Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Farewell Hutch, and Hello Everyone Else: Breaking Down Sharp Kittens' Inaugural Deadline

If you don’t remember the week of ecstasy and jubilation that constituted trade season for Blue Jays fans last year, then you don’t need to be told to lower your expectations. If you do remember, then just remember that you can’t just keep adding superstars until you level up and start breathing fire. This year, what the team needed was some solid depth. I don’t mean the kind of depth you put in AAA and pray you’ll never need. I mean the kind of depth you rely on to prevent dumpster fires from breaking out when Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki both need an off-day at the same time. The front office, rather helpfully, saw this and dealt for some depth. And here’s what I think of it:

Lupe Chavez for Scott Feldman:

Chavez has a big arm, and those are always fun to dream on, but by the time he’s relevant as a big-league piece the entire core of the current team will be gone or in their final seasons, and he’s currently the riskiest bet in baseball: a teenaged pitching prospect.

As for Feldman, he’s owed the remainder of a reasonable $8MM salary, if that moves the needle at all, and is a free agent at the end of the season. The last time he logged an ERA over 4 was in 2013, when he was with the Orioles. He’s averaged more than 2 innings per appearance this year, and although FIP doesn’t like him, I like him well enough, mostly because he doesn’t walk many batters (1.9/9 this year) and he allowed the “Other” Chavez to be traded…

Jesse Chavez for Mike Bolsinger:

You are forgiven for your cynicism in thinking that the front office just acquired a worse version of the guy they traded for Chavez back in the offseason. This is not that kind of move. Bolsinger was quite decent as a starter for the Dodgers in 2015, posting nice strikeout numbers and decent control. There are two important elements to this deal: he has four more seasons of team control remaining, and he replaces Drew Hutchison as the team’s AAA depth for the starting rotation. Which, naturally, leads us to…

Drew Hutchison for Francisco Liriano, Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire:

This deal is part dealing from depth, part buy-low gamble, and part reload all in one. And I love it. Not only do I love the obvious domino progression of the deals that preceded it, but I love how multifaceted this deal is, what it says about the front office brain trust, and what it seems to suggest about this team’s fortunes moving forward. So let’s dive in.

Part One of this deal is that the Blue Jays, all of five minutes from the deadline, found that they had some depth from which to deal. So why not pull the trigger on a deal they’ve wanted to make for a long time? Hutchison for Liriano. If you pitched this deal last year, the Pirates would chortle heartily, thank you for the much-needed laugh at this stressful time of year, and hang up the phone. Of course, last year Liriano was in his third straight year of fine work with the Pirates and Hutchison was in the midst of a very disappointing season. The situation has changed this year, and both pitchers are buy-low propositions. So, fare ye well, Drew, whatever the hell you are. I could never quite figure it out.

Part Two of the deal, then, is buying low on Francisco Liriano (and Ramiez and McGuire, to a certain extent, but I’ll get to that). As noted on Fangraphs in May, Liriano’s been awful because he has one of the lowest zone percentages (the percentage of pitches that he throws in the strike zone) in baseball. And this year, opposing batters have stopped swinging at all of the pitches outside the zone. Couple that with a slider that looks to have flattened a bit from its zenith in 2014, and Liriano is getting lit up because he’s not spotting his fastball well and there are almost always runners on base. Not a good recipe.

However, Russell Martin says he can fix Liriano. Maybe not in so many words, but he may have provided some motivation for the front office to make this trade. If Russell can give him hugs and whisper pitching wisdom disguised as sweet nothings in his ear, then perhaps Liriano can be serviceable again. Maybe he can even be great. That all depends on how willing he is to take the advice he’s given. But consider this: Jason Grilli started pitching to Martin again, and all of a sudden, the walks and hard hits went away. It’s a small sample size, but there’s no denying that Martin and pitchers is a good, good recipe.

Part Three of this deal is reloading the farm. McGuire and Ramirez will never be Posey and Trout, but they just need to be average major leaguers for this deal to be a good one. And the betting is that at least one of them will have a good career in the big leagues. McGuire’s defensive chops are so good that he could get by with an 80 wRC+. That wouldn’t earn him many starting gigs, but I’m already dreaming on him learning the craft from a 35 year-old Russell Martin in 2018 and slowly taking the reins. And Ramirez simply needs to add some power. He’s got the body to do it, with the size already being there. If the power comes, he’ll be a solid regular. If not, well, he is a prospect.

These are the various facets of the Liriano deal, as I see it. And, make no mistake, I see it as a very promising deal for the Blue Jays. I mentioned already that the Hutchison-for-Liriano swap would have been laughable a year ago. But one year later the situation has changed. Ray Searage thinks he sees something in Hutchison, Russell Martin thinks he sees something in Liriano, and the Blue Jays suddenly start flexing their near-atrophied financial muscles a bit. The result is the inclusion of two guys who were consensus top-10 prospects in the Pirates system (and potential top-100 candidates overall).

So, it’s a good trade, and so are the other two trades that the team made on deadline day. Include the Upton deal in that, throw in the Storen-for-Benoit swap, and think about where the bullpen would be without Jason Grilli. Stand back and look at the results: since May, the team added two veteran relief arms who can strike guys out, an effective swingman, an athletic outfielder who can defend well, hits for some power, and costs only $5MM, and a high-reward project for Russell Martin to work on. Remember that this doesn’t include Bolsinger, who’s been good before and can be again, and McGuire and Ramirez, and this shapes up as a pretty tidy deadline for the Blue Jays.

Perhaps most exciting of all for the long view: nary a whisper of payroll parameters.