Oh, young love.
San Diegans are aflutter with excitement over their new rotation. And why shouldn’t they be? Padres GM A.J. Preller acquires starting pitchers like the rest of us change pants – which is to say, once or twice a week. Mike Clevinger, Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove – and there’s plenty of time before opening day to add more. The Friars have an all-world superstar in Fernando Tatis Jr., an all-world nemesis in the Dodgers, they’ve had an all-world offseason, and they now have all the world’s pitchers. The Mercy Rule is in effect, and we’re calling this one early: the Padres won the winter.
Winning the offseason is like being a top-ranked prospect. Huge impact on narrative, but only a small part of the calculus needed to actually win a World Series. Still, the narrative matters.
The former is an ace, fresh off a zeitgeist moment: he put the World Champion Dodgers on notice, had them shaking in their boots; he’s a Cy Young winner and largely considered one of the best pitchers in the game.
The latter threw 10 total innings in 2020. He throws 90 mph heaters. He was the Cubs’ No. 4 starter before signing on to be the Angels No. 3. He’s probably best known for delivering Eloy Jimenez to the White Sox.
In retrospect, the day the White Sox traded Quintana to the Cubs is the day the two franchises started turning to what they are today: for the White Sox, contenders, and for the Cubs, something less than. That acquiring Quintana might someday mark the beginning of the end for the 2010’s Cubs is somewhat mind-boggling. Though it’s important to note: the change in fortunes didn’t happen overnight.
So what does Snell have to do with Quintana? That’s the bad news for Padres fans.
Not to get all Jacob Marley on y’all, but in a sort of reverse Christmas Carol—there are ghosts here that might make you feel a little more miserly about the Snell trade. I’m not here to burst anyone’s bubble, but I do offer a word of warning: we’ve seen this trade before.
Ghosts Of Trade Value Past
Let’s go back to July of 2017. The Cubs then—like the Padres now—were pressing to keep pace with the Dodgers atop the National League. They were in second place, trailing the Brewers in the Central by 5.5 games. So they swung a deal, sending four prospects to the White Sox for Quintana.
The Quintana we know today generated exactly zero buzz before signing a one-year, $8MM deal to pitch for Joe Maddon in Los Angeles. He’s a mid-to-back-end starter with a placid demeanor. Most damning: He didn’t move the needle for the Cubs.
But at the time, Jeff Sullivan from Fangraphs wrote this:
“…what is José Quintana, exactly? Over the past three years, he ranks seventh among all pitchers in WAR. Over the past two years, he ranks ninth among all pitchers in WAR. In the rest-of-season projections, he again ranks ninth among all pitchers in WAR. Quintana’s plenty good.”
By those same measures, Snell ranks 25th by WAR over the past three years. He ranks 55th by WAR over the past two years. He ranks 35th in projected WAR by ZiPS for 2021. Yikes.
Of course, WAR isn’t everything. Let’s look at a more complete side-by-side breakdown of their numbers at the time of the deal.
Not only does Quintana stack up with Snell at the time of these deals, but he’s arguably the better pitcher.
Certainly, the volume favors Quintana, who stayed healthy for five and a half seasons with the White Sox. The era also allowed Quintana to work deeper into games. Snell, by contrast, made 30 starts or logged at least 175 innings in a season only once. There’s an argument to be made that you’d rather have Snell and his injury history than Quintana with the workload of four consecutive 200-inning seasons – but it’s not one that holds much water.
Snell’s stuff is amazing. Better than Quintana’s ever was, and the current baseball landscape obsesses over projected performance. But there’s something to be said for performance. Where Snell shines with strikeout-stuff, Quintana makes up the difference in command. I know that the idea of acquiring Quintana right now is not nearly as exciting as getting Snell – but they’re the same guy.
Stuff goes to Snell, but production goes to Quintana.
Overall Talent Metrics: Push
There are other ways that we measure player value beyond pure performance. We always have to factor in an asset’s place in the market. We do that by looking at team control, player age, and their contract.
When the Cubs acquired Quintana on July 13, 2017, Quintana was 28-years-old, nearing the end of the typical prime for starting pitchers. He would turn 29 in January before the start of his first full season with the Cubs. Chicago had acquired control for the rest of 2017 and the three years beyond (2018 to 2020). Those three full seasons would cost $8.85MM, $10.5MM, and $11MM.
The Padres acquired Snell when he was… 28-years-old. He will be 28 for the entirety of 2021, so you could argue the Padres have Snell for a year earlier in his overall development than the Cubs had Quintana, though since the Cubs also had him for those few months in 2017, the difference is negligible. In terms of the contract, the Padres have Snell under contract for three years at $11.1MM, $13.1MM, and $16.6MM.
|$8.85MM||Contract Year 1
(2018 vs 2021)
|$10.5MM||Contract Year 2
(2019 vs 2022)
|$11.0MM||Contract Year 3
(2020 vs 2023)
*Includes $3.8MM, prorated portion of $7MM contract in 2017.
Snell ultimately costs more, but there’s inflation to consider, which is important because the league moves quickly. 2017 already feels like a different era than 2021. So to truly measure the value of the contacts, let’s see how they stack up in the context of their respective markets.
Since the Cubs had an extra half-season of Quintana, let’s stack Snell’s 2020 next to Quintana’s 2017 so that the three years of each extension can sit side-by-side.
|t-55th||Contract Year 0
(2017 vs 2020)
|42nd||Contract Year 1
(2018 vs 2021)
|33rd||Contract Year 2
(2019 vs 2022)
|39th||Contract Year 3
(2020 vs 2023)
*2021, includes salary projections for unsigned free agents using spotrac’s market values calculator.
