With just one week to go until the trade deadline, nearly every team in baseball figures to explore the market for one particular asset, either buying or selling it. That asset? Relief pitching.
This week’s four featured teams could all play major roles in that bullpen-swapping bonanza. The Brewers have a loaded ‘pen, which has other teams burning up the phone lines. The Pirates are a team in limbo that could opt to trade their walk-year closer even as they sit on the edge of the playoff race. The Mets have two highly productive arms at the back of their 'pen but might need more. The Red Sox need more bullpen help even after already dealing for reinforcements.
How do you spell relief? T-R-A-D-E-S. It’s Week 16 of The 30.
Best Rendition of a Backstreet Boys Classic: Jose Altuve
Standing in a hallway at San Diego's Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in a rare quiet time during All-Star week, Scott Boras extolled the virtues of his newest big-name client, Jose Altuve. How, the group of reporters wanted to know, could Altuve be such a powerful hitter, given that he’s so short that there’s a website that uses his height as a unit of measurement?
As Boras told it, Altuve’s short stature works to his advantage: Pitchers are so used to throwing to a higher target that they end up grooving pitches belt-high or higher to Altuve far more frequently than they’d like. Altuve, being strong and possessing quick hands, is then able to get around on the high, hard ones and rip them for extra bases. He’s been absolutely on fire of late, and he’s right there with Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout on the short list of most worthy AL MVP candidates.
But this week, we’re not honoring Altuve for his scintillating performance on the field. Instead, we’re saluting a clubhouse moment caught on video by teammate Lance McCullers. We honor Altuve for giving us the gift of song—specifically, Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”
With multiple tradeable position players and two highly attractive relievers, Milwaukee could be the most active team at the deadline.
30. Atlanta Braves (33–66 record, minus-138 run differential, last week: 29)
29. Cincinnati Reds (38–60, minus-144, LW: 30)
28. Tampa Bay Rays (38–60, minus-58, LW: 28)
27. Minnesota Twins (37–61, minus-81, LW: 27)
26. Arizona Diamondbacks (41–57, minus-76, LW: 23)
25. Milwaukee Brewers (41–55, minus-68, LW: 25)
24. San Diego Padres (43–56, minus-49, LW: 21)
23. Oakland A’s (45–54, minus-73, LW: 26)
22. Los Angeles Angels (43–55, minus-12, LW: 24)
21. Philadelphia Phillies (45–55, minus-97, LW: 22)
The hottest rumor out of Milwaukee revolves around Jonathan Lucroy. One of the best two-way catchers in the game, Lucroy also owns one of the most favorable contracts in the game, with a mere $4 million salary this season and a $5.25 million club option in 2017. With the Brewers unlikely to be good until 2018 or later, general manager David Stearns figures to be aggressive, shopping Lucroy to the Indians, Rangers and other catcher-needy clubs. Less likely to be traded but still potentially attractive commodities for other teams include outfielder Ryan Braun (expensive) and first baseman Chris Carter (tons of power, but one-dimensional).
But by sheer numbers, the real bonanza could come from the Brewers’ bullpen. We could easily see two, three or maybe even four Milwaukee relievers pitching for other teams by this time next week.
Nearly every contender seems to be searching for a lefty relief pitcher, which makes Will Smith an attractive target. The 27-year-old southpaw missed the first two months of the season with a knee injury, returned in early June and has looked a little different than he has in the previous two seasons: He’s striking out one-third fewer batters in 2016 than he did in ‘14 and ‘15, with a career-low ground-ball rate (below 30%). Moreover, his fastball velocity is down a tick and a half this season to 92.5 mph. The hope is that those across-the-board dips are the result of a small sample size (18 2/3 innings), and that Smith can go back to being the whiff-inducing beast he was last season. With the added bonus of club control through 2018, he’s a nice alternative to more famous and potentially overpriced relievers like Aroldis Chapman.
If Smith offers high-leverage experience, an affordable salary and multiple years of control, Jeremy Jeffress does all of that even better. The 28-year-old Brewers closer can’t match Smith’s strikeout rate or his relatively rare lefty arm. What he does offer is excellent command (he’s fanned three times more batters than he’s walked this season) and an elite ground-ball rate of 58%. He’s inducing more swings on pitches out of the zone and throwing first-pitch strikes more often this year than he ever has before. Even better, Jeffress is making the league-minimum salary, and he can’t test free agency until after the 2019 season.
Given how long it might be before the Crew become contenders and how volatile relief pitchers can be, we might see those two relievers go—and maybe a couple others, too. Tyler Thornburg has emerged as one of the most prolific strikeout artists in the league, punching out 35% of the batters he’s faced this year. Even 33-year-old journeyman righty Carlos Torres could find a new home, given his recent hot streak and his nasty cutter, which he throws nearly three-quarters of the time with stingy results.
