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Should the Royals trade Greg Holland?

The soon to be expensive reliever may out-price himself for Kansas City

Jamie Squire

Greg Holland is an awesome pitcher. That's probably one of the easiest sentences I've ever had to write or think. Over the past two years Greg Holland has put up 5.4 wins as a reliever. That's really hard to do. In fact, here's your fWAR leader for relievers in two year spans from 2000-2014:

Year Reliever WAR
00-01 Mariano Rivera 5.2
01-02 Octavio Dotel 5.9
02-03 Eric Gagne 7.7
03-04 Eric Gagne 7.6
04-05 Brad Lidge 6
05-06 Joe Nathan 5.9
06-07 Jonathan Papelbon 5.6
07-08 Mariano Rivera 5.4
08-09 Mariano Rivera 5.3
09-10 Brian Wilson 4.7
10-11 Sean Marshall 4.5
11-12 Craig Kimbrel 6.4
12-13 Craig Kimbrel 5.6
13-14 Greg Holland 5.4

Let's put that into perspective...Holland has basically been as good as Rivera in any 2-year span by fWAR (RA9-WAR is a different story). It's clear that he's an elite reliever and as a 10th round pick Holland has returned the Royals investment by a thousand times or so.

Unfortunately for the Royals, Holland is about to begin the really expensive part of his career, the arbitration process. No one likes to think about trading Holland less than me, but it's a necessity likely for Kansas City.

MLB Trade Rumors has projected Holland to receive $9.3M this winter via the arbitration process. While it was stellar to see him turn MLB hitters into little league batters, it's time for him to get paid for doing so. This is just the beginning of what MLB Trade Rumors calls the Craig Kimbrel rule where a reliever is so good that he literally breaks their projection model and this is only his first year of arbitration (much like Kimbrel).

Ultimately the Braves decided to not truly test the extreme limits of the arbitration process and settled on a four-year $42M deal with Kimbrel this past offseason locking up the reliever until 2018 at age 30. A contract of that size would be just $13M shy of the largest contract in Royals history (no adjustment for inflation). It's pretty easy to figure that Holland would receive an equal or similar contract as Kimbrel did if the Royals decided to lock him up for the next four years.

Even if the Royals decided to not lock up Holland, they would have to send him through the arbitration process three times. The Royals avoided arbitration this past year, something they could do again this year if Holland were to choose to agree, and paid him $4.675M. MBLTR projected him to basically double his salary if he were to go through the process for the first time. That's not likely to happen again if he were to go a second time (double his salary that is), but it's common to see $2M+ raises at a time that could put Holland into the $12M+ range come his final arbitration filing.

That's perhaps the great thing for players in terms of arbitration. They don't have sign a deal with the team, and instead can leave their monetary faith into the hands of an arbitrator. With this system, players are guaranteed to see at least 80% of their previous year salary (arb rules dictate a player cannot receive more than a 20% reduction from the previous year and sometimes no more than 30% from two previous years). Now obviously teams have to agree to enter arbitration and tender them an arb offer, but for the really good players, like Holland, that always happens as the alternative is to let them walk free into free agency.

Also, what is deemed as the Mike Trout effect, as long as the player basically remains alive and the club tenders an arb offer, the player can rely heavily on what he's previously done unlike most contracts which concern what the player is going to do. Such as named, if Mike Trout would have entered the arbitration process he simply would have had to point to how remarkably great he was in his first few years and received massive compensation. Even if Trout didn't play another game for the entire arbitration process, he would still have been in line for a big payout as long as the Angels tendered an arb offer. This isn't the case for most players, but for elite players it is beneficial.

Also needing to be pointed out is the fact that the Royals have another really awesome reliever, one who was better than Holland (by fWAR) this year, that comes at an increasing price tag in Wade Davis. He's set to earn $7M next year, $8M in 2016, and $10M in 2017 if the Royals were to pick up all three of his option years. In contrast to Holland, Davis is under a defined contract and the Royals have the ability to factor in a known price tag every year rather than project or guess what Holland may earn. Between the two relievers the Royals could be looking at paying $35M+ for two relievers over the next two years. Something along the lines of:

2015: Davis $7M + Holland $9M

2016: Davis $8M + Holland $11M

For a team with a limited amount of resources, having two relievers take up roughly 15-20% of  your payroll (assuming $100M) isn't the best strategy. Also there is the need to factor in other players arbitration cases, such as Hosmer/Moustakas/Duffy/Cain, that are going to take a larger slice of the payroll "pie" each year.

