Barnett: Breaking Down Some Pirates Trade Surplus Values as the Deadline Approaches

As a resident of Indiana, I have spent weeks listening to the incessant rumors surrounding a Paul George trade after he informed management that the 2017-2018 NBA season would be his last in an Indiana Pacers’ uniform.  The President of Basketball Operations for the team called it a “gut punch,” but the reality is that the writing was on the wall even before last season’s trade deadline. Yet, the team chose to roll the dice and ultimately ended up succumbing to a panic move last week.

Now, regardless of whether you love or hate the NBA, the conundrum for the small market Pacers, who must strike a delicate balance between extending the competitive window and competing now, should not be lost on you as a Pittsburgh Pirate fan. After all, the Pirates remain in striking distance of the division leading Milwaukee Brewers, and with the trade deadline fast approaching, they are going to be forced to make some difficult decisions about how to navigate that balance with their tradeable assets.

Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs suggested a few weeks ago that the Pirates should “sell softly” in a similar manner to last season and wait until the offseason to trade Cole or McCutchen, allowing the latter’s continued rebound to drive up his value rather than part with their most valuable trade assets.  Additionally, it wasn’t that long ago that Neal Huntington spoke about adding pieces, saying: “As we get closer to the deadline, that is the intent: to utilize the dollars that were created [by Hughes, Marte, and Kang situation]. … That money is sitting there, waiting to be used at the appropriate time.”

While it’s possible the Pirates will head in that direction unless they are made an overwhelming offer, it is truly difficult to predict what position the team will be in a month from now, especially with Starling Marte eligible to rejoin the team in the midst of a 14 game run over the 15 days leading up to the deadline.

Nevertheless it seems like an opportune time to discuss how to measure a player’s trade value, and to do so, we won’t be taking the common “trade package wishes” approach.  On the contrary, we will be using surplus value and the market price to determine reasonable value as we survey last season’s deadline moves and this year’s trade candidates.

Determining Surplus Value

The notion of surplus value, which attempts to place a monetary value on a player’s expected or actual performance vs. contract, centers around Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and the average cost per WAR.  Essentially, the cost per WAR is how much teams are paying on average for a single WAR on the free agent market.  Recent projections have that number around $8.5-9.5 million per 1 WAR because of inflation, so we’ll split the difference and use $9 million as the cost of 1 WAR on the market.

To calculate a player’s Surplus Value, you take the Value of a player (Value= Total WAR x Cost per WAR) and you subtract the salary, which leaves you with (Value – Salary = Surplus Value).

For example, the Pirates nabbed Ivan Nova on a three-year, $26 million dollars deal (we won’t worry about the incentives).  At $9 million per WAR, Nova would need only to put up three WAR over the entire contract to have a $26 million value.

With that low of a bar, the deal was viewed as an incredible steal for Pittsburgh by those who believed Nova’s breakout was more than a fluke.  Now, to put a dollar amount on how much of a bargain he might be, let’s look at his surplus value numbers:

So perhaps the 5 year, $70 million deal he was reportedly looking for this offseason wasn’t all that outrageous.Since Nova is already at 1.6 WAR at the halfway point of this season, he doesn’t need to do a whole lot the rest of the way to be worth what the Pirates paid him.  Yet, the Pirates, as a small market team, need players like Nova to be worth more than they are paid.  This is why, even with some conservative projections, it is incredible that the Pirates nabbed a core piece of their rotation at what be more than $36 million less than he’s worth.

Surplus Value: The Role of Control

Now, that there is a baseline for surplus value, let’s take a look at how it functions according to years of control, which a quick review of the Chris Sale trade from this offseason and of the rumors that swirled around Jose Quintana (who was just traded) not long after should provide a brief demonstration.

Entering this season, Chris Sale was looking like a player worth $125 million in surplus value over the next three years.  Considering he already has an unbelievable 5.1 WAR at the halfway point of this season, he’ll likely surpass this offseason WAR projection from Fangraphs, but no team counted on this type of dominance when they weighed forming a trade package.

Even with conservative projections, Quintana was considered to be worth slightly more than Chris Sale this past winter; and the White Sox had to wait until today’s deal with the Cubs to get the same type of value.

This emphasized something important that needs to be highlighted when determining trade value: players who are cheap and controllable can be worth more in a trade than a superior player at a year or two less. It may seem intuitive or even like a “no duh” kind of statement, but understanding that controllable talent is a must sought after commodity in trades is essential to projecting the value of one player relative to another.

