Here's a spoiler: We're about to ask a "This or that?" question where the answer favors "that" by default.
Our question is whether, as of now, there's more value to be found on the free-agent market (this) or the trade market (that). Part of the reason why the trade market is the favorite is simple logic.
There will always be more non-free agents than free agents, and only a small handful of players are untouchable. Ergo, there will always be more talent on the trade market than on the free-agent market.
But there's also another force at work. It's been a busy winter, and by now the free-agent market is pretty well pillaged. Teams that need talent rather than just warm bodies have more options to turn to on the trade market.
There's not a huge talent gap between the two markets, but part of the reason there is a gap is because of how things are looking on the markets for position players.
The Position Player Markets
Remember when guys like Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Curtis Granderson were all free agents?
They're all snatched up now, and the market for position players is barren as a result.
If we narrow down the top position players left on the market using 2013 fWAR (that being FanGraphs' version of WAR), we're left with a top 10 that looks like this:
|Player||POS||2013 WAR||2011-2013 WAR|
FanGraphs sets the baseline for a "Solid Starter" (i.e. an average-ish player) at around 2.0 WAR. Players who land in the 1.0-2.0 range are in the "Role Player" category.
Thus, the free-agent market is down to two players—Shin-Soo Choo and Stephen Drew—who were above-average players in 2013. And because Drew was too injured to play for much of 2011 and 2012, only Choo has been really productive over the last three seasons.
As for the high-level trio of Nelson Cruz, John Buck and Kendrys Morales, their 2013 WARs technically qualify them as solid role players. A label like that would seem to underrate Cruz and Morales, but their bats have their limits.
Calling Buck a solid role player, on the other hand, is overrating him. After finishing the 2013 season with a .566 OPS over his final 85 games and rating as the worst strike framer in the business, he's not a viable option for regular duty.
This is what the free-agent market is down to: two quality players and two decent players. That's it.
Now, the difficulty with comparing the trade market to the free-agent market is that we know who the free agents are. The trade market is a thing materialized out of rumor rather than paperwork.
Some of the players whose names have been whispered, however, include: Colby Rasmus (Toronto Sun), Chase Headley (The Boston Globe), Brett Gardner (ESPNNewYork.com), Daniel Murphy (ESPNNewYork.com), Andre Ethier (ESPN), Howie Kendrick (CBSSports.com), Brandon Phillips (Cincinnati Enquirer), Alejandro De Aza (Chicago Tribune; subscription required), Adam Lind (FoxSports.com), Matt Joyce and Jose Lobaton (Tampa Bay Times), Jimmy Rollins (ESPN) and Billy Butler (The Globe and Mail).
This list is admittedly an incomplete representation of the trade market, even if it is a vague thing with a cast of characters that one strains to read.
But I bring these names up because of this:
|Player||POS||2013 WAR||2011-2013 WAR|
|Alejandro De Aza||OF||2.2||7.5|
Some of these players—namely Gardner and Headley—would be hard to pry loose. Others—like Ethier and Phillips—have big contracts that complicate matters. Rumors put these 13 names together, but this should not be mistaken for a list of players who will be traded.
Still, it gives you an idea. There are four players left on the free-agent market who were at least decent in 2013. We just looked at a baker's dozen of such players who could conceivably be had in a trade, and we did so without mentioning high-upside guys like Dustin Ackley and Matt Kemp.
Clubs looking merely to round out their rosters still have avenues to turn to on the free-agent market, as that's what players like Cody Ransom and Jayson Nix are good for. Clubs looking for actual good players, however, certainly have more avenues on the trade market to turn to at the moment.
Meanwhile on the mound, the struggle between the two markets is much more of a fair fight.
The Pitching Markets
One of the key storylines of the offseason has been the price for free-agent pitching, which can be summed up with this sentiment: "Dude, somebody gave Phil Hughes $24 million."
True, but the weird/scary/alternative-adjective thing is that the top of the pitching market hasn't been pillaged quite yet. Far from it, in fact.
If we narrow things down again using 2013 fWAR:
|Player||POS||2013 WAR||2011-2013 fWAR|
The WAR scale for starting pitchers works pretty much the same way as with position players. Anything over 2.0 WAR is basically above-average, while anything in the 1.0-2.0 range is solid enough.
The pitching market still features four starters who were above-average in 2013. Beyond those guys are four pitchers who were solid enough.
And yeah, a 0.8 WAR for 2013 and a 1.7 three-year WAR doesn't do Bronson Arroyo justice. The guy is good for 200 innings like clockwork. He deserves some props.
And even if we remove A.J. Burnett from the equation—which is fair given that nobody knows whether he'll pitch again in 2014 or where he'll end up if he does—we can make up for his absence by inserting Masahiro Tanaka into the equation.
