Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, and the Dodgers: An Inevitable Match

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, the city of Chicago looked like it had a new boom industry: deadline rentals. The Cubs and White Sox have a ton of players set to depart after 2023, and neither looked like a playoff hopeful. The Cubs have played well enough lately to get out of that realm and into the buyers column, but that’s okay, because the White Sox have leaned into their role as sellers to compensate. After moving Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López earlier in the week, they’re continuing to dismantle their pitching staff. On Friday, they sent Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly to the Dodgers in exchange for two pitching prospects and outfielder Trayce Thompson.

I won’t try to sugarcoat it: Lynn has been awful this year. His 6.47 ERA is the worst in baseball for qualifying starters, and while there’s some encouragement to be found under the hood, it’s still not a lot of encouragement. Also, that linked article was about how he couldn’t possibly keep giving up homers at such an extreme rate, and then he gave up six in his next three starts. Whoops.

Yes, that ERA is gruesome. Yes, Lynn has looked lost on the mound, lobbing pipe shots down the middle and walking more batters than normal anyway. But his body of work before this year suggests his season can be salvaged. The Dodgers know a thing or two about getting the most out of pitchers, and Lynn is missing bats at a career-best rate even while he gets shelled. Our projection systems think he’ll pitch to a roughly 4.25 ERA the rest of the season, but going to Dodger Stadium might even shade that lower. (A countervailing concern is that Lynn hasn’t looked comfortable with the pitch clock, and there’s no accounting for that in our models.)

I’m not sure that makes him one of the five best starters on the Dodgers, but his durability is a nice added enticement. Los Angeles is relying on a slew of rookies at the moment: Bobby Miller, Michael Grove, and Emmet Sheehan are all in the rotation, and Ryan Pepiot might theoretically join them when he comes off the IL. The team would no doubt like to ration out innings to those guys to keep them fresh for potential October action. Enter Lynn, who can eat innings with the best of them. I’m not expecting a ton out of him, but bulk innings with a low-4.00s ERA seems like something the Dodgers could really use down the stretch. He also has an $18.5 million team option for next year, though that looks unlikely to be exercised at the moment.

We’ve seen the Joe Kelly show in Los Angeles before, and it’s pretty similar to the Joe Kelly show overall. His stuff? It’s undeniable. His sinker tops out above 100 mph and he’s throwing his slider in the low 90s now, leading to a career-high 21% swinging strike rate on that pitch. He mixes in curveballs, four-seamers, and changeups, a rare five-pitch reliever. He’s striking out a career-high 32% of opposing batters. That all sounds great.

What’s the downside? Walks, for one thing; Kelly has a 9.7% career walk rate, and he’s right around that this year. His fastball has huge movement, and that betrays him when he gets behind in the count. He’s capable of high highs and low lows, and this year is no exception. I’m not worried about his 4.97 ERA – it’s largely the result of awful sequencing luck, and he hasn’t had notable trouble with that in his career. I’m more concerned about whether he can keep striking out enough batters to keep the walks from hurting him. It’s alright to be wild if you can get outs without allowing a ball in play, but the equation would change quickly if Kelly’s strikeout rate ever declined.

The Dodger bullpen has been perfectly fine this year, but it’s a bit top-heavy. Adding Kelly stretches it out; a little less Tyson Miller is probably in their best interest, and that’s basically the goal here. I think of him more as a throw-in; the Dodgers need starters more than they need relievers, but adding an extra mid-tier bullpen arm never hurts. Like Lynn, Kelly has a 2024 team option ($9.5 million with a $1 million buyout).

The return for Chicago centers around future relievers. Nick Nastrini has started every game of his professional career, but he’s also put up double-digit walk rates at every minor league stop. He has four plus pitches built around a 95 mph fastball with good ride and cutting action. He spots two different breaking balls and a changeup off of it, but he doesn’t have great feel for any of them. In discussing the trade, Eric Longenhagen offered Hunter Brown before Brown’s command took a step forward as a comp.

With a fastball this good and plenty of options to follow it up, Nastrini has a good chance of sticking on a major league roster. With command this uneven, there’s a good chance that he ends up in the bullpen, where he’d be a solid setup type or a luxury in the middle innings. There’s risk to both sides of that projection. The upside case would be enough of an improvement in strike-throwing to stick in the rotation; Nastrini missed a ton of time as an amateur due to injury, so maybe more reps will unlock something. The downside case would be that he can’t throw enough strikes to even work as a reliever, but I think that’s quite unlikely. Prior to the season, Eric had him just outside the Top 100 as a 45+ Future Value prospect, and nothing that’s happened so far this year changes that evaluation.

