Revisiting the proposed John Danks for Jose Lopez swap

Danks is not that much more valuable than Lopez. Sorry, he’s just not. - Dave Cameron, U.S.S. Mariner, 10/20/09.

Cameron, of that Seattle Mariners blog and Fangraphs, forever endeared himself to White Sox fans - and etched his name into the SSS Ring of Ire - with that assertion.

First, let me set the stage for this episode of "When Rosterbation Goes Wrong". It was October 2009 and Cameron was writing his "Dave's 2010 Off-Season Plan" for the Mariners. His team had just completed a surprising 85-77 season. Of course, there were many who questioned whether that reflected the true talent of that team - to use one simple measure, their Pythagorean record was 75-87.

The White Sox were coming off a 79-83 season and that probably was an accurate representation of the team. Chris Getz and Josh Fields had not yet been traded. Gordon Beckham was still presumed to be the likely third baseman. The 2010 starting rotation was presumed to include Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd and John Danks. The fifth spot was somewhat open, with Freddy Garcia and Daniel Hudson the two primary candidates.

Now the proposed trade: John Danks for 3B/2B Jose Lopez, reliever Mark Lowe and starter Jason Vargas. While you stifle your laughter, after the jump is Cameron's rationale.

Despite his age, Lopez is simply not the kind of player the M’s want to build around for the future, and his value will be maximized in another city. His best skill, power to left field, is in direct conflict with the way Safeco plays. The M’s will get less value from Lopez than just about every other team in baseball, so moving him to an environment that doesn’t clash with his skills is an efficiency maximization decision.

Danks gives the team an above average starter to slot behind Felix, but also helps build for the future at the same time. Heading into his age-25 season, he’s already arbitration eligible, which is why the White Sox would be willing to move him in the first place. As a left-handed starter with a bit of a home run problem, Safeco would be perfect for his continued development, so both main pieces of the deal would find a better fit in the confines of their new home.

So Cameron thinks this would be a mutually beneficial deal. One of our well-read commenters posted a link to this on SSS, with the subject line of "U.S.S. Mariner wants John Danks". My reaction was to "fix" that subject line:

U.S.S. Mariner wants Jack Zduriencik to come to Chicago, break into U.S. Cellular Field, beat Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn into bloody submission, rape their staff, and pillage John Danks.

So I guess you could say I was less than impressed with the idea. And I wasn't the only one. And we took our distaste to the comments section at U.S.S. Mariner. The first salvo came from "snapper":

Lopez, Lowe and Vargas for Danks!? Really Dave? Did you leave out the part where you kidnap Kenny Williams kids first?

I would think the odds of Chi trading a 24 yr. old SP coming off 2 195+ IP seasons with a career 115 ERA+ (I know his FIP is higher) who’s under team control for 4 more years [sic], for an average 2B, a RP with 1 good season, and a replacement level SP are zero.

Cameron responded with, in pertinent part:

...you’re also just not valuing the players correctly.

Lopez is a +2.0 to +2.5 win player under contract for the next two years for $2.3 and $4.5 million, making him a net asset worth around $15 million.

Danks is a +3.0 to +3.5 win pitcher who has three arbitration years remaining before free agency. If we estimate his salaries at $3 million, $7 million, and $15 million over those three seasons, the White Sox will pay $25 million for a ~$45 million player, making him a $20 million asset.

The gap just isn’t that huge. Lowe’s got value around the league as a future closer thanks to his velocity, and the efficiencies gained by filling a hole with a place they have some depth off-sets the difference between Lopez and Danks.

Don’t analyze by labels. Look at the numbers.

So now that we actually get a look at Cameron's analysis of the players involved, it becomes painfully clear that he's the one "just not valuing the players correctly".

As I pointed out to him in my comment on his site, $15 million in Danks' third season of arbitration would be far and away an arbitration record. I put the likely figure at $10 million. So even using his projection of player value, that cost gap is becoming quite huge.

In addition, as Jim pointed out in his comment, Lopez, while a decent player, probably wasn't much of an upgrade at second base for the White Sox, where it was presumed he would play. Jim posited that a Getz/Jayson Nix platoon could provide about as much as Lopez would.

