This is the third article in the “Something Rather Than Nothing” series. The first part focused on Marcus Greene Jr andcan be read here, and the second one was about Pedro Avila, which can be found here.
July 26th, 2016: Padres trade OF Melvin Upton Jr. to Blue Jays for P Hansel Rodriguez
At the dawn of the 2015 season, AJ Preller made a splash by trading for Craig Kimbrel. The closer was perhaps the single most dominant reliever in all of baseball, and he didn’t come cheaply. The Padres sent Major Leaguers Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin, along with prospects Matt Wisler and Jordan Paroubek. The steepest cost that the Padres accrued may not have been the pieces they lost though, as the Braves offloaded Melvin Upton Jr. and the entire remainder of his bloated contract to the Padres.
It’s important to understand just how bad Melvin Upton Jr. had been at the time of his acquisition by the Padres. In 2013 and at the age of 28, he signed a five year $75.55 million dollar contract with the Braves. Coming off of six solid seasons in Tampa Bay, the wheels fell off for Upton once he joined the Braves, as he became one of the least valuable everyday players in all of baseball. In his two years with the Braves he was worth -2.1 WAR and slashed a dreadful .198/.279/.314. According to MLB.com, Upton’s .593 OPS in his time with the Braves was the worst of any player with over 1000 plate appearances over that span.
Owing to his awful performance and huge contract, many thought that Upton Jr.’s contract was nearly untradable. As such, when the Padres acquired the struggling 30 year old and the remaining $46.3 million of his contract, they may have done so in lieu of sending more high profile prospects the Braves’ way. Needless to say, expectations were incredibly low as Melvin Upton Jr. joined his brother Justin and the Padres to begin the 2015 season.
Upton Jr. saw his first action with the Padres in June of 2015 after spending the beginning of the year on the disabled list with an injured foot. In his 87 games that year, he was resurgent, with an OPS of .757 and a rather impressive 1.6 WAR in short duty. He continued his success into the first half of 2016, with 16 HRs and 20 SBs in 92 games as the everyday center fielder with the Padres.
Worth 3.4 WAR in his 179 games as a Padre, Melvin Upton Jr. had become a tradable commodity as the 2016 trade deadline approached. His contract was still bloated and executives were right to be skeptical of Upton Jr.’s recent success, but AJ Preller was looking to trade Upton Jr. while his value was the highest it had been in three years.
The Padres found a trade partner in the Toronto Blue Jays, as they orchestrated a one for one player swap that had the Blue Jays receiving Upton Jr. and significant cash considerations (the Padres would pay about $17.5 million of the remaining $22.5 million owed Upton Jr.) in exchange for 19 year old RHP Hansel Rodriguez.
In 2014, Hansel Rodriguez was signed by the Blue Jays out of the Dominican Republic as a 16 year old. Standing at 6’2” and weighing in at 180 lbs, he was inked for $330,000 as a powerful right hander with good fastball velocity and a potentially strong breaking ball.
In his three years in the Blue Jays system, Rodriguez consistently put up less than impressive numbers at Rookie Ball, pitching 96.2 innings. He struck out 76 batters (18.7K%) while walking 33 (8.1BB%), putting up an ERA of 4.61. To find some promise in his numbers during this time, one has to dig a little deeper to find that he posted a far more promising FIP of 3.37.
Once Rodriguez arrived to the Padres in July of 2016, he was sent to Tri-City and the Northwest League. In six starts, his numbers were again entirely unremarkable, but sample size caveats are in order here with only 20.2 innings of work. In this time, he posted far too similar 13.3% strikeout and 12.2% walk rates, while his fip also rose to 5.80. He walked nearly as many batters as he struck out and allowed an alarmingly high WHIP of 1.79.
To begin the 2017 season, the Padres sent Rodriguez to start in Fort Wayne for his first taste of full season ball. In his first 10 starts of the season, his numbers improved over the prior year but certainly didn’t dazzle. His strikeout rate was a slightly more promising 21.1%, and his walk rate sat at 10.2%, while his FIP was an entirely average 4.23. Rodriguez wasn’t putting up disastrous numbers by any stretch, but his figures simply weren’t promising.
