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MLB Trade Deadline 2017: Rockies should trade for an ace

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Despite early breakthrough performances in the rotation, the Rockies could still use some help. In Part 1, we’ll look at surplus values of three potentially available pitchers.

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The Colorado Rockies are in an enviable position right now. They are situated well for both short-term success (their estimated playoff odds are now better than 50 percent), and for long-term contention (possessing a young core with a solid farm system). The team is off to its best start ever, all without needing to go all-in by trading prospects for major leaguers. Being able to field a contender without mortgaging the future is exactly why teams like the Rays, Cardinals, and now Cubs have had (or will have) extended stretches at the top of the standings.

The goal in all of this, though, is to win a World Series. In many ways, it doesn’t matter if a team averages 88 wins per season for a decade if it’s unable to win a championship. That’s why the 2016 Cubs and Indians, despite already being in good short- and long-term positions, made significant trades involving top prospects to bolster their shot at winning it all.

The Rockies need to take inspiration and do the same. There are ways for the Rockies to increase their odds of winning the division (and thus the World Series) this season, without also sacrificing their future outlook. Not only that, they can patch a hole the team has right now without opening up additional ones that could prematurely sink the ship in 2018 and beyond. They can do this by following some general principles:

  1. No “rental” players: Trading for players on expiring contracts (similar to the Cubs’ trade for Aroldis Chapman last year) is probably a bad idea. While these players can boost a club’s short-term odds, the overpay in terms of prospects/surplus value is a net-negative to teams at the beginning of a contention window and teams without massive amounts of money (e.g. the Rockies).
  2. Don’t displace established starters: Trading for an All-Star outfielder can be nice, but it’s less nice if he’s just taking away playing time from a player who is nearly as good. In the context of a half season, the All-Star might put up 2-3 WAR, while the presently adequate starter is good for 1-2 WAR over the same period. Even though the team paid an All-Star price, it received only a marginal increase in production.
  3. Go for players under team control: The holy grail of a trade target is a player who is talented, young, and under multiple years of team control. For the Rockies, being able to trade for a player who can help them in the present and the future would be ideal. Rather than being a strictly all-in move, it is a concentration of value, taking value from seasons 5-6 years hence (i.e. prospects) and packing it into a 3-4 year window. For our purposes, I’ll define this to mean a player who is under team control through at least 2020.

In light of No. 2, the Rockies would probably be wise to stay out of the market for a position player. With Carlos Gonzalez and Mark Reynolds being the main possible departures after this season, and with outfielder Raimel Tapia and infielder Ryan McMahon as possible options to take their spots, the Rockies don’t have an obvious hole that needs to be plugged in the short-term. Certainly a trade could bring in a better player at a few spots, depending on how the young players develop (or don’t), but it would be wise for the Rockies to hold steady there.

Relief pitching is always a crapshoot, and with the back end of the Rockies’ bullpen being so effective, there might not be a desperate need for another shutdown reliever. Even if the need does present itself, the deadline premium on relief pitching (see: the Cubs trading away future star Gleyber Torres for a few months of Chapman) might make a trade unwise anyway.

That seems to make the starting rotation the best fit for a trade. While the trio of rookies currently holding down starting jobs have been impressive, I am somewhat wary of how they’ll fare in the latter part of the season. None of this is to knock their efforts thus far or their potential; it’s simply an admission that it’s hard to be a good pitcher in the major leagues. Now, the Rockies figure to get back Jon Gray, and perhaps even Chad Bettis, this season, so in some sense they already have the needed reinforcements on the way. But recovering from injuries is a frustrating process, and setbacks in recovery, or poor performance upon return, are possible.

What I mean to say in all of this is not that I expect the rotation to be a weakness, it’s that it probably represents the biggest question mark over the remaining months. It could remain solid, with the rookies improving their peripheral stats as they adjust to the league, and with Gray and Bettis being healthy and effective. However, it could be an Achilles heel, with Freeland, Senzatela, and Marquez having extended rookie struggles and with Gray and Bettis taking longer to recover or being ineffective. An arrow to this heel could pull the Rockies out of the race for the division.

Since we’re ruling out rental players and looking for players with at least three years of team control remaining, I have narrowed a list to three names:

These players represent the aces or near-aces that could be available in trade this season, who are also under contract through 2020.

The general model I want to use is surplus value. The idea of surplus value is to see how much a player’s performance would be worth at free-agent prices compared to how much a player is actually getting paid. More precisely:

Surplus Value = (Value of Production) - (Actual Contract Value)

While WAR is the standard measurement for short-term value, surplus value roughly represents how a team ought to value a player in the long run. Players with significant surplus value are talented, controlled for multiple seasons, and cheap. If a team is going to trade for a long-term asset like the three pitchers above, it will need to make a fair exchange of surplus value.

