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Rick Porcello's true trade value, and what we should expect in return

If Rick Porcello is dealt before the season begins, the Tigers should expect a pretty handsome return, even if they don't expect him to progress much in his three final club-controlled seasons.

Al Messerschmidt

Alright, enough is enough. We have balked at the idea of trading Rick Porcello all offseason, using excuses like "pitching depth" and "he's only 24" and "FIP" to reassert our belief that Porcello will actually become a useful mid-rotation starter in 2013. While I'm not letting go of this belief, this post at Crawfish Boxes made me curious: what is Porcello's actual trade value?

First, an explanation of the math to follow combined with me griping about the very same math I'm about to do. For every one WAR -- in this case, we're using Fangraphs' WAR (or fWAR) since it's their rule -- a player should be expected to earn about $5.5 million. For example, Porcello was worth 2.9 fWAR in 2012, putting his estimated value at roughly $15.95 million.

Yes, I realize that there are a gazillion reasons why Porcello's 2.9 fWAR value -- which was higher than that of Tim Hudson, Yovani Gallardo, and Ryan Vogelsong, among others -- seems ridiculous, but bear with me here.

Next, we take the salary that the player actually made and subtract that from their expected worth. Going back to the previous example, Porcello made $3.1 million in 2012. If we subtract that from his expected worth of $15.95 million, we see that Porcello's surplus value was $12.85 million.

Now here's where the math gets tricky. Instead of using past salaries and fWAR values, which have already been determined, we have to predict both figures for the remaining years of the player's contract.

Theoretically, the contract part should be easy. Due to his quick ascent to the major leagues, Porcello earned Super-Two arbitration status, which gives him an extra year of arbitration during his six years of club control. Basically, instead of three years playing for his base contract and three years of arbitration, he spent two years playing at his base contract -- which was around $1.5 million, thanks to the contract he signed when he was drafted -- and four years of arbitration.

To predict Porcello's salaries over his last two arbitration years, I looked at starting pitchers who also had Super-Two status and how their contract values changed over their arbitration years. The problem with this is that most teams with a Super-Two pitcher in recent memory have signed said pitchers to multi-year deals in order to control their salary through the arbitration years, because more often than not, Super-Two players are really good. Tim Lincecum (the good, pre-2011 version) and Cole Hamels are recent examples of said moves.

How rare is Porcello's case? The only Super-Two starting pitcher in recent memory to make it through all four arbitration years on a year-to-year salary is Matt Garza. Thankfully, the salary numbers are comparable.

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4
Garza $3.35M ('10) $5.95M ('11) $9.5M ('12) $10.25M ('13)
Porcello $3.1M ('12) $5.1M ('13) ? ('14) ? ('15)

Garza saw a $3.55 million increase in salary in his third year of arbitration due to a 2011 season in which he was worth 4.9 fWAR and the Chicago Cubs' apparent need to overpay for everything. He wasn't as good in 2012, resulting in just a $750,000 raise to this year's $10.25 million salary.

To keep things simple, let's project Porcello's salary increase as an average of Garza's final two years of arbitration in which he earned a total raise of $4.3 million. Garza's ERA has been better than Porcello's over the past four years, but with the inflation of baseball salaries I'm going to assume that all of these factors will be a wash. Plus, my brain hurts. Our table above now looks like the following:

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4
Garza $3.35M ('10) $5.95M ('11) $9.5M ('12) $10.25M ('13)
Porcello $3.1M ('12) $5.1M ('13) $7.25M ('14) $9.4M ('15)

Next, we have to predict what Porcello is going to do over the next three seasons, which is easier said than done. Let's be conservative and say that he's going to continue to pitch like he has throughout his first four seasons. He has accumulated 9.6 fWAR in his career so far, an average of 2.4 fWAR per season. If he continues along this trend, that's another 7.2 fWAR over his last three years of club control.

Now we go back to our original calculations. With each fWAR worth $5.5 million, Porcello's expected worth from 2013-2015 would be $39.6 million. His projected salaries of those three seasons total up to $21.75 million, which we subtract from his expected worth of $39.6 million.

