First Pitch: Should the Pirates Trade Players at Lower Values This Offseason?

Day three of the MLB winter meetings led to a few Pirates appearing in trade rumors.

First was the report from Jason Mackey that the Pirates and Yankees have had conversations involving Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell.

Jon Heyman later reported that Joe Musgrove and Adam Frazier are the names who have come up the most in trade talks.

If you had to pick a pair of guys who are more likely to be traded, Musgrove and Frazier would be the obvious group to choose. The Pirates should listen on every player, and Bell and Taillon are far from untouchable. It’s just that their names in trade talks leave more to the imagination.

You kind of know what you’ve got with Frazier and Musgrove, to an extent. Frazier has been a league average starting option at second base, and would make a great super utility option for a large market contender. I consider Musgrove a breakout candidate for 2021, and I don’t think I’m alone on that. I don’t even think I’m in the minority on that opinion. The Pirates could get more value for him at the deadline if he does break out in the first half of 2021, but they’d have no problem getting value for him if they dealt him this offseason.

It’s hard to say what guys like Frazier and Musgrove could land in a year like this one, where every owner is going to be restricting spending, and every GM is going to be looking for value. Trading for a player in his prime, making a fraction of his true open market value, and having additional years of control at a reduced cost to boot is exactly the type of move you’d expect to see in this type of situation.

So I guess it makes sense that the Yankees would be talking about Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell. Neither player has lived up to his full potential, but neither player is being paid anything close to what his full potential would land.

Bell has been replacement level as a first baseman in the National League, but could have value for an American League team as a DH-only, focusing entirely on his bat. He’d get an offensive boost in the AL East.

Taillon is returning from his second Tommy John surgery. He was a 3+ fWAR pitcher in his first two and a half seasons, and trending upward before the second major elbow injury. Taillon has gone through a lot of rehabs in his career, and always tends to return stronger and with some type of new adjustment to his game. This time, he’s shortened his arm path, which will hopefully at least end his history of arm injuries. He’s projected to make $2.3 million in 2021, and is under team control for an additional year. If he gets back to being a 3 WAR pitcher, he’s a massive value at that price.

Together, Bell and Taillon would cost around $7.5-9.5 million through arbitration in 2021, and would both be under control through the 2022 season.

Just like Musgrove, they both could greatly increase their trade value by the deadline with a big first half in 2021. The Pirates could get a massive return for Musgrove, Taillon, and Bell if all three have strong first halves.

How much less of a return would they get now, while using the powerful tool of speculation to their advantage?

For that answer, let’s look at Jameson Taillon.

Taillon was worth 1.7 fWAR in his rookie debut in 2016. He went on to be a 3.2 WAR pitcher in 2017, and improved to 3.9 in 2018. He had an 0.8 WAR in 2019, before going down for the season, and missed all of 2020.

What sticks out are those 2017/2018 seasons, and the hope that Taillon could be a 3.5+ WAR pitcher again. No team is paying for this right now. They’re just hoping for it.

If you average the WAR production for Taillon from the last four seasons, you get 1.975, which we’ll round up to 2.0 for the sake of simplicity. I could see Taillon getting traded with a 2.0 WAR value. The return would lead to about $22 million in surplus value. But that seems high, as he’s coming off his second Tommy John.

Going with a less optimistic approach, and reducing Taillon’s value to 1.5 WAR, ends up with about a $16 million surplus value over his final two seasons, if traded this offseason.

Now, let’s say the Pirates keep Taillon and he returns to his 2017/18 numbers in the first half of 2021. He’s now seen as a 3.5 WAR pitcher, which really boosts his value for 2022. Taillon would be worth about a $29 million surplus value at the 2021 deadline under this scenario.

If he ends up as a 2 WAR pitcher, traded at the deadline, he’d be worth $13 million in surplus value.

You’ve got a decision to make, based on the above.

Trade Taillon During the Offseason: You’d be getting $16 million in surplus value, possibly higher or lower, depending on how teams weigh his injury history.

Trade Taillon at the Deadline: He’d be worth $29 million in surplus value if he returned to his 2017/18 numbers. $13 million as a 2 WAR pitcher. His value drops to about $6 million over two seasons as a 1 WAR pitcher.

Do you take the guaranteed $16 million?

Or, do you go for $29 million, risking that you could end up at $13, $6, or less?

We’re going to find out what type of risk Ben Cherington is comfortable with this offseason, because the Pirates have several of these types of players, with a few mentioned in the rumors above.

Does Cherington take the guaranteed return this offseason, and start fresh in 2021 building toward the next contender?

Does he risk getting zero value from some of these guys, all to maximize return at the deadline?

Does he mix and match?

Speculation is a powerful tool.

I threw some numbers out above for Taillon, and I’m sure we could debate those numbers. What we would agree upon is that Taillon has value right now, might have more value at the deadline, but might just as easily have no value at the deadline.

The same could be said for Bell, Musgrove, Frazier, and so on.

And why should any of them have value right now? Out of those four players, how many will bust in the first half in 2021? How many need to work out to justify the Pirates keeping them until the deadline?

We’re coming off a year where Starling Marte landed Liover Peguero, Brennan Malone, and international bonus pool space needed to sign Solomon Maguire. Then, Marte struggled in the first half and landed a smaller trade return at the deadline.

I’m of the feeling that the Pirates should make trades now and capitalize on teams going the cheap route. They might get less value than they could have in a case or two, but they’ll end up with more value in total by dealing players now.

The key variable this offseason is that MLB teams are all cutting down the amount of minor league teams in their systems, specifically at the lower levels. That roster trim will make it more likely that some teams will deal their extra prospects in trades, as they work to remove the equivalent of 1-2 minor league teams from their farm systems.

The reduction of minor league teams and the reduced spending for MLB teams could both work to the advantage of the Pirates with the types of players they have to trade this offseason.

How would you handle trades with these players? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

The Rule 5 draft is today at noon. Here are the links to all of our Rule 5 coverage:

First Pitch: What Will the Pirates Do in the Rule 5 Draft?

Baseball America Adds More Names to Watch in the Rule 5 Draft

Rule 5 Draft Options from Baseball America

Some Unprotected Prospects the Pirates Could Consider Under Rule 5

Some More Rule 5 Possibilities for the Pirates

MLB Pipeline Posts Ten Names to Watch in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth  we are releasing two variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Visit our shop to order these extremely limited items!


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