A’s Improve, Dodgers Bolster Farm in Four-Player Swap

Last Friday, the Dodgers traded reliever Adam Kolarek and right-fielder Cody Thomas to Oakland in exchange for third baseman Sheldon Neuse and right-hander Gus Varland. While it’s unusual to see a division favorite flip a major leaguer for prospects with another contender, the move makes sense for both parties. The A’s get a little better in the here and now, while the Dodgers can dream on Neuse as another breakout candidate for the club’s stellar player development staff to work with.

Kolarek is the lone established big leaguer in this swap. The sidearming southpaw has been a stable part of the Dodgers’ bullpen since his acquisition from Tampa Bay 18 months ago, running an 0.88 ERA over 30 innings of work in Los Angeles — a fun bit of trivia that shouldn’t distract from otherwise normal peripherals. He primarily works with a high-80s, low-90s sinker out of a funky slot and has generated a 62% ground-ball rate over his career. Between that, a supposedly deadened ball this year, and a cavernous new home park, he may never allow a homer again.

He joins a very good bullpen in Oakland. The Athletics’ relief corps had the league’s best ERA and third-best FIP in 2020, and that group was pretty good the previous two seasons as well. Still, Kolarek fills a hole, as the ‘pen otherwise leaned heavily toward right-handers; Jake Diekman is the only other lefty likely to crack the Opening Day roster. With the A’s set to contend again this year, Kolarek adds depth to a strong unit that should see plenty of work in relief of Oakland’s young starters.

In Thomas, the A’s finally get their Oklahoma quarterback. The 26-year-old started a few games for the Sooners back in 2014 before ultimately losing the job to Baker Mayfield; rumors that the Athletics remain interested in Mayfield’s services remain unsubstantiated at press time. On the diamond, Thomas offers the blend of athleticism and rawness you’d expect from a late-comer to baseball. He’s an above-average runner with a plus arm and plus power and a track record of bringing that pop into games, homering 23 times in Double-A in 2019 and hitting five last spring before COVID tired of his hot streak and shut everything down.

As you may have inferred by now, the bugaboo here is that Thomas strikes out an awful lot. He’s tall (6’4″) and long-levered, and his swing takes a little while to get going. He also has a pretty steep plane to that swing, all of which has led to a nearly 30% strikeout rate in the minors. He’s capable of adjusting to poorly located offspeed pitches, but he makes a lot of bad swing choices, and he’s a bit of a mistake hitter.

In his Dodgers prospect rankings for 2021, Eric Longenhagen wrote that Thomas’s athleticism and relative inexperience make him a better bet to provide some value than most peers his age. Realistically, his upside is as a lefty bat off the bench who can fake it in center if you need him there. Thomas, though, may be less than thrilled with the move: The A’s are stocked to the gills with lefty-hitting outfielders, and his path to a big league job is every bit as blocked as it was in Los Angeles.

From Oakland’s standpoint, neither of the players it gave up was likely to feature in the club’s 2021 plans. With the acquisitions of Elvis Andrus and Jed Lowrie up the middle, Neuse was surplus to requirements. Varland, meanwhile, is a low-minors prospect coming off of Tommy John surgery; he’s interesting but hardly indispensable and will likely wind up in relief.

Neuse feels like a young prospect, but he’s actually 26 already. In theory, that’s okay. He’s still in his prime, has already debuted, and joins a team that knows how to turn castoff infielders into productive major leaguers. Chris Taylor and former Athletic Max Muncy both took major strides after working with the Dodgers’ player development staff.

One imagines that the Dodgers are hoping they can unlock something similar out of their new man. As he is, Neuse is a multi-positional infielder with plus power and a plus arm. The knock on him is that for all of his hard contact, he hits far too many balls on the ground, particularly given his lofty strikeout numbers. A high-whiff–low-flyball profile is a proven loser at the plate, and one that will limit Neuse to sporadic duty at second and third base in his current form.

