The Astros and Mariners Made a Weird Trade

Most deadline trades follow a familiar coda. A team with fading hopes and eyes full of prospects gets rid of an overperforming reliever, or perhaps a soon-to-depart slugger. A contender who needs more pitching (so, all of them) gives up on its prospect-hugging ways long enough for a few to slip through its grasp. Wham-o! It’s a trade. This one is … well, it’s not that:

Kendall Graveman is definitely the aforementioned overperforming reliever. He’s been incredible this year, one of the best closers in the game. No longer a middling starter, he converted to relief in 2020, added velocity and started dominating. His 0.82 ERA is better than he’s actually been — shocker, that — but he’s cooked up an enviable mix of strikeouts and grounders, and he’s done it when it counts; he’s recorded 18 shutdowns this year (adding at least 6% of win probability) and only three meltdowns (losing 6%).

Rafael Montero? He hasn’t been that. He has 12 of those fancy shutdowns, but 12 meltdowns to match. The Mariners are 23–8 in one-run games, but it’s been because of Graveman, not Montero. In fact, they’ve swapped roles; Graveman now finishes games, and Montero sets him up. He, too, is a capable pitcher. But he’s been dicey this year, even at the underlying metric level, and that 7.27 ERA — ew!

Anyway, neither of them are Mariners anymore. The Astros snapped them both up, and they’ll fold them into their middle-of-the-road relief corps; they’ve been only 16th in baseball in park-adjusted ERA and 20th in park-adjusted FIP. Ryan Pressly has been great, but he’s a man, not an entire bullpen. Houston could certainly use the help.

We’ve penciled Graveman in as the team’s new setup man and Montero as a middle reliever, and that’s likely what Houston will do. Honestly, though, you could convince me that the two of them will put up comparable results the rest of the way. Graveman’s new turbo sinker is beastly, and his numbers speak for themselves, but baseball is a forward-looking game.

One possible issue for Graveman: Since missing roughly three weeks after landing on the COVID-19 IL, his fastball hasn’t been quite the same. In eight of his first 14 appearances, he averaged 97 mph or higher on the pitch, but in the 16 he’s made since returning, he’s hit that mark only once, and that was exactly 97. His whiff rate on the pitch has declined by roughly half, from 12.5% to 6.4%, and his slider has gone from a ludicrous 27.8% swinging-strike rate before down to 16.7%.

Graveman’s results haven’t suffered overly much, but that doesn’t mean things don’t look ominous underneath. After allowing only a single barrel before his IL stint (an easy delineating mark), he’s allowed four since, and loud contact is bad contact from a pitcher’s perspective. Just in terms of pure run value, he piled up three times more value in the first half of his season than he has since returning.

It’s all tiny samples, because I’m splitting a reliever’s already short track record into two buckets. I’m also tricking you by comparing Graveman’s recent form to his early-season success; he’s still been quite good since returning, and the building blocks are there for a great reliever. But if you told me that he would be 10% better than league average the rest of the way rather than the complete monster he’s been so far, I’d believe you.

Montero’s season has been the exact opposite. Graveman has a .176 BABIP; Montero checks in at .364. The defense behind him has cost him five outs, per Baseball Savant. Things have gone as wrong as they could, and in fact, the Mariners designated him for assignment on July 23. One way or another, he wasn’t going to be in the Seattle bullpen. But he’s been basically the same pitcher as always, which is to say a serviceable but completely unexciting reliever (with the exception of one season of starting for the Mets).

To add those two pitchers, the Astros sent a prospect of sorts and a pitcher of their own. Let’s cover the pitcher first, because reliever-for-reliever trades are the best. Like Graveman, Joe Smith is a righty sinker/slider type. Unlike Graveman, he’s a weirdo side-armer who sits in the mid 80s and has trouble with lefties, what with the side-arming and all. He’s also 37, and Houston was using him mostly as a mop-up reliever at this point; his average entry leverage index this year was 0.35, which means he was coming into games almost exclusively when the outcome wasn’t in doubt. He probably didn’t have a place in Houston after this trade and happened to have a nearly identical salary to Montero. Maybe the Mariners can use him — they’re down a few relievers now — but he’s a throw-in, not a reason to make a trade.

