Trade season continues to pick up speed as the deadline approaches. On Tuesday night, Jon Morosi broke the news that the Tigers and Diamondbacks were approaching completion on a trade for J.D. Martinez; soon after, the teams themselves confirmed the deal.
The #Tigers have acquired INF's Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara & Jose King from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for OF J.D. Martinez.— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) July 18, 2017
The gut reaction across most of Twitter was elation (from DBacks fans), disappointment (from Tigers fans), and puzzlement (from everyone else). J.D. Martinez is a very good player, worth 1.7 fWAR this season in just 232 PAs; since 2014, he’s been worth 12.6 fWAR in 1886 PAs, or about 4 fWAR per full season. He plays a suitable but unexciting right field, though the bat is good enough that he would be an improvement at DH for a number of AL teams. Lots of teams would stand a better shot at making the playoffs, and a better shot of winning once they’re there, with Martinez on their roster; only Arizona gets to enjoy that privilege.
But the package the Diamondbacks gave up to acquire him doesn’t seem to match the value Martinez carries. Dawel Lugo is a 22-year-old shortstop at AA currently running a 116 wRC+; Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs gave him a FV of 40 (the grade of a bench player or someone of similar caliber), praising his raw power and arm strength but noting his consistently poor approach at the plate. Alcantara is a 21-year-old shorstop at high-A and the recipient of a sub-40 grade from Longenhagen, while Jose King is an 18-year-old second baseman in rookie ball who didn’t merit a mention.
It’s very easy to look at that package and be underwhelmed. True, Lugo was one of the Diamondbacks’ better prospects, ranking fourth on MLB Pipeline’s preseason list for Arizona. But Arizona’s farm system is widely viewed as barren, and Lugo doesn’t rank very highly in a leaguewide context, missing MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 entirely. Alcantara and King are even less regarded, with the former ranking 15th in MLB Pipeline’s evaluation of Arizona’s (very underwhelming) system and the latter not making the top 30 at all.
There are a few ways of explaining that disconnect between how we, the public, value the two sides of this trade, and how the GMs involved (and those not involved) value them. The first is the simplest, and the one that we all tend to jump to first: Al Avila and the Tigers front office screwed up. They somehow misread the market, and didn’t answer their phones when teams other than the Diamondbacks were calling, thus ending up with a worse deal than what they could’ve gotten. Despite the popularity of that explanation, it’s also extraordinarily unlikely.
Explanation number two is that the talent levels of each side are evaluated differently by the public and by the insiders. Martinez has long been a streaky player; maybe something about his offensive numbers scared off some other potential suitors, or made them unwilling to beat the DBacks’ bid. Maybe some non-public defensive metric makes Martinez look wholly incapable of manning the spacious outfield of Coors, keeping the Rockies from making a serious run. And conversely, maybe the Tigers view these prospects more positively. Teams have less of an opportunity to gain technological edges over the public when it comes to prospects, but they have much greater resources in the form of scouting and coaching, and it’s possible that repeated looks at one or all of the players in this deal led them to see something we don’t.
And finally, explanation number three is that we’re evaluating the contract situations of the two packages differently than the Tigers and Diamondbacks are. While J.D. Martinez is talented, he’s also a free agent this offseason. He has the ability to make an impact this year, but if a team trades for him and still comes up short of the playoffs, or loses in the Wild Card game, regret will be hard to shake. Even a small package of prospects is a lot to trade for (what looks in hindsight like) nothing.
Of course, the existence of a disconnect between the insider and outsider view doesn’t mean the insider is right. Anyone who has followed baseball over the last two decades should be entirely familiar with the kind of blind spots that can plague front office personnel. But it’s important to consider why that disconnect exists, and question our gut conclusions. Those of us on the outside get trades wrong all the time. People on the inside do, too, but we won’t know who whiffed on this for at least several years.
The upshot is that the Diamondbacks are a better team than they were yesterday. Right now, Martinez isn’t included in their depth charts, and FanGraphs gives them a 76.9 percent chance of making a Wild Card slot; once he slots in, I’d expect that number to be closer to 90 than 80. And the other upshot is that the Tigers seem to be embracing the rebuild wholeheartedly. Maybe they couldn’t get any prospects who were closer to the majors, but none of the three players they acquired is likely to make an impact in the majors anytime soon. With this move, the Tigers improved their future outlook, but primarily for 2020 and beyond, not for 2018.
Trade season! Lots of opportunities to get very fired up. Stay safe out there, folks. Don’t get fleeced, but don’t get cocky either.