As we near the MLB trade deadline, speculation will ramp up as to which player is going to what contending team. Annually there are moves we expect to see, and others that seemingly blossom out of nowhere.
One thing I always do during this time is look at which bullpen arms could find themselves on the move. I do this primarily for three reasons:
1.) I am a sick person who takes pleasure in watching bullpens.
2.) I want to be actively thinking about potential moves of closers to other teams. For example, should a guy like Devin Williams or Josh Hader be available to a contending team, they would most certainly be closers on their new teams.
3.) Consequently, I like to speculate on the guys who might replace said Williams or Hader should they move to another team.
I am committing this exercise to my weekly Fantrax piece in hopes of helping you find these next closers and high-leverage arms before the deadline so that you might be able to add one or more of these projected bullpen guys to help you win in the second half of the season.
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Closer Targets at the Trade Deadline
I am not sure what to think in the tightly-packed and hotly contested AL East. Baltimore could look to add to the middle of their bullpen. Of the five teams in the division, I see the Yankees as most likely to make a substantive move, especially with the news that Aaron Judge is back taking batting practice and might be nearing a return to action. If they do make a move to bolster their bullpen, they could do one of two things: trade for a top-notch closer or add more support arms to their collection of pitchers. Many feel this is a committee with Clay Holmes and Michael King atop it; acquiring a top closer like Josh Hader (if available) would push Holmes and King into high-leverage roles that result in holds but not saves. If they cannot get a top closer, they could trade for guys like Joe Kelly or Scott Barlow that could serve them well as they mix and match. This is one to watch for sure in the coming weeks.
Gregory Santos, Chicago White Sox. The moribund White Sox came out with zero energy against the Atlanta Braves after the break, and if general manager needed any further indication that this team stinks and he should begin selling assets, he got it last night. There are plenty of assets to sell in Hahn’s vaunted bullpen: Joe Kelly, Keynan Middleton, perhaps even Kendall Graveman. I do not think the Sox will move closer Liam Hendriks; he’s got a balky elbow and is owed $14 million next season, a steep price, and the public relations nightmare this season has been would only intensify with that move. The White Sox bullpen has provided little relief this year, but Santos has been very good: two wins, a save, a 2.76 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 44 strikeouts. Santos was picked off the waiver wire last year after the San Francisco Giants tried to send him to AAA. He’s only 23 and seems to have a bright future in the bullpen. Essentially Santos has become reliant on his slider and sinker while jettisoning his four-seam fastball; he is int he 91st percentile for chase rate, 98th percentile for velocity. The slider generates a lot of swing and miss and Santos seems primed for a larger role on the Sox. Maybe one of the few good things to happen to this team in 2023. Should those guys get moved, Santos could quickly be in a high leverage role. Grab him now.
Carlos Hernandez, Kansas City Royals. The Royals got a jump on the action last week when they moved lefty Aroldis Chapman to the Texas Rangers for two midlevel prospects. The Royals designated Amir Garrett for assignment as well and seem likely to move current closer Scott Barlow as well. The speculative add here would be Hernandez. You may recall that the Royals had groomed him as a starter, and that Hernandez did pitch from the rotation last year with bad results: 0-5, 7.39 ERA, a 1.84 WHIP and a demotion to AAA Omaha. This year, Hernandez has been largely effective out of the bullpen: a 3.83 ERA, a .99 WHIP and 51 punchouts in 44.2 innings. The difference? Upping the K% to 28.8 from 13.2 last season and slashing the walk rate from 11.7% to a more palatable 6.8%. His xERA is 3.13. Like many pitchers these days, he has limited his curveball usage from 22.8% to 6.9% while relying more on his slider, 23.1% as opposed to 16% last season. As we know intuitively, bullpen guys can bring the octane in their outings since they won’t usually go more than one or two innings. Hernandez’s velocity on the four-seamer has gained a couple of ticks from 96.8 to 99 MPH. The slider is up in velocity as well: 85.9 to 88.8 MPH. With this success, the 26-year-old Hernandez seems primed for a larger role in Kansas City. Many of your league mates might not see this one coming. However, you also have to weigh out that there might not be a plethora of save chances the rest of the way.
