- Pitchers predominantly changed teams Thursday in advance of the MLB trade deadline. Which clubs worked the best deals?
There are still four days to go until the trade deadline, but plenty of teams spent Thursday checking items off their shopping list. Let’s run down and grade the day’s deals, including a notable pitcher addition in the Bronx and a top reliever joining the Brewers.
Yankees get: LHP J.A. Happ
Blue Jays get: IF Brandon Drury, OF Billy McKinney
On the surface, this is an easy trade to understand. The Yankees need a fifth starter, as rookie Domingo German posted a 5.68 ERA in 82 1/3 innings before being sent down last week. The Blue Jays, at 46–55, are going nowhere this season. Happ, at 35 and a free agent this winter, wasn’t part of their long-term plans.
Hence, this sensible swap, which sees New York plug a hole with Happ, and the Blue Jays get a pair of intriguing pieces for the future in Drury and McKinney. Adding the capable if unexciting Happ may be underwhelming to Yankees fans, but of the starting pitchers on the market, he’s likely the best option. Jacob deGrom wasn’t walking through that pinstriped door.
Besides, you could do worse than Happ, the baseball equivalent of a comfortable pair of Sears slacks. Since being dipped in Ray Searage’s Fountain of Pitcher Youth in 2015 and then joining Toronto on a three-year deal that winter, the lefty has been a solid contributor. His first two years with the Blue Jays produced a 3.33 ERA and 131 ERA+ in 340 1/3 innings—the latter a better mark than that of Carlos Martinez, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta over the same span. But things have taken a tumble in 2018, with Happ carrying a bloated 4.18 ERA and league-average 101 ERA+ through 114 frames over 20 starts. He’s been a mess of late, too, with a 7.41 ERA since the start of July and just 17 total innings over four turns.
Happ’s peripherals, though, are as good as the two years prior; he’s actually striking out more batters and giving up less contact. Interestingly, his bad season has come as he’s increased his four-seam fastball usage, from 42.3% last year to 55.5 in 2018. Happ’s fastball is no blazer—it averages 92.9 mph—and it’s been hit hard of late, with a .297 batting average and .622 slugging percentage against in July. Perhaps the fastball-averse Yankees—New York pitchers are dead last in four-seamer usage this season at 44.5%—will tinker with his arsenal and get him to throw his sinker more often.
But even if Happ doesn’t improve much from where he is, he’s still better than German and a safer choice than untested pitching prospects like Justus Sheffield or Chance Adams. He may even prove a more stable option come October than the mercurial Sonny Gray. Plus, as a lefthander, he’ll come in handy against the Red Sox, who are hitting .259/.325/.415 against southpaws compared to .274/.341/.474 versus righties. He’s not thrilling, but he’ll eat innings, and do so competently.
As for Toronto, they get two flawed but possibly productive players in Drury and McKinney. The former was snagged by New York from Arizona in the offseason as part of a three-team trade and talked up as the team’s Opening Day third baseman. But he made it all of eight games into 2018 before migraines and blurry vision landed him on the disabled list, and once he was ready to go again, he’d lost his job to slugging rookie Miguel Andujar. Squeezed out of a crowded and young Yankees infield, Drury was stuck for a time at Triple A, where he was openly unhappy, and has been a bench bat since late June.
But despite hitting .176/.263/.275 in limited time this year, the 25-year-old Drury isn’t a lost cause. Over the last two years with the Diamondbacks, he hit a solid .275/.323/.453 while playing five different positions. And with several more years of team control, he’ll give Toronto cheap depth and upside at second, third and the outfield. He’s no star, but he’s a passable starter on a second-division club.
McKinney, meanwhile, has seen his star dim since getting picked in the first round by the A’s in 2013. This is already the third trade of the 23-year-old outfielder’s career: He went from Oakland to Chicago for Jeff Samardzija in 2014, then from the Cubs to the Yankees in ’16 as part of the package for Aroldis Chapman. Now he heads to Canada as the owner of a .230/.307/.481 line across three levels of the minors this year. Most of that time has been spent at Triple A, where he’s bashed 13 homers in 54 games (good!) but also walked only 18 times in 228 plate appearances (less good!). He’s probably a reserve outfielder in the making, but like Drury, he offers cost-controlled depth with upside.
