Obviously this is a sore subject, but it's worth a look for a couple reasons. For one, it'll stand in for a primer on how to judge trades The Sabermetric Way. Or whatever. Two, I dismissed the loss of Ryan Sweeney as a mostly replaceable bit piece and I need to apologize to him. Ryan, I'm sorry. I'm so distraught that I can't even think of a tortured metaphor involving some obscure "criminally underrated" band that's since broken up to further obfuscate my point.
So what's the big deal with Sweeney? He's hit all of .286/.341/.386 for his career as a corner outfielder, so the difference is his defense. UZR loves him while the other metrics think he's merely good, all of which I take to mean he's probably about 5 runs per 150 games better than the mean defender. Add it up and he's been an average position player. The A's haven't played him full time because of his deficiencies against LHP, not to mention the 13 outfielders on their 25 man roster.
The really critical part is his low cost. His performance is especially noteworthy since he's making $400K per season. It is the case that there are a decent number of guys floating around with Sweeney's skill set. But if you have to sign one via free agency, it would cost in the neighborhood of $6.5M. Which brings us to what saber-types refer to as surplus value, or the difference between what the same production would cost on the free market and what you actually pay him.This is why Nick Swisher required 3 prospects in return. Ideally, a GM wouldn't give up anybody talented for a guy being paid what he's worth. He'd just buy a similar talent on the market and keep his prospects. At the time of the trade, Swisher was 27 years old and at peak production. Expecting 3 wins or so for the next few years would have been reasonable. Even given the economy, that's proven to be worth $14M or so over the last 3 seasons, a cool $42 million dollars. His actual three year earnings have been $15.5M. That's a good $26M in surplus value that can go toward making the team better instead of his contract. In fact, you can lay it out in table form like so:
The end total is about 7 and a half wins in surplus value. And that's what needs to be matched to make a fair trade. Here's Ryan Sweeney, with projections for the last two arbitration years based on what he got this year ($1.4MM).
He projects to have 7 or so wins in surplus value, more or less what Swisher's contract provides.* Sweeney is definitely not as good as Swisher, but they provide about the same in surplus value. Meaning if you spent the money saved from trading Swisher for Sweeney on a free agent, you'd probably end up with the same number of wins if you had kept Swisher. When people talk about defense being the new market inefficiency (and they don't seem to do it as much these days), this is what they're talking about. Sweeney's getting something like half of what he should get in arbitration in 2011, but I'm guessing nobody talks much about UZR in arbitration hearings. So not only is he valuable pre-arb, he'll maintain much of his value into arbitration and avoid a Bobby Jenks-type possible non-tender situation.
Remember, we've completely disregarded Gio Gonzalez, he of the 3.23 ERA in 200+ IP in 2010, and the guy I most lamented losing, Fautino De Los Santos. Excluding them, this trade would be pretty much even straight up. Reality of course is far far harsher, but we've long since come to terms with that, right?
*If you adjust more accurately for age in that projection, Sweeney might end up being more valuable in surplus terms. Though Sweeney may well prove to be less healthy, which in turn will affect his defense. I figured it would more or less cancel out. I also kept salaries from '08-'11 flat and added in inflation for '12 and '13 of 10%. It's somewhat simplified, but salaries have been pretty flat for a while and I don't have a good source for what exactly happened in those seasons.