Jesús (Luzardo), It’s Another Marte Party

In last week’s Replacement Level Killers series, I highlighted the A’s subpar production both at shortstop and right field, noting that while the Rockies’ Trevor Story made particular sense for Oakland in light of how set most other contenders are at shortstop, the team was instead prioritizing adding a bigger outfield bat. On Wednesday they did just that, albeit at a significant cost, acquiring Marlins outfielder Starling Marte and cash in exchange for promising but underperforming lefty Jesús Luzardo.

For the A’s — who entered Wednesday at 57-46, six games back in the AL West but two games ahead in the race for the second AL Wild Card spot — this is a bold, win-now move whose full ramifications might not be felt for years. The 32-year-old Marte, who has now been traded three times in the past 18 months including near consecutive deadlines, is in the final option year of a six-year extension that he signed with the Pirates in March 2014, so he’s just a two-month rental. The 23-year-old Luzardo is a former third-round pick who entered the 2020 season as the number six prospect on Eric Longenhagen’s list, but after a solid rookie season, he’s struggled so much that he was demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas long enough to delay his free agency; he has five full seasons of club control remaining. The Marlins reportedly sent along $4.5 million to cover the entirety of Marte’s remaining salary in order to add Luzardo to their stable of young arms.

On the positive side of the ledger for Oakland, Marte is in the midst of one of his best seasons with the bat, hitting .305/.405/.451 with seven homers and 22 steals en route to 3.3 WAR. Driven by newfound plate discipline, he’s walked in 11.6% of his plate appearances, more than double his career rate; his on-base percentage and 140 wRC+ both represent career highs. He’s swinging at a career-low 31.9% of pitches outside the zone, down over seven percentage points from last year, and 4.6 points below his career mark. His 10.3% swinging strike rate is a career low. Here’s a quick look at his Statcast swing/take breakdown:

Marte’s numbers in the Shadow zone have improved considerably over the years, from an average of -11 runs from 2014-19 to -8 runs last year to +1 this year. At the same time, his numbers in the Heart zone have become less impressive, from +10 (2018) and +13 (2019) to +4 last year and then +1 this year.

It’s questionable whether Marte can sustain his current level of production, given both that his strong numbers are based on just 64 games, as he missed 39 in April and May due to a non-displaced rib fracture, and that he’s actually not hitting the ball very hard. Here’s a look at his recent body of work:

Starling Marte Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% Pull% EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 1.57 50.7% 40.3% 88.4 7.3% 38.1% .277 .258 .460 .445 .337 .326
2019 1.79 50.5% 39.7% 88.6 8.0% 37.9% .295 .285 .503 .490 .353 .350
2020 1.90 53.0% 42.6% 87.1 6.4% 30.3% .281 .262 .430 .417 .333 .321
2021 2.26 54.6% 34.8% 87.1 9.0% 37.1% .305 .266 .451 .416 .375 .353

Marte is hitting the ball on the ground more than at any time since his abbreviated rookie season in 2012, and pulling the ball less frequently than ever. His average exit velocity — which is lower than any of his Statcast-era seasons save for his PED suspension-shortened 2017 — and hard-hit percentile rankings are meager (16th and 35th percentiles, respectively), though his barrel rate is a more robust 55th percentile. Thanks in part to his 83rd percentile speed, he’s outdoing his xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA by wider margins than ever.

The good news is that even if Marte regresses towards the 112 wRC+ we’ve projected him for over the remainder of this season, that’s still miles better than what the A’s have gotten from their right fielders: a .205/.282/.368 (84 wRC+) line and -0.2 WAR from a Stephen Piscotty/Seth Brown platoon and other special guests. Marte has never played right field in the majors (he did so for 51 games in the minors, from 2007-12), but both Mark Canha and Ramón Laureano, the regulars in left and center, have. Marte is having a good year in center field according to the small-sample metrics (3.3 UZR, 3 DRS, 5 OAA), though his three-year numbers, compiled with the Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Marlins, aren’t as strong (-4.5 UZR, -7 DRS, 10 OAA). Laureano is doing just fine in center (2.4 UZR, 2 DRS, 0 OAA), though his three-year numbers are more ambiguous (6.0 UZR, 2 DRS, -4 OAA). Manager Bob Melvin said on Wednesday that playing Marte in center and Laureano in right isn’t out of the question.

