Yasmany Tomas is a good player, and signing him was a good move. It seemed like a particularly great idea for the D-backs to sign Tomas as far back as early last September, because it represented a way to add talent without subtracting talent — signing him did not mean forfeiting a draft pick, and unlike most free agent deals, there was reason to think Tomas would get better over the duration of his contract, not worse. Based on information available at the time of the signing, it still looked like a good, inventive move. And if you happen to prefer outcomes-based analysis of transactions, the signing looks just as good right now.
The contract itself, however, was and is the biggest player contract in the history of the franchise — and given the opt-out clause it contains, the contract makes navigating payroll issues a little more complicated for the team. By way of example and as Jeff and I just talked about on The Pool Shot, the Tomas contract makes trading for James Shields especially dangerous — it’s one thing to have so much of a team’s payroll assigned to two players, and another to face a scenario where the team is paying $44M to Shields for 2017-2018 (including 2019 buyout) and $32.5M to Tomas for 2019-2020 only if those players aren’t worth nearly that much on the free agent market at those times.
Meanwhile, a wild trade deadline may have taught us a few new things about the trade deadline:
- Signing bonuses for international free agents can lead to trade opportunities.
- Players with real versatility have seen their value stay high or increase at the trade deadline.
- Trading for good starting pitchers is at least as difficult, if not more difficult, than it’s ever been.
- The new normal for a whole bunch of teams is to be open to making moves with next year in mind.
Bear with me. #1 requires a bit of explanation, more so than the other three.
With respect to #1 there, I’m referring to the ridiculously complicated deal that saw the Dodgers pick up short-term assets Mat Latos, Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan, as well as Alex Wood and intriguing prospect Jose Peraza — all for good-not-great reliever Paco Rodriguez, mid-tier prospects Zachary Bird, Kevin Guzman, Jeff Brigham, and Victor Araujo, and recent Cuban free agent Hector Olivera. Without knowing all of the players too well, it looks to me like Jose Peraza might be worth about as much as three of the four prospects that the Dodgers gave up. This is, essentially, a king’s ransom for Hector Olivera.
Why? The Dodgers made Olivera much more handsome an asset by paying (eating?) his signing bonus, now and apparently in the future ($12M is already paid, $7.5M is due on Saturday the day after the deadline, $8.5M is due in December, according to Cot’s Contracts). That makes Olivera a good deal for what is likely all of his remaining prime years, including just $32.5M for five future seasons, 2016-2020. The contract even includes what we might call a “Lackey clause,” a $1M option for 2021 if Olivera requires Tommy John surgery (which was, specifically, a risk when he signed). What a deal!
If you were looking for how Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi would flex the financial muscles they never had with Tampa Bay and Oakland, here it is. This is the beginning of a bigger wave of a new type of move, one that some teams have been strangely hesitant to pull the trigger on: using money to turn contract liabilities into assets worth giving up talent for. This is not a me idea, as many others have weighed in here, maybe most notably Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh of the Effectively Wild Podcast.
The Red Sox kinda/sorta just did this in trading Shane Victorino to the Angels, but really, think about it: what kind of return could the Padres get right now for anyone on their roster, from Matt Kemp to James Shields, if they ate most of the money owed? The Padres can’t afford to do that, of course — that’s precisely why this type of thing could work for the teams with more money to spend than current Collective Bargaining Agreement constraints allow them to spend on high-return investments. The D-backs are probably in the Padres category, not the Dodgers category — but hold on to that thought.
Just over two months of Ben Zobrist just netted Sean Manaea, a really strong haul for a player who, although he’s hit better lately, is not the offensive monster that he was in 2009, or the well above average hitter he was in 2011-2012. He’s above average, it seems. But he can still play some shortstop, and any team would be comfortable putting him at second or at an outfield corner right now. He’s expensive, and while a good fielder, he’s only adding about as much value in the field as he is at the plate, which is some. It’s versatility.
We looked at the extra value (not captured in a stat like WAR) that versatility can provide in looking at Martin Prado just over a year ago. Over a full season, it’s maybe worth a full win — and it’s worth noting that the Marlins seem to think they can get something good for Prado right now, too. One probably can’t make any player a “Zobrist type,” but if a player could be that, that’s value a team can add to an asset almost for free, so long as the opportunity is there. Also, it may be that a plus player who can be moved around the field will always fetch a nice price at the trade deadline; there will always be teams that need to plug a hole, and many of them have a Plan A where that hole is, either on contract for future seasons or even due to return from injury before the playoffs begin.
Yeah. Cole Hamels just netted a boatload of meaningful prospects, headlined by catcher Jorge Alfaro. And if you don’t think Alfaro is a huge prize, you should pay more attention to how many teams are looking for catchers right now, and how many teams have really struggled to make that kind of move. The Phillies are eating some of the Hamels money, a difficult figure to pin down exactly as I’m not sure how the teams value Matt Harrison or his contract.
Look at this list from MLBTR’s Steve Adams from a few days ago. We’ll know more shortly, as the Tigers are apparently open to moving David Price, and it would not be a surprise to see one or two more of the “Second Tier” starters moved (Latos is the only one of the six moved thus far, although with three SPs on the same team, it’s not like all six will be traded). Everyone wants one of these pitchers, Red Sox especially included, and there aren’t many. You could say that the Blue Jays moved for Troy Tulowitzki because of that scarcity; a playoff starter was a much more pronounced need, but it just wasn’t out there.
