The people who say that history repeats itself usually aren’t referring to baseball trade rumors, but here we are, with an offseason that’s already feeling a lot like last July. Around the most recent trade deadline, teams were in the hunt for starting pitching, and at the top of the market were some potentially available, cost-controlled aces. Now teams have resumed the same hunt, with rumors around many of the same targets, and maybe foremost among them are Chris Sale and Chris Archer. Sale’s an ace on a team that might elect to rebuild. Archer’s an ace on a team that can’t afford loyalty.
Just so we’re all on the same page, odds are Sale and Archer don’t both get traded. For all I know, could be that odds are neither gets traded. But let’s explore the situation anyway. Sale’s been a great starter since 2012. He’ll turn 28 in March. Archer became a quality starter in 2013, and he turned 28 in September. Sale’s long been considered perhaps the best starting pitcher in the American League. Archer this season very narrowly avoided 20 losses. If I polled you, almost all of you would rather have Sale than Archer for a must-win game tomorrow. Yet as trade negotiations go, I bet Archer has the higher price tag.
This isn’t about how the Rays negotiate, or about how the White Sox negotiate. This is about something simpler than that. First, some more background, showing why Sale is held in higher regard:
By the normal metrics, and by the advanced metrics, Sale has out-pitched Archer. The innings are almost identical, but Sale has managed the superior results. Sale has also had to deal with some worse-receiving catchers. Now, on the other hand, Sale’s average opponent over the past three years has had a 96 wRC+. Archer’s average opponent, meanwhile, has had a 102 wRC+. So Archer has faced tougher lineups, which should give him a boost. Going forward, Steamer projects Sale for a 3.43 ERA. Steamer projects Archer for a 3.34 ERA. That’s interesting, right? We all think we’re smarter than the projections, but we almost never actually are.
Sale has presumably been the better starter. You’d think he’d be the slightly better starter in 2017. He certainly has reputation on his side, as some kind of consistent ace-level workhorse. Yet what’s absolutely critical to understand is that you can’t just evaluate players as players, not when you’re dealing with potential trades or free agents. You have to take their contracts into account, and this is where Archer more than makes up ground. We’ve been writing stuff like this around here for a while. This isn’t some flashy new concept. It’s just, sometimes people have to be reminded.
Sale has three more years of team control. The last two are club options, but let’s just assume they’re picked up. The three years will cost just under $40 million. Archer has five more years of team control. The last two are club options, but let’s just assume they’re picked up. The five years will cost just under $39 million. You’re probably waiting for me to use the term “surplus value.” That is where this is going. Ken Rosenthal just mentioned it last week. Matt Gelb just recently wrote about how almost every team evaluates players in the same way. Like it or not, this is how negotiations are built these days. Teams think of players in terms of their surplus values, and that’s where Archer really shines.
In order to calculate figures, you of course need to make various assumptions. Not all assumptions prove to be correct, and the best we can do is estimate. But we do have a contract value estimator tool that we use, and for both Archer and Sale, I plugged in future projections. I also used a consistent market value of a win, and a consistent rate of market inflation. The variables aren’t sexy. The table is the meat:
|Pitcher||Years||Salary||Proj. Value||Surplus Value|
You can quibble with individual numbers. None of this is gospel, and we can’t see into the future. Based on this estimate, Sale is projected to be worth something like $124 million over the next three years. Archer is projected to be worth something like $167 million over the next five years. Both pitchers have extremely high estimated surplus values, but Archer’s surplus value here is shown to be higher by $44 million, which is 52% of Sale’s entire figure. To say that again: Chris Archer’s surplus value is 152% of Chris Sale’s surplus value. The gap there is big enough that you can’t easily make it disappear just by slightly adjusting an input or two.
Now, a lot of that excess value comes down the road. The fact that Archer has two extra years of control is great, for any acquiring team, but that control doesn’t help tomorrow. So the value boost should be discounted, because teams care about the short-term future more than anything. And, in the short-term future, maybe Sale’s simply the better starter. But then you come back to the fact that, while Sale will earn $39.5 million over the next three years, Archer will earn $18.5 million. Every single team in baseball cares about its payroll. Every single team in baseball wants to be more financially efficient. Just because Sale will be a tremendous bargain doesn’t mean Archer won’t be more of a bargain, and that makes Archer more appealing.
So this is where we are. Chris Sale might get sent to a new home. He’s an ace-level starter tied to an unbelievably team-friendly contract. Chris Archer might be a worse pitcher than Sale is, but his contract is more team-friendly still. And one should expect that to make a difference, these all being negotiations taking place in the 2016 industry landscape. If you want to trade for one of these starters, Chris Sale could be the more affordable of the two. That is a mind-blowing sentence to write.