The Small Sample Risk in Rental Trades, Machado's Performance, and Russell's Value

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The Small Sample Risk in Rental Trades, Machado’s Performance, and Russell’s Value

Chicago Cubs

At the end of this season, Manny Machado will join Bryce Harper as one of the most exciting free agents to hit the market in recent memory. Indeed, their unique combination of past performance, remaining upside, and youth is almost unparalleled throughout the history of free agency.

And because one of those guys, Machado, is currently on an uncompetitive Orioles squad, he’s been the subject of trade rumors all season long – and it’s only June! Of course, those rumors began in earnest over the winter, when the Orioles were rumored to be shopping him and fielding interest from nearly half the teams in baseball, including the Chicago Cubs.

While the Cubs did then, and do now, have a young shortstop of their own on the roster, Addison Russell hadn’t yet blossomed into the hitter many of us assumed he could become. And on top of that, he’s dealt with more than his fair share of injuries, and was the subject of a domestic violence investigation last year.*

As expected, the Machado/Cubs rumors persisted even after the 2018 season started and, if anything, grew louder. Of course, it didn’t hurt that, through April 24th, Machado was basically the best player in baseball (slashing .360/.447/.708 (209 wRC+)), while Russell was worse than he had ever been at the plate: .217/.316/.290 (68 wRC+). The rumor mill kept on churning.

While looking at Russell’s performance lately, and thinking about the ever-present Machado rumors, I noticed something that made me chuckle:

I’m sure I’ll get blasted for “cherry-picking” cut-off dates, but that’s always a part of the game when you’re trying to create these comparisons over meaningful stretches of time – AND/OR trying to have some fun with the numbers. Here, though, these dates do represent HUGE chunks of each player’s season so far (it’s almost exactly 66% for both, and nearly two months of performance). So at a certain point it’s not really cherry-picking, it’s just … you know, what’s happened. Or, rather, if I wanted to cherry-pick I could do a lot better than that:

May 1

Russell: 119 wRC+
Machado: 115 wRC+

May 18

Russell: 122 wRC+
Machado: 82 wRC+

June 1

Russell: 138 wRC+
Machado: 82 wRC+

But because I can still sense the (justifiable) pushback, let’s pause right here for some real talk. Manny Machado is currently a better overall player than Addison Russell and probably will be for the rest of the 2018 season. I have almost no doubt about that in my mind. Just because Russell is heating up when Machado has hit a mighty cold streak shouldn’t change what we know about each guy and how good they can be. I’m not making that argument.

And, sure, Russell’s extremely valuable defense does do something to close the gap between them …

Russell: 12 DRS (1st SS in MLB), 6.1 DEF (6th)
Machado: -14 DRS (Last), -0.7 DEF (23rd)

… but Machado is probably just fine at shortstop and way above average at third while carrying what’s normally one of the best bats in the league. He’s a better player. And that’s okay, because that’s not what I’m trying to say.

Instead, I wanted to offer a reminder about what can happen with rental trades. If you land Machado at the end of July for the final two months of the season, maybe you get the guy you expect for those two months. And maybe Russell cools down for those two months, and is the guy he’s been so far in his career.

But you’re only playing with percentages at that point, and as this last X Chunk of time shows, it’s not as if there aren’t times when Russell couldn’t outproduce Machado.

So, then, this all kind of circles back to the discussion we’ve had all along when the rumors pop up: it’s hard to justify trading 3+ years of Addison Russell (and then some) for two months of Machado (or almost any player, really).*

Sure, I’d bet that Machado outproduces Russell in the final two months of this season, maybe even significantly (maybe even two additional WAR worth – which would be a ton). But that’s no guarantee. And we can’t ignore what Russell could still become. There’s no question that he’s underperformed relative to our expectations through this point in his career, but … he’s still just 24 years old! That’s how old Kris Bryant was back in 2016, when he won his MVP award. Indeed, I think that Russell’s extremely young debut has shrouded his ceiling for many Cubs fans who think he’s already peaked. Like any player, of course it’s *possible* that he’s already peaked, but we’ve also seen plenty of talented young players develop slowly in the big leagues before breaking out in their mid-20s.

So really, I just want to say this: it has long been a stretch to consider giving up on Russell this early on in his career, especially for a rental player that can be signed after the season and might not necessarily be a game-changing upgrade, and that’s still how we feel (well, with the exception of Luis – but, hey, everyone can have an opinion on this!). Russell starts with a defensive foundation that’s already among the very best in the game, and he has shown repeated flashes of offensive upside. Keeping him through the end of this season, re-evaluating where things stand then with respect to him, free agency, and the shortstop position, seems to be the best approach right now.

*[Brett: I have found that it can be very difficult to balance the evaluative nature of baseball discussions like this with the wide-ranging, and deeply-held perspectives out there on all baseball players who have been connected in any way to domestic violence allegations. As we saw back when the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman, there are fans who simply do not want to feel like they have to choose between supporting the team they love and supporting victims of domestic violence. I can’t blame those fans for struggling with it, and assuredly the league recognizes this issue. There is no league theft policy or league bar fight policy. There is something about domestic violence and violence against women that is different. 

Here’s the challenge we at BN face when it comes time to discuss Addison Russell and trade rumors. Although I recognize that we shouldn’t require – and, indeed, MLB doesn’t require – a criminal conviction to hold a player accountable for something the evidence indicates has happened, there are degrees of factual knowledge available in these situations. There is often only so much we can know, and so much that we can never know. As writers who care about conveying accurate and useful information, we’ve had to make choices about what we say in these situations so that we’re doing our best to be fair to readers, fair to victims, fair to players, and fair to teams. I think it is important in these trade discussions, when relevant, to make note of the league’s investigation into third party domestic violence allegations against Addison Russell, because it is a factor in the minds of many fans, and may indeed be a factor in the minds of some executives. I also think it’s important not to treat all situations as equal. We will do the best we can with the information and perspective available to us. Sometimes, that will be enough. Sometimes, it’ll leave us falling short. Our eyes and ears are open to the conversation because it is important, and we are not perfect.

As for the future on these rumors that are likely to persist, our predominant focus will be the baseball valuations at issue. That’s not because we do not recognize the importance of anything else, but instead is more a recognition of where our utility lies. I think it’s important that we don’t ignore domestic violence issues, but I’d be lying if I tried to convey to you that I have a perfect understanding about how any of you should feel about the relationship between different kinds of accusations and baseball trades. I can’t pretend to be an expert in something I’m not. So, yes, you’ll mostly continue to see “baseball” stuff. We’ll continue to try to do our best to balance the many constituencies to whom we consider ourselves responsible, while also fulfilling the fundamental mission of a site like this: to inform and to entertain.]

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami