Assessing the Value of MLB's Top Trade Deadline Targets

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJuly 23, 2014

Assessing the Value of MLB's Top Trade Deadline Targets

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    Value is all in the eyes of the beholder. As Major League Baseball's July 31 trade deadline rapidly approaches, general managers must decipher how much certain players are worth.

    Exchanging a human being for another human being is cruel when you think about it, so try not to think about it. Instead, let's determine which available players will provide the most fruitful contribution on the baseball diamond.

    Around this time of year, a select batch of veterans on downtrodden teams appear all over the rumor mill. Even now and then someone else will get dealt without warning, but fans following all the buzz know the names to monitor in the week before the deadline.

    I'll round out the analysis of these top targets with an easily digestible number grade encapsulating each player's trade value on a scale from one to 10. Along with past and present production, age and contracts are also taken into account.

    Most players on the trade market are veterans due for a raise either this offseason or next winter. After all, why else would their respective teams want to dump them? That hurts their value since they'll either command a higher salary or leave for greener pastures.

    Also take into account that I'm not going to toss out 10s willy-nilly like T-shirts at a minor league game. The perfect score is reserved for young, affordable superstars like Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper.

    Basically, someone who deserves a 10 won't find themselves on this list, because a general manager would have to be insane to trade him.

    The value metrics and assorted order are based on how I gauge their worth, even though the old guard will devote more attention to wins, saves, RBI and name recognition. Yes, Jonathan Papelbon will garner more attention than Joaquin Benoit, but I'm taking the latter if presented the choice.

    You might also ask who makes a nine-person list. Blame the New York Yankees for selfishly acquiring Chase Headley on Tuesday. For what it's worth, the former San Diego Padres' third baseman originally ranked No. 6 with a 7.0 rating before getting scooped off the market.

    That's enough setup already. Let's get to it before the deadline passes.


    Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs. Contract information obtained via Cot's Baseball Contracts.

If Available...

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    Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies

    Troy Tulowitzki is a shortstop hitting .340/.432/.603 with 21 home runs and a National League leading 5.0 fWAR. Jhonny Peralta is the only other shortstop worth more than three wins so far. If the Colorado Rockies seriously marketed their prized possession, they’d be right to expect a plethora of first-class youngsters in return.

    His injury history—which added another chapter Tuesday with another trip to the disabled list—raises some fear, and he won't sustain that crazy slash line away from Coors Field. And yet, baseball's best shortstop by a mile is still one of the game's most valuable players. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron slotted him at No. 6 in his MLB trade-value rankings.

    Trade Value: 9.5/10


    Cole Hamels, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

    One of the game's premier aces, Cole Hamels has posted a 2.83 ERA after starting the season late. Everyone is smart enough to look past his 12-19 record over his past 50 starts to rightfully appraise the 30-year-old as a top-flight starter. This includes the Philadelphia Phillies, who are "telling teams that Cole Hamels is not available," according to ESPN's Buster Olney (subscription required).

    Trade Value: 8.5/10


    Steve Cishek, RP, Miami Marlins

    According to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, Steve Cishek's name "is starting to come up in trade talks." Considering the closer is 28 with more time left on his arbitration window, there's no reason for the Miami Marlins to move him unless they're blown away with an amazing offer.

    Despite recent struggles ballooning his ERA to 3.40, Cishek owns a career-low 2.03 FIP and personal-best 10.84 K/9 rate. If the Marlins are seriously shopping him, he becomes the most valuable reliever on the market.

    Trade Value: 7.5/10

Missed the Cut

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    Josh Willingham, OF, Minnesota Twins

    A shell of the slugger who belted 35 homers in 2012, Josh Willingham has fluttered over the past two seasons, batting .208 last year and .212 in 2014 with 23 combined long balls. The 35-year-old's one saving grace is his .358 on-base percentage, fueled by a 16.7 percent walk rate.

