an absolutely absurd season, but was signed to a contract that compensated him fairly for that season, and he needed to keep performing at an elite level to have any surplus value. Instead, injuries kept him off the field for long stretches, and unproductive when he was playing. So far in 2015, he's been worth -0.6 WAR, and he's due $21mm annually from now until 2019. 2019! That is a long, long time and a lot of money to pay a player who appears to be sub-replacement level.
This is yet another example of the long memory of executives. Kemp is no longer elite but once was, and that previous status helped the Dodgers get an outstanding return in the trade. I think they probably would've given away Kemp's contract if they could have, and so you can almost view this trade as $32mm and a AAA catcher for Yasmani Grandal, owner of a 162 wRC+ and 2.7 WAR, plus some other pieces. That is incredible value for the Dodgers.
I also think this is an example of a mistake on Dave's part, and an aspect in which both his thinking and the thinking of the industry have changed in recent years. As of writing this, the 2015 list isn't completed, but look at the top 10 of the 2014 list. The biggest contracts belong to Troy Tulowitzki, Mike Trout, and Evan Longoria, all of whom have similar contracts to Kemp in terms of length and guaranteed money, but much longer track records of excellence, higher ceilings, and lower floors. Kemp, at the time, looked like an elite player, and he was being paid like an elite player. I think a good comparison from this year is someone like Miguel Cabrera. He's older than Kemp, but I think Kemp's injury history can increase our perception of his age by a few years. 2015 Cabrera and 2012 Kemp are both excellent hitters who are signed to long, lucrative contracts, and therefore probably don't belong on the list.
To wrap up, I think we can state a few things, having looked at these players. Top talents and contracts retain a lot of value through fluctuations in performance, and will probably still return a valuable piece (or more) in a trade, even though recent history suggests the players aren't excellent or even good anymore. Years of control matter a lot, as the difference between someone signed for 2.5 more years and 1.5 more years is massive, and a player being paid $15mm+ annually needs to provide a lot of value to have a full trade market, since he needs to be worth it to the low-budget teams as well as the big spenders. Finally, players with lingering hamstring injuries and arthritic hips and plummeting defensive value might not be good long-term bets. Analysis!
Josh Donaldson (2014)
Trade: Donaldson to the Blue Jays; Brett Lawrie, Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman, and Sean Nolin to the A's; 2014-15 Offseason
Whoops. Dave Cameron was kind enough to remind me that I had forgotten Donaldson when I first posted this, though he is the most interesting case of all these AND my original reason for writing this article.
Even when Dave ranked Donaldson at #17 last year, he said there was considerable uncertainty around that figure. On the one hand, at that time Donaldson was under team control for another four and a half years at arbitration prices, and had been one of the most valuable players in baseball over the last year and a half, a legitimate MVP candidate. On the other hand, a big part of that value was derived from his defense at third, a skill that traditionally isn't rewarded in either the free-agent or trade markets, and so it wasn't clear that, in the absolutely insane scenario in which Donaldson was traded, he would bring back the sort of return you would expect from the #17 spot.
Of course, then he was traded, and the return was decidedly underwhelming. I say that not to try to pick a winner or a loser of the trade, or say that the Athletics made a good or bad decision, just to say that I was surprised at what the Jays had to give up to get him. I think we have to assume that Billy Beane thought this was the best deal he could get -- he's not Dave Stewart, after all -- and that this was the market's valuation of Donaldson and his contract.
On the one hand, it wasn't nothing: Lawrie is young, controlled for three years, and has been decent and seemed like he could be much more, Barreto has talent out the wazoo, and Nolin and Graveman both looked like they were ready to contribute in the big leagues in the 2015.
On the other hand, this was a lot of nothing. Lawrie plays the same position as Donaldson, is controlled for fewer years, and is unequivocally worse. Barreto had just finished his first season in Low-A. Nolin and Graveman might've looked ready to contribute, but whatever they did contribute, it wasn't going to be a lot.
Since I have the luxury of writing this on Wendesday afternoon, after Dave's chat, I can reference an answer he gave today, where he said he viewed this more as an anomaly than a determination of Donaldson's value. That is certainly one possibility. The other is to conclude that this is a legitimate data point, which means that either Donaldson was criminally undervalued by MLB teams, or that his value is much less than we think (we being outside analysts).
In general, when I disagree with a team, I think it's most likely that they're right and I'm not, since they have significant access to information (and it's their full time jobs to get these things right!), but I don't think anyone would argue now that Donaldson deserves a ranking outside the top 20. If anything he's improved from last year, is easily on track for 6-8 WAR, and the Jays now have his peak years at bargain prices.
With so few trades of truly elite players to draw on, it's hard to draw sweeping conclusions, so this question will have to remain at least somewhat open. Maybe the Jays would consider trading Donaldson? Just for the sake of data collection, of course.
. . .
Henry Druschel provides excellent value for his cost as a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.