Jordan Leasure is already a reliever, but he’s potentially going to be a great one. He has a huge fastball, 97 mph with devastating movement. He also has a decent upper-80s slider that plays up as hitters scramble to hit his heater. He’s striking out 40% of opposing hitters in Double-A this year, his third professional season after being drafted out of the Division II University of Tampa.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that a high-effort delivery means he’s an indifferent strike thrower. His fastball is going to miss a ton of bats high in the zone no matter the opposition he faces, but some center-cut misses and walks will likely always plague him. An offseason Honorable Mention, Eric’s updated evaluation of Leasure has him as a 40+ FV prospect, a potential bullpen arm with risk. If you’re tired of seeing a faceless army of unhittable relievers who can’t control where their huge fastballs go, bad news: Leasure is more of the same. Here’s his new blurb on The Board:

Leasure has had a significant velo spike across the last couple of seasons and leapt from the 94-96 mph range to the 96-98 between 2022 and 2023. His fastball also added a few grades worth of movement, and the violent, vertical-slotted Leasure generates big carry on his fastball, giving it in-zone bat-missing potential. His fastball execution, both with regard to strikes and the quality of those strikes, is well below average. Leasure leaves a lot of his heaters in the middle of the zone. His delivery is quite violent, but he has late-inning stuff in his fastball and nasty upper-80s slider, which has huge length for a pitch that hard. His lack of control will probably dilute his performance somewhat and make him an erratic middle reliever, but his stuff is on par with that of the second- or third-best arm in a lot of good bullpens.

Lastly, Trayce Thompson found himself on the shelf thanks to an oblique injury this year, and this might have been his last shot at playing his way into an everyday role. He has gargantuan power driven by a huge, vicious swing, and he strikes out a ton as a result. When he connects, look out: I’d stack his barreled contact up against the best power hitters in baseball and feel comfortable with the comparison. He’s a nice right-handed-hitting platoon bat when healthy, and given that both of Chicago’s regular corner outfielders are lefties, that’s a nice option. He’s more of a speculative add thanks to his injury and age, but I think he makes more sense on the White Sox than he does on the Dodgers, so I see why he was included in the return.

This trade isn’t going to be earthshaking for either team, but the Dodgers really needed some arms. They’ve dealt with a lot of injuries this year, they just traded away Noah Syndergaard to shore up their infield, and they’d like to rest their top trio (Kershaw, Urías, Gonsolin) as well as their rookies down the stretch if possible. I would hardly be surprised if Lynn flames out and doesn’t make the playoff roster, but the most likely outcome is that he provides some useful innings and operates as a swingman in the postseason. Kelly is just an investment in bulk bullpen building. They’re low-risk, low-reward adds, but that’s something the Dodgers generally do well.

As an added benefit, the Dodgers are trading from a position of strength. They’re really good at taking late-round draft picks and helping them develop into interesting prospects. Nastrini and Leasure were both drafted in 2021. Neither was a high pick. The top of the farm system is littered with stuff-heavy arms. These two might have been caught in a future roster crunch, but they’re helping the team right now instead.

For Chicago, the return on this comes down to what becomes of Nastrini. If he ends up as an average reliever or worse, this trade looks pretty bad. It’s a seller’s market this year; their earlier trade of Giolito and Lopez fetched a Top 100 prospect and a nice throw-in. Getting future relievers back would be a disappointment. If Nastrini finds the strike zone more consistently and sticks as a starter, then this is a great deal. I’m down on White Sox pitching development, so I’d bet against him suddenly turning it around after leaving the Dodgers, but there’s always a chance. Leasure and Thompson are nice throw-ins.

In my opinion, this was a fair bit of business by both teams. No one revitalized their organization. No one pulled off a coup. This is just ABC front office maneuvering. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, just that evaluating it comes down to saying that all five guys are pretty nice players and that a swap seems reasonable.

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

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8 months ago

As Ben Clemens notes here, Joe Kelly’s stuff is ridiculous: 100mph sinker, 92mph Slider and Curveballs which get 47% and 39% whiffs, resp and 2 other pitches. Somehow only his Slider is a plus pitch, with his curveball and 4-seamer getting hard-hit at a 50% rate. Kelly had a 20 or so outing scoreless streak in May and early-June and Ben notes his 32%K rate and 55% ground ball rate, so maybe the Dodgers can get him back to that performance.

Ben also makes a good point that when Lance Lynn keeps giving up home runs, at some point you have to say that it’s no longer bad luck. I thought the White Sox might pick up his option for next year if the trade offers were low, but now think he’s worth a $12M flier not the $19M he’s scheduled to make.

The White Sox did well here with a 45+ and a 40+ coming back, but Ben sees them most likely as 2 middle relievers. Must be nice for the Dodgers to just crank these guys out and not have to depend on them to be right-now solutions for the major league team.

Last edited 8 months ago by Shalesh
8 months ago
Reply to  Shalesh

Two middle relievers isn’t a bad return for one of the worst starters in baseball this year and a reliever with really questionable control, both of whom were going to have options declined.

8 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

At least Lynn is a starter. How many real SP even exist? At least he has done something useful in recent memory. Those things make him pretty worthwhile even if he is washed up. I mean you could convert him to a RP and have him be elite anytime you want. RP are failed SP. He is a lot better than a lot of SP that have had successful RP conversions – the bar really is not high. I would say that washed up Lynn is worth more than an quality entire bullpen… but that would be if you are measuring value in some ability to win games which is not how it is currently done in MLB.

8 months ago
Reply to  Shalesh

Joe Kelly sucks at pitching and he always has.

The White Sox did terrible here. They got nothing. RP grow on trees. Sure Lynn looks washed up but RP are worthless. It is typical 2020 professional sports though – cut that payroll and pretend that there is some strategy going on.

8 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

You’ve a real talent for silliness, Ronnie boy