    Trade Value: 5.5/10


    A.J. Burnett, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

    Brilliant last year with a 2.80 FIP, 9.85 K/9 rate and 56.5 ground-ball percentage, A.J. Burnett is hardly the same man this season with a 3.99 FIP, 7.44 K/9 ratio and 49.6 percent ground-ball rate. Considering the 37-year-old contemplated retirement last winter, any buyers can't plan on gaining more than a two-month rental.

    Trade Value: 5.5/10


    Jake Peavy, SP, Boston Red Sox

    A hot target last year, Jake Peavy has lost luster on the trade block due to his 4.72 ERA. Besides, a recent hot streak has the Red Sox back in arm's reach of a playoff spot.

    Trade Value: 5.2/10

9. Jonathan Papelbon, RP, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Jonathan Papelbon is having a fine year at the tail end of the Phillies' bullpen, sporting a 1.34 ERA and 23 saves in 26 chances. If Ruben Amaro Jr. is smart, he'll cash out now.

    Despite the magnificent run production, which is ultimately the main point of pitching, some warning signs raise concerns going forward. For starters, his BABIP—which has not veered lower than .275 since 2007—currently rests at .224. He posted a .296 BABIP in each of the past two seasons, so batted balls hit off him should begin finding empty space upon returning to the mean.

    Then there's the fact that he hadn't surrendered a single home run all season, before Buster Posey snapped the streak Tuesday night. It is still pretty impressive, considering 47.6 percent of balls hit against him are fly balls, and he plays in a compact Citizens Bank Park.

    It's also highly unlikely to last.

    More concerning are his continually declining strikeout rates. His K/9 rate has dropped each of the past three years, starting at 12.17 in 2011 and dwindling to 7.75 this year. To be fair, his strikeout percentage and swinging strikeout percentage are slightly higher than last year, so he should improve closer to 2013's 7.81 K/9 mark.

    His velocity has decreased in each of those years as well, slipping from an average fastball speed of 95 miles per hour three years ago to 91.4 this year. With that, he has harnessed more control while inducing weaker contact. His line-drive rates have taken a ride down as well, so the argument could be made that he's not worse, but different.

    Nevertheless, teams covet power arms in the pen, and deteriorating stuff will likely spell trouble down the road at a position where stars regularly flame out.

    Papelbon is still a highly effective reliever, but he is no longer the top closer from his days with the Boston Red Sox, whose gaudy numbers persuaded the Phillies to cough up more than $50 million over four years. Few teams can afford to shell out $15 million next year for 60-70 innings from a 34-year-old with eroding velocity.


    Trade Value: 6/10

8. Joaquin Benoit, RP, San Diego Padres

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    The San Diego Padres already pawned off one of their top relief pitchers, sending Huston Street to the Los Angeles Angels for a bundle of intriguing prospects.

    They can continue to parlay their bullpen arms into young talent by dealing Joaquin Benoit, who has emerged as one of the game's premium relievers, even if he doesn't receive ample credit while working the set-up role.

    Dating back to 2010, Benoit has accrued a 2.47 ERA, ranking No. 11 among all relievers with 300 innings pitched and No. 15 with a 5.2 fWAR over that stretch. While seven starters surpassed that calculated value last season alone, the late-inning hurler is one of the best at his craft.

    He finally got a crack at closing last year, and he was one of many middle relievers to refute the "proven closer" theory.

    During his 11th major league season, Benoit recorded a 2.01 ERA and 24 saves for the Detroit Tigers. Upon returning to the eighth, business as usual has resumed with a 1.99 ERA, but he'll now reclaim closing duties if he remains in San Diego.

    Although forfeiting his new promotion is worth it to shift to a contender, the righty would gravely miss Petco Park, where he boasts a 1.14 ERA and .115/.171/.184 opposing slash line. Buyers must take that into account before inflating his value away from San Diego.

    A more consistent option than his former peer, the 36-year-old is arguably a better option than Street, who commanded an array of valuable assets from an Angels squad desperate to keep up with the Oakland Athletics. He'll also remain under contract for one extra year at $7.75 million, but his age and lack of prolonged ninth-inning success will block the Padres from finding a similar deal again.


