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MLB Trade Deadline: Will the Rays make a deal?

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The Trade Deadline is approaching on Aug. 31, who could the Rays call for an upgrade?

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Danny Russell: The Rays are short a left handed reliever with Jose Alvarado being sidelined for two weeks before he’ll be able to throw again after a lat-strain.

Reliever is one of three areas in which the Rays have had injuries, the other being the starting pitching core with Morton out momentarily and both Chirinos and McKay done for the season. The team may also be underperforming at catcher but that could also just be small sample sizes.

There are options at the Alternate Training Site — LHP Shane McClanahan can close the gap if the Rays need a southpaw fireballer like Alvarado, C Ronaldo Hernandez has made his way up to the Taxi Squad despite only reaching High-A ball, and the team is able to turn to the likes of LHP Josh Fleming to close some gaps — but what about the trade market?

Is there any upgrade you think the Rays could pursue via the trade block? I’ll start.

Kill two birds with the Tigers.

The Tigers have been promoting their top prospects this week now that the various Super-2 cutoffs, sidelining players who otherwise might have been in the rotation; namely, Daniel Norris.

At this point having a Daniel Norris on the roster is not meaningfully different from having a Trevor Richards, but where (in my opinion) a pitcher like Richards is over exposed facing the lineup more than once, other long-men like Banda or the likely affordable Norris are solid additions in 2020, when starting pitchers simply seem unable to go as long into games.

Norris is returning from injury, but represents an upgrade over the likes of Slegers or Thompson or Gilmartin, who have unexpectedly been asked to take on multi-inning roles this season. His fastball was back up to 96 mph in his most recent outing, and has that near-10” of movement the Rays seem to like.

And then while I have the Tigers on the phone, I’d likely try and negotiate for Austin Romine, who has performed above average with a 119 wRC+ in the batter’s box and rates well in the early-season catching metrics. His salary is close to Zunino’s this season, but where Z is the leader in passed balls (5), Romine is top-10 in FanGraphs Catcher DEF and ranks positively in Called Strikes.

Would Detroit be willing in a catcher swap in addition to a pitching trade? Depends on the ancillary trade chips.

Ian Malinowski: Tigers sure, but think bigger.

Daniel Norris is a fine pitcher. He’s been average before, and he can probably be average again. Austin Romine might be an upgrade on Mike Zunino or he might not. I don’t know. But there’s a bigger prize on the Tigers, that Al Avila should be open to hearing offers on: Matthew Boyd.

Last year Boyd struck out 30% of the batters he faced while only walking 6%. By peripherals, he was one of the best starting pitchers in the league, but by traditional metrics he was only above average, because of an unusually high home run rate.

I’m sure the Tigers received many offers last year but they refused them all, likely picturing Boyd as the veteran ace on the next contending Detroit team. Well, in his first 23 innings of 2020 he’s getting hammered again, and maybe, just maybe, Avila is starting to doubt. If so, the Rays should be there to take advantage, and they should be willing to pay something real to acquire real talent.

This year is weird, and it doesn’t lend itself to the normal model of buyer-seller. A lot of teams are going to make the playoffs so there are fewer sellers, but with such a crowded field the playoffs are more of a crapshoot than ever, so the payoff from buying is diminished. Teams should approach trades in much the same way they would an offseason deal. If you’re acquiring a major league player, he should be the type that can help your team win for years to come. It’s what the Rays did last season with Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards, and it’s what they should be looking to do again here.

Boyd will be a free agent in 2023, and will be paid a good chunk of change in arbitration over the next couple years, but the Rays can afford it. Charlie Morton won’t be around forever, and Matthew Boyd is a natural replacement.

Now can the Rays “fix” Boyd and unlock that potential his last couple seasons have hinted at? Short answer: yes. The longer answer has to do with spin angle and fastball rise, pitch location, and sequencing, and it’d be a fascinating case study to watch. So make a competitive offer, Rays, and let’s watch.

Danny Russell: Wait. If we’re playing with homerun problems, why not Ian Kennedy?

The Royals reliever was lights out in 2019, but in 2020 has seen his hard-hit rate spike over 50% due to six homeruns allowed in 11.0 innings — matching the total he allowed last season in 63.1 innings. That seems like more of an anomaly than anything else.

He has 13 strikeouts and only two walks on the season in 10 outings, including one Opener appearance. He’s a bit expensive, but the Royals would likely be willing to listen on some of their expiring contracts, Rosenthal being the other.