I called the other players, Lowe and Vargas, "underwhelming". Cameron doesn't even mention Vargas - and with good reason. He was essentially a replacement level starter and no one projected him to be anything more than that. Lowe, on the other hand, Cameron seems to think was a future closer. (I still don't know what to make of his amorphous "efficiencies gained" argument.)

Cameron ignored the comments made by Jim and myself, and continued to focus his banter on snapper. After a bit more back and forth, Cameron typed the infamous line.

So, now with the benefit of two seasons of hindsight, who had the better argument?

Star-divide

Danks, of course, put up a couple above average seasons. According to bWAR, 2010 was 4.8 bWAR and 2011 was 2.2 bWAR. Fangraphs, on the other hand, had it at 4.3 and 3.2 fWAR, respectively. It's safe to say he was a 7.0-7.5 WAR pitcher. Cameron's salary estimates for those two seasons were pretty good. He agreed to contracts of $3.45M and $6M. The value of a win, according to Fangraphs, was $4M in 2010 and just under $4.5M in 2011. So the White Sox got something like $31 million in value from Danks but paid him $9.45M for it, making the surplus value he provided about $21.5 million.

Of course, where things went off the rails in Cameron's analysis was right where I predicted: Danks obviously wasn't going to get anything near $15M in arbitration for the 2012 season. MLB Trade Rumors put the estimate at $7.6M. Considering his recent contract extension, we'll never know what he would have gotten but their model has proven to be quite accurate. In any event, a reasonable and conservative projection is that Danks will be worth 3 WAR in 2012. With the estimate of a value of a win being $4.5M in 2012 and Danks' salary at $8.5M, he'd be projected to provide the White Sox a further $5M in surplus value.

Lopez became a crappier player than anyone could have expected. He was essentially replacement level: a total of 0 bWAR and 0.2 fWAR in the two seasons. He was traded by Seattle to the Rockies prior the 2011 season for a minor leaguer; the Rockies released him mid-season and he finished up with the Marlins.

Lopez was paid $2.3M in 2010, his 2011 option was not picked up ($0.25M buyout) and he avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $3.6M contract. So he got $6.15M for that replacement level performance, making him not the $15 million asset Cameron predicted but a negative $6M liability - a rather huge gap of more than $20M in estimated versus actual value.

Lowe didn't become a closer. He continued to be the injury-prone live arm that he always was and totaled -0.2 bWAR and 0.3 fWAR in the two seasons - so another replacement level performer. He was sent to the Rangers in 2010 as part of the Cliff Lee trade. He was paid $1.15M and $1.2M, respectively. He is still under team control for one more season. We'll call this one a wash in terms of value.

Vargas is the interesting case. No one paid him much attention during this debate. But he put up a 2.3 bWAR / 2.6 fWAR 2010 season and then a 1.6 bWAR / 2.4 fWAR 2011 season. He was paid $400K in 2010 and, in his first arbitration season, $2.45M in 2011. Estimating his value at 4.5 WAR, he provided $19M in value but was paid $3M - so surplus value of $16M. He's under team control for two more seasons.

A reasonable projection is that Vargas will be worth 4.5 WAR in 2012-13. MLB Trade Rumors estimates his 2012 salary to be $4.8M. Let's project $7M for 2013. Thus, he'd be projected to provide a further $9.5M in surplus value.

Star-divide

To recap, the White Sox got $21.5M in surplus value from Danks; he'd have been projected to provide another $5M in 2012.

The players proposed to be sent to the White Sox had $10M in surplus value, with a projection of another $9.5 million.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, it still would have been a bad deal for the White Sox. But not for the expected reasons, at least on the Mariners side. Danks performed about how we expected him to perform (though better than Cameron thought). Lowe was indeed useless. Lopez surprisingly collapsed. However, Vargas ended up being a decent pitcher.

The epilogue to all of this is that Danks just signed a reported 5 year, $65 million contract. Lopez just signed a minor league contract with the Indians. A little more than two years later, Danks is that much more valuable than Lopez. He just is.

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