While it might not be a surprise that the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman is the first big-name player to be traded in advance of the coming July 31 deadline, the team on the other end of the transaction has raised some eyebrows. At 50-55, the Mets are running fourth in the National League East (11 1/2 games out of first place), and seventh in the NL Wild Card race (six games out). Acquiring the 28-year-old righty, who has one more year of club control remaining, in exchange for a pair of pitching prospects appears to be both a prelude to another deal involving a Mets starting pitcher and a signal that the team intends to contend next season rather than plunge itself into a more substantial rebuild. The alternative — that first-year general manager Brodie Van Wagenen is doubling down on a disappointing team whose playoff odds are just 11.2% (10.5% for the Wild Card) — well, that would be quite the four-dimensional chess move.
New York gets:
RHP Marcus Stroman
Stroman has pitched far better than his 6-11 won-loss record indicates. Entering Sunday, his 2.96 ERA ranks fifth in the AL, his 3.52 FIP sixth, his 2.9 WAR 10th. In a season where home runs are more common than ever before (1.38 per team per game), he owns the league’s third-lowest rate per nine innings (0.72), in part because he’s excelled at keeping the ball on the ground; his 56.3% groundball rate is the Junior Circuit’s highest.
The same qualities that make Stroman a useful pitcher, however, also limit his upside. At a time when sinkerball usage is at its lowest in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008) — just 14.7% of all pitches thrown, according to Pitch Info — Stroman’s 34.6% sinker rate is 12th among qualified starters in both leagues. When batters put his sinkers in play, they become groundballs 67.1% of the time, though they only generate a 5.5% swinging strike rate. Stroman’s overall swinging strike rate of 9.8% is 20th out of 34 AL qualifiers, while his 19.3% strikeout rate is 22nd, and his 12.5% strikeout-to-walk differential is 23rd.
The fact that Stroman doesn’t miss many bats is one reason why contenders in pursuit of name-brand rotation help might prefer the Indians’ Trevor Bauer (28.1% K rate, 3.49 ERA, 4.19 FIP), the Diamondbacks’ Robbie Ray (31.0% K rate, 3.95 ERA, 4.27 FIP), the Tigers’ Matthew Boyd (32.1% K rate, 4.07 ERA, 3.57 FIP), or the Mets’ own Noah Syndergaard (23.8%, 4.33 ERA, 3.64 FIP) or Zack Wheeler (25.9% K rate, 4.71 ERA, 3.64 FIP). Of course, some or even most of those pitchers may not wind up going anywhere before July 31 because their current teams aren’t letting them go for cheap and in some cases, still harbor contention hopes of their own. Of that group, only Wheeler — who incidentally made an acceptable but unspectacular return from a bout of shoulder impingement with a 5.1-inning, three-run start against the Pirates on Friday — is a pending free agent. The rest, like Stroman, have some years of club control remaining.
What’s more, Stroman’s contact-driven tendencies make him a particularly odd fit for the Mets, whose team defense has been, to put it politely, utterly atrocious. They’re second-to-last in the NL in defensive efficiency (.674) and dead last in the league in both UZR (-23.5) and DRS (-59). Via Craig Edwards’ forthcoming piece about Syndergaard, here’s a breakdown of the team’s infield defense covering this year and the past four seasons:
|SS/2B/3B UZR||Rank||SS/2B/3B DRS||Rank|
One other concern regarding Stroman is durability. While the 5-foot-8, 180-pound righty reached the 200-inning plateau in both 2016 and ’17, this might be just the third year out of six in which he throws at least 150 innings, and the fourth out of six in which he reaches 3.0 WAR (he’s never topped 3.4). He was limited to four regular season starts in 2015 by a torn ACL, though he rehabbed in time to make three postseason starts. He spent 45 days on the disabled list last year with shoulder fatigue, a problem that no doubt contributed to his disappointing 5.54 ERA (but 3.91 FIP) in 102.1 innings.
Leaving aside the possibility that the Mets still think they have a shot at a playoff spot this year, their next move(s) with regards to the rotation should be of great interest. Via ESPN’s Jeff Passan, “The likelihood is strong they deal at least one of Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard. They’ve hijacked the market.”
The Mets are known to be shopping Syndergaard, who has two more years of club control remaining, and if they do deal him, they should receive a more substantial package than they surrendered to get Stroman. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported on Saturday that the team has let suitors know they’re seeking “a starter who can go into their rotation now — even if he is a No. 3-4 type — and a few top prospects.”