The Pitchers

Chris Archer Surplus Value Estimation

Year Age Proj. WAR Value Actual Surplus
Year Age Proj. WAR Value Actual Surplus
2017* 28 2.0* $16.0 M* $2.4 M* $13.6 M
2018 29 4.0 $33.6 M $6.2 M $27.4 M
2019 30 4.0 $35.3 M $7.5 M $27.8 M
2020** 31 3.5 $32.4 M $9.0 M $23.4 M
2021** 32 3.0 $29.2 M $11.0 M $18.2 M
Total - 16.5 $146.5 M $36.1 M $110.4 M
Assuming $8.0M/WAR in 2017, with 5% inflation. Using Steamer Projections and a simple aging curve. (*) Prorated to half-season. (**) Team options. Fangraphs Contract Estimation Tool

Archer is the priceless gem of the trio. He’s the most likely to produce legit ace-level performance (as evidenced by his excellent strikeout rates), controlled for the longest period of time (through 2021), and is the cheapest in terms of average salary. In many ways, Archer is the pitcher we want Gray to become: a strikeout machine at the front of the rotation who keeps the walks and home runs low enough to not be problems. To really push the Rockies forward over an extended window, Archer is the guy to add.

Jose Quintana Surplus Value Estimation

Year Age Proj. WAR Value Actual Surplus
Year Age Proj. WAR Value Actual Surplus
2017* 28 2.0* $16.0 M* $3.0 M* $13.0 M
2018 29 4 $33.6 M $8.8 M $24.8 M
2019** 30 4 $35.3 M $10.5 M $24.8 M
2020** 31 3.5 $32.4 M $10.5 M $21.9 M
Total - 11.5 $117.3 M $32.8 M $84.5 M
Assuming $8.0M/WAR in 2017, with 5% inflation. Using Steamer Projections and a simple aging curve. (*) Prorated to half-season. (**) Team options. Fangraphs Contract Estimation Tool

Quintana, the subject of several trade ideas over the past year, is perhaps a bit more modest of a target, while still representing an extremely valuable asset. He’s not the overpowering pitcher that Archer is, but his consistency since 2013 lends confidence to his future projection. Quintana is the best fit to add a No. 2 starter to the mix for 312 more seasons, but without sacrificing as many top prospects as it would take to get Archer.

Marcus Stroman Surplus Value Estimation

Year Age Proj. WAR Value Arb Estimates Surplus
Year Age Proj. WAR Value Arb Estimates Surplus
2017* 26 1.6* $12.8 M* $1.7 M* $11.1 M
2018** 27 3.5 $29.0 M $7.0 M $22.0 M
2019** 28 3.5 $30.4 M $12.0 M $18.4 M
2020** 29 3.5 $32.0 M $18.0 M $14.0 M
Total - 10.5 $104.2 M $38.7 M $65.5 M
Assuming $8.0M/WAR in 2017, with 5% inflation. Using Steamer Projections and a simple aging curve. (*) Prorated to half-season. (**) Arbitration Eligible. Fangraphs Contract Estimation Tool

Marcus Stroman is the pitcher who’s been most credibly linked to the Rockies, with the teams reportedly discussing a deal involving Charlie Blackmon over the offseason. Stroman has shown flashes of elite-level pitching but has so far not quite been an ace. He doesn’t collect the strikeouts that Archer does, although his five-pitch arsenal leaves the door open to that possibility. His strength comes from keeping the ball on the ground (his ground-ball rate has been over 60 percent the last three seasons) and limiting walks. Since he’s merely arbitration eligible, there is flexibility in what his future salaries could be. If he jumps to ace-level performance, arbitration will reward him (and the club would happily pay), but if he stays as a No. 2-3 starter his salaries will stay reasonable. He is also the youngest of the bunch, meaning a breakout season could be in his future. Ultimately, Stroman would require taking some risk in order to reduce the cost in the trade.

Although the Rockies are in first place, both the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers hover close behind. The Dodgers, besides being the wealthiest, might also be the most talented team in the division. It wouldn’t take much of a hiccup by the Rockies to allow the Dodgers to steam by into the lead, never to look back. While a Wild Card berth would still be a fantastic achievement for the Rockies, being forced into an immediate elimination game at season’s end is not ideal. Given that any single baseball game is essentially a coin flip, being one of the two Wild Card teams basically cuts a team’s chances for winning the World Series in half. The Rockies can stave this off without selling the future by pursuing one of Chris Archer, José Quintana, or Marcus Stroman.

★ ★ ★

In Part 2, we’ll explore a list of prospects the Rockies would have to consider including in a deal for any of the three pitchers mentioned above and, from there, come up with some proposals.