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MLB executives are too smart to invest in Mark Trumbo

With Spring Training action just a month away, 2016’s home run king isn’t on a roster. What’s up with that?

Washington Nationals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

With all the recent action in the free agent market, it should come as no surprise that Mark Trumbo is the best remaining player available. As the previous season’s home run king, Trumbo should probably have topped free agent boards early on as well. Instead, according to MLB Trade Rumors, Trumbo ranked eighth behind names such as Jeremy Hellickson and Justin Turner.

Nothing epitomizes the current state of baseball more than Trumbo’s languishing name in the rumor mill. Let’s take a step back just one decade.

The 2006 free agent class gives us an interested comparable. The then-32-year-old Nomar Garciaparra might be the most favorable. He got a three-year deal worth $24 million from the Dodgers before the calendar even turned over to 2006, on December 19th. That may not seem like a lot of money compared to today’s standards, but the Dodgers’ payroll that season was $98 million. The Dodgers’ payroll has grown by more than double since then, and the average player salary has also grown substantially. The 31-year-old Trumbo, however, is still waiting.

Perhaps an even better comparison, despite being a pitcher, would be the cautionary tale of Jason Schmidt. After six seasons with the Giants, including three All-Star appearances, Schmidt became a free agent at 33-years-old prior to the 2007 season. The Dodgers handed him a three-year deal worth more $47 million when all was said and done. Schmidt appeared in ten games over the life of that contract. Pitchers deal with unique injury troubles though, that Trumbo will not.

Maybe the best comparison though can be made to Torii Hunter. By the time Hunter hit free agency in 2007, he had hit 192 home runs; just 14 more than Trumbo has hit so far in his career. Hunter signed his next contract heading into his age-32 season. Trumbo is just one year ahead, heading into his age-31 season. This feels like the most apples-to-apples comparison we’re going to get from this far back. Hunter got nearly $90 million from the Angels on a five-year term that offseason. We can be assured—despite the inflation discussed in the Garciaparra case—Trumbo won’t even get that much of a commitment.

So why is that? It’s not like the free agent market was flush with sluggers. In fact, the opposite was true; if anything there was a scarcity of resources in this year’s free agent class. While Yoenis Cespedes was certainly a prized slugger, the others remaining on the board all seemed destined for spots in the American League, which hampered their value.

Sluggers like Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista almost required DH spots from their future employers because of declining abilities in the field. The same can be said of Trumbo. The thing with Trumbo though is he is nearly five years younger than Encarnacion and six years younger than Bautista. And he hit the most home runs in all of baseball last year. Why can’t he find a team?

The answer is pretty simple: MLB front offices and executives are just too smart now. While a record amount of money was shelled out on closers this off-season, the game is trending toward building pitching staffs that generate whiffs, and building batting lineups that get on-base. So, by archaic stats, Trumbo had an unbelievable year in 2016. But, by the measures of what it actually takes to win baseball games in the new era, Trumbo is a pretty average slugger.

Starting with what he did best, Trumbo’s 47 homers led the majors. His 108 RBIs tied him with Miguel Cabrera for eighth. Taking a deeper dive though, his wRC+ indicates that he batted 23 percent better than the league average. That’s pretty good. However, in the context of last year, that ties him for 39th with players like Ian Kinsler, Khris Davis, Evan Longoria, and Jonathan Lucroy.

Now, those are all certainly favorable comparisons. If Kinsler, Davis, Longoria or Lucroy were available in free agency, I’d wager they’d be signed already. However, they all possess something that Trumbo does not: the ability to play a position. Trumbo managed to play just 828 innings in the field this past season, and was worth -18.3 runs when he did it according to FanGraphs Def metric.

Removing Davis from the equation, Trumbo was the only below replacement level fielder of the aforementioned players with the same wRC+. In fact, Kinsler and Lucroy boast something else on Trumbo as well: a superior on-base percentage. While the difference Longoria’s and Trumbo’s OBP is negligible, Kinsler and Lucroy each have more than 30 points on the free agent. By OBP, Trumbo ranked 109th last season—tied with Yonder Alonso.

More and more often, front offices are looking at disciplined hitters as a necessary asset. As my colleague Mike Bates wrote recently, “[Chris] Carter is almost, if not exactly, the same hitter Trumbo is.” Carter likely hasn’t signed because he could be the back-up plan for the team that misses out on Trumbo. A case could be made that the ‘winner’ of the Trumbo sweepstakes is the team that ends up with Carter though.

Of course, none of this is to say Trumbo isn’t a valuable major leaguer. He clearly is. However, gone are the days that front offices invest in players like Trumbo so quickly and heavily. Letting one-dimensional sluggers sit in free agency appears to be a great way to suppress their value back down to more reasonable figures much nearer a ‘true value.’ Wherever Trumbo ends up, it could end up being the steal of this year’s free agent class. Unfortunately for Trumbo, he might be playing baseball in the wrong decade.