clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A brief, sloppy valuation of the Braves’ trade deadline deals

New, 62 comments

Slapping some numbers on the changing of uniforms

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Cincinnati Reds Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Just like that, it’s August. The dust kicked up during a crazy Trade Deadline has settled. That gives us a bit of a breather to examine the deals themselves, and think about the value that changed hands.

As a refresher, the Braves made four deals as July came to an end:

  1. LHP Jonny Venters acquired for “an international slot,” which I interpret to mean $250,000 in international bonus pool, based on this being the smallest tradeable increment (see here).
  2. RHP Brad Brach acquired for the same $250,000 in international bonus pool (slot). (This source, among others, directly lists the $250,000 figure.)
  3. OF Adam Duvall acquired for RHP Lucas Sims, RHP Matt Wisler, and OF Preston Tucker.
  4. RHP Kevin Gausman and RHP Darren O’Day acquired for minor leaguers C Brett Cumberland, INF Jean Carlos Encarnacion, RHP Evan Phillips, and LHP Bruce Zimmermann, in addition to $2.5 million in international bonus pool (source).

Let’s think about the value of each of those deals as best we (I) can.

1) Venters and International Slot Money

The Braves traded international bonus pool amounts in three of their four deals. This is probably the most problematic part of valuing their trades, because the value of this “amount” is not well-defined. To be clear, what the Braves are doing when they trade this amount is not actually sending any cash. Rather, they are sending the right for another team to spend more on international amateur signings, because that market is not a free-for-all but capped according to an arcane series of rules that will make your head spin. By my (imperfect) understanding, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) works kind of like this:

  • Each team is assigned a “pool” that reflects a “safe amount” with which they can make international free agent signings. In any given signing a period, a team can sign as many players as it wants provided it is able to come to agreement with them for any amount.
  • There are two caveats, though. If a team exceeds its “pool” in a signing period, it is then unable to sign any player for more than $300,000 in two subsequent periods (years). In addition, signings of $10,000 are not subject to the “pool” at all, and are basically freebies.
  • The CBA allows teams to trade for extra pool amounts, up to a point. So one team could not, theoretically, trade for most “pool” available across MLB and sign all the international free agents. But, it can augment its original “pool” by up to an extra 75 percent, which will decrease to an extra 60 percent in the near future.
  • Lastly, older international free agents are exempt if they’ve played professionally elsewhere — the specific thresholds are 25 years of age and six or more prior years in a professional league.

(For a better explanation of all this, just see the great Baseball America explainer here.)

None of the above really clarifies exactly how much $250,000, or $2.5 million, in international slot money is actually worth. This offseason, Stephen Loftus examined this question at Fangraphs but concluded that the value was fairly low, perhaps inefficiently low. In that great article, two things stood out to me:

All told, the teams traded $9.66 million for approximately a projected 2.0 WAR over the entire time of team control.

It’s even harder to speculate about how much these trading teams should receive for, say, $1,000,000 in bonus money. Teams probably wouldn’t trade a top-100 prospect to have the chance to sign another (potentially someday higher-ranked) top-100 guy, especially with the nature of projecting 16-year-old amateurs. Complicating matters further is the fact international free agents are probably one of the final areas of baseball in which teams can have drastically different evaluations of a player. That said, it’s not entirely unreasonable for one to think that $2.5 million in bonus money could merit the 10th-best prospect or a passable reliever from another organization.

That’s not to say that this type of pool has no value, though. For one, since international free agency is a restricted market, the value of a pool should be more valuable than a similar amount of cold, hard cash. In other words, the $250,000 of pool sent to the Rays for Venters should, at a bare minimum, be worth more than $250,000 itself. How much more valuable? There’s the rub — I’m not sure. I’ve seen some rules of thumb that it’s twice as valuable, but on the other hand, as indicated above, the teams that trade it away don’t tend to get much out of it.

In addition, there are all sorts of actor-specific considerations in play. The Braves are currently in the penalty phase for international signings from exceeding their pool amount in a prior signing period, so extra pool is relatively less valuable to them because they can’t sign players to contracts of over $300,000 anyway. So, they have somewhat less leverage than perhaps another team in dealing these. But, on the flip side, their trading partners may have even less leverage if they need the extra pool amount to consummate agreed-upon deals without running afoul of the regulations (and therefore having to renege on some). These are complicated factors that figure into each specific deal, but are somewhat separate from the broad market value of an international bonus pool dollar.

Anyway! Back to Jonny Venters. Venters has the weirdest MLB timeline. He appeared in three seasons for the Braves, 2010 through 2012. Then he did not pitch in professional baseball at all until 2016, and has finally worked his way back to the majors this year. I am honestly not certain about his team control, as he spent those three years with the Braves plus two more on the Disabled List. He was not accruing service time with the Rays until late April this year. In any case, worrying about future control may be beside the point, as it remains to be seen whether or not Venters will even be able to pitch in 2019.

