Useless Trade Speculation, Vol. 3 – Starting Pitching
Photo credit:Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
By Tammy Rainey5 months ago
The movement of the free agent market, especially the Kiermaier signing, has perhaps shifted the landscape under our feet a bit on how the Jays will address their two significant holes as we move through the off-season. It doesn’t necessarily obviate some of the previous speculation (beyond presumed targets who went elsewhere such as Andrew Heaney) but the things we’ve learned in the past couple of weeks do also flesh out some theories and cast a pall on some others.
First, a mild mea culpa: When I wrote the column proposing a Reynolds/Kirk trade I was wholly unaware that Endy Rodriguez existed, let alone that Pipeline rated him the 10th-best catching prospect in baseball and that he reached AAA last season at the end of a red-hot season. He’s maybe not quite ready for opening day but his presence, along with top prospect Henry Davis a couple of years behind, undermines my case for their placing a lot of value in Alejandro Kirk. Reynolds remains a very nice fit for the Jays – even more so given that any defensive worries are now covered and he can work more in LF if necessary – but it’s going to need a much different offer, likely one led by pitching. The latest reporting (Rosenthal) is that the prospect price here is very high though, described as a “Soto-type package” by one rival executive.
That said, the Jays would be better served to address that particular opening, again now that CF defense is less of a factor, by signing Michael Conforto. Some amalgam of the structure of Cody Bellinger’s deal (reasonable base with significant escalators if he returns to prime production) and Carlos Rodon’s last deal (a few years of security that he can opt out of after the first year if he ends up becoming an offensive force again) should appeal to both sides. It’s obvious, I think, that it’s better to have Conforto and keep whatever one would have to trade to get Reynolds than it is to have Reynolds and lose the prospect capital, but I digress.
These circumstances make it less likely that the Jays will involve their abundance of catcher value on any of the young outfielders like those in Arizona, since KK’s presence makes a more certain offensive contributor more valuable and taking a chance on someone like Jake McCarthy being for real is maybe not a “window of opportunity” play (albeit if you could make that move without trading a catcher you should certainly still find it attractive).
So, the upshot of all this is that the pendulum may have swung back to using the catcher for a difference-making starting pitcher, but there’s a flaw in that slaw too.
It’s not untrue that there remain viable options for the 4th starter slot in this rotation. Laying aside that Carlos Rodon remains available (given all the buzz says the Jays are not in on that market) there remain six-eight reasonably rational fits for the job ranging from Chris Bassitt to, say, Johnny Cueto. The reporting indicates that the front office is both confident in Berrios rebounding to be part of a top-shelf top-three and are committed to trying to make Kikuchi work in the fifth spot (and White as a first-in-line option should he continue to struggle, which by the way, I take the view that we shouldn’t assume the White we got after the trade is all that he is). If that’s true, then there are different expectations for a fourth starter than you might be looking for if you’re fixated on Rodon. However, there’s a real possibility that if they signed, say, Noah Syndergaard for that job they might not trade a catcher at all this offseason. (worth noting in this regard that Shi Davidi just remarked that they were trying to trade Danny Jansen for St. Louis closer Ryan Helsley which would open up a whole other discussion of catcher trading so I’ll lay that aside for now)
But here’s the flaw I mentioned – there are a lot less quality starting pitching out there that’s both in play for a trade and on a team that could really use a catcher upgrade. In fact, I can really only identify two teams that are thus situated: Milwaukee and Miami. MAYBE Houston? The Brewers have some depth, with six SP who did respectable work last year and a couple of well-regarded prospects at AAA, but there’s a drop-off in value-match as you go through that list and compare it to the value of our catchers. There are a couple of couple of names who are worth a good bit more, and down the list worth not enough. There is a possible match but I’ll save that for next time.
Today I want to work in a more fertile field: The Miami Marlins.
Miami is theoretically among the more than half-dozen teams still in the market for a catcher (though seldom listed among them) with a well below-average incumbent and lacking a near-term prospect to wait on. Against this demand there are two, maybe three free agents worth coveting and one other team with a star-level catcher to trade (Oakland). The best outcome for the Jays would see them deal Sean Murphy to a team in need who doesn’t have the pitching to be a match for the Jays, such as the Cubs or the Padres. What sets Miami apart is that they have in hand six legitimate quality established SP AND two highly regarded SP prospects on the doorstep of the majors. No other team has the ability to deal from such depth and a team that can would certainly rather use it to get a Jansen or a Kirk than settle for a flyer on the Mike Zunino types on the market.