Of course star power and paying for that star power, might tip the scales like did in the case above, but that is an exception to the rule.

Market value

We’ll keep this one brief, but the market value obviously plays a role.  If there’s an abundance of shortstops at the deadline, it’s going to drive the acquiring price under the surplus value, and if there is a scarcity, then a team should expect to overpay.  In the absence of those, the best indicator of future trade value is past trade value.

For instance, relievers used to be a cheap and undervalued commodity, but the market at last year’s deadline elevated the price for elites ones like Miller and Chapman, driving the prices way past the relievers’ surplus value.

The surplus value of some Pirates’ assets

Before we get to the chart, let me note that this is not by any means meant to convey that a player on this list is likely to be traded or should be traded, but rather, I have tried adding guys on expiring deals or who have been mentioned in rumors.

Additionally, there is some variance in project WAR because it all depends on what type of player you can convince other teams that you are trading. Note that the Projected WAR below reflects the WAR over the remainder of the contract, and not the WAR per year.

Gerrit Cole: As Tim Williams wrote earlier this year after a baseless rumor centered around the Evil Empire, Cole isn’t going anywhere unless the team is blown away by an offer, so I would put his projected surplus value in the eyes of the Pirates’ brass somewhere around top end of the projection.

Andrew McCutchen: In the light of McCutchen’s torrid resurgence, the question of his surplus value becomes not only a $30 million differential in projection but also a question of star power. Will the Pirates minimize risk and take what they can get or try and maximize a possible return by being patient in negotiation? My gut and the Pirates history has me inclined to say it’s the latter.

Josh Harrison: While there’s also some significant variance in Harrison’s projection, his stellar defense ensures that he’ll be worth well more than what he’s being paid. If he keeps outperforming his contract the way he has this year, there’s no pressure to rush to any deal, especially given his defensive versatility.

Juan Nicasio: Since the Pirates bullpen has been a weak spot this season, the inclusion of Nicasio is solely because he’s an unrestricted free agent next season, which could come into play should the Pirates flounder in July.

John Jaso: The reality is that a bench player, especially one with platoon splits like his, are not going to net much in terms of surplus value.

David Freese: Even though the Pirates re-signed Freese not long ago, the emergence of Josh Bell might make it easier for the team capitalize on Freese’s surplus value if other teams are open to the higher end of the evaluation, but the uncertainty of Jung Ho Kang complicates the matter on Pittsburgh’s end.

Tony Watson: Watson’s name was omitted from the surplus value because he’s currently playing below replacement for the second straight year, meaning he has no surplus value, but it isn’t out of the question that a bullpen needy team would take a chance on him with hopes of .5-1 WAR.

Final Thoughts

As they always do this time of year, rumors will swirl about players who are available and those who are not, but regardless of what happens, surplus value is the prominent trade value theory to help evaluate eventual trades, to know what to expect regarding a player’s value, and to understand why the team declined to make a deal.  It’s not a perfect science, but it should provide a more reasonable foundation for the trade deadline.


  • Get the best deal you can for Cutch, whether now or in the offseason. I think it’s “safest” to trade him now. I think it’s likely he doesn’t keep up this torrid pace.

    Emotion should have no place in this decision. Unless he is willing to sign a seriously sweetheart deal there’s no way a small market team can afford to make this kind of decision based on sentiment.

    Trade J-Hay now too if you get a great offer. A year ago everyone was upset at his deal being bad for the team.

  • You sound like Scott Boras, as in a 6 WAR guy should be making $54M per.

  • This is interesting. Have you taken a look at prior trades to see if this surplus trade value concept actually works in practice? That the trades are balanced or do you not expect them to be balanced? Can this concept be used to evaluate the likelihood of proposed trades? Do GMs actually use this metric in evaluating trades?

  • This upcoming home stand will determine if we do buy or sell. Personally, I would love to sell but Marte and Kang really brings more long term questions than answers for me.

