Padres Acquire Musgrove To Further Bolster Pitching

On (day of week), the Padres acquired (talented pitcher) from the (spendthrift team) in exchange for a seeming pittance, including (name of decent but not overwhelming Padres prospect). Now, surely, AJ Preller is done. Or is he?

Oh, hello there! Sorry about that. That’s actually the Mad Libs-esque form that I normally use to cover Padres pitching transactions. Today, I’ve got some details for you. It’s Joe Musgrove heading to the best weather in baseball, Hudson Head and Endy Rodriguez highlighting the group headed out (in a three-team trade involving the Pirates and Mets), and Andrew Friedman gently whispering words of affirmation to himself: “We’ll still win the long game, we’ll still win the long game, the Dodger Way can’t be beat.”

Musgrove isn’t an ace, at least not in the way that new teammates Yu Darvish and Blake Snell are. He would have been Pittsburgh’s number one starter this year, which isn’t the same thing. In San Diego, he’ll slot in as the Padres fourth starter. Let the words of Anakin Skywalker speak for the rest of the NL West: “This is outrageous! It’s unfair!”

Seriously, take a look at our Depth Charts predictions for the Padre rotation:

Padres Rotation (proj. 2021)
Yu Darvish 184 3.52 3.56 4.0
Blake Snell 166 3.45 3.56 3.5
Dinelson Lamet 150 3.61 3.60 3.1
Joe Musgrove 171 4.11 4.01 3.2
Chris Paddack 103 3.96 4.05 1.6
MacKenzie Gore 84 4.22 4.39 1.1

There simply aren’t other teams throwing out pitchers like Musgrove after a whopping three other pitchers. We think that the Padres, Yankees, and Mets will accrue roughly equal value from starting pitchers next year, but the New York teams are doing it with Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom, the consensus best two pitchers in the game. Yu Darvish is nice, but not that nice. The Padres are building their own Death Star rotation, and they’re doing it with volume.

Two years ago, Musgrove didn’t seem likely to become such a lucrative trade chip. He was just okay on the Astros before they shipped him off to Pennsylvania, and his first start in black and gold was delayed nearly two months by injury. He was quietly effective upon his return to the rotation, though, and built on that season with a strong 2019.

What does Musgrove do well? When he’s right, two things in particular: he throws hard and embarrasses hitters with a huge, two-plane curveball. Batters swung and missed at nearly 20% of his curves, and if you care about how often they made contact when they swung, it looks even better:

Best Curveball Whiff/Swing%, 2020
Pitcher Whiff/Swing%
Blake Snell 61.8%
James Karinchak 56.3%
Joe Musgrove 53.2%
Tyler Glasnow 52.8%
Shane Bieber 51.5%
Drew Smyly 50.0%
Gerrit Cole 48.6%
Pierce Johnson 48.1%
Griffin Canning 47.1%
Robbie Ray 47.0%

That curve is my favorite Musgrove pitch, but his slider is nearly as effective; batters came up empty on 50.6% of their swings against it. With two knockout secondary offerings, Musgrove made an obvious adjustment in 2020: he threw his fastball less and both breaking balls more. In fact, he threw his curveball 20% of the time after never previously using it even 10% of the time.

Not only was Musgrove lethal when batters swung, he was effective at inducing those swings. When he threw a breaking ball outside of the strike zone, batters swung more than a third of the time (36.7%), in the top quarter of all starters. Simply put, throwing junk more often unlocked a new and previously unseen level of swing-and-miss filth.

One downside: by throwing more secondary pitches, Musgrove ended up in longer counts, which pushed his walk rate upward. He ended up in 3-1 counts against 8% of the batters he faced and 3-2 counts against 13%, both career highs. In total, his walk rate bloomed to 9.6% from a previously stingy 5.4%.

You can walk more batters if you strike more out, and Musgrove was on the right side of that tradeoff last year. His 33.1% strikeout rate was a career high by a mile and a top 10 rate in the game among pitchers who threw at least 30 innings. Topping Cole, Darvish, and Max Scherzer in strikeout rate after years living around league average is a good way to turn heads, even if you walk a few extra batters in the bargain.

Of course, Musgrove did all of this in eight starts, an even more abbreviated season than most pitchers threw. Our projections are skeptical that he’ll maintain the huge strikeout rate increase. Even if you disregard the results from 2020, though, the process still looks good: more of his good pitches, fewer of his bad ones, and a velocity increase when he returned from his early-season Injured List stint.

In addition to his burgeoning game, Musgrove comes at a bargain rate. He already agreed to a $4.45 million salary with the Pirates for this year, and he’ll undergo arbitration again next offseason. That’s two seasons of excellent pitching at journeyman rates, something every team in baseball would love to have, even if Musgrove doesn’t quite reach our lofty projections.

To pry two years worth of Musgrove goodness out of Pittsburgh, San Diego is sending a veritable potpourri of prospects back. In what’s becoming a pattern for them, however, they’re dealing in quantity rather than high-end quality, sending five players out but keeping the upper echelon of the farm system intact.

Hudson Head, the alliteratively named centerpiece of the deal, was a third-round draft pick with a first-round signing bonus in 2019. He fits a mold shared by many recent Padres draft picks — interesting high school prospects whose stock soared in the year they were drafted. Despite limited looks against high-level pitching, he impressed in the AZL in 2019, hitting .283/.383/.417 against tough competition.

Lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen saw Head in fall instructs this year, and the whole package didn’t work quite as well. He struggled tracking pitches and catching up to fastballs, leading to an ugly time at the plate. Longenhagen notes that Head has added a toe tap since being drafted, but that his struggles appear more layoff-related than mechanical.

If you’re willing to throw out a rough stretch of at-bats, there’s a lot to like about Head. He’s fast enough to handle center and is a great athlete — one of the reasons he was a late riser in the draft is because he split time between baseball and football. He’s also ambidextrous, which probably helps somewhere. He’s the headliner for Pittsburgh, and Eric thinks he still profiles as an old-school leadoff hitter, though with elevated risk given his 2020 struggles.

David Bednar is a strange duck, a relief-only prospect with three solid pitches. He sits in the mid-90s with a 12-6 curveball, a classic profile, but Longenhagen notes that his best pitch is now a splitter that rumors say he learned from Padres advisor Hideo Nomo. While his ceiling isn’t high, teams are always in need of players with Bednar’s rough profile; simply put, there are a lot of outs to get in a big league season, and relievers like Bednar need to get some of them.

Omar Cruz, another piece of the trade, is a 22-year-old lefty who spent 2019 in A ball. His strikeout numbers surpass his raw stuff; when Eric saw him late in 2020, he was sitting around 90-91. He’s theoretically a future starter, but really only commands two pitches; the fastball, which has good movement to offset his velocity shortcomings, and a plus changeup. Eric sees him as an Honorable Mention on the Pirates’ forthcoming list.

Drake Fellows — all kinds of players in this trade, like I said — was a sixth-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt in 2019. He has three plus pitches, but he also hit a remarkable 17 batters in his final year at Vandy, emblematic of his spotty command. Eric likes him as a developmental project because of his stuff, but his control simply isn’t there yet.

Joey Lucchesi has been progressively squeezed out of San Diego’s plans. Two years ago, he was an effective innings-eater on a team with a thin rotation. Since then, the team has acquired Mike Clevinger, Snell, Darvish, and Musgrove. Chris Paddack has solidified a spot in the rotation. Mackenzie Gore will likely be in the majors sooner rather than later. In other words, Lucchesi went from useful to surplus.

Surplus to the Padres, at least. Plenty of teams across baseball could use a fifth starter who looks like a roughly average player over his career, particularly given that he still has four years of suppressed salary in his future. Sure, his fastball hardly crests 90 miles an hour. Sure, his sinker/changeup pitch mix is out of favor these days. Still, take a quick look at who teams are using at the back of their rotations, and you can see Lucchesi’s appeal. Competence is valuable.

Given that the Pirates aren’t trying to win baseball games this year, they didn’t have much use for that competence. Instead, a third team got involved: Lucchesi is now a Met, and New York sent Endy Rodriguez to Pittsburgh in exchange. For a team looking to cobble together enough starters while they wait for Noah Syndergaard to return, Lucchesi is exactly what the doctor ordered. For the Pirates, a prospect who might be good long enough in the future that their rebuild could be finished is a more valuable prize.

Rodriguez is the second-best prospect the Pirates are receiving. He’s a switch-hitting catcher with good feel to hit, a rare combination. Despite that rare skillset, scouts are most excited about his defense. He’s solid across the board at catcher — receiving, moving laterally, and throwing — but he’s athletic enough that the Mets have given time at every position other than shortstop.

His profile likely needs a little more power at some point, but Eric sees a lot of upside there — he compares him (at similar developmental stages) to Rafael Marchan and Gabriel Moreno, both of whom are fringe top 100 prospects today even without great power. As an added bonus, Rodriguez’s Trackman data shows great bat-to-ball skills; despite his lack of top-end power, his 90 mph average exit velocity was excellent for a teenager. If he grows into a little more oomph, that skill will play up.

It feels vaguely lazy to call a trade a win-win — or in this case, a win-win-win. Someone usually hoodwinks someone at least a little bit, or pays up to fill a pressing need on their roster. In this case, however, no one gave up anything they couldn’t part with, and all three teams advanced their plans for 2021.

The Padres want to win the NL West, and adding Musgrove to an already formidable rotation maximizes their chances of doing so. The Pirates are doing no such thing; their 2021 plan involves a lot of losing at the major league level and a lot of hoping prospects pan out, and this deal got them roughly fair value for Musgrove (in this author’s opinion) in the form of interesting but far-off prospects. The Mets turned an interesting but uncertain chip into cost-controlled rotation help, something they need at the moment. From the lens of accomplishing each team’s 2021 goals, this trade has it all.

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

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1 year ago

Hudson Head makes me think of the old TV sitcom “Herman’s Head,” which had an AWESOME cast. (Including Hank Azaria, for a baseball tie-in.)

Glad the Mets picked up Lucchesi, a low cost #4/5 with minor league options remaining. But man, do I wish they had the package to pick up Musgrove. I’m happy for him that he’s going home, but a rotation of DeGrom / Carrasco / Musgrove / Stroman would be unbelievable.

But I think that Lucchesi’s remaining two MiLB options were a big part of this deal for the Mets. Now they can shuttle Lucchesi and Peterson as needed, including if they wind up in the enviable situation of having everyone healthy when Thor returns. Being able to call up one of these two guys, as compared to the AAAA arms they’ve trotted out as replacement starters, is huge for depth.