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Rays Reliever Trade Targets: Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh

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Welcome to the deep dive.

MLB: Game Two-Cincinnati Reds at Kansas City Royals
Josh Staumont
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We know that the Rays scout stuff, that they use use both major and minor league pitch tracking data to do it, and that they’re not afraid to trade for pitchers whose stuff they like, even if that pitcher doesn’t yet have a proven track record of success. This year there’s no minor leagues, but the Rays may or may not be one of the 20 or so teams sharing data from their alternate site.

We also know that the Rays have suffered an incredible amount of injuries to their pitchers. This staff started out as one of the league’s deepest, and there is potential help waiting to be called up from Port Charlotte, but it’s fair to suspect that the Rays are in the pitching market, both for single-inning relievers and for guys who can perform in bulk.

So I put on my Rays baseball ops intern hat, pulled up the FanGraphs pitch info leaderboards with the innings limit set to zero, opened a tab to Texas Leaguers, and put together a list of trade targets the Rays might have on their radar right about now.

I limited the search to teams that I arbitrarily thought of as likely sellers. This meant:

  • Royals, Tigers, Pirates, Rangers, Mariners, and Orioles for sure, as they all have less than a 10% chance of making the playoffs per FanGraphs playoff odds.
  • I excluded the Red Sox because of the “L East rivals” and “yuck, Boston” thing (but Baltimore is cool).
  • I excluded the Angels because it’s just mindboggling to me that they should be this bad.
  • I included the Marlins and Giants because, despite their 30%+ playoff odds, they’re teams for whom it seems reasonable to add future wins based on their position in the competitive cycle.

The criteria for a pitcher to make this list was entirely based on being plausibly tradeable (subjectively meaning not a well-established star with years of control) and having interesting or unusual stuff. I looked for:

  • Four-seam fastballs with exceptional rise, especially when paired with decent breaking pitches.
  • Hard sliders or cutters with good vertical drop for their speed.
  • Curves with good vertical drop for their speed.
  • Sinkers with exceptional sink or exceptional run.
  • Changeups or splitters with exceptional drop.

Then I made a subjective judgement on the entire package of the pitches, the history of performance, and the years of control, and put together the ones that felt right. Yes, this is not very scientific. But I do think it’s a decent snapshot of the type of pitchers the Rays have on their board, and I hope you enjoy that.

Let’s get to it.

You can also read part two, Texas and Baltimore, here.

Kansas City

Josh Staumont - the best bet to pull a Nick Anderson

There’s a crop of young relievers coming up with unbelievable stuff and results to show for it, poised to dominate the league for years to come. At the top of that list for me are three guys: Cleveland’s James Karinchak, Milwaukee’s Devin Williams, and Kansas City’s Josh Staumont.

Karinchak and Williams aren’t going anywhere, and I don’t expect that Kansas City is undervaluing Staumont either, but they’re a bad team right now, and may be willing to move a reliever to fill the very real needs they have elsewhere.

Note: when reading the graphs from Texas Leaguers that I’m going to use thoughout, the size of the circle denotes how often that pitch was thrown. The average movement on the pitch compared to a theoretical spinless pitch is the center of the circle.

Josh Staumont
Texas Leaguers

Staumont throws a 98 mph rising fastball and an 82 mph buckling curve that’s very reminiscent of Nick Anderson. With six years left on his rookie contract, he’ll cost as much as or more than Nick Anderson to acquire, but the Rays have paid that price before, and might be willing to do so again.

Trevor Rosenthal - probably the best veteran rental on the market

Rosenthal has been a good pitcher for a long time (93 saves with the Cardinals in 2014 and 2015), and everyone knows it. But he had Tommy John surgery in 2018, and then struggled in 2019. Now closing once more for the Royals, Rosenthal’s stuff looks very good (fastball at 98 mph, slider at 87 mph, changeup at 88 mph) and he’s getting guys out as well as he ever has.

Trevor Rosenthal
Texas Leaguers

The thirty year old will be a free agent in 2021, so this would be a true rental. The playoff format in 2020 will depress his trade value, but there should be a lot of teams interested, driving that trade value back up.

Tyler Zuber - wait why again is this guy a one inning reliever?

Now here’s a name a little bit further down under the radar. Zuber ranked 13th on the FanGraphs Royals prospect list in 2020, and Eric Longenhagen had this to say:

Zuber was arguably a priority senior sign as a sixth rounder, a distinction he earned when his stuff spiked following a permanent move to the bullpen. His arm is so fast as to almost look subliminal, and Zuber’s command of both breaking balls is much better than one expects from a college relief prospect. His changeup usage has been inconsistent over the last two years but at times it’s a quality pitch, and one Zuber seemed to be rebooting during the spring with some success. Zuber doesn’t have any one dominant pitch, as is typical of high-leverage relievers, but he does have several very good ones that I think will enable him to be a seventh or eighth inning type of arm.

