How Much Is Your Team’s All-Star Worth in Prospects?

Despite a late bloom, Carlos Carrasco was quite the get in the Cliff Lee deal. (via Keith Allison)

Despite a late bloom, Carlos Carrasco was quite the get in the Cliff Lee deal. (via Keith Allison)

If Cleveland Indians fans could feel optimism—they cannot, but never mind—they had every reason to feel it heading into the 2008 season. In 2007, they won 96 games, beat the Yankees in a Division Series made Biblical by the sudden appearance of a swarm of midges, and though they lost to the Red Sox in the Championship Series after leading three games to one, in 2008 they would return all of their young stars to try again.

John Marsh’s Trade Histories

June 25, 2015: On the Genealogy of Trades, Part I

July 7, 2015: On the Genealogy of Trades, Part II

Aug. 7, 2015: Trading Disgruntled Players

Sept. 17, 2015: Win-Win Trades

Nov. 6, 2015: Sell High / A Year Too Early

Yet, as Robert Burns would put it, the best laid schemes of mice and men go often agley, leaving Indians fans nothing but pain and grief for promised joy. In 2008, Cleveland got off to a slow start, and by July the Indians were 10 games below .500 and in last place in the American League Central. Their ace, CC Sabathia, would be a free agent after the season, so on July 7 they beat the deadline rush and traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers for four prospects. A couple weeks later, they traded another imminent free agent, third baseman Casey Blake, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a pair of prospects.

Chastened by the 2008 season, and now lacking an ace, Indians fans had learned not to expect too much of the 2009 season. Nonetheless, a strong finish in 2008 and the emergence of Cliff Lee, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera tantalized them once again. And once again those expectations crumbled. On July 1, Cleveland was 31-49, easily the worst record in the American League, and entered full rebuilding mode.

Although they had additional years of control over both Lee and Victor Martinez, the Indians shipped the former to the Phillies and the latter to the Red Sox during the final days of the trading deadline. In short, over the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the Indians had a chance to practice the art of one of the most common—and one of the most exciting—trades in all of baseball: the veteran for prospect(s) trade. Essentially, veterans-for-prospects trades turn on the relative valuation of wins.

For a struggling team out of contention—let us call them the Cleveland Indians—whatever additional wins a Cliff Lee or a Victor Martinez would provide over a replacement player will not matter much. Few people cared whether the 2009 Indians won 65 games or 67 or 68 games, which is what they would have won had they kept Lee and Martinez for the whole season rather than trade them at the deadline.

For the Phillies and Red Sox, however, those additional wins mattered a great deal, not just for their pennant races, which each team won handily enough, but for the playoffs that followed. (Recall that Lee made five starts for the Phillies in the postseason that year and gave up all of seven earned runs over the lot of them.) In a pennant race or heading to the playoffs, contending teams want to put the best team on the field they can, and they are willing to trade future wins for present ones. In contrast, losing teams have little incentive to win now, so they value future wins over present ones. And of such differing horizons are veterans-for-prospects trades made.

We have an intuitive sense of how much a veteran should fetch in prospects, yet few have put a number on the relationship between present and future wins. For a contending team, is one additional win in the present worth six wins in some future six or seven years, which is how long teams generally control prospects once they make the major leagues? That would mean a slightly above-average player eligible for free agency after the season would fetch a future bench player if traded at the deadline.

A trade like that also would set the ratio between present and future wins at 1:6 or 1:7. (Two months of a 2.5-WAR player would equal one win. A one-win player during his six or seven cost-controlled years would equal six or seven wins.) By that ratio, an All-Star (5.0-win player) headed for free agency in the offseason and traded at the deadline would fetch a future league-average player. That seems right, but is it? All these calculations are made still more vague because prospects rarely develop into what either team expects they will at the time of the trade.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

As a very preliminary step toward fixing a number to the relationship between veterans and prospects, I propose we look at the trades the Indians made over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. These trades provide a range of outcomes: some of the prospects the Indians received performed as expected, some did better than expected, and some did decidedly worse than expected. (I’m looking at you, Matt LaPorta.) Although the sample size is small, together these trades might offer a clue about how teams value present and future wins.

July 7, 2008: The Cleveland Indians trade CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for Michael Brantley, Rob Bryson (minors), Zach Jackson and Matt LaPorta.

After going to the Brewers, CC Sabathia had one of the best half seasons in major league history. He contributed 4.9 wins over the final three months of the season before signing with the Yankees in the offseason, and since the Brewers finished just one game ahead of the Mets in the Wild Card race that year, they needed every one of the wins he gave them. At the time of the trade, everyone thought the Brewers had paid handsomely for those wins. They did, but not quite like everyone thought they would.

Rob Bryson, a young bullpen pitcher, did not have much upside and never made the majors. Zach Jackson had back-end rotation potential at best, and the best never happened. Rather, the Indians pinned their hopes on outfielder LaPorta, who was then the Brewers’ top prospect and the No. 23 prospect in all of baseball. Of course, he turned out to be a bust — worse than replacement level in the more than 1,000 plate appearances the Indians gave him over the next couple years.

