Earlier this week, Joel Sherman published a thought exercise about the cost of J.A. Happ. It got me thinking about trying to establish objective value when we talk about prospects, and the natural divide between two sides in a transaction. A buyer will always think that their offer is worth more than it probably is, while a seller will almost always think their product is worth more than the offer. This gulf is resolved either by establishing an equilibrium price or the buyer and seller walking away from the table.
While I was thinking about this concept, my thoughts strayed to the cost of a bigger, flashier starter. I support trading for Happ, but if the Yankees can go get a true ace, they’d be silly not to. Think in bold colors, not pastels. So far in 2018, there have been whispers that three true number ones could be made available; Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner. What would it actually cost for the Yankees to land one of these?
The best way to get an approximate price is through examining historical trades for aces. Fortunately, we have a number of them to pick through over the past few seasons. I’ve chosen to look at three in particular that satisfy the same criteria of the three pitchers above: a demonstrated track record of success, high upside — or the belief the pitcher could be even better, and multiple seasons of team control at a reasonable cost. The comps are pretty interesting.
Traded to the Astros over the winter, Cole immediately blossomed in the American League, justifying both his Cy Young-caliber 2015 and the sky-high potential he showed as the first overall pick. He currently sports a 2.56 ERA, 2.96 FIP and staggering 12.44 K/9.
When the trade went down, it certainly felt as though the Pirates didn’t net the return they could have. Joe Musgrove and Colin Moran were the headliners of the deal, underlining a focus on MLB-ready talent. Still, Musgrove was a consensus top 50 prospect, as was pitcher Michael Feliz. Moran, meanwhile, has been a full time player for the Pirates this season, holding his own to the tune of a 108 wRC+ in 2018. The final piece, Jason Martin, was a lottery ticket with a ceiling of a fourth outfielder.
Overall, you’re looking at about $32 million in surplus value for each of Musgrove and Feliz, according to Point of Pittsburgh’s famous surplus value guide. Moran wasn’t on a top 100 ranking, but he projects for about one win this season, adding around $8 million to the surplus value. That gives us a total valuation of $72 million for Cole, not counting Martin as a lottery ticket.
The big fish at last season’s non-waiver deadline, Quintana was the junior partner in a stellar 1-2 combination on the South Side of Chicago. He’d compiled 21.5 fWAR over parts of seven seasons for the White Sox, and was dealt to the Cubs with three years of control left. Quintana in particular is a great object of examination for the Yankees, as the Sox and Cubs were rumored to be unwilling to make crosstown trades. The last time they had agreed to a trade was 11 years before swapping Quintana. Sound familiar?
Unlike the Pirates, the White Sox seemed to prize high-ceiling returns, as the package was headlined by Eloy Jimenez, at the time the fifth-ranked prospect in all of baseball. Jimenez profiles as a terrifying power threat, and was so highly touted that Theo Epstein offered either him or Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. That means one of the smartest front offices in baseball valued Jimenez as much as Torres.
The second major piece was right-hander Dylan Cease, ranked in the 80-85 range of the big three prospect rankings. Cease is projected to slot in at right around a third starter-type, with the potential to be a little better if he can harness his command skills. The other two pieces were lottery tickets, although infielder Bryant Flete has the upside to find regular time as a utility infielder, about a one-win player.
As far as surplus value, a top five position player is about as valuable a prospect as you can get. Jimenez is worth about $81 million in value, and Cease about $15MM. We’ll toss in about $2MM for the lottery tickets because of the upside, and that gives us a deal valued at $98 million.
Ah yes, the Big Kahuna. I remember where I was when that fateful Winter Meetings decision came down, and I’m sure you do too. In a season and a half in Boston, Sale has run roughshod over the AL, basically keeping pace with what he did with the White Sox albeit on a much better team.
Of course, Dave Dombrowski paid through the nose to get Sale, giving up the consensus top prospect in baseball at the time, as well as a possible future ace in his own right. Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech immediately became the top two prospects in the White Sox system, while toolsy outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe became the system’s eighth-best. Victor Diaz was the lottery toss-in.
Like Jimenez, the surplus value on Moncada was sky-high. He’s worth that $81MM figure from above, while Kopech carried about $32MM in surplus value. Other two prospects were unranked, with Basabe carrying more upside. Even without them, the trade for Sale left at least $113 million in value going to Chicago.
So, what does all this mean for the Yankees? The three traded pitchers here all fit the profile of the “ace” that the Yankees may target in deGrom or Bumgarner. The surplus value of the traded prospects averaged $94.3 million, so that’s probably close to what the Yankees would have to put together to get a deal done. The point is, it’s very difficult to get to that level of value with unranked prospects or back-of-top-100 guys. Players like Thairo Estrada, Tyler Austin or Chance Adams just aren’t worth enough to make the needle move seriously for the kind of pitcher the Yankees are looking at.
Every single one of these trades stung the fanbases of their respective teams. Two of them were headlined by prospects about as valuable as Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. If the Yankees are going to shop for a Rolex, they can’t expect to pay a Timex price.