The 2016 trade deadline season culminated with 18 trades on Monday, wrapping a month that saw 45 different deals struck over the course of the month. We wrote about basically every trade, often from multiple angles, and attempted to break down each team’s expected return for each deal. Now, as a bit of a recap, I’m going to look at my favorite acquisitions over the last month. Today, we’ll focus on the buyer side of things, looking at the teams that I think did the best in upgrading their roster for the stretch run. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the seller side of things, looking at who looks to have gotten the most future value, relative to what we expected, by moving veterans for younger talent.
Keep in mind that I’m not just looking at the teams that improved themselves the most, but also at the acquisition cost; you can make a big splash and add a few wins to your roster while still hurting your franchise long-term. Of course, it’s also easy to make a minor deal that doesn’t cost you much and doesn’t improve your chances of winning all that much either, so while there were some smaller deals that I liked, I gave preference to the deals that I think could have a real impact on the playoff races. These are the deals that I think helped contenders upgrade in a significant way without sacrificing too much long-term value in order to do so.
Even though several higher-profile sluggers were moved at the deadline, I think you could make a pretty decent argument that the Orioles landed the best hitter traded in July. I’ve been a Pearce fan for a while, labeling him one of my off-season bargains, and he lived up to the billing by mashing the ball in Tampa for the first half of the season. Pearce is 33 and will probably never shake the label of being a part-time player, but he can really hit, and doesn’t embarrass himself in the field like some other sluggers who fetched more impressive prospects in return.
That the Orioles were able to land a guy with this kind of offensive ability for a just catcher who looks like he’s going to top as a backup if he gets to the big leagues is fairly impressive. I’d take Pearce over Jay Bruce for the rest of the season, for instance, and Bruce cost the Mets a guy with some actual value. Pearce is worthy of an everyday job, but because he’s still seen as a part-time guy, the Orioles got him for bench player prices. To maximize the value from this trade, and their chances of reaching October, they should just put him in the lineup everyday, and celebrate landing a quality hitter at almost no cost.
This has been the year of extraordinarily high valuations for relievers, starting with Ken Giles and Craig Kimbrel bringing back significant hauls over the winter, and Aroldis Chapman commanding a staggering return not long before Miller got traded. And it’s clear the Indians gave up some real talent to land Miller, as both Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield are Top 100 prospects with some real value, and the two extra guys in the deal are at least interesting. It’s not like the Indians got Miller for free.
But given what a half-season of Chapman commanded, I was actually a bit surprised at the deal the Indians were able to swing for Miller. Frazier is probably somewhat comparable in value to Gleyber Torres, the headliner that the Cubs gave up in their rent-a-relief-ace deal, and while he’s closer to the big leagues, he’s still got some work to do before he can be expected to produce in New York. So, really, the primary difference between those deals came down to the secondary players, with Cleveland giving up slightly more value in the second, third, and fourth players in the trade.
But they got back so much more in return, as they’ll control Miller’s rights for the next two years beyond 2016. And you don’t even have to think that the Indians are going to need to keep Miller for that to have value; think about what Miller could bring back to Cleveland this winter if they traded him again, and I think it’s pretty clear that they could recoup a pretty good chunk of the value they gave up to get him in the first place, making the rent-a-Miller strategy much more cost effective than the rent-a-Chapman one.
Of course, I’m on record as saying I think the Cubs overpaid for Chapman, so just saying that landing Miller for this group is better than that deal doesn’t necessarily make it a bargain. But when we look at what the Indians are getting, and how much value Miller will likely retain even after this season, I think there’s a good chance that they could end up not that much worse off if they chose to flip him again this winter. And if they keep him, well, they’ll already have a guy on their 2017 team who can keep them from having to pay another premium price for a relief upgrade at next year’s deadline.
Like with Miller, I think the Red Sox did well to land a pitcher under multiple years of control for a price not too different from what rentals were going for this summer. Pomeranz is certainly a risky acquisition, given that he’s in uncharted territory innings-wise, but he’s not any riskier than Rich Hill, who also brought back a significant return for his team despite a short track record of success and lingering health questions. And unlike if they had paid the price the Dodgers had to pony up to land Hill, the Red Sox will still have a guy capable of holding down a rotation spot for them next year.
