Solid trade deadline, everybody. I'd give it a six of ten – nothing too nutty, but a good quantity of moves and lots of last-minute suspense. Kudos particularly to the Brewers for squeezing about 2.5 trades worth of drama out of the Lucroy deal(s). Lost in the 3:30–4:00 shuffle of yesterday, however, were some trades that notably didn't get made. A number of players found themselves as the center of rumors for almost the entire month of July, and yet emerged on the other side still with their original team. Did someone screw up, or was this all smoke and no fire? And what does it tell us about the trade market that just closed, and the rest of the season that's left?
Chris Sale/Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox
We begin with a twofer, a pair of excellent pitchers who, had either of them been traded, would've instantly become the best player to swap teams at the deadline. And that didn't seem particularly far-fetched; tweets like this one, from a White Sox beat writer, were common over the last week:
Would be stunned if both Sale and Quintana are still on #WhiteSox roster later today— Scot Gregor (@scotgregor) August 1, 2016
Figuring out to what extent the White Sox were actually interested in giving up either of these players is difficult, however. In the hours before the deadline, there were reports of last-minute talks between the Red Sox and their White counterparts, but Dave Dombrowski said on Monday evening that they hadn't spoken since Friday. Similarly, Jon Heyman pegged the Red Sox, Rangers, and Dodgers as the most likely possible landing spots for Sale, but that was based more on their deep farm systems and need for starting pitching than any actual evidence of ongoing talks.
In any event, the White Sox's reported asking price for either player was enormous, as well it should be. After emerging from almost nowhere in 2013, Quintana has established himself as a legitimately excellent starter, with 16.9 fWAR and 14.5 WARP over the three-and-a-half seasons since then. He's in possession of a 3.33 FIP and a 3.18 DRA this year, and would provide a huge boost to any team down the stretch, but is also under team control through 2020 for only $36m, with club options for the last two years. That is an incredibly valuable player; earlier this year, Dave Cameron ranked him 25th in his annual Trade Value series. Yoan Moncada, Red Sox super prospect, ranked 26th on the same list, and that was without considering Quintana's impact on a team's 2016 success.
Sale looks pretty similar, from a broad perspective, if even better and even more valuable. In four-and-a-half seasons as a full time starter, Sale has racked up an outstanding 23.9 fWAR and 30.3 WARP, and like Quintana, is showing no signs of slowing, with a 3.69 FIP and 2.79 DRA in 2016. He's signed through 2019 for just under $40m, and Cameron assessed him (and his contract) as the 15th-most valuable in baseball. Any team can ask for any return for any player, but there's no sense that the White Sox were overvaluing either of these players by requesting a king's ransom in return.
For White Sox fans, the lack of a move has to be welcome. When we talk about what a player is "worth" in trade, that's partly dictated by the market – for example, that Will Smith is worth a mid-top 100 prospect and a young major-league catcher – but it's also dictated by what the player can actually do for his current team. By demanding so much for Quintana or Sale, to the point of not trading them, the White Sox showed they weren't just trying to drive prices up, but actually felt these players had enough future value to them to justify holding on. To me, that suggests the White Sox are planning to compete in more than one of their remaining years of team control, and feel they can put the excellent production of Sale and Quintana to use in the relatively near future. If they were planning a full, Astros-style (or, more contemporaneously, Phillies-style) rebuild, they would be "wasting" (or at least not fully utilizing) the majority of both Quintana and Sale's remaining team control, and almost certainly would have shipped them away to a team that was instead planning to make the most of them. The White Sox may be punting on 2016, but these unfulfilled rumors suggest they aren't giving up on 2018 or potentially even 2017, and as someone constitutionally opposed to intentional badness, I view that as a good thing.
Jeremy Hellickson, Philadelphia Phillies
The Hellickson trade is a little easier to figure, if only because we know exactly what the Phillies want. I cited them above as an example of a team in full-on rebuilding mode, and I don't think that's a contentious statement. They're looking to be competitive in 2018, if they're lucky, and Jeremy Hellickson is a starter in the middle of a good season, signed only through 2016. His August and September starts will not help the 2018 Phillies, but they could have helped the 2016 Giants, or Orioles, or any number of teams. The fact that he's still a member of the Phillies is a bit surprising, as a result.
