clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trade prices are usually higher in July than in the offseason

Teams usually give up more to acquire major league talent at the trade deadline than they do in the offseason, but they also have more knowledge about where they stand.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

We are now just two days away from the 2015 trade deadline and the chaos is in full swing. We have already seen some major pieces moved in the last week and we will continue to see deals happen up until 4:00 ET on Friday.

At this point, we have a pretty good idea of who the buyers and sellers are, and which players are likely to be traded to contenders in the next two days. The only questions that remain have to do with how much young talent teams are willing to part with in order to improve their chances of winning this season.

As we know, not all major trades happen in July. Teams make plenty of trades during the offseason as well, although these trades often look different than the ones we see at the trade deadline. There are major differences between the trade market in July and December, and because of these differences, teams looking to acquire veteran major league talent (a.k.a. buyers) often pay different prices for a marginal win in July than they would in the offseason. Some moves are also clearly in line with the "go for it now" mentality.

It isn't hard to see why teams would pay more to acquire talent at the trade deadline. After all, teams know more about their playoff odds in the summer than they do in the winter, and they will be more willing to improve their team for the rest of the season when they know that they are already a contender.

Last summer, Dave Cameron wrote about this over at Fangraphs, concluding that teams may pay close to as twice as much for a win in July as they do in the offseason. He came to this conclusion by looking at some notable deals from last July and comparing how much each team paid per marginal win at the deadline to the cost of a win on the free agent market.

I thought it would be interesting to explore this topic from a different perspective by examining the price teams pay in terms of minor league talent. As Cameron pointed out in his article last summer, it is difficult to assign a dollar value to a group of players (usually prospects) that a team gives up in order to acquire a better and more established major league player. Instead of estimating the dollar value of every package of young talent given up in a notable trade, I thought I would compare the talent teams gave up in trades where the number of wins acquired by the buying team was approximately the same.

For example, if teams truly pay more to acquire a marginal win at the trade deadline than they do in the offseason, then we would expect to see a four win rental to bring back more of a return midseason than a two win player would in the offseason, assuming he had one year of team control left --- the buying team would be getting two wins in each situation.

The trades included in this analysis have all taken place in the last two years. Given the sheer number of trades that take place in baseball, I thought there would be enough transactions to look at from two deadlines and two offseasons worth of data. I only included offseason trades that appeared to have a clear buyer and seller, since it would be hard to compare other types of trades to ones that happen at the deadline. All future value (FV) grades for prospects are from Kiley McDaniel over at Fangraphs. Whenever possible, I used the prospect grades given to prospects at the time they were traded, since some of these numbers have changed over time.

With that out of the way, here's a look at some of the trades that compared pretty well.

Midseason trade: Johnny Cueto (1.5 projected WAR) for Brandon Finnegan (55 FV), John Lamb (40 FV), and Cody Reed (50FV)

Offseason trade: Yovani Gallardo (1.6 projected WAR) for Luis Sardinas (40 FV), Corey Knebel (45 FV), and Marcos Diplan (40 FV)

According to ZiPS, Johnny Cueto is projected for 1.5 WAR for the rest of the season, which is almost identical to what Yovani Gallardo was projected for before the season started. While the Royals and Rangers may have acquired a comparable number of wins in these trades, it seems pretty clear that the package the Royals gave up for Cueto is much better than the one the Rangers gave up for Gallardo. Kiley McDaniel ranked Finnegan as the 56th best prospect before the season started, and he also stated that Reed would fall somewhere in the 100-150  range, based on the progress he's made this year. None of the prospects acquired by the Brewers rated that highly, with Knebel, the headliner of the deal, projecting as no more than a late inning reliever.

While it seems pretty clear that the Royals paid a higher price to acquire Cueto's 1.5 wins for the rest of the season, there are a couple other factors in these deals that we should probably consider. The Rangers are paying Gallardo $10 million this season, while Cueto was only set to earn a little over $4 million for the rest of the year, some of which is being paid by the Reds. It is also important to keep in mind that the Royals acquired Cueto with the idea that he would provide value to them in the postseason, so his rest of season projected WAR probably understates his value. Even so, these factors probably don't balance out the differences between the prospect packages teams the Royals and Rangers were willing to part with.

Midseason: Ben Zobrist (1.2 projected WAR) for Sean Manaea (55 FV) and Aaron Brooks

Offseason: Brandon Moss (1.7 projected WAR) for Joe Wendle (40 FV)

While Ben Zobrist's rest of season projection is about half a win less than Brandon Moss' full season projection coming into the year, the Royals still paid a much higher price to acquire Zobrist than the Indians did to acquire Moss. While Aaron Brooks didn't appear to be much of a prospect, Kiley McDaniel had Sean Manaea ranked 37th overall on his top 200 list and projected him to be at least a mid-rotation starter. Wendle, on the other hand, was not nearly as highly regarded, having never made any top 100 lists and being seen by scouts as a long shot to be much more than a utility player.

What I find interesting is that Zobrist was actually traded just last offseason, and while there were more players involved on both ends of this deal, the A's didn't end up giving up an individual prospect ranked as highly as Manaea (shortstop Daniel Robertson came closest, ranking 97th on McDaniel's top 200 list as a 50 FV player).

