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Did the Yankees “win” the James Paxton trade?

From a pure value standpoint, how did the Yankees do in trading for James Paxton?

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Yankees traded for James Paxton this week. The reaction, at least to my eye, has been very positive from a Yankees perspective. I wrote about how Paxton elevates the Yankees’ pitching staff to the league’s upper echelons. Brett Borzelli looked at Paxton’s bona fides as an ace in detail. When we asked the community at large to tell us how they felt about the deal, just six percent of respondents indicated they disliked trading for Paxton.

Around these parts, adding Paxton has been viewed as a largely positive development. The Yankees had a need in the rotation, and they addressed it forcibly by trading future talent in exchange for an impact pitcher right now. It’s easy, though, to get trapped in our Yankee fan bubble. Does our sentiment that the Yankees won the trade match up with reality?

To get an answer, I enlisted the help of FanGraphs’ updated prospect valuations. Here, author Craig Edwards, along with FanGraphs’ prospect hounds Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen, tried to construct a rigorous, objective way to value minor league players, from the game’s most promising prospects all the way down to the fringe guys.

This isn’t the first time anyone has tried to analyze prospect values, but it is the most recent and possibly most sophisticated attempt at the task. I encourage you to read through their process in full, but the short of it is this: Edwards looked at top prospect lists from the past two decades, found how much value those prospects ended up producing in their careers, and used the results to estimate just how much present value a prospect of a particular rank is worth.

The Yankees sent a trio of prospects to the Mariners in exchange for Paxton: left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield, right-handed pitcher Erik Swanson, and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams. Thanks to FanGraphs’ prospect values, we can get an estimate of how much present value the Yankees surrendered in order to bring in Paxton.

Sheffield ranked as a 50 FV pitcher (on the 20 to 80 scouting scale), good for 54th on FanGraphs’ top-100 prospect list. Looking at how similarly ranked pitching prospects have performed historically, and discounting future value to the present, FanGraphs gave Sheffield a present value of $29 million.

That’s a decent chunk of value, but Sheffield also easily represents the most valuable chip the Yankees gave up in the deal. Swanson and Thompson-Williams are both 40 FV prospects, more fringy players that could have an impact at the major league level, but profile more as likely bench players or up-and-down relievers rather than true starters.

Combined, Swanson and Thompson-Williams are estimated to be worth about $3 million in terms of present value. That brings our total to approximately $32 million in present value in prospects for two years of Paxton.

Does that math check out in favor of the Yankees? Does this analysis support the idea that the Yankees should be thrilled with their newest addition? For the most part, yes. Steamer’s 2019 projections forecast Paxton for 4.0 WAR next year. MLBTradeRumors projects Paxton to make $9 million in arbitration.

If we use a simple dollars-per-win analysis, Paxton’s 2019 season alone may be worth the prospect haul he fetched. Estimates for the cost of a win on the free agent market typically fall around eight or nine million dollars. If we take the upper bound of that range, Paxton is projected to be worth $27 million in surplus value. Even if Paxton regresses to something like a three-win pitcher in 2020 while receiving a raise to about $13 million in arbitration, he looks to be worth about $50 million in surplus present value.

This whole analysis takes place in a cold vacuum without context, so we haven’t even taken into account important factors like the Yankees’ own needs and their place in the cycle of contention. The Yankees are in a position where an ace pitcher is hugely valuable, and where every added win and every influx of talent is also hugely valuable. A team like the Yankees should be paying a premium for premium talent, a fact that this kind of analysis ignores.

From this vantage point, it’s hard to call the Paxton trade anything but a win for the Yankees. From an objective, value-based standpoint, the math comes out in their favor. The intuition behind trade makes abundant sense, as flipping potentially good future players for very good players now is the kind of move the Yankees need to be making. No matter how you splice it, it appears that our excitement over the acquisition of Paxton was warranted.