Reliever Trade Roundup, Part 2

Mychal Givens
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday was trade deadline day, and you know what that means: enough trades of marginal relievers to blot out the sun. Every team in the playoff race can look at its bullpen and find flaws, and so every one of them was in the market for a reliever who can come in for the fifth, sixth, or seventh inning and do a more reliable job of getting out alive than the team’s current bullpen complement. That’s just how baseball works; every year, a new crop of pop-up relievers posts great numbers, while the old crop enjoys middling success. It’s a brisk trade market, even if the returns are rarely overwhelming. Here’s another roundup of such trades.

Mets Add Mychal Givens

Mychal Givens is good! Across eight major league seasons, he’s only posted an ERA above 4.00 once, and he’s particularly tough on righties. After signing with the Cubs this spring, he picked up right where he left off in 2021, when he split time between Colorado and Cincinnati.

His fastball/slider approach to righties is consistently effective. From his sidearm release point, a 93-mph fastball is downright terrifying, and his gyro-ball slider starts on the same trajectory before dancing jauntily to the opposite side of the plate. His command hasn’t always been pristine, but he can get away with it, thanks to a career strikeout rate near 30% (29.7% this year — he’s nothing if not consistent).

The problem is that against lefties, Givens turns into a fastball/changeup pitcher, and that doesn’t work quite as well. His changeup isn’t terrible by any means, but it’s more average than anything else, and he’s starting from a disadvantage by throwing to lefties from his arm slot. The Mets would be well-suited to find him matchups where he can feast on righties and light-hitting lefties, something they’ll surely be aware of considering his long history of enormous platoon splits.

The Mets already have a righty specialist in Adam Ottavino, but there are plenty of right-handed batters in the major leagues and plenty of innings to fill in their relief corps. Givens has been so effective when put in a position to succeed that he’ll surely make the playoff roster, too; the Mets are locked in a tight divisional race, so every effective inning he throws in the next two months will help, but he’s more than just an eighth reliever who won’t see the light of October.

Saul Gonzalez, who the Mets sent to Chicago in return for Givens, is a huge (6-foot-7) righty who hasn’t pitched in many competitive games professionally. He mainly pitched in the Complex League last year and is working in relief in A-level St. Lucie this year. Despite his massive frame, he doesn’t display overwhelming velocity, sitting 91–94 mph with a fastball he throws three-quarters of the time, and mixes in an occasional low-80s, gyro-looking slider.

I haven’t seen that much video of him in action, but it’s striking. His arm action is so long that empires rise and fall between pull-back and release. He gets impressive downhill plane on his pitches — again, he’s 6-foot-7 — and so far it’s hard to argue with his stat line; he’s striking out nearly 28% of batters and walking 6.7%. He’ll be Rule 5 eligible after this year, but there’s no real need to put him on a 40-man roster; even alpha-Rule-5-gamer AJ Preller would probably balk at trying Gonzalez out in the majors next year.

As a pure flier, Gonzalez makes a ton of sense to me. He’s got a frame that suggests more velocity might be in there somewhere, and while I don’t remotely have enough information to be sure, it seems like he may have a good feel for throwing strikes. Good organizations fire out a bunch of feelers like this and hope a few stick. I think that the Cubs could have gotten someone more advanced for Givens if they wanted, though I don’t have any specific information on that; he just seems good enough and reliable enough to merit a 35+ FV type prospect. I’m guessing that means they went to the Mets and asked for him specifically; Gonzalez doesn’t strike me as the kind of player who ends up in a trade by accident. I’m interested to see what he does in an extended relief look next year, even if his most likely eventual outcome is merely organizational depth.

Guardians Grab Ian Hamilton, Twins Get Emergency Catching

You probably haven’t seen Ian Hamilton pitch, but at the same time, you’ve basically seen Ian Hamilton pitch. He has a four-seamer he sprays around the zone, topping out in the upper 90s at his best. He complements it with a gyro slider, all gravity and no induced movement, that lives in the upper 80s and feasts on hitters hunting fastballs. He throws the two with roughly equal frequency, and with intermittent command; in extended Triple-A action for the Twins last year, he walked 15% of the batters he faced.

How many of those things I just told you are still true is a matter of debate. Hamilton made a brief major league cameo this year in long relief and was sitting 92–94, but it’s one game, so it’s hardly a telling data point. In the minors, he’s up to his usual strikeout tricks, but he’s halved his walk rate; in fact, he’s run reasonable walk rates off and on throughout his minor league career. The pitches are still the same, and his projected role — cromulent middle reliever — looks to be unchanged as well, but he’s getting to it in a novel way.

Why do the Guardians want Hamilton? Hey, everyone could use more relief arms. Their bullpen, fronted by Emmanuel Clase, has been solid this year, but having more options available to eat up middle- and low-leverage innings is good planning in modern-day baseball. He even has a minor league option remaining, having arrived on the Twins thanks to a 40-man roster crunch rather than an out-of-options waiver claim, which means the Guardians have this year and next to figure out what they have in him.

