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Trading An Ace In The Offseason Can Pay Dividends

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Back in 2016, we examined the history of teams trading an ace at the trade deadline and during the offseason.

In short, teams that trade a frontline pitcher for a prospect-laden package at the trade deadline almost never receive equal value in return, while teams that wait until the offseason fare better.

On the heels of the Rays trading Blake Snell and the Cubs trading Yu Darvish to the Padres, it’s instructive to look at precedent once more. We’ve updated our findings through the end of the 2020 season to provide a clearer picture of how likely it is the players the Rays and Cubs acquired will actually outperform Snell and Darvish over the rest of their careers.

As in our previous stories, we examined every offseason trade in the wild-card era (1995 to present) involving an ace-caliber pitcher and measured the post-trade career wins above replacement (WAR) totals, as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com, of the players involved.

Because of the different dynamics between trading a player during the regular season and the offseason, only trades made in the offseason were considered.

Our baseline criteria is three-fold. The deal must involve a pitcher who:

(1) Finished in the top three in Cy Young Award voting within the previous three seasons

(2) Was the primary player in the trade

(3) Was traded for at least two players who had not yet exhausted prospect eligibility.

(The Roger Clemens trade before the 1999 season and the Mike Hampton trade after the 1999 season are not included because Clemens and Hampton were primarily traded for major leaguers. The trade of Dontrelle Willis in 2007 is not included because Miguel Cabrera was the primary player in the trade.)

Please note Baseball-Reference adjusts its WAR calculations every few years, so career WAR totals for some players may have changed between 2016 and 2020 even if they were no longer playing.

April 6, 1995: Royals trade RHP David Cone to Blue Jays for SS Tony Medrano, RHP Dave Sinnes, and 3B Chris Stynes.

Blue Jays receive

Post-Trade WAR

Royals receive

Post-Trade WAR

David Cone

26.4

Chris Stynes

8.2

Tony Medrano

N/A

Dave Sinnes

N/A

Total: 26.4

Total: 8.2

Nov. 18, 1997: Expos trade RHP Pedro Martinez to Red Sox for RHP Carl Pavano and a player to be named later (RHP Tony Armas)

Red Sox receive

Post-Trade WAR

Expos receive

Post-Trade WAR

Pedro Martinez

62.6

Carl Pavano

16.6

Tony Armas

8.3

Total: 62.6

Total: 24.9

Dec. 15, 1997: Marlins trade RHP Kevin Brown to Padres for 1B Derrek Lee, RHP Rafael Medina and LHP Steve Hoff.

Padres receive

Post-Trade WAR

Marlins receive

Post-Trade WAR

Kevin Brown

31.3

Derrek Lee

34.3

Rafael Medina

-0.9

Steve Hoff

N/A

Total: 31.3

Total: 33.4

 

Jan. 14, 2001: Blue Jays trade LHP David Wells to White Sox for RHP Mike Sirotka, OF Brian Simmons, RHP Kevin Beirne and RHP Mike Williams.

White Sox receive

Post-Trade WAR

Blue Jays receive

Post-Trade WAR

David Wells

15.6

Mike Sirotka

0.0

Brian Simmons

-0.3

Kevin Beirne

0.0

Mike Williams

N/A

Total: 15.6

Total: -0.3

 

Nov. 28, 2003: Diamondbacks trade RHP Curt Schilling to Red Sox for LHP Casey Fossum, RHP Brandon Lyon, LHP Jorge De La Rosa and OF Mike Goss

Red Sox receive

Post-Trade WAR

D-backs receive

Post-Trade WAR

Curt Schilling

17.7

Jorge De La Rosa

14.9

Brandon Lyon

5.0

Casey Fossum

-2.1

Mike Goss

N/A

Total: 17.7

Total: 17.8

 

Jan. 11, 2005: Diamondbacks trade LHP Randy Johnson to Yankees for LHP Brad Halsey, C Dioner Navarro, RHP Javier Vasquez and cash.