Marte’s ability to play center field as well as left, and at a fairly low cost on an expiring deal, made him a popular trade target once he rejected an extension offer from the Marlins; if the report of a three-year, $30 million offer is accurate, one can hardly blame him, as that would have constituted a 20% pay cut given his $12.5 million salary — basically an insult. The Giants, who landed on the left field Replacement Level Killers List, and the Yankees, who did so for both left and center field, were among the teams that pursued him. In the end, neither produced a match that was as enticing as five years of control over Luzardo, a pitcher for whom high expectations and injuries have been near-constants throughout his career, such that he’s never thrown more than 108 innings in any professional season.

For starters, Luzardo had Tommy John surgery in March of his senior year at Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which caused him to slip to the third-round of the 2016 draft, where the Nationals chose him. Before he finished his first season as a pro, he was traded to the A’s on July 16, 2017 along with Sheldon Neuse and Blake Treinen in exchange for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Once his stuff fully returned post-surgery, he became a staple of top prospect lists thanks to his high-90s heat and plus-plus slider. He entered 2019 ranked 27th on that of FanGraphs; despite losing about two-thirds of the season due to strains of his rotator cuff and latissimus dorsi, he rehabbed his way all the way to Oakland, where he made six relief appearances totaling 12 innings, plus three impressive innings of shutout work against the Rays in the AL Wild Card game.

Luzardo entered last season below only Wander Franco, Gavin Lux, MacKenzie Gore, Jo Adell, and Adley Rutschman on our Top 100 Prospects list, and despite testing positive for COVID-19 in early July, he made the A’s out of summer camp, and stayed healthy during the entire shortened season. After two bullpen appearances, he made nine starts and then one final relief appearance, finishing with a 4.12 ERA, 4.19 FIP, and 23.8% strikeout rate in 59 innings while helping the A’s win the AL West. He was knocked around in a pair of postseason starts, but all told, it was a credible showing for a 22-year-old rookie.

This year hasn’t gone so well. Luzardo spent the first month of the season in the rotation, but pitched erratically, with three pretty good starts and three pretty bad ones en route to a 5.79 ERA and 4.62 FIP. Before his May 1 start, during which he lasted just three innings and was charged with six runs, he apparently suffered a hairline fracture of his left pinky when he banged a table while playing a video game. He missed four weeks, and returned in a relief role, where things have not gone well; after scoreless outings in his first two appearances, he gave up home runs in each of his next five — six in all, and 11 runs over six innings, ballooning his ERA to 6.87 and his FIP to 6.07. While his strikeout rate is similar to last year’s, his home run rate has nearly doubled (from 1.37 per nine to 2.61) and his walk rate has crept up (from 6.9% to 9.2%). On June 21, Luzardo was optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas, where his struggles have continued, to the tune of a 6.52 ERA and 5.54 FIP.

While Luzardo’s four-seam fastball and sinker velocities and spin rates have been in line with last year’s numbers, neither pitch has has moved as much either horizontally or vertically, and both have been beaten like rented mules:

Jesús Luzardo’s Fastballs
Year Pitch Avg Velo Spin Vert Drop Horiz Break AVG SLG wOBA
2020 4-Seamer 95.5 2439 16.9 14.6 .279 .485 .352
2021 4-Seamer 96.0 2407 14.1 12.5 .342 .500 .412
2020 Sinker 95.4 2368 22.0 18.2 .215 .508 .331
2021 Sinker 95.1 2367 17.1 16.3 .333 .784 .473
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

It’s worth noting that Luzardo’s pitch classifications differ from system to system; the above are Statcast’s breakdowns, but Pitch Info sees Luzardo throwing 31.9% sinkers and 27.3% four-seamers this year, for example, and what Statcast calls Luzardo’s curve, both Pitch Info and Sports Info Solutions call his slider. By any name, the breaking pitch has remained effective (.184 AVG, .289 SLG, 55.3% whiff rate), but the changeup has been hit for a .519 SLG as well, up from .388 last year.

