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Do the Astros have the trade value to reinforce the team at the deadline?

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Evaluating Potential Trade Value Surplus

MLB: All-Star Workouts National League pitcher Craig Kimbrel of the Chicago Cubs throws a football during workouts before the 2021 MLB All Star Home Run Derby. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. DowningIsaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The trade deadline for the Astros to reinforce the team is July 30. But can the Astros develop a trade package that will meaningfully help the team?

At the deadline, young prospects are typically exchanged for veteran players on the rosters of teams that have no realistic chance of contending for playoff slots. But the Astros’ farm system is no longer as deep as it was in previous years when the team acquired big names like Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.

An established method for evaluating trade options is the calculation of surplus trade value. The method quantifies a dollar value for both sides of the trade. A balanced trade depends on the surplus value for each player during the period of team control. Surplus value essentially is the player’s expected baseball production minus the player’s salary cost. This exercise may not tell us exactly how each team looks at its trade options. But it may reveal why some trades don’t happen or trades turn out to be more costly than we expected.

Valuing Astros’ Prospects

The trade surplus calculation utilizes a player’s expected wins above replacement (WAR) to measure baseball production. My analysis assumes a value of $11 million per win above replacement, which is consistent with the WAR value in 2018 based upon studies of free-agent signing costs.

Rather than attempt to calculate the value of each Astros’ prospect, I have relied upon studies of the present worth of prospect surplus value for different grades of prospects. Driveline Baseball produced the following prospect trade value.

PROSPECT PRESENT VALUE

Grade 35 $2 million

Grade 40 $4.6 million

Grade 45 $10.5 million

Grade 50 $25.9 million

Grade 55 $43.2 million

Grade 60 $61 million

Fangraphs provides its future value grades for prospects. Unfortunately, no Astros prospects are higher than 50. Other teams or scouts may apply higher grades to Astros prospects, but the Fangraphs future value grades illustrate the current weakness in terms of high-end talent.

Currently Hunter Brown (pitcher), Jeremy Pena (shortstop), and Kory Lee (catcher) have a future value of 50. Arguably the current performance of Pedro Leon (CF, SS) may justify a future value grade of 50, at least for our purposes. Most of the current prospects in AA and AAA would be 40-grade future value, except that the prospects over age 25 will likely be considered 35-grade future value.

Among the prospects on the current ML active roster, Toro has a future value of 45, although one could argue that his ML experience justifies a higher trade value (perhaps similar to 50 grade). McCormick and Straw were listed by Fangraphs as 40 future value prospects, but they have sufficient major league time to justify an individual trade valuation, which would ascribe significantly higher trade value surplus than the generic 40-grade prospect. Based on the same method I applied to other team’s ML players, below, Straw has a surplus trade value of $47 million and McCormick has a surplus value of $28 million. And these values are probably low, because the valuation only goes through 2024 and the projections for 2022 thru 2024 do not take into account their current production.

In my view, Astros management should be reluctant to trade the 50-grade prospects, particularly if the return is a rental player. Given the current quality of the Astros’ farm system, the team should have a strong interest in protecting the core higher-level players. Also, keep in mind that other teams may evaluate individual prospects as stronger future major leaguers than the Fangraphs’ future value grades may indicate.

Assumptions For Trade Surplus Calculations

My analysis performed a trade surplus calculation for potential target players on teams which are likely to be sellers at the deadline. (I did not include any AL West teams, by the way, because of uncertainty whether they are willing to trade with division rivals at the deadline.)

As note above, the value is based on $11 million per WAR. Costs are based on average salaries for the remainder of 2021, and if the player remains under team control for later seasons, the salary is assumed to escalate 10% per year (unless the player has a fixed contract value). For the remainder of the 2021 season and playoffs, value is based on a continuation of the rate of WAR per game produced so far this season.

For subsequent seasons, the trade surplus is based on ZIPS WAR projections. Since the Astros expect the trades to benefit the team during the playoffs, I assumed 15 additional playoff games as an extension to the assumed 59 game remaining regular season. This, in effect, is a 25% increase in the player’s WAR for the remainder of 2021. The net present value at a 5% discount rate is applied to the surplus-value.

Most of the trade targets are relief pitchers, but I also included three starting pitchers, and two position players.

