Yesterday, the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets finalized a deal that would send R.A. Dickey as the principle component from the Mets to the Jays for top prospects Travis D'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. You will note that those prospects were likely the best position player and best pitching prospects in the Jays' system. The Miami Marlins had previously sent five starting players to the Jays and received more quantity than quality relative to the Mets trade, as the team received Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, and Adeiny Hechavarria along with Yunel Escobar, Jeff Mathis, and Anthony DeSclafini.
Marlins blog First Place Fish mentioned in passing on Twitter that it was interesting that the Fish failed to secure the best player in the Jays' system despite all of that talent being dealt.
I know the $ offset has to be considered, but funny Marlins fail to get A+ prospect for maybe best SS in baseball, Mets get for 38 yr old SP— firstplacefish (@firstplacefish) December 18, 2012
Now, First Place Fish acknowledges that the money is a major aspect of this trade, but the money essentially singlehandedly explains the oddity that is trading more players to get a lesser return, at least in terms of prospects. The major players heading to Toronto in the Marlins trade were Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buehrle; Reyes was the 34th-ranked position player by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, and Johnson and Buehrle ranked 23rd and 61st respectively among pitchers. By any stretch, one would expect sending those type of players would garner more of a return than just sending Dickey, even if Dickey was the 13th-ranked pitcher according to FanGraphs.
But, as we discussed yesterday, the contracts cannot simply be overlooked, and the difference in monetary value is very significant when it comes to evaluating these trades. Dickey just signed a two-year extension that covers his 2014 and 2015 seasons at just $25 million total. In 2013, he will be paid just $5 million. This represents a significant surplus contract given how well he played just last season, a National League Cy Young campaign.
It does seem impossible to predict a knuckleballer, but Bill James has Dickey putting up a 3.58 ERA and 3.76 FIP next year. Just using his ERA estimate at 200 innings and you get a rough estimate of Dickey being worth 3.5 wins next season. If you expect him to age like any other pitcher, we may expect him to be worth $47.4 million over the next three years, yielding a surplus value of $17 million.
When you compare that to the values the Marlins were trading, you can clearly see why the Jays were more willing to deal their best prospect talent to the Mets rather than the Marlins. In the rosiest of projections, Reyes at best matches his contract value, meaning that the inclusion of Reyes is essentially a free agent signing for the Jays with some trade value tied in "exclusive rights." Even if you are rosy about Mark Buehrle, it is difficult to imagine him being worth close to the $52 million he has remaining; in the trade value article for the fire sale, I had Buehrle as worth between $12 million and $20 million in negative trade value.
Those two contracts, even with the fact that they include talented players, offset the value of their play. At best, the Jays are paying fair market for Reyes, and there is good reason to suspect otherwise, since we figured the Marlins overpaid by at least $15 million at the time of the signing. Similarly, Buehrle cannot be expected to perform up to the value of his backloaded deal, even if he performed up to snuff in the first season. All of that also offsets the bonus value the Jays got in acquiring Johnson, who is in a similar one-year situation in which Dickey was before the extension.
No matter how talented a player like Reyes is, you have to consider them as an asset when trading. The asset, with the contract, can lack value even if the player itself is fantastic. As The Book Blog's Tom Tango often mentions, would you rather have a house worth $500,000 with a $1 million mortgage, or a $200,000 house with a $150,000 mortgage remaining? Which asset has more value in this question? The $500,000 house, or in the Marlins' and Jays' cases the package of Reyes, Johnson, and Buehrle, may be more valuable than the $200,000 home, in this case Dickey. But if one mortgage is bigger than the value of the house, where is the value in that property?
As mentioned yesterday, that is why the Jays offered more for Dickey than for the Marlins' giant haul. The Fish got rid of some expensive mortgages, and while those homes / players were quite fancy, their mortgages outstripped their own value. In Dickey's case, his contract was so team-friendly that the Jays felt it deserved more of a return.
Did the Jays overpay for both "houses?" Probably. But the reason why the Mets' house was more attractive than the Marlins' home was clear once you read those pesky contracts.