    Trade Value: 6.5/10

7. Bartolo Colon, SP, New York Mets

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    Come on—did you expect the soft-tossing 41-year-old to replicate his 2.65 ERA from 2013? Bartolo Colon is not the ace from last year, nor was he paid like it during free agency.

    He has consumed innings in bunches, lasting at least seven frames in 12 of 19 starts for the New York Mets. Currently at 126.2 innings pitched, he could log 200 innings for the first time since 2005, when he erroneously won the American League Cy Young Award over Johan Santana.

    While his 4.12 ERA is nothing special, his 3.58 FIP is much better. For that he can thank a career-high 5.28 K/BB ratio, which ranks No. 10 among all starters. Allowing 17 earned runs in his past four starts, however, will not attract bidders searching for an instant spark.

    Far behind the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves in the National League East, the Mets can comfortably ship out Colon to make room for their younger arms. Injuries typically slice through a pitching surplus, but without the veteran, they'll still have a full rotation with Noah Syndergaard biding his time in the minors.

    The two-year, $20 million deal Colon signed before 2014 represents a fair price. If Edwin Jackson can net $11 million a year, a contender in need of starting pitching shouldn't balk on paying Colon that much next season.

    As long as he continues to attack the plate with pinpoint accuracy, his output should even out over the closing two months. He's obviously nothing more than a temporary solution, but the Angels, Yankees and San Francisco Giants could currently use him. 


    Trade Value: 6.6/10

6. Marlon Byrd, OF, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Last season, Marlon Byrd's file screamed "sell high" so loudly that no team bit until the Pittsburgh Pirates finally took him off the New York Mets' hands. Eager to make their first postseason appearance in over two decades, even they waited until after the deadline.

    Despite hitting .285/.330/.511 with the Mets, Byrd could not fetch Sandy Alderson a significant prospect. Nobody wanted to pay a premium for a 36-year-old outfielder playing over his head in a contract year.

    Byrd again finds himself on the trading block, as the Phillies are finally coming to grips with their status as a bottom-dweller. This time around, he should snag his squad something sweeter in return.

    While his $16 million contract over two years felt like a curious move at the time, it has materialized as a relative bargain. He has declined a bit, with his average the main offender due to a 28.9 strikeout percentage. His age has also shown on the field and basepaths, but he provides enhanced power that is hard to find these days.

    Despite his shortcomings, Byrd has crushed 19 home runs while sporting a .483 slugging percentage.  If he entered free agency this winter, his second straight year of power production would land him more than $8 million a season.

    The Seattle Mariners, entrenched in the American League playoff hunt but lacking big boppers, are a logical destination. A potential roadblock exists, however, as the outfielder reportedly wants Seattle to guarantee his 2016 vesting offer for him to waive his limited no-trade clause, per ESPN's Jim Bowden (subscription required).

    Don't rule out the Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds as possible suitors, but neither is close enough nor wealthy enough to overpay for a slugger who turns 37 on Aug. 30. Philadelphia should gain at least one intriguing prospect for its troubles, but not a top talent.


    Trade Value: 6.8/10

5. Joakim Soria, RP, Texas Rangers

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    Upon bursting on the scene with the Kansas Royals to start his career, Joakim Soria quickly established himself as one of baseball's finest closers. Elbow troubles derailed his bright career, placing him on the shelf for nearly two years, but he has somehow returned better than ever.

    That's saying something for a reliever who generated a 1.87 ERA, 9.97 K/9 rate and 115 saves from 2008-10. After earning the Texas Rangers' closing gig this spring, the 30-year-old has returned to glory with a 2.70 ERA, 42 strikeouts and four walks through 33.1 innings.

    OK—so the ERA isn't better, but only Sean Doolittle wields a more efficient mixture of strikeouts per walk. The latest Tommy John surgery success story, Soria has the best strikeout and walk rates (11.34 K/9, 1.08 BB/9) of his career, generating a microscopic 1.07 FIP.

