The Pittsburgh Pirates have been connected to a lot of relief pitchers leading up to the trade deadline. Any time there is a trade rumor connecting the Pirates to a player, I usually do a Trade Value article, looking at what that player will probably cost. The exception comes with relievers. The value of relievers never matches up with the trade value that teams give up in prospects. In some cases, the price that teams pay for relievers is insane. So I could do a trade value for relievers, but it wouldn’t compare to what those relievers would actually fetch in a trade.
On Friday I looked at an example of the true price for starting pitchers in this seller’s market, using the Jeff Samardzija trade as an example. The price was $9.5 M per win, when you considered the amount in salary and the amount in prospects given up. I wanted to do something similar for relievers, to at least put some sort of number on the value that they would bring in a trade. Unfortunately, there are only two big reliever trades to go on, which means once again we have a small sample to establish the market value.
I went ahead with the values, with the disclaimer that we’re only talking about two trades, and those trades ended up very different in terms of the cost per win. More on that below.
Joakim Soria for Jake Thompson/Corey Knebel
The Tigers acquired Joakim Soria, sending right-handed pitchers Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel to the Texas Rangers in return. Soria was making $5.5 M this year, with a $7 M option in 2015. He’s pitching like one of the best relievers in the game this year, and currently has a 1.7 WAR. He’s only been above a 2.0 WAR once in his career, but has hovered around a 2.0 WAR for most of his career. I set his trade value at a 2.0 WAR for each year, which resulted in a $5.0 M value. That’s worth a Grade B hitter, or two Grade C pitchers.
John Sickels rated Thompson and Knebel as B- prospects before the 2014 season. They didn’t rank in Baseball America’s top 100, but BA ranked them #2 and #4 in the Tigers system, respectively, at the mid-season update. It’s safe to say they’d carry a Grade B rating, which is worth $7.3 M each. So while Soria was worth $5 M, he ended up landing $14.6 M.
Huston Street/Trevor Gott for Taylor Lindsey/R.J. Alvarez/Jose Rondon/Elliot Morris
The Padres traded Street to the Angels, getting what seems like the final prospects that the Angels had. This included top 100 hitting prospect Taylor Lindsey, which is a big haul for a reliever. The trade included a prospect going to the Angels, but he didn’t really have any trade value, which means most of this deal is based on Street’s worth.
Street is under control through the 2015 season, making $7 M this year, with a $7 M club option next year. I put him as a 1.0 WAR player for both years. He hasn’t been above that since 2009, when he was a 1.5 WAR player. He has an 0.6 WAR this year, so it’s safe to say he’ll continue where he’s been at the last few years. With a 1.0 WAR, and his salary, he’s worth negative $2.5 M in trade value. The Padres should have had to pay some of his salary just for a team to take him for free, based on the same $/WAR values that are used for every other player in baseball.
Instead, the Padres got a nice return. Lindsey would be worth $10.43 M as a 51-100 hitting prospect. I’d say the other three prospects would be worth a combined $4.3 M, based on John Sickels’ pre-season ratings, along with their ratings from BA. That gives a $14.73 M trade return for Street, or $17.23 M above his value.
Adjusting the Reliever Values
It’s hard to draw a big conclusion based on two trades that have different results. The one conclusion that could be drawn is that trades for relievers are way more expensive than they should be.
In Soria’s case, the Rangers got $8.5 M per win in prospect value. Unlike a lot of relievers, Soria has a lot of value, and would be worth as much as a back of the rotation starter, or possibly a middle of the rotation guy. The $8.5 M figure is still crazy, but better than the early results for the starting pitching market.
Then we get even crazier. Huston Street has a negative value, but landed $14.73 M in prospect value. The Angels basically paid $17.25 M per win, when considering the prospects given up, and Street’s salary.
This amount is probably paid because Street is a closer, and teams still pay for saves and “Proven Closers.” But that number is just insane. There’s no way that Street should be worth twice the return that Soria got. And that’s when considering that Soria — a better reliever than Street, with a better contract — also got a high return.
It’s hard to say what someone like Andrew Miller would fetch in a trade, since he’s not a closer. But when you consider how many teams are looking for relievers, it becomes hard to imagine a reasonable $/WAR being accepted by the Red Sox, or any other team selling a reliever. At the least, you could expect a return like Soria got, worth $8.5 M per win. In Miller’s case, that would be $3.6 M in value, based on his $1.9 M salary and a 1.5 WAR. That would be a Grade C pitching prospect under the age of 23, and a Grade C pitcher over the age of 23. You’re probably talking about a lower level starting prospect and an upper level relief pitching prospect. And that’s assuming the demand on Miller doesn’t drive the price up higher.
The Pirates have a system strong enough that they can definitely afford to give up Grade C pitching prospects to better the team. The question is, do they spend those pitching prospects to get a reliever for two months, or do they put those same prospects towards something that could provide a bigger impact over the long-term? The example price I mentioned for Miller is the same price that the Pirates paid for Ike Davis, getting three years of control of a platoon first baseman. Davis hasn’t been that great, but the potential upside in that kind of deal is much greater than the potential upside for a middle reliever over a two month span.
I’ve never been a fan of trading for relievers, or giving up anything of value for a relief pitcher. They’re too volatile, don’t pitch often enough to make a big impact, and the prices that are paid for them can be insane. If you look at the value Soria had, it’s very similar to the Samardzija/Hammel trade in terms of $/WAR. The difference is that I think it’s easier to find a valuable reliever for a much smaller price than it is to find starting pitchers like the two that went to Oakland. For that reason, it would make more sense to put any prospects towards a much harder position to acquire, while continuing to go the cheap route with relievers — a route that has worked so well for the Pirates in the past.
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