The Indians traded blocked top prospect Francisco Mejia to the Padres for relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber today. It’s worth noting that the Dodgers, Indians, and Padres have all swung important deals within the past 24 hours and all have one thing in common: each has created depth by turning low-risk investments into real trade assets, via multiple avenues.
The Dodgers filled out the Machado deal with four prospects who weren’t touted until the last year or so. The Padres got Brad Hand on a waiver claim, while Cimber was completely off the radar until this year. The Indians, for their part, could afford to trade Mejia with Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez representing superior options behind the plate. These aren’t the only instances of these clubs turning nothing into something, but a couple instances ended up driving these big deals.
The Orioles have announced they will create better infrastructure to do this sort of thing more often going forward. There’s also been buzz in scouting circles today that at least one of the clubs that attempted to land Machado believes their package ultimately fell short because of substandard scouting and/or development.
Moving on to the lone prospect in the Padres/Indians trade, Mejia isn’t as slam-dunk despite the consistently high rankings he earns in industry lists. Following a slow start, he was highest-ranked prospect to be downgraded in our midseason list, but he has hit .378/.416/.573 since the start of June. While he has recovered performance-wise, the distinguishing feature for him amongst other highly rated hitting prospects is below-average pitch selection. We point out that specific skill because it’s often the one that keeps a hitter from reaching his offensive potential and also often leads to a longer break-in period at the big-league level.
Mejia has an aggressive approach with a funky, high-effort swing from both sides of the plate that is sustainable due to elite hand-eye coordination and bat control. If you wanted to grade those abilities on the 20-80 scale, it would be something like 35 or 40 pitch selection and 65 or 70 bat control. For reference, if Mejia can improve that pitch selection to something close to a 50, his offensive upside could be something like Daniel Murphy, or a 110- to 135-wRC+ type hitter. As a close to average defender, that would make Mejia something like Gary Sanchez. That said, the pitch-recognition skill often doesn’t make huge shifts after a couple thousand pro at-bats, so that isn’t likely.
The double-edged sword of below-average pitch selection is both fewer walks and more frequent swings at less drivable pitches, which becomes more evident in statistics at higher levels. The upside of elite bat control is that there isn’t the swing-and-miss or strikeout rate you’d associate with free swingers. The downside of elite bat control is it often declines with athleticism, sometimes starting as early as the mid-20s, and often keeps hitters from making meaningful strides in pitch selection because the bat control is the security blanket that bails them out. That’s not to say this is what happens to every player of this type, but these are the sorts of outcomes not really on the table for hitters like Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., etc.
The whole-body nature of Mejia’s swing leads to above-average raw power, but the approach and propensity to swing at stuff that is difficult to drive means that Mejia can be attacked in ways that limit the kind of damage he does. He’s going to crush mistakes, however, and make a lot of contact.
Defensively speaking, Mejia has the rare top-of-the-scale 80 arm but is a below-average receiver currently, despite his above-average athleticism for the position. A source with the Padres tells us they are going to use him at catcher, which was an open question since Cleveland had tried him at third base and the outfield corners. It’s possible that was the product of an effort to get him major-league at-bats for a club that already features two strong defensive catchers, but Mejia’s own defensive shortcomings were likely part of it, too.
Tying this all together, Mejia is one of the more physically talented hitting prospects in baseball, is performing well now in Triple-A, has considerable upside, and may very well also stay at a premium defensive position. It will likely come at some defensive cost, but that’s roughly what’s going on with Gary Sanchez and any club would take him.