Even in the best-case scenario, it’s tough to imagine any of Milwaukee’s relief corps netting an elite prospect. But with the team’s rebuilding plan in full swing, simply acquiring some organizational depth and hoping to catch a couple breaks is a worthwhile endeavor.
To Sell, Or Not To Sell
With a legion of players in their walk years, the Pirates face a tough decision as the deadline approaches.
20. Colorado Rockies (47–51, minus-4, LW: 20)
19. Chicago White Sox (48–50, minus-25, LW: 18)
18. Kansas City Royals (48–49, minus-35, LW: 17)
17. New York Yankees (50–48, minus-25, LW: 19)
16. Pittsburgh Pirates (51–47, minus-3, LW: 16)
15. Detroit Tigers (51–48, minus-6, LW: 14)
The advent of the second wild-card spot in each league has made things complicated for a whole swath of teams. If you’re a few games over .500, within striking distance of the second wild card, trailing multiple teams to get there and well behind your division leader, the buy vs. hold vs. sell conundrum becomes very real. When one (or more) of your best players are just a couple months from potentially leaving for greener pastures via free agency, the dilemma becomes even tougher.
Such is the plight of the Pirates. Over the past month, they’ve amassed the best record in the National League, climbing from sub-.500 irrelevance to taking aim at a fourth straight playoff berth. Problem is, they’ve also got a raft of players who can test the open market at the end of this season, led by their All-Star closer, Mark Melancon.
It’s easy to forget now, but Melancon was once an incomprehensibly bad reliever for the Red Sox. In his first four appearances for Boston in 2012, Melancon surrendered 11 runs on 10 hits (including five homers) in two innings pitched, netting a tidy 49.50 ERA. His problems quickly disappeared thereafter: Melancon pitched well the rest of that season, got dealt to Pittsburgh in December 2012 and quickly grew into one of the best relievers in the game thereafter, making three All-Star teams in the next four seasons. The biggest change has been in his fastball usage. Once reliant on a four-seamer, Melancon has been one of the game’s most prolific cutter users since Opening Day 2013, firing the pitch nearly two-thirds of the time this season. His numbers since becoming a Pirate? 259 1/3 innings pitched, 241 strikeouts, 42 walks, 199 hits, nine home runs allowed, 129 saves and a 1.80 ERA.
Melancon is 31 years old, two-plus months away from free agency and likely to command a big offer for four or five years that makes little sense for one of the lowest-revenue teams in baseball. So what should the Pirates do with him? The question becomes more complicated when you consider all the other pending free agents on the roster. Neftali Feliz has been the second-best righty in the pen, averaging more than a strikeout per inning. Thirty-three-year-old infielder David Freese has been one of the best bargains for any team this year, batting .280/.358/.450 on a one-year, $3 million deal. Sean Rodriguez is a multi-position Swiss Army knife who is slugging .508 in part-time duty. Outfielder Matt Joyce is the most potent bench bat in the league, hitting a splendid .285/.415/.563. Throw in veteran lefty Jon Niese, who probably won’t have his 2017 club option picked up, and you have six players who could help contending clubs playing for a talented team that nonetheless has just the eighth-best record in the NL.
There’s still a week to go until the trade deadline, so either a big winning streak or big losing streak could change things. If neither of those things happen, the smart money will be on the Buccos splitting the difference—continuing to shop non-essential players like Niese but holding onto most of the rest. With Gerrit Cole, Francisco Cervelli and other players coming off the disabled list, the high risks that come with selling off young talent to buy veterans and so many potential scenarios in play over the next 10 weeks, doing little or nothing very well might be the most logical way to go.
Even with plenty of pitching talent on the roster, the Mets might be looking for more.
14. Seattle Mariners (50–48, plus-46, LW: 15)
13. New York Mets (52–45, plus-18, LW: 13)
12. Miami Marlins (53–45, plus-5, LW: 11)
11. St. Louis Cardinals (52–46, plus-95, LW: 12)
10. Los Angeles Dodgers (56–44, plus-64, LW: 9)
9. Houston Astros (54–44, plus-59, LW: 10)
Jeurys Familia got himself into deep trouble Tuesday night against the Cubs. Leading 2–1 in the ninth, the Mets' closer walked Addison Russell and Miguel Montero, then allowed a single to Javier Baez, loading the bases with nobody out. Given how dicey the situation was and with the top of the order due up, Familia’s best-case scenario seemed to be escaping with a single run allowed, taking the game to extra innings.
Except that this is 2016, Familia’s year of perfection. First, he got Matt Szczur to ground into a force play at home. Then, facing MVP candidate Kris Bryant, Familia induced a 5-4-3 double play. Ballgame over, Mets win. With two saves since then, Familia has continued his climb up the ranks of the greatest closer streaks of all time. With 51 straight converted save opportunities, he’s tied for the third-longest such run ever, trailing only Tom Gordon’s 54 and Eric Gagne’s off-the-charts mark of 84 straight. Led by Familia, the Mets’ bullpen ranks fifth in the majors in Wins Above Replacement and seventh in strikeout rate.
