If you haven’t read it yet, the other day, Bilbos published an article titled The Astros team that management gave away. I really enjoyed the article as I thought a bit about each player and how different history could be with even just 1 player kept from that list. Additionally, it was interesting to me seeing how people judged the different transactions retrospectively.
I personally always find retrospective looks challenging, as we’re obviously biased based on what actually occurred after the trade. There’s tons of layers to looking and evaluating a trade - from salary and control to simply position need or value lost/gained.
In Bilbos’ article and a lot of the comments, there’s a lot of criticism in regards to the management on some of the trades. Of course, no one is perfect and I’m completely fine with criticism of the front office. With that said, I don’t recall ever doing an article looking retrospectively at a roster move, and I figured it could be a fun way to start a discussion with our community. Talk about what elements you look at when evaluating trades.
For the discussion, I decided to look at the Jonathan Villar trade, and how I think through my evaluation.
The Brewers announced they acquired Jonathan Villar for Cy Sneed on November 19th, 2005. To start my evaluation I went back and read MLBTR’s announcement and comments, and then thoroughly enjoyed reading through the CrawfishBoxes post and the nostalgic comments in all their glory.
Overall, it seemed like the vast majority of people agreed it was a roster space saving move and the return was decent. At the time, Sneed was a prospect who had performed well, albeit while being slightly old for his level. Villar was NOT well liked/received, with a lot of commentary in regards to his inclination for mental errors, but had potential.
The #Astros gave Jonathan Villar every chance to succeed. He is very versatile, but his teammates will tell you he is a knucklehead.— Jose de Jesus Ortiz (@OrtizKicks) November 19, 2015
From a social media standpoint, the comments got a bit more brutal, but definitely indicated people believed that getting rid of Villar was a positive thing, with even the blue check marks saying that just getting rid of Villar was a win in a trade deal.
The next step that trade analyses usually look at is WAR. This makes sense, considering it shows how much value was produced by the players on each side. In this scenario to date, Villar has produced 8.3 fWAR / 9.8 bWAR vs Cy Sneed’s 0.0 fWAR / -0.4 bWAR.
To me, taking a pure WAR approach is flawed, as it is a cumulative stat and while the intent of WAR is to create a singular number to represent the value a player is providing, it often becomes misleading in these types of comparisons. Why? Because there’s an exponential increase in the value of the WAR as it’s consolidated into a smaller source. For example, no teams would trade a 10 WAR/year player like a Mike Trout for 10 players giving you 1 WAR each, nor 1 player who would give you 1 WAR/year for 10 years. While Villar had the highest WAR of any of the players given away on the list, he did so in a much larger amount of time. I don’t believe many of us would be thrilled to have his below average offensive production (.258/.320/.397), combined with the defensive struggles during the time he amassed it.
Regardless, I can understand why people stop their evaluation here, ultimately the Astros traded away FAR more value than they received. But to me, there’s more to the evaluation than that.
As you look back at 2015, the Astros had finally become a competitive team. Correa had broken onto the scene and established himself as the star we all hoped he’d be (and still hope he becomes consistently). 3rd base was manned by Jed Lowrie, and we had back-ups of Luis Valbuena and Marwin Gonzalez competing with Villar on the roster. At the time, with Villar being out of options, the Astros were essentially deciding who to keep between Jonathan Villar and Marwin Gonzalez. It’s interesting to imagine how different history might have been had they chosen Villar over Marwin. Would the Astros still win the World Series in 2017 without Marwin being a swiss army knife producing to the tune of .303/.377/.530? (Villar hit .241/.293/.372 in 436 at bats for a grand total of 0.1 WAR in 2017)
The other option, of course would be if they could have traded Villar for more value. This of course is extremely difficult to know as fans are generally not privy to offers. The “good news” is that the Astros had been hacked and had a vindictive old co-worker post all of the trade rumors from the 2013-2014 seasons before, which while not perfect does let us know the Mets had asked if the Astros would include Villar in a Dan Murphy deal. (read all the trade proposals etc here). It’s also easy to say they would have received more value out of Murphy although, it essentially would have just given them a different competitor for the super utility spot they already had too many of. (Murphy’s break out seasons also would not have been in an Astros uniform).
At the time of the trade Villar was still young and had potential for upside but had been somewhat known for bone headed errors and had produced to the tune of .236/.300/.353, good for an 83 OPS+. And while a once highly regarded prospect, his stock had certainly continued to fall.
Another point of comparison would be to look at the Aledmys Diaz trade. When the Astros traded for Diaz, he was a career .275/.325/.458 (109 OPS+) hitter, who was an All-star 2 years prior and had placed 5th in Rookie of the Year voting. The Astros traded Trent Thornton, who mlb.com ranked as our #24 prospect at the time, having just pitched 124 innings of 4.42 ERA in AAA. Since the trade, Thornton has pitched 160 innings to the tune of 6-9, 5.06 ERA (4.97 xFIP).
Lastly, while Villar was at league minimum when he was first traded, his salary has continued to rise with his 2020 season coming in at $8.2 Million. That’s a significant cost for a player that I don’t believe takes a starting spot on our roster. And while we don’t know the exact details on the Astros budget, we do know they’ve been one of the top payrolls in baseball and fighting to stay below the luxury tax threshold. Would having Villar on the team impacted our ability to pursue a trade like Greinke’s or signing Bregman’s or other’s extensions?
At the end of the day, the Astros didn’t have a lot of options given the roster crunch. There’s an argument that could be made about Villar providing more value than Marwin over the remaining time as an Astro, but I doubt many would retrospectively want that switch. And while we didn’t get any real value out of the trade (not every lottery ticket is a winner), looking back at the reasoning the trade was made, the reactions in the industry at the time and all the other factors, I actually don’t believe the Astros management made a big mistake here.
Let me know your thoughts. What other areas do you look at when you evaluate trades? Do you think the Villar trade was a big mistake?