Grading Trades I: Inventory

Brewers GM David Stearns earned a quick reputation for deal-making at a rapid pace, and his work followed a severe 2015 trade deadline from President Doug Melvin. Now that the first full rebuilding season is complete, and a season and a half has passed since the first rebuilding deals, it is worth using this vast body of trades to work on strategies for evaluating trades. All told, the Brewers easily engaged in at least 20 deals since July 2015, with approximately 16 of those deals qualified as “major” for the standpoint of rosterbuilding; for this purpose, I’ve excluded deals involving players like Sam Freeman or Jaye Chapman, simply because these are roster depth moves that every organization makes at any point in their roster building process.

The Brewers made two types of deals during the last year and a half: first, Doug Melvin fired the opening rebuilding shots with typical rebuilding moves. So, in that spirit, defining a rebuilding trade is quite easy: it is a trade in which an MLB club sheds an MLB contract in favor for a minor league player. This is an extreme cost-cutting deal, whereby a team sheds anywhere from a $500,000+ minimum contract to a $20 million guaranteed deal (or more), in favor of a player that will likely earn less than $10,000 (and also have significant risk, even in the best case scenarios, for reaching a ceiling during the years their new MLB club reserves their contract rights).

David Stearns also made a number of rebuilding trades, but the young GM also revamped the MLB club with a series of surprising moves. Thus, the “counterbuilding” move, which is much more vague and difficult to define, because it simply notes a trade made by a club that seemingly moves against their expected motivations or roster building logic. So, a “counterbuilding” trade for a contender might be shedding an MLB player for prospects (imagine the Cubs trading Anthony Rizzo for prospects, for instance), whereas for a rebuilding club it would be trading away a minor league player for an MLB roster asset. Obviously, this type of trade will be difficult to define because in the vast majority of cases, MLB clubs do not have “clear motives,” and they can also play out their organizational strategies at several different levels (a club can have MLB roster goals, player development goals, etc., etc.).

For the first part of this analysis, let’s begin by taking an inventory of the “rebuilding” and “counterbuilding” trades made by Melvin and Stearns. This body of work is quite austere, with Milwaukee first and foremost unloading approximately $44.4 million in guaranteed contracts and options traded away, and at least $2 million in minimum / reserve contracts and arbitration rights. Depending on how one values WARP, these deals provided Milwaukee the “abstract space” or “capacity” for acquiring approximately 7 WARP to 12 WARP. Given that the Brewers acquired roughly 22 minor league players (at the time of their respective trades) and roughly eight MLB players, the organization should have ample opportunity to meet that basic threshold for performance. In fact, Jonathan Villar, Domingo Santana, Aaron Hill, and Keon Broxton were already worth approximately 9 WARP in 2016 alone.

The common model usually assumes around $7 million per 1 WARP on the free market, but in marginal terms, a 90-win team with approximately $143 in payroll (one estimate of a 2016 median) would reasonably spend around $3 million per WARP to ascend from a 45-win replacement base (the most basic 40-man roster, worth $20 million minimum) to a 90-win playoff contention base. Of course, there are problems with this type of abstract assumption, since playoff teams earn significant revenue; if a team views one particular player as the single player that will move the needle from “potential Wild Card club” to “definite LDS team,” that additional WARP could be worth anywhere from $10 million to $30 million. (This is one particular issue with the “isn’t the relief pitching trade market absurd?” shock and disbelief: of course the market for acquiring additional situational wins is extreme when you’re dealing with teams that could stand to gain as much as $20 million from that additional win that pushes them over the playoff threshold, and those teams are competing directly with other situational WARP shoppers within an extreme environment of scarcity).

For now, let’s work with the assumption that 1 WARP is worth approximately $7 million, with a gigantic situational asterisk for individual team-contending and risk preferences.

Rebuilding Trades Brewers Trade Brewers Receive Note
July 23 2015 3B Aramis Ramirez RHP Yhonathan Barrios Approx. $4.67M remaining on Ramirez contract
July 30 2015 RHP Mike Fiers / CF Carlos Gomez LHP Josh Hader / RHP Adrian Houser/ OF Brett Phillips / OF Domingo Santana / Approx. $11.67M remaining on Gomez contract. Fiers: 2017 arbitration
July 31 2015 OF Gerardo Parra RHP Zach Davies Approx. $2M remaining on Parra contract
July 31 2015 RHP Jonathan Broxton OF Malik Collymore Approx. $5M remaining on Broxton contract + option buyout
November 18 2015 RHP Francisco Rodriguez 2B Javier Betancourt / PTBNL (C Manny Pina) $9.5M remaining on Rodriguez contract + option buyout
December 9 2015 1B Adam Lind RHP Carlos Herrera / RHP Daniel Missaki / RHP Freddy Peralta $8M remaining on Lind contract
February 12 2016 LF Khris Davis RHP Bubba Derby / C Jacob Nottingham Davis: 2017 arbitration
July 7 2016 2B Aaron Hill 2B Wendell Rijo / RHP Aaron Wilkerson Approx. $1.83 remaining on Hill contract
August 1 2016 RHP Jeremy Jeffress / C Jonathan Lucroy OF Lewis Brinson / RHP Luis Ortiz / PTBNL (OF Ryan Cordell) Approx. $1.7M remaining on Lucroy contract + option buyout. Jeffress: 2017 arbitration.

In terms of rebuilding, the Brewers shed nearly every single contract on the club, which is why I have been so insistent in stating that “rebuilding is over;” in the technical sense, the Brewers only have two possible trades remaining in the “true” rebuilding status, which places the club in an extremely interesting position: they can now focus on developing the best possible club for the present and future. This entails an absurd number of potential roster directions.