Abraham Toro is the highlight of Seattle’s return, and like every nerd, I’m a big fan. He’s hit a ton at multiple levels of the minors and was adequate when needed (despite a brutal .205 BABIP) in Houston this year before returning to Triple-A, where he has 11 walks, eight extra-base hits, and eight strikeouts. Is that good? I think that’s good.

The knock on Toro has always been how ungainly he looks in action. Looking the part is overrated, but he really doesn’t look the part, and he’s been kind of bad in his cup of coffee in the majors (308 plate appearances so far). He doesn’t have a true carrying tool; he has plus bat control and hits for a bit of power, but neither jump off the page. He’s also an indifferent defender, filling in for Alex Bregman at third base this season but having played all over the diamond in the minors, with middling results. I buy him as an average regular, but it’s definitely not a lock.

From a cut-and-dry surplus value view of this trade, I like Seattle’s side. Toro is my favorite prospect traded so far this deadline (he’s no longer a prospect, but only barely, and you get the idea), and if he’s not the best, he’s at least in the conversation. Graveman is a reliever on an expiring contract, and Montero was on the verge of being released. If the Mariners had a spot to play Toro, you could even argue this trade makes them better this year.

But they don’t, and they had a spot to play Graveman: in the closer’s role, winning them games and collecting high fives from the team. It’s hardly surprising that Seattle’s clubhouse was upset when the players learned about the trade. Graveman had just shut the Astros down in a key spot on Monday, in a thrilling come-from-behind victory. Trading your stud closer to the team you’re trying to compete with doesn’t feel good. In the aftermath of this trade, Jerry Dipoto stressed that he’s not done trading and that he plans on adding to the team, and maybe he will. He’s certainly no stranger to trades. He also just traded a guy who has played a large role in the Mariners’ surprising season — whether sustainably or not — to a divisional rival. You can understand why the team wouldn’t like it.

Do I think the Mariners were contenders? Not serious ones. Our playoff odds give them a 5.6% chance of reaching the postseason, and they’ve been sneaky bad this year; by BaseRuns, they’re the seventh-worst team in the league. Any additions they make should be players who will be on the team for several years, and there’s nothing wrong with trading players on expiring contracts for guys who will stick around longer. Without other moves, though, this one feels like blowing up the current team (and Tyler Anderson doesn’t count). It’s not, really; Graveman is a reliever, not a franchise cornerstone. But it feels like blowing up the team, and that seems ill-advised, particularly for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001.

I get the Astros’ side of the deal. Toro didn’t have an obvious fit; he’s more or less a four-corners defender, and the Astros have better options at those positions. That’s the exact kind of surplus that contending teams should trade for impact relievers, and if you think Montero is salvageable, they got two for the price of one. It’s an overpay in the long term, but turning your utility guys into useful bullpen arms is a trade contending teams will make all day. You can always develop another utility guy later, and they needed relief help right now.

So I’ll give both teams a conditional passing grade, but Jerry, buddy, read the room! If the Mariners make a subsequent series of trades, perhaps using Toro as part of them (teams love him), maybe all will be forgiven. But if he made a marginal surplus value upgrade and alienated the fanbase and clubhouse in the bargain, that’s certainly not great. I like Toro, but not enough to lose the confidence of the team over it. I’m guessing there’s more to come, but this is a great example of a move that makes sense from a numbers perspective but that I still kind of hate.

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

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2 years ago

Mistake comment

2 years ago
Reply to  dozingoffdad

Was there a way to delete this? I was only able to edit it. Seems like there should be a way to pull it back entirely within 60 seconds or something.

Cave Dameron
2 years ago
Reply to  dozingoffdad

There are no mulligans in baseball.

Da Bear
2 years ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

Unless a low-flying bird gets in the way of your pitch at just the wrong time…

Jason Bmember
2 years ago
Reply to  Da Bear

That bird sure didn’t get a mulligan…

2 years ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

Replay review!

2 years ago
Reply to  dozingoffdad

I think you’re just supposed to translate it to Serbian, then to Vietnamese, then back to English

2 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Ask and ye shall receive! “Annotation Error”