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Where are the Trades?

Brewers GM David Stearns was affectionately labeled “Slingin’ Stearns” by Brewers fans upon taking helm of the organization. The young GM blazed a new roster by making deals at a furious pace, and some of his first trades remain his greatest hits (for example, the Jonathan Villar trade is still as good as the Travis Shaw trade, in terms of surplus). Yet, 2017 showed some cracks in the GM’s long-term surplus play, as questionable day-of deals (like the Will Smith and Martin Maldonado deals, which were never “good”) became worse in hindsight, moderate hits featured some role depreciation at the MLB level (for example, the Keon Broxton deal looks great, but will the CF remain in Milwaukee to cash out the surplus? Will another team cash out the surplus via trade?) and minor league level (the Khris Davis deal looked solid day-of, but has declined every year since as Jacob Nottingham matures into a back-up-catcher-with-pop profile and Bubba Derby remains a relief prospect).

Previous:
Cashing Out OFP 2 (Midseason 2017)

Related:
Roster Surplus and Depth Questions
Refining WARP and OFP Pricing
2013 Prospect Class: Impact

Even the crown jewel of the system features rather extreme question marks for advanced minors prospects, as Lewis Brinson is a 70 OFP, potential All-Star Centerfielder that Baseball Prospectus christened with the risk note, “He may not hit major-league pitching. Wheeee!;” Luis Ortiz maintains a solid 50-55 OFP 3/4 starter, but as the innings pitched base fails to advance that “set up reliever” role looms larger and larger; Ryan Cordell was cashed out for Anthony Swarzak, a perfectly assessed trade ($0.0 day-of surplus, a perfectly even swap) to bolster the MLB roster that improved the club’s chances of reaching the playoffs. That Stearns cashed out Cordell’s role risk and repetition within the system at the perfect time leads one to wonder whether he’ll have the acumen to accomplish the same with Brinson and Ortiz, or whether the Brewers will go “all-in” with the risk profiles of both prospects. If you’re disinclined to desire Brinson as a headliner in a Chris Archer-type deal, recall superstar Carlos Gomez, who took three MLB teams to hit; in the case of Go-Go Gomez, would you have rather traded the all-tools, slow-growing CF for Johan Santana or J.J. Hardy?

What Happened? (Traded) Total Surplus ($M) What Happened? (Received) Total Surplus ($M) Balance ($M)
Lucroy (-$6.4) & Jeffress (-$0.9) / Lucroy trade ($8.0) / Jeffress trade (-$2.9) -2.2 Brinson (-$1.1) & Swarzak ($8.4) / Brinson to 60-70 OFP / Ortiz (50-55) / Cordell trade $0.0 89.4 91.6
T. Thornburg (Injury) / 2Arb Control 4.2 T. Shaw 4.2 WARP / Dubon & Pennington no change / Y. Coco (40-45) 76.1 71.9
Sneed (no change) 1.4 J. Villar 5.5 WARP 69.3 67.9
J. Rogers DFA / Rogers -0.2 WARP 0.5 Broxton 2.3 WARP / Supak (40-50) 41.9 41.4
F. Rodriguez 0.6 WARP -5.1 Pina 1.7 WARP / Betancourt no change 24.3 29.4
Lind -0.8 WARP / free agent -7.5 Peralta (45-50) / Herrera (40-50); Missaki no change 17.8 25.3
W. Smith (Injury) / 2Arb Control 6.2 Susac & Bickford no change 2.3 -3.9
Maldonado 2.5 WARP / Maldonado 2018 / Gagnon no change 23.1 J. Bandy -0.4 WARP 0.5 -22.6
K. Davis 4.9 WARP / 2Arb Control 55.2 J. Nottingham solid 45 OFP OFP / B. Derby soliad 45 OFP 2.8 -52.4
Segura (8.1) & Wagner (0.2) / Segura extension ($91.9 surplus) / Segura trade & Wagner lost (-$3.2M) 146.8 C. Anderson (1.3) & A. Hill / A. Wilkerson (2.2) / Anderson extension (-$5.9 surplus) / I. Diaz 50-55 / A. Hill (Wilkerson / Rijo) 34.0 -112.8
222.6 358.4 135.8

