With the Manny Machado matter sorted, teams have moved on to more incremental upgrades in the form of relief arms. We’ve seen a mess of relievers change hands in the last handful of days and, given the sheer number of innings pitched by the bullpen come the postseason, these moves might end up being more important than we might expect. On to the analysis...
Indians Get Brad Hand and Adam Cimber / Padres Get Francisco Mejía
I’ve written recently about just how bad the Indians’ bullpen has been this season, but a quick reminder: 5.34 ERA (29th in MLB), 5.01 FIP (30th) and -1.5 fWAR (29th). This trade should certainly help them out quite a bit, even if it came at a steep cost.
Since Hand moved from Miami to San Diego in 2016, he’s has been one of the best lefty relievers around. His 3.8 fWAR over that time period puts him in a tie for 14th place amongst relievers of either handedness. While his 2018 ERA (3.18) is up a whole digit from last season, he’s still striking out over 13 hitters per 9 and has remained quite effective. With three years of team control at a reasonable cost ($14 million for 2019 and 2020 and $10 million option/$1 million buyout in 2021), he’s also a move for Cleveland’s future, which is especially important with both Andrew Miller and Cody Allen’s contracts up after this season.
Cimber doesn’t have the track record that Hand does, but he’s actually been the better pitcher in his rookie season. Overall, he’s turned in a 3.12 ERA, 2.34 FIP and 1.1 fWAR campaign over 49 IP and his submarine delivery gives him one of the lowest release points in MLB, which he’s made use of en route to an excellent 53.1% groundball rate. Rookie and all, he also comes with five remaining years of team control.
Rather than spread their risk and reward over multiple prospects as the Orioles did with Machado, Padres GM A.J. Preller received only one prospect back in the trade, but he was a consensus top prospect in the form of Mejía (15 at MLB.com, 5 at Baseball Prospectus). While Mejía is highly ranked, he was going to have a hard time finding a place on Cleveland’s current roster, as he’s currently blocked by All Star catcher Yan Gomes. There are also questions about whether Mejía will even stick at catcher long-term, which would certainly sap some of his potential value for his team in the future.
Given the prices that teams have paid in recent years for top-level relief arms (including those paid for Aroldis Chapman and Miller, by these here Indians), it’s certainly not surprising to see a top prospect moving in order to procure a whole bunch of team control over a couple of effective relievers, no matter how much variance there is when it comes to year-to-year performances by relievers. When you consider the path to playing time for Mejía, the fact that Cleveland has a clear contention window open right now and the fact that Cleveland could go from having one of the worst bullpens in the game to having one of the best with some second-half bouncebacks, it’s a completely reasonable deal on their end.
But it’s not just Cleveland who wins in this trade, as San Diego further strengthened their farm system which was already one of the best in the game. Given that the Padres now have 7 of the top 50 prospects in baseball per MLB.com and 10 of the top 100, it’s not hard to draw parallels between the Cubs and the Astros as they approached the end of their respective rebuilds.
Grades: A- for Indians; A- for Padres
Cubs Get Jesse Chavez / Rangers Get Tyler Thomas
Chicago’s bullpen situation (2.4 fWAR, 15th in MLB) may not be not be quite as dire as Cleveland’s, but that doesn’t mean they needn’t look for some help, both to fend off the Brewers (who are 2.5 games back) and to prepare for the postseason. Even if Chicago has the most well-rounded offense in MLB, the fact that closer Brandon Morrow just recently headed back to the DL underscored the need.
While Chavez is clearly thought of as a journeyman at this point in his career, he’s having a relatively decent year overall this season, with a 3.34 ERA/4.17 FIP over 59-plus innings. One area where he has done particularly well is in limiting his walks, with a 1.82 BB/9 which is well below his career 2.94 average. Not coincidentally, Cubs relievers are posting a collective 4.29 BB/9, which is the 2nd worst mark in MLB.
Chicago’s relief corps have also been asked to carry a particularly large workload, with their 371-plus innings notching them the 7th most innings pitched by any team. Chavez should also help out his new, tired comrades on that front. Prior to the trade, 18 of his 30 appearances this season were for longer than an inning. Indeed, in two games with the Cubs, Chavez has already put in three innings of work.
Given Chavez’s performance, history and contract ($1.5 million for the entirety of the season), the prospect cost for the Cubs wasn’t all that high. Thomas is a 22-year old LHP who’s putting a a 2.88 ERA, 9.7 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 in A-ball this year. He’s a decent enough lottery ticket, and an absolutely reasonable return for putting Chavez with the team that could use him the most.
Grades: A- for Cubs; A- for Rangers
A’s Get Jeurys Familia / Mets Get Bobby Wahl, Will Toffey & International Pool Money
That the A’s are even buyers right now is one of the most pleasant surprises in a season that, on a team level, has contained relatively few of them. After winning 24 of their last 31 games, Oakland currently sits just 2.5 games back from Seattle for the second Wild Card spot. While their bullpen has been very good, with a 3.56 ERA that ranks 7th in MLB and 3.2 fWAR that ranks 9th, they have been rolling out one of the most unimpressive rotations (4.9 fWAR, 22nd in MLB) among teams contending for a postseason appearance.
While a top-end starter might not have been in the picture for Oakland (and probably shouldn’t have been, given the precarious nature of their postseason chances), they procured a top-end reliever instead. Familia has a 2.74 ERA/2.53 FIP with excellent peripherals (9.28 K/9, 2.95 BB/9, 0.21 HR/9) and has notched 17 saves and 1.3 fWAR (tied for 13th among relievers). Familia takes another inning away from the sketchy starters and gives some of his tired bullpen mates a rest.
As for the Mets, it’s been yet another season of unpleasant surprises. Matt Harvey is apparently almost league-average now that he’s in Cincinnati and Noah Syndergaard apparently has hand-foot-and-mouth disease. The Mets are 14 games back and have a worse record than the Marlins. They were clearly going to trade Familia, but the return isn’t particularly inspiring.
The first player headed to New York is Wahl, a 26-year-old, righty reliever who is having an excellent season in AAA, but has struggled with constant injuries. The second, Toffey, is a 23-year old third baseman who doesn’t have much in the way of power and, well, Oakland has Matt Chapman anyway. It’s certainly possible that the $1 million in international bonus pool money could be the biggest part of the package.
Given the players they gave up, you do this trade every time if you’re Oakland (assuming you’re willing to ignore the off-the field domestic violence issues from the not-too-distant past). Yes, Familia is on an expiring contract, but it’s also unlikely that we’ll see a reliever having a better season change hands. I don’t want to be another writer piling it for Mets’ fans, but this is a hard pill to swallow, even if it seems like all you ever do is swallow non-soft pills.
Grades: A for A’s; D+ for Mets