The prospect business is a tremendously unique business. We write thousands of words about every little move that involves a Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper and spend countless hours hunting around to ‘announce’ to the baseball world the next coming of Albert Pujols. For fans of specific teams we sell hope. Hope for their team’s future. What we, as the prospect ‘experts’ (and I use the word loosely) fail so often to recognize—and even more so fail to adequately provide—is context. When Baseball America lets the world know that Chris Archer is the Cubs #1 prospect (their opinion—not necessarily ours), they typically don’t provide adequate context to help you understand that Archer may be the #1 prospect in the system, but that is only because someone has to get that distinction in an organization that lacks any true elite level prospects. Immediately though, cries go out from Cub-nation that Jim Hendry has mortgaged his team’s future, when he deals for the Rays’ Matt Garza. Similar thoughts were expressed a few weeks ago when the Brewers, an organization with even fewer elite prospects, dealt their top prospects in order to acquire Zack Grienke and Shaun Marcum. I’d like to provide some of the missing context with a simple question…How would you rate the value that exists, given their contract situations, ages, etc. of Zack Grienke, Matt Garza and Shaun Marcum?
Grienke is 27 years old, with two years for $27 million left on his existing contract. According to baseball-reference.com Grienke has produced an average WAR of 5.2 over the last three seasons. We would certainly expect the next two years to match those numbers.
Garza is slightly younger, but, also 27 years old. He is under team control until 2013, and judging by recent signings/awards to similar pitchers in the 2010 off-season, he is likely to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 - $10 million for those two seasons. He has produced an average WAR of 3.0 over the last three seasons, and moving to the NL central should easily produce in the neighborhood of 3.5 – 4.0 WAR for the next two seasons.
Marcum is 29 years old. He is under team control until 2013, as well, and is likely to earn around $6 million over the next two seasons. He missed the 2009 season, but has produced an average WAR for the last three seasons that he pitched of 2.9. A 3.5 WAR over the next two seasons seems about right for him.
If money is no object, Grienke is clearly the best player. But Grienke is coming off of a down year and has a history of problems. Marcum is coming off his best year and is the cheapest, but is the oldest and did have Tommy John surgery that cost him 2009. Garza is the safest performance bet and is the youngest of the three. The point is, when it comes to value, there isn’t a clear answer to who is most valuable—even though the knee jerk response is easily Zack Grienke. For us, the cost vs. performance equation places all three of them with similar organizational value. The important thing is that each of them should be a quality starting pitcher in the Major Leagues for the next two seasons—at least—and should produce at levels that place them somewhere between the top 20% to the top 5% of starting pitchers over that time. They are players of significant worth.
So what did they cost each team to acquire?
For Greinke, the Royals received Alcides Escobar—a slick fielding young shortstop who is likely to struggle to hit at a major league average level and has been reported to have questionable work habits; Lorenzo Cain—a young outfielder who over performed in his Big League debut and most likely projects as a solid 4th outfielder or below average major league regular; Jake Odorizzi, a nice pitching prospect, who likely will make the Top 100 this year, but will likely fall outside the Top 50; and Jeremy Jeffress, a head case if there ever was one, who has the upside a solid back of the bullpen reliever if everything falls into place—a situation that is unlikely to occur. If all of these were still prospect eligible, while solid prospects—all likely in or near the Top 100—none would be in the Top 50. Using Victor Wang’s prospect values study from a couple of years ago, we can estimate the expected CAREER WAR value for this group to be somewhere around 12.0 or roughly the same as Grienke is expected to produce over the next two seasons.
For Garza, the Rays received Hak-Ju Lee—a very nice shortstop prospect that is unlikely to produce enough power to play anywhere but short and is currently blocked in the organization by Starlin Castro, and is possibly a fringe Top 100 prospect at the present; Chris Archer, who was the third player the Cubs received two years ago for Mark DeRosa, possesses a nasty heater, but with questionable control and secondary offerings looks more like bullpen material to us—with all deference to Baseball America, Archer is also a fringe Top 100 prospect; Robinson Chirinos—an extremely old catching prospect who doesn’t look to be much more than a backup at the Major League level; Brandon Guyer, an underrated outfield prospect who could find time in the majors as a fourth outfielder/platoon type player but wouldn’t be on anyone’s top 100 prospect lists; and Sam Fuld, a journeyman AAAA type of outfielder. Neglecting the two mid-tier prospects the Cubs received in return, the expected CAREER WAR value for these players is approximately 8.0—or about what Garza should provide the Cubs in 2011 and 2012.
For Marcum, the Jays received Brett Lawrie. While we are not as high on Lawrie as some others are, he is easily the best prospect exchanged in these three deals and is likely to rank in the Top 50 in our prospect list. Lawrie’s expected CAREER WAR value is in the neighborhood of 5.0—or likely less than Marcum should provide the Brewers over the next two seasons.
Hopefully, what is becoming obvious here is that—at least on the production side of the equation—these deals are big wins for the Cubs and the Brewers—as long as they get something more or in return for the commodities at the end of two seasons. Whenever a team can trade a handful of less than elite prospects for a good Major League player it is a win—despite how much we love our prospects.
But there is another consideration at play here, and that is the concept of perceived value. About a decade ago we wrote a piece about how the Yankees, after bringing Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada to the Majors, went through a period of time where their system produced very little, but they were able to trade their ‘top’ prospects and get quality Major League players in return. This was astonishing to us, as time-after-time these were always ‘winning’ deals for the Yankees. The easy theory would have been an East Coast media bias and the hype of the Yankees media machine. At the time we offered another angle—namely, that teams with few elite prospect talents benefit more from trading their top prospects because they garner more perceived value by being the ‘best prospect in an organization’. Kenny Williams and the White Sox have used this same strategy successfully for a number of years now. We would like to offer up the recent moves by the Brewers and the Cubs as more of the same. Yes, maybe Brett Lawrie or Jake Odorizzi was the best prospect in the Brewers' system. Yes, maybe Chris Archer or Hak-Ju Lee was the best prospect in the Cubs' system. But given the current lack of elite talent in the respective systems that is exactly why now is the time to trade them. The reason that a team like the Rangers--with a much stronger group of top tier prospects--wasn't able to reach a deal with the Rays, can likely be found in the fact that when the Rays wanted the better prospects from Texas' system the Rangers found the price too high because they would be dealing better players. A similar ask by the Rays might have been Jurickson Profar, Engle Beltre, Robbie Erlin and Max Ramirez. So, instead of questioning Jim Hendry and Doug Melvin, Cubs’ and Brewers’ fans should be praising them for some brilliant acquisitions that should make baseball a lot more interesting around Lake Michigan this summer.