All in all, it’s a decent get for the Blue Jays for a pitcher who was gone come November. But it’s worth noting that while Drury and McKinney aren’t disposable, they likely weren’t in the Yankees’ future plans either. Just like his trade for Zach Britton, Brian Cashman proves adept at trading roster overflow for pieces he needs now.
Blue Jays: B
Brewers get: RHP Joakim Soria, $1M
White Sox get: LHP Kodi Medeiros, RHP Wilber Perez
The Brewers’ biggest need this deadline is starting pitching, as their rotation is currently in the “Starting Wade Miley because we have literally no other options” stage. That’s not a place you want to be! The bullpen, conversely, is a strength, with the trio of Corey Knebel, Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress—the latter two All-Stars this season—locking down leads with aplomb. So naturally, Milwaukee’s first trade this summer is to acquire a 34-year-old setup man.
That may seem a misallocation of resources, but like the Yankees with Britton, the thinking here is likely that, if you can’t make the rotation better, make your bullpen deep and overpowering. Soria will help in that regard. Despite his advanced age, the Mexican righty has shone for the White Sox this year, with a 2.56 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings as the team’s closer. He doesn’t walk batters or give up home runs, and though he doesn’t blow his fastball by you at 93 mph, he boasts a wicked slider and changeup that respectively have swing-and-miss rates of 24.6 and 19.5% this year. He’s also death on righties, holding same-side hitters to a minuscule .200/.256/.238 line.
To get Soria, the Brewers had to give up a former first-round pick in Medeiros, who checked in at No. 13 in the team’s top 30 prospects before the season, per MLB.com. The 22-year-old Hawaiian lefty has a funky delivery from a three-quarters slot and has pitched well at Double A this year, with a 3.14 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 103 1/3 innings, mostly as a starter. His lack of velocity and command, though, mean he’s probably bound for the bullpen, where he could be an impact arm thanks to his plus slider from the left side. Perez is further away, as a 20-year-old in the Dominican Summer League. Already way too old for that level of competition, he’s a total lottery ticket that probably won’t pay out.
A lefty specialist and a far-away underwhelming righty might seem light for a pitcher of Soria’s caliber, but he’s a free agent this winter. Return-wise, it’s better than what the Mets got for Jeurys Familia and slightly below what the Orioles received for Britton. And besides, all the White Sox want are young bodies to throw onto their ever-expanding pile of prospects.
The Brewers, though, can’t stop with Soria. Rotation help is still needed. Medeiros wasn’t going to be the headliner of any package for a starter, but it does feel like Milwaukee might have been better served using him to fix that problem instead.
White Sox: B-
Rockies get: RHP Seunghwan Oh
Blue Jays get: 1B Chad Spanberger, OF Forrest Wall
The Rockies’ bullpen is bad. Really bad. Like, cover your kids’ eyes and don’t let them watch this bad. Colorado relievers have the worst ERA in the National League (5.26, good for 29th in the majors) as well as the highest WHIP (1.46), fourth-highest walk rate (10.7%) and sixth-lowest Fangraphs WAR (1.6). Closer Wade Davis was given a three-year, $52 million deal this winter and has rewarded the Rockies with a 4.50 ERA and 22 walks in 42 innings. Fellow free-agent addition Bryan Shaw has a 6.98 ERA (!) in 40 innings. Southpaw Jake McGee is at 5.97 in 34 2/3 frames, and lefties are hitting a bananas .346/.424/.654 against him. Adam Ottavino (a 1.49 ERA and 74 whiffs in 48 1/3 innings) is the lone light in the darkness, but he can’t hold the shadows back forever.
