- Did the Brewers and Astros make savvy decisions in trading for Mike Moustakas and Ryan Pressly, respectively, over the weekend?
Another day (or night, rather), another series of trades. As we get closer and closer to the deadline, contenders continue to bolster their rosters. Let’s round up and grade Saturday’s (and Friday night’s) notable deals, including a curious infield addition in Milwaukee and a stealthy bullpen move in Houston.
Brewers get: 3B Mike Moustakas
Royals get: OF Brett Phillips, RHP Jorge Lopez
Congrats to Milwaukee for making the first galaxy brain trade of the summer, picking up the veteran Moustakas from last-place Kansas City for a pair of prospects late Friday night. It’s a curious move for the Brewers, given that the team’s biggest holes right now are in the starting rotation and at second base and shortstop, not the hot corner already occupied by the quite good Travis Shaw.
Here’s where the real radical thinking kicks in though: Milwaukee’s plan is to install Moustakas at third base and move Shaw over to second. Has Shaw played even a single inning at the keystone in his professional baseball career? Nope.
I know what you’re thinking: Why not just get a regular second baseman instead? It’s not like the market has been short on those. The same day the Brewers picked up Moustakas, Asdrubal Cabrera and Eduardo Escobar—both with actual experience at second—were dealt to the Phillies and Diamondbacks, respectively. Neither cost a fortune in prospects. If Milwaukee didn’t like either of those choices, there were other options: the Twins’ Brian Dozier, the Orioles’ Jonathan Schoop, the Angels’ Ian Kinsler, and the Reds’ Scooter Gennett were probably all available to varying degrees.
Maybe the Brewers just liked Moustakas more than those players (or found his price more manageable). But the 29-year-old hasn’t had a huge season, hitting .249/.309/.468 with 20 homers, a 111 OPS+ and 2.2 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version). The power is nice, and defensively, Moustakas ranges anywhere from good to acceptable. But his game is full of holes. He’s allergic to walks, drawing a free pass in just 7.2% of his plate appearances. A lefty-swinger, he’s pull-happy, which plays right into defensive shift strategies—and wouldn’t you know it, he sees an extra infielder on the right side 61.6% of the time this season, which is 30th among all hitters with 100 or more plate appearances in 2018. His weighted on-base average with the shift off is .371; against it, that number plummets to .304.
There’s also the fact that Moustakas is going on three straight months of subpar production. In March and April, he hit a strong .302/.336/.578 with eight homers in 122 plate appearances. Since then, though, he’s put up a mediocre .225/.298/.420 line in 295 trips to the plate. That includes a brutal month of July in which he’s hitting .191/.276/.426. Oh, and he’s a painfully slow runner, ranking in the lowest quartile of the league in Sprint Speed—and that’s a massive improvement from 2017, when he was in the bottom 10% overall.
For this, the Brewers will monkey around with Shaw, who’s having a similar but better season: .246/.344/.468 with 19 homers, a 114 OPS+ and 2.9 WAR, as well as good glove work at third. In essence, the Brewers went out and got the older, less patient version of Shaw in order to make the current one play a harder defensive position that he has to learn on the fly in the middle of a pennant race. That doesn’t exactly scream “good idea.”
And on top of that, Milwaukee gave up two of its best trade chips in Phillips and Lopez. The former is a 24-year-old snagged from Houston three years ago as part of a package for Carlos Gomez (along with Josh Hader and Domingo Santana; think the Astros want that one back?). He entered the season as the team’s No. 10 prospect on MLB.com’s rankings after hitting .305/.377/.567 in Triple A last year, but a second tour of that level hasn’t gone as well in 2018, as he’s slumped to a .240/.331/.411 line. Phillips is prone to strikeouts—his whiff rate in Triple A is an ugly 31.4%—but he does offer power and top-flight defense in the outfield—and the best laugh in baseball.
Lopez, meanwhile, was once of the Brewers’ top pitching prospects, only to be derailed by a nightmare 2016 season in Triple A: a 7.49 ERA and 55 walks in 79 1/3 innings. That prompted a switch from the rotation to the bullpen, though the 25-year-old Puerto Rican righty still has issues with command. On the plus side, his fastball touches 97, and his curveball is above average. If the Royals can figure out his control problems, they could have themselves an impact relief option. And if nothing else, both Phillips and Lopez are MLB-ready now.