Based on his results, the Padres decided to move Hansel Rodriguez into the bullpen in mid-June. This move served him as well as anyone could have hoped, as Rodriguez has seen his numbers vastly improve across the board. In his 29.2 innings of relief this year, his K rate has rocketed up to 36.1%, his walk rate has sunk to 5.9%, and his fip is an outstanding 2.04. These numbers are nothing short of dazzling, and the TinCaps have rewarded Rodriguez with high leverage work as their closer.
For optimistic fans, Hansel Rodriguez’s current run of form represents the promise that AJ Preller and company saw in him when they acquired him last June. His combination of an upper 90’s fastball and above average slider will be all he ever needs to continue succeeding in the bullpen as he advances. Still only 20, his frame and loose delivery mean that there is likely more projection left in Rodriguez and a move back to the rotation isn’t inconceivable; although, he seems to have found his niche in the pen. At the very least, his skillset and bullpen success make him a potential closer candidate for the Padres in the future.
Less rosy-eyed fans will point out that Hansel Rodriguez’s success has all come in only the past month and a half. Even though his numbers have been promising of late, a move to the pen is a disappointing outcome for a 20 year old pitcher acquired just a year ago as a starter. It is also yet to be seen whether Rodriguez has the necessary makeup to consistently thrive in high leverage situations in which relievers consistently find themselves. Additionally, his larger body of work suggests that a regression to the mean may be forthcoming for Rodriguez.
Pragmatic fans see Rodriguez’s recent improvement as a sign that his future indeed is in the bullpen. His high strikeout and low walk rate as a reliever show that his stuff is real and that he has a chance of moving quicker through the system as a reliever focusing on just a two pitch repertoire. While his move to the pen is somewhat disappointing, Rodriguez’s recent performance seems too good to be only a fluke and may soon earn him a spot back into Padres top 30 prospect lists. Some regression can be reasonably be expected from his torrid first month and a half as a reliever, but there is still room for further projection in the 20 year old.
No matter your stance, it’s important to understand that AJ Preller acquired Melvin Upton Jr. at his lowest value and then shipped him away at his precise peak value with the Padres. Whether you account this to luck, skill, or some combination of the two, is entirely up to you. What’s important to note is that this trade differs greatly from the others I have examined in this series, as Upton Jr. had essentially negative value at the time the Padres acquired him, and actually accrued a great deal more before the Padres traded him. This stands in stark contrast to the trades of Will Venable and Derek Norris, as each had steeply declined to little value at the time of their trading.
In fact, Melvin Upton Jr. had so thoroughly rehabilitated his value that, at the time of the trade, many Padres fans looked at Hansel Rodriguez’s numbers and questioned why the Padres ate so much of Upton Jr.’s contract to acquire a pitcher with such middling numbers. Of the three trades I’ve looked at in this series so far, Melvin Upton Jr. (and the nearly $18 million the Padres sent to the Blue Jays) was by far the most valuable asset that Preller traded way. Yet, in return they received only a 19 year old pitcher who had put up entirely unspectacular numbers across two and a half minor league seasons prior to the trade.
Although none of us have access to the metrics the Padres use internally to evaluate players, it stands to reason that Padres’ scouts viewed Hansel Rodriguez as a player whose metrics belied his talent and promise. Many boxscore mining fools such as myself were struggling to understand what the Padres saw in Hansel Rodriguez, but AJ Preller and his scouts clearly envisioned promise and projectability from the young pitcher that far outpaced his production to that point.
This trade represents yet another case in which AJ Preller traded MLB talent for a high risk, high upside player in the lower minors. Additionally, the Padres front office showed that they were willing to pay up for a better prospect in the trade, sending vast amounts of cash to the Blue Jays in addition to Upton Jr. Although it is yet to be seen whether Hansel Rodriguez will ever make an impact at the Major League level, it’s encouraging to see AJ Preller’s consistent focus on acquiring as many high ceiling players as possible to stock his farm system, and a front office that accommodates this vision by spending the dead money necessary to make the deals.
When evaluating trades and prospects, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Our appetite for immediate answers regarding trade and prospect outcomes sometimes consumes our ability to see the larger strategy and process at work beneath them all. Moves like this make me hopeful that the current path for the Padres seems to be leading them out of the darkness and clear of the trappings that befell past regimes. Although only time will well tell how the story will end for Hansel Rodriguez and the Padres, his recent success has given us hope that the trail of crumbs leads him to a bright future in the Padres bullpen.