So sadly I have to also type this sentence: it might be time to trade Greg Holland.

The Royals are faced with really two scenarios: trade the fixed price of Wade Davis or trade the variable price of Greg Holland. This is almost like an interest rate swap (skip ahead if you don't care). Company A and Company B come into a swap agreement. Company A decides to receive a fixed interest rate and pay a variable interest rate (T-Bills + 1% or LIBOR +1%). Company B then receives the variable rate and pays the fixed rate. If interest rates go down (Holland has a bad season or gets injured) then Company A wins since their fixed rate they receive should be higher than the variable rate they are paying. However, if interest rates go up (Holland has another good year), then Company A loses because they are paying the variable rate which is more than what they receive in the fixed rate. The Royals can keep Holland and trade Davis at the idea of cost uncertainty, or they can trade Holland and keep Davis at the idea of cost certainty. It doesn't work as simple or plain as the "vanilla swap" I described above of course.

So what would/should/could Greg Holland fetch in a trade?

It's hard to set a baseline in trades for elite level relievers because they generally don't get traded, but other relievers, even very good ones, do get moved somewhat often. Some examples:

Andrew Miller for Eduardo Rodriguez:

This was an interesting trade. First, Miller was dealt at the trade deadline where returns are generally inflated. Also unlike Holland, Miller is a free agent 3 months after being traded. Also Holland has a longer track record of performance. Regardless, Miller fetched Orioles prospect Eduardo Rodriguez who was regarded by all three major prospect digests (BA, BP, MLB) as being in the 60-70 range of the Top 100 prospects. Since being traded, Rodriguez has positioned himself to be in the Top 40 discussion if not perhaps higher due to his excellent performance in the Boston system.

Addison Reed for Matt Davidson:

Reed was nowhere close to Holland or Miller, but he's a few years younger than both. Reed carried an additional year of pre-arb than Holland does now (I think). Matt Davidson was a Top-100 prospect and anywhere from #72 by BA to #93 by BP. He wasn't a flashy prospect, but had a relative floor of an everyday third baseman/SS with some upside and was the best power hitter in the White Sox system.

Joakim Soria for Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel:

Soria was a once dominant reliever with an injury history of sorts. Detroit was in need of major bullpen help in an effort to build for a prolonged playoff run in a few months. Much like the playoffs for the Tigers, the trade didn't go so well. The Rangers got Jake Thompson who was one of the best pitching prospects in the Tigers system (a relatively low-standard given their system). Also included was Corey Knebel the Tigers former first round pick in 2013 who was traded basically a month after being eligible to even be traded. Neither of these guys were near Top-100 prospects, but they were Top-10 Tigers prospects.

Huston Street (and Trevor Gott) for Taylor Lindsey, Elliot Morris, Jose Rondo, and RJ Alvarez:

Street represented a fixed cost but only had one year remaining (an 2015 team option for $7M) on his contract. The most important piece the Padres received was Taylor Lindsey. While not a Top-100 prospect, by BP or MLB, BA did rank him at #93 prior to being traded, and he was generally regarded as being a fringe Top-100 guy and the best prospect, by some measure, in the Angels system.

We can pretty much say Holland has more trade value than everyone above, but Miller would be the closest. Holland brings another two years of control, albeit at increasing prices, but is coming off of two dominant closer seasons finishing near the top in saves for 2014, 2013, and 2013-2014 combined and only Kimbrel has more saves over the past two years. Saves aren't a valuable stat in reality, but the baseball world loves them and players get paid/traded for them.

The value of Holland might be something like $28-30M over the next 2 years (figuring a 2 win or so player at ~$7M per win) if he continues to be an excellent reliever. That's more than he might receive in arbitration figures for that time span and the Braves paid Kimbrel like a 1.5 win pitcher in his contract, generating surplus value. Holland could offer $10M+ in surplus value over the next two years if his arb raises don't exceed $18M. If he somehow repeats his 2013 he could be worth $10M+ surplus in just one season even after an arb raise. That's a pretty nice excess chunk for a reliever.

