This One’s for the Diehards: Padres Gobble Up Hill and Choi

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Some players are irreplaceable because they’re especially good. Some players are irreplaceable because they’re weird. In the hours before the deadline, the Padres have acquired two of the latter: left-handed pitcher Rich Hill and first baseman Ji Man Choi, both late of the Pittsburgh Pirates. First baseman Alfonso Rivas is headed east, along with prospects Jackson Wolf, a left-handed pitcher, and Estuar Suero, an outfielder.

The Padres are in an awkward position; they’re coming off a trip to the NLCS, including a corner-turning defeat of their Southern California rivals, the Dodgers. Last deadline, they traded for Juan Soto and Josh Hader before signing Xander Bogaerts this past offseason. With team payroll in excess of $250 million, the time to win is now, now, now.

Unfortunately, the team’s performance has failed to live up to expectations. As the deadline looms, the Padres are three games under .500 and five games out of a Wild Card spot. That number is imposing enough on its own with just two months to play, but no fewer than three teams stand between San Diego and even a brief appearance in the postseason. Their playoff odds, as of Tuesday afternoon, stood at 34.3%. And with Blake Snell and Hader bound for free agency at season’s end, San Diego had just as good a case for selling as for buying at the deadline.

It’s ironic that they made this trade with Pittsburgh, because it reminds me of nothing so much as the Neal Huntington Specials of the early 2010s. (I know I’m dating myself by referring to a time when the Pirates were perennial playoff contenders, but bear with me.)

The Pirates of that era always floated around the periphery of the postseason picture despite running penurious payrolls, and come the deadline, their GM would always make some token trade to bring in reinforcements, but never a blockbuster that would deplete the team’s prospect pool or add salary. Hunter Pence or Jake Peavy would cost too much; how about Wandy Rodriguez or Marlon Byrd instead?

Considering Huntington’s biggest deadline swing — trading Shane Baz, Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows for Chris Archer in 2018 — maybe the franchise is better off for its previous timidity. But that’s a different story.

Taken in isolation, this trade reinforces the Padres at two positions of need by acquiring two names that most fans will recognize. But they’ve made those additions at a bargain price when compared to the extreme seller’s market we’ve seen for pitching, especially in the week leading up to the deadline. Actually, check that — this trade might reinforce the Padres at two positions of need, because it’s anyone’s guess what Choi and Hill will provide over the next two months.

Let’s start with Choi. After signing Bogaerts, the Padres went with an all-shortstop infield, which has had mixed results. Jake Cronenworth, long a second baseman, is hitting .219/.310/.365 while playing mostly first base. DH has been even worse, as the Nelson Cruz experiment went down in flames a month ago. As a team, the Padres are 25th in WAR and 27th in wRC+ at first base, and 29th in both (which should go without saying, as there is no defensive component at the position) at DH.

Don’t look at Choi’s numbers from this season; he missed about three months with an Achilles injury and has barely played. Instead, look at what he did over four and a half seasons with the Rays: .245/.352/.431 in 1,545 plate appearances. That’s a wRC+ of 120, with a walk rate of 13.7%. The one snag is that Choi is best used as a platoon bat. During his time in Tampa Bay, Choi faced lefties 269 times and hit .207/.294/.308 while striking out 31.6% of the time, which led to occasional experiments as a switch-hitter. Against righties, however, Choi hit .254/.364/.458, with a walk rate of 14.6% and a strikeout rate of 24.3%.

I don’t see Choi displacing Cronenworth at first base, except as a situational option, but DH has been a free-for-all for San Diego. After Cruz was let go, the only Padre to have made back-to-back starts at DH is Matt Carpenter, who did it once. Otherwise, the position has been a rotation of Padres starters from other positions, mostly right-handed hitters like Manny Machado, Gary Sánchez, and Luis Campusano. Perhaps Choi will make himself at home as a long-side platoon bat there, while the backup catcher starts at DH against lefties.

Hill you all know well by this point. At age 43, his arsenal is a dizzying blitz of weird arm angles and finessed breaking balls. We used to have lots of pitchers like this, back in the days when games were called on the radio and a pregame workout consisted of rubbing Tiger Balm under Ellis Kinder’s nose so he could shake off a hangover enough to pitch.

Over the past five years, Hill has slid down the competitive spectrum. Where he was once a must-have for the Dodgers and Rays, he’s spent the past two seasons on a sub-.500 Red Sox team, and now the Pirates. His ERA and FIP are both the highest he’s posted over a full season since he re-emerged from indy ball in 2015.

But I’ve long believed that Hill would make a worthwhile deadline acquisition for a contender because if his curveball is on, he’s more than capable of flummoxing any lineup once or twice through the order in a playoff game. The Padres aren’t exactly in dire need of starting pitching, but any team could use the help.

What did it cost? Well, Rivas was an offseason free agent signing from the Cubs who’s struggled to make an impression in the majors. As I said, the Padres have had a need at DH, and despite being a first base/corner outfield type, Rios has played so little for San Diego that his batting line is best expressed as 3-for-15 with two doubles and two walks, rather than as a ratio. More than likely, the Pirates are just getting the guy who would’ve been DFA’d in order to make room on the 40-man for one of the new arrivals.

Suero and Wolf were the no. 10 (40+ FV) and no. 11 (40 FV) prospects in the Padres’ system, and could not be more different. Well, except in one respect: Suero is 6-foot-5 and Wolf is 6-foot-7, so both ought to wreck house in pickup basketball in spring training next year.

Suero is a long, long ways from the majors. The Padres threw him into rookie ball as a 17-year-old this year, and, you know what, the numbers aren’t important. Suero is long and lanky, with room to fill out but the chance to maintain a plus run grade as he does. If he hits, he could be a real impact player on a team that — judging by Oneil Cruz — loves Manute Bol-shaped teenagers with flashy tools. The questions around the hit tool are why he’s available in exchange for Hill, and not untouchable in a potential trade for someone like Dylan Cease. Maybe he’ll be an All-Star someday; maybe this will be the last time he makes the news outside of prospect lists. Check back in four or five years.

Wolf, a 2021 fourth-rounder out of West Virginia, broke into the majors in April for a spot start with the Padres, but will probably end up being a reliever long-term. At 6-foot-7 with long arms and limbs, he has a very loose and springy sidearm delivery that looks at times like someone melted a young Cole Hamels. Wolf’s fastball, which averaged 89 mph in his big league debut, stands out as a reason why an eventual move to the bullpen seems likely. Eric Longenhagen reports that despite his arm slot, lack of velo, and underwhelming changeup, Wolf has performed well against right-handed batters: “I’m not sure there’s going to be a platoon-neutralizing weapon here, though Wolf’s ability to locate his breaking balls and vary their speeds gives him a way to get ahead of opposite-hand hitters at least.”

In other words, if Pirates fans are feeling bereft of a left-handed breaking ball specialist who gets by on guile, fear not. A replacement is on his way.

Two useful, albeit unusual, big leaguers in exchange for a package fronted by two intriguing, albeit unusual, prospects. This is a trade for the real baseball sickos, the kind of fan who loves B-sides and director commentary. We shall see if it makes a difference.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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CC AFCmember
9 months ago

I will forever be fond of Ji-Man Choi for that time he fooled around with switch hitting and hit a homer right handed. That is the most interesting thing I can think about this. Also, long may Mr. Mountain continue his career. I need to have someone older than me in MLB for my own sanity.