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The Cost Of An Ace In 2012

The value of trade chips has dropped for sellers these days, and what we would have been okay with giving up for an ace in the past we should be much more cautious about these days.

Apr 23, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke (13) pitches against the Houston Astros in the first inning at Miller Park.  Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE
Apr 23, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke (13) pitches against the Houston Astros in the first inning at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE

Let me start by saying this: I have dreamed of seeing Zack Greinke in a Texas Rangers uniform for about five years now. Every word read here should be interpreted through that lens.

J.P. already covered Texas Ranger trade targets pretty thoroughly Tuesday, and we can start with the one thing we agree with strongly: Greinke is more desirable than Cole Hamels. 2011 was the first time in his career Hamels was better than Greinke, and 2012 so far is a return to normalcy. If you want more details, re-read JP’s piece.

With that in mind, the rest of this will focus on Greinke, but if you so desire, you can imagine the name "Hamels" in his place, and the point will be about the same.

The second thing J.P. and I agree on is that, no matter how good times are for the Rangers right now, it never hurts to try and improve. Greinke would be an improvement for the Rangers, and Texas has the resources to get him to Arlington. Where we disagree, perhaps, is how great a resource Jon Daniels should part with to do it.

The question of what the Brewers should expect for Greinke – without knowing what they’re actually getting offered – is one of surplus value. Dan Szymborski’s super-awesome ZiPS projection system thinks Greinke’s ERA should be plummeting from the 3.57 he’s put up so far, to a 3.00 going forward, but that’s somewhat due to an expected regression of "luck." Greinke’s Fielding Independent Pitching ERA has been at 2.56, and ZiPS actually expects a slightly-"worse" 2.70 going forward. That’s still a fantastic pitcher, and one who should be expected to be worth about 2.5 Wins Above Replacement going forward.

A 2.5 win season is currently valued by FanGraphs’ at being worth $11 million on the market, but that’s not Greinke’s surplus value. He’s owed nearly another six million for the rest of the season, so you are only talking about getting around five million dollars of surplus value from Greinke should he perform to expectation.

Fortunately, we have a way to look up what a prospect is worth thanks to the research of the great minds of the Internet. Kevin Creagh of Pirates Prospects recently updated the great work of Victor Wang, looking at how much value prospects – as ranked by Baseball America – put forth on average. Per his research, $5 million would buy you: not much. Not one single top 100 prospect. A hitter on the level of Mike Olt is worth more like $20-30 million surplus value over the course of his career, on average.

In the past, trades mirrored Wang’s valuations pretty well most of the time. Justin Smoak was just about what Cliff Lee was pegged as being worth, for example. That was back when teams would get compensation picks for losing their trade targets, though. Cliff Lee then was more valuable than Cliff Lee would be today, because the Rangers would get nothing for losing Cliff Lee today. We are going to see stars moving mid-season for significantly less than we are used to from the past. How much and how quickly teams adapt we shall see.

That means a couple of things. First, it means Zack Greinke is not worth Mike Olt. One of the third tier prospects that come after Olt, like a Martin Perez or Leonys Martin – guys whose service clocks are now ticking – is more reasonable.

. . . in a vacuum. What is more hard to quantify is the value of a championship (the word "priceless" comes to mind), and how much a Greinke would increase those odds for the Rangers. Baseball Prospectus thinks the Rangers are close to 90% to win their division already, and no addition is likely to change that much. They don’t need a stud to get to the playoffs. And as we saw last year, they didn’t need a Greinke-level pitcher to get to the World Series (and you might remember nearly win). But that doesn’t mean increasing the odds in that tournament isn’t a worthwhile venture, and Greinke would do so quite dramatically. A top-heavy rotation is what you want in October, and pitching Greinke twice in a post season series, while eliminating whoever ends up struggling most out of Oswalt/Holland has huge potential.

Whether or not that potential is worth the extra $15+ million of surplus it takes for a Greinke to be worth an Olt, I don’t know. It seems doubtful, but if the best front office in baseball said it was, it would be hard to doubt them given their track record of successful decisions. Further, as J.P. pointed out, the Rangers are loaded with prospects, and can suffer the blow of losing an Olt far better than most teams; especially those in contention.

The other side of that coin, though, is that it might not take an Olt to get a Greinke. The Brewers may hope to get the kind of return they would have gotten in past years, but the teams trying to trade with them don’t have to buy in to their demands. The Brewers, Phillies, and Diamondbacks could hold on to their chips, or they can take what the market gives them. Do not be surprised to see someone spectacular moved for significantly less than we are used to, and hope that team is the Texas Rangers.

If you were trying to self-edit this to be about getting Hamels, by the way, he is due about another $6.5 million over the rest of the year, and ZiPS projects him to be worth around exactly that much going forward. He is certainly worth more than market value to a team in contention, but not necessarily worth a top prospect.

Justin Upton is a different animal. While he is having a disappointing season, a bad half is too short a time to give up on a 24 year old. Even if he does not progress the way he was supposed to be, it would not take much for him to earn the just-over $40 million he’s due over the next three years. Believe it or not, that’s only slightly more than the market values a fairly average player at, a level Upton has consistently surpassed. Over the past three and a half seasons, FanGraphs estimates him as being worth around $30 million beyond that; easily worth the value of an elite prospect, with a lot more confidence instilled, and for a team with future holes at his position in the outfield. From a player just entering his prime with loads of talent, that also seems like a pretty conservative expectation. He may not be as sexy as an ace for the post season, but Upton is an incredible buy low candidate, and it would take a hefty package to really feel like a mistake.

It’s interesting seeing the Rangers hitting this point where they are not only buy candidates, but also have the ability to buy and continue to restock in the future. What’s even more fun is that we as fans can argue about whether or not Mike Olt is worth parting with for a couple months of one of the best pitchers in baseball, or for a disappointing-but-talented outfielder, but there is a lot of reason to trust the front office will come up with the right package in the end, or will pass knowing the demands were too much. That said, it would be very hard to argue Zack Greinke – or Justin Upton, or Cole Hamels – the Texas Ranger would not be a lot of fun, whatever the price.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.