What might the Josh Bell trade tell us about Bryant, Baez and Sanchez?
Now that Josh Bell has been traded, is there anything we can glean from his deal that might shed light on the trade market for three other big names coming off disappointing seasons?
First, full disclosure: our model said Bell had zero trade value, but the net return for the Pirates was 6.8 — relatively light, but more than we thought. So apparently we were too low on Bell. Gauging from insider reaction to the deal, however, we weren’t alone. As Keith Law wrote in The Athletic:
Given where Bell’s trade value probably was right now – a corner bat with negative defensive value, coming off a bad season, probably in line to earn $15-17 million over his two remaining years of control – this is actually a decent return for the Pirates.
And here’s a tweet from ESPN’s Buster Olney:
If you’re surprised by lack of big-name prospect return the Pirates got for Josh Bell, keep in mind his value has plummeted, as a corner slugger at a time when the market is saturated with that kind of player. One exec asked: “Did the Pirates have to kick in money?”
Indeed, we wondered the same. That’s because, if you add the $6.8M in prospect capital the Nats paid to Bell’s expected Arb2 salary (which will likely be between $6M and $7.2M; we used the latter number), then you’re looking at a free agent market equivalent of roughly one year, $13-$14M. That seems incredibly steep to us. After all, if the Nats really wanted a power bat in their lineup, they could have just signed C.J. Cron or Renato Nunez for about the same salary or less, would probably have received similar (and more consistent) production, and wouldn’t have had to give up any prospect capital.
Then again, they’re unlikely to lose much sleep over the two prospects they gave up (Wil Crowe’s stock has fallen; he’s viewed as a back-end starter or middle reliever at this point; Eddy Yean has upside, but is a longshot). Based on our weightings of public prospect evaluators, they were the 9th and 11th-best prospects in the weak Nationals system, and are now the 18th and 19th-best in an improving Pirates system. So apparently the Nats preferred the present value of Bell over the future value of those two — after all, Max Scherzer is only under contract for one more year, and after that, they may have to retool.
But it makes us wonder: did the Nats completely overlook Bell’s awful 2020, where he put up -0.4 fWAR? Did they simply write it off as a weird anomaly? And if they did, are other teams doing the same?
They might have. Maybe they were so impressed by Bell’s hot streak in early 2019 that it overshadowed all of his other stats for them. Indeed, as Brittany Ghiroli of the Athletic wrote, “The Nationals are betting they can get Bell back to his All-Star form of 2019, banking on the anomaly of a 60-game season to ascertain what went wrong last season.”
But looking at the market as a whole, as we’ve written before, there are plenty of other data points so far to suggest that the market is acting relatively normally — and rationally. That is, most teams seem to be factoring in 2020 numbers, albeit on a prorated basis. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t have seen the Braves sign Drew Smyly or the Giants sign Kevin Gausman, both of whom outperformed expectations this past year; or the Rangers might not have accepted Dane Dunning (whose 2020 was also stronger than expected) as the lead piece in the Lance Lynn trade.
That squares with what our model is doing. We’re factoring 2020 stats into our valuations on a pro-rated basis as well, and weighting them modestly (compared to how the results of a full-season would weight).
Given this, we think the Nats just overpaid for Bell — which is fine, as you will always see some of that in normal markets.
So what might this mean for other stars coming off poor seasons who might be trade candidates? Let’s look at three: Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Gary Sanchez
Bryant put up only 0.2 WARP and 0.5 fWAR in 2020, and did nothing in the playoffs. His xwOBA was well below average at .275. His walk rate went down, his K% went up. If we take a generous approach and extrapolate his 36 games to a normal 150-game season, we still only get 1.2 in weighted WAR.
Factoring that, we get an estimated field value of $17.3M for his final year of arbitration, in which he’s projected to earn $18.6M, for a surplus of -$1.3M. Given that there’s still a strong probability of issuing him a QO after 2021, we’ll add the value of the associated draft pick, which we estimate at $6.7M in this case. That elevates his field value to $24.1M, now giving him a positive surplus of $5.5M.