Enter Oh. The one-time Cardinals closer was available on the cheap this winter after a rough 2017 (a 4.10 ERA and the job lost in mid-July) and a near-signing with Texas that was called off due to a failed physical. The Rangers’ loss was Toronto’s gain, though: The Jays nabbed the Korean righty for a mere $1.75 million, and he’s given them a 2.68 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 47 innings as their top setup man.
Oh dominates righties (a .459 OPS against this season) but is vulnerable to lefties (.950 with a .537 slugging percentage). At 35, he doesn’t throw all that hard, averaging 92.1 mph on his four-seam fastball, and he’s a touch fragile. But he commands that fastball well and gets swings and misses, boasting a 13.8% whiff rate. He also has a nasty slider; batters are hitting just .219 against it.
That should be a big help to Colorado’s awful relief corps, though almost anyone with a pulse would count as such. It’s also a sign that the Rockies think their recent surge—13–5 in July and eight wins in their last 10 to climb within 1 ½ games of both first place in the NL West and the second wild-card spot—is a truer representation of their talent than their sub-.500 record going into the month. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle: Fangraphs gives Colorado just a 23.8% chance of making the playoffs. And even if Oh can make that bullpen better, he won’t help improve a weak lineup or thin rotation.
The cost for that much-needed bullpen help was Spanberger and Wall, whose names scream “North Carolina All-State Lacrosse Team.” The former is a 22-year-old first baseman with power for days; peep his .579 slugging percentage and 22 homers in 380 plate appearances for Class A Asheville this season and his gonzo performance at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby. Unfortunately, his 5.3% walk rate this year is ugly, and he offers little either with the glove or on the bases. He’ll need to slug his way to the majors.
As for Wall, he’s a 22-year-old former first-rounder who switched from second base to the outfield. Aside from his time at the launch pad that is Lancaster in the High A California League, he hasn’t hit much and is slashing a meager .206/.289/.359 in Double A, though he does flash some speed.
For the Blue Jays, though, that kind of return is pretty good considering how little Oh cost this winter. Colorado at least has the option of hanging onto Oh next year, as he has a team option for 2019. But while he does help an area of need, the long-shot Rockies might have been better off holding onto their chips.
Blue Jays: B+
Astros get: C Martin Maldonado
Angels get: LHP Patrick Sandoval, $250,000 in international pool money
For everything that’s gone right for the Astros in their title defense, catcher hasn’t been one of them. Brian McCann has played just 50 games due to injuries and hit a horrid .206/.283/.323 when healthy. Max Stassi has been fine as his replacement, slashing .246/.330/.434 and grading out as the league’s best pitch framer to boot. But a better backup was in order, with peripatetic veteran Tim Federowicz offering little with the stick or glove.
Maldonado’s not the second coming of Johnny Bench, but the 31-year-old Puerto Rican is still an upgrade over Federowicz and anyone else Houston has lying around. And he’s got a reputation as a good pitch framer, though his numbers are down in that department this year. As a depth piece in case McCann can’t get back healthy, you could do a lot worse, though there isn’t much to cheer for here.
The Angels’ return is Sandoval, a 21-year-old lefty currently toiling in high A ball. Across two levels of the minors this year, he’s got a 3.07 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 88 innings primarily in the rotation. He throws strikes and doesn’t walk guys, but with a fastball that sits in the low 90s and some average secondary stuff, he’s probably a back-of-the-rotation starter. Still, that’s a solid get for a backup catcher, and proof of just how deep the Astros’ farm system is that they can practically give away a pitcher like that.
What will be interesting to see now is if the Angels move more into the seller category as the deadline draws nearer. Maldonado wasn’t key to any pennant chase, but at 51–52 and buried in both the AL West and wild-card races, Los Angeles’ hopes are probably finished, making it time to cash out on any notable free agents. Unfortunately for the Angels, there aren’t many of those on this roster, unless someone wants to invest in a worn-out Ian Kinsler. Another postseason will go by sans Mike Trout. What a bummer.