Deadline Deals: rotation & bullpen

Welcome to the second part of Deadline Deals, where I’m showing you that your team doesn’t necessarily need to empty the farm to acquire someone who can help path the way to the Playoffs.

This time around it’s all about pitchers, whether they start on the bump or come in from the bullpen to their tune. The structure will be the same of the lineup entry, with a couple notes to add:

- The significance threshold, completely personal as usual, is set at 60 IP for starters and 30 IP for relievers;

- There won’t be destination predictions for relievers, just because…any contending team could do with a bullpen arm!

Without further ado, let’s start.

LH Starting Pitcher: Justin Steele

  • Why buying: barrel nullifier

The role of a starter has evaporated through the years, from premier inning supplier whatever the pitch count, an obligation to provide 7+ frames, to stretched reliever, going all out for two, rarely three, lineup rounds and then let the RP guys to their thing.

I argue that one of the key traits of a SP still is his ability to devour innings: while it may not be sexy anymore, with elite bullpen arms spawning at incredible rates, fatigue exists and come October it’s not that unusual to see even the best closers falter due to their regular season workload.

To that extent there are a couple of ways to accrue IP: you either K the world, maybe walk a couple but disregard bats altogether a la Shohei Ohtani, or you trust the opposing bats to do your job by means of poor contact and quick innings:

Avoiding Barrels, the most dangerous type of contact, is a good start: all those pitchers are well known commodities, and a couple could be on the trade market, most notably a resurgent Martin Perez. And then there’s Justin Steele:

Steele is the epithome of having success by degrading opposing bats’ contact quality: he walks too many guys, doesn’t throw hard and strikeouts are not his bread and butter but it’s almost impossible to square him up, and it all comes down to his proclivity to spin the baseball:

Steele’s fastball has incredible SSW, Seam Shifted Wake, working inwards of RHB as a cutter would do, while his slider sweeps instead of diving down as it should. The latter is the true equalizer in the Cubs hurler’s repertoire: while his fastballs, a 4-seamer he uses more than 50% and a rare sinker, get hit albeit not for extra-bases, his breaking ball spells death to both right and left handed batters.

Note how high his FB spin rate his: while his slider gets the whiffs, his fastball has one of the lowest EV against and rarely gets hit in the air. There’s a possibility he might be a two-pitch starter, he ought to ditch his sinker altogether, but those do exist nowadays, and he’s quietly a pretty good one.

  • Availability: medium

The Cubs should clean what’s left of their once-winning house, Happ and Contreras mostly, but Steele, with his minimum salary and years of control left, could bring back a decent haul in a market where the demand for starting pitching far outscales the offer. Not a Castillo nor Montas, I still think he could bring back a 45+/45 FV prospect and a couple of 40/35+ FV or lottery tickets, not bad for a rebuilding franchise.

  • Destination: Tampa Bay

If there’s a team that loves spin-happy pitchers, or pitchers in general, that is the Rays: once again decimated by injuries, they do need a potent bat but a fine SP doesn’t hurt as they compete in such a bloodbath of a Division. Waiting for Glasnow to come back, and considering Kluber’s innings reaching a warning point, Steele is a perfect fit to strengthen their chances at another October run.

RH Starting Pitcher: Alex Cobb

  • Why buying: faster, better, stronger

Do you remember him? The first name in the Steele table, Cobb is in the midst of a breakout, another turn in his faceted career: a dependable starter for Tampa Bay, he got severely overpayed by Baltimore, didn’t perform, found his old self with the Angels and evolved in the pitching lab that is San Francisco:

A couple of things stand out: he hates Barrels, even more than Steele does, and he’s throwing much harder than your average starter. Yes, that Alex Cobb, once barely scraping 93 mph on a windy day, is now ramping it up to 95–96 mph regularly and that is a reason why he’s having such a great season:

Good luck elevating the ball against him: his 61% GB is by far his career high and his LA is in the negatives, Framber Valdez territory. That has to do with a more potent sinker both in speed and movement, and with a renewed splitter he’s using more than ever, getting not only groundballs but also whiffing a ton. Those balls on the ground may be hit hard though, right?! Wrong:

Him and Wood, interesting stuff going on in the Bay!

  • Availability: medium/hard

There’s no doubt in my mind San Fran should be a seller: that Division is not close and a WC is not worth the effort, as Zaidi should trade for a lineup 1–9 and get bullpen help to be even close to a Playoff chance. Coming from the Dodgers though I’m not sure he knows what selling means, and Cobb would have a ton of market and return potential.

Signed until 2023 at a bargain $10M AAV with a 2024 team option, he’s just the perfect #3/4 in a WS contender, and his price should hover around a 50/45+ FV and a couple of 40 FV prospects, not a Castillo package but much closer than what you think the Reds will get.

  • Destination: Atlanta

Another team in a ghastly Division, the Braves will have to fight to their death not to “just” get a Wild Card, and what’s missing is a starter: Morton is showing signs of decline and Spencer Strider is gnarly, but he’s far over his IP norm, also Ian Anderson may be cooked. Cobb would make the Braves much more competitive against the Mets and scary come those 7-game series in the Postseason.