Realistically, though, what actually happened is that the Guardians had an extra catcher. Austin Hedges starts, and Luke Maile is his serviceable backup. The team originally acquired Sandy León from the Reds in exchange for cash considerations when Hedges hit the IL in late June and subsequently optioned him to the minors when Hedges returned. He cleared waivers at the time and ended up cooling his heels in Triple-A, waiting for need to arise again at the major league level.

As it turns out, the Twins were the ones with need. It’s not exactly clear what role León will play with them, but their current catching duo of Gary Sánchez and Caleb Hamilton doesn’t feel like a solid unit. Ryan Jeffers, their preferred starter, is out for a month or more thanks to a broken thumb, which is not exactly a great injury for someone whose job is to have baseballs thrown at their hands. Sánchez is more DH than catcher at this point in his career, and Hamilton is unproven at the major league level. Adding León is an insurance policy; if Jeffers takes longer to recover, having an extra catcher can’t hurt.

The price wasn’t exactly nonexistent, but the Twins need catching depth more than they need an up-and-down reliever. The Guardians are experts at coaxing a little more out of their pitchers, and maybe they saw something they liked. Hamilton is now a Guardian, León is now a Twin, and it’s clear that neither team thinks this will move the needle all that much, because otherwise two teams jostling for the division lead wouldn’t make a trade.

Twins Trade for Michael Fulmer

AL Central trades are all the rage these days. Fulmer is enjoying a second act as a slider-crazy reliever; he’s throwing the pitch two-thirds of the time this year and making batters look foolish with it. It’s not one of those big honking sweepers that are all the rage these days, but it does have one drool-inducing quality among analysts: velocity that averages over 90 mph.

The best predictor of slider performance isn’t movement, it’s speed. Throwing pitches that bend is hard enough on hitters; throwing them in the 90s is downright unfair. It’s not the kind of thing that Fulmer could do as a starter, because the second or third time through might not work so well. It’s also not a thing he could do as a starter because it makes him wildly inefficient; there’s so little movement on the pitch that he doesn’t get a ton of swings when he misses the strike zone, and now that batters know what he’s doing, they’re going up to the plate thinking “don’t swing, don’t swing.” The result is an unsightly pile of walks, but also an appetizing pile of strikeouts, because even when batters manage to swing at a slider in the zone, they mostly miss it.

Can that slider-heavy game make Fulmer the best reliever in Minnesota’s bullpen? Probably not. But the Twins already have Jhoan Duran, and they traded for Jorge López of the Orioles earlier on Tuesday, which shores up their plan in high-leverage innings. A bigger issue was getting reliable relief, period. Danny Coulombe, Cody Stashak, and Caleb Thielbar are all on the shelf right now, and that doesn’t even count Jorge Alcala and Jhon Romero, both of whom went down early in April.

Innings will do, reliable innings of any type, and Fulmer should supply just that in his last year before reaching free agency. I doubt he’ll be a world beater, but a reliever with a mid-3s ERA and FIP is a welcome addition to a bullpen that’s been exactly replacement level over the last month. The Twins are clinging to first place in the Central, and winning a Wild Card berth might be tough if they miss out on the division. One blown seventh-inning lead could be the difference in a razor-thin race. Getting Fulmer tilts the odds in their favor — not as much as adding Tyler Mahle to their rotation earlier in the day, but a perceptible amount nonetheless.

In exchange for Fulmer, the Tigers received Sawyer Gipson-Long, an immaculately named starter who cracked Double-A this year at 24. He’s a slider-first righty who was putting up solid numbers at levels he was old for until that aforementioned Double-A assignment, where he’s been victimized by some atrocious luck (52.1% LOB rate, yikes). He’s a fringe 40-man type who would be Rule 5 eligible after the season, and the Twins might have lost him for nothing. Turning him into a few months of solid relief is an easy call from their end.

In Detroit, there’s no 40-man crunch to speak of, so the Tigers can see what Gipson-Long does in extended playing time against upper-minors competition this year and next. There’s no urgency there; they’re muddling along between rebuilds the same as always. Might as well take a crack at getting some controllable starting pitching out of the deal, and I can see why the Tigers think they might be able to turn him into something. I think that Gipson-Long will likely top out below the majors, but hey, something is better than nothing, and presumably better than anything else on offer. Tiny, process-driven wins are still wins, and both sides will be happy with this deal.

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

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1 year ago

According to the PD website, Cleveland had an agreement with Leon that he would only stay at Columbus until a ML club asked for him. Any club.

Twins probably could have had him for cash or a PTNL. That Cleveland got a project back is a bonus.

It saved them from matching the rockies in doing absolutely nothing at the deadline.
For what it’s worth. 😒

Last edited 1 year ago by fjtorres