By Michael Levitt
The coronavirus pandemic caused many changes to Major League Baseball in 2020. From alternate training sites to seven-inning doubleheaders, the league was forced to change its rules slightly to account for the safety of everyone around the game. But one change that is probably flying under the radar is the difference of how players are being valued.
It would be nice to say that there is only one way to value players, but players’ values are a subjective science. Different people choose to look at different aspects of a player’s game when deciding their value. And if that did not make it hard enough, the pandemic added another variable into the equation, that being the 2020 season. The 2020 season was different for almost every player. There were players that did not play, players who were good prior to 2020 and dropped off a bit, players who broke out in 2020 but did not have much success before, and many other scenarios. Even within these groups, values can be different based on a player’s expected value in the future.
The first group to look at is those who did not play in 2020. This includes San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher David Price and Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, among others. Posey and Price both decided to opt out of the season and instead spend time with their families, while Rodriguez got coronavirus and developed a heart condition, which he recovered from during the season. Posey and Price are both on the second half of their careers, which gives them less future value than Rodriguez, who is 27 and has only pitched in five seasons in the majors. Rodriguez is also expected to be a free agent next offseason, so the 2021 season is important in solidifying his success and convincing teams to offer him a contract. His past success prior to missing the 2020 season will help in that regard as well. At 33 years old, Posey is looking to finish his career on a high note, although most of his power is gone at this point. He hurt his hip in 2018, and since then, he has not been the same player offensively that he was prior to the injury. He could bounce back in 2021, and considering he had a full year off to practice and rest his legs, it is even more likely. David Price is harder to judge since he has not pitched with the Dodgers before. He was traded from the Red Sox to the Dodgers along with superstar outfielder Mookie Betts last offseason as part of Boston’s attempt to shed salary. However, the Dodgers have said that they might use Price out of the bullpen a bit this year to ease him back into regularly pitching in a game, which would potentially help his value in both the long run and short run. If Price is good out of the bullpen, it would help his chances of making the Dodgers’ roster for the postseason in the likely event they get there. Pitching out of the bullpen would make it harder for other teams to figure out Price’s worth though, since they might not know how he would fare as a full-time starting pitcher.
The next group is players who missed most of the 2020 season due to injury but can be superstars when healthy. Some of the main names are Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Mike Soroka and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain. Strasburg only pitched five innings in 2020 before getting shut down for the season to recover from a nerve injury in his throwing hand. But in 2019, Strasburg was one of the best pitchers in baseball and won World Series Most Valuable Player award along with being named co-winner of the Postseason Most Valuable Player award. Assuming the nerve issue is back to normal, Strasburg should be able to regain his past success and return to his place as co-ace of the Nationals, which increases his value and makes his $35 million salary for 2021 palatable. Soroka and Cain both might miss the beginning of the season; Soroka is still recovering from a torn Achilles and Cain has a quad injury that will not go away. Cain’s place as the Brewers’ starting center fielder was complicated by the signing of Jackie Bradley Jr., but he should have a starting job when he’s healthy again. Bradley Jr. joining the Brewers decreases Cain’s value since they now have four starting-caliber outfielders and two great defensive center fielders among those four. Soroka is just one of Atlanta’s young pitchers, but he has arguably had the most success of any of those young pitchers except for Max Fried. He was dominant when on the mound in 2019 and has the talent to get back to that form. He should also have a guaranteed spot in the Braves’ rotation, so the only thing standing in his way is the pesky Achilles injury. Soroka’s future value is arguably one of the highest in all of baseball, and given his past success, it would take a huge package for another team to take him away from the Braves.
A final group to focus on is those who regressed in 2020 after having a standout season in 2019 and possibly before that as well. Players in this group include Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer and St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado. All three of these names are among the best in baseball at their positions despite falling off in 2020, but they all should bounce back in 2021 with a full season and spring training. Yelich started to rebound at the end of the 2020 season after struggling throughout the first two-thirds. He ultimately ended up with a decent .356 on-base percentage and .430 slugging percentage, although his batting average of .205 was subpar. However, his value is still very high since he won the Most Valuable Player award in 2018 and finished second in 2019. And even though the Brewers will likely split time among their four starting-caliber outfielders, Yelich is the best bet to play every day. Scherzer has been one of the most consistent starting pitchers in baseball in the past seven years and will look to get back to his sheer dominance in 2021. From 2015-2019, Scherzer did not have an earned run average above 2.96 and threw at least 170 innings every season. Because of that, his value is still sky-high, and the Nationals would probably need a boatload of prospects in return even though he can be a free agent next offseason. Arenado is kind of a wild card since he is moving to a less-hitter-friendly ballpark in St. Louis. He was severely worse on the road than at home in his Colorado Rockies’ tenure, so his defense might be of more value to the Cardinals than his offense. On the other hand, the Cardinals will likely have three players in their everyday lineup who have not proven themselves in the majors or only had one good season, so Arenado’s hitting could be quite valuable to the team as well. Even expecting a decline in his hitting, Arenado’s value is still very high because of his past success, and the Cardinals would likely not even think of trading him after all that they gave up for him this offseason.
There are many other groups of players in addition to these three, and all players have their own career story that decides part of their value. However, different teams may value certain aspects over others, which can alter their perception of a player’s value. Every time a team signs a free agent or makes a trade, they are judging a player’s value based against the current roster and what would be given up for the player(s). It may seem like a basic task within baseball, but there can be more to it than expected.
Edited by Emma Moloney