Trade ’em All, Al
Trade ’em all, Alex. You might never get a bigger opportunity.
A couple of Winter Meetings leakages have Blue Jays fans acting anxious. Alex Anthopoulos has seemingly indicated that he would trade Aaron Sanchez or Marcus Stroman for a controllable starting pitcher, and the media hive-mind has also somehow become privy to the fact that Colby Rasmus might be getting “dangled” for starting pitching. Dick Griffin and Robert Elliot had the scoops:
Understandably, these aren’t popular notions in Blue Jays fan land. Anthopoulos has already spun off the majority of Toronto’s high upside, upper minors talent. Gone to real grass pastures are d’Arnaud, Syndergaard, Marisnick, Nicolino, and others. Sanchez and Stroman are two of the only remaining impact farm assets to bridge the gap from the current Major League contender/pretender to the tantalizing rookie level talent stockpile. If Sanchez and/or Stroman get dealt for short term gains, then the Blue Jays’ farm system would essentially have no head. It would become pretty easy to envision a depressing valley of extended mediocrity after this current upswing of trying to not be mediocre concludes.
And in Rasmus, the Blue Jays have a young asset at a premium defensive position who last year seemed to both come into his own as a player and endear himself to the fanbase. Colby hit .276/.338 with well above average defensive numbers and a mammoth .225 ISO in 2013. That ISO was good for 17th in baseball (min. 450 PA), and his fWAR was a robust 4.8 in just 458 plate appearances. His fWAR tied him with Freddie Freeman and Buster Posey as the 25th most productive position player in the game, and Rasmus had ~150 less plate appearances than those two.
More importantly than any of those numbers though, the stylistic and intellectual nuances of Colby Rasmus finally started to shine through to Blue Jays fans from behind that scowl and meddling daddy backstory. Rasmus emerged from his cocoon of introversion and metamorphosized (is that a word?) into a beautiful baseball butterfly, complete with corn rows, mullets, socially alternative boots, majestic moon shots, and staunchly rural hobbies like muddin’ and noodlin’.
On a team that doesn’t lack for stars or characters, Rasmus emerged as one of Toronto’s very best and most entertaining players. If only the argument for trading him wasn’t so obvious. It’s really not rocket science. If the Blue Jays decide to flip Colby Rasmus before his walk year, there’s a pretty solid chance that they’d be selling high.
Rasmus has had a tumultuous Major League career so far. None of his last four seasons have been particularly close statistically to his career means. In any given season, he’s either been hitting for both power and average while getting batted ball luck, or flirting with both the mendoza line and replacement level. His projections for 2014 seem to split the difference evenly, and might illustrate the real Colby:
|2014 (projected: Steamer/Oliver)||27||25.0/26.0||.202/.205||.296/.298||0.335||2.0 [career, not projected]||3.3/3.2|
It’s seems likely, or at least very possible, that Colby’s value in 2013 was inflated by both batted ball luck (BABIP) and a UZR spike. And by swinging and missing so much, including an extended flirtation with the 40% clip in the early months of the season, Colby didn’t exactly inspire a whole lot of confidence in his abilities to produce with the bat consistently in the future. It would probably behoove any team to at least explore trading a player with this type of up and down profile coming off of a big upswing in production and entering their final arbitration year. Rasmus’ value might never be higher than it is right now. If there’s a GM out there with an appropriate available SP or 2B who thinks of Colby as a 4+ win player, then Anthopoulos should sell on Rasmus.
That’s the basic sell-high argument for Rasmus, but there are some counterpoints here that deserve mentioning. Mainly, when you look at the relationship between K% and ISO in the aforetabled table, it’s tempting to say that Rasmus has made a decision to trade strikeouts for homers. He had a .222 ISO in 2010 and he was a productive hitter (.369 wOBA) while striking out quite a bit (27.7%), but for the next two seasons Rasmus might have tried and failed to transition into a more well rounded hitter. His K’s dropped noticeably, but so did his ISO, wOBA, and BABIP. What good is making more contact if you’re just going to put the ball into play feebly? If we’re comfortable applying some narrative to Colby’s year-to-year stat lines, then we might see 2013 as him simply returning to what actually worked for him back in 2010. Pull dat ball Colby.
Side note here on BABIP for hitters – it can be kind of dubious. BABIP takes something like eight season to stabilize for hitters. If Colby was swinging more aggressively, hitting the ball harder, and avoiding feeble two-strike contact, then it’s entirely possible that his ~350ish BABIP marks from 2010 and 2013 are somewhere near his true talent when he has an aggressive game plan. Great hitters can have BABIPs that high for their whole careers, and good hitters can have marks nearly that high.
