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A Very Early Look at the Lefty Relief Market

One of the few real weaknesses on the 2019 Cardinal roster is one of the fixes always most available on the trade market.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Kathryn Riley /Getty Images

Morning, all.

So I’ve watched some baseball now this year, much of it featuring the St. Louis Cardinals. I assume you’ve done a similar thing. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I feel pretty comfortably that this looks like a pretty good team. Not an all-time great team, but a pretty good one. It looks like a playoff team to me. They’ve played a brutal schedule so far, and they’re 9-6.

If we go one bare step deeper than just, “Looks like a playoff team to me,” or the raw win-los record, we can just look at the run differential of the club and see what that has to say about the quality of the team. Here’s where we find something a little interesting. The Cardinals’ run differential currently stands at +16, which gives them an expected W/L of...9-6. So, hey, good news, everyone! The Cardinals appear to be about what they have been so far, which is to say pretty good.

However, if we add a little context into this, we find that the Cardinals might actually be a little better than we might think. That +16 run differential is, in fact, the best in the Central Division,and the second best in the National League overall, just ahead of the Atlanta Braves’ +15 and behind the Dodgers’ +22. As for the rest of the Central, the only team to actually have a negative run differential currently is the Brewers, who of course sit atop the division with a 10-6 record despite being 22 runs worse than the Cardinals on balance. I assume this is entirely because of Josh Hader.

Who I now wish I hadn’t mentioned just yet, because the thing is I want to look at left-handed relievers who might be available on the market this year, and Hader would make an outstanding segue into that topic, being the current king of lefty relievers. Unfortunately, I brought him up too early, before I finished talking about what I think of the Cardinals, and so this is all going to be rather more clumsy now than it might otherwise have been.

So here’s the thing: looking at the Cardinals’ roster, I see a fairly strong team, with a few areas in which they could really improve. The infield is set, barring something unexpected happening at second base or the Indians putting Francisco Lindor on the market or something. The outfield is a work in progress, though the recent uptick in Marcell Ozuna’s offensive production has it looking like less of a work in progress than it appeared say, last week. Ozuna’s plate discipline still looks all out of whack, but if he can hit baseballs hard and far like he has this past week, that’s not nearly so much of a concern. Right field is really the one area where the club could clearly use an upgrade, and there are still questions and options to work through there. It’s not that right field isn’t a concern for me, it’s just that I think we all have to understand there’s a process happening there, and we’re just going to have to let it play out, frustrating as that may be.

On the pitching side, the starting rotation has been fairly shaky, between Miles Mikolas looking flatter in the early going than he was last season and Michael Wacha having been pretty dreadful so far. On the other hand, Jack Flaherty has looked awesome, Adam Wainwright is basically doing Kurt Russell toward the end of Tombstone, Dakota Hudson is still good at managing contact and bad at managing everything else, and Carlos Martinez is hopefully coming back as a starter. The rotation is a concern, but I’m not looking externally just yet. Maybe fairly soon, but not yet. (Madison Bumgarner is a free agent after this season, and the Giants are terrible. I’ll just leave that tidbit here.)

The bullpen is where things start to get really interesting, as the Cardinals currently have one of the most talented groups of arms I can recall seeing wearing the Birds on the Bat. That’s not to say everything is 100% settled and hunky dory in the ‘pen, but there are lots and lots of strikeouts sitting down there in the Redbird bullpen, and if Jordan Hicks can continue to improve they have one of the more intimidating pitchers in all of baseball serving as the backstop. I have no reason right now to look for right-handed relief help, particularly because I personally happen to believe Giovanny Gallegos is really, really good (first pitch center cut fastballs to Yasiel Puig — which is basically the only thing he hits anymore — notwithstanding), and deserves a meaningful role on this ballclub.

It’s on the left side of the bullpen where I think we find a really meaningful opportunity to improve the ballclub in the short term, even without waiting to see how various other things end up playing out over the course of the season. And no, I’m not saying I’m giving up on Andrew Miller, or am really even worried about Miller. It was a little shaky in the early going, but what I’ve seen from him lately looks as close to the old Andrew Miller as I believe we have any reasonable right to expect at this point. If he can stay healthy, I think Miller is going to be a huge boon for this Cardinal bullpen and the team’s chances of winning this year. If he gets hurt again, well, you pays your money and you takes your chances, as the man said. Every player is essentially always on the, well, if he gets hurt....train.

