Why Alexei Ramirez Isn’t an Upgrade Over Wilmer Flores, a Discussion of Opportunity Cost and Marginal Utility

If you have been following the Mets Hot Stove news, you know that the team has been linked to Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez in trade rumors. Alexei Ramirez is a fine player, but he provides such a small upgrade over what the Mets already have at shortstop (if he is indeed an upgrade at all) that he will not be worth what it costs to acquire him.

There are names for these two concepts: opportunity cost and marginal utility.

Opportunity Cost

Every decision that you make in life costs you something — either money, time, or an asset — to obtain. Opportunity cost is the lost value of alternate options that could have been chosen instead. For instance, if you go to the beach one day, you can’t also sit at home and watch TV, because you have spent that time doing something else. If you spend $1,000 on a new flat-screen TV, you can’t spend that same $1,000 on another item, because it’s already been spent.

Opportunity cost applies in baseball, as well. If the Mets trade Noah Syndergaard to acquire (hypothetically) Troy Tulowitzki, they can’t trade Noah Syndergaard for anything else. Losing Noah Syndergaard, like losing the $1,000 or losing the free day at home, are the costs of those choices.

The concept of opportunity cost is part of why the Michael Cuddyer signing is so great for the Mets. When the Mets signed Cuddyer, they were able to do so at the cost of dollars alone (along with a 15th round draft choice). They did not have to sacrifice any of the talent in their system, like Noah Syndergaard, to acquire him.

Marginal Utility

Marginal utility is an easier concept to understand with regard to baseball. Marginal utility is simply the gain in utility (or value) by making a decision. When the Mets upgraded from Doug Mientkiewicz (.240 average, 11 HR, 729 OPS) to Carlos Delgado (.265 average, 38 HR, 909 OPS) before the 2006 season, that move has a ton of marginal utility in improving the team. When the Mets added Johan Santana (2.53 ERA, 234 IP) to the rotation in 2008, replacing someone like Nelson Figueroa, that move had a ton of marginal utility as well. Other moves improve the team, but only slightly, like for instance

Alexei Ramirez Isn’t Enough of an Upgrade Over Wilmer Flores

When you look at a transaction, you need to determine what it costs you, not only in dollars and in cents, but in opportunities. You must then weigh that cost against the value that upgrade provides to the team.

Wilmer Flores is projected to be a pretty good shortstop next year. Fangraphs projects that he will have the 12th best OPS among shortstops, putting up a 697 OPS, while batting .255, slugging .401, and hitting 14 HR in only 511 plate appearances. Overall, Fangraphs projects that Wilmer Flores will be worth 2.0 WAR. Alexei Ramirez, on the other hand, is projected to put up only a 679 OPS, batting .265 and slugging .379. Ramirez is known as an excellent defensive shortstop, so Fangraphs projects him to be worth 2.3 WAR on the year next year if he should remain healthy all season.

If you were to ask me, in a vacuum, which shortstop I would prefer for 2015 only, if both players belonged to the Mets and were free, I would be hard pressed to choose. But in this case, the Mets already own Wilmer Flores, who is making the minimum salary next season — while the White Sox have reportedly been asking for Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler in exchange for Ramirez, who will make $10 million next year.

If the Mets are going to bump Wilmer Flores from the starting shortstop role, they should only do so if the player acquired presents a worthwhile upgrade over Flores. Just last week, we talked about how Fangraphs projects Wilmer Flores to be the fourth best player on the Mets next season. Flores’s defense has been a pleasant surprise to many, and we are talking about a young man who has the pedigree of the former top prospect, and who batted .321/.360/.543 with 28 HR and 143 RBI as a 21 and 22 year old in Triple-A.

Would I be happy to bench Flores if the Mets got a superstar like Troy Tulowitzki? Sure. But Alexei Ramirez is a 33 year old with a combined on-base percentage of .302 over the last three years, who plays in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball. Flores might never be Ozzie Smith defensively, but if he can hit 15 HR next year at age 23, he can probably hit 25 in his prime, and I’d rather keep our prospects and let him try.