#50 to #46
#45 to #41
#40 to #36
#35 to #31
#30 to #26
As we move to the top half of the list, we begin to enter the land of guys who just aren’t getting traded. It’s basically impossible to imagine a scenario where a team agrees to move any of these players. This is where we start finding franchise players on friendly contracts. They would have a lot of trade value if they were put on the market, but they’re all too valuable to their own franchises to actually be used as trade chips.
#25 Dustin Pedroia (2B)
Under Team Control Through 2015: $10M, $11M option
Yeah, it’s only two years of team control, and Pedroia will turn 30 next year, but he’s also an elite player making a relative pittance for the next two seasons. Even as his power has diminished, Pedroia continues to maintain his performance, and his 126 wRC+ this year is actually higher than his career average. With just six home runs and a .120 ISO, you might think Pedroia is in decline, but he’s on pace to have basically the exact same season he had in 2008, when he was named AL MVP.
With the lack of long term value, I considered ranking Pedoria a little lower, but looking around baseball, there just aren’t many legitimate stars that could fit into any teams payroll and come without any real downside. Pedroia at 2/21 might be the safest bet of any player in the sport. This is the closest thing baseball has to a risk free contract.
The skillset might make him an under-the-radar star, but Major League teams know how consistently great Dustin Pedroia has been. The biggest knock might be how he would do away from Fenway, as he has mastered using The Green Monster to his benefit, and the big wall wouldn’t go with him in a trade. However, you can’t just take a player’s road stats and assume that’s how he would do in any new home environment. Players make adjustments, and if you take the Monster away from Pedroia, he’d swing differently in his new ballpark.
Of course, he’s not going to have to, because the Red Sox aren’t trading him. They know what they have, and they’re not giving it up.
#24 Yasiel Puig (OF)
Under Team Control Through 2019: $2M, $5M, $6M, $7M or Arb, $8M or Arb, Arb
From the start, I’ll say that I have no real conviction about Puig’s placement here. I could make a compelling case that he doesn’t belong on the list. I could also make a compelling case that he belongs in the top 10. There are teams that would go bananas trying to acquire him right now, and there are teams that would show little interest. Puig’s value is not cut-and-dried.
Since arriving in the big leagues, he’s been remarkably good, but he’s succeeding in a way that simply isn’t sustainable. His contact rate is worrisome, and his approach at the plate is exploitable. Take away the .472 BABIP, and what’s left is the skillset of a low OBP slugger. That may very well be what he is for the rest of the season.
But, as we acknowledge the coming regression, let’s not overlook the fact that he’s a 22-year-old who was forced to take over a year off from competitive baseball. In terms of development, most players with Puig’s background would probably be in A-ball. It’s okay that he’s not polished; it would be a miracle if he was. The physical skills are carrying him, but that’s true of pretty much every kid this age. And Puig’s physical skills look pretty special.
Complicating factors is the contract he signed with the Dodgers. It was widely reported as a seven year, $42 million deal, but that’s probably not what it’s going to end up as. That was basically the guaranteed floor, but the deal also allows Puig to opt out of the negotiated salaries and choose arbitration if he so desires. Depending on how well he performs, the 2017/2018 salaries could easily go up, though there’s no ability for the Dodgers to renegotiate those numbers down if he doesn’t perform well.
So, while Puig comes with six more years of team control, they are considerably more expensive than other rookies called up this season. His three pre-arb years will cost $12 million in total, and he’s setup for higher arbitration salaries than players coming into the system making six figures. There’s definitely clear downside here, as he comes with a real cost if the regression comes and he never adjusts. But, Puig is also a 22-year-old who is already showing MLB power and is under team control through most of the rest of the decade. He is both very risky but also very valuable.
Combining the risk and rewards, I ended up with him here, but if you think he should be 20 spots higher or lower, I won’t argue with you. This is a tough nut to crack.
#23 Adam Wainwright (P)
Under Team Control Through 2018: $19.5M per year
When people talk about the best pitchers in baseball, they usually mention Verlander, Kershaw, or Felix, but Adam Wainwright belongs in that conversation, especially now that he’s just decided to stop walking opposing hitters. And Wainwright comes with one significant advantage over those three: he costs a lot less.
The Cardinals were able to get Wainwright signed to deal that will him just under $20 million per year for the next five years, while Felix and Verlander both got $25 million per year and an extra year, while Kershaw is apparently asking for an extension that tops them all. With Wainwright, you get ace production at a price less than what the aces are signing for, and while $5 million per year might not sound like a big deal, it adds up, as does the extra guaranteed year at the end.
There’s a reason Wainwright took a little less than those guys, though: Injuries. Major League teams have gotten bitten by expensive pitchers breaking down, and they’ve compensated by paying heavily for durability. There’s a significant premium placed on pitchers with clean health track records, and Wainwright has had several extended DL stints, including missing the 2011 season. It doesn’t seem to have had any lasting impact, but it’s in the file, and that would drive his price down a bit relative to those who haven’t broken down before.
He’s also going to be 32 when the contract kicks in, so while age doesn’t matter as much for pitchers, he is heading for the part of his career where we expect decline to accelerate. Thankfully for the Cardinals, Wainwright is so good that he can still be a valuable piece even when the stuff starts slowing down, and St. Louis has him at a price that he can justify even if he takes a step back.
#22 Felix Hernandez (P)
Under Team Control Through 2019: $22M, $24M, $25M, $26M, $26M, $27M
Over the last year and a half, there has been a lot of talk about Hernandez’s velocity decline, as his top-end fastball has basically disappeared and he now sits in the low-90s, occasionally hitting 95 or 96. However, even with his fastball eroding, Felix is actually getting better.
He’s currently posting both the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career, and he’s settling in around that Roy Halladay sweetspot of just enough groundballs to stay efficient, but enough strikeouts to completely dominate. The idea that he was benefiting heavily from Safeco Field has been challenged, as he’s shown no ill effects from the fences being moved in and the park playing more neutral than it has since it opened.
And he’s still just 27. While he’s been around for nearly a full decade and has almost 1,800 innings pitched in his career, he’s not that much older that a lot of the young kids on this list. Even with six pretty expensive years left on his contract, the deal expires after his age-33 season. And while big expensive contracts for pitchers come with a lot of risk, Felix’s deal somewhat mitigates those risks by adding a conditional option year to the end.
If Hernandez spends 130 consecutive days on the DL due to surgery on his right elbow — basically, if he has Tommy John surgery — then a $1 million option for the 2020 season activates, and the Mariners would control his rights for one more season to make up for the year lost due to injury. Replacing a prime year with an age-34 season isn’t an exactly even swap, but it offsets some of the risks that are natural to pitchers.
The contract isn’t cheap by any stretch, but it’s a good deal for an elite franchise pitcher in the prime of his career.
#21 David Wright (3B)
Under Team Control Through 2020: $20M through 2018, $15M, $12M
Wright has rebounded from a mid-20s slump to emerge as one of the best players in the game, and the Mets were able to give him an extension that rewards him for his play without turning the deal into an albatross. While the $11 million he’s getting this year is likely to be the most valuable part of the contract, paying $20 million per year for Wright’s age 31-35 seasons is easily justifiable, and by the time he gets to 36, the salaries will be decreasing. You don’t see a lot of middle-loaded contracts like this, but it does serve to preserve some of Wright’s trade value as the contract goes along, rather than absorbing all of the value up front and leaving him overpaid at the end.
Really, the only thing keeping Wright this low is his age. We’re getting to the part of the list where the players ahead of him are also excellent and signed to reasonable or bargain contracts, but most of them are just younger. It’s not a knock against Wright himself, and there’s really nothing to complain about, as he hits, he fields, he runs, and he stays healthy. His mediocre 2011 season is mostly in the rear view mirror at this point, and he’s really a player with very few flaws.
He’s just headed for the part of his career where that is unlikely to remain true. How long he can hold off Father Time will determine whether or not he ends up in Cooperstown.