A Florida Trade: The Marlins and Rays Make an Intriguing Swap

The Tampa Bay Rays are in the thick of a playoff hunt. The Miami Marlins are not. Both teams behaved accordingly today, with the Rays sending Ryne Stanek and Jesús Sánchez to the Marlins in exchange for Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards. This trade, as many trades do, seems to favor the Rays, though all four players changing sides are interesting in one way or another. I wouldn’t fault you for thinking the Marlins might come out ahead in the end.

To my eyes, the gem of the trade is Nick Anderson. An out-of-nowhere success this season, Anderson is the kind of high-octane pitcher modern bullpens covet. He also won’t reach free agency until 2025, which means that he’s doubly attractive to the cost-conscious Rays. A rate monster, he boasts an eye-popping 37.1% strikeout rate, ninth-best among relievers this season, courtesy of a spinny four-seam fastball and devastating breaking ball.

While his results have been inconsistent this year, it’s not for lack of underlying numbers. He surrenders hard contact, with a 6th-percentile exit velocity allowed and 4th-percentile hard contact rate, but makes up for it with the aforementioned heaps and bales of strikeouts. It’s too early in his career to know how much of a problem the contact will be, but if his underlying talent there is close to league average, he’s immediately one of the best relievers in baseball.

Want a best-case comparison for Anderson? Think of Ken Giles. His fastball doesn’t boast quite the same top end as Giles, but they’re both four-seam/breaking ball pitchers who mix the two pitches almost equally and post ludicrous swinging strike rates. Anderson is at 17.4% for the year, while Giles is at 17.1% over his career. Giles has also had intermittent struggles with hard contact, though he seems to have worked through them en route to a 1.6 FIP this year. Anderson’s upside might not be quite that high, but his stuff is tremendous.

As for Trevor Richards, he’s an innings-eater with the potential to be more. He’s mainly started in his big league career, going around 5 innings a start over 20 turns this year while intermittently appearing in the bullpen. Despite uninspiring velocity, he’s put together two straight usable seasons. A 4.46 ERA and 4.38 FIP isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s been worth 2.3 WAR, and Richards won’t be a free agent until 2025, though he’ll be arbitration-eligible a year earlier than Anderson due to his Super-2 status.

While right-handers with low-90s fastballs aren’t exactly in high demand in baseball these days, Richards has a delightful changeup that raises his ceiling somewhat. His command has been so-so in the majors so far, but he gets swinging strikes and ran minuscule walk rates in the minors, so even though it hasn’t showed up in his numbers yet, there’s always the chance that there’s some Kyle Hendricks-like upside lurking in there somewhere.

That’s not likely, of course — pitchers like Hendricks are rare, and Richards doesn’t feature the two-seamer that Hendricks uses so effectively. His four-seamer does a decent job missing bats and getting soft contact, but his current pitch mix doesn’t induce many grounders, and he’s yet to settle on a third pitch. He’s currently throwing a slider/cutter hybrid that plays off of his changeup, with nearly a foot of horizontal separation but similar velocity and vertical break. That slider/changeup/fastball mix has propped up many a major-league career, but the breaking pitch needs more work. At current, it’s very hittable, and he actually supplements it with a curveball that’s equally fringy to show batters as many different looks as possible.

Overall, I like what the Rays got out of this trade. Nick Anderson could sneakily be the best reliever that any team acquires today. He’s risky, sure, but his upside is tremendous, and he’s still a rookie. How many impact relief arms can you say that about? Richards, for his part, is a perfectly acceptable bulk arm. If he can give the Rays five decent innings every time through the rotation, they’d be pleased, and his profile so far makes that look like a distinct possibility.

As for the Marlins: they were very Marlins in this trade. Jesús Sánchez is a big-bodied 21-year old outfielder who has split time between Double-A and Triple-A this year. Before the season, there were a lot of questions about his plate discipline: Kiley and Eric gave him a 30 current hit tool in their offseason grades, reflecting industry skepticism about his pitch recognition, but so far his bat speed and swing have made up for it. Until this year, Sánchez had done nothing but hit at every level, rocking a career .306 batting average and .350 BABIP that made up for his dicey walk and strikeout numbers.