Note: The remainder of this is a persnickety academic exercise. The bottom line is that two things with fairly little value were exchanged both in this deal and the Brach deal. The rest is mostly just, “What would be your best guess to estimate value of this deal?” rather than anything necessary. We’re talking decimal points here.

Because Venters has also only pitched 15 and two-thirds major league innings since 2012, figuring what he’s going to do the rest of the year is also dicey. One way to think about production in the context of value is essentially the relationship between FIP- (park/league-adjusted FIP, scaled to an index of 100) and fWAR. This relationship can be summarized as:

  • An 100 FIP- is worth about 0.3 fWAR over 65 innings.
  • Each point of FIP-, over 65 innings, is around 0.025 fWAR. This lets us figure out how much Venters might be worth for the rest of the year. For example, a 90 FIP- is 10 points lower than 100, so 10 x 0.024 + the baseline of 0.3 = about 0.5 fWAR over 65 innings.

The Fangraphs Depth Charts currently project Venters to pitch just 14 more innings. If Venters pitches 14 innings at the same FIP- he’s already accrued this year (94), then we can do the basic math of 6 x 0.024 + baseline of 0.3 = 0.4 fWAR over 65 innings, or basically 0.1 fWAR. If we use some basic number like $8.5 million per win, we get that value at around $850,000. Subtracting the remainder of Venters’ league-minimum salary (one third of $545,000, or about $182,000) yields about $0.67 million in value. That’s pretty close to the rule of thumb of doubling the pool amount to get its value. Even if you triple it, it’s all still pretty close.

In other words, this deal is pretty much a wash - the Braves paid market value and moved an asset they couldn’t really use to get one they could. This is the basic sort of “everybody wins” mutually-beneficial swap that you pretty much expect to see from any Front Office not sitting on its hands. Yay. If Venters pitches better than he has, or simply is able to pitch more, there may be a slight advantage, but it’s always going to be slight.

2) Brach and International Slot Money

Now that the discussion of international slot money value is out of the way, we don’t have to repeat it for this trade.

Brad Brach had his heyday in 2015-2017. This year, everything has decline — his strikeout rate is down, his walk rate is up, his xwOBA allowed is up. It’s all the usual reliever variation, possibly wrapped up in aging, as he’s lost a tick on his pitches relative to last year. To date, Brach has accumulated 0.4 fWAR with a 92 FIP-. His xFIP- is scarier (103), but he’s always had a slight difference between his FIP and xFIP, probably owing to the fact that he used to throw pretty hard and get lots of grounders. Speaking broadly, we could just figure the remainder of his year might see an FIP between 92 and 103, averaging 97ish or something.

Innings also matter. The past three years, he’s finished with no fewer than 68 innings; he has 40 so far (one already coming in an Atlanta uniform). Fangraphs’ Depth Charts estimate he will only accumulate 13 more innings. At 13 innings and a 97 FIP-, we have the basic math of (3 x 0.024 + 0.3) x 13/65 = 0.1 fWAR for the remainder of the year. At 28 innings (to get him to 68) and that same FIP-, you’re up to 0.2 fWAR for the remainder of year. Brach is owed about $1.8M for the remainder of the year, which is pretty close to the market rate for that salary. Whatever nebulous value the $250,000 in international slot money has, it probably doesn’t move the needle.

In short, this is pretty much the same wash-type trade. The Braves took on some modest salary and traded away an asset they couldn’t really maximize the value of. Once we get into decimal places like this, it’s all a wash, and the above was really just an academic exercise to see whether it makes sense with said decimal places, full of spurious precision as they are. It still does, though it’s not particularly exciting. If Brach were his 2017 self (79 FIP-) the decimals would look better, but still pretty much the same. Bottom line - the Braves acquired a generic reliever type for an asset they couldn’t really use. It’s fine.

3) Duvall for Sims, Wisler, and Tucker

This is my favorite deal of the four. Why? Because, essentially, I think that this is a quintessential something-for-nothing deal. We’ll get to Duvall later, but the idea is, he is something, i.e., something with (positive) value. Meanwhile, the return going the other way?

