Baseball’s hot stove is heating up. With two weeks left until the trade deadline and Cliff Lee already dealt, the two big names left on the rumor circuit are Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth.
The two have much in common: Both are outfielders who are among the best players on their respective teams. They both play for clubs that are fully in the thick of playoff contention—Crawford’s Rays are three games up in the AL Wild Card, while Werth’s Phillies sit just 1.5 games behind the Rockies and Dodgers in the NL.
But, perhaps more importantly, both stars are going to be free agents come winter, and both figure to price themselves far out of their current teams’ budgets when they hit the open market.
That’s why they’d be traded: GMs Andrew Friedman and Ruben Amaro Jr. might decide that the returns they could get for Crawford and Werth, respectively, would be worth more than a pair of compensation picks and two more months of their production (presumably, at least—there's no official word on how seriously the teams are considering these deals, if at all).
Of course, such deals would be monumentally stupid for both the Rays and the Phillies—they’re not rebuilding teams playing for 2013, they’re contenders chugging towards October.
When teams send their big stars away for prospects, it’s usually because the production they provide is basically meaningless for a hopeless team. The Phillies and Rays, however, are in the midst of tight pennant races—is there any other time when having stars around could possibly be more important?
But, while both deals would be mistakes, the Phillies trading Werth would be exponentially more foolish than the Rays parting ways with Crawford for one simple reason: the Phils will have a much harder time finding a replacement.
The Rays’ roster is built around versatility. B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist can man two of the three spots in the Tropicana big grass with ease. Matt Joyce would get first crack at filling the left field hole, and if he couldn’t cut it, chances are Sean Rodriguez or Gabe Kabler could.
Of course, there’s also über-prospect Desmond Jennings. The No. 6 pick on Baseball America’s preseason top prospects list fought off an early injury and is hitting .297 with 21 steals in 64 games at Triple-A Durham. Rays fans have been anxiously awaiting his call-up for months, and there seems to be little doubt that he’s ready to take the majors by storm.
But if the team decides none of those viable options are good enough, it wouldn’t be too hard to get a decent replacement via trade. At his current rate of production, Crawford is on pace to provide a full four additional wins to whatever team he plays for from now until the end of the season. To put that in perspective, consider that 18 of MLB’s 30 teams are within four games of a playoff spot.
The point is this: Crawford would command an enormous return in any deal. A ton of talent would change hands, and the Rays would certainly be able to demand a respectable, big-league-ready outfielder in addition to the expected plethora of promising prospects.
The Phillies’ depth chart is substantially more shallow. If Werth is shipped out of town, the only currently available replacements would be Ben Francisco (.659 OPS) and Ross Gload (.668).
There’s always Domonic Brown, the top prospect left in a depleted Phillies farm system. He’s mashed MiLB pitching in 2010, hitting .326/.391/.608 with 19 homers and 59 RBI in 80 games.
The problem? He’s played just 15 games above Double-A. His bat might be Major League-ready—there’s only one way to find out—but it seems like an awfully big risk for a team looking to make up ground in a close race.
The Phillies could trade for a replacement, but it wouldn’t be as easy as it would be for the Rays, because Amaro wouldn’t be able to get nearly as much in return for Werth as Friedman would for Crawford.
On May 11, Werth was on top of the world, hitting .348 with seven homers, 26 RBI, and a scintillating 1.112 OPS in just 32 games. Since then, he’s hit just .242 with only six homers, 23 RBI, and a meager .738 OPS in 52 contests. In his last 15 starts, he hit .214 with no homers, just two RBI, and a nauseating .547 OPS.
Crawford’s WAR to date is 4.8, best of any outfielder; Werth’s is 2.2, which ranks 30th. How much can the Phillies expect a trade to net them if the other 29 teams could be expected to have someone better?
A contending team selling low on one of its star players when there’s no obvious candidate to replace him? Unless there’s some strange set of circumstances that we fans can’t conceive of, any professional general manager that would even consider pulling the trigger on such a deal deserves to be fired immediately.
Given that Crawford is in the midst of a career year and there are a number of possible in-house replacements, you might consider the Phillies’ situation and decide that the Rays trading Crawford sounds reasonable by comparison, and it does. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
It is imperative to remember that the Rays are a contending team. Sure, they’d be selling high on Crawford. But if his trade value is at its peak, doesn’t that also mean he matters to the Rays? Keep in mind that the Rays are rolling towards October, and would probably be among the teams trying to trade for Crawford were he playing for, say, the Indians.
That’s like dumping all your shares of a company right before an all-expense-paid stockholders’ retreat. If you wait to release your holdings, you might not earn quite as big of a profit, but doesn’t a free vacation outweigh the loss of a few bucks?
A year from now, Crawford and Werth will be suiting up in other teams’ uniforms and cashing exorbitant checks from fat-pocketed owners. But with dreams of the World Series trophy floating through both clubhouses, there’s no reason for either player to book an early ticket out of town.