Phamtastic, or Chafincomplete? The Diamondbacks Make A Few Trades

John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something strange going on in the desert. The Diamondbacks have been one of the best stories in baseball this year, led by Corbin Carroll and a motley crew of veterans and rookies. An early season tear sat them atop the NL West, and we gave them an 80% chance of making the playoffs on July 1. Whoops – they’ve gone 8-16 since then, the worst record in the NL, and now they’re scrambling to make the playoffs. Time to make some trades!

Tommy Pham fits perfectly with what Arizona is going for. After a desultory three-year stretch from 2020-22 where he posted a 94 wRC+, he’s been one of the lone bright spots for the Mets this year. He’s hitting .268/.348/.472, and his quality of contact has been even better than that; he has a shiny .390 xwOBA and is smashing balls left and right. His plate discipline, always a strength, has never been better. He’s posted as much WAR this year as in those three previous ones.

The Diamondbacks could use that kind of production. They’ve relied on four regular outfielders this season, and only Carroll has been good. Jake McCarthy has an 85 wRC+ and the underlying stats to match. Alek Thomas checks in at a 79 wRC+. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is the best of the group, but that’s faint praise; he’s hitting .249/.296/.448 with a 98 wRC+ himself. Murderer’s row, this is not.

My guess is that McCarthy is the odd man out for now, with Pham and Gurriel alternating between right field and DH. Carroll could also shift to center if the team wants to bench Thomas instead, which would let Pham and Gurriel take left field, perhaps a more natural position. Whichever way they shift things, however, Pham looks like he’ll be the second-best outfield bat for the team right away, and a pretty large upgrade; he’s been worth roughly 15 runs more than McCarthy on offense in similar playing time this year. That’s some serious juice.

Pham will be due something like $3 million the rest of the season depending on incentives, and then he’ll be a free agent. That suits Arizona just fine; the price is reasonable and the team’s long-term plans center around Carroll, Thomas, and Druw Jones anyway. And wait, there’s more to like: they only dealt Jeremy Rodriguez, a 17-year-old prospect who signed for $1.2 million earlier this year, to get Pham.

Rodriguez suits the Mets’ turn towards building a long-term juggernaut of a farm system. Per Eric Longenhagen, he has no standout tool but does everything well for his age and looks like a good bet to stick at shortstop. He’s so far away from the majors that it’s purely speculative, but the Mets have been focusing much more on scouting the Complex Leagues this year, and they opted for similarly far-off prospects when trading David Robertson earlier in the month.

Realistically, this trade makes Arizona better this year and has a tiny chance of making the Mets better (and the Diamondbacks worse) a long way down the road. That sounds about right for both teams; Arizona should be trying to make the playoffs whenever the NL West looks winnable, and the Mets are taking advantage of a down 2023 to lay a foundation for the future. This is just a straightforward swap of time horizons. Now, things are about to get weird.

Getting better at the deadline in exchange for future considerations? Normal. Trading relievers without obvious reason to? Not so much. But that’s the other major trade the Diamondbacks made today: Andrew Chafin is headed from Arizona to Milwaukee in exchange for Peter Strzelecki.

From Milwaukee’s side of the table, this deal is straightforward. Devin Williams is an absolute stud, but the rest of the bullpen is made up of a collection of pitchers who sound more like a fun exercise in neat baseball names than a cohesive unit. Elvis (Peguero) is in the building. Hoby Milner and Abner Uribe bring 19th-century first names to the table. J.C. Mejía is the requisite initialed reliever. Strzelecki? That’s just a fun last name to say, though I suppose he’s out of the fun name brigade as a result of this trade.

Chafin doesn’t have quite so delightful a name, but he’ll immediately be one of the best options in that group, and the Brewers need it. Excluding Williams and setup man Joel Payamps, the rest of the bullpen has been below replacement level this year. Milner is the only lefty in the group. The Brewers bullpen is second in baseball in Win Probability Added but 22nd in FIP-based WAR. If they want to keep the good times going and beat out the Reds for the NL Central crown, adding a little more heft to the bullpen makes sense.