    • Actually, I think it all depends on the Houston Astro’s or NY Yankees. They both need a strong 1/2 (Cole) and could also appreciate a LHRP (Watson). If Quintana is worth a #8 and # 63 MLB Top 100, Cole could be worth Kyle Tucker # 27, and instead of going for another in the Top 100 go for Yordano Alvarez power hitting 1B, and 6’7″ RHSP Forest Whitley, and possibly a strong 3B

      • I want Rodgers and and McMahan from thr Rockies for Cole. I think we could even throw in Newman or Tucker. Lf side of our infield would be set for the next 6-7 years.

        • I think the chances of Cole being traded are greater than Cutch being traded. Better market for controllable starters that outfielders and replacements sitting in Indy.

        • These guys have flown through the Rockies system, but Rodgers is still in Hi A and McMahon was not good at all last year at AA and has been shifted to 1B. The Pirates have to get a now prospect and that’s what I see in Kyle Tucker of Houston who is lighting it up at AA. The future is for Forrest Whitley, and Yordano Alvarez. Anything beyond those 3 guys is definitely icing on the cake.

          Or if the Pirates choose to work with the Yankees, they could get Clint Frazier who could be that RH Power bat the Pirates have lacked, and then make Marte available. The Yankees are loaded with prospects.

          • Rodgers is already in double A after destroying single A and is considered the best SS prospect going (I like him better than Rosario). McMahan was known as a potential gold glove 3B but with all world Arrendo in front off him he was move to first this year to get his bat to the majors. He to is killing it at a 350 clip with 45 extra base hits through AA and AAA. Out of 4 years he has had one bad year hitting (last year) and even that wasn’t terrible. I would be very happy with those guys. I think its fun to speculate on these things and with the Rockies having a legit team for the first time in years maybe they would be a little anxious to make a big move.

  • WillyMoGarcia33
    July 13, 2017 2:13 pm

    I’d like to see the Pirates try to get a steal for J-Hay from the Red Sox. Dombrowski is not shy on giving up talent.

    • I love the energy and enthusiasm Harrison brings but 5ft 5in 3B are not what teams look for so i doubt the Sox or any team gives up much for him. I think Cutch will go because thats the Pirate way. No point keeping him beyond this season because his value will only decrease to a trade partner next year and the likelihood of us competing is not great when the team is committed to a budget in the bottom 5 of the league.

      On a separate note is any value added to someone like Cutch who assuredly would receive a qualifying offer thus adding another first round pick if we were to keep him or even a first round pick to the team that trades for him (provided its done before next season starts)?

      • WillyMoGarcia33
        July 13, 2017 5:09 pm

        I just think J-Hay’s defense and versatility would be a strong selling point. Red Sox have had a lot of trouble this season filling 3rd, but Pedroia has also had trouble staying healthy at 2B. Any bat at 3rd would be an upgrade for them, as their 27th in WAR at 3B, plus then they don’t have to rush Devers. J-Hay has a couple options, with cheap buyouts, if the time comes to cut bait or move him.

  • Cubs and Brewers make trades can the Cardinals be far behind?

  • Darkstone42
    July 13, 2017 2:04 pm

    Honestly, I think they should just stay out of the deadline fray unless they’re overwhelmed with an offer. Go into next year with Cutch and Cole in the fold, especially, and probably Harrison, too. Freese, Watson, and Jaso could be dealt, I think, without impacting their ability to contend immediately, so, sure, dangle them. But key pieces? Hold onto them. A lot went wrong this year, especially not having our two best hitters from last year because they were idiots off the field. No need to give up talent which could really help them next year. Add to it in the offseason instead.

    If Kang is never to play in Pittsburgh again, target a third baseman in free agency next year. Really focus on the bullpen. The Cards are declining, the Cubs’ pitching staff isn’t as good as we thought it was last year, that would be enough to contend in the division. But we’re not going to do it with without Cutch and Cole, not next year. The rotation should be fine. The lineup should be solid, if Cutch’s resurgence is for real and Bell takes any sort of step forward (and with a full season of Marte), even if Polanco is what he is and Mercer falls back to Earth a bit. Heck, they’d be right there this year if the bullpen didn’t implode. No need to blow it up.

    • I’m petrified that Cutch comes back to earth and his trade value declines. That plus you’ll get more for him for the rest of 2017 and all of 2018 vs trading him during the offseason. They’re not contending this year and I don’t think his value will ever be any higher than it is right now. I can’t believe I’m saying this but if Cutch is a Pirate past the trade deadline I’m going to be upset. Cue the angry responses.

