Every player in baseball has a projection on how they’ll perform in the upcoming seasons. There’s a distribution in their projection, with some players having more variation, leading to a higher risk/reward, than other players.
Earlier this offseason, I wrote about distributions, player value, and risk using different assumptions about four “completely made up players.” Each player was assigned a mean projections for fWAR per 600 plate appearances and a standard deviation based on different assumptions to illustrate the point.
Three of the players were assumed to have a normal distribution with the fourth being more of a log normal-distribution because of the risk involved with his injury history but the potential he still could provide, though now we can pretend that this imaginary player signed with an American League East team to play shortstop as that team’s regular shortstop is currently injured.
At PiratesFest, I was able to talk to Pirate General Manager Neal Huntington about evaluating players and if they prefer those who are more of a normal distribution or a player who has fatter tails; the latter being a player who will come with more risk but also comes with more reward. Huntington told me it depends on the acquisition cost, mentioning both the trade of Ivan Nova to the White Sox for a young right-hander (Yordi Rosario, and also receiving $500K of international signing space) and also the trade of Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff to the Cleveland Indians for Eric Gonzalez, Dante Mendoza, and Tahnaj Thomas. Particularly, Huntington talked about Thomas and what potential he has, but he cited the youthfulness of both him and Rosario.
Looking at the trade with Cleveland, an indication of how the club viewed the risk/reward in each transaction can be seen, especially with how much Huntington talked about Thomas. In economics, cost is defined as the value lost, including the missed opportunity and time; in other words cost is the accounting cost plus the opportunity cost. For the Pirates first trade, the club lost out on Luplow and Moroff and the value they bring if they’re in the organization and the value if they were packaged in a trade elsewhere.
The main motivation of trading these players might come as a need to get room on the 40-man roster space, as the club added four new players this offseason to protect from the Rule 5 Draft. Fangraphs scouting writer Eric Longenhagen wrote about the trade,
"“He’s [Luplow] a pull-only hitter with plus power who has also exhibited slightly above-average strikeout and walk rate throughout his minor league career. He quite comfortably projects as a corner outfield platoon bat in a Cleveland outfield that is very left-handed…Moroff became a KATOH sleeper as he reached base at an above-average clip for several consecutive years in the minors. He suddenly started hitting for power in 2017 at Triple-A but regressed significantly in 2018. He could play a bench role in 2019 based on his approach and versatility.”"
The Pirates traded away a fourth outfielder who wouldn’t see much playing time with Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco all being full-time starters with no platoon, and the Pirates added Lonnie Chisenhall two weeks later to be the fourth outfielder. STEAMER projects Chisenhall for a .260/.321/.414 in 259 plate appearances, similar to the .245/.319/.417 slash in 378 plate appearances projected for Luplow. The Pirates swapped out a fourth outfielder and replaced him with a fourth outfielder with more positional flexibility, but it came at a cost of about $2.3 million more.
In Moroff, the Pirates lost out on a bench player projected at a .219/.321/.361, and with him not being recalled in September with rosters expanding, his days were numbered. Instead, the Pirates brought in a shortstop, who can play all over the infield as well, projected to hit .257/.292/.379 in Gonzalez. The Pirates also have Pablo Reyes set to have a role in which Moroff would have on the 2019 team. The club traded away two Major League ready players in exchange for one and a signing of another to a contract to create a net difference of zero in terms of the 40-man.
In theory, the Pirates lost years of club control for more roster flexibility but at a higher payroll cost. The underbelly of the trade is in Thomas and Mendoza. Longenhagen wrote about each player, saying:
"“[Thomas] can also spin a good breaking ball and has some nascent changeup feel that, for someone so new to pitching, is very promising. This is a prototypical teenage arm and, though that demographic of prospect has concerning attrition rates, Thomas has a good chance to be the best player in this deal one day….[Mendoza] has been up to 93 but sits 87-90 with the fastball and has an advanced changeup and breaking ball. There’s a strong possibility that Mendoza’s stuff ticks up as his body matures and he turns into a good big league pitcher of some kind.”"
Thomas is the player Huntington mentioned as the player that they really project to advance and develop into something. The 19 year-old struck out 33.8 percent of batters in 19.2 innings for the AZL rookie ball Indians, and he doesn’t turn 20 until June 16th. It’s that youth and lack of proximity that makes Thomas have more risk and more upside than say a Mitch Keller. While Keller is pretty much who he is, and one who will have a more normal distribution of outcomes, Thomas has more in the tails. He can blossom into the top of the rotation arm but he also might be a victim of the high attrition rate, never making it the Major Leagues.
This risk/reward because of the fatter tails is why his mean projection of a “league-average starter” isn’t the same as another players mean projection of a “league-average starter.” But it also represents how the Pirates viewed the acquisition cost of the trade. Moroff and Gonzalez project similarly with the bat, with Gonzalez presenting the ability to play stronger defense up the middle, and Reyes made Moroff expendable.
The club was able to replace Luplow’s projection for a difference of essentially $2.3 million, and if it’s more it’ll because Chisenhall is performing above the expectation. The club’s view of Thomas (and Mendoza) and the projected upside associated with the higher risk associated came at the expense of players who the Pirates could replace internally or for a low financial cost externally.