Matt Wisler has put up 0.5 fWAR in over 320 innings to date. His career fWAR/200 is 0.3. He’s also been worse as a reliever (somehow, defying conventional logic about such transitions), so I’m not sure there’s much of a saving grace there. The projection systems did not value him either; ZiPS is perhaps most optimistic at this point with 0.5 WAR/200. In addition, Wisler would start arbitration next year. Even at a fringe value like 0.5 WAR, 0.5 x 8.5 = $4.25M in production, over four years, would be $17 million in value. Super Two arbitration estimates may follow a 20/33/50/70 pattern, or 177 percent of a player’s single-season production, i.e., 4.25 x 1.77 = $7.5M. Essentially, at his most optimistic, on a pure decimal-level value basis, Wisler could be worth something like $10 million in surplus. But, he’d actually have to pitch to get that surplus, and the idea that any team can’t find something better than a 0.5 WAR/200 pitcher to take up any amount of innings is a little crazy. So, even if it’s not nothing, the top-end value for Wisler is barely in the double-digit millions. The central value is probably a lot closer to $0.

Lucas Sims has not pitched much in the majors so far, just 10 starts and 10 relief appearances. He has been replacement level in those. Some projection systems are optimistic — ZiPS still projects Sims for a 4.77 FIP (and Steamer is at 4.74) the rest of the way, which is a well below-average but live-human pitcher. If you wanted to quibble, you could say that maybe this is appropriate for Sims, and he really does carry a fair bit of value. If he’s a 1.5 WAR pitcher per season going forward, that’s actually a ton of value. (1.5 x 8.5 x 3 years at league minimum = ~$35 million in surplus.) If you think this, maybe you are sour on this deal just based on Sims’ potential. I, meanwhile, think of Sims pretty much like Wisler — around 0.5 WAR/year at the top end. Again, that means something like $10M before arbitration and perhaps $10M after, but also potentially closer to $0 if the performance isn’t there at all, and I’m skeptical that it will be.

Preston Tucker is easier — at this point, he’s had about a full season’s worth of PAs (nearly 600) and has been below replacement level. Optimistic projections see him carrying a league-average batting line (pretty much exactly his 99 wRC+ in 2018 so far) and maybe getting some fringe decimal WAR value. Others have him being exactly replacement level, with a combination of poor-to-blah corner outfield defense and below-average hitting removing any semblance of value.

Duvall, though, is closer to a real contributor than any of these three names. For his career, he’s a 1.7 fWAR/600 player. If you assume he finishes his down year at 0.8 fWAR, averaging his most recent three years, including accounting for only partial playing time going forward, still sees him at around 1.7 WAR/season. Duvall has three arbitration seasons. If we use the standard rule of thumb (25/40/60), we get 1.7 x 8.5 x 3 = $43 million of production, less 1.25 x 1.7 x 8.5 = $18 million in salary, or about $25 million in surplus value. And this is a pretty middling estimate, one that doesn’t involve any rosy expectations.

Above, I defined Wisler as something like $0 to $10 million in surplus, and more likely zero. For Sims, I suppose you are welcome to consider him a reasonably valuable property but I don’t particularly agree, so again, from my perspective, a possible range could be, say, $0 to $20 million in total surplus, again closer to zero. Lastly, I am comfortable assigning a $0 value to Preston Tucker for the reasons above. So, at one high-end valuation of Wisler and Sims, compared to the middling estimate of Duvall, this trade gets close to a wash, or perhaps might look good for the Reds. But, that’s unfairly skewed. My perspective is that the mode outcome for Wisler, Sims, and Tucker going forward is $0 surplus. Given that, the Braves got something for nothing.

This is all before all the roster-specific considerations, like how the Braves needed a bench upgrade, how Wisler and Sims don’t really have room in the crowded pitching picture anyway, and “out of options” considerations. All of those skew the trade in the Braves’ favor as well.

4) Gausman and O’Day for Cumberland, Encarnacion, Zimmermann, Phillips, and International Slot Money

This deal has a lot of moving parts. Weirdly enough, the easiest one to actually pin down is the most valuable — Kevin Gausman himself. There’s been a fair bit of disagreement after the trade about the value of Gausman, owing to a common bugbear: competing visions of pitcher valuation. By fWAR, Gausman’s last three seasons have gone 3.0, 2.5, and 2.0 (combining the 1.3 he’s already banked this year with a projection on what he’s likely to do). By RA9-WAR, which essentially slaps a WAR value on his actual runs allowed, adjusting for league and park but burdening him with the quality of the defense behind him and anything else that might result in a run scoring, those seasons have gone 3.9, 2.4, and 1.6 (so far). By rWAR, which is similar to RA9-WAR but applies an over-the-top adjustment for defensive quality, he’s gone 4.1, 2.0, 2.3 (already). If you average these three (after extending the RA9-WAR and rWAR figures out by the same ratio as the fWAR projection is to what he’s already accrued), you get an average of 2.5 WAR/season by fWAR, 2.9 WAR/season by RA9-WAR, and 3.2 WAR/season by rWAR. Those aren’t huge gaps, but they matter. My preference, and my belief, is that fWAR is the most appropriate figure to use here (and in general), for two reasons. First, fWAR correlates with future performance better than RA9-WAR or rWAR, which makes it most appropriate when we are looking at future production. Second, it best isolates the contribution of the player himself, which isn’t as relevant for this exercise, but is still critical for evaluating the actual contributions of the player and not of his teammates.

