The Top 10: Players with the highest trade value
Who has the highest trade value among all players? One section of our site you may not have noticed is our Highest/Lowest page, which ranks every player according to their trade value. On it, you can see that the Top 10 players with the highest trade value based on our model are, in order:
This year’s clear winner is Acuna, because he’s already an elite player, he hasn’t hit his prime yet, he’s set to make only $1M this year, and he has nine years of affordable control.
One point of clarification: 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. Mike Trout is the runaway winner on field value ($504.6M), because he’s the best player in the game and he’s controlled for a long period of time. But he’s not the highest on surplus value, because he’s still owed over $390 million, so any team who theoretically traded for him would take over that salary commitment in addition to giving up an estimated $139M-level package of players. That’s a tall order. As a refresher:
Surplus value = field value – salary, over the period of team control
For example, Cody Bellinger’s field value is $242 million, which is our model’s estimate of what he would be worth as a free agent if his agent limited his contract to four years (the amount of control the Dodgers have left on him at this time). But since he’s not under a guaranteed contract, we estimate that the amount of money he’ll make in his arbitration years is $94.2 million. That amounts to a surplus of $147.8 million. Said another way, that’s how much he’s underpaid. (This is a big point of contention with the players’ union, and may likely be something that is reworked in the next collective bargaining agreement, so players like Bellinger can get paid closer to what they’re worth.)
From a trade perspective, Bellinger is highly attractive, since he’s an MVP-level player on the field who’s only making a modest amount of money relative to what he’s truly worth. If he were floated on the trade market, there would be a bidding war, which is why we have his median value above that number — and even at our estimate of $159.9M, we may be understating it. He’d probably be traded for closer to our high estimate of $172M.
Then again, all this is theoretical, because in reality, the Dodgers will not trade him, as he’s arguably the cornerstone of their team; and very few teams have $172M in capital to package up for him (either in the form of major-league player value, prospect value, and/or cash).
And yet, occasionally we do see a blockbuster trade of a young controllable star — the Brewers packaged four top prospects for Christian Yelich [68.6] (wiping out a big chunk of their farm) before the 2018 season, whose value we estimated to be close to $120M at the time. And we suspect they don’t regret it.
A close look at the highest value players reveals a few patterns:
The oldest player in our Top 50 is 28. The grand majority of them are in their early- to mid-twenties. This is because trade value is forward-looking, and teams value players who are either in their prime already, or near to it (and project to hit it) during their period of control. Another benefit of age is relatively low injury risk. These guys have less wear and tear on them than veterans in their 30s.
Years of control
The grand majority of our Top 50 have at least four years of remaining control. This is generally because the more control you have with good players, the more the surplus adds up. You’ll even see players on this list who, you might think, have not fully established themselves yet at the major-league level, such as Bo Bichette [135.0] , Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and Eloy Jimenez [151.0] . That’s because there is consensus among all the projection systems and evaluators that they will be highly productive players, and all have multiple years ahead of them.
Several players on this list are on contracts so cheap, relative to their field value, that their surplus is high more so for that reason than because they’re superstars. Ozzie Albies signed a contract so ridiculously cheap, relative to his fair-market value, that the entire industry was shocked. He’s No. 5 on our list mostly because he’s due to make only $41M over the next six years. That’s highway robbery. Others who fit this profile include Ketel Marte (due to make only $37.2M over the next six years), Shohei Ohtani [36.0] (projected to make $23M over the next four years) and Max Kepler [89.7] (who’s owed $38M over the next five years).
High on the value curve
There is an industry notion of a value curve, which tracks the point at which a young player’s trade value peaks. Typically that happens in a good player’s second or third year at the MLB level, where his theoretical talent as a prospect has translated to real production on the field, removing much of the uncertainty that comes with prospect valuation, and yet he’s still at a point in his career where he’s getting paid the league minimum or similar, with multiple years of high production and affordable salary ahead of him. From the team’s perspective, that’s gold. (From the player or agent’s perspective, that’s a highly underpaid player.) That’s a lot of what you see here. Walker Buehler, Jack Flaherty, Rafael Devers [83.9] , and Matt Chapman [79.0] are examples of players who are at (or close to) their peak value.
At the top of our list are players who combine all of these elements: youth, health, multiple years of control, an affordable salary, and of course, high projected field value. When all of those factors align, you salivate if you’re a GM. Ronald Acuna, Jr., Alex Bregman, and Juan Soto are young superstars and cornerstones of their teams, who are getting paid far less than they’re worth. Because of that situation, their GMs have more resources to allocate to complementary players to build around them. That’s what any GM dreams about. And that’s why they’re the most coveted players in the game right now — and why their trade value is so high.
See our Highest/Lowest page for the full list.