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Imagining just how little the Giants will get in return for Madison Bumgarner

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Madison Bumgarner is the Giants’ ace, but baseball trades don’t work the way they used to.

San Francisco Giants v New York Mets Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

If yesterday afternoon really was the last time we’ll see Madison Bumgarner starting a home game for the Giants — against the Dodgers or otherwise — then the return they get for him had better be worth it. That’s the disconnect involved with trading the franchise ace and World Series hero.

Who among us wants to see Madison Bumgarner pitching in another uniform for no other reason than that’s what rebuilding teams do? Bumgarner’s value to the Giants is overinflated relative to the industry, but that’s because he’s done for the Giants what no other pitcher has done for any other team. His value is greater than spin rates and wins above replacement.

Yeah, I said it.

The Giants shouldn’t settle for an A-ball reliever or a couple of prospects outside a team’s top 25 because why should they? Bumgarner has more value to the Giants than any other player in either of these theoretical transactions and as an irrational fan of the team it makes no sense to acquiesce to the demands of people who want something for nothing.

Yesterday, Andrew Baggarly put it this way (subscription required):

A Bumgarner trade is no certainty. From what industry sources are telling me, Giants president Farhan Zaidi already has had a dialogue with some contenders, including the New York Yankees, and he made it clear the Giants will not treat Bumgarner as a yard-sale item that must be cleared off the driveway before moving day. The Giants will get the value they are seeking or they won’t move him.

That’s nice to see, but who knows just how accurate that is and how strong a stance it is. Part of the reason is that the trade market has wildly shifted over the past decade. It used to be that a segment of the league tended to overvalue its prospects and seek out wildly imbalanced trades in their favor. Now that’s the entire league.

Prospects are more highly valued because they’re cheaper and teams know their own players better than another team’s player; and, teams would rather try to use their own creativity and algorithms to cobble together a roster of complimentary strengths than acquire a player who costs more despite satisfying all immediate needs.

No team is more “guilty” of this practice recently than the New York Yankees, the team most openly linked to Bumgarner trade talks. But that doesn’t mean the Giants are in line to nab a couple of their top 30 prospects. This tweet sums up the situation:

The Yankees also didn’t make an offer to Manny Machado or Bryce Harper in the offseason. They seemed to be in on Patrick Corbin, however, so you can’t say the Yankees are simply skipping out on free agency (they did sign D.J. LeMahieu and Adam Ottavino), but they’re definitely not even remotely interested in spending a penny more than they absolutely have to and they seem hellbent on using brinksmanship as their primary mode of negotiation.

Since the industry noticeably evolved into whatever it is now around 2017, let’s just look back at the last two trade deadlines and focus on pitchers with expiring contracts who were traded. First, let’s just stay on the Yankees, and take a look at the pitchers with expiring contracts they’ve acquired the past two trade deadlines:

2017 - Jaime Garcia

The bigger acquisition made was for Sonny Gray, but he was still arbitration eligible. Garcia was a minor move intended to bolster depth. It was a little bit strange, too. Garcia started the year with Atlanta, made 18 starts, then was traded to the Twins before being traded to the Yankees just a week later and after making only one start.

At the time, Garcia was 30 years old, and in those 18 starts, had a 4.30 ERA (4.15 FIP) in 113 innings, with a not great 85:41 strikeouts to walk ratio. The Braves were able to get a 19-year old starting pitcher named Huascar Ynoa, now rated as their #12 prospect. The Yankees gave up 26-year old LHP Dietrch Enns and 21-year old RHP Zack Littell, now the Twins #21 prospect. Enns became a minor league free agent after 2018 and signed with the Padres, where he’s now in Triple-A.

2018 - Lance Lynn, J.A. Happ

This is when you knew something was up. Last June, the Yankees — Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman, specifically — were peacocking because of their “financial flexibility” coupled with their desire to add pitching:

“This team has really earned the right to get reinforced if we can possibly find a way,” Cashman said. “We really like the team we’ve got, and we’d certainly love to make it better if it’s possible.”

It does indeed appear to be possible, as Steinbrenner noted the team “purposely left a decent amount of money for just this.” And with one of the best farm systems in the majors, the Yankees also hold the chips to swing a deal for a premier arm.

”If we decide to go get a pitcher and if a pitcher’s available, I think we definitely have the flexibility that would allow me to do just that,” Steinbrenner said.

That’s from the Yankees’ state-run website in an article dated June 16. At the time, the Yankees were 46-21 and half a game up on the AL East. Five weeks later, or, a week before the July 31st deadline, they were 5 games back of the Red Sox. Cole Hamels and Chris Archer were probably the two biggest arms to be traded, although Nathan Eovaldi wound up being the most impactful in the postseason.

You can forgive the Yankees for not wanting to reacquire Eovaldi, but why didn’t they land Chris Archer? Archer offered some youth (29), team control (club options for 2020 & 2021), and a decent track record against the AL East.

