We don’t know what Farhan Zaidi’s plans are for the major league roster (more on that in a bit) and even though we’re about to get a glimpse in the form of 40-man adds ahead of the deadline to lock in the pool for the Rule 5 Draft, those transactions still won’t tell us anything about the biggest question of the offseason: “What’s going to happen to Madison Bumgarner?” To that question, the frustrating Seattle Mariners have helped clear some of the brush when it comes to the possible answer of “I dunno, trade him for prospects?” in the form of tonight’s trade with the New York Yankees for their rotation ace, James Paxton.
Paxton deal to Yankees is for Sheffield, OF Don Thompson-Williams and RHP Erik Swanson.— Corey Brock (@CoreyBrockMLB) November 19, 2018
That’s Justus Sheffield, a left-handed starting pitcher, ranked #31 in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects and #1 overall in the Yankees’ system. Erik Swanson is a 25-year old who spent the majority of his year in Triple-A and is ranked #22 overall in New York’s system. Why would the Yankees give up their #1 overall pitching prospect, whom they refused to move last season around the trade deadline?
This dovetails with what I've heard from a number of evaluators. Sheffield's upside, they believe, is mitigated by his ability to consistently throw strikes.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 19, 2018
Erik Swanson, they believe, is a swingman type. He's 25. And Dom Thompson-Williams, an OF, is seen as an org type. https://t.co/TjdOIXeJxr
Ah, so, there’s not much value in the trio of players the Mariners are getting back — at least, not a level of upside that will necessarily replace Paxton’s impact immediately. The Yankees, meanwhile, just bought two years of an above average major league starter who will be paid via arbitration for the cost of their top prospect and not much else, and it necessarily bones the Giants and their trade market for Madison Bumgarner.
Although we can argue about the actual prospect value of Justus Sheffield, it’s clear that the Yankees wouldn’t have parted with him if they didn’t have that extra year of control with the left-handed Paxton. Bumgarner’s deal, while below market value, is still just for 2019. On paper, that’s the better deal.
But Bumgarner has pitched fifty more innings over the past three seasons than Paxton, is a year younger (Bumgarner turned 29 on August 1st; Paxton turned 30 on November 6th), and by ERA+ has been (again, over the past three seasons) about 16% better (117 versus 133). On paper, Bumgarner has been the better pitcher and combined with the Postseason Legend status and cost of that single season still seems like the better value.
It’s when we start factoring in Bumgarner’s injury history versus Paxton’s that the real differences start to appear. Bumgarner’s dirt bike accident cost him most of 2017 and a broken finger at the end of Spring Training cost him a decent chunk of 2018.
Paxton, meanwhile, was able to start the 2018 where this happened —
— following a 2017 wherein he pitched only 136 innings due to a forearm strain in May and pectoral strain in August. Lower back pain and a left forearm contusion knocked him down to just 160.1 innings, but in both seasons, he still managed to pitch more than Bumgarner. This is where it gets complicated.
The 2-year stretch shows Bumgarner with the superior ERA+ (123 to Paxton’s 121), but Paxton struck out 364 in his 296.1 innings compared to Bumgarner’s 210 in 240.2. Paxton’s FIP was also over a full run better than Bumgarner’s (2.95 to 3.97), and that’s a value that tends to be more indicative of a pitcher’s success than ERA or just raw strikeout totals. Paxton was better at controlling the things a pitcher can control than Bumgarner was... by a large measure.
James Paxton is a better pitcher than Madison Bumgarner at this point. When you just compare their 2018s, the differences are glaring. Bumgarner’s 3.99 FIP was the worst of his career, his walks per nine innings (2.98) was the worst of his career and 53rd-worst in all of MLB (minimum 120 pitches). His fastball velocity dropped, and batters hit his pitches harder than ever before. I wrote back in September:
The diminished velocity of the fastball is one thing, but the diminished velocity and spin on every other pitch could be the indication of either physical degradation or looming injury. Bumgarner has leaned on the curveball more than ever before because it has been his best pitch — maybe even his only good pitch. Everything else in the arsenal seems to have been effective-ish because of cunning, guile, and sequencing.
