Reliever Trade Roundup, Part 1

© Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the trade deadline. It’s the best time of the year for baseball chaos, rumor-mongering reporting, and of course, the main event: a million trades featuring relievers you’ve heard of but don’t know a ton about. The difference between a blown lead in the seventh inning of a playoff game and an uneventful 4-2 win might be one of these unheralded arms. Heck, they could be a better option but still give up a three-run shot in a crushing loss. Or they could be a worse option! There are no guarantees in baseball. Still, here are some relievers who contending teams think enough of to trade for and plug into their bullpens.

Yankees Acquire Scott Effross
Scott Effross wasn’t supposed to amount to anything in the big leagues. A 15th-round pick in the 2015 draft, he kicked around the Cubs system for years, frequently old for his level and rarely posting knockout numbers. Then in 2019, on the suggestion of pitching coach Ron Villone, he started throwing sidearm. Three years later, he’s carving through hitters in the majors.

“Carving” might undersell it. Since his 2021 debut, Effross has been one of the best relievers in the game. In 57.1 innings, he’s compiled a 2.98 ERA and 2.45 FIP. He’s striking out 29% of opposing batters and hardly walking anyone. With his new low arm slot, he’s adopted what I like to think of as the sidearmer’s basic arsenal: a sinker, a slider, and a break-glass-in-case-of-lefty changeup.

That changeup might be his best pitch. The rule of thumb for sidearmers is that they overmatch same-handed hitting but struggle without the platoon advantage. Effross may actually be better against lefties than righties. The changeup is almost a slow sinker; it falls off the plate, dipping six inches more than gravity would imply, while also fading sharply to his arm side. Bugs Bunny is an overused pitch comparison for changeups, but I think he’d enjoy frustrating Max Muncy this much:

The Yankees have a clear need for more relievers, with workhorse Michael King out for the year. Aroldis Chapman looks cooked. Chad Green had Tommy John surgery in June, so he won’t be riding to the rescue. One look at the 60-day IL shows you how much the Yankees value relief depth: Zack Britton, Miguel Castro, and Stephen Ridings all join King and Green there. Effross might be their second-best reliever right away. As an added benefit, he’ll also be a strong option next year (health permitting), as he won’t even qualify for arbitration until 2025.

The Cubs knew what they had in Effross, so they didn’t let him go for nothing. Hayden Wesneski, a 40+ FV prospect who we considered to be New York’s 17th-best, is joining the Cubs organization, where he slots in at No. 16. He’s a five-pitch righty whose velocity has greatly improved since he was drafted in 2019. My flash impression of him – and I’m not a scout, so this is more stat-based than anything else – is that he’s another pitcher in the Caleb Kilian mold, a minor league performer who the Cubs are hoping to mold into a mid-rotation starter for their next competitive cycle. Eric Longenhagen adds that he’s throwing his slider, which he commands well to the glove side, heavily this year, perhaps in anticipation of a switch to a relief role. Eric thinks he’s more of a multi-inning relief arm for a first-division team, but that he’ll crack the Cubs’ rotation next year.

I love this trade for both sides, which is something you’ll hear a lot in reliever roundups. The Yankees should absolutely be adding relief arms, and Effross is one of the best on the market (let’s just all ignore the Josh Hader/Taylor Rogers trade for now, shall we?). Will he be this effective in three years? Probably not. Relievers decline for seemingly no reason all the time. But right now he’s really good, and despite his delivery, he’s not a glass cannon who can be overwhelmed by opposite-handed batters.

New York’s draft-and-development regime has a clear ability to churn out good pitching. Wesneski was a sixth-round pick in the 2019 draft. He might stick in the majors, but so too might tons of pitchers in the Yankees system, and he’d be Rule 5 eligible after this year. Swapping him into a valuable reliever eases their 40-man crunch, not that it was particularly acute in the first place. More importantly, the Yankees cashed out some of Wesneski’s expected value by turning him into a great major league piece right now. That’s what teams in New York’s position should be doing: if you have a good shot at the World Series, you turn future potential into current production.

The Cubs had to move Effross; reliever shelf lives are short, and Chicago isn’t competing this year or next. Wesneski bulks up their pitching depth meaningfully. I’m interested in seeing how he develops in a new organization, but the bones of a plus major league starter are in there somewhere. Turning your good relievers into prospects in down years is a tried-and-true method of building your next great team. The Cubs did just that in this deal.

