- The Indians' bullpen has been it sorest spot all season. They significantly improved it by adding Brad Hand and Adam Cimber from San Diego.
All season, Cleveland’s weak spot has been their bullpen—though, really, that’s far more polite a description than the situation deserves. Their relief corps hasn’t been so much a weakness as a festering sore, continuously putting the entire team at risk. For weeks, baseball’s safest deadline bet has been that they’d make a move to bolster their ‘pen. Now, they’ve finally done it, trading to acquire San Diego’s Brad Hand and Adam Cimber. But they paid a high price to do so. In exchange for the pair of relievers, Cleveland gave up 22-year-old catcher and top prospect Francisco Mejia.
Cleveland has the most comfortable division lead in all of baseball, but that’s a product of how dreadful the AL Central is far more than it is one of how well this team has played. In other words, their chances of making the postseason have never really been in jeopardy, but their chances of going far once they get there very much have. Their relief corps lies at the heart of that concern. Manager Terry Francona has been hesitant to call to the ‘pen: Cleveland’s relievers have pitched a major-league-low 257 innings so far, compared to baseball’s current average of 338. That number doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course; the fact that the team’s rotation is so strong also plays a key role. Still, it’s not hard to see why any skipper would be reluctant to turn to this crew of relievers. Their 5.28 ERA is worse than that of any bullpen besides the Royals’, and their 1.71 home runs-per-nine innings are by far the highest in baseball.
It’s a staggering change from last season, when Cleveland had perhaps baseball’s best bullpen. In 2017, they were the game’s only relief corps to post a sub-3.00 ERA. But they let two pitchers who were integral to that success, Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith, walk in free agency this winter. Meanwhile, Andrew Miller has been on the disabled list with a knee ailment for most of this season, and while he’s due to make his return soon, he’d been struggling before his injury. Closer Cody Allen’s performance has declined, too, as he’s posted career-worst numbers in just about every meaningful metric. (Specifically: in strikeouts, walks, home runs, ERA and FIP.) Basically, this bullpen was in desperate need of an upgrade—and the Hand-Cimber duo is a strong upgrade indeed.
The Padres’ relief pitching has been their greatest strength (arguably, their only strength) and Hand and Cimber have been crucial in that effort. Hand has been relying on his slider more this season, allowing it to make up more than half of his pitches for the first time, and that change has been met with great success—making him one of only five National League relievers with a strikeout rate of 35% or higher, which helped him get named as an All-Star for the second straight year. Cimber is the lower-profile of the pair, but the sinkerballer has shone as a 27-year-old rookie. He’s walked just 5% of batters he’s faced and allowed only two home runs in 48 innings. He’s also a delight for anyone with an appreciation for funky deliveries:
The bullpen help is a big boost for Cleveland’s 2018, but for seasons beyond that, too. Miller and Allen will both become free agents this winter, while Hand will have three years of team control remaining and Cimber will have five. This move doesn’t only help them win right now, it extends their window for the future.
What Cleveland surrendered, of course, was another piece of their future. When Mejia made his debut at the end of last season, Baseball Prospectus labeled him “arguably the best prospect in the minors at the time of his call-up.” He’s ranked within the game’s Top-25 prospects by Baseball America, FanGraphs, MLB Pipeline and Prospectus. While there have been some concerns about his defensive development at catcher, he has the ability to move to the outfield or third base, and the switch-hitter’s bat is a big part of the draw here, anyway. He’s a remarkable addition to a San Diego farm system that was already one of the very best in baseball. The Padres’ window for contention hasn’t opened up yet, but it’s getting closer—and when it does, Mejia has the potential to be one of the brightest stars among a whole crop of exciting young players.
Bullpen help is, more than any other resource, perpetually in demand at the trade deadline. The Padres’ deep relief crew offered them significant leverage here, and they’ve used it to land a gem. In this era of prospect-hoarding, any farm system’s top player is carefully guarded, if not outright considered to be off-limits. But Cleveland’s payoff here is enough to remake their greatest weakness, both immediately and in the long-term. Meanwhile, San Diego’s shaping up to be genuinely fearsome in a few years. It’s been said that a fair bargain leaves both sides unhappy, but this one should have the opposite effect.