Meanwhile, Paxton’s fastball held at its 95 mph average and his secondary pitches held their spin rates, despite his various injuries. It’s very easy to look at a 2-year sample and see two players heading in opposite directions and it’s not difficult to see that Paxton’s arsenal seems like a safer bet for success in 2019.
So what does that leave Farhan and the Giants with in terms of a trade market? Probably not very much... if they are only dealing with a team like the Yankees. It’s possible other teams would value one year of Bumgarner far more than other teams might and so they might be willing to make a similar move, but this Paxton trade appears to be the absolute ceiling of value in return for the Giants. Does a questionable #1 pitching prospects and two fringe-y prospects sound like a reason to move a franchise icon? That is the question.
For some people, a return of any kind is a huge win. For others, nothing short of legacy players in return for a legacy player will suffice. Can the reality actually fall somewhere in between? Here are a few other possibilities that might be in the mix:
The Giants are probably willing to pay him more than he’d get on the open market, even if he recommits himself and has a stellar 2019. The injury factor seems like a huge red flag, and it ought to be. The team could easily extend him for 4 years, $80-$100 million as part of a legacy move. This seems extraordinarily unlikely, but the Giants aren’t going to have an “ace” fronting the rotation for years and years.
Wait until the trade deadline
This seems like the smartest move. If the trade market for Bumgarner has truly been set by the Paxton deal and it’s not just some grand delusion of mine, then what the team will really need to make the deal worth it for them is desperation by other teams. There is, of course, a very good chance that Bumgarner hurts himself off the field or even during Spring Training again, thereby futzing any possible deal, but probably a risk worth taking.
Move him with Evan Longoria just to clear payroll space
Here is the most cynical, meanest move I can imagine. As I noted last week, Farhan’s first pair of big moves involved moving useful players and paying their salary in return for a bunch of depth players. I can’t imagine any team wanting to take on any part of Evan Longoria’s contract (over $73 million and 4 years guaranteed), but with Bumgarner and all of his salary being paid as a kicker? I can kinda see it. Would be sad to see a franchise icon go as part of a salary dump, but more terrible things have happened.
Move him with Heliot Ramos to get an enormous return
This one would feel very strange on one hand, but would seemingly fall in line with concept of a new executive coming in and having a different view of prospects than the organization that drafted him might. Henry Schulman reported earlier that Farhan Zaidi wasn’t sure the Giants would hire a general manager this offseason in an interview where the new President of Baseball Operations expressed one other opinion about the team. He wouldn’t comment on Bumgarner, but he did say this about Heliot Ramos:
“To get through the season and not go back to short season is an accomplishment in itself,” Zaidi said. “We should start seeing real improvement projecting forward. I still think what he did was a success. The tools, the ability are all intact. He’s still someone to be excited about.”
David Bell expressed a similar sentiment in his interview with The Athletic, so this line might not mean anything, but it could also be a bit of PR for a guy to make it clear that he’s valuable and, therefore, worth trading. Sending a controllable, exciting talent with a figurehead player who can dominate in the postseason should be a package that excites a lot of teams and cajole them to give up a little more than they would for just one player. The Giants had to give up a lot just to get Matt Moore — could Farhan Zaidi do something similar for... not Matt Moore?
Let him play out the season
Along the lines of not hiring a GM this season, Zaidi could just want to let 2019 play out and not try to force the issue. If Bumgarner performs and the team looks competitive, then a qualifying offer could be on the table. If not, then a farewell tour (something the Giants are really good at) would be in order. This is the most boring possibility, but considering how low Bumgarner’s actual value is outside of San Francisco, it seems pretty rational.
These were almost always the possibilities in play all along, but with this pretty big Yankees-Mariners swap, a trade feels a little less reasonable than before.