Don’t retrospectively judge Cabrera trade


Because of the abundance of Marlins news in this hectic week, what once was an important topic in the recent trades of Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin has become a bit of a backburner story. However, this is a thought I have had in mind for this past week since the trades happened, and a recent Twitter discussion with Paul Sporer of Eye of the Tigers (with a quick jump-in from Jason Collette of Dock of the Rays) got me thinking about it thoroughly.

Now that the Marlins have dealt away both Maybin and Miller, the team is left with just Burke Badenhop as the sole representative of what once was a promising haul. Many people would be tempted to call this trade a “loss” having seen the results of the haul the Marlins received. While the use of the terms “win” and “loss” is a discussion on semantics, I do want to defend the thought process that went into initially making the trade. No matter what the results have shown now, it is incorrect to make judgment on the decision and the return of the trade itself based on information we know now. In other words, it is unfair to criticize the Marlins’ front office about the trade using information they, and indeed no one, had access to, particularly how the players involved were going to perform in 2010 and beyond.

The trade, at the time

Any judgment that can be made about the deal has to be made with the information all parties had at the time of the trade. To do anything else would be completely unfair to either side and to the players involved. I had considered this question once before, but let’s tackle it once more. At the time of the deal, Cabrera was looking like a superstar already. He had had three straight seasons with better than a .320 AVG and .560 SLG. His single-season wOBA from 2005 to 2007 were consistently high, ranging from .399 in 2005 to .413 in 2006. He had hit 33 or more home runs in three of his first five seasons. The Marlins had bought just enough time on his arbitration that they were actually able to squeeze out another arbitration-eligible season and delay his impending free agency an extra year. The Marlins essentially had a star hitter on their hands, easily worth +40 runs every year with the bat.

However, he was also getting pretty thick for a third baseman; he filled out not only in terms of muscles but in sheer girth. As a result, he ended up being a terrible third baseman, at least according to most scouting reports. Marlins fans at the end of 2007 rated Cabrera as a 40 (on a scale of 100) neutral defender, which ranked as the 40th best in the league among the 57 players rated that season (to give you an idea, he rated similarly to rookie sensation and gloved disaster Ryan Braun). UZR is the only one of the major systems that rated him decently in those two seasons in 2006 and 2007 in which he played primarily third base, putting him at around the -5 run level. The remaining systems had him at catastrophic -15 run defender. Let’s split the difference and call it -10 runs, which makes a lot of sense since the Tigers decided to move Cabrera to first base the following year, essentially making up for the positional scarcity difference between third and first.

So if you peg Cabrera as a +40 run hitter and a defensively average first baseman, you would get a value of 5 WAR for the year. This sounds perfectly fair given his previous production, though I’d be willing to push that to even 5.5 WAR. The Marlins had Cabrera under control for another two seasons, but those seasons were going to be costly. He had earned himself a $7.4M payday in his first arbitration year, pretty much assuring that the Marlins would be paying something like $10M and $15M for the next two seasons. At $4.5M / WAR, Cabrera would have garnered a surplus value of $22.5M, due largely to the huge arbitration salaries he would have undoubtedly earned.

Of course, Dontrelle Willis had to be expected to earn some amount as well. Willis had two seasons left with the team and had already earned a decent amount (approximately $6.5M in his second year of Super Two arbitration). With his rapid decline, you had to expect that he was no longer the ace he once was, so let’s conservatively give him a value of 2.5 WAR per season for those two years, yielding $4M in surplus assuming salaries of $8.5M and $10M during arbitration. Thus, the total package that left towards Detroit was worth $26.5M.

That remains a hefty package, no doubt, but the Marlins were given two premium prospects in return. Miller was ranked seventh in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects before 2007, and Maybin was ranked eighth going into 2008. Using Victor Wang’s research values, Maybin alone would have been worth $36.5M in surplus, not including Miller’s $15.2M value.

Projection plays an important role

Now of course, that is an estimation based on past research, but individual players can hold individual value. As Collette aptly pointed out in this tweet, projection of prospects is the most important part of a trade like this. The Baseball America rankings tell you one aspect of the story on these guys, but what did the scouts on the Marlins see and how could it have affected this package? I had my share of trepidation about Miller given his age and lack of development out of college, so let’s assume half of the value that he was expected to give (something like $7M in surplus). And if you were uncomfortable with Maybin and his potentially uncertain future, you can knock him down a peg as well.

One of the arguments that Paul made with regards to this trade is that you had to be certain that, with a star like Cabrera, you were going to get good value from your prospects. I disagree for a couple of reasons, but let’s particularly deal with the aspect of “certainty.” As Jason mentioned, projection is important, so did the Marlins fail at projecting Maybin and Miller? It may surprise you to hear that we cannot actually be sure of that. As an example, let’s look at a simplified example of what the Marlins could have expected from Maybin:

40% chance he becomes a solid, regular CF (.260/.330/.420, +5 runs on defense, between 2 – 3 WAR per year for six controlled seasons)
25% chance he becomes a superstar (.290/.380/.500, +10 runs on defense, between 4 – 6 WAR per year)
35% chance he busts (use his current career line, -5 runs on defense, around 0 WAR per season)

Maybe the mean there is an expectation of 2.4 WAR per season, an expected value of close to $42M (yes, young pre-arbitration players are very, very valuable, regardless of how well they play). If the Marlins felt like he was this good, they would be correct in evaluating him as extremely valuable and acquiring him in the deal, even though he still has the chance to bust. No prospect is a guarantee, high ranking or otherwise. The Marlins may have scouted Maybin and arrived at this sort of conclusion regarding his odds of becoming a decent player, then simply gotten unlucky on the 35% chance of busting. Even if they appropriately evaluated his potential future talent given the known information, including any scouting data, they could still have the result that has happened so far in this trade.

Labels, labels

Ultimately it doesn’t matter what bloggers like me label this trade. Calling it a “win” or a “loss” is just an easy way to refer to the deal when looking back at it. The key to appropriate analysis of the decision itself is to look at the information the teams had available before. Could the Marlins have overvalued Miller or Maybin? Sure, they could have; without asking them or being involved in the meetings prior to the trade, I wouldn’t know. But the trade at the time seemed fair given Cabrera’s contract situation and Maybin’s prospect potential. The fact that both he and Miller busted is unfortunate, and you may call it a loss now. But in 2007, it was not a loss, and the decision at the time was the only thing that mattered back then, and it should only be judged by information from back then,