THE TRADE VALUE COLUMN

March 07, 2016

A PLAYER'S WORTH ON THE MARKET HINGES ON MORE THAN STATS AND TALENT: IT'S ALSO ABOUT AGE, CONTRACT, HEALTH—AND WHEN YOU ADD IT ALL UP, SUDDENLY THE WORLD'S BEST PITCHER ISN'T QUITE SO DESIRABLE. LET THE RANKING BEGIN ...

BASEBALL IS A COPYCAT SPORT. Whenever a team surges to unexpected success, rivals go hunting for its secret sauce. With the Royals coming off a World Series victory and two straight pennants, the latest trend has some wannabe contenders hoarding relief pitching, hoping to build K.C.-like superpens.

But if demand for top relief pitchers were truly soaring, we'd see that reflected in their price tags. Instead, teams continue to mostly buy solid relievers without paying through the nose. Meanwhile, the price for starting pitchers has shot to the moon; the Cardinals tossed $80 million at Mike Leake, the embodiment of a league-average pitcher, and no one blinked.

With that in mind, say hello to the fourth annual edition of my MLB Trade Value column. Put simply, I try to answer the age-old question that's spurred so many bar stool debates: Would you trade this guy for that guy?

We need to consider a wide range of factors along with talent and raw numbers. How old is a player? What does his medical record look like? For how many years does his team control him, and at what salaries?

To build this list, I used plenty of statistical analysis and posed all of these questions to a bunch of GMs and other talent evaluators. But this is still a subjective exercise. Would you rather have Clayton Kershaw making $33 million a year for the next five seasons, or Chris Archer making a hair over $20 million, total, for the next four years? The end result is a list of the 50 most valuable players currently employed by major league organizations. You can find an expanded discussion of the rankings at si.com/mlb.

50 ROUGNED ODOR

2B, RANGERS

49 TAIJUAN WALKER

SP, MARINERS

48 CARLOS CARRASCO

SP, INDIANS

47 BYRON BUXTON

OF, TWINS

So, ummm ... mulligan? Buxton's highly-anticipated MLB debut was a bust. The player viewed by most as the best prospect in the game for the past two years batted .209/.250/.326 with 44 strikeouts and just six walks in 138 MLB plate appearances in 2015. Not every rookie hits the ground running; count Mike Trout, as well as future Hall of Famers like Tom Glavine, among those who struggled in the Show at first. Buxton is a blur on the base paths who's going to chase down a zillion gappers and gun down plenty of base runners. If his hitting and power tools eventually catch up, he'll battle guys like Trout and Correa for MVP trophies every year.

46 SALVADOR PEREZ

C, ROYALS

45 CHRISTIAN YELICH

OF, MARLINS

44 TYLER GLASNOW

SP, PIRATES

43 JULIO URIAS

SP, DODGERS

42 CARLOS RODON

SP, WHITE SOX

41 LUCAS GIOLITO

SP, NATIONALS

After legions of top prospects invaded the majors last season, this year's crop mostly lacks high-ceiling potential. But four young pitchers are the best bets to become future big league stars.

ESPN's Keith Law tabbed Glasnow as the No. 7 prospect in baseball in his midseason rankings last year, with good reason. At 6'8", 225 pounds, Glasnow is the archetypal tall righthander, generating lots of swings and misses—293 strikeouts in 2332/3 innings over the past two minor league seasons, with just six homers allowed. He still walks too many, but after closing out last season with eight strong starts at Triple A, he should be pitching in Pittsburgh very soon.

At 19, Urias is the youngest pitcher in this group—and someone the Dodgers have deemed untouchable in trade talks. He also made it to Triple A by season's end, a fast and impressive pace for someone that young. The Dodgers made multiple moves to shore up their rotation this winter, and Urias and can benefit from more seasoning. But a Kershaw-Urias combo atop the rotation is a real possibility in the relatively near future.

Rodon used up his rookie eligibility last season, but he still remains White Sox property for at least six more years. He also proved he belonged in the big leagues. There were walks issues, but Rodon also fanned a batter an inning, posted one of the lowest home run rates in the league and caused hitters' faces to do wacky things after witnessing the majesty of his vicious slider.

Giolito is the best pitching prospect in the game right now: At 6'6", 255 pounds, he generates the kind of big fastball you'd expect from a pitcher that size, with a wipeout curve to go with it. At age 21, with just eight starts above A ball, Giolito has to wait a bit before donning a Nats uniform. But if you're wondering how and why the Nationals would be willing to let a rotation anchor like Jordan Zimmermann bolt via free agency, Giolito's the answer.