    Unfortunately, his talents are currently wasted on the Rangers, who have free-fallen due to a bevy of injuries. No reliever in the world can fix a 40-60 club, so they might as well explore their options.

    They're doing just that. Per's T.R. Sullivan and Grace Raynor, the Rangers will trade him, but they're seeking a "substantial package" in return. The Angels didn't do teams interested in Soria any favors by paying the moon for Street.

    Few relievers have exceeded Soria's production this season, but small sample sizes often yield scattered results. Their ERAs say differently, but Texas' closer is pitching better than Street—and any other available reliever—this season.

    Bullpen arms enjoy an uptick in value with squads eager to bolster the roster for the fall, so the Rangers' price is deservedly high.


    Trade Value: 7/10

4. Ian Kennedy, SP, San Diego Padres

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    Following an incredible 2011 season, Ian Kennedy took several steps backwards during the following two years, placing the righty in peril of becoming a cautionary tale. Given another chance on the Padres, he has revitalized his career with a 3.62 ERA and 2.98 FIP.

    On first thought, it's easy to attribute all the credit to Petco Park, but he has a 4.18 ERA in his spacious home compared to a 3.06 road ERA. Instead, his own merit deserves the praise.

    A loss of control founded his 2013 struggles. Typically in command, Kennedy walked 3.63 batters per nine innings, causing a dastardly 4.91 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. This year, his BB/9 ratio has normalized to 2.57.

    His 137 strikeouts through 129.1 innings also offers cause for celebration. Usually fanning around eight batters per nine innings, he is tallying more punch-outs than ever before, while throwing his fastball harder than he did during the past four years.

    Kennedy, 29, has put himself in position for a big payday this offseason. Before that comes, he'll likely audition for that raise away from San Diego, who have yet another piece to dangle around the league in its quest for offensive upgrades.

    The inconsistency factor will keep some teams honest, but a starter who takes the mound every time up  is a precious asset. Even the Kennedy who recorded a 4.02 ERA through 208.2 innings in 2012 makes a solid No. 3 starter for most organizations.


    Trade Value: 7.5/10

3. Cliff Lee, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Cliff Lee knows the drill by now. He has endured this rodeo before, becoming a crunchy trade chip with the Phillies out of playoff contention—except now, he's just returning from an elbow injury that cost him two months, which could make things interesting before the deadline.

    Teams would likely shell out more for Hamels, but CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reported that the Phillies also value him more than Lee.

    "The strong belief, based on talks so far with the Phillies, is that the team would much prefer to trade Cliff Lee than Cole Hamels," Heyman wrote July 18.

    There's no doubting Lee's greatness ever since revitalizing his career during his 2008 Cy Young campaign. From that season onward, only four starters have hurled more innings than Lee (1,407.1), and he's just 7.2 frames shy of passing the injured C.C. Sabathia on that list. The southpaw's 38.6 fWAR over those six-plus seasons rank No. 2 behind Justin Verlander, and nobody comes close to Lee's 6.14 K/BB rate.

    But thoughts of Roy Halladay may make Philadelphia queasy. The former ace was 35 when he snapped a six-year streak of amassing at least 220 innings a season, registering a 4.49 ERA in 156.1 frames. He continued to unravel for another injury-riddled year before calling it quits at age 36.

    Lee will turn 36 on Aug. 30 (he can have a birthday party with Byrd if they both stay in Philly). While he was effective (3.18 ERA, 6.78 K/BB ratio) before landing on the disabled list, his velocity tumbled, dropping one mile per hour from 90.7 in 2013 to 89.7 after clocking an 91.7 average speed two years ago.

    He'll also earn another $25 million next year. Per Cot's Contracts, a $27.5 million vesting option will activate in 2016 if he "is not on the disabled list at end of 2015 season with injury to left elbow or left shoulder" and "has 200 IP in 2015 or 400 IP in 2014-15."

    By that point, his employer will probably root against him reaching those barometers.

    Lee's age, contract and past precedent of workhorse aces wearing down—seeing his past compared to Sabathia and Verlander is ominous after their downfalls—dip into the ace's value, but a club hungry for immediate results may still see an elite ace and sell the farm.