Zobrist was certainly in high demand at this year's deadline, as his versatility made him a trade candidate for nearly every contender, so maybe it shouldn't be that surprising that the A's were able to get such a decent return for him.

Midseason trade: Scott Kazmir (0.9 projected WAR) for Jacob Nottingham (50 FV) and Daniel Mengden (40 FV)

Offseason trade: Alfredo Simon (0.7 projected WAR) for Eugenio Suarez (50 FV) and Jonathan Crawford (45 FV)

According to ZiPS, half a season of Scott Kazmir is worth about as much as a full season of Alfredo Simon. Therefore, it isn't surprising to see that the Astros and Tigers gave up similar value in each of their trades.

Nottingham and Suarez are clearly the better prospects in each deal, and it's hard to say which one has more value. Suarez has already reached the major leagues and is producing for the Reds (although his .389 BABIP will likely come down soon). Nottingham is still a couple years away from the major leagues, but he probably has a higher ceiling as a catcher with a good bat.

In terms of salary, the Tigers are paying Simon $5.6 million this season, while the Astros are paying the rest of Kazmir's $11 million salary, which amounts to approximately $4.4 million. If I had to say which team paid more to acquire their respective starting pitcher at the time, I would probably say the Tigers, but the differences appear to be negligible.

Midseason: Jeff Samardzija (4.9 projected WAR) and Jason Hammel (0.7 WAR) for Addison Russell (60 FV), Billy McKinney (45 FV), and Dan Straily

Offseason: Jeff Samardija (3.4 projected WAR) and Michael Ynoa for Marcus Semien (50 FV), Chris Basitt (40 FV), Josh Phegley (45 FV), and Rangel Ravelo (40 FV)

The two Jeff Samardzija trades do a great job of illustrating the difference between deadline trades and offseason trades. The A's gave up a premium talent and consensus top ten prospect in Russell to acquire half a season of Hammel and a season and a half of Samardzija. In total, they acquired somewhere between five and six wins, with the majority of that being Samardzija's projected value in 2015. When they flipped Samardzija to the White Sox in the offseason, the return they got was nowhere close to what they gave up to gave up to get him and Hammel in the first place, even though the value they were giving up was only around two wins less than what they had acquired.

Semien is at best, an average major league starter, but there are major questions about his defense. Phegley is off to a nice start this year, but he was never exactly a highly regarded prospect, so it remains to be seen whether he can sustain his level of performance. Even with his slow start offensively, Addison Russell has been valuable to the Cubs because of his excellent defense, and it seems unlikely that the players the A's got in the second Samardzjia trade will ever be able to match the value Russell will end up providing to the Cubs. The Cubs flipped Straily to the Astros in the Dexter Fowler trade, and they may also get some contributions from Billy McKinney down the road, so this trade is paying off for the Cubs in multiple ways.

The A's decision to give up what they did for Samardzija and Hammel had everything to do with contending in the postseason and maximizing their hot start to 2014, and they likely would have paid nowhere near what they did to acquire similar value in the offseason.

Midseason: Andrew Miller for Eduardo Rodriguez (60 FV)

Offseason (2013): Jim Johnson (0.7 projected WAR) for Jemile Weeks and David Freitas

While I was unable to find a rest of season WAR projection for Andrew Miller at the time he was traded last year, it seems reasonable to assume that it would be in the range of the 0.7 WAR full season projection for Jim Johnson.

Miller had already produced 1.3 fWAR for the Red Sox when he was traded in late July, and he was probably expected to produce anywhere from half a win to a win, depending on how much you bought into his 2014 breakout. Ultimately, he ended up with 0.9 fWAR in two months for the Orioles.

The Orioles parted with prized left-handed pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez in order to acquire Miller, and this will probably end up being a move that the Orioles regret (if they don't already regret it). In the offseason, Kiley McDaniel rated Rodriguez as a 60 FV prospect (23rd on his top 200 list) who projected as a number three starter for the Red Sox going forward.

On the flip side, the A's gave up next to nothing to acquire Orioles closer Jim Johnson for a year. Jemile Weeks, who had had a solid 2011 season at age 24, was back in the minor leagues at that point and had lost most of his value. David Freitas, the other player included in the deal, was pretty much a non-prospect, as the only thing written about Freitas in the MLB Trade Rumors summary of the deal was that he was ranked 27th among Nationals prospects before the 2012 season by Baseball America.

While money was likely a factor in the low amount of talent given up for Jim Johnson ---- he was set to earn around $10 million in arbitration, it is still quite interesting to see how dramatically the price for a top relief arm can increase at the trade deadline.

* * *

While I don't want to draw any sweeping conclusions based on a relatively small number of trades, there does appear to be some evidence that teams pay a significantly higher price (in terms of minor league talent) to acquire marginal wins at the trade deadline. Of all the trade pairings examined, there was only one where the buying didn't clearly give up more per marginal win at the trade deadline. Clearly, teams value marginal wins more when they know they are in the playoff hunt, because even a small acquisition can have a major impact on a team's playoff odds. While teams can probably acquire talent for a lower cost by making trades in the offseason, the higher cost of dealing at the trade deadline is balanced out by the higher likelihood than a single acquisition will be the difference between making the playoffs and spending October at home.

. . .

Nick Lampe is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Viva el Birdos. You can follow him on Twitter at @NickLampe1.