It’s a weird market. There aren’t just buyers and sellers; teams who are out of it but think 2016 is a reasonable target are also active right now, attempting to get multi-year assets. The Red Sox traded John Lackey last year at this time, for no apparent reason. The Tigers, Rangers, Red Sox, Indians, Mariners, and Reds are all focused on 2016. A lot like the Tigers, the Orioles, Rays, White Sox, and arguably the Padres have all had a hard time figuring out which course to take right now. Despite all that, the D-backs may be the best example of all.
Sure, sellers were always interested most in guys who could contribute soon — they’ve always had more value. But this is still kind of a shift, I think, with a large number of teams acting as if they’re really the only kind of return they’re interested in. That’s their prerogative. But unlike in past seasons where there weren’t many teams in a “close but not quite there yet” position like the D-backs are right now, like where the Astros were in the spring — that’s the rule, not the exception. It’s probably cyclical, but it’s the situation at this trade deadline, and it might be nearly as much of a theme next year, too.
Maybe the canary in the coal mine here is Oakland. It’s not like every strategy they take works, but Billy Beane doesn’t swim against the current. The Athletics’ focus on low-minors prospects right now should maybe tell us something. Maybe they’re betting that they’ll have a bouquet of prospects as currency at a time when they will be in shorter supply; maybe it’s as simple as arbitrage, with Beane believing that the difference in value right now between low- and high-minors prospects is a good way to increase his organization’s value overall. It’s there, though. And you’re thinking of a D-backs example without me even referring to it.
Thanks for sticking around! Combine all of these things together, and maybe we get a new picture of where the D-backs are right now. They don’t have too much in player currency that they can both afford to lose and that sets them apart as a seller or buyer; Jeff and I were brainstorming about possible Hamels deals that could make sense, and we had a really tough time. Maybe Touki Toussaint could have been an Alfaro-type anchor, but even in that alternate reality there may not be enough to close a deal without moving backwards (losing an advanced pitching prospect or a current MLB player).
But Tomas is a different kind of asset, for many of the reasons that made him attractive last fall. Now we can add that he could be more attractive than he was in the fall; he’s produced even if a lot of that production hangs on a BABIP that would be difficult to sustain, as Jeff explored yesterday. Maybe more importantly: the Tomas deal wasn’t just backloaded; it was also frontloaded, with a $14M signing bonus that has already been partly paid (and could continue to be paid by the D-backs, as the Dodgers will reportedly do with signing money owed to Olivera). That’s bringing in #1.
In the right conditions, Tomas could anchor a deal for a pitcher of real value. That’s not just a #3 kind of comment. It’s also a #4 thing. Tomas is a lot like a hitter equivalent of a Hamels right now, owed money, hard to replace, likely to hold his value for several years (Tomas may improve, but unlike with Hamels, his salaries do increase, maybe canceling out that difference). Tons of teams out there right now are making moves with an eye toward the next couple of seasons, not just this one. Tomas is that kind of guy, asset, and contract. This deadline, the D-backs have a few unattractive rentals to sell, an enticing reliever that they may actually need more than anyone else does in Brad Ziegler, and a boatload of inexpensive, long term assets. Compared to David Peralta and Ender Inciarte and Nick Ahmed (and probably even A.J. Pollock), Tomas suddenly looks more like a rental.
Throw in the fact that anyone the D-backs acquire that has already signed a free agent contract (or anyone they sign) can’t be very helpful to this particular club (which is kind of okay everywhere) unless he’s quite good — and quite expensive. Maybe you don’t want to couple that kind of contract with the commitment to Tomas anyway. Are you with me yet?
No? Well think of what trading Tomas would mean. Right now and potentially next season, that would mean Pollock, Peralta and Inciarte could play nearly every day. Not a bad thing. In the alternative, it would mean a spot for Peter O’Brien to play in the outfield — not a bad thing, since he appears to have value but can’t contribute to the cause without playing time (and he’s not going to anchor a trade for an ace). O’Brien should make you really stop and think about this, I think. Peralta has already made you do that.
Finally, we’re getting close to an indelible conclusion that Aaron Hill isn’t going to be traded. He’s useful, he’s owed money, and I just don’t know that releasing him makes sense. He can do things, but doing them part time just seems like it makes a ton of sense.
Why should that matter? #2, that’s why. There is no current D-backs candidate to be a “Zobrist type” more promising than Chris Owings, who can definitely play shortstop, and who can definitely play the hell out of second base. No, he probably doesn’t have Zobrist’s power, and no, putting Owings in an outfield corner may never seem like as attractive a Plan A as it may be with Zobrist. Fast forward to 2016. Things have gone well, the team is in contention, Brandon Drury is kicking some ass or looking like he could, Ahmed is the guy he is right now… maybe an injury means that this club needs Chris Owings. But maybe that doesn’t happen. Maybe Owings is a piece that could fetch the D-backs a Missing Piece come this time next year — if some playing time in the outfield opened up in Tomas’s absence, and that helped make Owings look more attractive.
Think about it. Sure, losing Tomas would be a loss — but that’s exactly the point. To get, you have to give, and the D-backs’ clip of specifically attractive low-minors prospects is out of bullets. In the right deal, this could make sense.
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