**includes estimates for projected free agents
The further into the future we get, the more inexact is this science. What we can say is that their deals line up remarkably well in terms of their place in the marketplace. Snell’s contract gets a touch more expensive in the final year, but the Cubs got an extra half year from Quintana, so they’re probably paying close to the same amount both in actual dollars and in dollars relative to the market.
Snell will be a year younger when he starts his three-year deal, but the Cubs had Quintana for half a season longer for a touch cheaper.
Overall Value Metrics: Push
Ghosts Of Trade Value Present
There’s still the issue of the trade returns.
The Cubs gave up a monster return for Quintana. We still talk about it regularly to this day. Did the Padres give up nearly that much capital?
First thing is this: we can’t conflate the packages the Padres sent the Cubs and Pirates for the one they sent the Rays. The return the Padres gave up seemed light at first, and overall it feels like the Padres barely gave up anything to add four starters in half a year. But that perception is more about the prospects the Padres kept than about the ones they gave up.
Since the initial knee-jerk reaction, there’s been a growing appreciation for the package heading to Tampa. But let’s start with what the Cubs gave up for Quintana.
To get Quintana, the Cubs gave up (prospect rankings from Baseball America):
- LF Eloy Jimenez, Cubs’ No. 1 prospect (2017), No. 14 overall (2017), No. 4 overall (2018)
- SP Dylan Cease, Cubs’ No. 4 prospect (2017), No. 97 overall (2017), No. 38 overall (2019)
- 1B Matt Rose, unranked, No. 274 prospect in 2015 draft, 11th round draft pick
- 3B Bryant Flete, unranked
At the time, as now, the Cubs were generally considered to have given up a pretty sizable haul for Quintana. Of course, Rose and Flete never panned out. The jury is still out on Cease and Jimenez, though we can be reasonably certain that they will carve out Major League careers.
So what did the Padres give up to get Snell?
- SP Luis Patino, Padres’ No. 2 prospect (midseason 2020), No. 18 overall (2020), No. 23 (2021)
- C Francisco Mejia, Padres No. 4 prospect (2019), No. 32 overall (2019)
- P Cole Wilcox, Padres No. 12 prospect (midseason 2020)
- C Blake Hunt, Padres No. 20 prospect (midseason 2020)
The reputation of these deals presupposes that the Cubs gave up star players, and the Padres got away with a quantity return. But there’s one little wrinkle: the timeline.
The minute we see a prospect in the pros, they lose value in the public sphere—but that’s largely a failure of perception. Prospects loom large on the prospect page. They’re stars on the prospect page. Often, when they’re first called up, they look like rookies.
When the White Sox acquired Jimenez and Cease, they were pure prospects. Patiño and Mejia have been exposed to Show already. Tainted by actual performance. But that’s not necessarily how the Rays see it.
To better compare, let’s take a snapshot of the present for Patiño and Mejia. Then let’s look at Cease and Jimenez after a similar workload in the Majors. First, the pitchers:
Patino: 5.19 ERA, 17 1/3 innings, 24.7 percent strikeout rate, 16.5 percent walk rate
Cease: 6.19 ERA, 16 innings, 23.6 percent strikeout rate, 13.9 percent walk rate
Whether Padres fans take that as encouraging or discouraging, I have no idea. The point is, prospect values are much broader than we usually assume. It comes down to organizational preference. So you can like Cease more, but he’s in the same ballpark as Patiño in terms of in-a-vacuum trade value.
Let’s look at the top two bats in the deals. Mejia’s been traded twice, and he’s no longer a prospect with 362 career plate appearances. The sheen is gone. But let’s look at his numbers side-by-side with Jimenez’s at a similar stage.
Mejia: 128 games, 362 PA, .225/.282/.386, 12 HR, 24.0 percent strikeout rate, 5.5 percent walk rate
Jimenez: 89 games, 360 PA, .243/.294/.477, 22 HR, 26.9 percent strikeout rate, 6.4 percent walk rate
We’d take Jimenez there because of the power, but he benefited from regular playing time. Even still, Mejia’s not far behind. Mejia is also a catcher who could provide defensive value, while Jimenez is all but guaranteed to be a DH. It’s much closer than their reputations.
In all, take their status as prospects, their numbers from this earliest portions of their careers, and the potential defensive value that Mejia brings as a catcher—Patiño/Mejia package on their own is more appealing than Jimenez/Cease.
Besides, the Rays may get some value from Wilcox and Hunt as well. Wilcox was a first-round talent who went in the third round because of his signing ask. By trading for him here, the Rays bypassed having to pay that bonus. Count him as a first-round pick. Hunt has value as well, though we’ll see what becomes of him. Rose and Flete had more value at the time of the trade than they have now, but not nearly as much as Wilcox and Hunt. Remember, in this case, we like the guy who cost less to get. That’s Quintana.
Trade Returns Metrics: Edge to Quintana
Ghosts Of Christmas Yet To Come
Public opinion for trades like these usually steers towards the “win-now” side in the present. But Cubs fans can tell you, nothing is guaranteed. While the Cubs deal for Quintana doesn’t look so hot today, assess the overall talent, value, and trade returns at the time, and the Cubs deal for Quintana was better than the Padres deal for Snell. Ultimately, the difference was that the Rays got more for their ace than the White Sox did for theirs. That presents a much scarier version of the future to consider for the Padres.
But the Padres won’t care if Snell continues to be the pitcher he was when healthy in Tampa. Quintana regressed, not by a whole lot, but enough to make a difference.
Snell isn’t destined to age as Quintana did. But he might. See, Preller isn’t being gaudy by trading for Darvish and Musgrove as well as Snell—he’s being realistic. That’s what it takes to win.