Teams that need bullpen help and possible trade scenarios:

Mets: Had the worst bullpen in the major leagues last year at -1.6 fWAR. They also have a surplus of pitching and pitching prospects in Harvey, Wheeler, Niese, DeGrom, Gee, Colon in the majors and Syndergaard, Montero, and Matz in the minors. They likely aren't going to give up Syndergaard for Holland alone so the focus would likely to be more so on Montero. Montero doesn't represent a flashy trade and compared to the Miller/Rodriguez deal, E-Rod is a better pitching prospect so perhaps the Mets would need to add someone else. They could include Daniel Murphy (which will require extra from the Royals side) or Brandon Nimmo who's seen his stock rise this year. Murphy hasn't played outfield since 2011 but his bat projects to be slightly above league average and average for RF.

Dodgers: Another weak bullpen (26th in MLB) and they can certainly afford the impending raises for Holland. Of course they've already got a really good closer in Kenley Jansen so if this were to work Holland would need to be the setup guy. Also the Dodgers have JP Howell and Brandon League as pricier relievers too. Howell is only owed $4M next year but has an incentive that could guarantee his 2016 mutual option at $6.2M. League has been a bust since signing with LAD and is owed $7.5M next year with another incentive laden option for $8.5M but isn't likely to vest.

The ultimate Royals trade piece would be for near MLB ready outfielder Joc Pederson. Opinions are diverse on whether he'll be an above average MLB player or settle more into a solid everyday outfielder. Either would be plenty for the Royals and he'd bring 6 years with 3 at cost control. Holland for Pederson isn't going to happen and the Dodgers would need an additional piece or pieces.

Also possibly on the table is Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Scott Van Slyke and Andre Ethier. Kemp is the highest paid of the four but he's also the 2nd youngest after Van Slyke (who is 28 himself). Van Slyke offers the best team control and cost, but Kemp offers the highest upside of the four. He still has $107M owed over the next 5 years, but the Dodgers would likely take on salary if they were to move Kemp. Ethier is basically a replacement level player at a 2-3 win players price so unless the Dodgers are eating basically all the salary plus including other pieces, we can skip him. Crawford offers higher upside than Ethier but not as high as Kemp, but is being paid like Matt Kemp. LAD would need to pay another team a large portion of his salary to play against them as well as the inclusion of other pieces.

I don't think we have a match here if the Royals are looking to solely move Holland as the market for Holland is better elsewhere vs the return unless the Dodgers are offering Joc Pederson for Holland and Miguel Almonte or something (they won't be).

Yankees: They just offered a qualifying offer to their now free agent closer David Robertson, and they've got super reliever Dellin Betances who could step into Robertson's closer shoes. The Yankees could forgo re-signing Robertson to a 3-4 year deal and being stuck with him if he declines, in exchange for trading for Holland and being able to non-tender him if he were to decline or get injured. That's not a likely scenario, but it's something. The Yankees could also afford Holland's salary raises.

Potential pieces include Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and Rob Refsnyder.

Sanchez has been in the Yankees system for five years now and has progressed slowly since being signed at age 16. He put up excellent numbers as a 17 year old in Rk/A- which saw him rank in the Top-30ish of all prospects but couldn't continue those impressive results consistently for the past few years and has seen his ranking bounce anywhere from #81 and #36 in the same year and now up to #85 by BP.  Sanchez represents a possibility at catcher where his 60 grade power and potential 50 hit tool would play excellently, but he's likely going to find a home at 1B or DH while giving the main catcher some rest days. Ultimately Sanchez will likely move from behind the plate for the majority of his career and could be a full time DH.

Aaron Judge would be the best power prospect the Royals have had since...I don't know, but someone a long time ago. The comparisons to Giancarlo Stanton are lazy, but there's some truth in them. Judge is a giant of a man at over 6'6" feet tall and 230 pounds. Judge has tremendous raw power and unlike most major power hitters, Judge comes to the plate with an approach and makes great contact. He would have lead both the Florida State League and Sally League in walks if he qualified for both. Judge had a 14% BB% in A and 17.5% in AA. He's the prospect I'd target from the Yankees.

