Gonzalez, Cabrera, and trading stars for prospects


Over the weekend, San Diego Padres fans had to witness the inevitable in the trading of superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the Boston Red Sox for a trio of prospects and a player to be named later. Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk wondered whether this trade will work out well for the Padres and said this line in particular that caught my eye:

"Obviously, in structure, this is the McGriff trade, inasmuch as the Padres are giving up the superstar. And, as most people who follow such things will tell you, if you’re giving up the best player in the deal, you probably lost the deal."

This line struck me as intriguing because the Marlins actually went through that exact situation a few years ago, and that situation mirrored the one that the Padres had on their hands. After the terrible 2007 season, the Marlins knew that they were running out of time with superstar Miguel Cabrera and decided that they had to trade him. While he was still under team control for two more seasons, the Marlins were going to owe him a lot of money in arbitration (he was paid $7.4M in his first season of arbitration), so his value was deflated much in the same way as Gonzalez’ was for having only one season left in his contract.

What I wanted to talk about was the idea that teams who trade away the best players in the deal are often the “losers” of the deal in the future. A lot of it goes back to how you evaluate trades and whether it is correct to make judgments on a deal after the prospects have begun to develop. I am of the opinion that, if Padres fans want to judge this trade appropriately, they have to judge it with the information they have right now and not look back at it retrospectively after the prospects either fail or succeed.

Gonzalez, the player vs. Gonzalez, the asset

Often times, fans think that teams are trading a player when what they reallyare doing is trading an asset. It may sound cold and calculated to say it that way, but baseball is a business among other things, and the people who run these teams have to treat it as such. Just like the Marlins really had only two high-priced (but still valuable) seasons left with Cabrera, the Padres did not have Gonzalez so much as they had Gonzalez’ production at his ridiculously low salary for only one more season. The fact that he was only locked in through the 2011 season fuddles with the value math a lot, as it makes Gonzalez the asset a lot less valuable.

Right now, Gonzalez is likely a +40 or so hitter and an above average defensive first baseman, making him a decent bet for 5.5 WAR in 2011. At $4.5M / WAR, teams are going to value his expected season at a price of $24.75M, which is a huge surplus compared to his paltry $6.3M salary. That yields a surplus of $18.45M; at $5M / WAR, that value goes up to $21.2M. That is the value the Padres were peddling, and that is the sort of return the team was attempting to get.

Why no major leaguers?

A lot of people were disappointed when the Padres were unable to get a major league talent in return from the Red Sox. The problem once again lies in the fact that it is very difficult to acquire young, cost-controlled major league talent for any asset that you trade. Gonzalez’ single-season surplus value of $18-21M is impressive, as was Cabrera’s value of $22.5M calculated in the above linked article, but consider the benefit that any solid major leaguer who resides in your system for five or six seasons can bring:

Season 1: 1.0 WAR, $4.5M surplus
Season 2:  1.5 WAR, $7.4M surplus
Season 3: 2.0 WAR, approx. $6.48M surplus
Season 4: 2.0 WAR,  approx. $4.48M surplus
Season 5: 2.0 WAR, approx. $2.32M surplus

Total: 8.5 WAR, $25.2M surplus

Consider a player like Ryan Kalish, a guy who made it to the majors due to the Red Sox numerous injury problems and had 179 decent PA for the Sox while playing center field. Prior to 2010, you may not be able to draw this as the most likely curve for five seasons of Kalish. But after this past season, maybe you feel a little more certain about his chances of performing that well. Pegging him as close to average over the next five or six seasons would yield almost as much value as Gonzalez has in his one remaining season.

Now, teams may not look at it that way, but that is why it is so difficult to acquire guys who are major league ready when giving up stars on short-term deals. Would the Marlins have loved to get a guy like Curtis Granderson instead of Cameron Maybin from the Tigers? Yes, but because everyone knew more about Granderson (just throwing out a name, he probably was never involved in trade talks), he was more valuable to the Tigers than Cabrera would have been. Thus, the Marlins settled for prospects, and the Padres had to in this case as well.

Can you ever win with prospects?

Let’s get back to that Calcaterra quote. Can prospects ever pan out? Sure, of course they can. But how often do they? Everyone has examples of trades that work out and those that don’t ultimately. Cabrera is a solid example of one where the team receiving prospects did not eventually get their money’s worth, but what about this deal:

"[Mark Teixeira] Traded by the Texas Rangers with Ron Mahay to the Atlanta Braves for Beau Jones (minors), Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia."

That one worked out very well for the Texas Rangers, as they received two players in Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus who will be contributors for years to come. Not that the Atlanta Braves weren’t happy with Mark Teixeira‘s 6.2 WAR in his full season with him. What about this trade?

"[Bartolo Colon] Traded by the Cleveland Indians with Tim Drew to the Montreal Expos for Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens."

That Bartolo Colon trade is widely viewed as one of the worst in the history of the game. The point is that prospects pan out and don’t pan out, and examples of each side can be thought of. The key is to examine what everyone knows about the players involved at the time of the deal. As has been examined in other places, the haul coming back to the Padres seems legitimate, as the prospects are ranked decently enough to be worth one year of Gonzalez. Similarly, the Marlins had to be happy to get two players who were ranked highly in the Tigers organization, even if they had their share of problems. Maybe the Marlins thought they could fix Maybin’s swing or Miller’s mechanics. Maybe Jed Hoyer knows more about the Red Sox prospects than other teams do, and can better evaluate them. Those are things that GM’s are paid for, and we as fans will generally give them the benefit of the doubt.

Move on

Ultimately, you have to move on from these deals. They may be heartbreakers, especially when they involve a popular player who happens to a hometown guy, but baseball is just as much a business as it is something for fans to watch and enjoy. In the case of Cabrera, the Marlins were certainly not going to be able to afford him and had to trade him to get as much value as they could. For the Padres, the team was unlikely to repeat the success it had last season and opted to receive more tangible value for Gonzalez rather than draft picks. They were both agreeable decisions that were painful but probably correct in the long run. Whether they seem correct three or four years later remains to be seen, but I think the thought process that the Padres had here was the right one.