Craig Kimbrel (RH Reliever) Surplus Value: $6.4 million

Kimbrel is considered the best closer in the major leagues this season. He has an 0.51 ERA and 2 WAR. He has 21 shutdowns to 4 meltdowns, a ratio which is somewhat better than Ryan Pressly’s 17 to 4. Kimbrel struggled in 2020, but reportedly made adjustments to his delivery which put him back on track this season. Kimbrel also has considerable playoff experience with 7 shutdowns to 1 meltdown in 20 playoff games.

A Kimbrel-Pressly combination at the back of the bullpen would be dominating. Kimbrel has a $16 million option in 2022, which the team can buy out for $1 million. My valuation calculation assumes that the Astros would buy out the option in 2022.

If trades could be accomplished purely on surplus-value calculations, the Astros could pick up Kimbrel with a 40-grade and a 35-grade minor leaguer. Unfortunately, that scenario is overly optimistic due to the impact of supply and demand. All of the contenders would be happy to acquire Kimbrel, and many of those teams will be looking for relief pitchers. The Cubs can use this market advantage to ask for more—maybe much more—than Kimbrel’s surplus-value would indicate.

Taylor Rogers (LH Reliever) Surplus Value: $23.1 million

The Twins’ Rogers is a high-quality closer who has one year of team control remaining. His ERA is 3.35 with an x-ERA of 2.53 and 1.5 WAR. He is a sinker/slider pitcher with a high ground ball rate. He has a 22 to 7 ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns.

Rogers has a significantly higher surplus-value than Kimbrel due to a lower salary, an additional year of arb eligibility, and expected continuation of his high level of performance in 2022. It’s possible that the Twins may decide to keep him to fill the closer role next year. Perhaps a major league-ready position player like Toro would be sufficient to acquire him. But more likely a minor league pitching prospect has to be added to the trade.

Paul Fry (LH Reliever) Surplus Value: $14.1 million

The Oriole’s Fry has been used in the setup role, putting up a 3.56 ERA, 3.06 x-ERA, 2.21 FIP, and 1.3 WAR. Although his 93 mph fastball doesn’t match the velocity of Kimbrel, Pressly, or Rogers, he combines the pitch with a slider to achieve high K and GB rates and a BB rate which isn’t exorbitant.

The amount of surplus-value is driven by his low cost (Baltimore paid him league minimum) and a continued year of team control in 2022. Perhaps three 40 grade prospects would entice Baltimore to make the trade.

Tanner Scott (LH Reliever) Surplus Value: $29.5 million

Dan Martin previously wrote an article suggesting this Orioles pitcher as a trade target. Scott is a high-velocity pitcher with excellent numbers: a 2.97 ERA, 3.86 x-ERA, and 0.9 WAR. The downside is a high walk rate (over 6 BB/9). He also has 10 meltdowns vs. 12 shutdowns.

Dan’s argument is that, with improvement, the 27-year-old pitcher could become a future closer for the team. That potential is reflected to some degree in his surplus value. Scott is paid league minimum salary, and he is under team control through 2024. The surplus-value is sufficiently high that it may be difficult to acquire Scott at a trade price the Astros are willing to pay.

Daniel Bard (RH Reliever) Surplus Value: $1.06 million

This 36-year-old closer for the Rockies has an unusual career trajectory. The one-time unhittable closer for the Red Sox became a victim of the “yips,” which kept him out of the major leagues until 2020. He has posted a 3.98 ERA, 3.68 FIP, and 0.6 WAR while continuing to throw 97 mph. Although the ERA and FIP are on the high side for a closer, Bard has pitched in baseball’s most difficult park for a pitcher. His .368 BABIP is unsustainably high, and most likely reflects both the Rockies’ defense and the ease of getting batted balls to land in the Coors’ outfield.

Bard has an additional year before free agency. Bard has the lowest surplus value among the relief options. This is due to a $2.9 million contract combined with weak WAR stats, and ZIPs’ expectation that his performance will regress in 2022. In theory, the Astros could acquire Bard with a 35 or 40-grade prospect. I’m not sure the Rockies would go for that, but Bard may be one of the less expensive relievers to acquire.

Richard Bleier (LH Reliever) Surplus Value: $2.86 million

The journeyman pitcher for the Marlins is not a typical late-inning reliever like the others on this list. He has good, though not overwhelming, stats: 2.89 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 0.4 WAR. I included him as a trade target because his name has been suggested by several commenters at TCB. Bleier’s velocity is in the high 80s, and he specializes in groundballs, soft contact, and extreme control (0.48 BB/9). At one time, he was considered an outlier in terms of his low K rate, but his K rate has been closer to league average lately.

