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Kicking the tires on trading Nathan Karns for Yasiel Puig

A trade like this is actually more likely than it sounds.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In this odd trading deadline, where the Rays have already sold (David DeJesus), but could still turn into buyers, there's not much we can be sure of. They're far enough back in the AL East that winning the division race is unlikely, but despite being below .500, they're only two and a half games back from the second wild card. Making the playoffs is a giant bump in revenue for a team, so if the Rays can give themselves just a little bit more of a chance, the possible returns are worthwhile.

About the only thing we can say for certain is that Matt Silverman is surely not going to pull a trade similar to what the Toronto Blue Jays have just done in trading for David Price, because giving up a ton of future value for a one-year rental just isn't the Rays way.

So, if we know that any trades won't be on the normal deadline buyer-seller model, what will they look like? We have one clue already in the rumor that the Rays are listening to offers for rookie starter Nathan Karns.

Karns is old for a rookie, but he's having a fantastic season in his debut as a full-time major leaguer. So far he's pitched 115 innings of 3.37 ERA baseball, and his peripherals only lag slightly behind that strong ERA. His fastball and his curve are both plus pitches (the curve is legit plus-plus), and he's developed his changeup and command to good effect as this season has worn on. All of this is to say that with five more years of team control, he's the type of player teams hang on to and build around, rather than trade at the deadline .

But if the Rays are open to trading him (maybe they think this is his peak and that his value will never be higher, and perhaps they trust the pitching depth behind him in the minors and coming back from the disabled list), what would they trade him for?

Yesterday, there was some chatter on twitter about the Rays trying to acquire Yasiel Puig from the Dodgers. When Eric Sachs, a producer for 620 WDAE tweeted the following, I laughed out of hand, until I thought about it some more and realized it's not as crazy an idea as it sounds.

I went ahead and ran the surplus value numbers for both players using the same method that Jason Hanselman outlined on his site, Dock of the Rays.

Karns is pitching in his rookie year, so he'll be under team control until 2020. Puig can opt into arbitration, but if he does not, his contract will slowly escalate to where he's paid $7.5 million in 2018. Both of these players are very affordable, even for small-market teams like the Rays, so throw out any concerns about not being able to sustain their salaries. This trade would be about value.

If we assume that Karns is pitching at his true talent now, he could very easily be a three-WAR pitcher next season. Starting him there and knocking off half a win per season due to decline and injury risk yields a surplus value of $60 million.

Puig is a little bit more difficult to figure. In 2013 he was a four-WAR player in limited playing time. Last year he was a five-WAR player. But he's having a relatively poor season right now, in which he's on track to finish at around three wins above replacement. He's only 24, so I don't expect rapid decline, and he may actually improve, so let's run the numbers a few different ways.

If Puig is a 4.5 WAR player next season: $75 million surplus value.

If Puig is a 4.0 WAR player next season: $64 million surplus value.

If Puig is a 3.5 WAR player next season: $54 million surplus value.

These calculations are high-quality, thoughtful napkin math, but they're still just napkin math. Take them as estimates. The point is that depending on what you think of both Karns and Puig, they're in the same general territory as far as surplus value goes, and they'd make a reasonable starting point for discussing a trade.


This trade is not going to happen. For one, money isn't the only scarce resource in baseball, and it's a lot less scarce for Andrew Friedman in Los Angeles than it is for Matt Silverman in Tampa Bay. The goal of baseball is actually to win games, and Puig is a better player than Karns, so the Dodgers will have little interest in letting him go.

Moreover Puig is one of the most popular players in the game right now, and as such he creates revenue beyond the games he helps his team win.

So don't get your hopes up about this particular trade, but the concept is sound. If the Rays make a big move today, it will be a trade like this. They will send one good cheap player away, and receive another good player with years of team control who will help them not only in 2015 but more importantly in 2016, 2017, and possibly beyond.

When teams inquire about Nathan Karns, it's perfectly reasonable for Matt Silverman to name a steep price. Players like Yasiel Puig are exactly where the conversation should start.