      • It depends. If Cutch continues to be MVP Cutch and a team sees a need for 2018 I could see him actually being worth more in the off season especially if there is not a big demand for bats at the trade deadline. Other teams may be concerned that he will turn back into a pumpkin. Yes you may be right but I would still not trade him unless they get a really good return at the deadline. I still think he plays out his contract and 2018 option and leaves in free agency.

        • I could see the first part. If he finishes the year at a torrid pace you may have more suitors in the winter seeing as how more teams may think they’re playoff caliber in December than at 7/31. And for the record I’m not saying trade him at all costs. This is under the assumption that there’s a very good package for him on the table in two weeks. But if the Pirates let Cutch walk for nothing at the end of 2018 NH should be fired and never get another job.

          • On the second part I think you are right unless they are really in the hunt for the division title at this point next year then the decision is tougher. If they aren’t then I think you are right and they have to trade him. My wife won’t like it if they trade him regardless.

            • Yeah well your wife is not alone. I can’t wait for that backlash. Luckily my wife doesn’t follow baseball and won’t really care if/when he’s traded. She does know when I’m upset and will say things like “Why are you so pissed? Did that Tony guy come in and make them lose again?”

              • My wife pays enough attention to ask what happened to good Tony. I would really like to see Tony recover enough to be a useful 7th inning guy. I still like him even if he did hire the devil as his agent.

          • Darkstone42
            July 13, 2017 3:08 pm

            There’s no way I deal Cutch until I know Meadows is ready to step in. And I don’t think we know that until the middle of next season. And if the team is legitimately contending, as they very well might be, how do you trade him at that point?

            If Meadows gets hot in the second half, deal him in the offseason for, if he keeps this up, what will likely be an enormous package. But they shouldn’t handicap themselves for next year. If they need him to contend, and they can contend, in 2018, keep him. I’d rather lose Cutch for just a draft pick but have an actual shot at the division in 2018, than give up that shot in favor of more future assets.

            • At some point I think Cutch is more likely to revert to the 2016 version than what we’ve seen the last couple months. This is pretty much the basis for my argument and what keeps me up at night. That and sell high always with someone close to the end of their contract. But, at some point, NH will have to GM speak his way into “We just traded the face of the franchise because we don’t think we’re good enough to win in a WS in 2017 or 2018.” And if it’s anything like the Drew Hutchinson press conference he may need to go into Witness Protection.

            • The irony is…as Meadows will surely need time to adjust to the majors…the longer Cutch is here, the more time it will take for Meadows to be “ready”.

              Some times you’ve just gotta rip the band aid off.

              • Darkstone42
                July 13, 2017 5:17 pm

                But he’s also not even adjusted to AAA yet. I don’t think he’s ready to even start the Major League adjustment period. And I kind of like the idea of bringing him up for good while Cutch is still here, and using a 4-player outfield rotation where everyone gets regular reps and regular rest, to help him make those adjustments in the most controlled possible way.

            • I totally agree.

          • I’m all for trading if the deal warrants it, but…damn…it’s a long road to know if it does.

            Two easy examples…last season’s Liriano trade was considered by damn near everyone to be an embarrassing disaster for the Pirates. Now, if Hutchison can develop into a reliable back end starter, it looks like the Jays got fleeced.

            Today’s Quintana trade. Everyone is gushing over the return the Sox got. Every prospect they received is below AA…so the Cubs may have just anchored their rotation for the next three seasons and given up nothing that’ll ever be an impact in the majors.

            Trades are a tricky thing…a high risk gamble. I’m just hoping that, if the deals are made, the scouting department is solid enough to tip the scales in the Pirates’ favor.

            • Everyone is making great points and I like to see discussion that isn’t “your an idiot for wanting to get rid of Cutch, etc etc”.

              I am an optimist and I do feel weird saying this, BUT I could see the buccos, who have been playing sneaky good baseball (throw out the giants series), get into the playoffs. I don’t think the Cubs, even with Quintana, make it. I’ll probably be wrong, but I could see it happening.

              • You are going to have to share your rationale with me on that one. I cannot see how the Bucs win the Central division, obviously over the Cubs and Brewers, and the Cubs don’t even garner a wild card slot, because it seems certain that neither w.c. team is coming out of the N.L. Central.

          • It likely wouldn’t be “for nothing”. Odds are Bucs would offer a QO, which will probably be around $19 mill. He ought to refuse that, which will more than likely net a comp pick after 1st round.

