The MLB Trade Deadline is Tuesday, August 2nd and the Rays are in the thick of a playoff race, despite losing three of four to the Orioles. In two separate games, reliever Colin Poche gave up the lead late, giving a perfect illustration of why the Rays are likely to try to bolster their pitching at the deadline:
- The Rays have multiple starters on likely innings limits, as they’ll be leery of pushing Shane McClannahan, Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs too far past their previous max seasonal workload. Shane Baz and Luis Patiño will be limited when and if they return, and even veteran Corey Kluber hasn’t been a healthy high volume starter in years.
- Starter wear and tear aside, the Rays believe in limiting starter exposure to the times through the order penalty and shifting innings to the bullpen.
- To avoid overtaxing individual relievers, the Rays also believe in spreading high leverage innings throughout the entire bullpen.
- That bullpen has lost many of its best arms for much of this year to injury (Andrew Kittredge, JP Feyereisen, JT Chargois, Pete Fairbanks) or the rotation (Springs). Additionally it lacks high leverage length, the way the 2021 version had with Colin McHugh. That all means that for the Rays strategy to work, they need relievers like Poche to step up and pitch well, and many more like him.
We can assume that the Rays are talking to Chicago about potentially trading for catcher Willson Contreras, but Ken Rosenthal reported that Tampa Bay has been scouting Cubs relievers as well, so below is an attempt to do the same. You can find the interactive version of the pitch shape tool I’m using here.
Because the Rays bullpen has a range of needs, there’s also a range of ways to address them. Here’s a rundown of who the Rays might be looking at.
High-Leverage Short Relief Rentals
The obvious get here that everyone in baseball will be trying to acquire is Cubs closer David Robertson. The Rays signed him as late-season reinforcements just last year, and though 37 he’s still got it, striking out over 30% of the batters he faces with a mid-90s cutting fastball and two excellent breaking balls. Robertson is on a one-year contract, so you can be sure his 1.83 ERA/3.25 FIP/3.54 xFIP will be moving to a contender.
Even if the Rays miss out on Robertson, there are other back-end relief rentals to trade for in Chicago as well. The 36 year old Chris Martin currently sports a 4.31 ERA, powered in part by a 21% HR/FB rate, but under the hood he’s been much better than that, posting a 2.09 xFIP, the best of his career.
Martin still throws a hard, heavy fastball with some drop to it and compliments that with a hard cutter and an excellent breaking ball with two-plane movement—this year’s version is the best breaking ball Martin has ever thrown.
Martin left MLB to play in Japan for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and then came back throwing a filthy splitter that he hadn’t used before.
I suspect he could avoid some of those homer problems by throwing more of his excellent secondary pitches and fewer fastballs, but HR/FB is a noisy stat so he may not need to make any changes at all.
That hiatus means that though 37, 2023 will be Martin’s final year of arbitration, making him a potential building block for the following year as well.
We say this every year, but Mychal Givens, formerly of the Orioles, has a really good changeup. After being traded to Colorado in 2020 he struggled a bit (who doesn’t struggle in Colorado) before being sent to Cincinnati. Now in Chicago he’s back to pitching well, carrying a 2.72 ERA / 3.95 FIP / 3.77 xFIP over 39.2 innings.
Givens has always walked a few too many batters to actually be elite, but he’s close. I’m going to assume the Rays would tell him to throw his changeup more than the 17% he currently is.
He has an mutual option for 2023. The Rays don’t usually allow player options, but given his performance he’s likely to decline the player portion (32, coming off a good year, the perfect time to hit free agency), making him a good candidate to be moved this deadline.
High Leverage Short Relief with Years of Team Control
While the Rays might want to acquire a rental so as to better alleviate the 40-man roster crunch before next year’s Rule 5 draft, they’ve historically shown that they prefer to target good players with years of control. This gets tricky, as the Cubs intend to contend within the next several years, so these players are building blocks for them as well—but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be acquired for a price.
Chicago has two short relievers relievers who fit in this category.
A sidearming righty with huge armside run and drop on his sinker, even more on his changeup, and upward sweep on his slider, Effross is what Ryan Thompson would be if Thompson also had pinpoint command.
Still rookie-eligible, Effross now owns a 2.97 ERA/2.03 FIP/2.73 xFIP over 60 MLB innings. He strikes out nearly 30% of the batters he faces and walks only 4%. Aged 28, it took him awhile to work his way through the minors but he’s here now and he’s death to righties. Also just plain good. Here’s the slider:
And here’s the sinker:
The Cubs know Effross is good, so safe to assume he won’t be cheap.
But what if one could go back in time and trade for Effross before he had proved himself at the major league level? That would look a lot like another righty reliever Erich Uelmen.
Uelmen was just promoted, and has only pitched 3.1 major league innings. He’s struck out three, walked one, and given up a homer. He throws harder than Effross, and from a three quarters arm slot, which is part of what makes him so intriguing.
Here’s the sinker:
Most pitchers whose sinkers have true drop, like Uelmen’s, are throwing from a lower release point than he is. Ryan Thompson, for instance, is releasing the ball nearly a foot lower. This means that Uelmen will have an even steeper vertical angle of approach on his sinker than you would expect from the movement alone.
Will that make him good? I don’t know, and I don’t think the Cubs do either. He’s walked more batters in the minors than one would prefer. But weird is usually good, and that uncertainty should make it more possible to trade for than Effross, either on his own or as a part of a larger deal (like, for a slugging catcher).
If the Rays are looking for high-leverage short relief arms, they can find them in Chicago, both as rentals or as potential bullpen mainstays for the next several years. But there are other ways to reinforce a stretched bullpen as well.
In part two we’ll look at the starters, “starters,” and long relievers who could provide the Rays with innings relief.