So, after enough words to make one of Al's recaps seem like a haiku, we have our final number: Porcello's surplus value over the next three seasons will be about $17.85 million. Again, remember that this is a fairly conservative estimate, and is based entirely upon a WAR value that I consider to be largely useless considering that it estimates that Mike Trout was worth more than the entire Oakland A's payroll in 2012. Conveniently, the A's also won the division.

So what does this mean? The whole idea of "surplus value" in trade discussions centers around the belief that teams should look to make trades of equal or greater surplus value. If the Tigers were to trade Porcello for a player(s) with an equal surplus value, his/their expected WAR would depend entirely on how many years of club control he/they have remaining.

There are two ways we can go with this. If the Tigers decide to ship Porcello out of town for a prospect or two, the return is fairly easy to tabulate thanks to people much smarter than I am. Based on Kevin Creagh's calculations, Porcello could be worth one top-50 hitting prospect or one top-25 pitching prospect. Browse the shopping list yourself, but the names Yasiel Puig and Jameson Taillon, respectively, caught my eye off of this year's list.

The other option is that the Tigers could look to trade Porcello for a player with a short-term contract who will be an upgrade over someone in the current lineup in order to bolster their chances at a World Series run. To make things simple, let's cut the list down to players who are only under contract for one season. Conveniently, there's a list of those too. The catch with this is that the player should produce a surplus value equal to Porcello's $17.85 million, but has to do so in one season, meaning that they would have to produce 3.25 fWAR above what their current salary says that they should do. We're getting into some major caveats here, but if you're still reading at this point then you probably don't care. Either that, or you're just searching for quotes to rip apart my analysis in the comments. I'm carrying on.

After a quick scan of the list of players who are free agent eligible in 2014, I narrowed it down to position players who I think would (a) be reasonable upgrades over current personnel, and (b) didn't have to play like Mike Trout circa 2012 to create enough surplus value for this theory to work. This table in no way implies that they are actually available, or that their current team would be willing to trade them for Porcello. Check out the results:

Player 2013 salary 2012 fWAR rWAR
Robinson Cano $15M 7.8 5.97
Chase Utley $15M 3.2 5.97
Jacoby Ellsbury $9M 1.5 4.88
Curtis Granderson $15M 2.6 5.97
Carlos Beltran $13M 3.6 5.61
Shin-Soo Choo $7.375M 2.6 4.59
Nelson Cruz $10.5M 1.3 5.15
Hunter Pence $13.8M 1.8 5.75

The "rWAR" stands for "Rob WAR," because I'm pretty sure I'm just making stuff up at this point. It stands for the amount of WAR the player would have to produce in order to create $17.85 million of surplus value in 2013.

Of the names on this list, we can reasonably throw out Cano because there's no way the New York Yankees are trading him this season. Choo is also not likely to be moved since the Cincinnati Reds just traded for him. Pence, Cruz, and Granderson have only approached their respective rWAR values once previously in their careers. Beltran and Utley are too injury-prone to rely upon, and neither of them are getting any younger.

By process of elimination, we have come to my personal bias: Jacoby Ellsbury. He could fit into both the "one-year wonder" category or the "old and fragile" category, but has more potential than any of the players on this list, save for Cano. He was worth 4.2 WAR in 2008 and 2.9 WAR in 2009, the latter of which was due to fielding metrics not liking him very much that season. If he stays healthy, there's a good chance he gets close to that 4.88 rWAR mark. Whether the Boston Red Sox would actually go through with this trade is up for debate, but Porcello fits the groundball pitcher mold that Red Sox fans covet so dearly.

While there are several caveats to the assumptions that I have made throughout this post, the end result is clear: Porcello's trade value is much higher than many around baseball are currently led to believe. Unless the Tigers are able to land a player of Ellsbury's caliber or a coveted prospect, they are selling themselves short and are better served to keep the right-hander in their organization.