Today was quite the deadline spectacle, with two of the best pitchers in baseball, Jon Lester and David Price, changing uniforms. The Lester deal hit early, and it was an eye-opener, with the “buyer” A’s “selling” their #4 hitter, Yoenis Cespedes in the process. The movement of established players, such as Cespedes, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly, by buyers in pursuit of their needs came to be one of the themes of the day.
As they often do, however, the Tampa Bay Rays zigged while everyone else zagged, and “sold” ace lefty David Price to the Tigers in a three-team deal that sent Austin Jackson to the Mariners, and lefty starter Drew Smyly and infielders Nick Franklin and Willy Adames to the Rays. The reaction of many media outlets to the Rays’ take had a quizzical or even disappointed tone. It takes a little more analysis – and an understanding of the way the underfunded Rays need to do business – to see what they’re up to here. To put it simply, the Rays are trusting their solid organizational evaluation skills as they have many times in the past, and see an abundance of talent and team control in this three-player package.
The most immediate help received by the Rays will be provided by Smyly, 25, who was drafted on the second round out of Arkansas in 2010. His contributions have been lost in the considerable shadows of his Tigers’ rotation compatriots, but he has fashioned a solid beginning to his career. He rocketed through the minors in about two calendar years, and struck out about a batter per inning in his rookie 2012 season. He was nails as a multiple inning reliever last season, posting a 6-0, 2.37, mark with a sterling 81/17 K/BB ratio in 76 innings. That’s an awful lot of innings in this day and age for a relief pitcher. This year, he slid into the back of the Tiger rotation and has been quietly effective, going 6-9, 3.77, with a solid 87/31 K/BB in 100 1/3 IP. He has a career 84 ERA-, and has absolutely destroyed left-handed hitters to the tune of a career .192/.234/.297 career line.
The Rays would not be making this trade, however, if they believed that Smyly was a finished product, a #4-5 starter to whom they would begin paying arbitration wages next season. They have to think he is going to become more than that, and a deeper look offers some evidence that they could be correct.
Smyly’s K and BB rates, which were exceptional last season out of the pen, have receded a bit this season, but are both still slightly above the MLB average at 20.6% and 7.3%, respectively. He has also shown a fairly strong popup tendency, which has intensified a bit this season, as his popup rate has risen from 8.5% in 2013 to 9.6% this season. Most importantly, however, Smyly has absolutely stifled fly ball authority, allowing average velocity of 80.3 MPH and 80.6 MPH in the air over the past two seasons, way below the MLB mean. Hitters are batting .215 AVG-.613 SLG on fly balls this season (and .197 AVG-.492 SLG in 2013) – again, well better than his peers.
He’s actually been a bit unlucky to allow 14 homers already this season, as he’s yielded some cheapies. He has a real chance to be the rare fly ball pitcher that can yield 20 or fewer homers over 200 innings in a typical season as he moves forward. Also, his 2014 numbers have been hurt by some bad luck on grounders – he’s allowed a .317 AVG-.347 SLG on grounders this season, way above the MLB average, and will now have much better defenders all over the field in Tampa than he did in Detroit.
Of course, there are some obstacles in Smyly’s road to becoming an above average MLB starting pitcher. Chiefly, there is his inability to handle right-handed hitters, who have batted a lusty .270/.330/.459 against him for his career. Smyly has good arm speed on his change-up, but he simply has not located it that well to this stage in his career. In addition, he has never averaged six innings per start in any of his professional seasons, in the minors or majors.
This is the way the Rays get their high-end starting pitchers, however. They can’t afford the free agent rates, so they target guys who do something exceptionally well, or prospects whose value has fallen from its peak. Think Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer, etc.. Smyly has an out-pitch slider, locates his fastball well, and throws tons of strikes. If he can increase the quality of those strikes, and settle into a starting role now that he has no fear of ever again moving into the bullpen, the Rays very well could have a #3 starter at a bargain price on their hands. With four years of control, of course, compared to one more year of Price.
There are two other significant pieces headed in the Rays’ direction in this deal. Nick Franklin, 23, heads over from the Mariners. Franklin’s stock has fallen a bit thanks to his struggles at the major league level in Seattle, but there is still a lot to like here. A switch-hitter, Franklin has been a dramatically superior performer from the left side. He got increasingly power-happy as he advanced through the Mariner system, and has evolved into almost exclusively a dead-pull hitter. There is a lot of head movement in his swing, and he tends to open his front side at times, but he can hit the ball a country mile for someone his size.
Franklin has been ranked on my minor league position player prospect list in all five of his full pro seasons, ranking in the top forty three times, peaking at #19 in 2013. Players with such a track record generally become big league starters, and possess star potential. That wasn’t going to happen in Seattle, as the holes in his offensive game had worsened and gone unaddressed.
Defensively, his best spot is likely second base, which is held down by Ben Zobrist in Tampa. Like Zobrist, Franklin is quite athletic and should be yet another flexible piece on the Rays’ roster. If Franklin can improve his pitch selection and re-learn how to use the entire field, while deciding once and for all whether switch-hitting is in the cards for him, he can put up Zobrist-like numbers for the Rays. In fact, he is likely Zobrist’s eventual replacement. And he’ll make much less than him, with multiple years of cheap team control, of course.
Then there’s the wild card, Low-A shortstop Willy Adames. At any given moment in time, there aren’t too many 18-year-olds holding down full-time gigs in full-season leagues. There are materially fewer who hold onto such a gig once the short-season summer leagues start, and perform well against much older competition from wire to wire. Adames would be one of those chosen few, batting .269/.346/.428 with 14 doubles, 12 — count ’em, 12 — triples and six homers in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. He’s a pretty big kid who might eventually have to move over to third base, but kids like this don’t grow on trees. He ranked #48 on my mid-season minor league position player prospect list, which is based on both performance and age relative to one’s level. A whole lot can happen between West Michigan and the big leagues, but Adames’ upside is certainly significant.
From the Rays’ perspective, this might not be the sexy deal that gets all of the accolades in the here and now. It just might be the one that looks really, really good at the 10-year reunion. On paper, the Rays are a little worse for this season without David Price; let’s not kid ourselves. They still are very much in the wildcard race, however, and have added short and long-term talent, with extra helpings of cost certainty and years of control. This is the hand that the Rays have been dealt, and they tend to play it well.
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