What makes it difficult to assess Stearns’s trades thus far is that most of them feature nebulous concepts that cannot be captured at one point in time. The Adam Lind trade is a great example of this type of gamble, and it remains one of the GM’s best trades until (or, arguably, even if) none of the high-risk RHP reach the MLB. Even the Jonathan Villar trade is difficult to capture in terms of overall value; Villar is an incredibly useful MLB player, one that can offer a profile that is all-risk, all-discipline, solid power and speed around the diamond (see 2016), but one that can simply fail to click in a given year (as 2017 showed). To some extent, even the Khris Davis trade remains difficult to assess in terms of upside, for as Jacob Nottingham continues to improve catching defense (according to several scouting reports from 2016-2017), a “back-up catcher with pop” becomes somewhat intriguing (there are not many of those lying around, even if Brewers fans have recent memories of Jett Bandy they are wishing to shed).

The Jean Segura-Chase Anderson trade should demonstrate the difficulty of assessing trades in general, as well as the difficult of assessing Stearns’s trade. Since the Brewers traded a contract reserve player (Segura), they traded significant surplus, and now that surplus is further extended by the Mariners (since Segura has performed quite well in his change of scenery). But, nearly every Brewers fan knows that this surplus was not “real” in Milwaukee, or not applicable in Milwaukee; Segura was working on mechanical adjustments, and completely retooled his mechanics with the Brewers organization, to no avail. He literally ran out of time in Milwaukee, and is an example (like Villar) of how players can thrive with new opportunities (and, probably, new coaching and new vantage points on mechanical adjustments). Chase Anderson, on the other hand, pitched his first better-than-replacement WARP in 2017, thanks to mechanical adjustments and arsenal / approach adjustments. Anderson is to Milwaukee as Segura is to Arizona and Seattle, in this sense, but Anderson’s contract extension does not agree with his historical performance. One is inclined to price Anderson at his 2017 maximum, or even suggest that the righty can further improve, but this is not included in this surplus assessment. So, the Anderson-Segura trade looks awful, even including Isan Diaz’s excellent prospect surplus value to Milwaukee; my inclination is to criticize this ranking, and also learn from it: why are we, as Brewers fans, insistent that this is a typically good trade? Why might the trade be a bad one for Milwaukee? Or an indifferent organizational event?

What Happened? (Traded) Total Surplus ($M) What Happened? (Received) Total Surplus ($M) Balance ($M)
Fiers ($11.4) & Gomez (-$15.2) / both lost -3.8 Santana (4.8) & Hader (0.7) / Phillips 50-60 / Houser 40 112.4 116.2
G. Parra -0.5 WARP -5.8 Z. Davies 6.1 WARP 82.5 88.3
J. Broxton 0.9 WARP 5.1 M. Collymore released (no change) -0.8 -5.9
-4.5 194.1 198.6

Of course, the other problem is that former President Doug Melvin is simply smoking Stearns in terms of overall surplus returned to the organization. Obviously, this could serve as a lesson for Stearns’s trades (be patient, look what Domingo Santana and Zach Davies turned into), but Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz should not necessarily be viewed as 1:1 comparisons to Santana and Davies.

If 2017 was the year that the Brewers proved worthy of contending consideration, 2018 may be the year that defines Stearns’s tenure, both in terms of his ability to deliver a playoff appearance (that is absolutely one criterion for assessing a successful 2018; failure to make the playoffs in 2018 is a knock against the organization) and in terms of delivering on the future surplus of his major outstanding trades (either weave Brinson and Ortiz into immediate MLB wins, cashing out the surplus that way, or make the correct decision to wait out Brinson’s risk at the MLB level. No pressure!).

 


 

On Theory

In presenting the above trade tables, I would like to reply to some common criticisms of my surplus model, and speak to the current “Wins Above Replacement don’t mean Wins” controversy that is spreading around the Internet.

