News came across the wire yesterday that the Cubs were already involved in talks to trade Jeff Samardzija. Granted, the rumor mill is exactly that, but among teams mentioned were the Atlanta Braves. So, what would be a trade that could work for both the Braves and Cubs? To find out, we have to answer some questions.
What is Samardzija worth?
The estimated value of a win on the free agent market is around $7,000,000. In 2014, Samardzija has been fantastic, with a 2.77 ERA backed up by a solid 2.95 FIP. He has an evolved arsenal, throwing his cutter more than ever, and finally making it a successful pitch. There’s also a bit of an unwritten rule of thumb that says if starting pitchers are going to take a step forward, they’ll usually do it somewhere in the ballpark of start #100. It’s a theory that makes sense – it often takes guys 3 or 4 years to go from throwers to pitchers, at least in a certain sense. For the first 104 starts of his career, Felix Hernandez had a 3.70 FIP and a 3.80 ERA. Since, he has a 2.87 IP and a 2.80 ERA.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Jeff Samardzija IS Felix Hernandez, but they certainly have some similar traits. Both came up with a big fastball and plenty of talent, but both were relatively raw and unpolished. Hernandez’s average fastball speed was over 94.5 mph for each season that made up his first hundred or so starts, and then it declined (currently 92.3). Samardzija had pretty identical radar readings on his fastball until this season, when it dropped to 94.0. As both pitchers learned, speed isn’t everything, and Fangraphs currently considers Samardzija’s fastball 0.72 runs above average per 100 pitches, a career best. I only delve into these things because I think it’s important to know if Samardzija, who has generally posted FIPs in the mid 3’s, is really a changed man in 2014. Thanks to a new philosophy to attack the strike zone with the first pitch (his 68.1% first strike percentage is 4th in the majors), I think you could say he is a fundamentally better pitcher than he was over the last three years. So now that we can reasonably expect his performance to be a sustainable one, how much is he worth?
ZiPS rest of the season projections account for the new and improved Samardzija (Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA does not), and they project a 1.8 WAR (and 3.35 FIP) over the remainder of the 2014 season. I think that’s reasonable, which puts Samardzija’s 2014 value at $12.6M. For 2015, I’d imagine a hint of regression is reasonable, and projection systems usually hedge their bets a bit just in case of injury or whatnot. I think 3.0 WAR for 2015 is a more than conservative estimate. So in total, Samardzija brings 4.8 WAR to the table, which carries an open market value of $33.6M. Pretty hefty haul.
Of course, Atlanta wouldn’t get that kind of production for free – they’d still have to pay Samardzija. Atlanta would likely be on the hook for around $2.75M in 2014 if a deal were reached soon, along with whatever money Samardzija could earn in arbitration next year. I think an arbitration prize somewhere in the ballpark of $8-9M is very possible. Let’s call it even and say the Braves would be on the hook for around $11.6M, only because that gives us a net value gain of exactly $22M, which is easy to work with.
What would we trade?
We have to come up with $22M in value to trade for Samardzija. The Cubs are rebuilding, so obviously we go to prospects and cost-controlled players. Several years ago I ran across a great prospect valuation chart, but it comes from a time when a win was estimated at $5M, so adjusting all the values up by 20% to account for the serious inflation in baseball’s free market, we get:
Top 10 Hitting Prospect: $43.8M
Top 11-25 Hitters: $30.1M
Top 26-50 Hitters: $28.1M
Top 51-75 Hitters: $17.0M
Top 76-100 Hitters: $15.0M
Top 10 Pitching Prospect: $18.2M
Top 11-25 Pitchers: $19.0M
Top 26-50 Pitchers: $19.0M
Top 51-75 Pitchers: $14.5M
Top 76-100 Pitchers: $11.8M
John Sickels Grade B pitchers: $8.8M
Sickels Grade B hitters: $6.6M
Sickels Grade C pitchers (< 22 yo): $2.5M
Sickels Grade C Pitchers (> 23 yo): $1.8M
Sickels Grade C hitters (< 22 yo): $0.8M
Sickels Grade C hitters (> 23 yo): $0.6M
Ok, so having gone through all that, exactly what does Atlanta have down on the farm?
P Lucas Sims had a preseason rank of #57 and higher than a B grade from Sickels. Sims also carries a “top prospect in the system” tag, which makes his value to Atlanta relatively higher. We’re looking at $15M of value there. Sims would certainly be a fair and attractive starting piece to the trade, if Atlanta were inclined to part with him.
C Christian Bethancourt was ranked #69 by Baseball America, which gives him a value of around $17.0M. I think that’s a bit high for a guy who may never be more than Miguel Olivo, as Sickels has him valued much lower. If the Braves want to hold onto Sims, Bethancourt is certainly someone they could take a chance on parting with. The bat may never develop at all, and you can’t make major organizational decisions based on nothing but the hope that it will. The Cubs could definitely take a chance and take their time with the young catcher.
David Hale isn’t a minor leaguer, but he’s a MLB-ready arm with plenty of years of team control ahead, and enough of a prospect profile to carry value in a trade (Sickels has him at B-, worth $8.8M). Sickels also attaches good B grades to position players Jose Peraza and Tommy La Stella, along with pitchers Mauricio Cabrera, JR Graham, and Jason Hursh.
So what’s the deal?
Braves get: SP Jeff Samardzija & UT Emilio Bonifacio
You have to overpay a bit to get a player of value, and I expect a seller’s market for Samardzija. Bethancourt has Molina-esque upside that can enchant any team that plays the Cardinals as much as they do. JR Graham is a high-upside injury risk, but a lottery ticket that the Cubs system really can’t have enough of. David Hale is ready to provide value in a MLB rotation immediately, and the Braves can’t seem to find a big enough role for the smart and talented pitcher as he moves into his prime years. I considered someone like Todd Cunningham, but wondered why the Cubs would ever trade for him when he’s bound to hit waivers at some point or another. I instead went with Hefflinger, mired in an awful year right now, but still not far removed from a ridiculously productive 300 at-bats at high-A Lynchburg last year where he smashed 21 HR with a .293 ISO. The Cubs have been stockpiling big power bats, and while Hefflinger is less likely to make it at the MLB level than the Javier Baezes, Mike Olts, and Kris Bryants of the world, the power is still there.
Bonifacio comes a bit out of nowhere, but he’s pretty much pointless on the Cubs roster, and the Braves could actually use him. The switch-hitter can competently play 2B, SS, 3B, and CF. He makes good contact and is a good baserunner as well. Jordan Schafer‘s presence on the ballclub at this point is unnecessary, and Bonifacio could remedy that.
In my opinion, this kind of trade not only bolsters Atlanta’s chances in 2014. It also sets them up for 2015, after Aaron Harang, Gavin Floyd, and Ervin Santana hit (and probably leave via) free agency. The Cubs get to continue to horde talent, and I think the return is more than fair on their end.