Luzardo is hardly the first highly-regarded 23-year-old to struggle at the major league level. José Berríos, Kevin Gausman, Lucas Giolito, Tyler Glasnow, and Luis Severino are among those who took their lumps at this age in recent years but have since gone on to more fully realize their potential.

While the Marlins are getting a pitcher who has become something of a project, they’ll have an extra year to sort him out. While Luzardo began the season with 1.021 years of service time, the five weeks he’s spent back at Triple-A mean that he won’t get to two full years even if he were to join the Marlins directly. Instead of his becoming a free agent after 2025, he’ll now have to wait until ’26. Here’s what his ZiPS projection looks like:

ZiPS Projection – Jesús Luzardo
2022 5 5 0 4.40 24 15 88.0 87 43 16 29 95 98 1.0
2023 5 5 0 4.37 25 15 90.7 87 44 16 30 99 99 1.0
2024 5 5 0 4.35 24 15 89.0 84 43 15 29 99 99 1.0
2025 5 4 0 4.32 22 13 81.3 76 39 14 27 91 100 1.0
2026 5 4 0 4.33 21 13 79.0 73 38 14 26 90 99 0.9

That’s a lot of very similar-looking seasons that paper over a wide range of outcomes. For what it’s worth, Luzardo’s preseason ZiPS 3-year projections forecast a trio of 2.3-WAR seasons. Things can change quickly, for better or worse.

In Miami, Luzardo joins a deep cast of young and promising pitchers, many of them, such as Sandy Alcantara and the currently injured Sixto Sánchez, similarly reliant upon sinkers. Sánchez, alas, is out for the season after undergoing season-ending arthroscopic surgery to repair the posterior capsule of his right shoulder, and three of the five pitchers who have made the most starts for the team — Trevor Rogers, Pablo López, and Cody Poteet — are also on the IL, as is Sixto. That may buy Luzardo a return to the majors sooner rather than later.

In all, this is one of this deadline’s more compelling trades thus far, with one side in win-now mode and the other building for the future, not with a handful of far-off prospects but with a well-known but struggling youngster; it’s a bet on the value of a change of scenery. Marte may well help the A’s secure yet another Wild Card berth, but if the Marlins sort out Luzardo, they’ll come out far ahead in this one.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Roman Ajzenmember
1 year ago

Given the proximity of the three Marte trades, it would be interesting to compare how his value has changed over time. It would seem possible, if not likely at this this point, that Luzardo is the best prospect involved across the three trades even though Marte now has the least remaining control.

1 year ago
Reply to  Roman Ajzen

I think that’s likely. The Pirates’ return was fine, the only one that was pretty disappointing was Arizona’s and that’s because of the leak about them declining his option.

I think a big reason is there was a lot of skepticism about Marte declining quickly into his 30’s and that’s probably why Pittsburgh didn’t get anyone like Luzardo. But now that he’s walking a TON more and it appears his defense isn’t totally reliant on elite top-end speed, he’s a safer play, though I guess it is just a rental.

Also, off-topic, but when it’s all said and done I think Marte is going to have one of the more underrated careers in recent memory. He’s provided a lot of value for someone who’s only made 1 All-Star game.

Roman Ajzenmember
1 year ago
Reply to  markmark

All valid points. I would think this is about peak return for a rental with no salary obligations. Scherzer will test this, I guess, though it may be a multi-player return. Great deal by the Marlins.