The Max Scherzer deal has set the internet on fire twice with the oddities of its extended terms and the implications for the rest of their rotation. As it stands, the Washington Nationals have Gio Gonzalez in the 4th spot with Doug Fister as the world’s ultimate fifth starter and Tanner Roark in the pen. For those keeping score at home, that’s three solid middle of the rotation pitchers sitting at the very back of or out of their healthy top five. So the question becomes this? Do the Nats sit on this mega depth or do they deal from a position of strength to fill one of their weaknesses?
The internet thinks they should make a trade or, at the very least, it thinks we need to have a long speculative conversation about it. If they don’t make a deal, fans will have fun guessing what that might have looked like. MLBTradeRumors is crowd sourcing the matter of what they should do next with five options. Two of them seem to get bandied about more than others, trading a middle of the rotation guy nearing the end of his control or trading former number overall pick Stephen Strasburg. Joel Sherman of the New York Times suggests that Washington may not want to trade Jordan Zimmerman and opt instead for a super-rotation with Tanner Roark becoming a super-reliever. Neither Zimmerman or Doug Fister offer more than short-term gain to the team acquiring them and likely would not command the huge return Washington would need to make a trade worth it. The Nats could be on the right track by standing pat, but that doesn’t make the internet happy. The internet wants trade rumors and analysis of trade rumors, so I’m going to give the internet what it wants by exploring what it would take for one team to get the shiniest star who might be available in Strasburg. Since we write about Pittsburgh, I guess I’ll let the Pirates come along for the ride.
So how much would Strasburg cost in a trade ? A lot according to Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs who suggests as much as $49 million in surplus value from the Nats’ new second starter. Not that my opinion should stack up next to Sullivan’s, but I think $49 million might be the number where talks begin to get serious with the winning bid much higher. A number of teams, including the Pirates, Cardinals, Cubs, Royals, Padres and Red Sox all could have the players and the motivation to get a deal done. I wouldn’t rule out the A’s, either, with the wild ride Billy Beane‘s putting that franchise through this offseason. On top of that, there are some teams like the Twins, Rangers and Astros that could behave irrationally and pursue the superstar pitcher without much hope of contending even with him in the fold. That’s enough teams that a bidding war could escalate quickly. It’s also worth noting that the Nats don’t need to trade Strasburg. They have an owner that wants to win now and the deep pockets to bank roll them. Clearly, a World Series is on Ted Lerner’s bucket list and Strasburg in his post season rotation makes it all that much more enticing to keep everyone. $60 million is probably a much closer number to what it would take even if $50 million is the more reasonable of the two numbers. If teams want Strasburg, they will need to blow their front office away.
Based on recent trades, I highly doubt a contending team like the Nationals would want a package composed entirely of prospects. A couple of months of Jon Lester netted Boston Yoenis Cespedes. Even the non-contending Devil Rays commanded the MLB-ready Drew Smyly and Nick Franklin for David Price. The Pirates’ package would likely need to start with a player that can add value to the NL East favorites from day one.
Minds might drift immediately to Gregory Polanco. After all, he’s been at the center of just about every wild Pirates trade rumor since he broke out and continued his strong performances through the system. The Nationals could stash him behind Denard Span as he develops and then install Polanco in center field after the speedsters’ contract runs out following this season. Polanco could immediately serve as a backup at all three spots in the Nats’ razor thin outfield. For me, the issue with including Polanco in this or any trade would be how do you value him? Do you continue to rate him as a top 10 hitting prospect at around $48 million? If not, how much of a dent did his lukewarm debut put in his all around value? I think the Pirates could, and maybe rightfully so, maintain that his value is closer to the former than what a team like the Nats would be willing to accept. I’ll say Polanco is out.
The Pirates and Nationals might match up better at second base. Neil Walker has two years remaining and enough track record to put his surplus value at $26.5 million. He’s a three WAR player seeking about $18.5 through arbitration the next two years. If a win is worth the $7.5 million needed to get Strasburg to $50 million, Walker’s pre salary value is $45 million less the $18.5 million he’s likely earn the next two years. Walker and the Pirates don’t appear to be getting any closer to a long term deal as they could not even agree on arbitration numbers and Washington could use a steady hand at second rather than moving Ian Desmond to the right or using the enigmatic Yunel Escobar everyday.
Acquiring Walker probably makes more sense for the Nationals than trading him does for the Pirates. Pittsburgh has Walker insurance in the form of Jung-ho Kang, but they really don’t have Jung-ho Kang insurance. The Buccos’ shiniest new toy is an unproven Korean import and like the first Hyundais to come to America, the Pirates are better to proceed cautiously until they see if their inexpensive acquisition can perform. If he struggles at first, Sean Rodriguez would be their best alternative and he profiles more as a utility guy than an everyday player. Losing Walker would add another question mark to a lineup that already has four:
1) Can Josh Harrison repeat?
2) Will Pedro Alvarez make the transition to first and return to his 2013 form?
3) Will Polanco or Travis Snider become average or better right fielders?
4) Can Francisco Cervilli and Chris Stewart combine for 140 games and three WAR?
The Pirates need two of the four to answer in the affirmative to have a postseason caliber lineup. Trade Walker and suddenly, that ratio changes to three out of five with the additional question “Can Kang transition to the majors as a two WAR player?” Adding Strasburg would give the Pirates the third best rotation in the NL in my opinion, but it would damage the offense. As they say, you need to give value to get it and if the Pirates are going to seal the deal for Strasburg, I think they roll the dice and include Walker.
$31.5 million to go.
Pirate fans can hope all they want, but they’re not getting Strasburg and hanging onto both Jamison Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. While the Nats have a super rotation in 2015, they’ll have a couple of holes to fill after 2016. AJ Cole looks like he could fill in as their emergency starter this season and move into one of those slots next year, but their next ace in line, Lucas Giolito, appears to be about two to three years out. Taillon probably makes the most sense as Washington would be able to give the Texas righty a full season to recover from Tommy John and a taste of major league action along the way. Then, he could step into the fourth or fifth role full time at the beginning of next year. An aggressively promoted Glasnow could do the same, but his control issues might require a longer path the majors than the Nats need.
Whether you agree with it or not, Taillon will be seen as 26-50 prospect thanks to his elbow surgery and according to our prospect surplus value, he’d bring about $18.7 million in trade value.
$12.8 million to go.
The Pirates have already traded their everyday second baseman and arguably their best prospect. However, they still have a considerable way to go to complete the package. At this point, a couple of prospects would likely be off the table, namely Glasnow and Austin Meadows, unless the Nats would be willing to sweeten their side of the package with a B prospect. For me, the clearest path to finalizing this deal would be Josh Bell. Bell had a breakout season but still projects as a 50-75 bat in my opinion. He would provide another $14.5 million in value so he and a C pitching prospect in the low minors like John Sever would likely complete the deal.
The Pirates also could go in a different direction adding Alen Hansen, who I see as a 75-100 prospect and a potential replacement to the Nats’ rapidly depleting service time up the middle. They’d have to include a pitching prospect that would fit in the 100-200 range, if anyone ranked prospects that far, or a current member of the bullpen with some control. Think Mitch Keller or Jared Hughes.
The Nats would get a package of:
Neil Walker, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, and <insert low minors C pitcher with long relief / LOOGY upside here>
Neil Walker, Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson and Jared Hughes
Neil Walker, Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson and Mitch Keller
The Pirates would get a starting rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, AJ Burnett and Charlie Morton and a hole at second base. Would one improvement be worth the other? Maybe, as a rotation with Strasburg gives the Pirates a better chance to win if they get to the postseason. The question is will they have a lineup to carry them that far?
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