But as MLB.com writer Anthony DiComo reported last week, that might not be enough. Though we might not see another pre-trade deadline week to rival 2015’s madness any time soon, the Mets are reportedly eyeing pitching reinforcements as we count down to Aug. 1. With setup man Addison Reed and Familia dominating in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, DiComo confirmed the Mets are after righthanded relief help for the sixth and seventh.
Though many contenders make trades at this time of year with the playoffs in mind, fortifying the ‘pen would be a clear move to help the Mets’ regular-season fortunes. That’s because, despite coming into the season with one of the most impressive collections of starting pitching talent any team had shown in years, the rotation doesn’t look nearly as sound now. Matt Harvey is out for the season. Bartolo Colon has surrendered six runs and failed to make it out of the fifth inning in two of his past three starts. Steven Matz has a 5.19 ERA over his past six starts amid concerns of bone spurs in his pitching elbow. Even the great Noah Syndergaard is no sure thing, given the concerns that arose earlier this month over possible arm fatigue. Building a bullpen that can consistently go four or five deep would enable that once seemingly indomitable staff to throw fewer innings and avoid the third and fourth times through the order that can whack even the nastiest aces.
These aren’t the Mets’ only needs, of course. Michael Conforto is still trying to work his way back to everyday playing time in the outfield and the offensive form he showed last season after spending several weeks in the minors. James Loney and Jose Reyes have held down the fort at the infield corners so far, but neither projects as an ideal solution going forward. Rumors have New York exploring a trade with the Brewers involving Jonathan Lucroy and Travis d’Arnaud. And hey, it would be swell if the Mets managed a hit with runners in scoring position once in awhile; they rank dead last in the majors in that department, led by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who hasn’t come through with a runner on second or third since the Mesozoic Era.
Still, by making a team strength even stronger, the Mets could themselves a chance for another big stretch run—and maybe another trip to the postseason.
Mo Relievers, Mo Problems
Even after multiple trades for relief help, the injury-riddled Red Sox bullpen could use more.
8. Texas Rangers (57–42, plus-4, LW: 8)
7. Toronto Blue Jays (55–44, plus-77, LW: 7)
6. Cleveland Indians (56–41, plus-86, LW: 4)
5. Boston Red Sox (55–41, plus-86, LW: 5)
4. San Francisco Giants (58–40, plus-56, LW: 3)
3. Baltimore Orioles (57–40, plus-40, LW: 6)
2. Washington Nationals (58–41, plus-109, LW: 1)
1. Chicago Cubs (59–38, plus-150, LW: 2)
When it comes to baseball execs with strong reputations for making aggressive moves, few (past or present) can match Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. When Dombrowski identified a top-of-the-rotation starter, a dominant closer, a strong setup man and a lefty-mashing outfielder as his biggest needs over the winter, he went out and got all of them, even though it cost him lots of money (for David Price) and a passel of dynamic prospects (for Craig Kimbrel).
That pattern has continued during the regular season. When the Sox needed more starting pitching, they dealt a top starting pitching prospect for Drew Pomeranz. When they sought to fortify their infield depth, they picked up Aaron Hill. When they wanted still more bullpen help, they snagged Brad Ziegler.
Problem is, as fast as Dombrowski and GM Mike Hazen have rushed to plug holes, more keep springing up. The Ziegler deal was an immediate response to Kimbrel landing on the disabled list. Kimbrel has since been joined there by former closer Koji Uehara, as well as Carson Smith, the other notable reliever acquired last off-season who’s now out until next summer after undergoing Tommy John surgery. With the most potent lineup in the league leading the way and a rotation that even in its fortified state will need support behind it, the Sox figure to make more deals in the next few days.
The good news is, if you’re short on any commodity at the deadline, relief pitching is the one you want to be short on. Even an incomplete list of potentially available relievers includes: nearly everyone in the Milwaukee bullpen; righthanders Huston Street, David Robertson, Jeanmar Gomez, Ryan Madson, Luke Hochevar, Tyler Clippard, Joe Smith, Jim Johnson and Erasmo Ramirez; and lefthanders Andrew Miller, Jake McGee, Boone Logan, Ian Krol, Ryan Buchter, Fernando Abad and Marc Rzepczynski. In a market driven by supply and demand, Boston can easily bolster its ‘pen without giving up anything close to a premium prospect to do it.
After that, the Red Sox will need to hope that Price stops serving up meatballs, and that Pomeranz’s curveball doesn’t desert him the way it did in his Fenway Park debut last week. In a heated AL pennant race that features multiple strong contenders, at some point Trader Dave’s acquisitions will need to start working out.