Thunder-Shrug: Phillies Lengthen Rotation With Noah Syndergaard, Erstwhile Ace

Noah Syndergaard
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies have been busy, and I’ve been busy cataloging their activity. Over the weekend, they added Edmundo Sosa to raise their middle infield floor. Earlier on Tuesday, they got defense and relief help in Brandon Marsh and David Robertson. Now, they’re bringing the thunder. Noah Syndergaard is headed to Philadelphia in exchange for Mickey Moniak and Jadiel Sanchez.

Syndergaard is more famous name than elite starter at this point. His early-career dominance with the Mets was all blazing fastballs and bat-missing secondaries; his second act with the Angels has looked completely different. As Jay Jaffe detailed back in June, he’s more pitch-to-contact than thunder-and-lightning, using his sinker and curveball as the focal point of his arsenal rather than the four-seam/slider combination that worked so well for him in New York.

The new-look Syndergaard is still a perfectly fine pitcher, just of a different sort than his pre-injury self. Pumping mid-90s sinkers and avoiding walks has worked out well for him, to the tune of a 3.83 ERA and peripherals that jibe with that general level of effectiveness. Syndergaard’s command has always been an underrated asset; even at his firebreathing peak, he never walked many batters, and that skill has served him well even as the bat-missing stuff hasn’t quite returned.

It’s strange seeing Miles Mikolas’ career line in Syndergaard’s body, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. If you can set aside what you thought Syndergaard would be based on past experience, there’s a lot of value in a starter who can keep you in games for your offense to win — a strategy that the Phillies are no strangers to in their recent DH-heavy configuration.

The Phillies’ rotation has been a boom/bust operation all year. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are great, and the rest of the rotation is very much not so. Ranger Suárez is perfectly serviceable, but injuries have ravaged the rest of the group. Zach Eflin just hit the 60-day IL with an injured kneecap, and there’s no timetable for his return. Kyle Gibson has been just okay; a bout of homeritis and a loss of strikeout stuff turned him from last year’s darling into this year’s fifth starter. Bailey Falter has made seven starts, and to put it mildly, that’s not a great look for the Phillies. Adding Syndergaard means that the team has a lot more wiggle room before having to start up-and-down swingmen in key games.

Nearly as important as getting those competent innings: having a reliable third starter to back Wheeler and Nola in a potential three-game playoff series. Not to put the cart ahead of the horse, but the Phillies’ most likely route to the playoffs involves a Wild Card berth, and from the sound of things on the ground, they weren’t content with Suárez in that spot.

As an added benefit, Syndergaard should be fresh down the stretch. That’s not the case for most pitchers making their way back from Tommy John surgery, but most pitchers don’t work for the Angels. Thanks to Shohei Ohtani’s unique talents, the team uses a six-man rotation, which means Syndergaard has only made 15 starts this year. He missed one start with an illness in April but other than that has been healthy and available all year. That should give him plenty of gas left in the tank, something that might worry me if he had already thrown 100–120 innings instead of 80. “This post-TJ pitcher hasn’t pitched a full workload” isn’t usually a good thing, but when it’s because of a six-man rotation rather than intermittent injuries, it absolutely is.

While Syndergaard fills a need for the Phillies, cost matters. If they were surrendering a Luis Castillo-sized prospect haul to acquire him, I wouldn’t like this deal; I’d tell them to trade for Castillo instead. But thanks to his impending free agency, Syndergaard came with a far lower price tag, something that’s been a consistent throughline in Philadelphia’s deadline maneuvering this year.

Moniak was the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, but that’s not a fair indication of his perception in the industry anymore. We had him down as the 22nd-best prospect on the Phillies, and now the 15th-best prospect on the Angels; “your farm is a lot shallower than Philadelphia’s” is a damning statement about that system, for what it’s worth. If he clicks, Moniak will do so as a power/average threat, but I’m skeptical of that happening given his downright terrifying swing-and-miss numbers. Maybe he can figure something out, given that he’s only 24, but unless something changes, he won’t hit enough to put together an average offensive line.

Sanchez, despite being a less heralded name, is the better of the two outfielders the Angels are receiving in this deal, at least in our estimation. A 6-foot-2, 21-year-old outfielder with little professional experience, he’s something of a mystery box, but his limited reps in A ball have looked good so far. He shows good pull side power at times and seems from limited data to have a solid idea of the strike zone. That leads to manageable strikeout rates and could help his power play up despite only middling raw tools there. He gets to it in a very different way than Moniak, but his major league role looks similar to me: fourth outfielder with sneaky power and contact skills. He might even be better than that; good plate discipline at 21 is an admirable attribute. He’ll check in at 14th in the Angels’ system, just ahead of Moniak.

Is Syndergaard the missing piece that will turn the Phillies into the best team in the NL East? Emphatically not. He raises their floor, because finding enough innings out of their starters was going to be a challenge, but anyone expecting him to anchor a trio of aces hasn’t been paying attention to the evolution of his game in recent years. But given that all it cost them was Sanchez and Moniak, I’d make this trade every day if I were the Phillies. Combine the two, and you’re basically looking at a high-likelihood backup outfielder with marginal upside from there. That’s a useful player some of the time, but just as often, your system churns out a few of them or some other team trades from a surplus, and you end up with two or three versions of the same role.

That uncertain future value, combined with the obvious present need for pitching, makes me like Philadelphia’s side of this trade quite a bit. Moniak and Sanchez will likely deliver more cost-effective WAR to the Angels than Syndergaard will to the Phillies, but they’ll probably do it in a replaceable way, and Syndergaard has exactly what Philadelphia needs right now: innings.

I see why the Angels made this trade: Syndergaard will be gone this offseason, and they’re not making the playoffs. If any team has shown the importance of depth in the past decade, it’s been the Angels, and developing a fourth outfielder would help them more than it would help almost any other team; they’re perpetually running out some borderline embarrassing minor league free agent to take key at-bats. I find the Angels frustrating, but you can’t pin that on this trade. This one won’t be the story of the deadline, or even a postscript, but it’s a rare bit of business where both sides got just what they wanted: competent players to fill an organizational weak spot.

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

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1 year ago

The Angels just traded some of their OF depth earlier in the day… To the Phils. Makes no sense.