Thursday morning’s blockbuster trade between the San Diego Padres and the Cleveland Indians that saw All-Star closer Brad Hand head to Cleveland, along with Padres reliever Adam Cimber, could serve as a template for the Pittsburgh Pirates this trade season.
Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez might not be on the trade block right now, but with the return Hand brought back for the Padres might the push in the right direction for the Pirates to capitalize on Vazquez’s resurgence, as well as his contractual control and ceiling.
Since 2016, three all-star closers have been traded prior to Major League Baseball’s July deadline: Aroldis Chapman f2023rom the New York Yankees to the Chicago Cubs, Mark Melancon from the Pirates to the Washington Nationals, and Brad Hand from the Padres to the Indians. Aside from those three, Andrew Miller went from the Yankees to the Indians the same summer as Chapman.
All this leads to a potential return that the Pirates could get for Vazquez this summer, based on the history of the four moves mentioned above. In those four deals, the Cubs gave up Gleyber Torres – then a top 5 prospect in all of baseball – for Chapman, who was a rental, while the Indians gave up Mejia (No. 1 team prospect, No. 15 in baseball) for Hand, and Justus Sheffield and Clint Frazier for Miller. At the time of the trade, Frazier was the Indians’ No.1 prospect and No. 24 in baseball, while Sheffield was No. 4 in the Indians’ system.
The only trade that didn’t bring a top prospect was the Melancon deal, since Vazquez was the key piece in the return and was no longer considered a prospect, having graduated to the big leagues. The Pirates also got left-handed starter Taylor Hearn in the deal, but Hearn wasn’t ranked very highly in the Nationals’ system at the time of the deal, coming in at No. 27.
Returns for Hand and Miller are more comparable for the Pirates, considering Hand is under control through 2021, and Miller had two-and-a-half years of control remaining in Cleveland at the time of that trade in the summer of 2016.
Should the Pittsburgh Pirates put Vazquez on the trade block, what could be a realistic return from a possible trade partner?
Look no further than the red-hot Colorado Rockies at Mile High.
Colorado’s bullpen is the third-worst in baseball, finishing the first half as the No. 28 ranked bullpen in baseball with a 5.20 ERA. The Rockies spent nearly $106m this off-season, signing closer Wade Davis (three years, $52m), Bryan Shaw (three years, $27m), and Jake McGee (three years, $27m), and yet all three have struggled. Davis has a 3.72 ERA, while McGee (6.15 ERA) and Shaw (7.23 ERA) have combined to give the Rockies two of the top 15 worst relievers in baseball in ERA. That doesn’t even include Chris Rusin’s 6.18 ERA out of the Rockies bullpen.
It’s clear the Rockies – who are 2.0 games out of first in the NL West, and 2.0 games out of second Wild Card spot in the National League – need some bullpen help, especially after going 8-2 in the final 10 games of the first half, winning five straight to put themselves right back in the playoff picture.
Based on what All-Star closers have brought back in trade value in recent years, and the clear, obvious need for an elite guy in the pen for the Rockies, Vazquez seems like an obvious fit, even if he wouldn’t necessarily hold down the closers role alongside Davis.
Pittsburgh could ask for shortstop Brendan Rodgers, the No. 6 prospect in baseball and the Rockies’ No. 1 prospect, who is expected to be called up to the big league’s later this season. Rodgers fits the mold of an elite position player changing hands for an elite reliever with contractual control, aside from the Torres for Chapman swap.
Along with Rodgers, Pittsburgh could ask for 24-year-old right-handed reliever Yency Almonte, giving the Pirates a young, controllable reliever that could start or relieve down the line.
Trading Vazquez this summer could hinge on the Pirates’ start to the second half, starting Friday evening in Cincinnati, before then making a road trip to Cleveland for a showdown with the AL Central-leading Indians.
However, that shouldn’t determine if they move or keep Vazquez. The Pirates need to read the market and realize teams will pay a premium for relievers, especially elite ones with affordable contractual control, which Rivero fits to a T, considering he’s under contract through 2023 at a value of $22m that could increase to $44m if the team that trades for him picks up his two options in 2022 and 2023.
Finding good, cheap relievers is relatively easy for rebuilding teams to do, but it’s hard for contending teams to do when they have a clear, obvious window. Should the Pirates move Vazquez, it wouldn’t signal that they aren’t committed to winning, it would signal the Pirates know how to read the market, and cashed in on a big trade chip, getting a potential superstar position player that could help the Pirates contend faster than a closer would.
Kyle Crick, Richard Rodriguez, and Edgar Santana could vie to fill the closer’s role in Vazquez’s absence. All three can get the job done well, but adding a bat like Rodgers could accelerate the Pittsburgh rebuild. It’s a move worth exploring if you’re Neal Huntington.