RH Relief Pitcher #1: Alex Lange

  • Why buying: house of movement

Bad contact is fine and all, sometimes though you need a man to come in from the pen and embarass batters with filthy stuff and unhittable heaters. Enter Detroit’s Alex Lange:

The company you keep: Diaz is the best reliever in the world now, no one hits Williams’ airbender, Robertson and his cutter another piece of Chicago’s rebuild. Lange is a Diaz-lite in many ways:

Apart from walks, he’s elite: Whiffs, Chases, strikeouts and allowed contact all in the red, he’s secretly been one of the best relievers in the NL, mostly because the Tigers are so bad no one cares about them. He’s doing it plying Diaz’s recent trends:

Switching his 4-seamer for a demonic sinker but upping his CB usage upwards of 45%, Lange is a secondary-first reliever even in the face of a 98+ mph bowling ball in his back pocket, and it’s working wonders:

60% Whiff on his curve, 45% on his changeup…this is ridiculous! His sinker gets hit, mainly on the ground and not with much fanfare, but no one touches his breakers. He can steal a strike with his 2-seamer running back into the plate at the speed of light, and then finish you off with a dirty curve, and there’s not much you can do about it.

  • Availability: medium

Detroit sucks, and that was to be expected from a team who voluntarily chose to pay a $20+ AAV for Javier Baez long term, not to mention poor, if not invisible performances from other big acquisitions such as Eduardo Rodriguez and Austin Meadows. Lange should go his way to a contender but he’s controlled for so long and so cheap that he’ll cost a bit, a 45/40+ FV prospect and a 40/35+ FV one.

RH Relief Pitcher #2: Wil Crowe

  • Why buying: speed limit

Back to deniers of hard contact, no one has been better at that than Wil Crowe:

Hard hits? None. Barrels? Once in a blue moon. EV? Not allowed. Crowe has been a soft contact factory in Pittsburgh, a ray of sunshine in another bleak Pirate season:

The recipe is similar to that of Lange: he walks his share of batters, no one hits him although he doesn’t strike out a ton of guys. He’s also on the breaking ball trend:

Out goes the fastball, in come sliders and changeups. Results do agree with Crowe’s arsenal:

Sliders to RHB and changeups to LHB, he accrues the same, above average amount of Whiffs with them. His 4-seamer seems to have some utility too, with plus spin and decent mph.

Everything points in the right direction: more Chases, more Whiffs, more 1st pitch strikes and less contact, Crowe is ready to be a force in a contender’s bullpen.

  • Availability: easy/medium

Same caveats of Lange, control and cheap contract, different franchise: Pittsburgh is not shy in selling everything that could bring back future assets, and Crowe sure has the potential to do so. The price is the same as Lange too, a 45/40+ FV prospect and a 40/35+ FV one.

LH Relief Pitcher: Sam Moll

  • Why buying: in-zone success

Lefties are a conundrum: while they dominate the same-handed matchup, they have a tough time against RHB unless they have preternatural stuff, see Josh Hader, or a devastating changeup to equalize the contest. Oakland’s Sam Moll is more of a lefty specialist, but not really:

How do LHP usually use their slider/curve? For chases, out of the zone away against lefties and the spare backdoor on righties. Moll deviates from convention: he throws a ton of sliders to everyone, and he throws them away but in the zone, catching a lot of batters sleeping for called strikes.

He’s also a breaking ball enthusiast, throwing his slider almost 60% of times with the rest to his sinker, and for a good reason:

Moll’s slider might be a top 5 in all of baseball: up to 3300 rpms, it spins round and round, doesn’t whiff but gets chased and no one does anything when putting the bat to it. Don’t sleep on Moll’s extremely short extension at 4.6 ft: the sweeper seems like it never comes to the plate to then break into the corner and bang, Tom Hallion just tornadoed you to the bench.

Moll is a unique relief look: garnering no Chase and few Whiffs, he relies on elite spin to catch batters off guard and for them to hit into abysmal contact, which they are doing so far. Most of his K’s are of the called fashion, deception being a great part of his game.

  • Availability: easy

Why does Moll not garner the same prospect platter as Crowe or Lange when they have a similar, short track record of success and identical contracts and years of control? Moll’s reliance on called strikes and bad contact instead of Whiffs and Chases is charming but risky in the long term, as batters are bound to adapt and wait for his slider to break on the outside corner for opposite field hits. He’s not a pure specialist, although he walks a lot of RHB compared to lefties, and Oakland should let him go for a 40+/40 FV prospect and a lottery ticket.

In the brief time between these entries one of the big pieces has fallen in Andrew Benintendi going to the Yankees. Blockbusters are yet to come, who knows where, and if, Juan Soto is going and what Castillo/Montas will fetch. August is ever so close, transactions will flood the market and don’t sleep on those without a marquee name on them.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and digging deep, there’s a lot to like around the league.

Stats and graphs from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant, data up to July 27th.

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Alessandro Zilio

Alessandro Zilio

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.