It has been reported that the Detroit Tigers are telling teams that they’re open to trading starting pitchers Max Scherzer and/or Rick Porcello, but the question facing the team and the fans is what sort of value could they get back in a trade for either player, and how might a trade affect the team’s chances in 2014?
Often times, teams who trade veteran players are in a sort of rebuild mode. Maybe not a full-on rebuilding project, but they’re mostly looking to deal a quality player who isn’t going to help them win a championship in the near future (because of where they’re at as a team, not because of the player) for a player or group of players who may help them win down the road. In those cases the team’s primary goal is to maximize return value, even if that value won’t be realized for a few years.
The Tigers this offseason, however, are in position to win now, so their primary focus remains on 2014 while also trying to build and reduce payroll for the future. So, with regard to trading a starting pitcher, the question isn’t “who can we get the most for” so much as it is “who can we get the most for while sacirificing the least for right now”.
Jeff Sullivan had an excellent article on FanGraphs yesterday where he mulled over the question of whether the Tigers should trade Scherzer or Porcello. Go read the whole thing sometime, but here’s a paragraph that’s to the point I’m making:
Scherzer is a dominant starter one year from free agency. As a target, he’d appeal to a competitive team with a shorter-term window. A team with a lot riding on trying to win it all in 2014. Maybe that team turns out to be the Nationals, but on paper, it sounds an awful lot like the Tigers. The Tigers are more interested in winning now than in winning in five years. With all of his strikeouts, Scherzer is a better fit for the team defense than Porcello, who allows more balls in play to the infield. Jose Iglesias can help, but he can’t cancel out Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. Scherzer’s the win-now acquisition. The Tigers are a win-now team. It would be strange for them to make themselves worse.
The Tigers would be replacing either of these two pitchers in the rotation with Drew Smyly. For Porcello, Smyly would seem to be more or less of a direct replacement (both seem to be 2-3 WAR players as starters), but for Scherzer (a 4-6 WAR starter), Smyly would only be replacing a degree of his value.
In trading Porcello, the Tigers would save themselves something on the order of $7.7 million, gain a prospect or useful young player, and only have to replace Smyly’s bullpen production (which should be easy enough to do with the $7.7 million). I think it’s fairly clear that the Tigers come out ahead here, for both 2014 and beyond.
In trading Scherzer, the Tigers would save themselves something like $13.6 million, gain a better return package, and have to replace 1-3 WAR of Scherzer’s value in the rotation and Smyly’s production in the bullpen (it’s not clear that they could do all that with the $13.6 million). Everything would depend on what the return package for Scherzer would be, but they would probably be needing 1-2 WAR in immediate value in order to NOT be sacrificing the quality of the team in 2014.
Trading Scherzer would make it difficult to not be slightly worse in the coming year, and that’s before we consider the relative value of having Scherzer in the playoff rotation instead of Porcello or Smyly. The Tigers very likely would consider trading either player, but I think they’re dangling Scherzer out there in case someone blows them away with an insane offer. Or maybe Dave Dombrowski is trying loosen up the wallets a little bit to find out who might be available before focusing the discussions on Porcello.
In the end I think it’s Porcello that goes because, as Sullivan rightly pointed out, the Tigers are trying to win in 2014, and you don’t win in 2014 if you’re making yourself worse for 2014. That’s not the case if you deal Porcello, but it might be the case with Scherzer.