Nobody wants to trade Alex Bregman for Chris Sale or Chris Archer. We know, Twitter.
Enter follow-up question: “What else would the Astros have to give up besides George Springer to get Sale from the White Sox?”
Honey, please. The White Sox only wish.
I know, you forgot how good Springer is
It’s understandable. Springer reached the majors during the darkest period of Astros baseball. He battled injury bugs during his first couple seasons. He doesn’t do a lot of interviews, and he hasn’t won a Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, or received a ton of MVP votes like a certain teammate. He wasn’t the number one overall draft pick, who received comparisons to Alex Rodriguez as a seventeen year old.
He’s the third wheel in fans’ hearts behind Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. He’s even a bit overshadowed by the shiny toy of Bregman. Lance McCullers is the highest-upside starting pitcher on the team, so he’s not even as expendable as Springer, amirite?
Looking deep into the psyche of the fan, and using psychology in the manner of Jeeves as he tries to navigate the bizarre workings of Britain’s upper crust, I really do understand how Springer’s star is dimmer than his teammates.
But he has a solid argument to be the best baseball player on the Astros’ roster.
Last season, George Springer batted .261/.359/.457 with 29 home runs and 9 stolen bases. This was good for a 124 wRC+, making him 24% better than the average major league batter. He was worth 4.5 wins more than a replacement-level player.
Blah dee blah stats and things.
Out of two hundred and thirty two major leaguers who reached 400 plate appearances, George Springer was more valuable than all but thirty four of them. He was in the top fifteen percent of everyday players.
On the Astros, only Altuve, who finished third in the AL MVP voting, was better than Springer at the plate last year.
And in an injury-shortened season, using wRC+ as a gauge, Springer was even better in 2015, and that club went to the playoffs if you recall.
Let’s talk about 2016 and 2017 for a sec.
Next season, Springer is sliding over to Center Field after the acquisition of Right Fielder Josh Reddick.
As noted, in 2016 Springer managed a 124 wRC+ and 4.5 WAR. Those figures would have ranked him as the fifth-best center fielder in Major League Baseball.
And by wRC+ and prorated WAR, 2016 was a down year for him compared to 2015.
Springer’s ability level is as a 30+/20+ batter (HR/SB). Incidentally, Springer was on that pace in 2015. Only one player in baseball did that last season - Mike Trout. There are few players in baseball who have a higher upside than George Springer.
On Chris Sale...
Without naming names, there have been far too many folks throwing “Springer and...” around as the basis for trading this offseason. And not trading for players like Mike Trout, either, but for players who arguably are less valuable than Springer himself.
Let’s talk about Chris Sale, the White Sox’ ace starting pitcher.
First a moment about what Sale is, so that nobody thinks I’m pooh-pooing him just to make a point. He’s an ace. He’s going to be 28 years old next season, and in seven major league season, he has a 27.9 WAR, 3.00 ERA, and strikes out ten batters every nine innings while walking only two. He has been elite so far in his career.
So, we have established that to this point, Sale has been one of the elite pitchers in baseball.
For the rest of the story, Sale will be paid ~$12 million per season for each of the next two years and $15 million in 2019. That is cheap for a pitcher of Sale’s caliber. But it’s still $39.5 million.
His career numbers do not tell the whole story either. His ERA last year was a still-pretty 3.34, which followed a 3.41 in 2015. Those are great, but nothing like the string of ERAs that ranged between 2.17 and 3.07 during the previous four years.
His velocity is down a couple MPH, apparently by design to generate more contact. Why would the White Sox want a pitcher who is already competing for Cy Young awards to change his approach?
Perhaps because the White Sox think his approach is not sustainable, or that it increases risk of arm injury, or something?
As clack pointed out on the TCB listserv, this is the approach the Astros took with Roy Oswalt late in his tenure - fewer strikeouts, more contact. It changed Oswalt as a pitcher. During his last three seasons in Houston, his ERA steadily increased from 2.98 up to 4.12.
Maybe this isn’t happening with Sale. Maybe it is though. The fact that an elite pitcher has “by design” changed his approach should be eyebrow-raising, if not concerning yet. There have been similar questions asked about Felix Hernandez, who reached the majors at a similar age as Sale, made his living by blowing folks away, and then saw his ERA increase and strikeouts decrease as his fastball lost four miles per hour over the course of several years.
