One of my favorite assumption games is using this Trade Value Calculator that Sky Kalkman cooked up over at Beyond The Box Score a few years ago. Based on a player's salary, you can tell how valuable a player is to a team, given surplus value. It's a handy way to evaluate potential trades, but what it's really showing is surplus value. A team needs to get so much value in return for a veteran player in a trade, so why not try to quantify it.
The assumption part comes in when you have to project out WAR for these players over a number of years. If you're projecting someone like Clint Barmes or Michael Bourn, you have a pretty good idea how they might perform based on a track record. If you're projecting out someone like Jason Castro, you have a whole lot more uncertainty.
I decided to look at all the starters (plus Keppinger), both position players and pitchers, to see who the most and least valuable players on the team were. Below is the chart, sorted by value per year of team control remaining. After the jump, we'll talk about what that chart means. (Thanks to Cot's Baseball Contracts for salary numbers and FanGraphs for WAR projections)
It makes sense in a way that Michael Bourn has the most value per year. He's only got two more before he's a free agent, but his defense is such an asset that he's got a lot more value to the team than his salary will ever cover. The next four guys are not really surprising, unless you're really down on Jason Castro. I'm writing a piece for SBN Houston later today which will look at Castro's 2010 season and see what we might expect from him moving forward. For these purposes, I have his value too high. What I did was give him a WAR equivalent to a player like Russell Martin, since their defensive abilities and walk rates were very similar in their debut years. That gave him huge value in this calculator, but there is a great deal of uncertainty whether he can actually follow that path. So, unlike Bourn, I feel much less confident about Castro's value.
Same goes with Johnson, since we're having to project over the next five seasons. He gets plenty of credit here because his power makes him a WAR darling, but notice he's not much behind the higher-paid Pence in terms of value per year. After Pence, there's a sharp dropoff on the value scale, falling down to four pitchers and Bill Hall. The interesting thing with those pitchers is they all have about the same surplus value per year. Does that mean none of them have that true superstar potential, or does it mean the Astros have put together a productive, fairly inexpensive rotation that provides them a ton of value?
With Hall and Barmes, it's very hard to say how they'll perform next season. My best guess put them at the numbers you see above, but I was probably a little too optimistic with Hall and a little too pessimistic with Barmes. That should even out.
What I was very pleased with is that Carlos Lee is the only player with a negative trade value on the team. Heck, he, Barmes and Quintero are the only players with less than 5 million in surplus value to the team. That's a pretty big improvement over where the Astros were at two years ago.
I believe my constant caveats may convince you this method isn't perfect and I'll say it was harder this year to predict many of these guys, since the Astros have a bunch of seasons of team control left on many of these players. It's really hard to project how Bud Norris may do four years from now, so I feel less confident in his 24 million in surplus value. But, Norris is one of the more valuable players on the team, so I don't think saying he's worth more than 20 million in surplus trade value is wrong.
Don't expect the Astros to be able to trade Johnson for Justin Upton, though. Young players have value precisely because they are more valuable to their current team than others. It would take a pretty big deal to pry Johnson or Castro away from the Astros, but that doesn't mean other teams will offer that deal. It just means both of those guys are probably more valuable than any potential trades for them.
On the flip side, we also have a value for the three big trade chips left in Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez. They're all worth about 20 million, which means they'd be able to fetch one top 50 hitter, a top 50 pitcher and a Grade B hitter or two top 100 hitters. It's probably not the return you were expecting, and it may not be near what Wade could actually get for them, but it does give you a nice framework if you are considering trading each of those guys.