Dave Cameron of FanGraphs writes an annual series in which he examines the 50 most valuable trade targets each year. It’s a fun run-up to the trade deadline as we can all get excited and dream about some hypothetical Chris Sale-Mike Trout megatrade while understanding a bit about why such a trade would be exciting. (Not that we'd need numbers in order to react to that particular deal.) In the 2015 version of this list, which Cameron released in daily installments last week, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado has the eighth-highest trade value in all of baseball.
Cameron came to baseball from the world of finance so has understandably made contract analysis his forte, delving into the complicated world of salary, contract length, team and player options, arbitration, free agency, no-trade clauses, and more while understanding the strengths of each player and team relative to their peers. In evaluating the players on this list, he considers attributes like present performance, future performance, and of the contract (if any) to which the player is signed.
Each player’s situation is considered and weighed relative to the others. Is a player a young talent like signed to a well-below-market contract, like Andrew McCutchen? Or is he a veteran who's just so dominant they provide value no matter how much they're being paid, like Felix Hernandez?
The players who rank highly on this list tend to share a few attributes: they’re young, they have a track record of legitimate success that projects well for the next five years, and they are under-compensated. Not everyone checks all those boxes. As Cameron notes in his introduction, Adam Jones just missed the list. Cameron notes rightly that Jones is a very good player but he’s no longer as underpaid as he was in previous years. He’s still generating surplus value for the Orioles and would do so for a team that acquired him, but he wouldn't provide as much value as the 50 players that made the list.
Thus it came to be that in this year’s edition of the list, we find but one Oriole: Manny Machado, fresh off his 12-dinger Home Run Derby and RBI-double-in-the-gap All-Star game. Not only did Manny make the list, but he appeared in eighth place. Cameron thinks Machado should fetch more value on the trade market than McCutchen or Chris Archer but slightly less than Anthony Rizzo or Sale. Those are great names to be sandwiched in between.
Let’s tick through the reasons why Manny is ranked where he is. First, the upside:
He’s young, meaning his best years are still ahead of him.
He doesn't have a lot of major-league service time, meaning his salary is both lower and easier to project than a free agent's.
- He plays stellar defense.
- He’s legitimately improved at the plate this year, pushing both his short- and long-term value pretty high. ZiPS projects him for 6.8 fWAR this year, 6.3 fWAR in 2016, and 34.2 fWAR through 2020. That latter figure is second-best in all of baseball, behind only Mike Trout.
The key word here is legitimate. In 2015 Machado has nearly doubled his walk rate while cutting his strikeout rate. He’s also launching more fly balls to better utilize his growing power. His BABIP is actually lower than what it was last year, while his HR/FB rate is only a bit better. These are the hallmarks of a changed approach at the plate rather than more balls happening to fall in for hits.
Now the downside:
- Machado’s heading into his first year of arbitration, meaning the Orioles have him under control "only" through 2018. I put "only" in scare quotes because while Baltimore fans are happy about this length of time, from a trade value perspective it’s not as much control as an acquiring team would have over, say, Kris Bryant or Carlos Correa.
- He’s entering arbitration this winter on the heels of what looks like a breakout season, meaning his salary will spike. Orioles fans can thank their lucky stars that Machado is no longer with agent Scott Boras.
- He’s had surgery on both knees.
By Cameron’s own admission, without these downsides, Machado’s trade value would be among the top three in the game.
Thankfully for Orioles fans, Machado's trade value is probably theoretical. His combination of youth, talent, and salary means a lot to a team that’s trying to contend on a mid-market budget. In particular, his defense ensures the team can succeed with a mediocre starting pitching staff and a bullpen that doesn’t strike many batters out. Along with fellow superb defenders Jonathan Schoop and J.J. Hardy, and to a lesser extent Jones, the team is well-positioned defensively for the next several years. Besides Machado's on-field talent, he seems comfortable in front of the camera and with fans, which attracts positive attention to the Orioles along with jersey sales.
No player is completely untouchable, but Machado is as close to that as one can be. He should remain an Oriolethrough at least the next three years unless something catastrophic happens to the team. And even if the team needs to kick off some kind of a rebuild, Machado is the kind of player the team will want to build around.