Friday, September 30, 2011

An Ideal Change of Scenery: Jason Bay for Carl Crawford

I find that most proposals for 'change of scenery' trades are silly.  Most fans of teams think that an opposing club will pay full value for their failed prospect in hopes that they may regain their former luster.  Fans clamor for their General Manager to pry struggling players from opposing teams for pennies, when no such deal is on the table.  (Think I'm kidding?  Take a minute to google a guy like Alex Gordon and see what you come up with... here is an example of how he was hotly pursued last year: link)

However, not all proposals to get a player a change of scenery are bad ones -- in fact, there are plenty of scenarios where getting a player out of town might benefit both parties.  However, the price for the team dumping the loser or receiving the once-hyped prospect will be steep.

Enough beating around the bush.  My idea?  The Mets trade Jason Bay to the Red Sox for Carl Crawford and a little cash.

The match could not be better, and I am amazed that it took me so long to see this.  Let's start with the basics on the two players.

As you know, Jason Bay has struggled as a Met.  He posted a .259 average with 6 HR and an 749 OPS in 2010, and followed that up with a .245 average, 12 HR, and a 703 OPS this year, missing time both years with injuries.  Factoring in defense and baserunning, Bay was worth an astoundingly terrible 0.7 WAR this year.

Carl Crawford's welcome to Red Sox Nation may have been even worse.  Crawford this year put up a .255 average and 11 HR, but drew almost nothing in the way of walks and posted an OPS of 694.  Crawford made up some of the gap with superior defense, but also posted an awful 0.4 WAR.

Jason Bay is owed $16MM in 2012, $16MM in 2013, and has a vesting option for $17MM in 2014 for a total of $49MM over the next three years (or $35 over two years).  Crawford is owed the outrageous sum of $122MM over the next six years.  Both contracts look like horrible albatrosses.

Why would these teams make the swap?

Why The Red Sox Will Do It
1.  Carl Crawford is a dead man walking in Boston.   His horrible season for the Sox, combined with his horrific play on the last hit of Boston's season, seals his fate.  The gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands in Boston is audible all the way here in Queens.

2.  Carl Crawford is not a good fit for Fenway.  Why on earth did Boston sign this guy in the first place?  In addition to the above, and generic concerns that he may not be cut out for a big market, the Sox took a player who derives a TON of his value from his speed and defense and put him in the smallest left field in the entire baseball universe.  They added him to a lineup which already had bona-fide top of the order hitters in Ellsbury, Pedroia, and Gonzalez.  Crawford is an afterthought.

3.  Jason Bay has already THRIVED in Boston.  Maybe Bay is a different player now, but wouldn't it be worth it for them to see if they can roll the dice and at least get some value from Bay, rather than with a guy like Crawford who has been placed in a position where he can do nothing but fail?

Why The Mets Will Do It
1.  Jason Bay is a dead man walking in Queens.  Back to back terrible seasons.  Ending the season on the bench with a "sinus infection," in addition to huge chunks of both seasons.  And now the pressure on Bay will become even worse -- all hope for a bounce back is gone, and with back to back losing seasons, the fans will begin to turn on the player with the largest contract.

2.  Bay is a terrible fit for Citi Field.  The spacious left field, the high fences, and the low-run scoring environment have conspired to make this the worst case scenario for Bay.  Granted, Bay did not hit well on the road this season either, but the change of scenery back to Boston may help him.

3.  There is HOPE for Carl Crawford, where for Bay there is little to none.  As has been pointed out, Carl Crawford was bad, not terrible, for the Sox since starting the season horrendously.  After beginning the start of play on May 23rd batting .215/.249/.298, Crawford hit a poor but improved .280/.313/.474 from then until the end of the season, over 352 plate appearances.

Bottom Line?

Both players have enormous contracts and have underperformed greatly.  Both players are bad fits for their current clubs, and have worn out their welcomes. And it just so happens that both players play left field.

"But Brian, why would the Sox trade for a player who is older and just as horrible?"  The Red Sox, as we all know, are further along on the success cycle right now.  If they had Jason Bay in left field instead of Carl Crawford, they may well have won an additional game and made the postseason this year.  With that in mind, taking a chance on Jason Bay, with the shorter contract, with the potential that he may regain some of his prior Boston success (where he posted OPSes of 897 and 921), makes sense.  It helps, also, that Bay fits comfortably down in the order as opposed to the speedy Crawford.  And remember - Bay will only be 33 next year.

