Busy White Sox Continue Teardown, Send Kendall Graveman (Back) to Houston

Kendall Graveman
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The White Sox sent closer Kendall Graveman to the Astros for catching prospect Korey Lee on Friday afternoon. Graveman, signed by the White Sox to a three-year contract days before the 2021–22 lockout started, put up a 3.30 ERA and a 4.00 FIP in 110 appearances with Chicago. This caps off a busy end-of-week flurry for the Sox: Graveman is now the fifth pitcher they’ve traded in 24 hours, after Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, Lance Lynn, and Joe Kelly.

Graveman’s peripheral numbers have slid this season as his strikeout and walk rates have continued to deteriorate, and the six homers he’s allowed this season almost match the eight he surrendered in 2021 and ’22 combined, but I’m slightly less concerned about this than I would be in many similar situations. For one, his plate discipline-against numbers don’t support his problems in these departments. Batters are making contact against Graveman less often than any time in his career (ignoring his five-appearance debut season), and his first-strike percentage, a useful leading indicator of walk rate, is better than ever.

Some of the changes seem to be from conscious approach decisions. Graveman started throwing his four-seamer a lot more often in 2022 and has continued that this year but is now almost exclusively throwing it center-high. The result has been a lot more loft on these pitches. In fact, basically all of Graveman’s pitches, including his sinker, have been hit about 10 degrees higher than last year. It’s been enough to transform him from a reasonably strong groundballer in recent years to a pitcher allowing more fly balls than average. On the negative side, his slider has lost some bite, with its break closer to league-average than at his peak, leading to a lower whiff rate (35%) than in 2022 (43%) or ’21 (44%). ZiPS sees him with a 3.59 FIP for the rest of 2023 in Houston and a 3.72 mark in 2024.

Unlike most of the players traded by the Sox so far, Graveman is signed for the 2024 season at $8 million. They are trying to make it clear they intend to compete next season, but I don’t necessarily think trading a player with a 2024 contract heralds a different approach; it may simply be that they feel they can put that cash to better use in free agency rather than paying it to their third-best reliever. Gregory Santos and Aaron Bummer head Chicago’s bullpen now, joined by Keynan Middleton, a free-agent-to-be whom I suspect will also be elsewhere by the Tuesday trade deadline.

Once you get past Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu, there hasn’t been a lot of sizzle in Houston’s bullpen this season. Astros relievers rank in the middle third of the league in WAR, ERA, and FIP, and our depth charts only peg the relief corps as 15th-best in baseball over the rest of the season. The Astros may make other, splashier moves this weekend, but there’s a good argument that they needed to add some depth in the ‘pen, and that’s what Graveman brings to the table.

Heading to the White Sox in return is Lee, who hit .283/.328/.406 for Triple-A Sugar Land and, after the acquisition of Edgar Quero, is now the second Top 100 catching prospect the White Sox have picked up this deadline. Lee has made better contact this year than in 2022, but at a real cost: fewer walks and homers (he’s gone from 25 last year to just five this season despite playing at the same level). The net result has been a 35-point jump in batting average but an OPS more than 50 points lower.

There’s a distinct disagreement between the scouting community and ZiPS on this one. The latter only translated his 2022 season to a .195/.251/.384 batting line, and he did not make its top 200 prospects before the season. His 2023 season translates at .271/.306/.376 thanks to the improved contact rate, but he’s still unlikely to make the ZiPS top prospect list next year.

ZiPS Projection – Korey Lee
2024 .223 .271 .375 435 56 97 19 1 15 55 26 125 8 77 -3 0.4
2025 .227 .278 .383 423 56 96 19 1 15 55 27 119 7 81 -3 0.6
2026 .224 .274 .382 411 54 92 18 1 15 54 26 113 6 80 -3 0.5
2027 .225 .277 .384 383 51 86 17 1 14 51 25 103 5 81 -2 0.6
2028 .224 .279 .385 353 47 79 16 1 13 47 24 95 4 82 -3 0.5
2029 .223 .279 .386 319 43 71 14 1 12 42 22 86 4 82 -3 0.5

Lee appeared to be in a good position to be Martín Maldonado’s eventual successor in Houston, but the emergence of Yainer Diaz made that less likely. My gut feeling is that Diaz is the nominal starter at catcher next year for the Astros, with maybe 300 PA behind the plate and another 100 or so as a DH, with either César Salazar or a defense-first veteran caddy filling out the tandem. It may be a re-signed Maldonado; he’s got more lives than Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Both teams got what they wanted out of this deal. The White Sox now have an “heir and a spare” to Yasmani Grandal, and the Astros have another solid bullpen arm for the stretch run and postseason. No snarky complaints from me on this one.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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9 months ago

Why stop now?
Move a couple of position players and they might have a shot at the lottery regardless of what the other “contenders” do.