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Three relief pitcher trade targets for the Rays

It’s trade speculation season!

MLB: San Diego Padres at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

If you find yourself reading articles about relief pitcher trade candidates between now and the end of the month, you’ll start to see a lot of familiar names. This is the case every year throughout the month of July, as competing teams are almost always looking to fortify their bullpens.

David Robertson (CHC), Daniel Bard (COL), and David Bednar (PIT), are just a few of the many common names that have surfaced this summer as relievers that could potentially be on the move. The Rays however have never been a team that seems all that interested in paying the inflated prospect return price for arms such as these who sit at the top of the market.

Instead, Tampa Bay tends to target pitchers who have unique pitch qualities in their arsenals, with the hopes of helping them maximize their potential after arriving here.

Rewind to the 2019 trade deadline, when the club traded away a consensus top 50-prospect (in the public sphere at least) in Jesús Sánchez for reliever Nick Anderson, who had only logged 43.2 big league innings under his belt at the time. The acquisitions of Pete Fairbanks, Jeffrey Springs, J.P. Feyereisen, and Matt Wisler are more recent examples of this Rays organizational acquisition philosophy, and it’s not hard to see how these moves have improved the club.

With all of that being said, this article is going to highlight three big league relievers who are not popular trade candidates, but who are displaying traits that the Rays have valued in the past and could make for quality under-the-radar pickups at the end of this month.

The pitch movement measurements in this article are from Pitch Info Solutions

Tommy Nance – Miami Marlins

The Marlins scooped Nance up on a minor league deal this past offseason and he’s thrown 22 innings with the big league club this year. His season results have been mixed, as his 6.00 ERA isn’t very good, but all of his other ERA estimators are under 4.00 which suggests he’s pitched better than his actual ERA implies.

The reason why his peripherals have been so strong this year is largely because of the quality of Nance’s repertoire. His most used pitch is his curveball, which is a true outlier offering. It’s one of the fastest thrown curveballs in the big leagues this year, registering at an average of 85 mph. On top of the impressive velocity, the pitch gets great movement in both the horizontal (6 inches) and vertical (-7 inches) directions. This combination of movement and velocity on a breaking ball is basically non-existent across the league, and the curveball of Rays reliever Calvin Faucher may actually be the closest comp. These pitch qualities have allowed Nance’s curveball to rank among the league leaders in whiff rate this season.

Tommy pairs his devastating hook with a sinker that looks like a strong pitch in it’s own right. It averages 94 mph and gets very good down-and-in action out of his hand. This pitch hasn’t generated great results for Nance in 2022, but it’s raw qualities match up with what the Rays have targeted in sinkers in recent years.

About 80% of Nance’s pitches this season have been sinkers and curveballs, but he does also mix in a four seam fastball and slider too. Like his curveball, his slider is also thrown quite hard (86.4mph on average) and generates above average depth.

It’s important to note that there’s a chance that the Marlins will look to add to their team before the deadline, not subtract from it. However, Nance does not seem to be an integral part of their bullpen moving forward. Miami actually just optioned him to AAA this month, and have been using him in low leverage opportunities all year. From the outside, it doesn’t appear that it would cost very much to acquire Nance, and especially so if he gets pushed down the depth chart even further due to the Marlins potentially acquiring in more relievers.

Robert Stephenson – Colorado Rockies

Stephenson has been pitching in the big leagues for a while now, but has never been able to produce consistent results. He debuted in 2016 and owns a career 4.83 ERA and 4.92 FIP across 285 innings.

Stephenson has a few successful seasons under his belt (2019 and 2021), but his loud stuff profile leads me to believe there’s even more in the tank.

We’ll start with his fastball, which averages a blazing 97 mph (92nd percentile). In addition to the velocity, it is also a fastball that averages over 21 inches of total movement (the combination of horizontal and vertical movement), which is a very high figure. The Rays have targeted these types of fastballs that don’t have amazing movement in either direction, but instead have pretty good movement in both directions, which makes for a fastball with a lot of total movement. Jeffrey Springs and Shane McClanahan throw this type of fastball, and Chris Ellis, Adam Conley, and Ben Bowden are more minor examples of recent Rays acquisitions who had this same type of fastball movement.

In addition to the intriguing qualities of the pitch, there also may be opportunity with how Stephenson uses it. This season, only 15% of his fastballs have been thrown in the upper third of the strike zone, which is one of the lowest marks among all four seamers in baseball. It’s likely that if he can get that pitch up to that spot more often, more whiffs and more success will come from it.

Stephenson is pretty much a two-pitch pitcher, with his other offering being the slider. It averages 83.8 mph and gets decent movement vertically, but not much horizontally. That scouting report doesn’t sound all that great though, so what’s there to like about it?

The answer lies in his spin rate. Stephenson averages 2,889 rpm on his slider, which ranks in the top 5 among all qualified sliders this year. Now, spin rate isn’t all that meaningful if the spin isn’t translating to movement, which is exactly what is happening here. This looks like an opportunity for a pitching coach to help Stephenson maximize this great spin he is generating by using it to create more pitch movement. The Rays have helped multiple pitchers make this exact adjustment before, including Jason Adam and Drew Rasmussen, who both had slider shapes that were very similar to Stephenson’s before they came to Tampa Bay.

Stephenson is 29 years old, out of minor league options, and has only one more full year of team control remaining. This is the type of player who the Rockies should be willing to discuss in trade talks, but who knows, Colorado has made all kinds of puzzling roster decisions in recent years.

Chris Stratton – Pittsburgh Pirates

As we’ve seen over the past few years, the Pirates will trade just about anybody who is running out of team control. A free agent to be at the end of 2023, 31-year old Chris Stratton looks like another player out of Pittsburgh who is likely attainable.

Stratton hasn’t been all that effective this year but his 3.79 FIP does suggest that he’s probably pitched better than his 5.17 ERA would tell you. He mostly works with a four seam, curveball, and slider, all of which are pitches with intriguing characteristics.

Let’s start off with what is likely Stratton’s best offering, his curveball. He is able to generate an extreme amount of sweep on this pitch, as the 9 inches of horizontal movement ranks among the highest of all curveballs thrown this year. And at an average of 80.6 mph as well, this is a curveball that is legitimately in Charlie Morton and Corey Kluber territory.

In addition to that wipeout breaking ball of his, Stratton possesses a shorter 86 - 87 mph slider as well. The movement profile on this pitch is more average than great, but there is evidence that breaking balls thrown above 85 mph tend to produce good results no matter their shape.

Stratton has a very strong ability to spin breaking balls, but his 92 - 93 mph fastball hasn’t succeeded in the same way. It’s gotten hit hard this year and doesn’t have good riding or tailing action. What it does have though is an extremely high spin rate, which is something the Rays sought out in the fastballs of Jason Adam and Luke Bard this offseason. So while this pitch may not look great at the moment, maybe the Rays could tinker with his release and/or grip in order to put that good spin to use. Or maybe he could simply throw it less than he is now (42% usage so far in 2022).

What’s also appealing about Stratton is his ability to go multiple innings out of the bullpen. He has recorded up to seven outs in an outing this season and has been up to 46 pitches in an outing as recently as last July. This could prove to be very valuable for a team like Tampa Bay who just recently lost starter Shane Baz for what looks to be the entire 2022 season.