Should The Tigers Trade A Starting Pitcher?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Last December, the Tigers traded a starting pitcher because they had a lot of starting pitchers. As a simple matter of practice, that’s a perfectly fine strategy. They traded from a position of strength. We quibbled greatly with precisely what they got back in return, but the premise was fine. Have great starting pitching ~ trade pitching for other stuff!

The Tigers are in a similar position right now, sort of. Last year they had five starters and a Drew Smyly. This year, they have four starters and a bunch of replacement level guys. They’re two starting pitchers down from where they were twelve months ago, but they still have four very good starters and two of them are free agents after 2015. Should they deal one of them?

Let’s start with two basic points. First, the Tigers need to add pitching this offseason. You don’t want to rely on Ray, Lobstein, et al as your number five starter. So either you need to get a starter back or you need to sign an additional starter if you make a deal. So it’s stand pat and sign one starter or trade a starter and acquire two. Second, you only ever make a trade if you’re getting back equal or greater value. You don’t just trade a player because you can afford to lose them, you trade them to turn one asset into another asset. It’s always what you can get back.

So let’s consider the “trade value” of each Tigers starter and see where that leaves us.

Justin Verlander (5 years, $140 million)

Verlander has $140 million left on his contract. If you were to spend $140 million on the free agent market, you’d essentially want to get 20 WAR over the life of the deal (these are all estimates). Verlander projects for 2 WAR in 2015, which would make this contract a nightmare, leading no one to want it. If he’s a 2 WAR pitcher for the next five years, there’s negative $70 million in value. Let’s say he’s a 3.5 WAR pitcher and age him a half a win a year (a quick aging curve). That’s negative $52 million in value.

So, uh yeah, no one would give you anything good for Justin Verlander right now. Someone probably takes him for free because you might want to bet on the talent, but you’ve gotta believe he’s still a true talent 5 WAR pitcher right now to want this contract. Hard to imagine anyone thinks he’s better than that, at least.

Takeaway: No one is trading for him, ride it out, pray he’s able to rebound.

Anibal Sanchez (3 years, $53 million or 4 years, $64 million)

The Tigers have basically already assured that the Sanchez deal was a winner thanks to his excellent 2013 and very good 2014. He’s facing a pretty pessimistic 3 WAR projection from Steamer for 2015 and if you start at 3 WAR and age him normally his contract is basically perfect for the next three years, right at market value. The option can only work for a team, so there’s no real negative. If he’s starting to suck, you don’t pick it up. If he’s great, you get him for a good price.

But if he’s a 4 WAR pitcher, we’re talking about $20 million in surplus value. That’ll buy you something nice, although it will cost you something nice too. You would only want to deal Sanchez for a big league ready player with lots of team control. You’re not getting Mookie Betts for Sanchez, but someone like that. Young, controllable and ready to be good now.

Takeaway: Keep him, profit.

Rick Porcello (1 year, ~$12 million, right to make QO)

Porcello has been the trade rumor starter for years. He’s young and he’s good, and that’s a thing that many teams covet. He’s projected for roughly 3 WAR in 2015, so that’s about $20 million at market rates, leading to something like $8 million in surplus value. We can tack on a couple million for the qualifying offer and probably a couple more for the fact that you don’t have to make a long term commitment. Let’s call it $12 million in surplus.

That will buy you something nice, but not as much as you want it to. The best bet would be to swap him for another 3 WAR player with a similar deal at a different position. You could also get a good not great prospect or a slightly worse player with two years of control. Porcello’s valuable, but he’d be more useful to the Tigers as a trade chip if they were building for 2016 and beyond. You can get something back for him (~Cespedes) but you can’t do much to improve your overall roster because you’re subtracting a key player to get there. Porcello is a nice avenue to shuffle the club, not to dramatically improve it.

Takeaway: Deal him only if someone over-offers, work to extend him.

David Price (1 year, ~$18 million, right to make QO)

Using the same method we used on Porcello, we find Price projected for 4 WAR (let’s call it 4.5) and arrive at something like $17 million in surplus value. If you think he is actually blossoming into a true ace, call it $25 million. That’s quite a bundle of cash, but still not enough to get you an elite, game changing prospect. You can get a very good prospect or two years of a good player. Maybe one of an elite player.

There’s potential here, especially if you want to dump Price for young talent and use his salary to sign Scherzer long term.

Takeaway: Try to find an offer for an arbitration eligible bat, otherwise hold steady.

****

Two things stand out to me overall. First, the Tigers might have wanted to punt on 2015. Imagine selling off Porcello and Price, taking the pick from Victor, getting something for Davis, Soria, and Nathan. There’s a real opportunity to reload quickly there. Obviously, the directive isn’t to rebuild, it’s to win. So that’s moot.

Second, the Tigers have some valuable assets but the value is short term. In other words, teams that want the Tigers pitchers are going to be teams that aren’t going to want to subtract from their 2015 rosters very much, and the Tigers are going to only want to receive players that can help out in 2015. The math doesn’t really work here.

There are options, but none that are obvious win-win type deals. Realistically, the league is getting smarter and while Dombrowski has had tons of luck trading his prospects for big leaguers, he’s not in a position to do that. It probably makes sense to hold the starters, but it always depends on what everyone else is offering.

If Price is a hot commodity, pull the trigger. If not, go into the season with the four-headed monster. There are options, but nothing overwhelmingly obvious.

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3 responses

  1. “…First, the Tigers might have wanted to punt on 2015. Imagine selling off Porcello and Price, taking the pick from Victor, getting something for Davis, Soria, and Nathan. There’s a real opportunity to reload quickly there.” Bingo. Especially with Cabrera likely still not 100%. And you didn’t even mention the pick for Scherzer. I see this team in a position roughly analogous to the Pistons circa 2005 or so. The core was aging, and they were falling just a little shorter every year. They hung on to the team way too long, and still haven’t made it back. I see this team getting worse in two different ways, to paraphrase Hemingway–gradually at first, and then rather suddenly.

  2. One of the commentators on MLB Network Radio last night (circa 6:30pm CST) said that he really liked a rotation of a strong 1-4 and having the 5th spot be open for competition between guys in the farm system “so that you can see what you have” and see who rises to the occasion, or some such statement. So do you disagree with that statement, or do you agree but have the conclusion (pretty much per a previous post) that last year proved the Tigers have nothing in the system?

    I thought Lobstein was respectable last year, of all the guys they brought up–so no upside/improvement for 2015?

    1. I disagree with the statement and the conclusion!

      A spring competition isn’t very useful because you’re judging guys against weak competition and over a small sample before everyone is geared up for a season. I don’t think you can learn much in spring training that you didn’t know before. Maybe a little, but you should already know what you have.

      Also, I don’t think there’s much in the system. They have some guys who could be 4-5 starters if things go well, but no one who I’d trust as a full time starter in 2015. Lobstein has some good outings, but it’s going to be a lot different once the league seems him again. He might grow into a solid back end guy, but I don’t think a couple dozen innings last year is evidence of that fact.

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