Hope is a wonderful thing. Hope is what enables us to remain emotionally invested and not sink into despondence and/or apathy. Hope is what makes games like last night's -- one which I've affectionately dubbed "The Matt Treanor Game," a game rendered special by the sheer improbability of its finish -- mean something. And the mere presence of hope is what breeds summer trade-market discussion -- what to acquire, when to acquire it and, perhaps most importantly, how to acquire it.
What we seem to know for certain at this point is that the Rangers and Astros have at least touched base with each other regarding the possibility of a Roy Oswalt-to-Texas exchange; depending on whom you choose to believe (such as NBCSports.com's Craig Calcaterra, who insists that his source on yesterday's scalding-hot rumor was credible), discussions between the two clubs have progressed to such an extent that the framework of a deal has already been agreed upon and the only remaining obstacle is obtaining clearance from Major League Baseball. What that fails to tell us, however, is what a reasonable deal for Oswalt would necessarily entail on the Rangers' end in terms of value relinquished.
Using the basic Dave Cameron-inspired player valuation model, we can determine that Oswalt, over his last 75 starts (spanning three seasons, including this one), has been worth approximately 8½ wins above replacement level, or around 0.11 wins per start; just for the record, this is slightly less than half of what Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee has produced on a per-start basis over the last three seasons. Assuming that the Rangers managed to acquire Oswalt right on July 1st, he would be in line to make around 16-17 post-July 1st starts (notwithstanding injury), followed by 30-32 starts in 2011, his final year of club control; let's peg that number at 48 starts.
Here's where things begin to get a little fuzzy. It's a good idea to regress this 0.11 WAR/start figure towards league average, particularly since a move to the American League would entail (a) pitching against more talented hitters with the inclusion of the designated hitter, as well as (b) pitching in a somewhat more homer-friendly ballpark, but Oswalt is also pitching at a higher level than he did in 2008-09, with a heftier strikeout rate and consistently good peripherals otherwise. All the same, however, let's call it 0.10 WAR/start, which would put Oswalt's total projected value over the final 1½ seasons of his deal at 4.8 wins above replacement.
As Cameron noted in his Lee-centric piece, the marginal value of a win varies depending upon a team's post-season contendership and the time of year, but even if you operate off his assumption that one win is worth approximately $5 million to a contender right now (as opposed to $4 million this past off-season), you can probably employ the popular $4.5 million/win figure and feel pretty comfortable about doing so, particularly since the value of a marginal win will again dip going into the 2010-11 off-season. Multiplying that figure times the expected 4.8 wins above replacement, plus the value of the two compensation picks that Oswalt would presumably garner as a Type A free agent following the 2011 season (approximately $6 million, per Victor Wang's calculations), brings Oswalt's total expected value through 2011 to the sum of $27.5 million.
But this is where a truly significant divergence between Oswalt and Lee on the trade value scale becomes apparent. Whereas Lee is under contract through only the remainder of this season (and is owed only about $5 million over that period, to boot), Oswalt would be owed approximately $7.5 million over that same period, plus $16 million in 2011, with a $16 million club option for 2012 with a $2 million buyout. Provided that Oswalt didn't invoke his right to demand that the club option be picked up in a trade, that works out to $25.5 million, placing his surplus value at a paltry $2 million. If that doesn't sound like very much to you, that's because it's not.
Referring again to Victor Wang's calculations (this time, to his quantification of prospect trade values), that's the equivalent of one age-22-or-younger 'Grade C' pitcher, or a pair of age-23-or older 'Grade C' prospects; think along the lines of trouble-prone Danny Gutierrez, or Guillermo Moscoso plus Max Ramirez. That's the sort of toll that Oswalt's burdensome salary takes on his trade value. In a largely context-neutral setting, Oswalt's trade value is virtually nil when compared to what could be acquired in the off-season markets.
Of course, there are other considerations, beginning with the fact that marginal wins are especially valuable to the Rangers in their current state, as each additional win greatly enhances their probability of reaching the post-season. Drayton McLane assuredly wouldn't accept a perceived low-ball offer, since it is incumbent upon him -- and the Astros front office, although that unit doesn't seem to hold as much power under McLane as front offices in other cities might -- to recoup some nice value for Oswalt if he's going to go through the trouble of relinquishing his team's ace. And, besides all of that, there's likely some sort of mark-up associated with intrastate trading, given the on-going battle for fan interest and valuable season-ticket buyers.
But unless the Astros are prepared to kick in at least $10-12 million, there's no reason to believe that a prospect package comprising Martin Perez, Mitch Moreland and Matt Harrison -- never mind the debated inclusion of a power-relief prospect -- would make sense on the Rangers' end. Subsidizing $8 million might make a straight-up Oswalt-for-Scheppers exchange moderately reasonable on paper, but only just. This isn't really a matter of Houston being able to up the prospect ante by means of including more cash in the deal; rather, it's more of an absolute necessity that the Astros include significant money in order to obtain the sort of prospects that they desire.