We should also consider team depth if the hypothetical scenario here is to trade Rasmus for a starting pitcher. Anthony Gose is #2 in the CF hole, and his Steamer projection is a cool 0.1 WAR. If Esmil Rogers is the team’s #5 starter, he projects for a little over 1 WAR in 125 innings. The Blue Jays also have a lot of in house #5 candidates, so a 1 win projection out of the #5 rotation slot would have a lot of security behind it. The point here is that if Rasmus is a ~3 win player, a trade for any pitcher that projects for under ~4 wins would actually be a net loss in projected wins for the Blue Jays, barring any subsequent CF upgrade. And it’s pretty damn hard to find an available pitcher that would sensibly project for 4 WAR.
On top of all that, there’s some value existent in the chance that Colby would sign a sub-market value extension with Toronto. It’s a known phenomenon that players who re-sign with their current teams give better contract values than those that leave to other teams in free agency, and since Colby has kind of found a home in Toronto after what became a negative situation in St. Louis, there’s reason to believe that the Blue Jays would have a pretty good chance of locking him up to a team friendly deal.
Actually, I think I just talked myself out of trading Rasmus. ~800 words about Gump and I’ve succeeded in unintentionally convincing myself that his actual value probably exceeds his perceived value, and that his value to Toronto in 2014 would be greater than the value of any realistic starting pitcher that they would land for him in trade. The guy grows on you.
Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, however, are a different type of commodity. Sanchez isn’t helping the team at all next season, and regardless of your opinion of him it’s pretty hard to bank on any significant 2014 contributions from Stroman. These high upside arms are a chance at wins in some future season, but they’re also valuable present assets for a team that doesn’t necessarily get a fair shake when it comes to buying readily available wins.
Signing free agents is something that’s probably easier said than done for the Blue Jays. It’s not something we can really know without seeing the specific free agent offers that have been made in the past, but it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of the free agents from Major League Baseball might take less money to play for any team that doesn’t play in Canada, play on turf, and excel at finishing .500. They don’t have any choice when you trade for them though, so when it comes to buying MLB wins, the best hypothetical bang for Toronto’s buck could actually be in the trade market.
And if there was ever a time for Toronto to spend, it’s this offseason. The organization has invested a substantial amount in winning within some kind of vague window of competitiveness ridiculously outlined by the team’s control of a couple of roster players. Projection systems currently tab the Blue Jays to win somewhere around 85-87 games, and the value of a win increases drastically as teams approach the 90 win mark. One marginal WAR for the Blue Jays, given how their current roster is constructed, should hypothetically be worth a lot more than the flat $7.5M $/WAR figure that we’ve been using here for value calculations.
Let’s take a figure from this Phil Brinbaum blog post to illustrate where Toronto is right now.
This is a hypothetical marginal value of a win curve. Pretend that number on the Y axis is $7.5M, our flat $/WAR. The curve represents the value that a team gets for buying each win on the win curve, so buying wins from 60-70 leads to some profit (hypothetical fan faith value), buying wins 71-83 actually leads to a loss of money (team spends without getting anywhere and without inspiring much more fan faith/excitement/spending), and buying wins 83-97 happens at a profit.
Toronto is barely past the inflection point here. They’ve made massive investments just to get to the point where their future investments will happen at a profit. Now is precisely the worst time in recent Blue Jays history for the team to get stingy. If the team’s most efficient avenue for buying present wins is to do so by trade, and if Sanchez and Stroman are the team’s most highly regarded trade chips, then they should absolutely be dangled.
I don’t know exactly what the value of a marginal win would be to Toronto right now. Perhaps one of you is aware of a relevant piece of research that quantifies this type of thing, the multiplicative factor on specific marginal wins. Regardless, here’s an illustration. Let’s say that Aaron Sanchez is worth $20M based on his prospect status, and let’s say that he gets traded for a 3 win SP upgrade that makes $10M in 2014 salary. At a flat $7.5M $/WAR, Sanchez would be worth $7.5M more than the hypothetical pitcher. But at a higher marginal $/WAR of $10M, it becomes a perfectly even trade.
If Anthopoulos falls victim to some compartmentalized thinking and ends up flipping Rasmus for pitching, there’s a pretty good chance that such a move would end up hurting the 2014 roster more than it would help it. But trading The Sanchize could be a perfectly logical maneuver, if Alex is given the opportunity to land a significant upgrade in projected 2014 wins by doing so.