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Where The Mets Might Fit In The Young Trade Market

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In a weak free agent class, and maybe Omar Minaya's last year with the team, one would expect the Mets to make at least one splash in the trade market. So far, four semi-major trades have gone through, before the BBWAA has even announced its yearly award winners. The Mets didn't really "lose out" on any of those four players, but the trades do provide some insight into the evolving market, and how the Mets fit in.

Matt Cerrone noted in metsblog's coverage of the J.J. Hardy trade the other day that three of the four trades featured arbitration eligible players (Teahen, Hardy, Hermida) and cited a Buster Olney piece that claimed teams were eager to avoid the "broken" arbitration system. While I'll accept avoiding arbitration as a partial explanation, it ignores some of the other interesting angles of these deals. The idea that the team dealing the arbitration-eligible player decides between only two options: prospects or non-tendering, implies that they are desperate to deal the player and would accept any trade return. These three deals didn't bear that out.

Firstly, the Hermida deal most clearly fits the Olney-mold--the Marlins didn't want to pay arbitration money for a replacement level outfielder without a bunch of unrealized potential. Such a trade is standard procedure for the Marlins, however, and hardly--if at all--suggests an overarching market shift. From the perspective of the Red Sox, Hermida represented a high-upside reserve outfielder that cost minimal talent and money. If more arbitration-eligible players like Hermida are easily available, big-market teams like the Mets would obviously benefit in taking a flier on a few of them. 

 Mark Teahen, similar to Hermida in his recent replacement-level performance and past value, fetched Chris Getz and Josh Fields. While Getz lost his starting job to Gordon Beckham and Josh Fields just lost his starting job, both players having a starting job in the first place reflects track records of minor league success and some major league competency. Both players could be decent placeholders on an uncertain Royals infield, with the potential to be more. Dave Cameron went as far as calling this trade "fantastic" for the Royals, which may seem hyperbolic, but his analysis is pretty spot-on.

With both Hermida and Teahen, their respective teams were trying to avoid arbitration. The arbitration system is set to award those players salaries equal to or slightly more than they would be worth, but that seemingly has more to do with Hermida and Teahen being broken, than it does the arbitration system. Both player had performed well below expectation and past levels of performance, particularly defensively, which the arbitration process inherently undervalues, so they inevitably were going to get salaries bigger than they deserved, based on service time alone. Getting back to the original Olney/Cerrone point, I think the cause is correct, but the effect may be wrong. Yes, the arbitration system is broken, in that it will errantly award Teahen and Hermida above-market contracts, but that doesn't mean there will necessarily be a bunch of free, young, and talented arbitration-eligible players available, as Matt seems to suggest. It just means that some crappy arbitration-eligible players will be available, and not necessarily for nothing, as the Teahen trade indicated.  

J.J. Hardy is actually a good counter-example. Tommy Bennett used the Hardy trade as a springboard to explain why, in economic terms, players of his caliber would not be part of Olney's "avalanche of non-tenders," but we have the benefit of already knowing the Brewers weren't operating under this prospect or non-tender paradigm. They were trading Hardy just as much because it saved money, as they had a potentially equal replacement in Alcides Escobar in waiting. And while some may have found Carlos Gomez an underwhelming return, in terms of strict value, the trade was completely fair. Gomez is under team control for 4 more years and is, because of his elite defense, at least a 1.5 WAR centerfielder. Hardy, who is ~4 WAR at SS, is the superior player now, but is more costly and a free agent in two years. The Kalkman trade calculator method, which subsumes these factors, judged Gomez a more valuable asset, and given his offensive upside (outfield Jimmy Rollins?), he seems like a more than fair return. 

What this trade indicates, if anything, is that teams are willing to make perceptually unfair trades for less-stable assets of approximately equal value. It also perhaps shows a preference to fill one hole on the roster, as opposed to acquire a few more players that may be more valuable in theory, but redundant on the roster. Whereas proven-star for young player trades typically required a large package of elite prospects to get done, the Hardy trade, and even the Cliff Lee trade before it, seemingly suggest a move toward proper evaluation of young players, in which either a good-not-great package suffices or one stud younger player gets traded (Sanchez/Alderson?).

Maybe I'm reading too much into one trade, but this development would seemingly benefit the Mets more than a slew of crappy arbitration-eligible players hitting free agency. While the Mets don't have a set of young players with major-league success like Gomez (yay 2009 in-season development failure!), they do have a set of interesting tweener types with starter potential (Murphy, Evans, Parnell, Pagan) and a set of near-ready top prospects (Mejia, Davis, Niese, Martinez), whose value could be boosted in this market. While it would probably be selling low on many of those players, with the windows closing on the Mets "core," the Mets could be set up to make several win-now trades that are long-term losses of value. A Halladay trade centered around Mike Pelfrey? Or maybe shopping Daniel Murphy to a team with a thirdbase vacancy? We'll see.