Such volume may be unattainable, particularly given that the 26-year-old righty hasn’t pitched anywhere close to his full capability; it’s worth noting that after placing 29th in our Trade Value series last year, Syndergaard slipped off of the list this year. Meanwhile, per the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Mets have explored signing Wheeler to an extension rather than trading him, though a team source told Passan that an extension is increasingly unlikely. A rotation with Jacob deGrom, Stroman, Steven Matz, and a starter fetched in the Syndergaard trade would still rate as a competitive one, particularly if they put the money they’re currently spending on Wheeler and Jason Vargas (who has an $8 million club option and $2 million buyout for 2020) into paying another starter.
On the Blue Jays’ side, dealing the popular Stroman has to be a blow to a fan base that had hopes of him playing the elder statesman into the Vladimir Guerrero Jr./Bo Bichette era. Despite the pitcher’s stated willingness to sign a long-term extension, Toronto doesn’t appear to have made a substantial effort to retain him, either this past winter or more recently. Via SNY’s Andy Martino, when the Jays were said to have told teams they were considering extending Stroman, the pitcher responded on Twitter, “That’s news to me. Lol.” The Toronto Star’s Gregor Chisholm chronicled the erosion of the team’s relationship with the pitcher.
As for the prospects heading to Toronto, the 24-year-old Kay and the 18-year-old Woods-Richardson ranked ninth and seventh respectively on the Mets’ prospect list in January, and were ninth and eighth in the system at the time they were dealt.
Kay, a 6-foot, 218-pound southpaw, is a potential No. 4 starter who will likely draw consideration for a spot in our Top 100 Prospects list this winter. A supplemental first-round pick in the 2016 draft — number 31 overall, 12 picks after Justin Dunn, who was traded to the Mariners in the Robinson Cano deal — Kay was so overworked at the University of Connecticut that he underwent Tommy John surgery in October of that year, and didn’t make his professional debut until 2018. Eric Longenhagen described the post-TJ version of Kay as “a lefty changeup monster with mediocre velocity.” His fastball has since ticked up, and now sits 90-94 mph while touching 96 (he sat 95-96 in his inning during the Futures Game). His once-dominant changeup has regressed somewhat, but still rates as a potentially above-average pitch (grades of 50/55), as does his two-plane breaking ball.
Kay began the year at Double-A Binghamtom, where he pitched to a 1.49 ERA and 2.72 FIP in 66.1 innings before moving up to Triple-A Syracuse, where he’s been cuffed for a 6.61 ERA and 6.23 FIP in 31.1 innings. The use of the major league ball in Triple-A this year, which has sent home run rates skyrocketing, appears to be a factor; he yielded 0.27 homers per nine at Binghamton but 2.01 per nine at Syracuse. More unsettlingly, his strikeout rate has plunged from 26.7% to 18.6% with the change in levels.
Woods-Richardson, who lists at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, was the Mets’ second-round pick in the 2018 draft (48th overall) out of a Sugar Land, Texas high school. He’s athletic, with a fiery mound presence and a penchant for working so quickly that it makes batters uncomfortable, though scouts love it. His floor is as a high-leverage reliever, though he has the potential to be a mid-rotation starter. He’s spent this year pitching at A-level Columbia, where he’s struck out 29.9% of hitters while posting a 4.25 ERA and 2.55 FIP.
Prior to the draft, Woods-Richardson drew consideration as a power-hitting third-base prospect as well. Per Longenhagen, his frame has already matured, so he’s not as physically projectable as most other teens, which may cause him to be overrated by some teams. His vertically oriented release point makes it hard for him to work his fastball (which sits 91-94 and touches 96, with above-average life) east and west, though it enables him to change hitters’ eye levels with low breaking balls; he’s got a potential plus curveball, and above-average changeup. Concerns about command led several teams to consider him a future reliever, and his floor is that of a high-leverage one. A third impact pitch could help him reach that mid-rotation ceiling.
In all, this looks to be a solid but unspectacular haul for the Blue Jays, who have gotten a pair of 45 Future Value prospects for an All-Star with one-plus year of club control remaining. There are no sure things with pitching prospects, and the Mets, whose farm system currently ranks 24th on THE BOARD, (which reflects the loss of Kay and Woods-Richardson) weren’t exactly waist-deep in them. Both rate as high risk, though with higher risk comes the potential for higher reward.
As for the Mets, it’s difficult to evaluate this move in a vacuum, since we don’t know which way they’ll go with Syndergaard, Wheeler, and the rest of their deadline plans. That Stroman’s strengths don’t align with those of the Mets — as currently constituted, at least — in terms of the quality of their defense does rate as a concern, as does the possibility that they’re in the midst of misreading the current landscape. Having said that, it’s selling Stroman short (no pun intended) to say that he won’t help the team. He’s a damn good pitcher who was quite popular in Toronto, one whose Long Island roots should make him a fan favorite in Queens.
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.