For their part, Philadelphia's front office didn't hide the fact that they were prepared to trade Hellickson, and simply didn't receive a good enough offer. The threshold any offer would have had to clear wasn't high, however; while Matt Klentak is quoted in the above piece as talking about Hellickson's mentoring of young players as valuable, the only tangible thing he can offer to the next good Phillies team is a draft pick, probably. The qualifying offer threshold for this offseason will be about $16m or $17m, and Hellickson seems like one of those players right on the border between "the team definitely shouldn't make the QO" and "the player should definitely turn down the QO." In the best case scenario for the Phillies, however, they make the offer, he rejects it, and they get a pick at the end of the first round. To give you a sense of what that's worth, none of the QO picks from the 2015 draft made Baseball Prospectus's Top 101 at the beginning of this season, and only two of the seven QO picks from the 2014 draft (Luis Ortiz, #68, and MIchael Kopech, #98).
No one could satisfy the Phillies asking price for Hellickson, which should have been, roughly, a player who may or may not be a top-100 prospect at the open of 2018 (multiplied by the probability that Hellickson in fact rejects the qualifying offer). That's not a lot! Maybe teams have a reason to think Hellickson isn't as good as he's looked, and indeed, his PECOTA-projected DRA has risen by about half a run since the start of 2016. He still looks like a solid pitcher, however.
Instead, I think this tells us that, for all the hype about this seller's markets, the offers for starting pitching just didn't reach the insane levels people predicted. There wasn't much starting pitching available, but as I said above, there's more than simply market supply and demand that impacts the prices paid for pitchers. If I'm right about how the Phillies value Hellickson, and if he is still a passable player, that seems like the only answer. Hellickson has pitched better than Wade Miley this season, but PECOTA currently thinks they're nearly equivalent in terms of performance, and while Miley has an extra year plus a team option on his contract, it's only at a salary of $9m, so the value of the two players probably isn't that different. If any team could be described as desperate for starters, it's the Orioles, and yet the Mariners still only managed to get a 27-year-old minor league starter who can charitably be described as "interesting" in return. I think this non-trade tells us that, despite the sparse starting pitching market, the prices teams were willing to pay for the few players that were available didn't rocket upward in the way some expected.
Chris Archer/Jake Odorizzi, Tampa Bay Rays
This article wasn't supposed to be exclusively about starting pitching, but here we are. The fact that it ended up this way gives more credence to the Hellickson theory above; if prices had truly shot up, you'd think at least one of the five pitchers on this list would've been moved. Archer and Odorizzi staying with the Rays sends a different message, however. Like Sale and Quintana, both Archer and Odorizzi are signed for a while (through 2021 and 2019, respectively), and so the Rays holding on to them says something about when they intend to contend again.
It also tells us that the Rays think these players will maintain their success until that next successful Rays team comes around, which isn't necessarily a guarantee. Odorizzi has a relatively short track record of success, dating back only to 2014, and this season has thus far been a step back from his previous career bests in 2015. Archer has about a year of past performance on Odorizzi, and was really excellent in 2015, but that has just meant that his step back has been even larger than Odorizzi's. If the Rays thought either of their "struggles" (which I don't mean to overstate; both pitchers have still been rather good this year, just not as good as in the past) were permanent, I suspect they'd no longer be Rays. As the Matt Moore trade with the Giants showed, and as Dave Cameron discussed at FanGraphs, teams have no qualms about sending away or trading for players who appear to be on the decline.
Moore is also controlled through 2019 and also currently performing at a level below what was previously demonstrated, so to me, the fact that he was traded and Archer and Odorizzi weren't makes me think the latter pair is more likely to be going through short-term struggles, while the former's might be permanent. This doesn't even require the Rays having pulled the wool over the Giants' eyes; they care a lot more than Tampa Bay about current performance, so if Moore is trending down while Archer and Odorizzi are trending up, that makes a bigger difference to Tampa than it does to San Francisco. This is pretty speculative, but I think if the Rays thought either Archer or Odorizzi were cooked, they would've moved them, taken advantage of the always-high trade deadline prices, and grabbed players they could dream on for 2019. Since they didn't, that says to me the Rays think they'll still be good in a couple of years.
This is all crazy speculative! Intrinsically, by not being moved, the values placed on these players by their current teams and all the other teams around the league remain unknown. That just makes it more fun to guess, though, and the implications of those guesses more interesting.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.