Is One in the Hand Worth Two in a Trade?
Last year, the Padres traded practically everyone on their big-league roster who wasn’t nailed down to the bench in the hopes of contending a few years from now. One exception who is currently among the top MLB trade topics this year is lefty reliever and occasional closer Brad Hand.
Hand, who had a 2.92 ERA last year while leading the majors with 82 appearances, has only improved so far this season with a 1.76 ERA through the end of May. He’s also notched a couple of saves, possesses no discernible platoon splits against right-handed batters, and is under contract until 2020.
Given his success in the past year and change, plus the Padres’ hopelessness in the next couple of years, Hand has become an obvious trade target, as mentioned recently by ESPN’s Buster Olney and others.
Assuming Hand going to another team is a foregone conclusion, what’s the realistic return SD fans can expect? Someone asked that recently of Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris, who made a beer pun while theorizing that the Padres could receive a “Miller-lite” return for their lefty reliever, comparing it to the bounty received for left-handed bullpen ace Andrew Miller’s services when Cleveland traded a group of prospects to the Yankees for him last year.
To determine what a “Miller Lite” package might look like, let’s look at what the Miller High Life (the 2016 deal) entailed and subtract from there.
The Yankees received outfielder Clint Frazier (then ranked the 21st overall prospect by Baseball America) and pitcher Justus Sheffield (69th by BA), along with two other less-heralded relief pitching prospects.
So if the Miller High Life is a Top 25 prospect and another in the Top 100, the Miller Lite is realistically one prospect on the latter half of preseason consensus Top 100 lists (I used a list put together by Chris Mitchell from Fangraphs that averaged the rankings from several sites to try to come up with a consensus Top 100) .
Possible Landing Spots
So what teams will possibly be in the market for a relief ace this year, and do any of them have a prospect that would work for this type of deal?
With the note that all stats are as of the start of June, let’s rank the top 5 most likely destinations for Hand, starting with Chicago.
#5: Chicago Cubs (80% odds of making the playoffs)
A left-handed reliever isn’t necessarily the biggest need for the defending World Series champs, who are struggling through two months and more likely to seek a starting pitcher. Yet, Hand would be an upgrade as a late-inning option over their current lefties in Mike Montgomery (who has been more of a swingman) and Brian Duensing.
I’m not sure there’s a great fit for a trade though. The only Cubs prospects in the 51-100 range are #89 Albert Almora Jr. and #90 Dylan Cease. Almora now has 200+ plate appearances for the big league squad and has proved to be a plus defender that is merely average at the plate. Meanwhile, Cease has dominated low-A this year with a a 2.65 ERA and the peripheral stats to match, including a high strikeout rate. Ian Happ comes in at #50 in the consensus rankings, one ahead of our cutoff, and Chicago would not likely part with him for a reliever, valuing his bat and positional flexibility in case of injury to a starter. The Cubs have a few other guys just beyond the Top 100, like third-baseman Jeimer Candelario and RHP Oscar de la Cruz, but I doubt they’d be the centerpiece of a deal.
I think Cease is the most likely of Chicago’s prospects to be moved in a Hand trade, but I ultimately don’t see this being his destination; however, you can’t rule out the rich getting richer (similarly, it wouldn’t surprise me if Hand ended up on the Yankees, particularly if Aroldis Chapman’s rotator cuff issues keeps him out long-term).
#4: Detroit Tigers (14% playoff odds)
Detroit has a bottom-five bullpen and a rapidly closing competitive window with their aging hitters, so they will likely be in the market for a reliever if they think the postseason is a possibility. Their best bullpen arm so far this year is current closer Justin Wilson, also a lefty, which makes it questionable whether they would want to add a second one in Hand.
Also making the Tigers somewhat unlikely of a trade partner is that they have just one consensus Top 100 prospect, Matt Manning at #66. The ninth pick in last year’s draft, Manning is a high school RHP who is still in extended spring training this year and likely not what the Padres are looking for.
#3: Texas Rangers (11% playoff odds)
Houston is running away with the AL West while last year’s division winner Texas started miserably thanks to multiple bullpen meltdowns; although, they have since crawled back to wild card contention. If they’re still in the playoff hunt leading up to the trade deadline, they could be in the market for a reliever since their bullpen ERA is among the worst in MLB.
