A’s Acquire Reliever, Like Always

It’s July, which means the A’s are trading to improve their bullpen. Whether it’s Jake Diekman, Mike Minor, Jeurys Familia, or any of a seemingly unending number of other moves, they always seem to find an arm they can bring in to redo their leverage roadmap and provide a little extra playoff oomph. Last night, they acquired Andrew Chafin in exchange for Greg Deichmann, Daniel Palencia, and cash, as MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand first reported.

Chafin has been downright spectacular this year. In 39.1 innings, he’s allowed only nine runs, good for a 2.06 ERA. He’s done so by limiting home runs; he’s only given up one all year, and while that’s unlikely to persist, he does plenty of things right that should continue to limit homers. He gets grounders, with a 50% groundball rate so far this year. He’s limited hard contact, too: opponents have barreled up only 5.1% of their batted balls and have hit only 32.3% of them 95 mph or harder.

Do those two things, and homers are harder to come by. Baseball Savant’s xHR, which is a descriptive estimate of home runs based on contact quality, thinks Chapin “should” have allowed only 1.1 dingers so far this year. That doesn’t mean it will keep happening — it’s based on the actual contact allowed, which is volatile — but it’s a good sign that he hasn’t given up 20 warning track blasts or anything of that nature.

Keep home runs down, and the rest of the game comes easily. Chafin hasn’t run up a gaudy strikeout rate this year — 24.7% is fine but not outstanding. He walks an average number of batters. He’s allowed only a .204 BABIP, keyed both by that soft contact and by tremendous defense; per Statcast, Cubs defenders have saved five outs above average with Chafin pitching, the difference between a silly and merely above-average BABIP.

Those sound like flukish skills for a pitcher to possess. Limiting homers? Turning balls in play into outs? Are the A’s trading for a flash in the pan? Maybe, but Chafin is ideally suited for their team and stadium. Oakland’s infield is fourth in baseball in outs above average; the team as a whole is third. The Colosseum, meanwhile, suppresses homers, as it’s huge, and Mount Davis makes for crazy wind patterns.

The A’s could use the bullpen help anyway, given that they’re 18th in relief WAR. They could also use another lefty arm; Diekman and Sam Moll were the only two in the ‘pen, and while the former has been steady, the latter got lit up in Triple-A with the Diamondbacks before Oakland purchased his contract. Adding a reliable arm — particularly a lefty — was surely a team priority.

If you’re intent on looking for it, you could even find upside in Chafin (not that you need a lot of upside from a guy posting a sub-3 FIP). His slider might be his best pitch; it’s more vertical than horizontal, looking nearly like a curveball from its flight pattern, though it has the distinctive gyro spin of a slider. He commands his sinker well, running it in on the hands of lefties and hunting the outside corner against righties. He even has a four-seamer, which he throws a quarter of the time. It’s mostly useful for keeping people off of his other fastball; he spots it on the opposite side of the plate and it has far less run, which gives batters another look to focus on.

No two ways about it; Chafin will be a useful bullpen piece for the A’s. It’s basically a rule at this point that Oakland will somehow assemble an excellent bullpen capable of bailing out a shaky rotation. The only wrinkle here is that the rotation has been pretty good this year, which means the team may have an excellent bullpen supporting an underrated rotation, another classic A’s trope.

To secure Chafin’s services this year (he’ll hit free agency this offseason unless he and the team exercise a mutual option), the A’s surrendered two interesting prospects with wildly differing timelines. Palencia, Oakland’s No. 12 prospect, is all about future potential; he signed out of Venezuela in 2020 and has only thrown 14.1 competitive innings as a pro. He has a huge arm, sitting 97–98 mph in extended spring games, and a plus curveball. Our Eric Longenhagen pegged his ETA at 2024 and put a 40+ Future Value grade on him, but let’s be real: there’s a lot of guesswork involved in forecasting someone with so short a track record.

Deichmann, the other player headed to Chicago, is Palencia’s opposite in nearly every way: He’s 26, a lefty, a hitter, and playing in Triple-A. His .880 OPS in Triple-A looks great … until you remember that it’s with the Las Vegas Aviators, who notably play in a hitter’s paradise, and that Deichmann has only gone deep four times all season despite obvious raw power. His calling card has always been that power, but he’s shown off a new trick this year: working the count and getting on base. His 19.2% walk rate is partially a product of altitude — you have to nibble more against someone with Deichmann’s pop when a fastball over the middle might carry for 500 feet — but it’s also a product of an improved eye. He whiffs as often as ever when he swings; he’s simply doing a better job recognizing when not to.

The A’s also got something they covet: cold, hard cash to help cover Chafin’s salary. For a team perpetually at the bottom of the payroll table, every last drop helps. That’s not enough to move the needle on the caliber of prospects sent out, but it’s essentially a sweetener; both teams agreed that Deichmann and Palencia were worth slightly more in trade than Chafin, so another adjustment had to be made.

This is a great deal for the Cubs if you think they should be selling. They acquired Chafin in exchange for Ronny Simon, a low-level prospect, last year. They got a solid season out of him in 2021. Now they’re getting two prospects with some chance of contributing to the majors; they’ll slot into the 10–20 range in Chicago’s farm system. That’s not a franchise-altering return, but it’s a nice get for a middle reliever on an expiring contract.

Oakland also knows what it’s doing when it comes to acquiring relievers. Chafin is a good fit for the A’s; he’ll push weaker arms down the leverage hierarchy and feed the infield grounder after grounder. The cost isn’t nothing, but the A’s do a good job of shuffling mid-level prospects while playing for now, and this seems like another chapter in that ongoing story.

Whether you think the Cubs should be selling is another story. Whether the A’s are a reliever away from the playoffs is up for debate. Both teams are set on their paths, and this seems like a great trade for both of their goals.

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

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1 year ago

Chafin is a guy I feel like was already on the A’s, even though he wasn’t