For Milwaukee, though, both players were expendable. A crowded outfield full of productive players closed off Phillips’ avenues to major league playing time, and while Lopez has gotten cups of coffee in the Brewers’ bullpen the last two years, he was unable to turn them into longer stays. As such, though both players have oodles of potential, they’re sensible pieces to move.
But was this the trade to use them for? The Brewers believe Moustakas can make a difference in the lineup. There’s some logic to that: He’ll be in by far a better lineup and a better park for lefty power hitters than cavernous Kauffman Stadium. But unless you’re adding a true elite bat like J.D. Martinez, picking offense over defense is a rough way to try to add wins. Milwaukee would’ve been better off getting a true second baseman (or shortstop; both positions have been a mess all year) or using chips like Phillips and Lopez to acquire a much-needed starter. This feels like a dubious decision by the Brewers.
Astros get: RHP Ryan Pressly
Twins get: OF Gilberto Celestino, RHP Jorge Alcala
It’s been a quiet deadline for the World Series winners, whose only move before Friday had been to add some catching depth in veteran Martin Maldonado. On the surface, picking up Pressly may feel like more of the same. The 29-year-old righty is a name that most people likely don’t know, toiling as he was in the Twins’ anonymous bullpen. It’s not the kind of trade you expect a defending champion to make.
But as with so many of Houston’s personnel choices, it’s quietly a great pickup that should have a big impact down the road. Pressly may not look like a relief ace, but he’s pitched like one, punching out 69 batters in 47 2/3 innings. His 33.2% strikeout rate ranks 16th in the majors—better than, to pick a few, Felipe Vazquez, Joakim Soria, Kenley Jansen, Cody Allen, and new teammates Hector Rondon and Chris Devenski. His swinging-strike rate of 18.0%, meanwhile, is fifth highest in baseball, which tops Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman, among many other nasty relievers. Pressly has put up elite results.
His stuff is elite, too. Pressly’s four-seamer buzzes in at 96.3 mph and can touch 99. His slider, which flies in at a hard 89 mph, has a ridiculous swing-and-miss rate of 55.8% and a .222 batting average against. And his curveball is a devastating two-strike weapon against lefty hitters, who are batting just .158 with zero extra-base hits against it on the year.
What helps is that his fastball has absurd spin on it, with an average 2,580 RPM, which is fifth highest among all pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances against them. His curveball, meanwhile, tumbles in at 3,199 RPM on average—third highest among all pitchers in the game, and better even than new teammates Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh.
Unsurprisingly, the data-heavy Astros have made a bit of a tendency out of picking up guys who can spin the ball, and Pressly definitely fits that bill. High-spin fastballs generally lead to more strikeouts, and high-spin curves usually drop more, creating more ground balls. That makes for a hard pitcher to square up, which has been exactly the case with Pressly.
That kind of pitcher shouldn’t come cheap, and he didn’t for Houston, which gave up two top-20 prospects from its system. Celestino, 19 and already at Double A, is a Dominican outfielder with a great arm, plus speed and excellent defensive instincts in center, as well as a good hit tool, though not much power quite yet. Alcala, a 23-year-old Dominican righty, is also at Double A, where he’s posted a 3.76 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings between the rotation and bullpen. He has a booming fastball that sits 95–98 mph and can reach triple digits, though his secondary pitches are works in progress, as his so-so strikeout rate suggests.
Those are excellent additions to Minnesota’s future, especially coming off its nice haul for Eduardo Escobar earlier Friday. But while the Astros will miss them, their system seems to pump out a dozen pitchers like Alcala every year, and Celestino was likely a while away from making a major league impact. Plus, Pressly is no rental: He has another year of cheap team control before hitting free agency.
All in all, it’s a good move for both sides. The Astros get a stellar reliever to deepen their bullpen, and the Twins add some nice pieces for the future. The only real surprise is that no other team jumped on Pressly, though Houston’s terrific farm system likely gave it a leg up in that chase.