The Reds front office is most likely kicking themselves right now. The front office in Philadelphia might be doing the same thing, actually. If today’s trade of Aroldis Chapman tells people anything, it’s that business is very separate from character in the world of baseball. The other big takeaway from this trade, is just how much the market for pitchers has inflated lately. I’m not here to rag on the Cubs for acquiring Chapman, despite his disturbing and worrisome history. I’m here to talk about the pitching market, and just how jacked-up it’s become in the past 8 months.
Yesterday the Cubs traded shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres (their No. 1 ranked prospect), outfielders Rashad Crawford and Billy Mckinney, as well as pitcher Adam Warren to the Yankees. What they got in exchange? Less than half of a season of Aroldis Chapman. As many of you might recall, Chapman was the first player ever to be suspended by MLB under the new Domestic Violence Agreement. Outside of baseball, that’s a really big deal. His numbers this year matter more than the domestic violence does, within baseball, and that’s pretty sad. He throws the fastest pitch on earth (topping out at 105.1 MPH) and has an ERA barely above 2.00. In baseball, that’s what matters most.
As previously stated, Chapman’s history is not my main focus here. I’m focused on the pitching market. The prospect package given up to acquire Chapman is pretty ridiculous, especially for a reliever. It’s not just ridiculous because he’s a reliever though. It’s ridiculous because, barring a contract extension, the Cubs gave up their No. 1 prospect – and 3 other good players – for no more than three months of Aroldis Chapman. So far, there are no signs pointing to an extension being in-place between the Cubs and Chapman. It could happen, but it’s no guarantee.
The first thing to do, understandably, is compare today’s blockbuster deal to the last time Aroldis Chapman was traded. Just 7 months ago, Chapman was shipped from the Reds to the Yankees. Based on their perceived value, the prospects sent to Cincinnati pale in comparison to the players acquired by the Yankees in today’s trade. The Reds received Eric Jagielo (3B), Tony Renda (2B), Rookie Davis (SP) and Caleb Cotham (RP), all of whom are mid-tier prospects, in last year’s Chapman trade. Part of me doesn’t blame the Reds for trying to get Chapman off their hands ASAP, considering the controversy surrounding him at the time.
When the Reds traded Chapman, he was facing a domestic abuse charge for choking his girlfriend and firing 8 gunshots in his garage. Based on that dialogue, he sure sounds like a reckless, and maybe even bad person (purely subjective, I know). That’s the outside-of-baseball part of me. The other voice, the baseball-is-everything voice, can’t help but see the incredibly desperate mistake the Reds made by trading Chapman when they did. The team’s front office must not have been paying attention when Craig Kimbrel was traded for four top prospects a month prior. Instead of looking at what their peers were doing in the baseball world, the Reds let outside influences, such as criticism from the media, convince them to undersell one of their best assets. Basically, they sold low on the best reliever in baseball. That sounds like a mistake to me.
Just 20 days before Chapman was traded, the Diamondbacks decided to show everybody how much they value young, controllable pitching. The Shelby Miller trade has not looked good for Arizona. He struggled greatly through 69.1 innings before being demoted to Triple-A, and is now reportedly being shopped by the D-Backs. Regardless of how things turned out for Arizona, Miller & Co., that trade raised the price of a starting pitcher. Starters have gotten so expensive that the unproven Drew Pomeranz, who has “red flags” all over the place, just netted the Padres a top pitching prospect from Boston in Anderson Espinoza.
For what it’s worth, Espinoza was rated the No. 1 pitcher in the Red Sox farm system at the time of the trade. Pomeranz is under contract through the 2018 season, meaning the Sox felt comfortable giving up their “best” minor league pitcher for 2 ½ seasons of a lefty who has never pitched more than his current total of innings (105.0) before. He’s a good strikeout pitcher (10.2 K/9 this year), but he’s also walking about 4 batters per game. He hasn’t established himself as durable, and he’s giving up a lot of free passes. Like I said: red flags all over.
So let’s compare the Pomeranz trade to another recent deal, involving a lefty under control for 2+ seasons. Almost exactly one year ago (July 31st, 2015), Cole Hamels and flamethrowing reliever Jake Diekman were traded from the Phillies to the Rangers for a prospect package of Jorge Alfaro (C), Jerad Eickhoff (SP), Nick Williams (OF), Jake Thompson (SP), and Alec Asher (SP). The injured Matt Harrison was shipped to Philadelphia as well, but mostly to offset the remaining money on Hamels’ contract. Alfaro, Williams and Thompson are all highly regarded prospects, but the Rangers didn’t have to give up Jurickson Profar (IF), Joey Gallo (3B), or Nomar Mazara (OF), whom are considered the true “cream of the crop” in Texas. Judging by the Drew Pomeranz trade (or the Shelby Miller trade, for that matter), the Phillies could have gotten much more for Hamels, had they waited just a bit longer.
Up to this point, I’ve only discussed the cost of trading for a pitcher. There’s been no talk of free agents. Now let’s talk about free agents. In 2014, the Dodgers extended Clayton Kershaw for 7 years/$215 million. I know it’s not the same as free agency, we’re getting there. At the time of the extension, it was the largest contract ever for a pitcher (both by Average Annual Value and total sum). This is an assumption here, but following that record-setting extension, I think it’s a safe bet that every free agent pitcher that could be considered “elite” used the Kershaw contract as a starting point. The thing is though, $30 million per seasons isn’t outrageous for a pitcher of Kershaw’s degree. The only problem with that, is there’s no one else in his category.
For a year and a half, Clayton Kershaw was the richest pitcher in baseball, but that was before David Price hit free agency. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that would actually prefer David Price on the mound over Clayton Kershaw (with no disrespect to Price, who is an amazing pitcher), but Price is getting paid more. You can thank the Red Sox for that, as they signed him to a slightly-larger 7 year deal, worth $217 million. Don’t get me wrong, Price is (was) an elite pitcher, but he’s not Clayton Kershaw. The Nationals gave Max Scherzer a similar 7 year/$210 deal, but that contract includes major deferrals, which makes it a tough comparison.
Just a few days after the Price deal, Zack Greinke was signed by the Diamondbacks for 6 years/$193.8 million. While it didn’t break the record for largest contract as a pitcher, it was damn close. The Red Sox set the market for an ace pitcher in free agency, and the D-Backs reinforced that price four days later. I know I’ve just rambled off a ton of names, listed a bunch of trades/signings, and bored a bunch of people along the way, but I’m trying to drive my point home. If you haven’t noticed, the Red Sox have almost single-handedly set the market for pitchers, both starter and reliever. The Diamondbacks have certainly helped, but it’s been the BoSox leading the way.
The trades of Drew Pomeranz, Craig Kimbrel, and the signing of David Price all raised the cost of a pitcher in their respective markets. The Shelby Miller trade sure helped, but that’s been treated like an isolated incident. If you’re a Cubs fan, sitting there scratching your head at why a half-season from Aroldis Chapman is worth all that trade value, this is why. Boston’s front office, led by Dave Dombrowski, is who you have to thank.