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.
This is Part 4 of our pitcher trade candidate deep dive, you can check out Part 1 featuring Kansas City, Milwaukee(!), and Pittsburgh, Part 2 for Texas and Baltimore, and Miami and San Francisco in Part 3.
The criteria for a pitcher to make these lists 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.
Let’s get to it!
Yusei Kikuchi - the shape-shifter
Okay, so as a pitch shape nerd, when I think about Seattle it has to start with Yusei Kikuchi. Posted and signed out of the NPB in 2019 to a four year deal with four one year options, Kikuchi’s is not the type of contract that usually gets moved. But frankly his 2019 season was an tremendously confusing flop, and Jerry DiPoto sees trades behind every tree, so let’s talk about it.
Kikuchi came over throwing a straight 92 mph fastball, a workable MLB changeup and slider, and a big 12-6 curve. It was decent stuff, and the curve made it interesting. But then Kikuchi just basically struck no one out (16%).
Well, now here in 2020 things are different.
Gone is the big slow curve, the fastball gained a bunch of rise and three mph (to 95 mph), there’s a pitch that we’re going to call a cutter (but that has borderline slider movement) snapping in there at 92 mph, and the slider from last year has slowed to 84 mph and deepened a bit.
This 2020 version is a completely different pitcher! And looks like a pretty good one. And I expect that he still knows how to throw that big old curve but is for some reason choosing not to?
Kikuchi’s 2020 ERA is bad, but the peripherals are now at what you’d expect given his very obvious arm talent. I would love for the Rays to peel this guy away if he’s cheap (in terms of prospects, not money) and peelable, and get to work with him in their pitching lab.
You know, if the Mariners are willing to eat at least some of that salary.
Yohan Ramirez - the realistic target
Okay, back to the world we live in, where the Rays are most likely looking for relievers on rookie contracts, not enigmatic starters with large guaranteed contracts who could potentially be with the team for eight years.
Yohan Ramirez is a rookie righty with a hard (96 mph) but straight fastball. There’s a little more than average run to it, for a four-seam, and a significantly less than average rise. But probably not little enough rise to where the lack of rise starts becoming a feature, not a bug. Still, high-90s counts for a lot, and the Rays have traded for other straight high-90s fastballs and then improved them (Pete Fairbanks).
The thing that makes Ramirez, though, is his slider, which sleeps across the plate at 83 mph.
That’s a big speed difference between fastball and slider, and it’s also a slider that just takes off and can probably befuddle hitters all on its own. It’s worth seeing in video.
Tyler Thornburg - a rental balloon
Thornburg has been around for a long time. Rays fans will probably remember him best for an uninspiring 44 innings with Boston over the past two years which ended in him being released. What they may not remember is that, before he missed the 2017 season after thoracic outlet surgery, Thornburg was one of the best relievers in baseball.
It’s easy to see why.
At 31, now with the Reds and in the last year of his contract, Thornburg is still throwing one of the best rising fastballs in baseball (94 mph), and one of the biggest falling curves in baseball (77 mph).
Also he’s dominating hitters again, in his first five innings of work. This would be a potentially high-impact rental.
Daniel Norris - okay, okay, I like him
Danny and I discussed the possibilities of a trade with Detroit at length about a week ago. I said that Norris was fine, but I wanted to go bigger and trade for Matthew Boyd.
I still like Boyd, but I have to fess up that, given the conceit of this article being about pitch shape scouting, really the one to look at is Norris.
The fastball there is straight and unexceptional at 93 mph, even if that signifies Norris getting back to his better velocity from a few years ago. The changeup, though, at 88 mph, is very very good, and make Norris worth checking on both for this year and potentially the next.
The Diamondbacks are in an interesting and unhappy position, as they probably thought they were going to compete for a wildcard spot in the NL, and surely thought of themselves as a playoff team given the expanded playoffs in 2020. Yet nothing has gone right (especially for starters Robbie and Madison Bumgarner), and their playoff odds are now mired down below 15%.
I don’t know if Arizona plans on selling a bit on the margins and retooling for next year, or if they look up at the talent on the Dodgers and Padres and think maybe they need to do a full overhaul if they want to compete in their division. The option that they land on will inform which of these players are truly available.
Zach Gallen - the big fish
Untouchable, but let’s look anyway. Gallen is the one starter on the Diamondbacks who’s preforming at a high level right now, and boy is he. This would be a premier trade that would necessitate the Rays sending big-time prospects and/or possibly major league players back to Arizona.
Gallen, only in his second season in the majors, has already been traded for a top-100 prospect once, when the Marlins traded him to Arizona for Baseball America’s 59th rated prospect in shortstop Jazz Chisholm, and I’m not sure if Gallen’s value has gone up or down since then. Yes, he’s pitched out an extra year of his contract. But while doing so he’s continued to establish a high level of major league performance.
Gallen’s 93 mph fastballhas exceptional rise, and I think every single one of his secondary pitches (88mph cutter, 82 mph curve, 85 mph changeup) is at least an average MLB pitch. He would be a mainstay in the Rays rotation for years to come.
Luke Weaver - the bargain fish
If the Rays didn’t want to pay the price for Gallen, or the Diamondbacks weren’t interested in having that conversation, then there’s another Arizona pitcher who looks pretty dang similar if you squint.
Weaver’s fastball rises a little less but is harder than Gallen’s at 95 mph, and his cutter and changeup are in a similar boat, with a touch less exciting of shapes and a touch more velocity (89 mph and 85 mph, respectively). The seldom-thrown curve is the other way, with a little more drop but at 80 mph.
It’s a package that should work, and it has. Weaver has struggled in 2020, but was very good (2.94 ERA, 3.07FIP, 3.87 xFIP) in his 64 major league innings in 2019.
Taylor Clarke - the clearance fish
While we’re on the topic of Zac Gallen lookalikes, check out Taylor Clarke, who’s bounced between the bullpen and the fifth starter spot.
The fastball for Clarke comes in at 94 mph, and his 87 mph slider is probably the best of the bunch. His 89 mph changeup might be better thought of and used as a sinker, but it has the movement to play that way.
There’s a reason those two guys above have been cemented into the rotation while Clarke has not, and I think that reason is probably command. Last year he didn’t strike out enough batters, and this year he’s walking too many. Still, Clarke has two options, and still qualifies as a rookie, so he has time to figure it out.
Stefan Crichton - Roempson
Making our way into the true relievers, we get to Stefan Crichton, a sidearming righty with a super sweepy sinker-curve combo.
Think of Crichton as a potential replacement for the injured Chaz Roe, or an upgrade on Ryan Thompson. With speeds average speeds at 92 mph and 81 mph, Crichton may not get his breaking ball to move as much as Roe can, but the horizontal separation between sinker and curve is as high as Roe’s (and as high as pretty much anyone in the league). Crichton has no options, making this a little more awkward of a fit.
Others - there’s actually a lot here!
Arizona has enough intriguing MLB pitchers that one kind of thinks they should keep the band mostly together and try again next year. If you’re looking for a pitcher similar both in stuff and role to Jalen Beeks, that’s Alex Young. If you want a 35 year old former starter whose fastball is still pretty good as a reliever, that’s Junior Guerra. I could actually make an uninteresting case for half the guys on their roster. But I won’t because, well, those would be uninteresting.