Yankees receive

Post-Trade WAR

D-backs receive

Post-Trade WAR

Randy Johnson

12.3

Javier Vasquez

22.5

Dioner Navarro

7.0

Brad Halsey

0.1

Total: 12.3

Total: 29.6

Feb. 8, 2008: Twins trade LHP Johan Santana to Mets for OF Carlos Gomez, RHP Philip Humber, RHP Deolis Guerra and RHP Kevin Mulvey 

Mets receive

Post-Trade WAR

Twins receive

Post-Trade WAR

Johan Santana

15.3

Carlos Gomez

24.0

Philip Humber

1.1

Deolis Guerra

-0.5

Kevin Mulvey

-0.5

Total: 15.3

Total: 24.1

 

Dec. 16, 2009: Blue Jays trade RHP Roy Halladay to Phillies for C Travis d’Arnaud, RHP Kyle Drabek and OF Michael D. Taylor 

Phillies receive

Post-Trade WAR

Blue Jays receive

Post-Trade WAR

Roy Halladay

17.0

Travis d'Arnuad

4.1

Kyle Drabek

-0.1

Michael D. Taylor

-1.1

Total: 17.0

Total: 2.9

Dec. 16, 2009: Phillies trade LHP Cliff Lee to Mariners for OF Tyson Gillies, LHP Phillippe Aumont and RHP J.C. Ramirez 

Mariners receive

Post-Trade WAR

Phillies receive

Post-Trade WAR

Cliff Lee

25.3

Phillippe Aumont

-0.8

J.C. Ramirez

0.5

Tyson Gillies

N/A

Total: 25.3

Total: -0.3

 

Dec. 19, 2010: Royals trade RHP Zack Greinke and SS Yuniesky Betancourt to Brewers for OF Lorenzo Cain, SS Alcides Escobar, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, and RHP Jake Odorizzi 

Brewers receive

Post-Trade WAR

Royals receive

Post-Trade WAR

Zack Greinke

40.9

Lorenzo Cain

34.4

Yuniesky Betancourt

-3.6

Alcides Escobar

9.5

Jeremy Jeffress

8.7

Jake Odorizzi

12.5

Total: 37.3

Total: 65.1

Dec. 9. 2012: Rays trade RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis and a player to be named later (SS Elliot Johnson) to Royals for OF Wil Myers, LHP Mike Montgomery, RHP Jake Odorizzi and 3B Patrick Leonard.

Royals receive

Post-Trade WAR

Rays receive

Post-Trade WAR

James Shields

11.0

Wil Myers

11.5

Wade Davis

8.0

Mike Montgomery

6.1

Elliot Johnson

0.4

Jake Odorizzi

12.4

Patrick Leonard

N/A

Total: 19.4

Total: 30.0

 

Dec. 17, 2012: Mets trade RHP R.A. Dickey, C Mike Nickeas and C Josh Thole to Blue Jays for RHP Noah Syndergaard, C John Buck, C Travis D’Arnaud and OF Wuilmer Becerra 

Blue Jays receive

Post-Trade WAR

Mets receive

Post-Trade WAR

R.A. Dickey

9.3

Noah Syndergaard

14.5

Josh Thole

-2.2

Travis d'Arnaud

4.1

Mike Nickeas

0.0

John Buck

0.1

Wuilmer Becerra

N/A

Total: 7.1

Total: 18.7

Dec. 6, 2016: White Sox trade LHP Chris Sale to Red Sox for 2B/3B Yoan Moncada, RHP Michael Kopech, OF Luis Alexander Basabe and RHP Victor Diaz.

Red Sox receive

Post-Trade WAR

White Sox receive

Post-Trade WAR

Chris Sale

15.2

Yoan Moncada

8.4

Michael Kopech

0.1

Luis Alexander Basabe

0.1

Victor Diaz

N/A

Total: 15.2

Total: 8.6

Yu Darvish (Photo By Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

With Strikeout Milestone, Yu Darvish Makes Good On His Promise Out Of Japan

Darvish became the first pitcher in major league history to reach 1,500 career strikeouts in fewer than 200 games on Monday night.

In seven of the 13 instances an “ace” was traded for a prospect-laden package during the offseason in the wild-card era, the players received ended up producing more career WAR after the trade than the frontline pitcher who was traded.

The balance could shift further in the coming years. The Chris Sale trade between the Red Sox and White Sox still has many years to play out, and Moncada and Kopech may eventually swing the trade in favor of the White Sox. It is notable, though, that it’s been four seasons since the trade and the Red Sox still have the edge even with Sale missing the entire 2020 season after having Tommy John surgery—an indication of just how long it can take before the trade of an ace reaches a break-even point.

Of note, it is critical for the team trading the ace to actually keep the players that help them “win” the deal over time. The Twins (with Carlos Gomez in the Santana trade) and Diamondbacks (with Jorge De La Rosa in the Schilling trade and veteran Javier Vazquez in the Johnson trade) notably failed to do so, making the deals worse for them in retrospect.

Trading Snell and Darvish undeniably sets the Rays and Cubs back for 2021. If history is any indication, the teams can at least retain some legitimate hope that the players they received will tilt the trades in their favor over time.

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