"But Brian, why would the Mets take on the longer contract for the player who was worse last year?"  A few reasons.  As I mentioned above, there is hope that Crawford may succeed in Flushing while there is no such hope for Bay.  Furthermore, Crawford is a fantastic fit for Citi Field -- he might even be able to play center field and give the Mets the answer they are looking for at that position so they can open up left field for someone like Lucas Duda, Nick Evans, or someone else.  Even moreso, Crawford can hit toward the top of the Mets lineup, where his few talents would not be as wasted as they are in Boston.  And he'll fit perfectly in the low scoring National League East... not to mention distract a little from the flurry of negativity that will occur when Reyes departs. 

You know you've struck a good deal when people on both sides find it hard to pull the trigger.  The one thing that I think the Mets would require to execute this deal is a little financial assistance in years 2014-2017 when Jason Bay's contract is expired and Crawford is still on the books.

Proposal:  Mets trade Jason Bay to the Red Sox for Carl Crawford and $5MM in each of the years 2014-2017.  The Mets end up with Crawford on a 6/$107MM deal and the Sox get Bay for 3/$49MM plus a future payment of $15MM.

Each team takes on some risk, each team gets an asset from the other that is more likely to succeed for them than for their current team.  Neither team wants anything to do with these guys -- so why not put them in a position where they may be able to succeed.

I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this:  Is this deal a good match?  Would one team love this idea and another team hate it?  Are there other factors that I haven't considered?

Friday, September 02, 2011

Marginal Value and Why I Don't Care if the Mets Bring Back Reyes

Quickly, who has been the most valuable Met this year?

Has it been Jose Reyes and his league-leading .336 batting average? Did Carlos Beltran have that distinction while he was here? Has David Wright's surge since coming back put him into the discussion?

No, no, and no -- if you are talking money, that is.

When you take into account the salary they are earning, the most valuable Met this season has been none other than Daniel Murphy. No, he does not have the highest WAR of any Met this year -- that distinction goes to Reyes -- but he has provided the most value at the least cost. That makes him the most valuable.

Below is a table with a majority of the Mets regulars, sorted from the highest WAR per dollar to lowest:

[I really hope you can read that.  I will provide the text version of that chart at the bottom of the post.]

Anybody with access to baseball-reference or fangraphs or who watches the game can tell you to a reasonable degree of certainty who is the most valuable player on the field.  But baseball is a business -- just like the other major sports -- and even though you and I might bleed blue-and-orange and think flags fly forever, for those who make the decisions it all comes down to money.  It's not that winning is irrelevant -- but winning almost always depends on having a strong financial position from which you can make moves in the future.

There is a very good (and very mathematically heavy and boring) article over at Baseball Prospectus which takes a look at the true costs and benefits to signing free agents.  In it, the author discusses the pricing of free agents (he calls it "the marginal cost of acquiring a player's contribution on the free-agent market") while also factoring in things such as the length of the deal (ex: a player gives up dollars in the first year for a guarantee of a longer contract at a lower average annual value) and the draft picks lost as compensation.  He provides a great example (I have edited out most of the math):
Which brings us to this next example, where the Tigers surrendered the 19th pick in the 2010 draft to sign Jose Valverde to a two-year deal worth $14 million, which would be worth $22 million if the Tigers exercise a 2012 club option. Ignoring the draft-pick compensation, Valverde’s contract would look pretty good ... he would be worth $18.2 million if you ignore the draft picks.  However, the 19th pick would ... 3.3 wins over the first six years, which ... is $10.5 million in foregone wins.
If you go to fangraphs, you'll see that at the bottom of each page they have a section for each player entitled "value."  In that section, there is listed the players salary, right next to a column which says "dollars."  The dollars column roughly amounts to how much a player providing that much value would cost on the free agent market.  Jose Reyes, for example, has posted 5.3 WAR so far this season, while the market in baseball generally values 5.3 WAR at a price of $23.9 million dollars.  Daniel Murphy, on the other hand, has provided 3.2 WAR which is valued at $14.3 million dollars.

Jose has been better, but Murphy has provided more bang for his buck.

So herein lies the problem:  once Jose Reyes - or any player - becomes eligible to test the free agent market, they are going to find someone to pay them what they are worth.  Or as is often the case, more than they are worth.  At that point, unless there is some kind of hometown discount being provided, that player is no more or less useful to your team than any other.  In fact, he may be LESS useful to your team specifically because you owned him to begin with -- by not allowing him to leave, you fail to get draft pick compensation that you would otherwise have.

