Might the Jays apply the same philosophy as the 2018 Chris Archer and J.A. Happ trades to the upcoming Marcus Stroman trade discussions?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
It is the 2018 trade deadline. A team – not in contention – trades a good starting pitcher for (primarily) two young MLB-level players. The two players were both top-100 prospects a short time ago, but both have struggled to the point where there are real questions as to whether they will ever realize their upside potential (which is likely why their original team was willing to trade them). However, the acquiring team saw something in them, and was willing to gamble on their upside.
Archer for Glasnow and Meadows (and eventually Baz)
Tyler Glasnow had been a top prospect, ranking as high as #7 by mlb.com prior to the 2017 year. But he struggled big-time in 2017, with a 7.69 ERA (5.62 SIERA), a pedestrian 8.13 K/9, and a 6.39 BB/9 that was dead worst among the 274 pitchers who threw more than 60 innings that year. It is telling that, in 2018, the Pirates kept Glasnow in the bullpen, preferring to bring up AAA pitchers like Clay Holmes and Nick Kingham (remember him?), both of whom struggled. Glasnow did better out of the bullpen (with a 4.34 ERA and 3.64 SIERA), but as one writer put it:
"Glasnow’s mechanics and lack of control are real problems. There’s some Dellin Betances in him. He’s big, his delivery can fall out of whack, and finding the strike zone isn’t always easy. Even during his prospect days, there was some thought Glasnow would fit best in the bullpen, where he could work in shorter stints and not have to worry about repeating his delivery 100 times a game. Those are really the only reasons to stay away. The stuff is good and he’s been healthy throughout his career. The mechanics and control make Glasnow a project, potentially a difficult one."
Austin Meadows had a similar prospect pedigree (ranked as high as #6 on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list pre-2017, before dropping to #44 pre-2018). He had hit like a beast at AA (with a 161 wRC+ in 2017) before dropping to a 95 wRC+ over 636 plate appearances at AAA from 2016-2018. He had hit reasonably well in a 49-game call-up to the Pirates (a 111 wRC+) but Meadows had a history of injury, so much that John Sickels quipped that “deporting Meadows to Uzbekistan would lower US national health care expenditures by 4.7%”.
And as Sickels also said,
"If he has to move to left (he has a below average arm, so right is not a realistic position), he will need to tap into the power he did in the 2016 season. In reality, a move to left full time and a need to hit for more power will only be required if the hamstring injuries truly slow him down overall, which will take away significantly from his game."
And, in fact, Meadows’ speed did show a marked decline – his BsR (baserunning) rating over his Rays career has been negative.
So both Glasnow and Meadows were gambles – but intelligent gambles, with genuine upside. The Rays could have traded for players with higher floors but lower ceilings, but they chose not to do so. And these gambles have paid off, at least so far – Meadows has a 135 wRC+ so far in 2019, and Glasnow had a 1.86 ERA in 2019 before injuring his arm in May.
It is important to note, however, that it is rarely appropriate to evaluate a gamble by the outcome. An intelligent gamble can sometimes lose, just as a foolish one can sometimes win. Which brings us to the second 2018 trade deadline deal:
Happ for Drury and McKinney
Before you lose control of your bodily functions: no, I am not suggesting that a half-year of J.A. Happ had the same value as 3.5 years of Chris Archer at below-market rates. And accordingly, Drury + McKinney did not have the upside of Glasnow + Meadows. But, in the abstract, the trades are more similar than you might think.
Brandon Drury was the Baseball Prospectus #76 prospect going into the 2016 year. He had a decent though unspectacular couple of years at Arizona, and then was traded to the Yankees in the 2017-18 offseason. But in April 2018 Drury disclosed that he had been playing with migraine headaches and blurry vision for years. The issue was diagnosed as an irritated tendon running into his neck, and he began receiving treatment.
While he was recovering, the Yankees sent him down to AAA – where he batted .294/.403/.447 with a 144 wRC+. Had the treatment unlocked Drury’s dormant potential? Unfortunately for him, in his absence Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar had staked strong claims to the second and third base positions, so Drury was a man without a position – but just possibly a man who had just experienced a hitting epiphany similar to when Danny Jansen discovered glasses. If Drury could combine an above-average bat with his positional versatility, he could become a Zobrist-type super-sub.
Billy McKinney was Baseball Prospectus’ #76 prospect, going into the 2016 season. He was said to have only average tools, with the possible exception of his power. That power began to manifest in 2017 in AAA when he hit for a 140 wRC+. He followed that up with an all-star selection in the Arizona Fall League – at first base, where he was working to enhance his versatility (and value).. Going into 2018, mlb.com characterized him like this:
"McKinney’s best attributes are his smooth left-handed swing, bat speed and hand-eye coordination. He demonstrated a disciplined approach at lower levels of the Minors but his Triple-A hot streak came when he got more aggressive at the plate. Scouts who believe his late-season surge is for real see his upside as a .280 hitter with 20 homers per year, though he attained that average just once while topping out at 16 homers in his first four full seasons."
In the first half of 2018, McKinney had a wRC+ of 120 and a .269 ISO at AAA, despite a BABIP of .245. It appeared that his 2017 power surge was indeed real. But breaking into a Yankee outfield that included Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks was not in the cards. He was accordingly available, and the Jays took a chance.
With both of these trades, the acquiring team took a chance on prospects with good pedigrees who had under-performed but who still had upside. In the case of the Happ trade, the Jays received two players who showed signs of possible breakthroughs that might make their futures brighter than their pasts would indicate. But in both cases, the acquiring team was (to some extent) “buying low” and taking a chance.
Trade #3 – Implications for the 2019 trade deadline
If the Jays wanted to use the same paradigm in 2019, there are several players they could target.
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The Braves’ Kyle Wright has dropped from #34 on the BA Top 100 Prospects list (2018) to #55 after a 9.72 ERA in four 2019 starts with the Braves (and a 4.86 ERA in 14 starts in 2019 in AAA). Fellow top prospects Sean Newcomb (once BA#24) and Touki Toussaint (once BA#53) are currently pitching out of the Atlanta bullpen.
The Astros’ Forrest Whitley is still ranked as BA’s #8 prospect. But he has struggled mightily (12.21 ERA) in AAA in 2019. He was put on the IL with “shoulder fatigue” in May and is now on rehab in rookie ball. Could he be on the table? Or how about Francis Martes? Baseball America had him at #15 in 2017, but the combination of Tommy John surgery and an 80-day drug suspension (and a 5.80 ERA in 54 innings in 2017) may well have made him expendable.
The Cubs’ Ian Happ started 2019 in AAA and they hoped he would play so well he would force his way back onto the major league roster. So far, his performance has been lukewarm (a 95 wRC+). But he is still considered to have some upside.
Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie started the season as BA’s #44 prospect, but a back injury (for the second year in a row – uh oh) has kept him off the field and dropped him to BA#73. He is expected to be playing later this summer. Might the Jays be willing to take some injury risk?
And if you really want to get crazy – Washington’s Juan Soto had an outstanding rookie year in 2018 and many saw him as a potential 6 WAR player as he matures. But writers are increasingly seeing him as more of an Austin Meadows than a Ronald Acuna Jr. It would cost a ton, but could the Nationals be tempted?
The bottom line
It is an old adage that you should buy low and sell high. Many of the Jays’ best trade chips are having career or near-career years, so the Jays would definitely be selling high. All that remains is to buy low – to find players like Glasnow and Meadows … and to get lucky.