Again, I’m not saying this to devalue Sale so much as point out factors that very much need to be considered. His resume speaks for itself.
But really, I needed to mention all of that (the good and the concerning) to lay the groundwork for the next point:
A hypothetical Springer/Sale trade and Future Value
The White Sox need to rebuild. That means they are not looking for one good player like Springer back in trade, they are looking for multiple players. Probably lots of players. One White Sox blogger on Twitter suggested Springer+Bregman+more.
Fie on him and his family this holiday season. Just kidding. Mostly.
But that’s what ChiSox fans are expecting. Knowing this is absurd, let’s scale it back to something like...
Springer, Kyle Tucker, Francis Martes, and a couple other guys like Brady Rodgers and Jandal Gustave, for Sale.
That’s Springer, two (arguably) Top 50 MLB prospects, and a couple ML-ready pitchers who should have more than just a glimpse of The Show.
The White Sox would probably make this deal happily. The Astros absolutely should never do anything of the kind.
Let’s do math using this source for the market surplus value of prospects and the idea that 1 WAR is worth roughly $8M per WAR this year.
SKIP TO “SURPLUS VALUE TOTALS” IF YOU JUST WANT TO SEE THE VERDICT.
- Sale’s decline in K rate and velocity won’t have impact beyond what we saw in 2016, and he will continue to be worth +5.2 WAR/Y for the rest of his contract.
- Springer will be worth somewhere between his prorated 2015 WAR and actual 2016 WAR. I’ll average those two numbers (6 + 4.5 / 2) = +5.3 WAR. Oops, we’re already seeing why trading Springer for Sale is an uncertain proposition for the Astros.
- K Tuck fits under the “Hitters #26 - 50 category” in the linked post, so Surplus Value of $38.2M
- Martes fits under the “Pitchers #26-50” category in th elinked post, so Surplus Value of $29.8M.
- I won’t project Gustave or Rodgers without a source to stand on, so let’s just give them a value of $10 together. This is probably low, since it represents less than +1.5 WAR for both of them over the next six seasons, but since the outcome is already going to be lopsided, who cares?
- Springer’s total compensation over the next three seasons is in the neighborhood of $20M. He’s projected for $4.7 in 2017, so this number is reasonable.
Here we go:
Sale (5.2 WAR X $8M X 3y) - $39.2M = $85.6M surplus value.
Springer (5.3 WAR X $8M X 3y) - $20M = $107.2M surplus value. Umm..
Other players: $38.2M + $29.8M + $10M = $78M surplus value.
Surplus value totals:
Astros surplus value in this trade: $85.6 million
White Sox surplus value: $185.2 million
The key takeaway: there is a good chance that George Springer is better than Chris Sale over the next three seasons, and an excellent chance that he is more valuable, too.
That was worth putting into a Heading font, because it’s key. The White Sox require more than one player back for Chris Sale so they aren’t going to trade 1-for-1.
Since Sale and Springer have roughly equal performance future value, the Astros might do a 1-for-1 because their rotation could use the bolster. But the White Sox wouldn’t. If they would, why wouldn’t they just keep Chris Sale?
If Springer was included in the deal, it would already be a likely lopsided deal in favor of the White Sox without anybody else added.
With prospects added in, particularly the prospects being dangled around Twitter, it becomes potentially the worst trade of the last decade for Houston.
“It doesn’t matter,” I have read. “All that matters is September.”
It matters because losing Springer and the players mentioned could lessen the Astros’ chances of reaching September.
And are starting pitchers sure things in the playoffs? Even elite ones? Clayton Kershaw may go down as the greatest left-handed starting pitcher in ML history. His postseason ERA is 4.55 over 89 innings.
Relying on one player to be “that guy” that guarantees a club to win it all is a fool’s errand. The Astros weren’t one player away in 2015, they lost because of a bullpen meltdown. The 2016 Astros missed the playoffs due to a rash of key injuries late in the season. That stuff happens, and it would have happened with or without a Chris Sale.
Don’t get me wrong. I want Chris Sale on the Astros. That would be a no-doubt addition.
But the deal has to make sense. Trading one of the best and most valuable players in baseball for another one of the best and most valuable players in baseball is classic wheel-spinning.