Chafin is a snug fit next to Payamps as an additional setup man, and that unlocks a lot of options for the team. Milner can face tough lefties more frequently; he’s been downright awful against righties in his career, but he’d been drawing high-leverage roles instead of opportunistic platoon matchups to make up for the rest of the ‘pen. There are other cascading improvements, too; this is the kind of bullpen where kicking out the weakest member is just as good as adding a solid arm.

Speaking of “solid arm,” that’s exactly what Chafin is. He has a 9.95 ERA in the month of July, which sounds awful – except that five of the seven runs he allowed came in a single outing against the Cardinals. Relievers are just volatile! A bigger worry is a declining strikeout rate, but nothing in his underlying statistics looks amiss to me. It’s just the noise inherent in small-sample pitching, as best as I can tell.

He’s good against both lefties and righties, misses a ton of bats, and is even controllable for another year with a team option for $7.25 million. The biggest concern this year is a ballooning walk rate, and that’s certainly worrisome, but the Brewers have had good success with high walk rate relievers before. It’s not as much of a problem when you strike out a third of your opponents like Chafin does.

That’s all well and good for the Brewers, but this is a Diamondbacks article. What are they getting out of the deal? They hope that Strzelecki will put up Chafinesque numbers for them sometime soon, more or less. He has an arsenal that feels like it was designed in a lab to get the most out of an average-fastball reliever. He sports a sweeping slider in the low 80s for use against righties and a nasty changeup for lefties. Those complement a four-seamer that is at its best high in the zone thanks to his arm slot. His secondaries are his best two pitches, so it’s a good thing he has both, because he’d be a platoon liability otherwise.

Strzelecki has been acceptable in the majors this year, but the Brewers clearly didn’t want to wait for the package to gel. I don’t see anything in his profile that suggests a decline is imminent, but I also don’t see any reason that he’d suddenly turn into a closer. Relievers are unpredictable, and I like the building blocks here, but he’s a speculative addition rather than a right-now bullpen stud.

I suppose the Diamondbacks were willing to downgrade for the present in exchange for more team control in the wake of the Paul Sewald trade, but I don’t think that makes much sense in the context of relievers. Maybe Strzelecki will be a valuable cog for years to come, but relievers are so volatile that I don’t think those later years of team control are worth much. Chafin seems clearly better in the present. The present matters a lot to Arizona, too: they’re currently locked in a three-way tie (with the Brewers!) for the last playoff spot.

I suppose their thinking is that Chafin is just another guy in a bullpen long on above average options. Scott McGough and Miguel Castro have handled a lot of important innings for the team this year, and Kevin Ginkel is dealing after a slow start. Adding Sewald means there are only so many innings to go around. Maybe Chafin was due for a slide down the leverage hierarchy and the team decided they’d rather bet on future upside as a result.

Still, I like Milwaukee’s side of this. Trying to figure out which relievers will be great in three years is tough. I’d take Chafin over Strzelecki for the rest of this season, and that’s of utmost importance here. The odds of this trade swinging the playoff race for either team are low, but should that transpire, I think the Brewers are the ones more likely to get a boost. Good deal for them, and strange, trying-too-hard-to-play-4D-chess deal for the D-Backs.

If you’re keeping score at home, I’d call it this way: one win for the Diamondbacks (Pham), one win for the Mets (Rodriguez), one win for the Brewers (Chafin), and one really strange decision (Strzelecki). In aggregate, these two trades definitely make the Diamondbacks better down the stretch. They might make the team better in 2024 depending on how Strzelecki pans out. The thing is, more than 100% of the this-year improvement is coming from acquiring Pham. Maybe Chafin was just a payroll offset, or maybe the Diamondbacks had some other non-obvious reason to want him out of town, but from the outside, it’s just strange. They took two steps forward, one step back, and then three steps sideways for no obvious reason. I like their team – I’m just not sure I understand why they like it better without Chafin.





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

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sadtrombonemember
8 months ago

I don’t know. Hopefully it wasn’t a payroll offset—Kendrick has been known to mandate things like that in the past. It’s not like the D-Backs needed to move a reliever, but there were rumors they were shopping Chafin and Mantiply. I think the D-Backs must think they can unlock something in the guy they got (I am not even going to try and see what autocorrect does to his name)