The Rays Acquire Garrett Cleavinger
The Rays have a penchant for picking up interesting but inconsistent relievers because they’ve noticed some small tweak they could use to unlock heretofore-unseen potential. The Dodgers also have that reputation, though, which makes this trade interesting. The Rays traded for Garrett Cleavinger, an up-and-down lefty with plus velocity and scary walk rates. To pry him from the Dodgers, they sent back German Tapia, an 18-year-old outfielder.

I’ll level with you: I have absolutely no idea who “won” this trade. I knew nothing about Tapia before today other than his stat line, and all I have now is Eric’s report, which makes me slightly more bullish:

Tapia is a well-built, projectable corner outfield prospect who the Rays had repeating the DSL. The Dodgers were on him when Tapia was an amateur, and his on-paper results and swing have progressed in his second season. He’s already walked about as much as he did all of last year, and has cut his strikeout rate considerably. He’s far enough away from the big leagues not to complicate the Dodgers’ looming 40-man turnover and could be stateside for the latter part of the Complex League season or instructs.

As for Cleavinger, I suppose he could squeeze out one of the middle-relief options in Tampa Bay, though with Nick Anderson soon to return, their bullpen is crowded already. They already have three lefties I like: Colin Poche, Brooks Raley, and Jalen Beeks are all performing well this year.

The Rays are adept at shuttling arms between the minors and the majors, and Cleavinger has an option year remaining. He’s also striking out nearly 15 batters per nine innings, which is a great way to prove to people why K/9 is a bad stat; his strikeout rate is below 30%, but a 2.08 WHIP means he gets plenty of bites at the strikeout apple.

There are some obvious pluses in his profile. Cleavinger’s slider is comfortably above average. When he locates it down and to his glove side, it has bat-missing bite and depth, the kind of pitch that he can throw in the zone and still beat good hitters with. He also bounces too many of them, and has trouble locating his fastball to get into good slider counts in the first place, but if he ends up being Tampa Bay’s next great slider machine, it would surprise no one.

The Rays could have had Cleavinger years ago, but their endlessly-spinning roster machine couldn’t fit him then. When they traded José Alvarado to the Phillies before the 2021 season, Philadelphia sent Cleavinger in return. But they sent him to the Dodgers, not the Rays; Tampa Bay didn’t have 40-man space for Cleavinger, so Los Angeles intermediated by swapping him for Dillon Paulson, a minor league first baseman. It’s hardly surprising that Tampa Bay and Los Angeles favor the same types of players given the similarities between the two front offices, but it’s funny to see such a clear example of it.

Will this trade move the needle for either team? The odds are low. Prospects as young as Tapia mostly miss; that’s just how prospects work. Replacement-level relievers are, well, replaceable. Maybe there’s a 10% chance that the Rays can turn Cleavinger from cromulent middle reliever into high-leverage stud, but I’d guess it’s lower than that, and 1-in-10 isn’t a great bet anyway.

But unlikely isn’t the same as impossible. This trade could matter for either of these teams. Cleavinger could sharpen his command and give the Rays the bullpen juice they need to claw their way to the playoffs in a tight race. Tapia could be a star in five years. Even the best front offices aren’t that good at predicting what players will turn into. After all, the Dodgers themselves once traded Yordan Alvarez for a middle reliever.

Tapia almost certainly isn’t the next Yordan Alvarez. But hey, if there’s a 0.5% chance, that has to be worth something. I’m all for acquiring lottery tickets for players you deem extraneous. The Dodgers clearly considered Cleavinger extraneous, the Rays wanted him, and that’s all you need to make a trade happen.

The White Sox Trade for Jake Diekman
The White Sox relief corps has been solid this year. Liam Hendriks hasn’t been quite his usual self, but he’s still one of the better closers in baseball. Kendall Graveman has been acceptable. Reynaldo López, currently on the IL, has been excellent and should be back soon. Plenty of teams would covet that top three.