2019 Ian Kennedy had a 3.41 ERA and 2.99 FIP and 27% strikeout rate. He’s been mixing in his two-seam more often this year, but the Rays could likely get more out of his four-seam than has been harnessed this season. It has the near 10” of rise referenced above and historically has run up to 97 mph (although he’s sitting 93.5 this season). He throws it all over the zone, I’d like to see it live a bit higher up.

Kennedy would be a perfectly fine middle relieve in the style of Stanek or what Loup is doing now, and could slot in easily above Thompson on the depth chart.

I like the idea of targeting Kennedy because of those home runs allowed. It has to depress his otherwise high trade cost, and it can’t be sustainable, right?

Plus, the Royals and Rays might match up well, where Kansas City doesn’t have a real answer at first base for the long term right now, and the Rays have deep depth at the position in Nate Lowe that’s ready to roll in the majors. Maybe you ask for Trevor Rosenthal (who’s pitching like Diego Castillo this season!?) and Kennedy together and try to build it out, but I think this could work.

Ian Malinowski: Yeah, I like Kennedy. There’s no reason we should expect him to keep allowing homers at that rate (other than, you know, being a 35 year old with declining velocity, but 2020 is weird). The issue with Kennedy is that he’d be a half year rental that’s only likely to be a marginal improvement on the arms the Rays already have in house.

Yes it’s worth pursuing these marginal improvements, but the trade cost has to be really low, especially in this world of expanded playoffs — like low to the point of not being worth Kansas City’s time. This is why I think the more workable trades involve players that have multiple years left on their contracts, where the two front offices can approach it the way they would an offseason deal.

But I think it’s interesting that you bring up Kennedy and Norris in the same discussion. You and I talked about Kennedy a bunch last year because you saw him as a guy poised for a career resurgence in a one-time-through-the-order roll, similar to what Jalen Beeks and Trevor Richards do for the Rays. You were almost right, except that his resurgence came as a shutdown one-inning reliever. Which was interesting! And not what we’d talked about.

I see a lot of 2019 Kennedy in 2020 Norris; former starting pitchers that one wouldn’t be happy rolling out there every five days and expecting 5+ innings, but who still have the stuff to make you think there might be something there. But figuring out how exactly to diminish the role and unlock that second act is usually something one does in Spring Training or in the minor leagues. Can the Rays be confident that they know how they want to use a pitcher like Norris in the fall without a minor leagues to work him out in? Does it even matter?

Danny Russell: It may not matter! Norris has an option if it was actually a problem, but good pitchers adjust to their circumstances, and by all accounts Norris is a good pitcher who struggles — as opposed to an underwhelming pitcher getting by.*

Ian Malinowski: *Ian is going to let Danny finish, but he kind of thinks that if you struggle you’re maybe not a good pitcher, and that if you get by, you must not be that underwhelming . . .

Danny Russell: Well, there’s no reason the Rays couldn’t aim higher, and with the trade deadline just over a week away, if we look to other franchises who might be sellers, the American League standings are pretty clear so we can at least consider what we’re missing.

The Royals, Red Sox, Rangers, Angels(!), Mariners, and perhaps Orioles look like they’ll miss the playoffs without a big change. The Red Sox have already sold off two relievers, and don’t have much else to give. The Mariners just don’t have much to give generally, unless you believe in Taijuan Walker or their closer. The Angels and Rangers don’t feel like sellers, and the Orioles are in the division.

You know what, pass on the American League. Better luck might be found in the National League, where the Pirates are the only team truly out of it. I think you could call the Giants, who are still in a rebuild and have both Kevin Gausman and old-friend Drew Smyly kicking around.

Smyly had a finger injury less than nine innings into the season, so who knows his status, but Gausman has six appearances, 31.0 innings, seems like he can eat five at a time, and the fastball has tons of life.

Gausman’s game is high fastballs and low splitters, which feels like the Rays way. He has a 3.14 FIP, 31.6% strikeout rate, 4.5% walk rate, knows the AL East as a long-time O’s pitcher, and his contract expires at the end of the season.

The Rays have Sean Gilmartin back on the roster, Nick Anderson’s arm is bothering him. Maybe the real answer is in the bullpen and not a starter.

But buttoning up the starter idea: If the Rays are looking for a starter to step in for some spots with Chirinos done for the year and you’re not looking to bring in the top prospects yet, wouldn’t Gausman make a ton of sense? Or is it, as JT says, just not necessary to make the playoffs?