All was not lost, though. The real value in the trade came from the player to be named later, Michael Brantley, who was the No. 24 prospect, not in all of baseball, but merely in the Brewers system. Brantley figured things out, though, and over the first five years of his career has put up 16.6 wins. Although he is currently on the shelf with a shoulder injury, Steamer nevertheless projects him to contribute 1.8 wins in 2016. If so, and if we view this trade as strictly Sabathia for Brantley, then we get a ratio of about 1:4 present to future wins. Not great, perhaps, but not bad either.

July 26, 2008: The Cleveland Indians trade Casey Blake with cash to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Jon Meloan and Carlos Santana.

Oops. Casey Blake was a decent third baseman and put up 0.9 wins for the Dodgers over the remainder of the 2008 season, a win the team probably needed, as they finished just two games ahead of the Diamondbacks in the West that year. In return for Blake, who would re-sign with the Dodgers in the offseason, the Indians received pitcher Jon Meloan and catcher Carlos Santana. Few expected much from Meloan, and he did not surprise.

But despite being the No. 25 prospect in the Dodgers’ system at the time of the trade, Santana was in the midst of a breakout year at High-A ball, and he has not stopped hitting since. Although his stock has fallen a bit lately, Santana has had a great career, accumulating 18.1 wins over his first five years, with Steamer predicting an additional 1.6 wins this year. If we view this trade as Blake for Santana, then we get a ratio of about 1:22 present to future wins. As much as the Dodgers appreciated Blake, they probably did not think they would give up quite so much value to acquire his 0.9 wins.

July 29, 2009: The Cleveland Indians trade Cliff Lee with Ben Francisco to the Philadelphia Phillies for Jason Knapp (minors), Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson.

The Indians had acquired Lee in an earlier, lopsided veteran-for-prospect trade in which they shipped prospect Tim Drew and two months of starter Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos for Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore. In 2009, however, the Indians now needed to turn the veteran Lee into prospects. Unlike Sabathia and Blake, though, Lee had another year before free agency, which increased his value.

Cleveland settled on a trade with Philadelphia, a trade that until recently looked like a clear win for the Phillies. Lee contributed 1.1 wins over the final months of the 2009 season and then 4.8 in 2010, which he spent with Seattle and then Texas. (Philadelphia traded him before the start of the 2010 season.) The other player in the trade, outfielder Ben Francisco, put up 0.4 wins in 2009 but was below replacement level after that.

In return for Lee and Francisco, the Indians received four intriguing prospects. Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round pick in the 2008 draft, a starter with an impressive fastball, and his stock rose thereafter. After the trade, he was listed as the No. 64 prospect in baseball. Knapp was derailed by successive Tommy John surgeries, however, and he never made the majors.

Second baseman Jason Donald was the Phillies’ third-round choice in the 2006 draft, and he also impressed in the minors. After the trade, he was ranked as the No. 69 prospect in the game. He never stuck in the majors, though, and contributed a lonely win in value.

The Phillies drafted infielder Lou Marson in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, and like Knapp and Donald, he also impressed scouts. After the 2008 season, he was the No. 66 prospect in baseball. Like Knapp and Donald, though, he never made the transition to the majors and was worth only a bit more than a win over six seasons.

In short, three out of the four top prospects the Indians received for Lee ultimately amounted to fewer than three wins above replacement level, which is the sort of luck Indians fans have come to expect. For a while, too, it looked like the fourth prospect in the trade, pitcher Carlos Carrasco, would have a similarly disappointing career. Prior to the trade, he was the No. 59 prospect in baseball, and afterwards No. 54.

After three partial and more or less lackluster seasons with the Indians, Carrasco went down to Tommy John surgery in 2012, and his return from the surgery in 2013 did not go well. In 2014, though, he had a great year out of the bullpen and then in the rotation, and last year he was one of the better pitchers in baseball, worth nearly four wins. Thus far, he has been worth 7.1 wins. He has two years until he passes six years of service time, and Steamer projects him for 4.8 wins in the coming year. That seems high to me, so if we play it safe and credit him for something closer to seven wins over the next two years, he will have accumulated 14 or so wins before his cost-controlled years run out.

Whether you include Donald and Marson’s contributions or not, the trade yields about a 1:3 ratio of present to future wins, which, despite the success of Carrasco, and given the pedigree of the prospects who came over in the trade, is probably less of a return than the Indians had hoped for.

July 31, 2009: The Cleveland Indians traded Victor Martinez to the Boston Red Sox for Nick Hagadone, Justin Masterson and Bryan Price.

Like Lee, Martinez had an additional year of control when the Indians traded him to Boston at the deadline in 2009. Like Lee, too, the initial returns for the trade seemed meager.

Martinez put up 1.3 wins over the remainder of the 2009 season for Boston and 3.6 the next year. (He signed with Detroit in 2011.) In return for those 4.9 wins, the Indians received three pitchers. Bryan Price was a reliever, and though he got a cup of coffee with Cleveland in 2014, he did not impress enough to stick around.