    Trade Value: 8/10

2. Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Ben Zobrist isn't the star we're conditioned to admire. A career .263 hitter who hasn't tallied more than 20 homers in a season since his 2009 breakout campaign, his numbers don't pop off the page or jibe with the traditional benchmarks attached to baseball's A-list talent.

    Yet, from 2009 to 2013, only Miguel Cabrera and Evan Longoria accrued a higher total WAR than Zobrist, who chalked up 29.8 estimated wins for the Tampa Bay Rays.

    He doesn't hit for contact or power at a superb level, but the 33-year-old does everything else with aplomb. The average isn't pretty, but his 12.2 percent walk rate is. His keen eye leads to a .354 career on-base percentage, which lies only six points below Ichiro Suzuki's .360 clip. The guy winning the batting titles receives more love, but Zobrist simply employs another way to reach base.

    Not a speedster, he's still a skilled baserunner with a career 74.6 success rate swiping bags. A tremendous asset on the field, he has accumulated 33 career defensive runs saved while floating around between second base, shortstop and the outfield.

    Even with a diminished .398 slugging percentage, the former sixth-round pick still holds a 2.8 fWAR due to his .348 on-base percentage and above-average glove. After one more affordable club option of $7.5 million, Zobrist will embark on what will be a fascinating and telling free agency. Will somebody, recognizing his plate discipline and defensive versatility, reward him with a contract befitting those skills?

    While he's 33 years old, he didn't debut until he was 25, and even then he served in a limited role until getting an everyday gig at age 27. Without the typical wear-and-tear of someone his age, along with a strong command of the strike zone lasting longer than pure power, Zobrist can remain useful a tad longer.

    His teammate is stealing all the attention this summer, but Zobrist is another major-impact piece swimming around the rumor mill. With his ability to man several positions, virtually any club would find a place for an underrated player who won't eat up much payroll space until after 2015.


    Value Meter: 8.3/10

1. David Price, SP. Tampa Bay Rays

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    The crown jewel of the midseason trade hunt, David Price is undoubtedly one of the MLB's finest aces entrenched in his prime. Think he'll get paid anything good when he becomes available for hire after the 2015 season?

    Even during a tumultuous start, Price's pristine strikeout and walk tallies hinted at better days ahead. Alas, he has improved his ERA to 3.06 after going six starts with six combined earned runs relinquished. The fact that he exited May with a 4.27 ERA is now nothing more than a soon-to-be-forgotten footnote.

    If he continues to pitch this well, he'll finish with better numbers than the ones accumulated during his Cy Young campaign. Through 155.2 innings, Price has notched 173 strikeouts and 21 walks. Even Cliff Lee thinks that 8.24 K/BB ratio is ridiculous.

    You'll soon wonder what a dude has to do to garner a 10 on my arbitrary rating system. Remember, contracts matter, and the sensational southpaw is set to collect a huge one after 2015. Unless he signs an extension early, he'll turn 30 before hitting the open market. Step back two slides to rehash the part about veteran aces falling apart late in their careers.

    Anybody intent on maintaining Price will have to pay out the wazoo once he enters free agency. He compares favorably to Zack Greinke, who signed a mammoth six-year, $147 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. Let's compare Price's career numbers to Greinke's before landing an earth-shattering check.

    Price (2008-14): 1,128.2 IP, 3.17 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.36 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, 3.34 FIP

    Greinke (2004-12): 1,492 IP, 3.77 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 8.03 K/9, 2.29 K/9, 3.45 FIP

    Greinke only has Price beaten (slightly) in the command department, and that's a moot point, considering Tampa Bay's stud has allowed 48 walks through his last 342.1 innings. Price will get paid, rightfully more than his peer from Los Angeles.

    If he gets traded only to later skip town of his own prerogative, whoever surrenders its top few prospects will regret it. Buy hey, as the kids say, one only gets bestowed with existence a singular time, and a top-10 pitcher could make the difference for a title contender.

    Trade Value: 9/10