On Saturday, a story broken by Peter Gammons basically said that the Cardinals were interested in Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris.
Thus, we posted and talked about it here on TCB. What we haven't talked about in a while, though, is the relative worths of each of these players. One of my first posts for TCB a long, long time ago was an article using the Trade Value Calculator Sky Kalkman ginned up over at Beyond The Box Score.
The premise is simple. Every player is worth a certain amount by what they produce. Let's assume that one Win Above Replacement on the free agent market right now is worth $5.5 million. That's a very rough estimate and the true total could be slightly higher or lower, but we've got a base to work with.
Using that number, we can project out what each player will be worth over the course of their contracts and/or team control. Project how much WAR each player will produce, multiply by that $5.5 million number and then subtract the actual contract terms of that player.
What you're left with is the player's surplus value, or how much value his performance brings to a team. The reason young, team-controlled players are so valuable is they have relatively high surplus values, since they'll produce good WAR numbers for minimum salary.
Plugging Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell into the calculator reveals a few different things about the players. I'm not interested in breaking down the exact numbers or parsing out how much they'd be worth in prospects. If you'd like to do that, take the calculator and Victor Wang's research on prospect value and get to working on FanPosts.
However, I do think we can discern something about the market for each player and why the Cardinals may be interested in them through the lens of the calculator.
Let's start with Bud Norris. The right-hander is entering his Age 28 season. He's in the prime of his career and has shown he can pitch a reasonable number of innings while giving a team a reasonable ERA and strikeout numbers. He just entered his first year of arbitration, so a team trading for him this year would get two additional, somewhat cost-controlled years of service.
That same team can also relatively reliably predict what they'd be getting. Norris has been worth 1.7, 1.8 and 1.5 fWAR over the past three seasons. Given that he's entering his prime now, we can assume he'd be worth about 6 fWAR over the next three seasons, give or take a big year. But, we have a pretty quantifiable range upon which to base his future performance.
Because he's in arbitration, the calculator puts his value at 60 percent and then 80 percent of his total value for the next two seasons, after he makes $3 million in 2013. If we assume he'll put up 2.0 WAR in each of the next three seasons, that means he'll be worth about $11 million in surplus value. It's not a huge number, but could fetch back a couple B- prospects in a deal or something like Jed Lowrie fetched from the A's.
Norris doesn't have the upside right now to reach a 4-5 win plateau. He certainly has the stuff to do it, but his recent track record suggests a big jump isn't necessarily going to happen. Thus, the trading team knows what they're getting. For a team like the Cardinals, finding a guy worth two wins for the back of their rotation could be valuable. If they went with a Shelby Miller, the rookie could be worth much more, given his TUP (tremendous upside potential). But, more likely, he'll struggle a bit in his first big league action and need a little seasoning to tap into that TUP.
Thus, Norris provides a safety net of somewhat assured performance, which is why he might be attractive to the Cards.
Harrell, on the other hand, is worth more and less all at the same time. Because he's got five years of service time left for his team, Lucas Harrell has two more years than Norris to produce WAR and surplus value. Plus, he's got two seasons right at the front where his value is almost all surplus, considering he's on a minimum contract.
However, because he's only pitched one full season in the majors, it's quite a bit harder to project out what he might do over those five years. We can assume he's in for a slight regression from his 2.8 fWAR total of 2012, but could he bounce back the next season with a career year? At 28, he's also in the prime of his career.
We can try to peg him around 10-12 fWAR over those five sesons, which gives him a ton of surplus value. In fact, his surplus is almost three times that of Norris. But, because of that volatility, there is very little chance that Harrell gets traded.
It's all about risk. Teams simply won't be comfortable giving up what Harrell's worth in surplus value until they have more data. Even then, they might only be willing to give Houston half his surplus value or less in a deal, which doesn't make sense for the Astros. It's smarter to hold onto him and ride out that risk themselves, to see if they can maximize his value.
That's why you almost never see these late-career bloomers traded after one good season. Teams usually follow what the Rangers did with C.J. Wilson and ride it out until free agency before waving goodbye. It doesn't mean Harrell is less valuable than Norris, just that his future is slightly more volatile.
Baseball GMs have to be exceptional risk managers. That's why the Cards are interested in Houston's pitchers in the first place. They want to limit their risk in throwing a bunch of rookies to the wolves of a pennant chase. They could find some safe choices in Houston, but the Astros also have to limit their risk by accurately valuing their players.
Good thing they have a bunch of decision scientists running around to help.