The Rangers have three prospects in the 51-100 range, outfielder Leody Taveras at #53 and pitchers Yohander Mendez at #71 and Ariel Jurado at #97. Taveras was a 2015 international signing who dominated rookie ball last year and has been holding his own in low-A this year as an 18-year-old playing against guys an average of 3 years older than him. Mendez had a great 2016, going all the way from High-A to getting a cup of coffee with the big-league team as a 21-year-old in September. Despite that, the team started him back in AA this year, and he has had a bumpy time there with an FIP above 6. Jurado, a year younger and at the same level, has an ERA in the 3’s but less than sparkling peripherals.
The Padres and Rangers have a history of trading together and obviously have the connection of A.J. Preller being a former Texas front office guy, so I could see the Padres asking about Taveras for Hand; yet, the two top pitching prospects have mid-rotation ceilings and likely wouldn’t be the centerpiece of any deal for him. They could also buy low on a former top prospect like Jurickson Profar but probably could find a better deal elsewhere.
#2: St. Louis Cardinals (54% playoff odds)
St. Louis signed Brett Cecil to a 4-year, $30 million contract this past offseason, but both he and fellow lefty reliever Kevin Siegrist have ERAs at 4.50 or higher, increasing the chances that they could look for an upgrade.
The Cardinals have four prospects in the 51-100 range, catcher Carson Kelly at #58, shortstop Delvin Perez at #65, Luke Weaver at #82 and RHP Sandy Alcantara at #91. Kelly is hitting well above-average in AAA this year, but he is an unlikely trade target given Austin Hedges establishing himself this year as the Padres’ everyday backstop. Meanwhile, Perez was picked #23 in the 2016 draft, falling to the latter half of the first round after testing positive for PEDs just before selection day. Weaver is a 23-year-old who pitched 36 innings for the big-league club in 2016 and is tearing up AAA so far this year. Alcantara is a 21-year-old who acquitted himself well in High-A last year with a 2.54 FIP but has seen that more than double this year to go along with a 7 ERA.
Weaver is the one of these four that the Padres would most likely target, but I’m not sure the Cardinals would give him up since he’s probably their first callup if one of their starting pitchers goes on the DL. The Cards have a few others just outside the Top 100 like Jack Flaherty, a RHP with an ERA under 2 at AA this year, and outfielder Harrison Bader, an outfielder with an OPS above .800 at AAA, who could also be of interest.
#1: Washington Nationals (98% playoff odds)
Washington has the biggest need for bullpen help and is a virtual lock for the playoffs, making this the most logical destination for Hand. Their best lefty reliever at the moment is former Padre Oliver Perez, who has a 5+ ERA.
The Nats’ lone prospect in the 51-100 range is #80 Erick Fedde, who the team plans on having start long-term but is moving to a bullpen role this year. Given their bullpen plans already in motion for Fedde, it’s doubtful he would be traded for some other reliever.
So who would the Padres target in Washington’s farm system? Top 10 prospect Victor Robles is too rich for a Hand trade, but another Nats outfield prospect who just missed the preseason consensus Top 100 seems like the best fit for this deal: Juan Soto.
Soto was #110 on the preseason consensus rankings after tearing up rookie ball last year, but his play in the first month-plus of this season, a .950 OPS as an 18-year-old in low-A, is rapidly moving him upward. In Baseball America’s May 11 updated Top 100, Soto was #59.
An early-May ankle injury has kept Soto sidelined for the past month and might be somewhat of a buy-low opportunity if they can swing it. He would be an instant Top 5 Padres prospect if they are able to get him and would fit their timeline of competing around 2020, his likely year to debut.
If Soto is off-limits, maybe the Padres could target SS Carter Kieboom, who sneaked onto the bottom of that BA updated Top 100 at #98 thanks to a .984 OPS through the end of May, as part of a deal.
In any event, the need for Hand is there for the Nats, and the Padres are looking to deal him, so we’ll just have to wait and see if they’re willing to pay the right price for their Miller Lite.