Mookie, Missing Money, and Margot
When news broke on Feb. 4 of the Mookie Betts [-68.8] trade to the Dodgers, there was an avalanche of media coverage. As is typical, it started with the news, then was followed by a slew of analyses about what the trade meant for each team.
Here at BTV, we just sat back and waited. Why? Not only was the trade not yet official; the reports were also missing one of the most important pieces of the puzzle: how much money was Boston paying to cover the remaining $96M of David Price [-12.5] ’s contract? Ken Rosenthal estimated it was about half, but even he could not confirm.
To us, this was highly relevant, because we couldn’t post the the trade without knowing that fundamental piece. And then, as the week unfolded, and poor Brusdar Graterol [9.7] ’s medicals became public, the whole thing devolved into chaos.
To that end, it was clear to us that Graterol’s value took a hit based on Boston’s view that he was more likely a reliever than a starter. Since we rely on professional prospect evaluators, it was notable that Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper took to Twitter to comment on the limits of what can be known even to them about such things:
“Worth noting that the hiccup in the Red Sox-Twins-Dodgers trade revolving around Brusdar Graterol’s medicals is a reminder of the aspects of public prospect evaluation that are nearly impossible to report and gather when ranking players… the fact that the Red Sox evaluation of Graterol changed once they saw his medicals is a piece of info that we rarely get publicly.”
Still, the contours of the trade looked relatively fair to us, if Rosenthal’s estimates were correct.
[Update: With the inclusion of Jeter Downs and Connor Wong, and the confirmation of the $48M that Boston is kicking in, it now looks like a bit more of an overpay than the first iteration. Given the Dodgers’ need to get the deal finalized, this makes sense to us.
One other reminder: Mookie is valued more by the Dodgers than other teams, because of his likely contribution to them in October. If he had gone to, say, the Padres, the probability of him playing in October for them would still have been much lower, which means his value to them would have been lower. We purposely did not factor this into our estimate, as it was unknowable at the time, but figure it will add about $10M to his value.]
Meanwhile, just south of L.A., the Angels were steaming because their trade for Joc Pederson  and Ross Stripling  was on hold pending the outcome of the Mookie trade. And we couldn’t evaluate that one either, since we still don’t know the identities of the prospects coming back to the Dodgers.
So we waited again.
Pagan to the Padres
To be honest, this one puzzled us. The value gap here was over 12, and we wondered why. As I mentioned in a comment when posting the trade, valuing relievers is probably the most challenging aspect of what we do here. The more popular projection systems are often way off: For example, PECOTA projects Pagan for 1.3 WAR this year, which in theory would be worth at least $12M in value. Pagan is due to make league-mininum this year, which on paper gives him over $11M in surplus. And that’s not even counting the three arb years to follow.
And yes, we know Margot was a former top prospect, so conceivably there’s still some untapped upside there. But look, it’s been over three years, and his offensive production has been mostly miserable. What he brings at this point is elite CF defense, which is something the Rays have enjoyed during Kevin Kiermaier’s peak years — and since he appears to be declining, they have essentially traded for his replacement to ensure they have all bases covered in their win-now push.
What’s interesting, though, is that most teams don’t overpay for defense. Quite the opposite. We’ve noticed that defensive skills in general have been depressed in the marketplace. Yolmer Sanchez won a gold glove, then got DFA’d, and to this point, still no one has signed him. Jose Iglesias is an elite defensive SS, but can’t seem to get a contract more than $3M per year. So it’s not as if elite defense is in high demand.
We’ve also noticed that the Rays have a tendency to deal from areas of strength to shore up other weaknesses, especially now that they’re in win-now mode. They overpaid for Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena with Matthew Liberatore, so they could improve the MLB team. Last year, they traded Nick Solak, who by all accounts looks like a highly productive major-leaguer, for the relatively unheralded reliever Peter Fairbanks. And now that their bullpen is strong and deep, they traded Pagan to shore up their outfield. The point is, they’re not afraid to lose a trade on paper if it helps their major-league team win now. As it should be.
But hang on.
Then we noticed something curious: These same two teams made a trade earlier this offseason, which seemed imbalanced in the other direction. When you combine the two, they come out relatively even. Is that a coincidence? Or was it possibly planned that way all along?
We’ve seen this pattern before — last year, the Yankees seemed to get the better of the Mariners in the James Paxton trade, but then later turned around and traded Shed Long to Seattle for Josh Stowers, effectively evening out the two.
It’s very likely that these are coincidences. But we’re wondering if it’s also possible that, given the closed-market nature of baseball and the way GMs know each other well, there are IOUs in play, such that one imbalanced trade will later be corrected by an imbalance on the other side. Of course, we are just speculating, but it’s something we’re keeping our eyes on.