Now I’m sure that there were good reasons that his college coaches moved Zuber to the bullpen, and I trust Longenhagen enough to believe that the changeup was inconsistent and that he was working on “rebooting” it. Not sure about the consistency, but man, that reboot seems to have worked.

Tyler Zuber
Texas Leaguers

The fastball has clocked in at 94 mph in 2020, with the slider at 85 mph, the curve at 81 mph (yeah, these are close and I imagine there are pitch classification errors between them), and the changeup at 86 mph.

That changeup movement, though, is very wow. It’s hard for a changeup, but it falls off the table like few do. It’s the type of pitch Zuber will be able to use almost as a sinker to both pound the zone and drop below it, much like peak Alex Cobb did with his splitter. He hasn’t yet thrown it near as much as he probably should, and I don’t love the camera angle, but here’s a video that should give a sense of what this looks like on the field.

Looking at this pitch, and looking at the rest of Zuber’s aresenal of four MLB-worthy pitches, I have to wonder whether the Royals are right to use him as a one-inning reliever. To me he looks like more, and the Rays are a team that’s willing to let players find the space that’s right for them, even if it’s somewhere between “starter” and “high leverage reliever.”

And also, frankly, his results have been pretty bad in 2020. If the Royals are discouraged by what they’re seeing, or if they see Zuber in a smaller role than the Rays do, I could see this being a pickup Tampa Bay would make both to add depth in 2020 and to be a part of the bullpen in a bulkish role for years to come.

Milwaukee

I wasn’t going to include the Brewers, as they’re squarely in the playoff hunt, but R.J. Anderson said that they’re listening to offers for Josh Hader.

Now, Hader is arguably the best reliever in baseball and everyone knows it, and I honestly can’t imagine the Rays are going to put out the competitive offer needed to acquire him. But imagine they pick up the phone to chat Hader, and then Erik Neander and David Stearns have a good laugh about the Rays offer, and then they shoot the breeze for a bit about other relievers. Where might that conversation land?

Devin Williams - Maybe the reason Hader is available

Even if Williams were available, which I don’t think he would be, this would be buying high on his value. Perhaps the Rays could continue extracting the same level of performance from him, but also maybe not.

Where many of the relievers we’re discussing get by with a fastball and breaking ball, for Williams it’s all about the change.

Devin Williams
Texas Leaguers

Through 11 games, Williams has a 0.77 ERA, 1.53 FIP, and 53.2% strikeout rate.

J.P. Feyereisen - We love old rookies

Feyereisen is a 27 year old rookie who was a 16th round pick back in 2014. He’s moved through the Indians and the Yankees system before being traded to Milwaukee for 16 year old Brenny Escanio and international bonus pool space. I would have no idea who Feyereisen is except for the fact that he’s pitched one inning in the majors in 2020, and he’s got a fastball and a slider of the type the Rays consistently target.

J.P. Feyereisen
Texas Leaguers

His 93 mph heater had 11.5 inches of rise, and his 88 mph slider has very excellent drop for a breaking pitch that hard. The two-seam fastball and the changeup are the same pitch, in the high-80s, but you can ignore that one.

Now I don’t know why Feyereisen didn’t make it to the majors before this point, but what he’s shown right now looks like a decent major league pitcher, and one with no service time and three options remaining. Feyereisen could improve the team right now as a low-priced acquisition with sneaky longterm upside.

Pittsburgh

Earlier this week Danny and JT gave the requisite spotlight to Richard Rodriguez, but my analysis brought up a different name.

Nick Mears - his time is coming, maybe now (or maybe not)

So if Karinchak, Williams, and Staumont are the first tier of up and coming relievers, Nick Mears is only a step or two below them. I don’t think many people expected Mears to actually pitch in the majors in 2020 as a 23 year old (he has no previous experience above Double-A), and his seven walks in 3.1 innings suggests that maybe he shouldn’t be, but here he is. And so we have pitch tracking data. And it’s good.

Nick Mears
Texas Leaguers

That fastball has sat at 96 mph, while the curve is at 78 mph. It’s all a tick below what Staumont has shown this year, but if you squint you can barely tell them apart. This graph is also Nick Andersonesque.

And while yes, rookies aren’t usually who terrible teams are willing to trade, the Pirates have so many needs that it should be possible to work something out, especially if the Rays are willing to send real prospects (who are blocked in the Rays system) back their way.