Can Soriano or Fukudome be traded?

Following Tyler Colvin’s impressive spring performance, Lou Piniella has promised to steal three starts a week from Byrd and Fukudome and give them to Colvin. Xavier Nady, meanwhile, will replace Soriano from time to time. Truth be told–and the truth is seldom more than whispered when hefty contracts are in the background–the Cub skipper would rather have Nady in left and Colvin in right. Soriano’s remaining contract is $18 million a year for five years. Fukudome is not far behind, with $13M coming his way this year and $13.5 next year. Fans often forget that you trade the contract, not the player. To trade a contract, you have to know what the contract pays and what the player’s value is today, and be willing to eat (one way or another) any shortfall.

Here is a back-of-the-envelope formula for calculating a player’s current worth. If nothing else, this formula has the virtue of simplicity. Pick a player and a season. Add three numbers: total bases, walks and steals. This gives you a point total. Multiply this total by a per-point dollar-value constant that you use for all players in all seasons. The result is the amount of money the player should have earned in the season in question.

Simple enough? Total bases, walks and steals have something in common, after all. They are the means by which a player gets around the bases, in the direction of home, under his own power, without help from the defense (except the pitcher) or from the batters behind him.

There are two slight wrinkles in the formula. The number I use as the constant is somewhat arbitrary, but it is based on a real contract, namely, Soriano’s contract with the Cubs following his monster 2006 season in Washington. Soriano earned 470 points that season (362 + 67 + 41). Divide that total into 17 million, the average dollars the Cubs promised Soriano per year over eight years. The result is the constant that, when it is multiplied by 470, gets us back to 17 million. The math is circular in terms of Soriano’s 2006 season; but for other players, their value is being computed based on what Soriano earned after his 470-point season. It’s always going to be a guess as to which player, after which season, got exactly what he deserved. The Cubs thought Soriano had a few more 470-point seasons in him, and paid him accordingly. Obviously, in hindsight it should have been a four- or five-year contract, but I can’t be sure that a team ever worries much about the out years in a very long contract, so I don’t assume that the Cubs would have paid Soriano more per season for three or four years than they did for eight. Agree or disagree with that thinking, but there it is. If you disagree, use a shorter contract than Soriano’s to derive the constant value.

The other slight wrinkle is that I didn’t use Soriano’s 470 points to divide into 17 million. I subracted 200 points and used the remainder, 270. Before I did that, the salary numbers were skewed in favor of lower-quality players. Let me illustrate this with Ryan Theriot and Albert Pujols in 2009. Pujols had 505 points. Theriot’s point total–294–was 58 percent of Pujols’. Theriot’s value on the free-agent market is not 58% of Albert Pujols’. There are a certain number of points that represent minimal competence and are not recompensed. Below that threshold, you are not in the majors. I put that threshold, again somewhat arbitrarily, at 200 points.

Scan the spreadsheet below and decide if you think the formula works. In most cases, I use numbers from a player’s season leading up to free agency, and the contract numbers that flowed from that season. There are some discrepancies, especially at the high end where teams like Boston and New York and agents like Scott Boras are involved, and also an outlier involving Bobby Abreu. Overall, I think the formula works nicely especially considering how simple and intutive it is. I don’t see much point in tweaking the formula to get values to align more closely with salaries, since teams sometimes get a bargain and sometimes overpay.

If Fukudome is worth just under $7 million, well, that’s more than I thought. He did hit 38 doubles last season, which is a solid number. I’m not generally a fan of walks, but 93 is a big number. I guess a walk is as good as a single when no one is on base. Fukudome is tradeable, then, if the Cubs agree to pick up half his salary, which they have shown a willingness to do in the past, as when they traded Marquis’s $10 million contract and picked up $1 million of it, plus the $4 million contract of a worthless pitcher. They traded Bradley’s $21 million contract for another one worth $16 million, again for a pitcher who might be worthless (but so far has looked good).

To keep his trade value up, Fukudome will need to play a lot, so maybe Colvin will sub more frequently for Byrd. The Cubs like Byrd, and at the moment have no plans to trade him. So he can be subbed for. That’s the upside-down logic imposed by expensive free agency.

Soriano’s value has sunk quite low. He cannot be traded and must therefore play every day. There is that logic again, but even knowing that it is twisted, I still subscribe to it. I can never look at Soriano’s career numbers and not be struck by his earlier hitting prowess. Consider those 362 total bases in 2006. On the table below, only Holliday in ’07 with 386, A-Rod in ’07 (376) and Pujols last year (374) racked up higher TBs. That’s fast company. Those fellows are worth a lot of money. Soriano also had 381 TBs back in 2002 with the Yankees, and 358 the following year. You simply cannot give up on a talent like this if it means swallowing $50+ million. My advice to the Cubs would be to give Soriano two more years to put up healthy numbers to the point where he is tradeable, at half of his salary, for the two following years. Whatever years are left on his contract at that point, the Cubs will have to eat entirely. But the time to give up on Soriano is not upon us yet.

Maybe he’ll be great again. Am I dreaming?

A few comments about the spreadsheet:

This is LBFC, and I can appreciate a player who specializes in singles and steals. It does not surprise me that Juan Pierre can command $8.8 million/year for five years. The formula has him worth more than that. I added a row for Matt Kemp to illustrate that Pierre simply was superseded by a younger player with a higher value. Like Theriot, Kemp is still under club control and cannot earn what he is worth.

Holliday seems to have gotten a contract for 2010 and beyond, based on his performance in 2007. Speaking of Holliday, if I were inclined to tweak the player values I might deduct 15-20% for left fielders across the board. I don’t think the Cubs had any idea how poor an outfielder Soriano was when they signed him. At the time, they were considering him for center field. Adam Dunn’s agent certainly ran into resistance based on his client’s defensive play.

Joe Mauer spent the first month of his 2009 MVP season on the DL, or his points would be higher and more in line with his new contract. The Twins are also compensating him for the years when he was underpaid.

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