The Pirates offered up their #1 prospect from 2017 (Austin Meadows), Tyler Glasnow, a 24-year old top of the rotation starter (3.63 FIP and an 11.6 K/9 in 56 IP before trade), and a player to be named later. Gleyber Torres was the Yankees’ #1 prospect in 2017 and either Luis Severino or Domingo German might’ve been the Glasnow equivalent in Tampa Bay’s eyes, so... they went for the second tier of pitching.

Lynn then, like Bumgarner now, was earning $12 million in the final year of his deal. He had pitched 102.1 innings for the Twins by the time the Yankees traded for him (4.72 FIP and 8.8 K/9) and went on to be solid for the Yankees down the stretch (2.17 FIP and 10.1 K/9 in 54.1 innings). The Twins paid down part of Lynn’s remaining salary while the Yankees gave up A-ball pitcher Luis Rijo and their 2017 #12 prospect, Tyler Austin, in exchange for Lynn. Rijo is now the Twins’ #30 prospect while Austin is the Giants’ slugging platoon left fielder.

In exchange for J.A. Happ, who was earning $13 million in the final year of his deal, the Yankees sent Toronto their #20 prospect of 2017, 23-year old OF Billy McKinney, and 25-year old third baseman/infielder Brandon Drury. Neither are playing particularly well in full time regular work in Toronto, but they’re still young.

Drury was more or less blocked on the roster from getting a full-time role and with Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Brett Gardner on the roster and McKinney still a bit away from being eligible for one, the Yankees deemed them both expendable. They also thought they were really getting something special in Happ.

At the time of the deal, he had a 3.85 FIP in 114 innings with a 10.3 K/BB. With the Yankees, his FIP rose to 4.21 and his K/9 dropped to 8.9, but he still managed a 2.69 ERA and a 7-0 record in 11 starts.

With both moves, the Yankees looked for modest value and in exchange gave up very little. Neither Drury nor McKinney weren’t drafted by the Yankees, which helps realign this trade with my thesis that teams value their own prospects more than they do any other player.

The other big trades involving pitchers with expiring deals don’t really make you go WOW.

2017 - Yu Darvish, Francisco Liriano, Jeremy Hellickson

Darvish was earning $11 million in the final year of his deal, and while not as dominant as he had been when he first came on the scene (3.15 FIP and an 11.3 K/9 in his first four seasons; 3.99 FIP and a 9.7 K/9 in half of 2017 with Texas), he was still an effective pitcher, and in a short stint with the Dodgers that year (nine starts), was much closer to those first four years (3.38 FIP, 11.1 K/9). And then it all fell apart in the postseason.

For the privilege of watching the Astros absolutely shell Yu Darvish (eight earned runs in 3.1 innings — two starts!) gave up a trio of minor leaguers: RHP A.J. Alexy, IF Brendon Davis, and left fielder Willie Calhoun. All of them would wind up in the Rangers’ Top 30 by the end of 2017, and all three are still with the organization.

Liriano earned $13.67 million in the final year of his deal and went to the Astros from the Blue Jays in exchange for outfielders Nori Aoki and Teoscar Hernandez. Besides some really bad luck for Aoki — on the 2014 Royals who lost the World Series to the Giants, on the 2015 Giants when the Royals won the World Series, then traded from the 2017 world champion Astros — Liriano was able to come over and be a decent reliever in the Astros ‘pen, appearing in 20 games (14.1 IP). He also retired both Dodgers he faced in the World Series.

Hernandez was the Astros’ #8 prospect in 2016 and was hitting .279/.369/.485 with 12 home runs in Triple-A at the time of the trade. He played in 26 games for the Blue Jays that year and won a starting role last season (.770 OPS in 523 PA). He’s not had a great start to 2019 (.594 OPS in 161 PA), but is also just 26.

Jeremy Hellickson made $17.2 million in 2017 and the Orioles took on the remainder of his deal in exchange for international bonus slot money, lefty reliever Garrett Cleavinger, and 29-year old left fielder Hyun Soo Kim. Hyun Soo went back to Korea after 2017, Cleavinger is struggling (6.35 ERA) as a 25-year old in Double-A, and the Phillies spent that slot money to give large bonuses to three of their international signings (Starlyn Castillo, Kervin Pichardo, Victor Diaz), one of whom is in their top 30 (Castillo).

2018 — Nathan Eovaldi, Gio Gonzalez

Eovaldi was in the final year of a “make good” contract with Tampa Bay following Tommy John surgery. He was just okay through 10 starts (98 ERA+ in 57 IP) but something else after the Red Sox traded for him (133 ERA+ in 54 IP). The Red Sox traded lefty reliever Jalen Beeks, who’s now the 7th-best reliever in baseball according to FanGraphs (1.1 fWAR).

Gonzalez, like Bumgarner, was making $12 million in the final year of his deal. He wound up being an August waiver trade because by the end of June the Nationals were just five games out of first place. As soon as the calendar flipped to August, both Washington and Gonzalez flopped. He had a 3.78 ERA in 114.1 IP through July 28th and then a 7.47 ERA in six August starts as the Nationals slipped to 7.5 games back heading into September.

In exchange for five September starts from Gonzalez (and some of Washington’s international bonus pool money), the Brewers sent the Nationals infielders KJ Harrison (22) and Gilber Lara (21). Both are in Single-A for the Nationals right now.

