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Pricing Neil Walker’s PTBNL

Sunday’s game featured an old face in a new uniform at Miller Park, as previous Pittsburgh Pirates nemesis and New York Mets second baseman Neil Walker came to Milwaukee via trade. Of course, Walker immediately made his presence felt, showing positional flexibility with a start at third base and going 2-for-4 with a run scored. The trade involved a Player To Be Named Later, which gives Brewers fans another chance to rekindle those trade deadline debates for time immemorial.

Last year, the PTBNL bug also bit Brewers fans in the Jonathan Lucroy – Jeremy Jeffress deal, as fans allowed their imagination to run wild with apparently leaked scouting assignments of Texas Rangers prospects and dreams of landing another top prospect (the club landed useful outfield / utility depth in Ryan Cordell, who was shipped to the White Sox to acquire Anthony Swarzak). Obviously this time around Brewers fans are not dreaming of the top ten prospect that might head to the Mets, as almost everyone expects GM David Stearns to have landed the veteran Walker for next to nothing. This is a faulty expectation.

What complicates the deal is the fact that the Mets are sending an undisclosed amount of cash to the Brewers, which could sweeten the prospect return from Milwaukee. This is a logical assumption, as MLB teams frequently demonstrate that cash and prospects are transferable, and one can deduce that there is an exchange rate for prospects and cash within each front office. However, the haziness does not end here for two reasons: (1) Walker demonstrates wild discrepancies between past and present value, and (2) there is a perception that the trade market for position players is currently depressed.

First, consider point (1) with the assumption that the Mets covered approximately half of Walker’s contract in the trade. In the abstract, assessing Walker by considering WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), cash, and Prospect Overall Future Potential (OFP) as interchangeable by monetizing each value yields several potential categories of value:

Assuming $2.5M Cash Surplus Prospect Maximum Prospect
Immediate Walker $0.3M Trade 40 OFP Organizational Depth Guy
Depreciated Walker $1.4M Trade 45 OFP RHP Bubba Derby / OF Clint Coulter
Maximum Walker $9.9M Trade Up To Strong 45-50 OFP LHP Nathan Kirby / UTIL Mauricio Dubon

Already one should see that there is plenty of wiggle room for assessing Stearns in this trade. While fans know a name like Mauricio Dubon and would feel upset to see the young infielder leave the Brewers system, such a trade would match the high end of Walker’s value (plus cash). A more interesting idea is seeing an injured prospect head out of Milwaukee’s system, which could perhaps explain the time lag necessary to call the return a “Player To Be Named Later,” as scouting the progress of an injury return prospect could make all the difference in determining the deal. A hurler such as Nathan Kirby could fulfill the top end of this deal, and would be an interesting case of transferring extreme injury risk out of the system in a gamble for immediate wins. Should Milwaukee reach the League Divisional Series in the playoffs, this deal would be immediately paid off. Obviously, fans dream of sending nobody important to New York, but that’s not how trades work.

To this last point, (2) is worth further investigating. While front offices do not use WARP to calculate trades, I use a WARP / OFP / cash model to easily allow various areas of the game to speak to one another in order to determine value for an organization. This can also be a useful scale to view trades en masse; for example, let’s look at a few key trades from the 2017 deadline and August waiver trade period. In this table, I also added a Playoff Assessment to the trade, where potential advances in playoff revenue are considered as trade motivation as well (see additional table below, and linked article).

Player Maximum Surplus Immediate Value Acquisition (OFP) Prospect Return Playoff Return
2B Neil Walker $7.2M + Cash -$2.2M + Cash PTBNL Unknown No Playoff Pressure
1B Yonder Alonso $2.5M $5.8M Boog Powell (40-50 OFP / $7.0M) Good / Already Reached Value Must Reach LDS
C Alex Avila (with LHP J. Wilson) $0.6M (+$10.0M) $3.2M $33.8M+ Jeimer Candelario (50-55 OFP / $26.9M) / Isaac Paredes (40-50 OFP) / PTBNL Phenomenal / Already Reached Value Must Reach LCS-WS
2B Tim Beckham $10.0M $20.8M Tobias Myers (Unknown – Projection Play) Good / Must Reach 45-50 OFP Must Reach LDS
OF Jay Bruce $3.5M $7.8M Ryder Ryan (Unknown – Pop Up Pitcher) Must Reach 45-50 OFP Must Reach LDS
3B Todd Frazier (with RHPs T. Kahnle & D. Robertson) $11.0M (+$35.6M) $2.7M (Frazier) $55.7M Blake Rutherford (50-60 OFP / $48.9M) / Ian Clarkin (40-55) & Tito Polo (40-55) / Tyler Clippard ($0.9M) Phenomenal / Already Reached Value Must Reach LDS – LCS
C Jonathan Lucroy $13.4M -$1.6M PTBNL (Unknown) Unknown No Playoff Pressure
UTIL Sean Rodriguez -$1.2M -$10.0M Connor Joe (45 OFP / $1.4M) Good / Already Reached Value No Playoff Pressure

Once one gets past the initial fact that the biggest trade returns indeed occurred when pitchers were grouped with position players, there are some solid deals in this group of position player transactions. While fans might find easy excuses to write off a prospect like Boog Powell, given Yonder Alonso’s track record that’s quite a solid return for a rental. Sean Rodriguez and Jonathan Lucroy deals represent the Hail Mary attempts by the Pirates and Rockies, respectively, and neither team will be expected to face playoff pressure for either deal (rather, both deals are clearly supplemental). The Tim Beckham and Jay Bruce deals might be the most interesting, as the Rays and Mets respectively gambled on extremely inexperienced arms with unknown potential. Yet, draft day assessments and initial prospect reports could allow both those prospect packages to be viewed as intriguing projection gambles, and the Bruce deal especially could look like a brilliant move by the Mets in five years.

This prospect return landscape does not provide much help to determining the gray areas of which type of prospect might leave the Brewers system. The Bruce deal hints that someone like Carlos Herrera or Trey Supak could be the one to leave; the Alonso deal could support sending anyone from Dubon to an Advanced Minors outfield depth option. Walker’s value is most comparable to both Bruce and Alonso, and both of those deals showcase scenarios in which the trading club received solid or intriguing prospect returms. What this chart should hopefully show is that position players have not necessarily been undervalued; rather, the position players reflected here represent relatively spotty production records, which impacts that type of prospect one should expect to be involved in those deals. But, even with that caveat in mind, the prospects involved in these deals were solidly priced overall.

With this in mind, Brewers fans should be ready for Stearns to continue to deal from prospect depth, as this is the true benefit of having this type of system in Milwaukee. There will be prospects who, as much as we love to follow them as fans, will be used to attempt to maximize immediate MLB wins for the franchise. Should a prospect that seems rich for your blood end up in the Neil Walker deal, remember that not only does this price probably suit the current trade environment, but it also helps attain the goal of winning MLB games. Even better, the Brewers are winning MLB games and expending prospect resources sooner than expected, which are both facts that should be celebrated.


 

Appendix: Playoff and Prospect Conversion Chart:

Playoff Series Future Win Value Future Prospect Value
Wild Card 0.36 N/A
LDS 1.46 50 OFP
LCS 2.93 60 OFP
World Series 4.39 60 OFP+ / 60-70
Actual 2015 Mets 11.76 70 OFP+
Likely 2016 Cubs 12.67 70 OFP+

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USAToday Sports Images

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