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Thoughts on the Cardinals’ Acquisition of Zach Duke

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The Cardinals just dealt for a reliever, which we maybe saw coming. But the exact reliever is a bit of a surprise, and perhaps a very pleasant one.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox
I don’t care what anybody says; I like those uniforms. (Not the originals with the shorts, though.)
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

In ‘ruining local columnists’ days’ news, the St. Louis Cardinals completed a deal to bring Zach Duke into the organisation less than an hour after my Sunday VEB Daily article posted.

But enough about my complaints and poor timing, we have an actual transaction to analyse now! So what do we think?

Well, this is kind of a tough one to peruse, honestly, because I’ll say up front this is exactly the kind of deal I wasn’t really looking forward to the Cardinals making this year. Duke is a setup reliever, so again we’re dealing assets for the most fungible quantity in all of baseball. Well, second most; true middle relievers who never even get into the seventh or eighth innings are probably number one.

However, I have to give credit where credit is due, and to that point, the front office once again pulled off a very canny acquisition, in terms of finding a guy who’s sort of like the guy you really wanted, but costs way, way less. I have a feeling John Mozeliak must get all those snappy shirt and bowtie combos he wears at Marshall’s or TJ Maxx. And those suits? Men’s Wearhouse all the way, with a little extra work from a guy he knows who does some tailoring.

What I’m referring to is the fact that Zach Duke, over the course of the last couple years, has had moments when he’s been positively Andrew Miller-esque. (With the caveat of not looking at 2015, ‘cause it wasn’t pretty.) Duke, I’m sure you all remember, was one of the first Great White Hopes of the Pirates over a decade ago now, when he came up and posted a 1.81 ERA in his rookie campaign. That was 2005, smack dab in the middle of the darkest period for Pirate fans, when it seemed like the front office was incompetent rather than apathetic as they had been for much of the 90s, and their top-five draft picks were guys like Brad Lincoln year in and year out.

Over time, though, Duke simply couldn’t miss enough bats at the major league level, and he eventually bottomed out in 2011 with the Diamondbacks, when he struck out just 9.5% of the hitters he faced en route to a disaster of a season. At some point after that, Duke dropped his arm slot, moved to the bullpen, and...continued to kind of suck. For awhile, anyway.

Two years ago, Duke truly resurfaced with the Milwaukee Brewers, suddenly reborn as a strikeout machine. He struck out better than 30% of the batters who came to the plate against him in 2014, showed oddly neutral splits given his new sidearm delivery (.258 wOBA vs. lefties; .262 vs righties), and just generally dominated.

Last year, things didn’t go nearly so well for Duke, as he joined the White Sox as part of their latest revamp to contend, and struggled. He still struck out over a quarter of the hitters he faced, but he fought his control all season, walking nearly five per nine and allowing a ghastly 24.3% HR/FB rate.

The current season has been much kinder to Duke, who has righted the ship in nearly all ways. The walks are still up a bit compared to 2014, but much better than last season, and he’s gotten the longballitis under control. Best of all, that shiny 26.4% K rate (that’s 10.04 K/9, if you prefer), looks mighty fine in the seventh and eighth innings of games. He also continues to show no real platoon splits, holding lefties to a .281 wOBA this season and right-handers to a .284.

Again, this isn’t to directly compare Zach Duke to Andrew Miller, who has been the most dominant reliever in the game this year. Rather, you have two pitchers of a somewhat similar ilk (low arm slot lefties who are not, in spite of that, LOOGYs, outstanding sliders, huge strikeout totals, etc.), who are both signed beyond this season. Miller for two more years at roughly $9 million per; Duke for one more year at $5.5. Zach Duke is not Andrew Miller. But he’s what you would get if you went looking for Andrew Miller at Marshall’s, maybe.

And here’s the reason I have to give credit to the Cards’ front office: Andrew Miller just cost the Cleveland Indians four prospects, including one top-25 prospect in Clint Frazier and another top 50-75 guy in Justus Sheffield.

Zach Duke cost the Cardinals Charlie Tilson.

Now, don’t get me wrong; Charlie Tilson is a useful piece, I think. He’s a defensively solid center fielder, with plus speed that works both in the field and on the bases. But, the power that I and many others thought would develop when he was drafted out of high school has just never come around. I remember seeing some video of him before the draft, and every once in awhile he would catch a pitch just right, turn on it, and hit it 400’+ easy. The occasional flashes of raw strength and power convinced me there was more consistent power to come in his game someday. So far, that hasn’t happened. There’s the possibility the shoulder injury Tilson suffered his first full season in the minors changed something, and he just doesn’t have the kind of strength he once did. More likely, though, the swing just isn’t going to translate to power. He’s a slappy top of the order type, and has shown the kind of on-base skills the last two years that could make him a leadoff hitter down the road.

So the Cardinals may have just traded away yet another useful talent to bring in yet another bullpen upgrade. On principle, this is the kind of deal I wasn’t looking forward to seeing.

In the execution, though, the Redbirds got a reliever very nearly as good as the top guys on the market, and they paid pennies on the dollar to pick him up, as Tilson is not a top-100 prospect, much less a top-25 like the primary piece in the Miller deal.

I will say I’m happy for Tilson in this, for a couple reasons. His family is from near Chicago, so he’s going home, and the White Sox were actually his childhood rooting interest. Also, he’ll have much less depth to contend with in the White Sox organisation (though we’ve seen a fair amount of the Cards’ outfield depth not look as good as we maybe hoped — Randal, looking at you), to push to the major leagues. So congratulations and good luck to Charlie Tilson, who has been fun to cover and is probably going to a really good situation.

I wasn’t excited at the prospect of this kind of deal, and philosophically I still don’t love it. But the Cardinals added a very good piece to their ‘pen without giving up any of their top impact talent. It’s tough to complain too much when they pull off their questionable ideas so well.