Judging the rebuilding trades is quite difficult, because one must gauge the immediate expected performance of the traded asset, as well as their “depreciation” or performance decline, and their actual MLB contract. These trades are also difficult to judge because the prospects received will invariably be among the top 10 percent of minor leaguers, and probably more likely to be in the top 2 percent (judge the Top 100 list against 7,100 other minor leaguers, for instance). So, there is a sense in which the prospects returned will always be overhyped in that having high tool grades and high Overall Future Potential grades will invariably result in extremely different MLB paths; witness the 2010 Top 10 prospects, for instance, where Jesus Montero is a -2.2 WARP player, Neftali Feliz is a 1.0 WARP player, Desmond Jennings is a 9.0 WARP player, and Jason Heyward is a 26.7 WARP player (to choose just three guys).

This exercise can be repeated up and down MLB Top 100 lists, organizational Top 10 lists, and organizational Top 30 lists. What it shows is that a trade involving prospects must be judged several different ways; it cannot simply be reduced to the WARP that a player eventually produces in the MLB, but it also cannot simply be reduced to the OFP grade at the time of the trade. A prospect trade can be judged by the new club’s willingness to dish that prospect again (for instance, the Brewers’ value with Isan Diaz or Brett Phillips or Trey Supak is that these players can be included in different trades), their ability to develop the player toward the best (or even most probable) OFP, among numerous other factors.

Counterbuilding Trades Brewers Trade Brewers Receive Note
November 19 2015 RHP Cy Sneed SS Jonathan Villar
November 20 2015 SS Luis Sardinas OF Ramon Flores
December 10 2015 cash IF Garin Cecchini
December 17 2015 1B Jason Rogers CF Keon Broxton / RHP Trey Supak
January 28 2016 LHP Trevor Seidenberger OF Rymer Liriano
January 30 2016 SS Jean Segura / RHP Tyler Wagner RHP Chase Anderson / IF Aaron Hill / SS Isan Diaz / cash Segura: 2016 arbitration.
August 1 2016 LHP Will Smith RHP Phil Bickford / C Andrew Susac Smith: 2017 arbitration.

Counterbuilding trades are equally difficult to judge, especially where clubs trade relatively fringe depth or even solid, organizational replacement depth for MLB assets. Consider the case of Cy Sneed and Jonathan Villar; entering 2016, one might have reasonably expected Sneed to serve among the club’s potential RHP replacement corps, perhaps like LHP Brent Suter did in 2016. It’s tough to say when Sneed would have made the MLB, if ever, with Milwaukee, but one can at least look at his profile, minor league development path, and stuff to place a basic MLB relief potential role on the righty. Yet, if Sneed graded as, say, a 40-45 MLB relief roster depth prospect, perhaps grading between the -1.0 WARP-to-1.0 WARP career range, does that give Jonathan Villar free reign in terms of development? Even if Villar busted at the MLB level, perhaps continuing his service as utility depth at the MLB level, the Brewers arguably simply “washed” on the trade — all they would have accomplished is to escalate that replacement level player to the MLB (cashing out that replacement value in 2016, for instance, instead of 2017 or 2018). Of course, the reason the trade was so solid is that Villar simply ran out of chances in Houston, but still claimed plenty of tools to serve as an interesting MLB roster asset; so the value in this trade is more in Milwaukee’s opportunity to advance an MLB level shortstop prior to Orlando Arcia’s MLB graduation, and the ability to recognize the opportunity in Villar.

A much more interesting counterbuilding deal is the cash for Garin Cecchini trade, which failed for all the reasons the Villar trade succeeded: Aaron Hill played well at 3B, Scooter Gennett revitalized his role at 2B, Chris Carter was Chris Carter at 1B, and Villar stormed SS, leaving basically no space for Cecchini to break into the MLB infield. Of course, Cecchini also did not answer certain scouting and mechanical question marks, meaning that he unsurprisingly played the full season in the minor leagues. So, there remains some future value in terms of the basic depth that Cecchini provides to the Brewers (40-Man infield / corner profile depth security), but one may now question whether Cecchini will receive the blank slate chance to succeed in 2017 that Villar capitalized on in 2016. This isn’t to say that the trade is bad, but rather to say that in terms of value it is thus far a non-event.

The toughest counterbuilding trade to judge is the Will Smith deal, which is not a true rebuilding deal because the Brewers returned an immediate MLB asset in Andrew Susac. The first aspect that is difficult to judge is Smith’s descent from his 2.90 DRA and 1.4 WARP 2015 season, which caused many to believe that Smith might morph into a potentially elite (or extremely reliable) MLB high leverage reliever. Smith endured injury in 2016, and upon return slipped from his 2015 strike out, walk, and TAv-against levels. So, there is one sense in which the Brewers dealt Smith from a low value point, but this may only be problematic if the decline in value is not permanent; if Smith cannot overcome this development, then the deal was a proper assessment of declining value.

This logic can be applied to both Susac and RHP Phil Bickford, who have wildly varying scouting potential and actual performance reports. There are questions in Susac’s report that lead one to doubt that he will serve as a regular MLB starting catcher, but at the same time Susac will also likely receive the same free pass in 2017 at catcher that Villar received in 2016. Susac will have a real chance to prove his potential MLB role. There are extreme differences in reports on Bickford depending upon whether one judges his arsenal as it is, or as it might be; at the worst, the Brewers landed another righty replacement / organizational depth arm, and at best, Bickford makes the necessary adjustments to reach rosier heights. Given the severe assembly of moving parts in this trade, one can learn that a counterbuilding trade need not necessarily even be “good” or “bad,” and no team ever needs to “win the trade.” The impetus is with the Brewers to provide Susac and Bickford the information and instruction to ascend, and both players can take charge as well; the same goes for Smith, who may rebound to become a relief ace in San Francisco. Or in five years we may look back at this trade as a value non-event.

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