The real prizes in the trade were reliever Nick Hagadone and starter Justin Masterson. The Red Sox had drafted Hagadone in the supplemental round of the 2007 draft, and by 2009, he was the No. 44 prospect in baseball. Unfortunately, he too did not amount to much, though he did make the majors and has hung around the bullpen since. He has never been more than a replacement pitcher, though, and while he has not yet reached three years of service time, everyone would be surprised if he accumulated many more wins by the time his first six or seven years are up.

Masterson had a slightly better career. A second-round pick in 2006, he was the No. 64 prospect in the sport heading into the 2008 season. That year, he made an impressive debut with Boston, splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation. After the trade to Cleveland, he moved to the rotation, where he initially disappointed. After that, he had a great year in 2011, a terrible one in 2012, a bounce-back year in 2013, and another terrible year in 2014 before the Indians traded him to St. Louis at the deadline. All told, he contributed 6.2 wins in his first six years, which is barely more than Martinez put up over one and one half years in Boston. Call it a 1:1 or, just barely, a 1:2 ratio, which feels like—and probably is—a disappointment.

What can we learn from these trades? My premise is that because they represent a range of possible outcomes, when combined, they can suggest a ratio between present wins and future wins or, to put it another way, how much veterans should fetch in the trade market in terms of prospects. So what happens when you average these outcomes? You get about one present win to four future wins, or a 1:4 ratio.

That may seem low, and perhaps the Indians indeed had more than their fair share of busts in these trades, in which case you might want to bump the ratio up to 1:6 or 1:7, our initial intuitive guess. But when you consider that prospects, even those ranked by Baseball America, fail all the time, it is difficult to imagine teams getting much more value for their veterans than the Indians did.

Other ways of going about estimating present for future value return a similar ratio. For example, at this past deadline the Tigers traded David Price to the Blue Jays for three pitching prospects: Jairo Labourt, Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris. Neither Labourt nor Boyd cracked top prospects list.

The prize was Norris, who was the No. 18 prospect after the 2014 season and had a decent partial year in the majors last season. At the time of the trade, Chris Mitchell estimated the package of prospects Detroit received would accrue 9.3 WAR by their age-28 seasons, with Norris leading the way at 4.8. Price contributed 2.4 WAR to the Toronto playoff drive last year. All told, that would mean the Tigers could expect roughly four future wins for every present win they gave up when they traded Price. In other words, about what Cleveland received from its trades.

Another way to estimate the ratio of present to future wins is to work from what kind of WAR one can expect from players who make top-prospects lists. Neil Paine has found that a No. 18 prospect, like Norris was in 2014, could be expected to produce between five and 10 wins over his first seven seasons. That, too, would put us in the realm of a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio of present to future value, possibly slightly more if you think Labourt or Boyd will contribute anything at the major league level. Again, about what Cleveland received.

At least four things—and no doubt many more—complicate this educated guess at a ratio of present to future wins. First, although it matters less now that teams cannot receive compensation picks for players traded midway through the season, the teams to which the Indians traded their veterans could expect compensation picks when the players signed with other teams as free agents, which adds some value to the columns of teams that traded for the veterans and, thus, might lower the ratio of present to future wins slightly. Second, the above examples all involve players still in their cost-controlled years, meaning they offered significant surplus value, especially players like Lee and Martinez, who had more than one year of control remaining. By contrast, a veteran signed to a contract that pays him market value would have less, if any, surplus value and, as a result, might fetch less in terms of prospects and future wins.

Third, teams that trade for prospects can acquire more than just the first six or seven years of their career by signing them to contracts that cover their first year or two of free agency, as the Indians did with Brantley, Santana and Carrasco. This would put some value back in the column of teams that trade for prospects. Finally, not all prospects are created equal. As Jeffrey Myers found, position player prospects have a better chance of contributing at the major league level than pitching prospects. As a result, teams may be able to do better at the veterans-for-prospects trade by targeting certain kinds of prospects.

As I would be the first to admit, these anecdotes do not rise to the level of data. But I would also argue that they offer at least a starting point to think about the ratio between present and future wins, which, if I had to guess, hovers around 1:4. Other trades bring more, others less, but 1:4 feels like it lands in the ballpark.

So if the Indians flounder again this year and make noises about trading, say, Carlos Santana at the deadline, what might they expect in return? If the projections are right, Santana would be worth roughly half a win over the final two months of the coming season, and another win or so in 2017, after which he would be a free agent. Those couple of present wins would fetch, on average, six or so future wins, which is maybe a player from the middle tier of the top 100 prospects list or a couple of lower-ranked prospects. Not much, but enough to give Indians fans something to dream on.

References & Resources

John Marsh is Associate Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book is In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself.
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8 years ago

this seems like the honours project that leads to doctorate level research

I think you uncovered something large to investigate, unless it’s been done already

anyways, interesting work, it could be expanded on and I would be more interested!


8 years ago

Hi, is the intent to simply work out the average ratio of future to present wins in these kind of trades or to determine what ratio is required to pull off these trades?

If it is the latter, shouldn’t projected wins be used on the prospect side as trades are executed on expectations rather than the final results.