Refsnyder was an outfielder in college but converted to second base. He could return to his original position although that would of course slightly lower his value. Fangraphs, specifically Carson Cistulli, projected Refsnyder as having the 6th highest WAR for a prospect for the 2015 season at 2.5. Most of that is provided through the 2B value, as his projected 106 wRC+ would be essentially average for a rightfielder. Still, Refsynder has hit in every league he's played in avoided striking out and makes consistent contact while drawing walks.

Pirates: The Pirates had a weakness in their bullpen this year. They have a relatively cheap closer now in Mark Melancon and like the Royals are a generally frugal team in the same situation.

Red Sox: Koji Uehara wasn't as ridiculous this year as he was last year and he'll be 40 on opening day. Boston also traded away Andrew Miller, their next best bullpen piece. After that they have Junichi Tazawa who has been slightly less ineffective against right handers vs lefties (2.89 FIP/.302 vs LHB, 3.37 FIP/322 wOBA vs RHB). Boston can certainly afford Holland and his increasing salaries.

Mookie Betts is probably off limits for a one-for-one. A lot of digital ink has been spilled about his potential future and current trade value. Dave Cameron at Fangraphs has put up similarities of Betts potential outcome to one like Ben Zobrist's and says that the Red Sox might regret trading Betts even if they received a deal including Stephen Strasburg or Chris Sale.

I like Garin Cecchini of the Sox. Boston has a bit of a quandary at third base and Cecchini has the least MLB experience of all the variables there. Steamer projects Cecchini to be worth 2.3 wins next year given 600 plate appearances which includes average defense at 3B and a 100 wRC+. I've written about Garin on these digital pages before, but I'll continue to stress how impressive his on base skills are. He doesn't just get on through hits, but has shown a stellar eye and discipline at the plate, posting a 16%+ BB% at three different levels including a 17% at AA. Garin isn't going to offer power at third base so he'll have to continue to walk and hit for average, but even a league average batting line could be a 2-win player at third.

Angels: LA made a move to shore up their bullpen for the playoffs by acquiring Street. They carry a 2015 option for Street at $7M which they are expected to exercise. They also have Joe Smith who they inked to a three year deal this past year. They lose Jason Grili but retain Kevin Jepsen for another year.

Rangers: Texas traded away Soria as mentioned above and they also rid themselves of Jason Frasor. Their next best closer Neal Cotts will be a free agent. So is the maybe next best reliever Scott Baker.

The question with the Rangers is if they see themselves as contenders next year to even facilitate the need for a dominant reliever.

If they do decide to buy into Holland, the Rangers have a very well stocked farm system.

We can rule out Joey Gallo, the best power prospect in the minors. We can also forget Jorge Alfaro, one of the best catching prospect (and prospects period) in the minors.

Luke Jackson is their best pitching prospect and has had success in AA and spent some short time in AAA (40 IP) where he struggled. He brings a real heater with a fastball that can touch 97 MPH and a hammer curve. What he doesn't bring to the table consistently is command and sometimes the secondaries can be hit or miss. He doesn't offer a tremendous upside, but more so a ceiling of a #3 starter, but ultimately could be a very good late-inning guy.

Nick Williams is an extreme tools outfielder with the potential of and above average hit and power tool to match his 60-65 grade speed. His defense in the outfield needs work and he's aggressive at the plate. Williams has very good contact skills, but his approach leaves you wanting. He's just 21 and has a short stint in AA under his belt.

If you watched some Royals minor league action this season you would have seen Alex "Chi-Chi" Gonzalez beat up Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas. Gonzalez has the size to throw 200 innings a year with the stuff that could ultimately be a #2 if everything falls in line, but more likely a #3 with a changeup that is fringe-average.

Baltimore: The Orioles traded for Andrew Miller but he's now a free agent. They'll retain Zach Britton and Tommy Hunter and they've just exercised Darren O'Day's 2015 option. If they wanted to fill Miller's shoes (Miller would probably be actually filling Holland's shoes) then Holland could work. He'll be cheaper than Miller likely and won't demand a 3+ year guarantee.

