With last year’s mid-season trades of Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Melancon, the trade-deadline market for elite relievers was set. The large returns the three garnered along with their vital roles in the postseason displayed just how much contending teams value pitchers who can dominate the highest leverage situations.
The trade market for premier relievers isn’t nearly as strong this year as last, but a number of late-inning beasts will still be changing teams prior to July 31st’s deadline, and the Padres possess the best one available.
Brad Hand is far from a household name, but with the numbers he’s put up over the last couple of seasons, he should be. The lefty was drafted by the Marlins in 2008, and he posted mediocre results during his tenure in Miami.
Most of his time with the Marlins was spent as a starter, and he logged a 4.71 ERA in close to 300 innings. But he was designated for assignment in April 2016, and the Padres claimed him off waivers. San Diego proceeded to make him a full-time reliever, revamping his career in the process.
Hand was fantastic last year, posting a 2.92 ERA and striking out 111 batters in 89 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. This year, though, he’s become one of the game’s best relief pitchers. In 50 1/3 innings, he owns a 2.12 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. He has also improved both his strikeout and walk rates, fanning 32.5% of the batters he faces and issuing free passes to just 7%. Additionally, he is comfortable pitching more than one inning; he has recorded more than three outs 12 times this year.
Dominance like that has rightfully made him a hot commodity on the trade market. In search of a fair return for Hand, one should look no further than the package the Indians received for Miller a year ago.
Like Hand, Miller was a mediocre left-handed starter for several years before finding success in the bullpen. Miller was fully transitioned to the bullpen in 2012 and from then to the time of last year’s trade, he posted a 2.21 ERA in 240 1/3 innings. Comparatively, Hand has a 2.63 ERA in his last 140 1/3 relief innings. Since the start of last season, Hand is second in innings pitched and third in strikeouts among all relievers while Miller ranks seventh in innings and first in strikeouts.
In addition, Miller had two years of team control remaining beyond 2016, which is the same amount that Hand currently has beyond this year. Hand is also younger and cheaper; at 27 years old, he’s five years younger than Miller, and he’s only making $1.375 million in his first year of arbitration this year compared to Miller’s $9 million yearly salary.
In return for Miller, the Yankees received Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Ben Heller, and J.P. Feyereisen. Per MLB Pipeline, Frazier was the game’s 24th-best prospect at the time and Sheffield was 95h-best. Neither Heller nor Feyereisen were top-100 prospects, and only Heller was among Cleveland’s top-30 prospects.
A Miller-like return for Hand might seem to be aiming too high, but, given the lack of elite relievers available and Hand’s age and contract status, a package centered around at least one top-100 prospect should be well within reach. And Hand certainly has a market, as there are myriad contenders in need of the left-hander’s talents who are capable of meeting San Diego’s high asking price.
Even after acquiring Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the A’s, the Nationals are still the postseason-bound team most in need of a dominant reliever; their bullpen has a 5.18 ERA, the worst in baseball, and Doolittle and Madson are just about the only relievers manager Dusty Baker can reliably deploy late in games.
The Nationals don’t have a deep farm system, but they do have a couple of intriguing outfield prospects. One is Victor Robles, who is the fifth-best prospect in baseball, but the Nationals will be holding on to him. The other is Juan Soto, who is an 18-year-old left-handed hitter and would be a fair ask as the centerpiece of a deal for the Padres’ prized lefty.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are in search of bullpen depth and with a farm system like theirs and a major league roster that’s ready to win a championship, it makes sense for them to shop at the top of the market. Plus, the mediocre Luis Avilan and the unproven Grant Dayton are the only left-handed relief options the Dodgers currently possess.
However, they might not be an ideal fit for a Hand trade, as their front office has been reluctant to fork over their top prospects in the past and will likely be especially so considering that their bullpen has the top ERA in National League at the moment.
The Padres reportedly asked Los Angeles for their top position player prospect, Alex Verdugo, during initial Hand trade talks to which the Dodgers balked at. If San Diego can’t pry Verdugo from the Dodgers, there are a few others within the system who are highly-regarded and would make sense for the Padres to target like right-handed pitcher Yadier Alvarez (#51) and second baseman Willie Calhoun (#70).
Their trade for Jose Quintana left the Cubs’ farm system rather barren, but there’s still enough talent left to pull off a trade for Hand. The Cubs’ bullpen has been quite good, but they are still seeking bullpen help and pairing Hand with Wade Davis would form a deadly late-inning duo for the defending champs.
Jeimer Candelario is the Cubs’ top prospect and their only one ranked in the top 100. He’s a good-hitting third baseman who is close to the big leagues and would be a solid get for San Diego. Oscar De La Cruz is a hard-throwing right-hander who is expected to materialize into a mid-rotation starter at the very least.
The Astros have the best record in the AL, but they could benefit greatly from a bullpen upgrade, as it would help mask their starting rotation issues and better equip them for a deep postseason run.
Houston has a strong farm system, and they’ve paid a premium for a reliever in the recent past (Ken Giles), so it’s not out of the question that they would do it again. Houston won’t be trading their top prospect, Kyle Tucker, but Derek Fisher or Forrest Whitley (#40) should be a reasonable expectation. The latter would give the Padres a possible future frontline starter while the former would give them an MLB-ready outfielder.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are currently a game back of a Wild Card spot in a tight American League race, but their bullpen is holding them back, ranking 11th in the AL in ERA. Like the Dodgers, they also lack a reliable lefty reliever and the addition of Hand could be exactly what they need to separate themselves from the pack in the Wild Card race.
The Rays have the farm system to make a trade for Hand, but small-market teams like Tampa Bay generally prefer to hold on to homegrown talent. Therefore, the Rays’ top two prospects, Brent Honeywell and Willy Adames, are likely untouchable. But they have six top-100 prospects, and a deal could be centered around high-ceiling outfielder Jesus Sanchez and speedster Lucius Fox.
The Padres trading Hand to a contender is as sure a bet as there is. The only question that remains is what team he’ll be headed to. He has plenty of potential suitors and, one thing’s for sure, a Padres farm system already filled with talent will be receiving a big boost, regardless of where Hand ends up.