There is a segment of the fan base and media that is skeptical that Ross Atkins can obtain fair value in potential 2019 trade-deadline deals. Is this a valid opinion? I think there is compelling evidence to allay that concern.
Based on comments on sports talk radio and Twitter, two mediums noted for thorough analysis, the J.A. Happ and Josh Donaldson trades in 2018 are cited as examples of the trade ineptness of Atkins. “Do you have confidence that Atkins will obtain good value in exchange for Marcus Stroman and Ken Giles?” is a question often heard. In my opinion, the criticism of the Happ and Donaldson deals is misplaced: the issue with those trades is more timing than the value received when executed.
The Blue Jays have been a team in transition since the 2015 and 2016 playoff runs. Management tried to simultaneously retain the Blue Jays contender status and also start the rebuild. There is a discussion to be had as to whether the rebuild should have been the primary focus in 2017. That is a debate for another day.
Once a team has decided that it is in the rebuilding mode, there are a number of decisions to make with respect to players on the Major League roster. Those decisions include the following:
1. Which players will not be part of the core and should be traded?
2. When is the optimal time to trade those non-core players?
3. What is fair value when the trade is executed?
I will analyse the Happ and Donaldson trades in two parts. This article will address the Happ case; the next article will cover the Donaldson trade to Cleveland.
As noted, the Happ trade is not held in high regard by many fans and some media members. Let’s look first at the value received and then examine if the timing of the trade was optimal.
Happ was a 35-year old pending free agent. He had produced a 1.2 bWAR and a league-average ERA for the 2018 Blue Jays.
Drury was 25 and a 13th-round pick of Atlanta in 2010. He did produce a 1.7 bWAR in 2017 but had been otherwise below-average in his MLB career. At the time of the trade, FanGraphs assigned a Future Value (“FV”) of 45+ to Drury: a versatile utility man to average regular. FanGraphs ranked him as the 5th best prospect who was included in 2018 trade-deadline deals. McKinney was 23 and a former first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics and had been part of two other trades. According to FanGraphs, his FV was 40+ and he projected to be a viable second-division regular or corner platoon option. FanGraphs slotted him in as the 19th best prospect included in the July trades.
Cole Hamels and cash (approximately USD 8 million) was sent by the Texas Rangers to the Chicago Cubs on July 27, 2018, for Eddie Butler, Rollie Lacy, and Alexander Ovalles. Chicago had a USD 20 million option for the services of Hamels for the 2019 season, which they exercised.
Hamels was 34 years old, with a USD 23.5 million salary. He produced a 1.2 bWAR and a 99 ERA+ for Texas. He was performing at a level that was similar to Happ’s.
Butler was a 27-year old pitcher who subsequently joined the Korean league. Lacy was a 23-year old pitcher with a 35+ FV who FanGraphs projected to be maybe a back-end starter. FanGraphs graded him as the 50th best prospect traded at the deadline. Ovalles was a 17-year-old outfielder who received a 35+ FV; he was a future emergency call-up or bench player. He was not included in the ranking of trade-deadline prospects because he was a player to be named later; he was sent to Texas in August 2018.
The Blue Jays received trade value for Happ that was equivalent or better than that obtained by Texas in their Hamels transaction. This is a tick in the Atkins-does-not-get-taken-to-the-cleaners-at-the-trade-deadline column.
Optimal time to trade
In 2017, the Blue Jays should have started the trading of players who were not going to be part of the core. It should be noted that I am addressing players with some meaningful trade value. The Ryan Goins-types are not part of my sample.
Trade Happ in 2017?
Happ generated a 3.3 bWAR in 2017; his ERA+ was 127. His annual salary was USD 13 million in 2017 and 2018. His bWAR in 2016 was 4.5 and he produced a 134 ERA+. His 2017 season was not an aberration. In my opinion, he should have been traded by the July 31, 2017 trade deadline.
2017 trade deadline deals
Jose Quintana, a 28-year old White Sox pitcher, was traded to the Chicago Cubs on July 13, 2017. He was in the fourth year of a five-year deal that paid him USD 7 million and USD 8.850 million in 2018. There was a club option in respect of 2018 and one in 2019; the annual salary would be USD 10.5 million in both seasons. He generated a bWAR of 5.3 in 2016 and 2.5 in 2017. One of the pieces obtained by the White Sox in the Quintana trade was 21-year old Dylan Cease, who was projected to be a 4th starter or low-closer/high set-up reliever. The more significant piece was Eloy Jimenez, a 20-year-old outfielder who FanGraphs projected as a 60 FV player, a plus hitter. Bryant Flete and Matt Rose were also sent to the White Sox.
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Another example is Oakland’s trade of Sonny Gray to the Yankees on July 31st, 2017, for a package that included James Kaprielian (50 FV), Dustin Fowler (50 FV), Jorge Mateo (50 FV). 27-year old Gray had delivered 2.6 bWAR in 2017. He had a team-friendly, one-year deal (USD 3.575 million) and was under control until the 2020 season. However, there was injury risk with Gray, who missed 52 days late in the 2016 season and 30 days in April 2017.
I am not arguing that the Blue Jays could have received a haul equal to that received by the White Sox or the Athletics at the July 2017 trade deadline. My point is that there was better value to be had for Happ in 2017 than there was in 2018. In 2017, he was an above-average starting pitcher who could provide two playoff runs for the acquiring team. Also, he generated more than enough bWAR to justify his salary.
The last word
The Blue Jays received fair value on July 26, 2018, when they traded J.A. Happ to the Yankees. Management’s error in judgment was waiting until 2018 to trade him. In 2017, the Blue Jays should have scuttled the plans to compete in 2018 and focused instead on optimizing the value on players who were not part of the future.
It is very likely that the return on Happ would have been higher in 2017 than it was in 2018. The error made by Atkins was not that he did not obtain fair value when the Happ trade was executed; the mistake was waiting a full year to complete a transaction involving Happ.