Royals Get One of the Most Intriguing Players Available

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Royals are overachieving. They’d probably consider that an insult — I imagine they’d say they’re properly achieving — but the Royals have a winning record to go with a negative run differential, and right now they cling ever so barely to a would-be playoff spot. It’s a crowded race, to be sure, and the Royals could fall out of position any day, but they are very much in it. In what’s assumed to be the final ride with the current core, the Royals are again gunning for the playoffs, and they’re even within easy distance of the inarguably underachieving first-place Indians.

The Royals don’t have major young pieces to subtract. Nor do they have the budget flexibility to take on someone expensive. Yet, like any other team, the Royals have been looking to improve. Monday, they’ve done that. They just had to go to the Padres, and they’ve come away with a pretty fascinating stretch-run asset.

Royals get:

Padres get:

This is a package that includes several semi-familiar names, and Esteury Ruiz. Every single player is individually interesting, but it’s Cahill who most captures my attention. He’s a risk and a rental, but he could provide a jolt for the Kansas City starting staff.

You want to take the pessimist’s side? I’ll beat you to the punch! Let’s acknowledge the worse stuff first. Cahill has already spent time on the disabled list this year with shoulder discomfort. That has never once been a good thing, for any pitcher. He’s been able to come back to start again, but a medical red flag takes a while to dismiss. Further, while Cahill has started 11 games in the majors this season, he started four over the previous two seasons combined. His offseason stock was sufficiently low that he was available to the Padres on a cheap one-year deal toward the end of January.

Cahill was never going to be the major get of the deadline. Too many factors working against him. But why don’t I kick off the more optimistic section with a handful of numbers? Do not overinterpret this. Don’t read too much into this. Just look at the numbers, and think about them.

  • Sonny Gray: 87 ERA-, 79 FIP-, 78 xFIP-
  • Trevor Cahill: 89 ERA-, 80 FIP-, 78 xFIP-

By those numbers alone, Cahill seems comparable to Gray. He’s been similarly comparable to, say, Carlos Carrasco, and Aaron Nola. Cahill isn’t much for walk avoidance, but he gets his grounders, and he’s been running the same strikeout rate as Lance McCullers and Yu Darvish. At some point, you can’t just ignore how Cahill has improved. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to buy fully into him, but the Royals see a chance, here. They see that Cahill could be something, something underappreciated, and Cahill is someone the team could afford.

I wrote about Cahill way back in May. From the looks of things, one of the factors driving his success has been a sharper curveball. He’s utilized it to great effect, and Cahill has continued to mess with his opponents’ discipline. To go to this again, O-Swing% measures the rate of swings at pitches out of the zone, and Z-Swing% measures the rate of swings at pitches in the zone. I like to look at the difference between the two. Here’s the top-10 by that measure, out of all starters this year with at least 50 innings.

Top 10 Deceptive Starters
Pitcher O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z – O-Swing%
Lance McCullers 36.7% 56.8% 20.1%
Zack Greinke 38.3% 58.5% 20.2%
Corey Kluber 37.5% 57.8% 20.3%
Trevor Cahill 34.3% 56.0% 21.7%
Zack Godley 37.5% 60.4% 22.9%
Alex Wood 37.6% 60.7% 23.1%
Aaron Nola 31.2% 55.1% 23.9%
Chris Sale 38.1% 62.4% 24.3%
Sean Manaea 36.0% 61.2% 25.2%
Stephen Strasburg 36.1% 61.5% 25.4%

Cahill has got some promising company. Also some curveballing company, which I can’t imagine is a coincidence. Cahill has generated chases, while still suppressing swings at would-be strikes, and that’s a terrific way to be successful. Throw in the actual contact he’s allowed, and, I’ll use a number from Baseball Savant. Cahill so far has generated an “expected wOBA” of .273. That ranks 12th-lowest among starters with at least 1,000 pitches thrown. Cahill is sandwiched between Zack Godley and Jacob deGrom.

I can’t tell you exactly how much to believe in Cahill. I can’t tell you about his durability, nor can I tell you about the health of his shoulder. Maybe he’s going to wear down and have a miserable couple of months. But, statistically, there are so many positive indicators. You could say that this is kind of a progressive move, in that sense. It could be seen as a statistical roll of the dice. Every trade is a roll of the dice, but the Royals were able to get an interesting starter without paying out the nose. They’re accepting a certain kind of risk, but there’s no avoiding risk entirely.