Tanaka's status is still up in the air. The New York Times, citing Japanese reports, has reported that the Rakuten Golden Eagles are not going to post him for major league clubs. But that's just the latest in a line of speculation. Tanaka should be considered in play until it's official that he's not.
In Tanaka, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Ervin Santana, there are four pitchers who profile as above-average options for pretty much any rotation. That's not bad at all.
Basically: Depth! The free-agent market has more of it for starting pitchers than it does for position players.
But like it does with position players, the trade market for starting pitchers is mighty solid in its own right. Among the names that have been whispered are: Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels (CBSSports.com), Chris Sale and Jose Quintana (FoxSports.com), David Price (ESPN), Homer Bailey (FoxSports.com), Justin Masterson (FoxSports.com), Jeff Samardzija (ESPN) and Ryan Dempster and Jake Peavy (FoxSports.com).
What's notable about these guys is, well, this:
|Player||POS||2013 WAR||2011-2013 WAR|
We know that any WAR over 2.0 is generally considered good. What's worth noting now is that a WAR over 4.0 is thought to belong to an All-Star-caliber player.
The free-agent market features one pitcher (Burnett) who was an All-Star-caliber pitcher in 2013, and none who have been in that category consistently since 2011. Among the trade candidates I've highlighted above are four such pitchers and essentially a total of nine pitchers who profile as above-average.
Now, it would certainly take a package beyond reckoning to land Sale. The same probably goes for Hamels and Lee, who also have big contracts. Bailey and Masterson are both key parts of teams that are presumably looking to contend in 2014. The odds are very much in favor of these five guys staying put.
However, it can be taken for granted that Price and Samardzija are both available. Price is a better option than anyone on the open market, and Samardzija had a better season in 2013 than Garza. He also boasts a better three-year WAR than Santana.
Same goes for Peavy, who deserves more trade attention than he's been getting. The low guy on the trade totem pole is Red Sox teammate Ryan Dempster, who WAR says is far preferable to fellow veteran innings-eater Bronson Arroyo.
At best, it's total domination in favor of the trade market where starting pitchers are concerned. At worst, it's a push. Maybe the trade market doesn't realistically boast as many solid options as the free-agent market, but Price is stupendous and he has some solid company.
As for the relief pitching market, that's probably a push too.
The wisdom with FanGraphs WAR is that any reliever who posts a WAR over 1.0 in a season is "superb." Among available free-agent relievers, only Jesse Crain and Fernando Rodney did that well in 2013.
But it's really just Rodney who's attractive. Crain had a stupendous season, compiling a 1.9 WAR in only 38 appearances, but he missed a large portion of the season with a shoulder injury. Overall, he's missed 126 games with injuries over the last two seasons.
So the list of really good free-agent relievers consists of Rodney, a sizable gap and everyone else.
On the trade market, the one guy we know to be available is Jonathan Papelbon, who ESPN's Buster Olney says the Phillies are "EXTREMELY" motivated to move.
The 33-year-old closer posted a 1.0 fWAR in 2013. That's good but also inferior to the 1.3 fWAR posted by Rodney. The latter also doesn't have to worry about sharply declining velocity (see Brooks Baseball) or a strikeout habit that took a severe turn for the worse in 2013.
If it's a choice between paying Rodney or trading for Papelbon, yeah, I'd take Rodney in a heartbeat.
However, it's tough to get an accurate read on the trade market.
Relievers are the most movable players in baseball. They don't have irreplaceable value, yet are always in demand. You could see the Jim Johnson trade coming a mile away thanks to all the buzz, but the deals for Luke Gregerson and Addison Reed came out of the blue. Neither had been mentioned as an obvious trade target, but POOF! there went two very good relievers to new teams.
So while it may look like Papelbon is all the trade market has, that's very likely not the case. In essence, it would be foolish to favor a market that has a small supply of good relievers over one that potentially has a very large supply of good relievers.
This is about all there is to say about arms, so let's wrap things up.
Some Closing Thoughts
If there's a push between the free-agent and trade markets in the pitching department but an advantage toward the trade market in the position player department, then the trade market wins.
But it's not that clear-cut in reality. It's frankly impossible to say for sure without knowing which players are legitimately on the trade market and which are not.
We can say this, though: It makes sense that the trade market would look like the more attractive market as things stand now.
If there was an everlasting supply of cheap, affordable talent on the free-agent market every year, the trade market would not be needed. But we know that's never the case, especially this year.
There never was going to be an ultra-deep collection of talent on the free-agent market this winter, which we can blame partially on the recent trend of extensions. Even despite that, however, the prices were always going to be big. We can chalk that up to the spending limits for draftees and international amateurs, as well as on the new national TV money.
Now here we are about two months into the proceedings. Prices are indeed big, and the talent supply has grown short. Teams that need talent and/or don't want to pay big bucks for what's left have every incentive to consider the trade market instead.
In an environment like this, it's no wonder its shelves appear so well-stocked.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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