For example, if the Mets were confronted with the ability to sign Jose Reyes or Hanley Ramirez, as free agents this winter, my only preference would become who would provide the better DEAL for our team.  I love Reyes, he is my favorite player.  But I'd rather see my team win without Reyes than lose with him.[1]

Back in 2005, when the Mets were on the precipice of their ill-fated dynasty, the world belonged to them.  In David Wright and Jose Reyes, the Mets had lucked into two all-star position players at almost exactly the same time.  Between 2006 and 2008, Reyes posted 6.1, 5.8, and 6.4 WAR.  In the same time span, Wright posted 5.2, 8.9, and 7.1 WAR.  All of those were All-Star campaigns, and in the case of Wright, what had a good argument as an MVP season.
But why did the Mets win so many games from 2006-2008?  It wasn't just because they had Wright and Reyes -- they still have Wright and Reyes.  It was because in 2006, Wright and Reyes made a COMBINED salary of less than a million dollars.  In 2007, they earned around $4.5 million dollars.  In 2008, they raked in less than ten million dollars.  As a whole, they earned approximately $15 million dollars while providing the Mets with value equivalent to what they would have to pay a free agent approximately $163 million dollars for.  That's $150 million dollars of profit.

So what did the Mets do when they had two, young, cost-controlled mega-stars?  They used the extra money that they had to PAY free agents.  They brought in Pedro Martinez, and Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado, and Billy Wagner and so many others.  And for that stretch of time, the Mets were very, very good.  But when the Mets failed to win it all, it wasn't just a sadness that could be remedied next year -- it was the end of an era.  The window was, and remains, closed, for the Wright-Reyes Mets to be anything special.

Take an example of another very good team, last year's Texas Rangers.  They knew that they had a good, cheap nucleus of talent in Josh Hamilton ($5.5M), Ian Kinsler ($4.2M), Nelson Cruz ($440K), and others.  They could afford to pay free agent money to players that they thought would push them over the top -- like Vladimir Guerrero.

Even big market teams like the Red Sox cannot win without cost-controlled, home grown stars.  The Red Sox have players like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard and Jon Lester under cost control -- so they could trade for Adrian Gonzalez and give him a lucrative contract extension, and they could pick up David Ortiz' contract option, and they could afford to make moves even with John Lackey's contract burdening them.

As for us, with Reyes and Wright reaching the point in their careers where they need to be paid what they are worth, it doesn't really matter if they are Mets or not-- outside of our weak, silly, baseball-fan hearts.  They will still be good players, but they will be no better for us than any other roll of the dice that we make on the free agent market.  Can a team built around a Wright and Reyes who are being paid market value still win?  Of course they can.  But the deck is no longer stacked in our favor.

For the next few years, the Mets are going to have to stand by and watch young, practically free superstars like Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Domonic Brown, Bryce Harper, Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, Antonio Bastardo, Julio Teheran, Jonny Venters and a host of others provide All-Star if not superstar value for our rivals.  The question is -- do the Mets have reinforcements?  Can the Mets reload?

All of this, finally, brings us back to the table that we posted at the beginning of this article.  Although the Mets don't have any surefire stud prospects waiting in the wings to be our next Wright or Reyes, the Mets certainly do have a lot of cheap players who can provide value in 2012 and beyond. You don't have to be a stats nerd or sabermatrician to understand that having cheap players who can step into roles on a winning club has value.  You just may be surprised to learn how much.

Another way of looking at the above table is to look at the value provided beyond the salary they were paid.[2]  Sorting this way, Murphy is again the most valuable Met.  In third, however, is Jose Reyes, who has provided over $11 million in surplus value despite earning $11 million on this year's contract.  All in all, the Mets have 12 players who have provided more than $2 million in surplus value to the team, and even better, all of whom (except Chris Capuano and Reyes) remain under team control next year.

Add to these names (Murphy, Niese, Tejada, Davis, Dickey, Turner, Duda, Thole, Pagan, Parnell) the list of players we discussed last week in our Organization Report, and you've got yourself an excellent core of players to build around.

Would I like the Mets to resign Reyes?  Absolutely.  Would the Mets be a better team on the field for doing so?  Absolutely -- there is no player out there who can replace the value of a stud, in his prime, All-Star shortstop.  Will it make the Mets better suited financially in the future to compete with the other teams in the NL East?  Hard to say.

The fangraphs values, and the generally accepted practice of attaching a dollar value to the WAR provided by a free agent, are misleading in that relative to the entire pool of players playing major league baseball, all free agents are overpaid.  As the salaries for players with less major league service time are strictly fixed by the rules and by arbitration, they can only wait for their free agent payday. 

The Top 12 Mets in providing value beyond their salary:

Value Beyond Salary WAR per $
IF Murphy $13,562,000.00 7.58
SP Niese $11,784,000.00 6.19
IF Reyes $11,724,000.00 0.47
IF Tejada $5,718,000.00 3.50
IF Davis $5,686,000.00 3.24
SP Dickey $5,179,000.00 0.76
SP Capuano $5,055,000.00 1.00
IF Turner $3,970,000.00 2.50
OF Duda $3,956,000.00 2.42
IF Thole $3,513,000.00 2.14
OF Pagan $2,618,000.00 0.40
RP Parnell $2,188,500.00 1.38