Gausman is a Super Two player in his third year of arbitration eligibility. We can think of his future salaries in two ways, using the same 20/33/50/70 arbitration salary breakout for Super Two-eligible players.

  • In one method, we can simply take his current salary, $5.6 million, and scale it up accordingly. This means that he’s owed $1.9 million this year (one-third of $5.6 million), $8.5 million next year ($5.6 x 50/33), and $11.9 million in his final year of team control, for a total of $22.3 million owed to him by the Braves, assuming they don’t non-tender him.
  • In another method, we would take his production and multiply it by those scaling factors. He’s still owed $1.9 million for the remainder of this year, but onto this, we add, if using fWAR, 8.5 x 2.5 x 0.5 = $10.6 million next year, and $14.9 million next year. I’m more partial to the other method, as over $25 million for Gausman’s next two years seems a bit rich given that he’s making under $6 million this year.

Using fWAR, we can estimate that Gausman will produce 0.7 additional wins this year, and our three-year average estimate of 2.5 the next two years. His total value is therefore (0.7 + 2.5 + 2.5) x 8.5, or about $48.5 million. Subtracting a salary of $22.3 million from the first method above, his surplus value is around $26 million. Note that there is a fair bit of uncertainty here. Higher arbitration salaries (second bullet above) would eat into his surplus. But, if you value Gausman differently and more akin to his RA9-WAR or rWAR figures, you may think he will produce more than 2.5 WAR/season going forward. That would increase his surplus, especially if his salaries are still derived via the first method. I still feel pretty comfortable with $26 million as a central measure.

The Braves also received Darren O’Day. O’Day is out for the year after hamstring surgery, and is owed $2.7 million for the remainder of the season. In addition, he will be under contract for another $8 million next year. (It is unclear whether the Braves are taking on responsibility for O’Day’s signing bonus, which is paid to him in a $1 million increment each year. This is a marginal difference either way.) For health reasons, O’Day has only pitched 111 innings over the last three seasons, and compiled just 1.3 fWAR (around 0.4/season, on average). Given that he’ll be 36 years old next year, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that some combination of health and performance will prevent him from rebounding. If we assume O’Day provides 0.4 fWAR next year, that’s $3.4 million in production, offset by his $10.7 million in salary obligations. In other words, O’Day was basically a salary dump, worth negative $7.3 million. Combined with the $26 million in surplus from Gausman, the Orioles sent around $19 million in total surplus value to the Braves.

Now, let’s look at the return. Handily, prospect gurus Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen provided updated future value (FV) grades for each prospect dealt this Trade Deadline here, and we can use those in combination with surplus value by FV grade here to think about the surplus value of the dealt prospects.

  • Brett Cumberland — Cumberland had a 45+ grade on him. If you take that as just a 45, that’s $11 million. If you take that as halfway between a 45 and a 50, it’s closer to $16 million. But, other rankings have been much more bearish on Cumberland. Doing this same exercise for a bunch of different rankings and valuations yields a range of $0 to $16 million, with an average of around $5 million. Prospects! There’s lots of room to disagree.
  • Jean Carlos Encarnacion — McDaniel/Longenhagen slapped a 40+ grade on Encarnacion, which I guess is maybe halfway between $0 and the $11 million for a 45 FV hitter. By my alternative exercise, I find a range of $0 to $21 million for him, with an average of around $5 million.
  • Evan Phillips — a straight 40 FV per McDaniel/Longehagen, I’m not sure whether this really indicates he has any value. As an AAAA relief type, $0 seems like a safe bet to me here.
  • Bruce Zimmermann — a 35+, and I’m mostly at a loss as to how to value him as a result. Both Phillips and Zimmermann very much seem like near-value-less throw-ins to me.

And, of course, we have a boatload of slot value, $2.5 million of it.

So, let’s combine these. Per Fangraphs, we have $16 million (Cumberland) + $6 million (Encarnacion) + $0ish for the two pitchers, which already exceeds the $19 million coming the other way even before accounting for all that slot value. Alternatively, and accounting for Fangraphs potentially being the high valuation of these prospects, I come up with something more akin to $10 million in the prospect package. If you double the value of the slot allotment in the surplus value calculation, you’re at $15 million versus $19 million. If you triple it, you’re at $17.5 million versus $19 million. I think the valuation of this trade really depends on your assessment of Cumberland and Encarnacion, in the end. My thinking is that it’s close-ish to even, with the Braves perhaps slightly ahead. But, it’s pretty close, and there’s room to disagree.