Early summer is a fun time of the year to be a baseball fan. Whether or not your team happens to be in the thick of the pennant race, there are likely to be rumors floating around about possible trades your team could make. Teams in the race can find missing pieces of the puzzle that can help push them over the top and into the playoffs. Teams that are out of it can still do themselves a lot of good by adding young players who have many years to go before they can become free agents in exchange for veterans that don’t figure in the team’s future plans.
With the Brewers currently sporting a National League best 48-32 record, they are clearly in the former category of teams looking to add talent to the roster this summer. In fact, the team is already out taking a look at some of the more “high end” commodities out there on the market, namely Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher David Price:
— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) June 25, 2014
It’s hard not to think of the 2008 addition of CC Sabathia when the name David Price comes up in connection to the Brewers. Both players were among the very best pitchers in the American League, both were recent Cy Young Award winners and both came with tons of “big name” recognition. It’s easy to excuse any fan for getting excited at the prospect of adding that kind of player.
The problem is that the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t going to let Price go cheaply. Unlike Sabathia, Price actually comes with not just the remainder of the current season under team control, but also all of next year as well. While that is useful on one hand, in that it allows whatever team is going after him two chances to make it pay off with multiple potential World Series runs, it’s also going to significantly raise the value in return the Rays will be expecting for him.
Kiley McDaniel from Scout.com just broke that down in a recent post that was focused on the idea of the Brewers division rivals, the St Louis Cardinals, trying to trade for Price:
The practical value of Price on the trade market is much higher than this, maybe as much double the figure I list below, when you factor in a reasonably-priced Cy Young candidate with 1.5 years of control is available with lots of teams on the precipice of the playoffs. This is the limitation of a system like this that looks to value the average win for the average team, rather than valuing the wins that are (potentially) the difference between winning the division and going home for a large market team.
With the injury to a struggling Kolten Wong and the subpar Mark Ellis filling in at second base, the Rays second biggest tradechip (sic), utilityman Ben Zobrist, also seems like a nice fit for the Cardinals. Packaging these two players together could enable Tampa Bay to have their pick of St. Louis’ young players, akin to when they traded RHPs James Shields & Wade Davis to Kansas City for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and two others. Zobrist is good enough to “break” BUBBA, so his actual value is close to what I list below.
The upshot here is that the Rays are in a tremendous position to demand the sun, the moon and the stars (future stars?) in exchange for Price. The Cardinals certainly have a lot of farm system depth from which to deal, and if they throw their best possible offer on the table for Price, it’s hard to see anyone topping it.
The Cardinals under general manager John Mozeliak are shrewd operators, though. They haven’t often been willing to give up big time prospects in exchange for a star upgrade, despite being perennial contenders and having ample opportunity to do so over the years. Outside of their acquisition of Matt Holliday in 2009 in exchange for prospects who ended up busting out, their mid season trades have mostly been for role players rather than stars.
The Cardinals unwillingness to part with prospects in exchange for short term solutions is actually a big part of the reason why they have been perennial contenders, rather than a “boom and bust” operation that swings back and forth between contention and also-ran status on a regular basis. It payed off for them in 2011 with a World Series title and has them in a position to contend for years to come with a solid core of young players, both in the major league level and in the minors.
This should serve as something of a warning for the Brewers as they proceed in this trade market. Their much maligned farm system is on something of an upswing right now. They have a very highly thought of pitching prospect in the major league ready Jimmy Nelson. Any trade for Price would probably have to start with him or Wily Peralta. The Crew would almost certainly also have to part with a player, or more likely two, from the group of Tyrone Taylor, Orlando Arcia, Devin Williams, Clint Coulter, and Jorge Lopez as well.
In other words, the Brewers would probably have to gut their farm to make a deal for Price. There is the possibility that Price could be the missing piece in the Brewers puzzle for 2014, and help lead them to that elusive World Series title. There is also the chance that he could struggle or even get hurt and leave them without the boost they were looking for and a significantly weakened farm system.
What this all comes down to is a philosophy of team building. Under owner Mark Attanasio and Doug Melvin, the team has routinely made big, splashy trades in an effort to win as many games as possible in the near term. They did it with Sabathia in 2008, and with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum before 2011. Those moves did, unquestionably, help them make the playoffs in 2008 and 2011.
Giving up the players they did for short term rentals rather than controllable young players also left them without the talent to truly contend for a playoff spot in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013. This was a trade off they were willing to make then and certainly suggests they might be willing to try something like it again in 2014.
This is whythe Brewers need to proceed very carefully this time around. If they do end up making the big play for a player like Price, they need to be careful they aren’t giving up the chance to consistently contend in the coming years in the process. World Series teams are rarely the best team on paper heading into the postseason tournament, but rather the team that gets hot. Since it’s impossible to control with any certainty when your team will get hot, the best way to win a World Series is to just make the postseason as many times and possible with good teams and hope it all comes together for you.
Monster trades for big name players are a lot of fun, but they aren’t the best way to win consistently at the big league level, especially in a market where you can’t paper over holes with a 200 million dollar payroll. As much fun as it would be to add Price, chances are pretty good it’s not in the team’s long-term best interest to put so many eggs in this 2014 basket.
H/T to @AndrewVrchota for pointing me towards that Topkin tweet here.