Almost one year ago exactly, the Arizona Diamondbacks made what will inevitably go down in MLB history as one of the worst trades ever. They sent top-100 prospects Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair plus major league CF Ender Inciarte to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Shelby Miller. It was a bad trade in 2015, and it's an even worse trade following a 2016 season that saw Miller demoted to the minors while Swanson and Inciarte excelled in Atlanta.
Today, the Boston Red Sox made an eerily similar trade (in terms of value), sending top-100 prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech plus two other prospects (Luis Basabe and Victor Diaz) to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for consensus top-5 pitcher Chris Sale.
Let's review some quantifiable data to see just how similar these trades were:
During the 2015 Winter Meetings, where the Braves-DBacks trade happened, Arizona's Dansby Swanson was MLB's #10 overall prospect and Aaron Blair was MLB's #61 overall prospect. Ender Inciarte had just finished his second full season and put up a very solid 3.3 WAR as the DBacks' full time CF. *Note that Yoan Moncada was #8 overall at the time, and Michael Kopech was unranked
This year, at the time of the 2016 Winter Meetings, Yoan Moncada is the #1 overall prospect, Michael Kopech is the #30 overall prospect, while Basabe and Diaz are both outside the top 100. No proven major league talent was included. *Note that Dansby Swanson is currently the #4 overall prospect while Aaron Blair is unranked and Ender Inciarte improved to 3.6 WAR in 2016.
Arizona gave up the #10 overall prospect (Swanson) and #61 overall prospect (Aaron Blair) plus an established major league CF who put up 3.3 WAR in 2015. (prospect rankings are end of 2015, Moncada was #8 overall)
Boston gave up the #1 overall prospect (Yoan Moncada) and #30 overall prospect (Michael Kopech) plus two prospects outside the top 100. (prospect rankings are end of season 2016, Swanson was #4 overall)
There will be dozens, if not hundreds of articles written in the coming weeks analyzing the return that the White Sox got for Chris Sale. Writers will argue whether the Red Sox underpaid or overpaid or whether the White Sox got a steal or got robbed. That's not the purpose of this article. I want to highlight how the two trades I've talked about above are connected.
In the past week, conversation about the possibility of Chris Sale being traded was dominated by comparisons to the Shelby Miller deal last winter. Journalists and fans compared every proposed package for Sale to the haul that Atlanta received a year ago. It's strange in a way, because a year ago Shelby Miller was regarded as a solid #2 starter at his peak, while Chris Sale is a proven ace who has been one of the five best pitchers in baseball for the past several years. Based on that alone, why would anyone think that these two deals would be comparable?
The reason is actually pretty simple, and is something that Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs wrote about last winter: The response to that trade was immediate, and the consensus was always that the Diamondbacks paid too much. So for an entire calendar year, there has been this perception growing among fans and baseball writers that the Shelby Miller trade has affected the MLB trade market because no GM wants to be the guy who makes the next Shelby Miller trade.
If we go back in time a little and look at past trades for pitchers who were considered "aces" at the time, the picture gets a little clearer:
1998: Mariners trade Randy Johnson to the Astros for Freddy Garcia, John Halama, and Carlos Guillen. At the time, Garcia was the #68 overall prospect, Guillen was the #87 prospect (#27 a year earlier), and Halama was unranked, but had gone 13-3 with a 2.38 ERA, 126 Ks, and a 1.06 WHIP in 171 IP in the minors the previous year.
2009: Indians trade Cliff Lee to the Phillies for Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, Lou Marson, and Jason Donald. At the time, Carrasco was #52 overall, Marson was #66 overall, Donald was #69 overall, and Knapp was unranked (he would be #64 overall the next year).
2014: Rays trade David Price to the Tigers for Drew Smyly, Willy Adames, and Nick Franklin*. At the time, Franklin was #77 overall, Smyly was #82 overall, and Adames was #84 overall. *Franklin was acquired from Seattle, part of a 3 team trade that sent Austin Jackson to the Mariners
In the last 20 years, the price for an ace pitcher with multiple years of team control remaining has remained remarkably consistent as evidenced by the highlighted trades above. So then we can look back at the Miller and Sale trades and make a definitive conclusion: The Diamondbacks and Red Sox both paid the market price for an ace. Boston actually got one, while Arizona got Shelby Miller instead. And contrary to those who say the Shelby Miller trade changed the trade market or affected other MLB GMs at all, I believe it's pretty apparent that the only thing that's changed about the market is how fans and journalists view it from the outside.
Above all, I think it's fair to say that the Major League Baseball teams are able to value their players and prospects more accurately than we can as fans. The Diamondbacks just made us doubt that for about 364 days.