Now, is it fair to compare Madison Bumgarner to these pitchers? No. Bumgarner’s track record of sustained success, his postseason pedigree, relative cost, age, and persona make him more valuable in the field and even on paper. The projection systems would all rather have Bumgarner than any of these arms, then and now.

A Bumgarner trade should at least feel like it was worth it. The other teams will try to remove emotion from the equation, but emotion is what’s driving their interest. Fans and marketing departments alike get pumped at the thought of having Bumgarner in their rotation (Dodgers excepted) — but every trade sets the market; and if it’s not clear by now, the front offices are trying to reshape the market to permanently lower costs. Swapping cheap players for not cheap players, regardless of ability, is bad for the bottom line.

  • The Yankees bought 27-year old Gio Urshela from Cleveland last August. Would they try to push off a 186 PA sample as a quality return for Bumgarner (with the Giants paying his deal)?
  • Could the Twins or, say, the Astros want the Giants to include Will Smith along with Bumgarner in order to get one player from their top 25 (with the Giants paying their deals)?

It might be a race to see who can bid the least, in which case Zaidi would have to decide if keeping Bumgarner makes more sense than trading him, or guessing whether or not Bumgarner would decline the qualifying offer.

The Giants would get a first round competitive balance compensation pick if he signs a deal greater than $50 million, but what are the chances of that happening in this market?

It requires no imagination to see Bumgarner signing a deal in the offseason for less than $50 million. A 3-year, $48 million dollar offer seems like his absolute ceiling, given the new realities of free agency. In that case, the Giants would pick up a second round competitive balance compensation pick. Here’s what that group looks like from this year’s draft:

Might Bumgarner accept the qualifying offer (between $18-$20 million), then? Would teams be willing to offer more than the value of a second round competitive balance pick?

There are 50 starting pitchers with greater value (by wins above replacement) than Bumgarner, but if you remove everyone on a team with a winning record or a losing record but still a postseason hopeful (Reds, Mets), then you get this list:

  1. Lucas Giolito - CHW (3.0 fWAR)
  2. Matthew Boyd - DET (2.8)
  3. Marcus Stroman - TOR (1.5)
  4. Spencer Turnbull - DET (1.5)
  5. Pablo Lopez - MIA (1.3)
  6. Brad Keller - KC (1.3)
  7. Marco Gonzales - SEA (1.2)
  8. Madison Bumgarner - SF (1.1)

Chicago probably aren’t going to give up Giolito in the midst of their rebuild and when he’s just 24 years old. The Tigers might listen on Boyd, who’s 28, and still has three years of team control; the Blue Jays are definitely shopping Stroman (along with Aaron Sanchez); Spencer Turnbull is just 26 and could be in Detroit’s plans, as might be Pablo Lopez in the Marlins’... if they actually have future plans, as might Brad Keller... if the Royals have future plans.

If we’re extremely conservative on both sides of the equation — the teams that have already started to rebuild will ask for a lot to get these players and the trading teams won’t want to give up much — then I think the prime trade candidates are:

  1. Marcus Stroman
  2. Marco Gonzales
  3. Madison Bumgarner

The first two have the upside of team control beyond 2019. But, Bumgarner has the most postseason experience on the trade block. He won’t be quite as valuable as Justin Verlander was for the Astros in 2017 (and in that trade, the Tigers got back three prospects who are all in their top 30 right now), but there’s at least a potential for it.

The Padres once traded James Shields and got Fernando Tatis Jr. in return. Before that, the Mets traded R.A. Dickey for Noah Syndergaard. Trades like that don’t happen anymore. Then again, there aren’t a lot of players like Madison Bumgarner anymore, and nobody in this generation has done what he did in the World Series.

This has been a very long wind up to say that the Giants aren’t going to start and finish their rebuild with this one trade. There’s a very good chance the effects of trading him will be minimal, in the short and long-term. A possible scenario is that whoever they get in return helps them get someone else down the line and that player develops into a solid contributor. The most likely scenario involves other teams valuing a public pursuit of Bumgarner over Bumgarner himself.

It doesn’t seem fair. This is Madison Bumgarner, an inarguable pillar of the whole damn franchise. Remove this load-bearing red ass and the whole thing collapses. Feels like the least that could happen is the Giants get someone in return who can help clean up the mess, but recent history suggests that won’t be the case. Maybe doing nothing is better than accepting next to nothing.

If you’re bothered by the whiny tone of the piece, deal with it. We’re at the end of the line here, pal. Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner — poof. Done. The end of an epoch. For most of my life, the Giants were a team of really great hitters and “How are they just barely doing this?” pitchers and then for a time they had the highlight reel aces and the one guy who could carry the team with his arm.

We will probably not see a run like this for the rest of our lives; so, I’m choosing to be aggravated and emotional about it now, because when the time comes — if the time comes — I’m going to want to bargain and make sense of it. For now, I’m going to pre-complain and hope some sort of weird reverse jinx situation takes shape and the Giants somehow defeat the insurance company software managing baseball front offices. I won’t hold my breath, of course, but I’ll hold out this one bit of hope.