He’s been a little worse this year, though not alarmingly so: his BABIP declined to .318, which has depressed his offensive value, but he still put up a 116 wRC+ in Double-A over 316 PA. He’s been bad in limited time in Triple-A this year, but he’s incredibly young for the level at 21. Kiley and Eric had him as the Rays’ fourth-best prospect, and now the Marlins’ third-best, just behind fellow new acquisition Jazz Chisholm.

Sánchez alone would be a wonderful return for Anderson, a player who the Marlins picked up over the winter from the Twins. The second piece of the trade, however, is a bit more puzzling. Ryne Stanek is a perfectly nice reliever who the Rays didn’t want to wait on as he returns from a hip injury. Stanek has been good in his two-plus years of relieving and opening for the Rays, accruing 1.9 WAR in 142 innings, though that WAR number is overstated somewhat due to the vagaries of replacement level calculations between starters and relievers.

At his best, Stanek is the kind of player every team could use. He’s a three-pitch reliever who can handle multiple innings when he needs to, the kind of pitcher you could place in any bullpen and expect good things from. A lot of his value this year, though, has been tied up in home run suppression — his 4.48 xFIP doesn’t look nearly as good as his 3.75 FIP, and worse still compared to his 3.40 ERA. There are warning signs in his batted ball data, too: He’s allowing contact every bit as hard as Anderson’s this year, yet somehow has an extremely low HR/FB and BABIP.

What will become of Stanek? It’s too soon to tell. The Marlins certainly don’t need a quality reliever right now, though Stanek isn’t a free agent until 2024, which means he could theoretically be on the next contending Marlins team. But he’s already 28, and it’s hard to see the Marlins contending either this year or in 2020, making him a strange fit. Reliever performance is a fickle beast, and acquiring a reliever in the process of returning from injury with no way of re-trading him until next year is a curious move.

Overall, of course, the Marlins’ level of satisfaction in this trade hinges on Sánchez, not Stanek. If Sánchez becomes a major league stalwart, the Marlins will be ecstatic. Either way, their player development team looks very good in this deal. They acquired Anderson for a song from the Twins and signed Richards as an undrafted college arm. To turn that into a 55 FV prospect and a legit major league reliever is an absolute success, regardless of what these players turn into.

As for the Rays, it’s hard to disentangle this trade from the Rays’ particular approach to roster construction. Like it or not, the Rays operate as though they’re severely salary-constrained, which means the trade isn’t quite as simple as flipping a good prospect for a potentially dominant reliever. Acquiring an innings-eater and a high-leverage reliever earning the league minimum is the kind of thing that simply matters more to the Rays than it does to most teams.

At the end of the day, though, baseball isn’t played on a salary spreadsheet. Acquiring players with team-friendly contract situations isn’t the object of the game. Baseball is played on the field, and Nick Anderson is, in all likelihood, going to help the Rays out quite a bit this year. Trevor Richards, too, has a part to play, piling up average innings and helping get the team to the late innings, where its three-headed bullpen monster of Anderson, Emilio Pagán, and José Alvarado can close things out.

While this trade isn’t quite the headline-grabber of Greinke to the Astros or Bauer to the Reds, it’s probably my favorite trade of deadline day. The Rays continue to ply their particular brand of transaction strategy, while the Marlins are making a high-risk play, flipping past trade successes into a bet on Sánchez. That they asked for Ryne Stanek in the trade as well is a delightful piece of Marlins marginalia, but it shouldn’t take away from the fact that this is a tremendously interesting trade that makes sense for both teams.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

Nick Anderson seems to be the type of backend guy most teams and especially the Rays want.

As a guy who does way too much fantasy and thus follows Rays bulk arms as they are essentially free at various points in the season (Yarbrough, Beeks, even Chirinos before he became a conventional starter) the Rays plan seems pretty clear to me. They intend to use Richards as a bulk guy, likely 3-5 innings, and as a way of preventing other teams from planning too well. Earlier this year they experimented with a double opener going righty, lefty, bulk guy which I think is the plan with Richards.