Carlos Zambrano’s Trade Value

I feel like the debate regarding whether or not to trade Carlos Zambrano has been ongoing for as long as his career has. In reality it began after the 2006 season. So much of his career as a starter has seen fans and media members argue in one way or another that Zambrano should be or shouldn’t be traded. I’ve listed my arguments many times why he should not and why I thought it was just plain silly. I can’t say that anymore. I’m not for or against him being traded, but it’s clear that Carlos Zambrano’s projected value next season isn’t so high that teams will just put up with his shit. There are several examples of players with similar projected value who were released or traded for little or nothing. So it should come as no surprise if or when the Cubs do.

The debate itself is old and I’ve spent entirely too much time on it. Prior to 2010 Zambrano’s value was high enough that the Cubs put up with the baggage. When 2010 rolled around they stopped doing that. He was longer so valuable that they could let him do whatever they wanted. When Sammy Sosa‘s value sunk to that level, the Cubs shipped him to Baltimore and were happy to pay almost all of his 2005 salary. When Barry Bonds was at that level, the Giants opted to not re-sign him and no other team felt the baggage he carried was worth it either. In 2007 the Cubs traded Michael Barratt in response to the Zambrano/Barrett fight in the dugout and later the clubhouse. In 2010 they suspended Zambrano for another dugout scene. This isn’t new. Teams have been doing this for a long time.

Teams need a way to control the behavior of the players and the one way they use to do just that is to get rid of problem players who aren’t all that valuable. If you’re a 3 WAR player, teams put up with it. So whether or not the Cubs get better or worse trading Zambrano just isn’t something I’m intersted in anymore. I was interested in it for more years than I should have been required to argue why the Cubs shouldn’t get rid of him. It turned out that the Cubs were also willing to put up with whatever garbage he brings to the clubhouse because he was so good. They knew how valuable he was while the fans and media didn’t understand it. That’s good enough for me.

Shipping out clubhouse problems isn’t anything new. It’s not something that’s going to change dramatically with the new front office. It’s just a part of baseball. If some player is causing problems in the clubhouse and he’s not worth a certain amount in wins, he’s gone. All teams do this. It’s what the Cubs have done and it’s what they’ll do in the future. We may look at a player and say he’s worth 2 WAR and shouldn’t be traded for nothing, but it’s going to happen. It more than likely happens this offseason.

If you’re read Moneyball, seen the movie or paid attention to transactions after the 2001 season, you know the Oakland A’s traded first base prospect Carlos Pena early in the 2002 season so that Art Howe would play Scott Hatteberg. Pena was the 5th rated prospect in all of baseball entering the 2002 season. Hatteberg was a 32 year old catcher moved to 1st base coming off a -1.4 rWAR season in Boston. He was worth -.1 the year before and .5 in 1999. The 3 seasons prior to signing with the A’s, Hatteberg had been worth -1 WAR. He was 32 years old and coming off of injury in 2002. Billy Beane, known as a great general manager, traded the 5th ranked prospect in all of baesball, would later add as a player to be named later Jeremy Bonderman (ranked 20th overall entering 2003) to aquire Ted Lilly and a couple other marginal players. They did this so they could play a guy who had been worth -1 WAR over the previous 3 seasons, was 32, and was playing a different position. It must be said, this has to be one of the dumbest trades in the entire history of Major League Baseball.

One of the best GM’s in the game made it. Mistakes happen. Bad signings occur. They make bad trades. This is as much a part of basebal as a routine error at 2nd base. Anybody thinking that the new front office is going to make nothing but great decisions just doesn’t understand. Maybe the first less than ideal decision the new front office makes is trading Zambrano for pretty much nothing. I expect that will happen and I won’t argue it was a bad decision either, but I think the Cubs can actually get something in return. I don’t think they have to just throw the asset away. By the way, I’m pleased to see that the new front office speaks about players as assets. That’s what they are.

Considering the likelihood that Z will be traded, it’s worth trying to figure out what the Cubs could expect to get in return. We came up with about 2 WAR using an average of the three projections available. I’m comfortable ignoring his hitting for two reasons: 1) AL teams may be interested at which point that value is irrelevant and 2) in so few plate appearances the variance of his value with the bat is too huge to consider it valuable in projecting value in my opinion. This doesn’t mean it should be ignored. It shouldn’t be. He typically adds value with the bat, but in less than 70 plate appearances I’m not comfortable factoring it in.

We’ll use $4.8 million as the win value for 2012. This makes Zambrano worth $9.6 million next year. He’s owed $18 million. If the Cubs were to just trade Zambrano and get absolutely nothing in return a fair trade would be Zambrano plus $8.4 million. The Cubs could then use their $9.6 million in savings and add back the two wins they traded away.

Zambrano comes with enough problems that it’s unlikely any team would be willing to pay $9.6 million for Zambrano. We can’t be sure what they’d be willing to pay for, but I’m going to guess that no team will want to pay more than $4.8 million (1 win). I’m also guessing that gets the Cubs a decent prospect in return. It won’t be a top prospect, but I could see a B-/C+ prospect in return for Zambrano and $13.2 million.

That prospect might be worth somewhere between $2 million and $4 million. We’ll use $3 million. So the Cubs trade away Zambrano plus $13.2 million and save $4.8 million. They also get $3 million a prospect. That’s a total value in return of $7.8 million, which is just under the $8.4 million we had if it was a fair trade. The Cubs have $4.8 million in savings to buy back a win they lost and young talent to add to the minor leagues.

This seems more than fair to me. The team trading for Zambrano gets 1 win for free if all works out while the Cubs clean up their clubhouse, save enough that they lose only 1 win at the MLB level and add depth in the minor leagues. If the Cubs could pull off this type of deal I’d be pretty happy. Even small market teams can afford the $4.8 million for Z next season.