The MLB trade deadline is fast approaching, and the Rays have been purportedly scouting Chicago Cubs relievers. The pitching staff in Tampa Bay could use reinforcements on multiple levels, as the stable of short-relief pitchers has suffered a string of injuries this season, while the starters who remain healthy are likely on innings limits.
In part one we looked at the potential short-relief high-leverage targets. Now we’ll at how the Rays might use a trade with the Cubs to improve their pitching length.
Acquiring length alongside one of those relievers would fit the Rays modus operandi, and be analogous to the 2019 trade that brought Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards (who at the time was a roughly average starter in Miami) to Tampa Bay. While Anderson was the high profile star, Richards gave valuable length as a swing man to a starting rotation that was reeling due to injury.
The best starter on the north side of Chicago this season is Marcus Stroman, who’s arguably pitching better than at any time in his career (although his ERA doesn’t show it). Signed to a three year $71 million contract (with an opt out after 2023), though, it’s very unlikely the Rays will be interested in trading for him. I wouldn’t expect him to be moved at all, as the Cubs signed Stroman to be a part of their next contending team.
The Cubs do have a pair of well-performing young starters though, whose team control makes them expensive to trade for but also valuable to the acquiring team over the next several years. These two pitchers would be reasonable targets for consolidation trades, turning multiple Rule 5 eligible prospects into a single major league contributor.
Neither of these pitchers is likely to become a top-of-the rotation mainstay, but they’ve got a decent start to their careers and might be average or better starters.
Never a top prospect, Thompson made the majors in 2021 as a back-of-the rotation starter and long reliever, with middling success. This year, he’s slotted into a full starter role, and has improved at the same time. As Ben Clemens laid out, Thompson has sharpened his existing repertoire while introducing a theoretically lethal sweeping slider that he doesn’t yet command.
He’s actually in a very similar spot to Drew Rasmussen right now, both in terms of his pitch shapes and mix, and his current spot in the development process. Like Rasmussen, he can get his fastball into the mid-90s, and has found success pairing it with a hard cutter. Like Rasmussen, he throws an excellent 11-5 curve with good speed for its movement (unlike Rasmussen right now, Thompson has good feel for the pitch).
And like Rasmussen, Thompson has a brand new sweeper that will become a real weapon if he can consistently get it to the right spot.
The real question with Thompson will be how exactly the Cubs value him. If they believe in the upside of his new pitch mix, which could see him end up as a number 3 starter, then he’s probably untradeable. If they still perceive him as a number five, then he could be a short-term boon to the Rays with significant long-term upside.
I know even less what to make of Justin Steele long-term than I do of Keegan Thompson. Steele was also moved from the swing role to a full starter this season, and he’s also improved, currently sitting as the Cubs leader in pitching fWAR.
The biggest change I see is that his fringy straight fastball, which already had some amount of cutting action, leaned into the cut and became something interesting, something weird. It lost some of its rise, and it gained some cut, now moving armside. It’s got a lot of spin (93rd percentile) but that’s largely gyro (only 63% active spin).
If Steele were a righty this pitch movement would be interesting, with the vertical movement placing him at the extreme edge of four-seam fastballs that don’t rise, an understudied pitch profile that tends to produce ground balls. But he’s a lefty, which makes this pitch truly unique.
And it’s only gotten weirder as the season has worn on.
Steele is throwing his funky fastball 57% of the time and it’s working for him. Is this a gimmick? And if so, does he need to be shielded from the times-through-the-order penalty? Maybe. But the Rays are a team that will be willing to do that.
It doesn’t necessarily take a starter to soak up innings — the Rays have pioneered the role of long relief aces, most recently with the likes of Colin McHugh.
There is no McHugh in Tampa Bay this season though, and while Jalen Beeks might be able to fill it eventually, his usage suggests that he’s on a strict innings limit himself as he works back to full strength following Tommy John surgery.
Shawn Armstrong and Luke Bard have shown the ability to turn a full lineup, but for much of this season the long man has been Ralph Garza Jr, and that makes the spot easy to improve upon. Here are some Cubs who could fill that role.
Rowan Wick is a big righty with a big fastball that sits in the mid-90s with both carry and cut. He pairs that with a true cutter, a sweeper, and one of the biggest curves in baseball.
He’s only never gone three innings in an appearance in the majors, but he’s pitched for two innings often, and with this solid of a repertoire, I wonder if the Rays would consider stretching him out a little bit more.
Wick has an option, so could assume Garza’s role in those emergency low-leverage innings if he doesn’t grab a full time job immediately.
The fact that the Cubs let Jason Adam go makes one wonder about their pitching evaluations, and in particular makes me wonder about Michael Rucker, currently in Triple-A Iowa. Rucker has not been good this year (5.25 ERA), but that’s largely on account of a very low strand rate. His 3.75 FIP and 3.79 xFIP point to a better pitcher.
A data quirk means we have a different sort of graph for Rucker, but what his shows is a straight fastball at 95 mph that he should probably throw less of, an assortment of breaking balls that are fine, and, like Jason Adam, a very high quality 90 mph changeup.
Here’s that changeup making Jose Trevino look silly.
A pitch like that means Rucker can succeed against both righties and lefties, like we’ve seen Rays pitchers Jason Adam, JP Feyereisen, and Jeffrey Springs do. And while his fastball puts a lower cap on his upside compared to those three, I think he could fit into either short or multi-inning relief depending on what the Rays needed.
Rucker is a rookie with three options remaining (one used this year).
The final long reliever on this list is the first one to actually work as a long reliever, with multiple appearances over 3 IP. Gsellman cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A, which means he should be cheap to acquire now if the Rays want to.
Gsellman, once a highly regarded prospect, has struggled in his seven MLB seasons, but the interesting thing here is that now in 2022 he’s begun throwing the best curve of his career, with two-plane movement and lots of speed . . . except that he’s only throwing it 3% of the time.
Sometimes finding success is finding unidentified outliers. One wonders if it would be worth the Rays time to bring Gsellman to Durham and work exclusively on getting that curve into the zone.
There’s no marquee name starting pitcher on the trading block in Chicago, but the Cubs do have a pair of young starters with years of control and uncertain upside. Reasonable evaluations could vary widely for both Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele, making it possible that two teams could come to an agreement.
Beyond those two, the Cubs have an assortment of longer relief options that would come with interesting stuff but little certainty of success — Colin McHugh isn’t walking through that ivy. I don’t expect Rays fans to be excited about an acquisition of Rowan Wick or Michael Rucker, but given the current state of the Rays bullpen there’s a way to squint and see those two as an upgrade.
Pitchers like them are an example of the type of secondary pieces that could be included as part of a larger deal (like, for a slugging catcher, or a high-leverage reliever).