Yes, Anderson Espinoza is highly regarded in prospect circles, and upside is seductive, but Espinoza is also an 18-year-old who is not exactly dominating A-ball hitters, and has a long road to travel before he’s producing in the big leagues. And a realistic long-term forecast for Espinoza wouldn’t call for him to produce that much more value for the team than Pomeranz could produce over the next two years and change, especially once you account for the increased value of present wins versus future wins. Given that the Red Sox are in a position where they were incentivized to turn future value into present value, I think they did quite well, finding a guy who can help them both this year and for the next few years.
Of course, I’m sure they’d have loved to have landed someone with a lower risk profile, a guy they could simply stick in the rotation and not worry about how he’ll hold up through October. But pitchers who fit that description didn’t get moved this summer, as the asking prices were simply too high to justify the price. In Pomeranz, the Red Sox got the most valuable starting pitcher traded during the summer, and while he won’t pitch as well in Boston as he did in San Diego, this was a deal worth making for Boston.
In a year where the cost on relief pitchers was very high, the Nationals got creative and landed a high-end closer by using the inflated value of relievers to their advantage. By building their deal for Melancon around Felipe Rivero, a quality young lefty reliever in his own right, the team was able to land the ninth inning upgrade they were looking for without having to pay an exorbitant long-term cost in young talent.
On an individual basis, the upgrade from Rivero to Melancon isn’t enormous — which is why the Pirates were willing to make that swap with just a minor prospect added, as they primarily wanted to pick up a big league arm with years of cheap control — but the likely usage of Melancon in high-leverage situations, bumping Papelbon out of the closer’s role, means that he should have a bigger impact on the team’s chances in October than Rivero, who might have well been forced to watch as more veteran pitchers were handed the important situations.
Losing Rivero doesn’t open up a hole in the team’s bullpen from the left side, but lefty relievers are almost always available in August, and the team can go pick up someone to fill Rivero’s role without sacrificing a huge piece later this month. I would have liked this move even more if the Nationals could have also landed Zach Duke before the deadline, but even as is, this was still a good move for the Nationals. And if they find a quality lefty setup guy before the August trade season ends, this could end up being a very nice series of moves for Washington.
If I was betting on which prospect turns out to have the best major league career of any player dealt this summer, I’d take Lewis Brinson. His combination of defensive value and interesting offensive skills give him both a somewhat high-floor — his worst-case scenario is probably something like Michael Taylor, who is still a big league role player — and an intriguing ceiling, as he could turn into a star if things click for him in Milwaukee. Long-term, I think the Rangers might wish they had found a way to hang onto Brinson.
But when you’re landing the best player on the market — plus that player is signed at a bargain salary for 2017 — and you’re getting a quality reliever in the deal too? Well, sometimes, you just have to swallow hard and trade a guy you think will have a good career. And for the Rangers, Lucroy and Jeffress represent real substantial upgrades, with the team’s weak incumbents at those positions not providing much value, so no team improved their overall roster in July as much as the Rangers did.
Lucroy remains a high-end catcher, and while he’s now 30 and showing some signs of decline, he should still be a productive player for the Rangers both this year and next year. His work behind the plate should help the team’s beleaguered rotation, and he gives the lineup some depth it lacked, especially from the right side. And depending on how the next CBA handles qualifying offers, the Rangers could very well be compensated with some kind of prospect if Lucroy leaves after next season.
And while Jeffress probably isn’t as good as his ERA makes him look, getting a hard-throwing young controllable reliever along with Lucroy lessens the pain of giving up a couple of Top 100 prospects. Jeffress for Ortiz probably would have been something like a fair swap, so the Lucroy aspect of the deal essentially breaks down to costing them Brinson. And while I like Brinson, turning him into a year and a half of a quality player like Lucroy, plus the potential for maybe a draft pick if Lucroy leaves, is a deal a team like Texas had to make.
So those are my five favorite win-now moves of the trade deadline season. Tomorrow, we’ll do the five moves I liked the most from teams who were selling talent. Yes, Yankees fan, you’ll want to come back for that post.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.