Bleier will be under team control in 2022, and his contract cost for the remainder of this season is less than $1 million. His surplus-value is relatively low because he doesn’t pitch in high leverage situations like closers and, therefore, accumulates lower rates of fWAR. If the Marlins are willing to part with Bleier, the trading cost should be low: maybe sending a 40 future value minor leaguer to the Marlins.

Jose Berrios (RH Starting Pitcher) Surplus Value: $39.6 million

At one time, trading for a starting pitcher seemed unlikely. But shoring up the rotation may be a prudent move for the Astros. The Twins’ Berrios is a relatively young, quality starter. His stats are solid this year: 3.69 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 2.1 WAR. Berrios’ stuff is good enough that he could start or provide long relief in the playoffs. In addition, Berrios has one more year of team control and could fill a 1, 2, or 3 spot in next year’s rotation at a reasonable cost.

As an arb eligible player, Berrios produces significant surplus value. The Twins consider Berrios to be their ace and may decide to keep him for next season. Based on surplus-value, the Astros might have to part with major league prospects like Toro or McCormick plus a couple of pitching prospects. And that may not be enough to get it done. I view a potential trade for Berrios as low probability.

Kenta Maeda (RH Starting Pitcher) Surplus Value: $44.2 million

The Twins’ Maeda is a 33-year-old starter who posted inning eater type stats: 4.63 ERA, 3.84 x-ERA, 4.04 FIP, 1.2 WAR. Maeda has experience as a swing pitcher with the Dodgers, who traded him to the Twins in 2020. The swing starter flexibility might be attractive to the Astros. Pitching for the Dodgers in 2016-2019, Maeda was used extensively in the playoffs as a long relief pitcher.

Maeda has pitched 25 games in the playoffs with a 2.87 ERA, and 8 shutdown appearances and 2 meltdowns. Maeda’s surplus value is surprisingly high. But not so surprising when you realize he is pitching under an insanely cheap contract (8 years at $3.3 million per year) which extends through 2023. I doubt that the Astros would be willing to give up prospect value equal to Maeda’s surplus trade value.

Charlie Morton (RH Starting Pitcher) Surplus Value: $10.7 million

At this point, the Braves do not appear to be sellers. But that can change on a daily basis leading up to the deadline. But if the Braves make Morton available, expect many interested suitors. Morton continues to be a valuable pitcher with 2.5 WAR this season.

For the Astros, Morton would be an ideal choice for swing starter, both in-season and reprising his sparkling role as long reliever for the Astros in the 2017 World Series. His surplus-value is much less than Maeda's because he is a free agent next season. Perhaps two or three prospects would satisfy the surplus-value test, but supply and demand likely pushes the cost higher.

Starling Marte (RHB, CF) Surplus Value: $15.1 million

The Astros offense probably is not the highest priority for trade plans. However, an injection of offense may be useful to offset potential regression and injury. And reportedly the Astros checked in with the Marlins on the availability of Starling Marte, who is on the last year of his contract.

With a wRC+ of 135 and 3 WAR so far, Marte would represent another strong force on offense and provide elite defense in CF. I doubt that this trade happens, but it would be an exciting development if it did. Purely on a trade surplus value basis, the Astros probably have the prospect capital to offer sufficient value. However, at this time of year many teams would be interested in Marte, and the trading cost is likely to be higher than the surplus value.

Commenters have suggested that Myles Straw could be traded for a package of Marte and Bleier. Given Straw’s surplus-value, that might be an overpay on the Astros’ part. I don’t know if that is a good or bad idea, but an overpay would be necessary for this trade.

Kris Bryant (RHB, 3B, OF) Surplus Value: $6.1 million

As discussed above, the Astros could choose to reinforce the offense. The Cubs’ Bryant is the biggest name hitter who will likely change teams at the deadline. Bryant has posted offensive production so far this year which is in line with most of his career: 126 wRC+, .232 ISO, and 2.2 WAR. Because Bryant is on his last year before free agency, the Cubs probably will trade Bryant.

Bryant has become a multi-positional player, splitting time between 3b, LF, CF, RF, and 1b. If the Astros acquired Bryant, the question would be where to fit him into the lineup. He could move around the field like a super-utility player. Bryant’s surplus value is relatively modest, primarily because he would be a rental and his $19.5 million annual salary is sizeable. The rental salary alone probably would dissuade the Astros from pursuing this trade. However, the salary cost will lower the trading cost. It is possible that the trade might require a couple of minor league prospects.