Relievers: The Rock Stars of the 2016 Trade Deadline
It is a bit of a mystery to me and I am sure infuriating to Scott Boras that Stephen Strasburg signed an extension with the Washington Nationals before he reached free agency. When you look at the 2016-2017 Free Agent class of pitchers (and batters for that matter) it is barren and it will have a significant impact on this years trade deadline. There are a lot of contending teams that have a need for starting pitching and few viable options available and even fewer that would be considered affordable.
That means that decision makers like Dave Dombrowski in Boston, Andrew Friedman in Los Angeles, and Dan Duquette in Baltimore will be forced to choose between backend innings eaters or overpaying for imperfect and risky front end starters or they can go the path that some teams have done in recent off seasons; relievers. The 2016 trade deadline is going to be defined by middle relievers and possibly the days that define Dave Dombrowski's future as the Boston Red Sox leader. Dombrowski already added a solid reliever (Brad Ziegler) and a risky but significant upgrade (Drew Pomeranz), but they still aren't the clear favorites to win the East or the World Series. That being said, the Orioles, Jays, Dodgers, Cardinals and Pirates are on the clock.
Top tier starting pitchers are rarely traded, but if they are it is almost always under certain specific conditions. David Price was traded at two different trade deadlines. C.C. Sabathia and Randy Johnson were both dealt at the deadline and even Jon Lester was moved from a major market team to a low-budget organization - the Oakland Athletics. Those deals happened because the players were set to hit free agency in the offseason or the offseason after in the case of Price, when the Tampa Bay Rays tried to maximize their return on a player they knew was eventually going to leave for a much bigger paycheck than they could afford to offer. Another scenario that can lead to a pitcher with a quality resume being traded is a bloated contract with a multiple of years remaining and often that bloated contract comes with declining performance - like James Shields to the White Sox this season.
There are some pitchers that loosely fit those conditions this year, but there aren't any aces that compare to the pitchers I mentioned. Rich Hill will be a free agent this off season and has pitched very well this season, but with his age and a lack of a recent work history I wouldn't include him in the class of pitchers I mentioned above, even Jon Lester, who might be the closest comparison. Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana in Minnesota, Jered Weaver in Los Angeles or if you really want to toss a wide net C.C. Sabathia in New York fit the latter example, but in order to make a player intriguing to a team they have to be able to perform and neither of these pitchers have been effective enough to warrant legitimate interest.
We have heard Ervin Santana's name thrown around, but a 4.50 ERA and a 1.40 Whip with two years and $28 million remaining puts him closely comparable to James Shields and only moderately appealing to a contender. Some mediocre or bad starting pitchers will be traded at this deadline because there are a few teams that are so desperate, but the price is likely to be minimal and the impact could result in more harm than good which should give General Managers reason for pause regardless of the price.
The starting pitchers that will be in highest demand bring enough risk or a high enough price tag that they are the least likely to be traded. Those are the top of the rotation starting pitchers that are under affordable, longer term team control. Pitchers like Sonny Gray of the A's (three arbitration eligible years), Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves (3-4 years and $26.3-$37.3 million), Jose Fernandez of the Marlins (two arbitration eligible years), and Tyson Ross of the Padres (one arbitration eligible year) and Drew Pomeranz was on this list before he was traded to the Red Sox for top prospect Anderson Espinoza. A controversial trade that I will address in my next posting.
These are the types of starters that the Red Sox are desperate to add, the Blue Jays could probably use and a variety of other teams could significantly improve their chances of winning a world series title if they could find a way to add to their rotations. Very few teams have the prospects to afford the hefty price that these types of starters will demand and the teams that do may find the expense too rich.
Are the Red Sox willing to trade Yoan Moncada AND Andrew Benintendi to acquire three or four years of Sonny Gray or Julio Teheran? Do the Texas Rangers believe that Gray or Teheran puts them over the top - possibly for the next two or three seasons - and therefore justifies trading some combination of Jurickson Profar, Joey Gallo and Lewis Brinson and possibly even lower level prospects like Dillon Tate or Eric Jenkins to finish off a large package?
David Ortiz is in his final season while Dave Dombrowski is in his first, so maybe the Red Sox are willing to extend themselves even further than they already have and the Rangers made a bold move adding Cole Hamels at the 2015 trade deadline so it is possible that they are already pot committed to go the extra mile this year. There are few that have the minor league assets to afford them and even fewer that can compete with the Red Sox and the Rangers if either of them engage seriously at these kinds of prices.