I do not see any of the AL West teams making significant moves to add or subtract here, although the Los Angeles Angels might be open for some business with their recent losing skid. Said to be listening on Shohei Ohtani (not sure they will do that at this point), the Angels could move bullpen pieces like veteran lefty Matt Moore and righty Chris Devenski, who could be useful as pieces on a contending club. Carlos Estevez has been terrific as the closer and has another year on his contract; could he be had in the right deal?
The Oakland Athletics could move Trevor May and Sam Moll, who would just be bullpen pieces elsewhere, not high leverage players.
The New York Mets are 42-49 and should be sellers to an extent. Should they decide to make players available, several teams figure to be interested in closer David Robertson, and setup guys Adam Ottavino and Brooks Raley. The guy with the most value is likely Robertson; if traded he would likely cease to be a closer and would turn to a seventh- or eighth-inning role on a contender. Robertson has 12 saves thus far. Ottavino and Raley could also be moved, but if they are not, both could earn save chances if Robertson is traded in the coming weeks. Let’s not forget that elite closer Edwin Diaz is working his way back from his devastating knee injury suffered in the World Baseball Classic. Diaz said last week his goal remains to pitch this season.
The Chicago Cubs could move valuable setup guy Mark Leiter Jr. and maybe Michael Fulmer, but they should retain Adbert Alzolay as their closer.
Milwaukee Brewers: could the Brew Crew do the unthinkable and move Devin Williams? Hear me out: yes, I know the team is tied for first place at 50-42 in the weak NL Central. But Williams is arbitration-eligible next season for the first time ever and figured to get a hefty raise. We saw the Brewers move lefty Josh Hader in a similar move last year. Williams would be the most highly sought relief pitcher on the market should the Brewers do this; it may be a long shot with the team in contention right now. However, should they move Hader, the following would be guys to target: Abner Uribe, Elvis Peguero and Joel Payamps. Uribe was recalled from AAA last weekend and is a top prospect for the team, and you can see why: 99 MPH power sinkers and four-seam fastballs will move you up the list. Peguero has excelled with a sinker and slider combo this year and has moved himself into a higher-leverage role. Payamps would seem the most likely candidate for saves if they move Williams: a 28.7% K rate, a slimmed down 4.7% BB rate, and 49 punchouts in 43.1 innings could get him a shot at saves. This could be one to watch, or it could be status quo. We will see.
The St. Louis Cardinals have been, perhaps even more than the Chicago White Sox, the most disappointing team in baseball General manager John Mozeliak suggested this week that the Cards would be sellers at the trade deadline. With that being said, it could be musical chairs in the closer spot. Current closer Jordan Hicks is a free agent at the end of the season, and unless the team wants to sign him to an extension, he should be on the move. Should that happen, one might think that the Cards would turn to old friend Giovanny Gallegos. Yet Gallegos could be available via trade as well; he’s arbitration-eligible next season and could be an attractive bullpen addition to a contending team. How quickly we forget how great Ryan Helsley was last season; he has been injured this season with a foreran strain. Lefty Genesis Cabrera could also be moved. My best guess: Hicks is moved, Gallegos stays and becomes the closer again until Helsley is back, if he can return. A mess in St. Louis.
I anticipate that the Colorado Rockies could move Daniel Bard and Brad Hand, but that Justin Lawrence will remain in the closer role.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are in an intriguing position. The Dodgers sit at 51-38 and in first place in the NL West despite a rash of injuries to their pitching staff. Potential closer Daniel Hudson suffered a knee injury after just getting back from a different knee injury. The three best arms here have been Evan Phillips, Brusdar Graterol, and Caleb Ferguson. The Dodgers have the organizational depth needed to make a big move, and one move could be to add a proven closer. At the very least they could look to add to this mix, acquiring someone like the aforementioned Hicks or Gallegos. They could also stand pat as they await a run at free agent-to- be Shohei Ohtani this winter.
Could the San Diego Padres at 44-47 be sellers? Conventional wisdom would be that they would listen, but this is AJ Preller in the GM chair, and the team is built to win now. But…they have Josh Hader on an expiring deal and could move him in the right deal should a contender wish to overpay for his services. Yes, it may be unlikely, sure. But if he is available, and moved, who would close in San Diego? Righty Steven Wilson could get a chance here, especially with the absence of Robert Suarez right now. Suarez is on a rehab assignment at this time coming back from elbow inflammation. This will be one to watch at the deadline.