Great players, like capital-G Great Players, are very rarely dealt. Josh Donaldson is the first that comes to mind, which shocked the baseball world in how light the return was. David Price was another, and that even happened twice. Chris Sale is a third.
In one of those cases, the Athletics received something like... two wins in a single Brett Lawrie season. The Rays currently have Willy Adames, the centerpiece of their deal, and the Tigers ended up with Matthew Boyd, arguably the best player of any of those deals. The White Sox received Yoan Moncada, who is finally growing into his own.
Yet the consistent theme of them all is that it is rare to receive a return that actually matches what you are sending away. Donaldson produced over 21 wins in Toronto, after all, and Price something like eight over two seasons. This means that the actual goal of dealing a star isn’t necessarily pound-for-pound returns, and not even pound-for-pound return in terms of future value; no, this has to do with allocation of resources.
The Rays dealt Price because of arbitration costs. The Athletics dealt Donaldson because of—you guessed it—future arbitration costs, and both had to deal with contention cycles, too. Price’s arbitration costs in 2014 were probably better invested in the team you see today, one that has one over 100 games over their last 162 games, than in that 2014 squad.
This brings us to the curious case of the Nationals. The Nats aren’t totally out of it, but it definitely seems like things are tending in that direction. Sporting a collective 92 OPS+ and just 31 wins in 66 affairs, this is a team with a 10-20% chance of nabbing a postseason spot, or more favorably as high as 40% according to FanGraphs.
They’ve also had some otherworldly performances from Anthony Rendon (.319/.423/.638) and Max Scherzer (158 ERA+). While Rendon seems like a more likely trade candidate considering he becomes a free agent after this season, Scherzer’s case is much more curious.
Scherzer has been floated by Jon Heyman, where he says that “[he] still has two years to go, still performing, but makes big money, they’ve got a little bit of a transition in ownership to the son Mark Lerner from Ted, so (it’s) something to look at.” Once again we get back to allocation of resources.
Remember, Scherzer’s deal is actually spread out over much longer than the seven years allotted; in fact, he will collect a check for seven additional seasons to the tune of $15 million per year, though that won’t count against a luxury tax.
So in reality, this contract still has nine and a half years and $145.5 million left, not the “just two years” and change that is really advertised. This means that for the remaining part of his deal, they’ll likely pay market rate for the money moving forward. ZiPS three-year projections (combined with rest-of-season now) mean that he’ll produce something like 11 wins from now until the end of 2021, working out to one win for every $13 million paid out.
In terms of value, then there’s no way they get something similar in return without eating some of the deferral payments given this scenario. And considering a 70-grade top prospect could produce a median value of $112 million, there’s a scenario where the math works out. It would really require a confluence of factors: the younger Lerner looking to cut the future deferred costs; a downturn so precipitous that it forces them to re-evaluate wins even in 2020 and 2021; and, it would require the right package of top prospects to get it done.
For the opposing team it’s actually a much different value question: how much of the nine-and-a-half-year, $145.5 million would you take for two and a half years of peak-Max Scherzer? You very rarely see that calculation at all, and that’s probably why it falls through. It would require a big market team to commit to possibly years of deferral payments as well as top prospects and a window that extends that long, and the opposite inclination by the Nationals. That essentially leaves the Padres, who just dealt out to Manny Machado, the Yankees, who have been penny-pinching for about a half-decade, and the Dodgers, who are destined to trim payroll over the next few years.
Would it look like the Donaldson deal? The money means that that’s probably impossible. But it could look something more like a Chris Sale deal except if he was paid much more. They may receive a Yoan Moncada, but there would need be an assurance that he contributes value in a present sense and not just down the line. The stars would need to really align for the biggest deal of the past five years to get done.