Some fans might still find it hard to wrap their heads around the idea that the Orioles are moving toward trading cornerstone third baseman Manny Machado. And that’s because not often is a player who has accomplished so much at such a young age moved to another team in advance of him becoming a free agent.
The numbers-driven people at FanGraphs put that into a quantitative perspective earlier this week, detailing that Machado would become the first player with a career WAR (wins above replacement) of at least 25.4 to be traded before his age-25 season since Shoeless Joe Jackson was dealt from the Philadelphia Athletics to the Cleveland Naps in 1910.
Unlike Machado, Jackson had barely accomplished anything at the time of the trade, having played just 10 major league games when he was dealt shortly after his 23rd birthday. Jackson blossomed after moving to Cleveland and recording a career 31.2 WAR through his age-24 season.
Machado’s 26.0 WAR through his age-24 season ranks 29th all time, and is better than Hall of Famer Stan Musial’s 25.4 WAR in that span.
So never since the advent of the current free-agent rules were established in 1976 – which allowed players with six years of major league experience to test the market — no one as accomplished as Machado through his age-24 season has ever been traded.
Because of that, there isn’t a fair comparison to Machado in this situation, so there’s little precedent for a trade return for a player with his accomplished résumé at his young age.
Outfielder Jason Heyward is probably the closest, FanGraphs suggested. Heyward was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the St. Louis Cardinals in the offseason before the 2015 season with one year of team control remaining before he became a free agent.
Heyward isn’t a really fair comp because he and Machado are different as players and Heyward’s WAR after the age-24 season was 21.6, which is 4.4 lower than Machado’s.
In that trade, the Braves moved Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden to the Cardinals and received right-handed starter Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins.
They received a long-controllable top-of-the-rotation starter in Miller and a well-regarded top-100 prospect in Jenkins.
In Miller, the Braves received a strong rotation member that was under team control for another five seasons. But Miller pitched just one season with the Braves, in which he was an All-Star, losing 17 games but posting a 3.02 ERA over 32 starts. After that season, Miller was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for key young cornerstones Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte.
Jenkins threw just 52 innings for the Braves, all coming in 2016, while posting a 5.88 ERA. Jenkins struggled with his control, walking 5.7 per nine innings in the majors. He was traded to he Texas Rangers and was claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres before this past year. He has yet to return to the majors with the Padres.
On the surface, it seemed to be a pretty good get for the Braves, but the greater value wasn’t necessarily on the field or in wins and losses. They were able to flip Miller after one year for Swanson and Inciarte. But it goes to show there are no guarantees when you’re discussing young pitching, no matter how promising.