When the M’s traded away Randy Johnson in 1998, choosing not to extend his expiring contract, I’m sure many saw that as a terrible idea—trading away a team icon for some Astros no one had heard of. Three years later, previously unknowns Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama combined for 8+ WAR. During that same season, Randy Johnson put up a Cy Young season worth between 10 and 11 WAR, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad decision. Johnson also cost the D-backs $13.5M in 2001, while the trio of former Astros cost the Mariners just $1.1M.
With the extra $12.4M, you could argue that enabled Mariners GM Pat Gillick to sign Ichiro for $5.6M and Bret Boone for $3.25M. Mike Cameron was signed the year before, and was paid just $3.4M during the 2001 season. Those three free agents, in addition to the three players the M’s got in the trade for Johnson, cost the Mariners almost exactly Johnson’s 2001 salary. But the rate of return was upwards of 27 WAR. Yes, that was a perfect storm of good signings, but it wasn’t like Johnson was a slouch. Hell, the Big Unit was one of the most valuable single players in the league, and yet he still couldn’t compete with the players that replaced him.
I had the idea that maybe trading Felix Hernandez, like the Johnson trade a decade before, would be a good idea in the right situation. A look at his 2010 extension reminded me that the King’s contract is on the team-friendly side…for free agent prices. Dave Cameron thusly ranked Felix 14th in his trade value series, and despite being an M’s homer, there was little dispute in the comments section. Free agency, however, is the most expensive talent, and there is possibly cheaper talent out there on the trade market worth investigating.
Felix is going to cost $39.5M for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, which buys an average of 8 WAR in free agency. According to Baseball-Reference, Felix has averaged 4.25 WAR per 220 innings during his career, and by Fangraphs’ estimate, 5.25 WAR. Looking at just the past 2.5 seasons, those figures jump to 4.5 and 5.4 WAR, respectively. In other words, Felix is likely to provide around 10 WAR, or equivalently 2 surplus wins on top of what he’s being paid for.
Where could the M’s get those surplus wins back? Cost-controlled talent. Players are generally paid less than $2M total during their first three seasons, and then the next three seasons of arbitration tend to pay players a fraction of their true value. For example, in his first year of arbitration, Felix earned $3.8M for a 5.6-to-6.8 WAR performance (depending on who you believe). That would generally cost a team about $25M in free agency, articulating the real value in cost-controlled talent. If the M’s could get some of that cost-controlled talent in return for Hernandez, they would have extra money to fill major holes in free agency, and still come out ahead.
In a hypothetical—where we have no hearts, the King’s Court doesn’t exist, and the Padres are trying to win now—if the Mariners got, say, Chase Headley straight up for Felix, here’s how that might shake out:
for 2+ seasons, the M’s would lose about 12.5 WAR for Felix, and gain a conservative estimate of 7.5 WAR for Headley, for a total net loss of 5 WAR over 2+ seasons. However, Seattle would only be spending approximately $10-15M total on Headley in arbitration, and saving nearly $50M on the King. Just to be conservative, let’s say the Mariners came out ahead financially by $30M. While we would have lost that net 5 WAR, we could patch up other positions to the tune of 6 WAR at current free-agent marking values. With smarter free-agent pickups like the John Jasos and Kevin Millwoods, that $30M could even turn into 7 or 8 WAR. That would more than make up for the 5 WAR loss in difference between Headley and Hernandez, in addition to diversifying some risk by spreading talent out among multiple positions.
Now, I understand the Padres are even further out of the playoffs than the M’s, so I’m not sure that’s the team that would be trading for Felix. But it’s a good example of how acquiring cost-controlled talent can improve a team despite losing its best player. It worked in 1998 with the Big Unit, and there’s reason to believe that the right trade for Felix Hernandez could help the M’s win again.
The one thing that heals all feelings of loss is winning, and there are still 31 hours left before August 1st.
Thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for stats and trade info.