      • I can’t believe I’m saying this but…I agree.

        • You have to approach it as if you have no soul and look at the big picture. How else can you look at Cutch, who is a class act, signed at a discount, brought so much to the franchise, oh by the way hitting the ball to all fields in some unbelievable resurgence and say – you need to go.

    • I just don’t see them being able to address the bullpen meaningfully at 100m despite several m coming off it this year with a 3b upgrade more unlikely that could be as simple as Neil Walker and 3 relievers but will cost north of 110m. I think their keep the band together + unwillingness to spend with the assumption that the TV contract will get better is going to keep them mediocre even if Cutch maintains this for 5 more years. The only thing that can save them are Kang miraculous reentering the country, Bell and Polanco taking it up a notch and finding both external and internal bullpen solutions. So I picture ownership banking on a perfect storm of Fortune instead of making the decision to go over budget to put something around Cutch or having the stones to go all out selling their chips high and now.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    July 13, 2017 1:55 pm

    I want to personally thank the Cubs for selling their farm, including possibly the best prospect in all of baseball, for an overrated veteran starting pitcher in Quintana…..the Cubs overpaid in a big way and I predict this trade will go down as a very bad one….Jimenez looks to be the real deal….White Sox have to be thrilled with their return….

    • Cubs want to win plain and simple.Who cares about farm labor. They will buy pieces in free agency.

      • WillyMoGarcia33
        July 13, 2017 2:26 pm

        Yes and no. They’ve never been shy about spending, but their roster is going to get really expensive in the coming years. Lester is on the payroll for $20m+ for next 3 seasons. They better hope Heyward opts out, but if he continues like this year and last, can’t see him doing that at $22.5m+ for next 6. Zobrist for 2 more. Lackey and Arrieta are UFA’s after this season, to which Lackey is most likely gone, but have to replace them. Then you have Bryant, Hendricks, and Russell going into 1st yr of Arb after this season, then Baez and Schwarber year after, then Almora, CJ Edwards, and Contreras year after. They have Rizzo on a team friendly deal, but better hope they can lock up some other key players if they wish to spend as freely in free agency.

        • If they keep winning I believe they get at least 10m. The scenario you paint isn’t bleak Arrieta and Lackey leaving is a boon for them Alex Cobb will be easy to nab Yu is a stretch but possible given their resources. I think more teams having bullpen problems will really drive that market to the point where it nearly same $ as starters will be interesting to see how Cubs handle this in the future I think the rest of their team will be fine. If not they’ll extreme makeover and be back in 4 years unless MLB curbs this somehow or levels team finances it’s getting crazy.

          • WillyMoGarcia33
            July 13, 2017 4:37 pm

            I don’t think it’s necessarily doom and gloom for them, I just don’t see a way they can keep all that young talent as they all enter arbitration and such, while going big in free agency as well.

            • Arrieta and Lackey are something like 30 m coming off the books. Hendricks is cheap. They can probably survive with the other dude or whoever else as their 5. Bullpen will be an issue. Not sure if I have this right but I think they received 27m from the playoffs could be really wrong here. I think they can probably ride out the next 5 years on what they have they just have to win alot

              • Haven’t done the math, but I’d venture a guess that they’ll be bumping up against the luxury tax by 2019 with substantial arb raises due to several guys plus existing contracts.

    • That’s my hope. They empty the farm system and then start emptying their wallet on starting pitching free agents that don’t work out. And at the end of the day their farm system is barren and all their money is tied up in older players. Still…….at the end of the day they have a ton of young talent on the offense in their infield alone.

    • The Cubs lineup is young and controllable. Pitching was getting old and on short contracts.
      3 more years of Quintana at 30 million total. It was highway robbery for Cubs.

    • Honestly, I was pleased to see that, too. You knew they were going after a pitcher at some point, so at least root for the overpay!!!

    • Well we all know how prospects can fizzle out, even highly rated ones. Too soon to tell how this trade will ultimately play out but If this surplus value metric is accurate, the Cubs are getting real value when the need it. There’s something to be said for that. Hold your prospects, hope for the best and miss the playoffs for a few years while they maybe develop or materially improve yourself now, make the playoffs during those same years and reload in the interim (because you are confident in your drafting/talent acquisition ability). I kind of like the sound of the latter plan.