Let's obviously remove Dylan Bundy from the equation (I can only dream). We should objectively move Hunter Harvey as well given his ceiling and distance from the majors.

With Billy Butler possibly departing, the Royals could turn their DH/1B hopes to Christian Walker. He saw the briefest of appearances in the majors this year (19 PA's) and was over-matched in them, but it's to be expected. Walker doesn't offer a lot of power like you'd expect from a 1B/DH but he does have an above average hit tool and average power. You probably aren't going to see 30 home runs from him in a season, but .280 average with 20 home runs or so isn't out of the equation and Walker has a long track record through college and the minors hitting for average and limiting strikeouts. That's essentially "good" Eric Hosmer without the extremely high pedigree.

Nationals: Washington looks to contend for next year and the next several years. They will retain most of their major bullpen pieces for 2015, but will start losing them after. The Nats declined Rafael Soriano's option this for 2015, Tyler Clippard is a free agent in 2016, Drew Storen and Jerry Blevins are free agents in 2017. Holland would leave along with Storen and Blevins.

Off the board is Lucas Giolito unless the Royals want to part with Holland, Mondesi, and another established MLB player.

Michael Taylor saw some at-bats in a Washington uniform this year. I know most of you will hate me for saying this, but Taylor offers a similar profile to our own prospect Bubba Starling. That's probably triggers an immediate "pass" from you, but things "clicked" for Taylor in A+ at age 22 and he moved from there to AA to AAA in one season. Taylor offers great speed and baserunning, stealing 88 bases the past two years. He's also slugged 33 home runs in that same span. Obviously the comparison to Starling has to mean he has discipline issues, and he does. Taylor struck out in 30% of his at bats in AA, but he does have an approach at the plate and produced a reasonable walk rate of 11%.

These are all ideas. I'm purposely not hypothesizing trade packages, I'll leave that up to the fine folks in the comments.

What do you want for Greg Holland?

I'll leave you with one more piece that should somewhat accurately, if only on a skim level, display of the volatility of the save and relievers.

2005 Save Leaders Pitcher Saves FIP 2006 Saves 2006 FIP
Chad Cordero 47 3.72 29 4.59
Francisco Rodriguez 45 3.09 47 2.72
Bob Wickman 45 4.65 33 2.85
2006 Save Leaders 2007 Saves 2007 FIP
Francisco Rodriguez 47 2.72 40 2.7
Trevor Hoffman 46 3.46 42 2.94
Bobby Jenks 41 3.2 40 2.77
2007 Save Leaders 2008 Saves 2008 FIP
Jose Valverde 47 3.58 44 3.67
Joe Borowski 45 4.12 0 N/A
Francisco Cordero 44 2.24 34 3.77
2008 Save Leaders 2009 Saves 2009 FIP
Francisco Rodriguez 62 3.22 35 3.71
Jose Valverde 44 3.67 25 3.5
Joakim Soria 42 3.25 30 2.74
2009 Save Leaders 2010 Saves 2010 FIP
Brian Fuentes 48 4.42 24 3.85
Joe Nathan 47 2.88 0 N/A
Mariano Rivera 44 2.89 33 2.81
2010 Save Leaders 2011 Saves 2011 FIP
Brian Wilson 48 2.19 36 3.33
Heath Bell 47 2.05 43 3.23
Rafael Soriano 45 2.81 2 3.97
2011 Save Leaders 2012 Saves 2012 FIP
Jose Valverde 49 3.55 35 3.62
Craig Kimbrel 46 1.52 42 0.78
John Axford 46 2.41 35 4.06
2012 Save Leaders 2013 Saves 2013 FIP
Jim Johnson 51 3.25 50 3.45
Fernando Rodney 48 2.13 37 2.84
Craig Kimbrel 42 0.78 50 1.93
2013 Save Leaders 2014 Saves 2014 FIP
Craig Kimbrel 50 1.93 47 1.83
Jim Johnson 50 3.45 2 5.08
Greg Holland 47 1.36 46 1.83