  • First, one criticism of expressing Overall Future Potential (OFP) in monetary terms is that OFP is an extremely abstract concept that includes many components.
    • On a recent Milwaukee’s Tailgate podcast, former BPMilwaukee-Chief J.P. Breen described these shortcomings in useful, succinct terms: OFP includes everything from a player’s potential top ceiling to their position within a system (are they at Class-A or Class-AAA?) to multiple sources of scouting profile risk (which might be described as a player’s “floor.” Is their floor “useful MLB depth” or “won’t reach the MLB”? That’s a huge difference).
    • Ryan Topp added an excellent point about assessing a prospect’s ultimate ceiling as something that may never be attainable precisely because of risk; his example of Brewers RF prospect Demi Orimoloye was perfect, as Topp noted that if one was simply assessing Brewers prospects by absolute ceiling, Orimoloye would have one of the strongest, but his rawness and development distance from the MLB simply cloud that ultimate ceiling beyond usefulness.
    • I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not ignore these concerns, and in fact take them very seriously, while acknowledging that an OFP surplus rank is indeed one snapshot in time. This is why I use post-hoc analysis to return to surplus rankings during each season and during offseasons, and to judge trades and prospect rankings at one point in time (such as midseason 2015 for Josh Hader) as well as years later (such as preseason 2017 Josh Hader, and now, useful MLB reliever Josh Hader).
    • That one player such as Josh Hader can take a journey from 50 OFP to 60 OFP to #3 Starter Prospect to Impact MLB reliever should show the usefulness of tracking this concept over time (this also provides data to assess the type of “role appreciation” or “role depreciation” that occurs over time).
    • So, think of an assessment of OFP Surplus as “the future value a prospect potentially offers an organization, depreciated by historical risk.” One of the benefits of baseball analysis is that even as the game changes, there remain many congruent roles throughout generations, and so tracking the historical value of one type of OFP grade (such as 70 OFP from the 2013 Baseball Prospectus Top 10 list) can be calibrated with the history of the game (what is the projected value of each class of player, expressed over 18,000 careers?).

 

  • Similar criticisms are made against using WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) to assess a player’s future surplus value.
    • In my analyses, I use a harsh depreciation tactic to discount future production, using the general assumption that injuries, ineffectiveness, and aging curves affect MLB players, and that WARP is hardly a linear concept from year-to-year.
    • Additionally, recent discussion has questioned the relationship between wins and WARP, a position to which Jonathan Judge has provided excellent critique. There is not much to this debate that I can add that Judge has not already covered, but it is worth emphasizing that common fan, analyst, and writer usage of WARP fails to treat the metric as a tool to assess marginal performance.
    • In a sense, WARP cannot track with wins because its purpose is not to assess wins; if you want to assess wins, wins occur at the team level, not the individual level, and it is spurious logic to breach that fact with a basic question about whether individual players can be assessed their fair share of “wins.”
    • WARP is valuable precisely because it abstracts players from wins, and instead assesses them on marginal concepts (beginning with the relationship between Runs Scored and Runs Allowed, and the assumption that a minor league player would have a different production value should they be called up to replace an MLB regular). With this assumption in mind, WARP is perfectly transactional; it can be translated into dollars (typically assumed to be paid on the “free agency market”), and it can be used to compare players across teams, park environments, and leagues.
    • Keeping this in mind, it baffled me that Bill James would raise such a critique of WAR-family stats in the first place, for his criticism simply missed the concept validity of the statistic (i.e., you can’t ask a statistic to measure something it was not intended to measure). So, I understand that WARP is a problematic stat in many cases, but for the purpose of translating MLB trades into value statements, it is an excellent snapshot statistic that should indeed be updated by post-hoc analysis in every case.

 

  • Again, these are value snapshots at one point in time. I believe my trade assessment method works precisely because MLB teams do indeed trade immediate MLB wins for future MLB wins (in the form of prospect potential), they do indeed trade players for cash and prospects (in many different combinations), and I hypothesize that because these transactions occur and we know they occur, we can measure their effectiveness. Obviously, a quantitative analysis based on surplus is not the only way a trade can be judged. A trade can be judged in terms of franchise narrative, in terms of player narrative (ex., “needs a change of scenery”), or even through different quantitative means (MLB trades could simply be assessed in terms of scouting grades on the player “tools” exchanged in the deal. This would be an entirely different system of analysis than the one I use).

 

  • Keep in mind that these trade assessments are not absolute, they are not even intended to “hold” over long periods of time (ex., “day-of trade value” is crucial to assessing a team’s motives for a trade, but it is hardly the only point in time a trade should be assessed). But, since the Brewers spent July 2015-July 2016 rebuilding the franchise, I found it worthwhile to track the value of trades, since the value of the club would not simply be judged in terms of absolute team wins over that time period.

 

Photo Credit: Richard Jackson, USAToday Sports Images

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