What does that leave? It leaves adding offense, which fewer teams have a serious need for, back end fourth and fifth starters that won't separate possible contenders from eventual pretenders or upgrades in the bullpen, which has become a popular trend in recent off seasons.
The bullpens are where the influx of change is going to happen at this trade deadline. A team can always use a situational specialist or an impact late inning reliever and it won't cost Yoan Moncada or Lewis Brinson. It won't fully satisfy what the contending teams need to significantly separate themselves from their competition, but it is a realistic compromise of risk, reward and most importantly, cost.
On July 8, 2008, the Milwaukee Brewers traded outfield prospect Matt LaPorta, pitchers Rob Bryson and Zach Jackson and a player to be named later for C.C. Sabathia, who went on to dominate the National League and earn the Brew Crew a spot in the Wild Card. That kind of prospect package wouldn't land a contender Andrew Miller or David Robertson in this market and it certainly won't be enough to acquire the top starting pitchers in this era of baseball, but it would be more than enough to acquire a middle reliever that can contribute in high-leverage innings at the end of close games.
First Tier Bullpen Market
Andrew Miller~Dellin Betances~David Robertson~Mark Melancon
I don't consider the White Sox or Yankees legitimate playoff contenders and because of that I believe their top relievers need to be considered potential trade targets. Mark Melancon of the Pittsburgh Pirates should be available for the right price even though they should be in contention right up until October 1st. I have doubts about the Dodgers and Royals ability to stay in it, which should make Kenley Jansen an intriguing player to discuss and I would like to think the same about A.J. Ramos of the Miami Marlins, but neither of them will fall out of contention in time for them to be obtainable so I left them out of this elite class.
Second Tier Bullpen Market
Aroldis Chapman (Yankees) ~ Steve Cishek (Mariners)~Tony Watson (Pirates)~Jeremy Jeffress (Brewers)
These relievers have the "stuff" to be a significant upgrade in the seventh or eighth innings, but who could also close if a closer goes down (Craig Kimbrel) or if a contender is in need of a ninth inning upgrade (Cubs/Rangers/Astros). None of the relievers in this tier would slide right in and be elite closers, but they could be serviceable if the demand was there. They won't provide their teams with an elite prospect in return so it is difficult to gauge whether it makes sense for the teams who currently have them to trade them, but contenders absolutely could use them.
Non-contenders don't have a huge need for dominant seventh and eighth inning performance on their way to 85-100 losses, but if they don't land a prospect that can impact their team in 2017 or 2018 then they could be better served from their performance in the coming seasons than the prospects they receive in return. GM's should "over-ask" or package these relievers in bigger trades to maximize the impact of the return. One way to maximize value is to target high-upside prospects in the lower minors. There is a lot of risk, but if the GM hits then they look like a genius. The Diamondbacks did that for Brad Ziegler (Luis Alexander Basabe and Jose Almonte)
I don't consider Aroldis Chapman a first-tier bullpen option in this trade market because a two month rental won't provide the kind of prospect return that the first-tier relievers can. Jurickson Profar, Joey Gallo, Jorge Soler or Kyle Schwarber shouldn't be on the table for Chapman while they all could be for the top tier relievers. The Yankees should trade Andrew Miller or Dellin Betances (but not both) because of the return and keep Chapman, then tag him with the qualifying offer so that they obtain a first round pick when he signs his free agent contract in the 2016-2017 offseason. It would be a significant surprise to see Aroldis Chapman signed as a free agent by a team with a protected first round Amateur Draft pick, which makes him a perfect player to tag with the qualifying offer and could make his asking price higher than many teams want to pay for a rental.
Third Tier Bullpen Market
Boone Logan (Rockies) ~ Zach Duke (White Sox) ~ Tyler Thornburg (Brewers)
Hector Neris (Phillies) ~ Brandon Kinzler and Michael Tonkin (Twins)
These relievers have value to the teams that have them but it is in smaller samples and their WAR won't overly impress advanced analytics warriors. The return is likely to be minimal and fans in many cases won't be floored by their good fortune if they are able to obtain them, but they are niche contributors that are elite at the small tasks they do.
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