There’s little question that the Brewers are sorely in need of an additional starting pitcher for the stretch run. The rotation wasn’t exactly a source of strength for the team even before losing Jhoulys Chacin and Brandon Woodruff to abdominal injuries over the last week. With those two not expected to return quickly — Chacin isn’t expected until mid-August and it may take Woodruff into September — and the trade deadline approaching, the Brewers don’t have much margin for error. It would have been a phenomenal risk for the team to hope that the respective rehab stints of Brent Suter and Jimmy Nelson go extremely well, allowing them to arrive dramatically like Marshal Blücher at Waterloo.
Now, is Jordan Lyles the pitcher you want to bring in as your emergency replacement? That I’m less sure of. But I’m not as instantly dismissive as I normally would be of a pitcher sporting a 5.36 ERA. Lyles was actually quite effective for most of the season, his ERA not rising over four until his first start in July. His pummeling has been largely limited to three atrocious starts in which he allowed a total of 19 runs over 6 1/3 innings. He’s been bitten by both home runs (eight homers in four starts) and by BABIP (.556) and while he’s no doubt pitched poorly, he’s been that combination of lousy and unlucky. I’m not sure batters would have a .556 BABIP off a five-year-old pitching with the wrong hand.
For the season, Lyles has a 4.38 xFIP and ZiPS, which doesn’t just assume high home run totals are a fluke but looks at the detailed hit data, thinks he has allowed five more home runs than he ought to have based on those stats. StatCast’s data agrees with this, giving Lyles an xSLG against of .438, well below his actual .514.
Given his recent struggles and how sudden the collapse has been, two things pop out at me: injury or a mechanical issue. To me, that would make Lyles an interesting acquisition for a rebuilding team looking for interesting assets, at least if he had another year remaining on his contract. For a team that’s one game behind both the division and the wild card leader, though, I’m having a hard time with this trade. Even if you like Lyles, doesn’t Milwaukee’s pitching situation demand a little more ambition? Marcus Stroman went to the Mets for just two prospects with a 45 FV on THE BOARD — couldn’t the Brewers have made even a slightly more interesting offer?
That’s not to say that this trade makes a more ambitious deal impossible, given that the player traded for Lyles isn’t absolutely necessary to bringing in, say, Robbie Ray or Mike Minor. Milwaukee could use two starting pitchers, after all — their rotation has become Gonzalez-Anderson-Davies-Maybe-the-sun-will-go-super-nova-this-week — and one could say that getting Lyles leaves the team with better trade bait to go after a more interesting starting pitcher. But it’s hard to give too much credit to the Brewers for this until they, well, actually get that better pitcher.
One last note: While I’m not sure it really alters my basic feelings about the trade, Milwaukee does a successful history with Jordan Lyles. For those who may need their memories refreshed, the Brewers claimed Lyles off waivers from the Padres last August. He proceeded to have arguably had the most successful run of his career with a 3.31 ERA and 2.49 FIP in 11 games for the Brewers down the stretch. There’s no guarantee that Milwaukee can fix what’s gone wrong with Lyles, but they have worked with him before.
For Pittsburgh, the benefits of this trade are obvious. There likely wasn’t an expectation of getting any kind of notable prospect for Lyles after his disaster of July, so it’s a pleasant surprise for them. Cody Ponce only hangs around the very back edge of Milwaukee prospect lists, but that’s generally due to his lack of high-end upside rather than an impossibility of him contributing to a major league roster. Ponce was converted to the bullpen last season after struggling to an ERA near five as a starter with a K/9 barely above seven. He got through the low minors with his combination of a low-mid 90s fastball and a solid cutter, but even in Double-A, it’s hard for a starting pitcher to survive when lacking either a quality breaking pitch or the ability to change speeds well. He’s fared better in relief, and the nice thing about his cutter is that it has enabled him to avoid brutal platoon splits against lefties, the bugaboo of moderately talented minor league middle relievers; his platoon splits have only been 10 and 17 points of OPS the last two seasons.
The unexciting repertoire makes it unlikely Ponce is going to be a top closer, though there have been closers who have had phenomenal success throwing lots of cutters. But even as a serviceable middle reliever, Ponce looks a lot like one of those anonymous guys who thrives in the middle of a small market team’s successful bullpen, the type of guy who the Pirates have had a good history with.
This is probably the richest package the Pirates were ever going to get for Lyles. As for the Brewers, while they may wring some value out of this trade, they really need to set their sights considerably higher before the trade markets shut in 48 hours.
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.