40 JOSE ALTUVE

2B, ASTROS

39 A.J. POLLOCK

OF, DIAMONDBACKS

38 JAKE ARRIETA

SP, CUBS

37 STARLING MARTE

OF, PIRATES

The only player in the big leagues to have "partay" affixed to the end of his name as a term of endearment, Marte can beat you in more ways than you can count. Over the past three seasons he's been one of the NL's best and steadiest hitters (especially once you adjust for the pitcher-friendly dimensions of PNC Park); he's stolen 101 bases; and he's played very good defense in left. Marte's still something of a hacker at the plate, salvaging his on-base percentage by also being the most plunkable player in the league (with 60 hit by pitches over the last three years). If he ever learns to be more patient and wait for better pitches to drive, he could join the ranks of the NL's superelite. That would be a huge boon to the Pirates, who have Marte locked up inexpensively through 2021.

36 J.P. CRAWFORD

SS, PHILLIES

35 FELIX HERNANDEZ

SP, MARINERS

34 MARCUS STROMAN

SP, BLUE JAYS

33 KYLE SCHWARBER

OF/C, CUBS

Built like Matt Stairs, with a powerful uppercut swing, the Schwarbs launched multiple monstrous homers in his debut season. In Stairsian fashion, Schwarber also ranked near the top of the league in walk rate, working lots of deep counts. He probably won't play more than a handful of games at catcher and is a defensive liability in leftfield too. Still, there aren't many players you can project for 30 homers and 100 walks (or close to it), and Schwarber's got a shot to join that rare cohort. Throw in the fact that he's barely 23 years old, and the Cubs have themselves a keeper.

32 ADDISON RUSSELL

SS, CUBS

31 GEORGE SPRINGER

OF, ASTROS

30 JOSE FERNANDEZ

SP, MARLINS

29 MATT HARVEY

SP, METS

28 GIANCARLO STANTON

OF, MARLINS

27 DALLAS KEUCHEL

SP, ASTROS

In 2014, Keuchel was an extreme ground ball pitcher who parlayed weak contact into solid results, despite a flaccid strikeout rate. In 2015, Keuchel's K rate surged; he fanned more than four batters for every one he walked, and that combination of lack of contact and weak contact led to his first Cy Young Award.

He's a soft tosser by modern standards, with a fastball that averages about 90 mph, and thus still leaves a few skeptics doubting his ability to sustain last season's elite performance. You could point out the 246 innings Keuchel threw between the regular season and playoffs, too, and wonder if there might be a hangover. Even if Keuchel does regress a bit, getting three years' worth of a near-elite pitcher at arbitration prices is worth a hell of a lot in today's market.

26 BUSTER POSEY

C, GIANTS

25 MIGUEL SANO

DH, TWINS

24 JOSE ABREU

1B, WHITE SOX

23 XANDER BOGAERTS

SS, RED SOX

The fancy projection systems had the 2015 Red Sox doing big things, with ambitious outlooks for big-ticket free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez and up-and-comers like Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. Sandoval and Ramirez were busts, but Bogaerts and Betts were anything but, emerging as one of the best up-the-middle duos in the American League. Bogaerts's aggressive approach—he walked just 32 times in 654 plate appearances—paid off with a .320/.355/.421 line, a fine accompaniment for his better-than-average defense in his first full big league season as an everyday shortstop. Some of those numbers could regress given his unusually high .372 batting average on balls in play. On the other hand, Bogaerts hasn't yet tapped into the power potential he showed as a teenager zooming through the minors, and at age 23 he has lots of room to improve.

22 JACOB DEGROM

SP, METS

21 CLAYTON KERSHAW

SP, DODGERS

He didn't win the Cy Young Award last year (though he had a pretty good argument for it), but Kershaw is still widely considered the best pitcher on the planet. Ah, but that contract. The Dodgers have more money than some sovereign island nations, so $163 million (not including performance bonuses) over the next five seasons (or $98 million over the next three, if Kershaw exercises his post-2018 opt-out) poses no problem for them. But it's hard to imagine a penny-pinching team like the Rays spending that kind of money, let alone giving up three or four great young players in a trade for the privilege of spending it.