But the fact the Redbirds are running with only one lefty in their bullpen does, in fact, leave them slightly vulnerable. I don’t know that I believe it to be a fatal flaw, should the overall quality of the relievers on the club support ignoring handedness, but there is a strategic edge you are giving up when carrying but a single left-handed reliever. Now, to be fair, at the moment I’m not sure there’s a left-hander who really deserves to be on the club over the other, better options who just happen to throw from the opposite side. Chasen Shreve has walk and homer issues, Tyler Webb is just downright mediocre, and Austin Gomber really works better as a starter than a relief option, at least to my eye. But it also wouldn’t be some great loss should the Cardinals come up with a left-handed option who would make, say, Mike Mayers superfluous. John Gant is too useful to be replaced due to his swiss army knife versatility, John Brebbia is too useful to replace due to his ability to completely neutralise right-handed hitters, but Mayers? Not going to lose any sleep over it.

So, given that left-handed relief looks to me like both a real weakness of the club and also a potentially huge upgrade, let’s take a look around at what might come available this season, shall we? Given that the trade deadline has changed a bit this year, and there will no longer be the waiver trade season to make small to middling deals, it’s possible we may see a little more movement earlier, as teams have to get all their business done, big or small, by the end of July.

I’m really looking only at clubs I feel pretty strongly are going to be out of contention well ahead of trading time. What that means is that at this moment I’m looking at the bottom feeders. Clubs off to terrible starts, clubs that are simply terrible, or clubs that are off to weak starts and whose overall quality of talent is such that they are not likely to make up ground going forward. So let’s take a look around.

The Big Impacts

Will Smith, San Francisco Giants — One of the more coveted, talked-about trade targets of this past offseason will likely once again be one of the more coveted, talked-about trade targets of this June and July. Smith was absolutely dominant last season, is off to a fairly similar sort of start again this year, and the Giants are off to a weak start in a division with two clearly better teams. He’ll also be a free agent at the end of this season, and so will almost certainly be on the block. The good part of trading for a pitcher this good is that he’s good. The bad part of trading for a pitcher this good is that he’s good, and thus will be expensive in terms of talent cost. Still, of all the pitchers I’m covering here today, Will Smith is probably the one who would make the biggest impact in terms of pushing a very good ballclub into legit championship contenders. The tag team of Smith and Andrew Miller could dominate clubs with lefty-heavy lineups come playoff time.

Tony Watson, SF Giants — Watson is a more debatable pitcher to place here in the impact category, as he’s off to a bit of a shaky start this season and his velocity is down. However, he also had a velo slump last April, then rebounded to put up one of the best seasons of his career, with higher strikeout numbers than he had really ever put up before. Watson will turn 34 shortly, and has a 2020 player option that could act as a bit of a poison pill for teams looking at acquiring him. Still, he put up a 2.59 ERA and 2.45 FIP in 2018, so it’s possible he could be an impact acquisition for some team heading into the stretch.

Jace Fry, Chicago White SoxI think the White Sox had some designs on competing this year, but they’re off to a 5-9 start, and have a run differential that suggests they should have a...5-9 record. The AL Central is dreadful, but I think the Sox are still outgunned. If that is indeed the case, July could see them field offers for Jace Fry, who was not only fantastic last year, but is also only 25 years old (nearly 26), and still very cheap. Fry would be a longer-term solution than either Smith or Watson, and thus probably very expensive to acquire. He struck out 70 batters in just over 50 innings in 2018, though, and won’t be a free agent until 2024. The White Sox will likely try to keep him and use him as a building block of their future bullpen, but the right offer just might change their minds.

The Middle Tier

Jake McGee, Colorado RockiesYes, the Rockies absolutely viewed themselves as contenders coming into this season, as did my father, with whom I have a beer-based bet that the Rockies were not, in fact, going to win the NL West this season, a bet about which I am currently feeling quite good, by the way. Given Colorado is off to a 4-12 start and is in the same division as the Dodgers and Padres, I don’t think it’s happening for them this year. Enter Jake McGee, currently on the injured list with a knee sprain, but who looked for all the world in spring training like the dominant force he once was in Tampa Bay, with upper 90s velocity again and that extra something that made his fastball almost untouchable. He is signed through 2020, and isn’t cheap, but that contractual situation could actually make him easier to acquire should he be healthy and the Rockies in freefall, looking to unload money in a lost season.