Cahill isn’t coming alone. The Royals are also adding two arms to their bullpen. Get used to this, if you haven’t — it’s a contender amassing further bullpen depth. Buchter is a fly-balling lefty who leans on his fastball. Last year, he suppressed home runs, and this year, he’s allowed home runs. Otherwise, he’s been the same guy, and since the start of last season, Buchter’s run an ERA- of 72. That puts him around names like Bryan Shaw and Edwin Diaz. Buchter isn’t overwhelming, and since he’s 30 years old, it doesn’t mean so much that the Royals control him through 2021. But all the fly balls mean Buchter doesn’t allow many hits, and he’s picked up more than enough strikeouts. He can handle both lefties and righties.

Maurer is the more electric of the relievers. He’s also the more annoying. He pumps his fastball into the upper 90s, but his results have never matched up with his stuff. A major reason? While Maurer, for his career, has allowed a .271 wOBA with the bases empty, that’s shot up to .382 when there’s been a runner. That’s easily been the most dramatic such split in baseball since Maurer debuted. His splits look awful by wOBA, by strikeouts, by FIP, and by xFIP. It would appear that Maurer pitches quite a bit worse from the stretch, and that’s no good for a reliever to do. It doesn’t mean Maurer is terrible, but it makes him untrustworthy until or unless he gets over this quirk.

There’s some upside in Maurer, and he’s controlled through 2019. Technically, then, the Royals added a rental starter and two potentially longer-term relievers. The cost is moderate. Travis Wood is a giveaway. The Royals are eating most of his salary, which spared them paying a higher price, but they’re still shedding *some* of his money. Wood hasn’t worked out in the first year of a two-year contract. He’s a 30-year-old swingman. Maybe the Padres will make him their new Trevor Cahill! More likely, he’s just going to be around to eat innings, because innings will need to be eaten.

Matt Strahm might be the prize. His fastball can hang out in the mid-90s, and this is also a thing he can do:

Before the year, Eric rated Strahm as his No. 72 overall prospect. The lefty showed flashes of the ability to be a big-league starter. Strahm subsequently got off to a bad start, and then he injured his knee. He’s out for the rest of the year after surgery, so the Padres won’t see him for a while. Strahm will turn 26 in November, and he’s thrown 56.2 innings in the majors. His career FIP- is 96. Strahm has shown an encouraging ability to miss bats, but he’ll need more consistent non-fastballs. He’s an interesting buy-low who’ll have no problem finding an opportunity in San Diego.

Others might consider Esteury Ruiz the prize. Ruiz, see, currently has a four-digit OPS. But that’s over 91 plate appearances as an 18-year-old second baseman in rookie ball. I’ll be up front with you: I’ve got nothing to say about Ruiz. Don’t know much about his skills. He hasn’t ranked particularly high on any prospect lists that I’ve seen. There have been optimistic reports on Twitter, but as would be true for anyone so young at that level, opinions are mixed. Ruiz has such a long way to go. So many hurdles to jump, before the Royals come to regret this. That doesn’t mean Ruiz is worthless, or that anyone at that level is worthless, but the uncertainty is so very high that you can’t let yourself get too worked up. Every team has talented teenagers in rookie ball. Perhaps Ruiz is more talented than the average one.

The Padres didn’t have a major chip to cash in. Not here, anyway — that’s what Brad Hand is for. Cahill could’ve gone for more, but then he got hurt, and no one wants to pay a high price to acquire a red flag. So the Padres did well to get Strahm and a project. Strahm could be starting for them as soon as next season. Strahm also could’ve been starting for the Royals as soon as next season, but they’re not really thinking about 2018 right now. They’re trying to maximize their last ride, and Cahill is about as interesting as they could afford. Buchter and Maurer, too, could be of some service. Maybe they get flipped in a calendar year. I don’t know how things will look in Kansas City in a calendar year. I just know that in this one, on this day, the Royals improved. By how much, I guess we’ll find out, but Cahill didn’t arrive at his numbers by accident.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

I like Strahm as a prospect, but I like this move for the Royals anyway (as much as I can like them trying to make one more run with the gang). Cahill’s pitching really well, and Buchter is a good fit for the Royals’ home stadium, and Maurer has some upside. If you’re going to push all your chips into the center, this is a good start.