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Analyzing Matt Silverman's trade record

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He's tried to reload without rebuilding. Has it worked?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Silverman’s official biography on the Rays web site reads:

Since shifting from team president to president of baseball operations in October 2014, Matt Silverman has successfully fortified the franchise's minor league system and kept the small market Rays competitive in the American League East—a division boasting a major league-most four teams with $100 million payrolls.  In his first 15 months in the new role (President, Baseball Operations), Silverman engineered 16 trades involving a total of 51 players; signed 17 of 18 arbitration-eligible players prior to the deadline; and hired manager Kevin Cash . . .

Silverman didn’t start quietly. In his first two months he traded several players acquired by his much-lauded predecessor, Andrew Friedman. They included potential future stars Wil Myers and Jeremy Hellickson, and fan favorite and all-star Ben Zobrist. Silverman probably surprised the marketing department, who had stocked up on so many Myers and Hellickson jerseys that they are still on clearance at Tropicana Field.

Neither Silverman nor principal owner Stu Sternberg said that the trades were made to rebuild. Instead, the Rays have maintained over and over that they expected to contend, and that all deals are made with an eye both on the present and on the future.

Therefore, I’m not going to evaluate the trades according to total surplus value over the life of the contracts of all the pieces. I want to look at how these trades have affected the major league team so far. Has "the eye on the present" been effective?

The Data

For this article I reviewed every trade made since Silverman started. I used fWAR, added up the WAR traded players earned since leaving Tampa Bay, and how much WAR the Rays received from players they obtained, through Sunday, August 14. For traded players I only included WAR for years they would have been under Rays control. For example, I included Ben Zobrist’s WAR from 2015, when he was playing out the last year of his Rays contract, but not this year, when he signed a free agent contract. I didn’t include John Jaso, since he left as a free agent. I zeroed out WAR for the players traded at this last August 1 trade deadline, because two weeks is not enough of a sample size. We may want to look at this again at the end of the year.

Here’s a chart of the players the Rays traded and receive, sorted by WAR earned.

Player Traded fWAR Earned Player Received fWAR Earned
Wil Myers 5 Erasmo Ramirez 2.1
Yunel escobar 2.1 Steven Souza, Jr. 2.1
Ben Zobrist 2.1 Brad Miller 1.7
Nate Karns 1.2 Kevin Jepsen 1
Adam Liberatore 1.2 John Jaso 0.7
Mike Montgomery 1.1 Rene Rivera 0.5
Jeremy Hellickson 0.8 Corey Dickerson 0.5
sean rodriguez 0.7 Juan Dominguez 0.1
Kirby Yates 0.3 Oswaldo Arcia 0
Ryan Hanigan 0.2 Matt Duffy 0
Brandon Guyer 0 Logan Morrison -0.1
Matt Moore 0 Danny Farquhar -0.3
Steve Pearce 0 Hank Conger -0.4
Jake McGee 0
Kevin Jepsen -0.1 Total 7.9
Cesar Ramos -0.1
Joel Peralta -0.3
David Dejesus -0.3
Matt Joyce -1.4
Total 13.9

Since October 2014 the Rays gave up six more WAR than they received in trades. Players traded by the Rays racked up 13.9 WAR while the players they received only earned 7.9 WAR. This is equivalent to losing one all-star season or two quality starter season (generally players that earn 5+ WAR are considered all-stars). There are very few teams that can give up an all-star and keep winning.

Wil Myers, who would have remained under Rays control had he stayed, leads all traded players with 5 WAR. Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist had good years in 2015, and each earned 2.1 WAR. Silverman gets a break with Matt Joyce, who had a disastrous year in 2015 with -1.4 WAR, but has bounced back after signing a free agent deal with the Pirates. Nate Karns, Adam Liberatore, and Mike Montgomery lead the traded pitchers.

On the Rays side, Erasmo Ramirez and Steven Souza provided the most value, with 2.1 WAR over the past two years. Brad Miller, despite his power surge this year, has only earned 1.7 WAR, mostly because he hasn't fielded like a shortstop. Hank Conger, a trade for cash, had a negative impact with -0.4 WAR—less than replacement level. That’s one of the reasons he’s now working on his game at Durham.

Logan Morrison came to the Rays as part of the Brad Miller trade, and thus far has earned only a -0.1 WAR. Acquiring Morrison led the Rays to release James Loney, who’s now hitting .275 with a .320 OBP and 6 homers in 64 games for the playoff contending Mets. But according to fWAR the Rays haven’t lost much. Loney’s WAR is the same as LoMo’s -0.1. Chances are, having Loney at first instead of LoMo would not have made a difference in the Rays record.

Is This A Good Way To Evaluate Trades?

Perhaps we shouldn’t judge these trades only by major league WAR.

Some of the players acquired, particularly Erasmo Ramirez, Steven Souza Jr., Brad Miller, Corey Dickerson, and Matt Duffy are under team control for years to come, and the Rays hope they will help even the ledger before they finish out their contracts (or are traded themselves).

And Silverman did add some highly valued prospects through these trades, such as shortstop Daniel Robertson, outfielder Andrew Velasquez, first baseman Jake Bauers, pitcher Chei Wei Hu, and the New York Penn League All Star Game starter, Travis Ott. None of those players were projected to help the Rays in 2016, and it's very possible that once all of the trade trees are closed, the Rays will have accumulated enough WAR for someone to claim that they "won" the trades.

Even so, if you had said in the spring that Evan Longoria was guaranteed to have one of his best seasons, I would have thought the pennant was a lock. Yet it didn’t happen, and a fan has to ask why.

Conclusion

Perhaps the poor team performance this season has more to do with bad luck than with bad judgement. The most disappointing performances came from the pitching staff (most of whom, such as Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi, were acquired under Andrew Friedman’s regime). The Rays thought they were opening the season with the best young starting staff in baseball. They still may be that, but they often didn’t pitch like it.

One thing these trades did accomplish was to lower the Rays payroll relative to the league. The Rays now have the lowest payroll in the majors. Hypothetically, that could enable Silverman to fill holes in the offseason with valuable free agents, but chances are they won't be the big names (Rays are relatively poor, news at 11:00). If the young major leaguers perform well, if the prospects Silverman acquired can make a contribution in 2017, and if additional trades provide a more even exchange of value, the Rays could come roaring back into contention next year.

Judging by immediate value, though it appears that the Rays have been on the wrong end of most of the trades of the Silverman era. So far, the Rays have not been able to "reload without rebuilding." To be successful in the long term, the Rays will either need to execute that strategy better or adopt a new strategy.