So let’s survey the goodies available on the Marlins aisle. We can walk on past Sandy Alcantara as he is (deservedly) designated as not for sale (and he just agreed to an incredibly team-friendly deal in light of where contract prices have gone this month). Next, we come to 27-year-old Pablo Lopez, who has two years of control remaining, as does Danny Jansen, then Trevor Rogers, and Jesus Luzardo who are going into their age 25 season and have four years of team control left (as does Kirk) as well as fellow 25-year-olds (in 2023) Braxton Garrett and Edward Cabrera who have five. Rogers, Luzardo and Garrett are lefties. I’ll add that if they want to talk about Moreno then prospects Max Meyer and Sixto Sanchez enter the chat but that’s a bit in the weeds for our purposes. So let’s consider these five options:
Now, if you’re not familiar with these folks you might be asking yourself “why are we even including this Rogers guy in the discussion?” Let me clear that up. In 2021, Rogers threw 113 innings with a 2.64 ERA (28.5 K%, 8.4 BB%, and a 3.54 xFIP) and he was the Rookie of the Year runner-up. There’s not as much public information about his struggles as we’d like, though he spent almost all of August on the IL due to back spasms and we can’t say how long he was trying to pitch through that before being sidelined. When he returned he reeled off three starts in which he walked three, struck out 22 and allowed six earned runs in 18.1 IP, before being pulled from his next game with a lat strain that would end his season. But here’s the thing, just because WE don’t have knowledge of this doesn’t mean the Blue Jays don’t, ya know, considering that the newly-hired Don Mattingly was his manager last year. I’m going to stipulate he belongs in the discussion.
Backing up a step to Lopez, whom some might speculate would be more available due to having less control (and contra-wise, the Jays might be looking at him as the one among these they can get for Jansen if, in fact, they prefer to hold their younger and more controllable catchers). Though his 2022 was a fine year it was actually a mild regression from an even better 2021. Coming into the year the one question was how he’d hold up over a full season since he hadn’t exceeded 112 IP in his career to that point. He did have a 10-start stretch coming out of the all-star break which included four horrible outings, but he also finished strong in September. There’s a pretty straightforward value match here between Lopez and Jansen and such a deal would add a modest $2 million to the Jays’ payroll to solve one of their major holes. In this deal, though, as in all these deals, it would be an entirely reasonable choice to overpay somewhat given the added benefit of the money not being spent on the free agent market. A Spencer Horwitz or Otto Lopez or Josh Kasavich or whatever to sweeten the deal would be a no-brainer.
Luzardo was basically average in 2020 which is respectable for a 22-year-old in his first “full” season but took a big step back in 2021 and found himself swapped to Miami for Sterling Marte. There’s not a lot in the stat line to explain the regression, though his BB and HR/9 rate jumped and his LOB% dropped from 78% to 65.4%. More baserunners and a higher proportion of homers tend to cause problems. But that not only stabilized in 2022 but he added a nice spike in K rate.
Let me take a slightly different angle on Garrett. In AAA to begin the 2021 season, Garrett’s numbers looked very much like those in the table above. Exact same K%, slightly higher but not eye-catching BB%, 3.89 ERA. But then he got promoted and his walk rate basically exploded. From 9% to 12.6% and his BABiP allowed jumped by 100 points. In 2022 he cut his walk rate in half and there’s no reason to think that’s not sustainable.
Finally, Cabrera had seven underwhelming outings in 2021 but he made noticeable strides in his HR rate and BB rate (albeit it was still higher than you’d like) in 2022. What’s instructive is to look at his minor league history that, for the most part, is not that of a guy with control issues and is the profile of a guy with a lot of swing and miss. So let’s look at the Steamer projections for this group:
Note that Cabrera’s minor league work likely doesn’t inform the projected BB rate here. Which in turn affects his other projections. But having said that, on performance, there’s almost no clear distinction among these in terms of whom you’d prefer to acquire. The Marlins’ internal evaluations might provide some separation (and again, Mattingly’s input here will be invaluable0 but looking in from the outside, I’d argue that coming away with any of them would be a fine day’s work for the Blue Jays. In fact, if I were Ross Atkins I’d be on this hunt so obsessively that the Marlins would either make a deal or get a restraining order. My hunch is that the guys who have fine years left are not the sort of players that they tend to trade, but if we’re speaking of Jansen for Lopez or Kirk for any of the others, there’s really not a bad deal to be made here.
That’s not to mention the downstream effects. If you don’t add significant payroll. There should be no financial obstacle to adding Conforto (obviously finances might not be his only consideration) and still have the money to, say, Taylor Rogers if Atkins still thinks he needs to add another swing-and-miss guy (which would result in a hellva bullpen, to be honest). There’s so much to like here that I’ve now set myself up for irrationally bitter disappointment if it doesn’t happen in some form.
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