Marginal Benefit In The Offseason

The Padres are maniacs and I absolutely love it. Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack… it is like they have gone wild on The Show’s franchise mode. How they managed these blockbusters without dealing their top prospects is worth its own conversation, but today I want to discuss the idea of marginal benefit.

In economics marginal benefit is the value of one additional unit. Applied to baseball, this is how many extra wins a given player will provide. In this calculation, context is VERY important. Trevor Bauer will be valuable to any team that acquires him, but adding him to the already loaded Padres rotation may no longer make sense.

As Jeff Passan has pointed out, the recent trades leave little room in the next two years for the Padres plentiful pitching prospects. Baseball is a game of attrition and depth always helps, but at what point does it make sense to reallocate resources to weaker positions?

Fangraphs projects Bauer for about four Wins Above Replacement (WAR), but that is not quite how real teams evaluate their needs. In reality, there are more variables to be taken into account. For example, as ex-BaseballCloud writer Wyatt Kleinberg analyzed, high velocity, low spin fastballs are the least susceptible to the hitter friendly effects of Colorado. With the Rockies playing half their games at Coors Field, those are the types of pitchers they need to target. Conditions are key in getting the best bang for your buck. Each team should know their conditions and how that affects the type of talent they should be pursuing.

That is one key reason the Padres made sure to acquire Victor Caratini when trading for Yu Darvish. Over the past few years, he has become Yu Darvish’s personal catcher and for good reason. With Caratini behind the dish, Darvish sported a lower ERA and higher K:BB ratio than with any other catcher. San Diego got the battery to ensure their new ace is in the best position to succeed.

Optimal conditions get the best out of players, but another key to a player’s marginal benefit is their replacement. WAR assumes each team and position has the same replacement level, but this is not always true. Manipulating these inequalities is how teams gain additional value. I already discussed this with regard to Trevor Bauer and the Padres’ rotation, but let us take this exercise one step further.

The Padres sign Trevor Bauer and they cruise to a NL West title and playoff berth. With few injuries and top prospects like Ryan Weathers and MacKenzie Gore looking MLB-ready, Jayce Tingler has some hard decisions to make. The playoffs effectively force a four man rotation. This means Paddack and the prospects have to be uncomfortably jammed into the bullpen. Considering how teams like the 2019 Nationals have had a few pitchers carry most of the playoff load, it would be a waste. Instead of replacing Paddack with Bauer in the playoff rotation, what if San Diego opted to use those resources into an elite bullpen piece or another powerful bat?

Nothing I’m saying here is all two groundbreaking, but it does provide an interesting lens on the chess game being played this offseason. Through these differences in marginal benefit, teams can design true win-win trades. Trevor Bauer may be worth four wins to most teams, but to the right team he can be worth 5+ wins and a World Series. Keep a keen eye out for how teams reshuffle their assets before opening day. It might be the difference between winning it all and coming up short.

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