If an acquiring team overpaid for Bryant by roughly the same amount as the Nats did for Bell (on a nominal basis), his value could go as high as $12.3M. That would imply a one-year free agent equivalent of roughly $24M (not including the draft pick) — not impossible, but to us, unlikely, especially considering that the entire baseball world knows the Cubs are in cost-cutting mode, and don’t have a lot of leverage. If a team like the Braves acquired Bryant at that $18.6M salary level, they probably wouldn’t give up much more than that in trade capital, as that combination of monetary and player capital is already higher than the deals they gave Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna. So that’s why we’re sticking with our 5.5 estimate.
Javier Baez put up 0.6 WARP and 0 fWAR, which, if we extrapolate it to a full season, would come out to a blended 1.1. His WRC+ went down to 57 (that’s 43% below league average). He walked only 3% of the time, and struck out almost 32%. He too did nothing in the playoffs. Even his defensive numbers dropped.
Going forward, we estimate his field value for 2021 at $17.8M against a projected final-year-of-arbitration salary of $11.9M, for a surplus of $6.9M. As with Bryant, there’s a probability of a QO, which means the acquiring team would also potentially receive a draft pick, the value of which we estimate at $5.6M; adding those up gives us a new field value of $23.4M, and a median surplus of $11.5M. If a team overpaid to the tune of the Bell overpay, his surplus could go as high as $18.3M. Excluding the draft pick component of that, it would put his field value at $24.6M, or the same as a free-agent signing for 1/24. That feels a bit high right now, especially considering the alternatives on the market at shortstop and the aforementioned point about the Cubs shedding payroll. So again, we’ll stick with our original estimate.
Gary Sanchez was another victim of the dreaded high K%. In Sanchez’s case, that is THE big issue. He struck out 36% of the time in the regular season, and 44% in the playoffs. That led to 0.1 WARP and -0.1 fWAR, which generously rounds up to 0.1 WAR on a full-season basis. That’s replacement level. His other stats confirm it: a 69 WRC+, which is 31% below league average. His xwOBA dropped to .297, also well below league average.
And this is not a new development: His K% has been rising steadily for the past four years. Pitchers have figured him out, and he hasn’t adjusted back. As a result, our estimate of his field value has dropped to $10.8M against a projected salary of $6.4M, resulting in an initial surplus of $4.4M for 2021.
But looking ahead to 2022, his salary figures to increase in his final year of arbitration (if typical patterns hold, we estimate it at $9.6M), such that his surplus actually turns negative. That means he’d be a non-tender after 2021. Further, he’s out of options. If he were performing well above average, that wouldn’t be an issue, but now that he’s a borderline case, it is. It puts the Yankees — or any team thinking of trading for him — in a tough spot, because if he continues on this path, they’d have no choice but to DFA him. That adds another drag on his value.
Because we can only project 2021 here (which is the only surplus-positive of his two remaining years of control), we have an adjusted field value of $8.3M against a salary of $6.4M, giving us a surplus estimate of $1.9M. The Yankees don’t have much leverage, either, as the industry knows they need to improve their catcher situation.
That said, we skewed his range slightly higher due to the one positive in his profile: his exit velocity. When he swings and doesn’t miss, he can still barrel the ball well. That gives us a median of $2.3M. It also implies a one-year free agent equivalent of $8.7M, which again feels about right — James McCann will make a little over $10M in 2021, and he’s coming off two much better seasons than Sanchez.
In a normal offseason, it’s possible that all three of these fallen stars would be intriguing buy-low candidates. But in this climate where most teams, including some big spenders, are looking to cut budgets, it seems unlikely to us that the demand would be all that high for expensive veterans coming off of bad years. We wouldn’t be surprised by small overpays given their star qualities and histories, but nothing significantly above these estimates.