Jake Diekman, Kansas City RoyalsThe Royals are very, very bad. Thus, Jake Diekman should be very, very available, and probably sooner than later. It’s been an up and down ride the past few years for the former Philly wunderkind, but if Diekman is fully healthy he could be a very solid mid-priced pickup for a club looking for that extra lefty strikeout punch. Even last season, when Diekman struggled mightily to find the strike zone many nights, he struck out 66 batters in just 53.1 innings.

Paul Fry, Baltimore OriolesStrangely the second Fry on this list, the Orioles’ Fry is maybe one of my favourite potential targets here, simply because I see no reason for Baltimore to hold on to him at this point (Mycal Givens, either, but that’s another topic entirely), and while he may not have quite the flashy strikeout totals of some other pitchers on this list he is under club control for multiple seasons still and is remarkably solid. Just 26 years old, Fry seems a good bet for a low 3’s FIP and comes with a price tag that could make him a serious bargain.

Zach Duke, Cincinnati RedsAlready a Cardinal once, I somewhat doubt the Reds would be all that interested in dealing Duke to the Redbirds, even should they fall completely out of contention, but stranger things have happened. You know what you’re going to get with Zach Duke, and he’s on a one year deal. Low risk, low reward. But, maybe enough reward to be worth it.

The Wild Cards

Adam Conley, Miami MarlinsOnce upon a time, Adam Conley was one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in the game. That...was a long time ago. These days, Conley is a cautionary tale about all the things that can go wrong in pitching development, and has been moved to relief full-time over the past two seasons. He hasn’t been great even in short relief, but the stuff is still premium (he averages over 96 mph on his fastball), and surely someone, somewhere can help him unlock the talent in his arm.

Drew Smyly, Texas RangersDrew Smyley has never been able to stay healthy, has always run very high strikeout rates, and has literally never been tried as anything but a starting pitcher. I have absolutely no idea why that is. Someone has to at least be curious what he could do in short stints, right? Right?

Daniel Norris, Detroit TigersSpeaking of starting conversion projects who have never really been able to stay healthy, Daniel Norris, everybody. The man with the van was once a top prospect, traded for David Price, no less, but the lustre is long gone from Norris at this point. He’s lost about three miles per hour off his fastball since 2016, but his slider is still a plus pitch when he’s locating, and one would think he could be effective if limited to facing same-handed hitters the majority of the time.

Manny Banuelos, Chicago White Sox — One of the greatest examples we have of the hype train getting carried away when it comes to the prospects of certain organisations — cough Yankees cough — Banuelos saw his career derailed completely by elbow injuries on not one but two separate occasions, and has never really gotten off the ground. He throws an assortment of offspeed pitches at this point, though, having eschewed the fastball almost entirely, and represents an intriguing possibility to junk his way past lefties in the opposing lineup.

There are, of course, other options who might shake loose at some point, pitchers on teams that are currently in it to win it but will fall off, pitchers who may lose their gig due to circumstances beyond their control, pitchers who just hit the market for whatever reason. It happens every year. There are also a couple of very intriguing internal options for the Cardinals not currently on the 40 man roster in Jacob Patterson at Double A and my personal favourite Patrick Dayton down in Palm Beach, but who knows how quickly the organisation will be looking to push either.

In the end, there are only a few pitchers here who could be counted on to make a legitimate impact, with a few other who might be worth a flyer, but probably not if it costs you another reliever who might lack the handedness but is of reasonable quality. The Cardinals don’t have to make a move like this, certainly; the bullpen has done a very good job so far, and there’s enough talent that we should expect that to continue. However, given the quality of the club we’re seeing on the field, I think there’s at least a decent chance come mid-July we’ll all be debating just how hard the Redbirds should go after a playoff run this season. And if that’s the case, another lefty arm to complement Andrew Miller could very well be a good place to start.