The Bottom 10: Players with the lowest trade value

Trades

Players

Who has the lowest trade value among all players? This is the flip side of our recent article on the highest-value players

You also may have noticed that we have a section of our site called Highest/Lowest, which ranks every player according to their trade value. (Although the page loads by default page from highest to lowest, you can reverse the order by clicking on the arrow next to the median value.) On it, you can see that the 10 players with the lowest trade value are, in order of worst to next-worst, are:

  1. Giancarlo Stanton [-158.5]
  2. Miguel Cabrera [-120.1]
  3. Bryce Harper [-116.3]
  4. Eric Hosmer [-102.0]  
  5. Joey Votto [-100.9]
  6. Manny Machado [-85.0]
  7. Jason Heyward [-78.9]
  8. Robinson Cano [-74.7]
  9. Chris Davis [-69.0]
  10. Albert Pujols [-59.0]

As a reminder, when we’re talking trade value, it’s important to remember that the standard measure of trade value is surplus value. That should not be confused with field value. Remember that surplus value is the difference between field value and salary (over the time period of control), so if the field value is lower than the salary, it’s a negative number.

And in the case of Giancarlo Stanton, it’s not that he’s a bad player. It’s just that there’s an enormous gap between his field value and his salary. In other words, he’s the most overpaid player here. He’s owed $214M (even after subtracting the amount the Marlins are covering) over the next eight years, yet only projected to produce $53.8M in field value. 

Yes, he still has some value, such that if he were a free agent today he’d maybe get something close to that, spread out over, say, 4-5 years. But that means his actual contract is underwater by a staggering $158.5M — in other words, that’s how much the Yankees would have to include in a trade just for the other team to break even, let alone offer anything else. (And that isn’t even considering his no-trade clause.) In other words, he’s immovable. And that’s the case with several others here as well.

Miguel Cabrera is far past his prime, yet still trying to play out his contract, which pays him through age 40. It’s a similar story for Pujols, Votto, and Cano. All those guys are shadows of their former selves, yet still owed a whole bunch of money, so they have significant negative value.

In some cases, like Hosmer, Pujols and Davis, their field value is below zero — that is, they should in theory be released by their teams, as they’re making them worse on the field. A replacement-level player would be an improvement. Some teams eventually acknowledge this, like the Blue Jays did with Troy Tulowitzki before the 2019 season, but others either hold out some glimmer of hope that the players still have something left in the tank to contribute, or they succumb to the sunk-cost fallacy (which is likely the case with Hosmer), rationalizing that they spent all this money for the player, so they hold on to see if the situation turns around (it usually does not).

You may be surprised to see both Harper and Machado on this list. Both were the biggest names of the free agent market in the 2018-2019 offseason, generated mild bidding wars, and then signed contracts that, at the time, seemed reasonable, if a bit high. But both are coming off relatively poor 2019 seasons, which has had a ripple effect, lowering their forward projections. 

And given the nature of aging curves, as projection models adjusted the numbers down year by year, their market value adjusted far below their contract value. Granted, these two still have significant field value: Harper at $167.9M and Machado at $177.1M. They are on this list because their salaries are much higher than that, so they are overpaid. They’d still be attractive in trade because of their field value, but only if their current teams forked over the difference between that and their salary commitment. Since that gap is large right now, we strongly suspect both the Phillies and Padres will hope for a turnaround, which is a reasonable position to take.

A close look at the lowest-value players reveals a few patterns, which are the mirror opposite of those on the highest-value list:

Age

The grand majority of the players in our Bottom 50 are in their 30s. Most are past their prime, some even nearing 40. Their aging curves are plummeting. And because trade value is forward-looking, any team acquiring them would be buying a “falling knife” (as they see in the investment community) — in other words, it will just get worse, and hurt more each year.

Years of control

The lowest-value players on our list also have multiple years of control. You might think this is a good thing, but in a negative-value situation, adding more years to the problem just makes it worse. Stanton still has eight years left. He barely played in 2019, and his injuries suggest that he may continue to struggle with health as he ages into his 30s. It’s hard to imagine any team wanting to commit eight years to that scenario.

High salary

In our highest-value article, we made the point that several players are so underpaid relative to their performance that they’re absolute bargains. The opposite is true here. The biggest common thread with players on the lowest-value list is that they’re highly overpaid. Most are weighed down by enormous contracts. 

Votto may still have something left, but not $120 million worth over the next five years, as he approaches 40. Jason Heyward is still owed $106 million. We think he’s worth $27M at this point. 

And just below the top 10, you’ll see many others who are still grinding, but overpaid:  Evan Longoria [-49.5] Wil Myers [-48.5] , Justin Upton [-31.6] , and  Dexter Fowler [-29.4] on the hitting side; Johnny Cueto [-39.6] , Yusei Kikuchi [-31.9] , Nathan Eovaldi [-29.6] , Miles Mikolas [-27.0] , and  Chris Sale [-27.0] on the pitching side. In the cases of Sale and Eovaldi, there’s just too much injury risk to take on in addition to their high salaries over multiple years. In Kikuchi’s case, it looks like a failed gamble — the Mariners paid a relatively high price for a pitcher who they hoped would be a top starter, but who now seems mediocre at best.

Health

Our highest-value list is full of young twenty-somethings in their prime, who have relatively little injury risk. Here again, the opposite is true, especially with pitchers, and even more so with starting pitchers. The profile here is: guys who are starting to break down, who signed big contracts, and who figure to be bedeviled by injuries as they age further. Sale and Eovaldi are good examples, as are guys like Cueto and Alex Cobb [-18.8] , whose performance projections are much lower than when they were in their prime.

The value curve

For high-value players, the value curve tracks the point at which a young player’s trade value (and market value) peaks. For low-value players, it more commonly shows a downward spiral. Typically, these players are older, overpaid, and in decline. From the team’s perspective, that’s a black hole. 

Instead of being able to build around a young, affordable stud like Acuna or Soto, GMs with these negative-value players suffer from being hamstrung. Their resources are limited, and there are few, if any, ways of getting out from under the problem.

And that is why they get fired. Dave Dombrowski in Boston was responsible for signing Sale and Eovaldi, among others. He was fired despite winning a World Series. Bobby Evans in San Francisco had a hand in trading for Cueto, Longoria, and several others who are underwater and now mostly dead roster weight. He too was fired, despite winning three World Series. 

Their owners saw that throwing good money after bad was an unsustainable model. Both were replaced by young, analytical, value-oriented GMs in Chaim Bloom and Farhan Zaidi, respectively. Both of those guys have tall orders to turn those ships around. And most other GMs have learned the key lesson: don’t overpay for aging veterans.

See our Highest/Lowest page for the full list. Flip the arrow next to the median value number to see them in lowest-to-highest order.

 

About the Author

John Bitzer

John Bitzer

Founder and editor of baseballtradevalues.com