The rest of the bullpen hasn’t been quite so solid, though, and there’s one clear hole: with Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet both down with injury, Tanner Banks was their only lefty reliever. He’s been solid in his first major league season, but not in a way that inspires much confidence about his future performance; he doesn’t miss many bats and has intermittently struggled with command. He’s also more of a long man, having come up as a starter.

The solution: add Jake Diekman. Or, perhaps I should say “a solution.” I’m not certain I would have pursued this one; Diekman has walked a colossal 17.5% of opposing batters this year, and while he still misses his fair share of bats, his star had dimmed considerably in the Boston bullpen constellation. Want a dry way of looking at it? In the first two months of the season, Diekman’s average entry leverage was 1.5. In other words, when he came into the game, the at-bats mattered 50% more than an average at-bat; he was coming in for big spots. In July, that number has fallen to 0.9; he’s coming in when the game is less in question because the Red Sox simply trust other relievers more.

Want an anecdotal way of looking at it? Diekman’s last appearance for the Red Sox came this Saturday, when he entered the game against the Brewers with the Sox trailing by one. Pretty soon, things got worse: he hit Victor Caratini with a pitch, walked Tyrone Taylor, then sailed a fastball to the backstop to advance them to second and third with no one out. He struck out Christian Yelich and was promptly pulled from the game in favor of a righty.

In his career, Diekman hasn’t displayed platoon splits; he’s been solid against both lefties and righties. But he’s also struggled mightily with command; the last season he posted a walk rate below 10% was 2013. Plug him in against good lefties, and he’ll make them look foolish with a sweeping slider, unless he’s making them look like Juan Soto by bouncing pitches in the opposite batter’s box. His rate of pitches that are too far from the zone to ever draw a swing – the “waste” zone in Statcast parlance – is 50% higher than the league as a whole.

In this case, the White Sox followed that old adage: desperate times call for desperate measures. If you need a lefty reliever, and you aren’t getting Josh Hader or Taylor Rogers, sometimes you have to get Jake Diekman. Will he do the job? He certainly might. So too might Bennett Sousa or Anderson Severino, both lefties pitching in Triple-A who have appeared in the majors this year, both to disastrous results. I think I’d prefer Diekman to them going forward, but I’d probably just use the righties in the bullpen over either option. The platoon advantage, after all, isn’t as important as talent.

To make Diekman their lefty specialist for this year and next (he’s signed through 2023, with a $3 million team option for ’24), the White Sox surrendered Reese McGuire and that classic deal sweetener, “a player to be named later or cash considerations.” McGuire slots perfectly into the defense-minded catcher slot that Boston opened up by trading Christian Vázquez to the Astros earlier in the day, though he’s worse both in the field and with the bat than Vázquez.

McGuire was an intriguing offseason acquisition for the White Sox, but he got buffeted about by roster circumstances throughout the year. He was slated to be Yasmani Grandal’s backup, and started the season doing just that. When Grandal got hurt in June, McGuire briefly became the starter. He didn’t hit well at all – .225/.261/.285 for the year is good for a 55 wRC+ – but contributed his customary defense.

One problem: with Grandal out, the Sox called up Seby Zavala to back up McGuire, and Zavala promptly went off. He’s hitting .296/.340/.439 with a .409 BABIP, and by the time Grandal returned, Zavala had overtaken McGuire on the depth chart. That left McGuire without a job, but he was also without any minor league options: the reason the Jays had dealt him in the first place is that they couldn’t send him to Triple-A. He’d made only six plate appearances since the All-Star break and was clogging up a roster spot.

I love Boston’s side of this trade because I think most would agree that McGuire is a fine backup catcher. I think many might disagree that Diekman is still an asset in the bullpen, however, though he’s certainly capable of intermittent dominance. Without knowing the details, I assume the PTBNL/cash side of the trade is minor, but it certainly doesn’t help Chicago’s position. The White Sox have climbed within two games of first place in the American League Central, so they could definitely use some deadline acquisitions. I just hope they have their sights set higher than this.

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

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1 year ago

Nailed the Yanks/Cubs assessment. Yankees had a surplus of maybe-SP arms in AAA (Sears, Wesneski, Schmidt, German, Waldichuk) so they dealt 3 of them at the deadline.

Cubs should take fliers on exactly this type of pitcher: Hope they can mold mid-rotation or backend starter for 4-5 years and if not, likely get a future RP arm.