20 SONNY GRAY

SP, A'S

19 GERRIT COLE

SP, PIRATES

18 COREY KLUBER

SP, INDIANS

17 NOAH SYNDERGAARD

SP, METS

16 FRANCISCO LINDOR

SS, INDIANS

In his dazzling rookie season, Lindor staked his claim as arguably the second-best defensive shortstop in the game (behind Andrelton Simmons). Lindor showed such exceptional range, such soft hands and such a strong throwing arm that he had a viable case for a Gold Glove Award despite playing just 99 games. But what if he's an All-Star-caliber hitter, too? That's what Lindor was in 2015, batting a cool .313/.353/.482, showing surprising power with 12 homers and 22 doubles in 390 at bats, and swiping 12 bases in 14 tries. Those numbers bear watching: Nearly 35% of the balls Lindor put into play fell for hits, an unusually high figure given that he ranked nowhere near the league leaders in line-drive rate or hard-hit rate. And Lindor's minor league track record points to a competent but hardly dominant offensive player. Then again, top players sometimes make a big jump as they mature; Lindor is just 22, and his speed could help his bat play above what scouts projected for him.

15 JOSH DONALDSON

3B, BLUE JAYS

14 MOOKIE BETTS

CF, RED SOX

13 MADISON BUMGARNER

SP, GIANTS

The gift that keeps on giving, Bumgarner's impossibly team-friendly contract yielded huge dividends yet again for the Giants in 2015. For the microscopically low price of $6.75 million, Bumgarner delivered career bests in (regular-season) innings pitched, strikeout rate and walk rate, obliterating any concerns of a hangover following the 270 innings he piled up during a run to the World Series a year earlier. Counting the two club options the Giants will surely pick up (barring the sun exploding or AT&T Park getting hit by a meteor), Bumgarner will earn $45.25 million over the next four years—and with the power of Even Year Voodoo behind him, MadBum could have five rings before his deal finally runs out.

12 CHRIS SALE

SP, WHITE SOX

11 CHRIS ARCHER

SP, RAYS

10 ANDREW MCCUTCHEN

OF, PIRATES

9 MANNY MACHADO

3B, ORIOLES

8 COREY SEAGER

SS, DODGERS

It might seem bold to rank a player this high when his entire major league track record consists of 27 games played. But the most valuable commodities in baseball are players who display exceptional skills at an early age while burning as little service time as possible. Seager might only have those 27 games, but we've got a stack of evidence to suggest he's going to be a star. In 390 minor league games he batted a robust .307/.368/.523. Yes, much of that damage came while playing in hitter-friendly ballparks, but Seager also racked up most of those numbers before hitting the legal drinking age. Add his eye-opening .337/.425/.561 line last season, his position (shortstop), age (still just 21) and six more years of being under team control, and 29 rival teams are hiring hypnotists to infiltrate L.A. GM Andrew Friedman's office.

7 NOLAN ARENADO

3B, ROCKIES

6 ANTHONY RIZZO

1B, CUBS

5 KRIS BRYANT

3B, CUBS

4 PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT

1B, DIAMONDBACKS

3 BRYCE HARPER

OF, NATIONALS

2 CARLOS CORREA

SS, ASTROS

1 MIKE TROUT

OF, ANGELS

Four years of this column, four years with Trout on top. A terror from his first full season at age 20, Trout has seen his skill set evolve even as his productivity has stayed sky-high. We'll probably never again see anything close to 49 steals in a season from him (though he remains an asset on the base paths), but he's still a plus defender whose spectacular catches will occasionally make you weep with joy. What Trout mostly is now is a straight-up masher, a player whose power numbers keep escalating to the point where future 50-homer seasons can't be ruled out. He arguably could have won the last four MVP awards, he's still just 24 years old, and the Angels have him locked up for five more years. Now get him some damn help already, so we can watch the best player on the planet lay waste to the World Series, too.

21 CLAYTON KERSHAW

3 BRYCE HARPER

1 MIKE TROUT

42 CARLOS RODON

43 JULIO URIAS

41 LUCAS GIOLITO

2 CARLOS CORREA

23 XANDER BOGAERTS

16 FRANCISCO LINDOR

THREE PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONSPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI PREMEDIA; JED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KERSHAW); DENIS POROY/GETTY IMAGES (HARPER); ROB LEITER/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (TROUT) PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (RODON) PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONLISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGES (URIAS) PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES (GIOLITO) PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONBOB LEVEY/GETTY IMAGES (CORREA) PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (BOGAERTS) PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (LINDOR)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)