Ian Malinowski: For context for this trade deadline preview, since we started this conversation, the Rays got the news that Chirinos was done, and put both Chaz Roe and Nick Anderson on the IL.

On the one hand, they Rays have gotten quality bulk appearances from both Aaron Slegers and Josh Fleming. And on the other hand, they won a game where Gilmartin pitched, despite him not being effective. It’s been the perfect illustration of JT’s point, and Gausman is the perfect test case here, because:

  1. The Rays are the masters at getting good work out of incomplete pitchers.
  2. We’re pretty sure that the Rays can use their exceptional minor league pitching depth to patch the holes in their rotation and bullpen, and 2020 is a very forgiving season with its expanded playoffs, and with the banked wins the Rays now have.
  3. Given #1 and #2, it doesn’t make much sense to deal for a placeholder pitcher on a rental. The Rays should either look at players who can improve the team depth for multiple years, or for higher quality guys who will meaningfully improve their chances of winning throughout the playoffs.
  4. But the problem is that these playoffs are going to be extra random. So they price to improve the team in the short term needs to be lower than normal.

And there in the middle of this is Gausman. He would slot onto this team’s rotation and immediately make them better, eating some innings every fifth day while allowing relievers and other bulk guys to do the jobs they’re suited for. He would probably start in the playoffs, and would definitely do so if any other starters picked up an injury. Which, like, could happen.

But he’s a free agent in 2021. If he had two seasons left on his contract, he’s a perfect target (Chirinos, McKay — the Rays might really need someone in 2021). As he is, he’s a measuring stick against the prospect depth the Rays need to consider in Josh Fleming, Joe Ryan, and Shanes McClanahan and Shane Baz.

Let me put the question back to you in a different form. Kevin Gausman would be neat. Who would you trade to get him, Danny?

Danny Russell: And that’s the rub.

The Giants under Scott Harris and Farhan Zaidi have shown a propensity to make deals while trying to keep everything afloat — not much unlike the Rays — and they haven’t found playoff success doing that just yet — unlike the Rays who finally got there last year. They’ll want meaningful help, something more than depth like Daniel Robertson, who Tampa Bay just sent them in a PTBNL/Cash deal. Perhaps they’d be interested in re-acquiring Lucius Fox but that won’t really move the needle.

To pull off a deal with the Giants, when there are so few teams selling and they have all the power, means a bit of an overpay. It means you’re sending SS Taylor Walls and a starting pitching prospect for the win-now move of a starter in 2020. Which means I just don’t see it happening unless the Rays computer system is screaming GET GAUSMAN.

The Rays aren’t afraid to overpay to go get someone the think will contribute (here there, Pete Fairbanks) but as you rightfully point out those moments are not short term deals, and really the Rays issues moving forward is less about eating innings and more about securing high leverage moments with the majority of their top relivers on the IL.

So maybe the answer is bullpen, and maybe the answer is ultimately do nothing, but it sure seems like a Royals trade is possible, especially if you can package deal Kennedy and Rosenthal the way the Phillies netted two relievers from Boston.

Neither reliever’s results feel real (in Kennedy’s struggles or Rosenthal’s over performance).

Rosenthal is pumping 98 mph, and accordingly occasionally gives up hard hits, but he’s not giving up a lot of barrels to go with it so those are really just loud outs. The rest of his percentile rankings look elite:

That gives you the reliever performing well now, paired with a reliever you can unlock something with, and should hold things over so you’re not worried about this slew of injuries to Anderson, Poche, Kittredge, Roe, and Alvarado.

Rosenthal might be the best reliever traded this deadline, so you’ve gotta give something of value to net him. Kennedy with his current level of performance (despite my personal faith laid out above) is more of a stopgap given the Rays many injuries.

And since this is a trade deadline preview article, and since we’ve kind of landed on a reliever instead of a starter, I have a trade proposal:

Rays Get: RHP Trevor Rosenthal, RHP Ian Kennedy
Royals Get: 1B Nate Lowe, PTBNL

The Rays can then use that PTBNL piece for a dude set for Rule 5 in the near future, as there will be more roster crunching down the line.

Ultimately I do not expect anything to happen with the Rays, now that we’ve walked through all the scenarios. Lowe is an expensive give, Rosenthal is an expensive get, and the Rays have the depth to get by.

Come playoff crunch time, if the relievers are still out of commission, they can also call upon Joe Ryan, and Shanes McClanahan and Shane Baz for that role too.

This is a wild season, I guess we just shouldn’t expect a wild trade deadline.