But Neuse has a few things going for him. For one, there’s that plus raw power: At 6-feet and 230 pounds, he’s a big guy capable of hitting the ball very hard. In a brief big league sample back in 2019, his average exit velocity was above 90 mph, a couple ticks better than league average. He also has the kind of swing ripe for retooling — short and compact with a relatively flat bat path — and a reputation as a baseball rat.

Obviously, there’s a lot of ground between Neuse now and a theoretical Neuse with a new-and-improved swing. We don’t know whether he wants to change his swing, nor whether such an adjustment would suit him; some guys make significantly less contact after steepening their launch angle, which would be a problem for someone who already whiffs quite often. Swing adjustments are not an automatic panacea, and I don’t want to imply that Neuse is six weeks in a batting cage from being the next Muncy. And with Justin Turner officially back in the fold, Neuse would really need to hit to garner playing time anyway. Still, there are promising ingredients here, and this seems like a good match of player and club; expect him to play like a reserve infielder and be pleasantly, if not completely, surprised if there’s a breakout beyond that.

Varland is the wildcard in the trade. A 14th-round pick out of a small school in 2018, the right-hander transitioned smoothly to professional baseball. In his first pro summer, he overwhelmed low-minors hitters with a surprisingly mature arsenal, including a fastball that reached the mid-90s and two projectable breaking balls.

After he missed the first couple months of the 2019 season, Oakland assigned Varland to the Cal League, where he performed very well in his first five outings, striking out more than a batter per inning across 26 frames, before succumbing to an elbow injury that ultimately required Tommy John surgery. Most pitchers rebound well from the procedure, but we’ll need to see him on the mound again before updating his scouting report. The A’s had been developing Varland as a starter, but given the injury and his new club’s starting depth, a future in the bullpen seems likely.

For the Dodgers’ bullpen, Kolarek is a loss, if not a huge one. He’s one of the game’s premier ground-ball generators, and he offered the otherwise high-octane Dodgers something different in relief. But even with his departure and with Caleb Ferguson sidelined by Tommy John surgery, Los Angeles has Victor González already in place from the left side. Kolarek wasn’t essential, and the Dodgers have other options — including the newly acquired Alex Vesia — waiting in the wings. Thomas, meanwhile, has an intriguing skillset, but his chances of playing an impact role in Los Angeles’ outfield were remote.

Ultimately, it’s a deal that makes sense for both sides. The A’s get a little better in the short term, and the Dodgers deal from strength to acquire a dash of upside. It’s not a blockbuster, but it’s the kind of trade where if you squint (or spend a few hours researching all players involved), you can talk yourself into seeing glimmers of potential all around.





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MTfor42
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MTfor42

Caleb Ferguson is out for 2021 after Tommy John. Otherwise 2nd lefty in the pen (after Victor Gonzalez) is a revolving door. Alexander, Cleavinger, Vesia will get looks.

I think Friedman is now playing “fix and flip” with relievers/ end of 40 man roster. “We’ll trade for some relievers, help them tweak a thing or two, sell high for younger, cheaper, guys with good bones and repeat”.

2022 bullpen could be monstrous. Graterol, Treinen, Kahnle, Gonzalez, Ferguson.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

Yeah, came here to note the same thing (Ferguson’s out). With Floro gone too, I wonder if the Dodgers don’t try to move a starter for salary relief/bullpen help

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I think what’s happening here is that the Dodgers are recognizing which bullpen pieces are going to be the odd men out due to their insane starter depth. Guys like May and Gonsolin are going to be pushed primarily to the bullpen this year, and neither Kolarek or Floro had been high leverage options. With guys like Josiah Gray on the horizon and all those young guys having options, moving the borderline guys who are out of them to teams that have a space for them makes a lot of sense.

That’s much like the situation where the Dodgers originally acquired Kolarek, as he was the odd man out of a Rays bullpen crunch due to lack of options in 2019 and picked up for a song. If they waited until spring training made the situation more obvious, there would be less teams looking for relievers and it’d be more obvious that they’d otherwise have to DFA them.