MLB’s trade deadline is Tuesday, Aug. 2, and the Rays are in the thick of a playoff race, despite losing three of four to the Orioles. In two separate games, reliever Colin Poche gave up the lead late, perfectly illustrating why the Rays are likely to try to bolster their pitch at the deadline:
- The Rays have multiple starters on likely inning limits as they’ll be wary of pushing Shane McClannahan, Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs too far beyond their previous peak season workload. Shane Baz and Luis Patiño will be limited when and if they return, and even veteran Corey Kluber hasn’t been a healthy high-volume starter in years.
- Aside from starter wear and tear, the Rays believe in limiting starter exposure to times through the order penalty and moving innings to the bullpen.
- To avoid overloading individual relievers, the Rays also believe in spreading high-leverage innings throughout the bullpen.
- This bullpen has lost many of its best arms for much of this year to injury (Andrew Kittredge, JP Feyereisen, JT Chargois, Pete Fairbanks) or rotation (Springs). In addition, it lacks a high lever length, as the 2021 version had with Colin McHugh. All of this means that for the Rays’ strategy to work, they need relievers like Poche to step up and throw well, and many more like him.
We can assume the Rays are talking to Chicago about trading for receiver Willson Contreras, but Ken Rosenthal reported that Tampa Bay is also looking for Cubs relievers. Below is an attempt to do the same. You can find the interactive version of the pitch shape tool I use here.
Because the Rays bullpen has a range of needs, there are also a range of ways to meet them. Here’s a look at who the Rays could be watching.
High leverage short term rentals
The obvious player everyone in baseball will be looking to acquire is the Cubs closest, David Robertson. The Rays signed him as a season-ending backup last year, and although he’s still 37, he’s knocked out more than 30% of the batters he faces with a 90s-cutting fastball and two excellent breaking balls. Robertson has a one-year deal, so you can be sure his 1.83 ERA/3.25 FIP/3.54 xFIP will move on to a competitor.
Even though the Rays are missing Robertson, there are other backup rentals to trade in Chicago as well. Chris Martin, 36, currently sports a 4.31 ERA, fueled in part by a 21% HR/FB ratio, but under the hood he’s been much better than that, posting a 2.09 xFIP, the best of his career.
Martin still throws a hard, heavy fastball with some drop and compliments it with a hard cutter and excellent breaking ball with a two-plane motion – this year’s version is the best breaking ball Martin has ever thrown.
Martin left MLB to play in Japan for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, then returned throwing a dirty dispatcher he had never used before.
I suspect he could avoid some of those home runs by throwing more of his great secondary pitches and fewer fastballs, but HR/FB is a noisy stat so he might not need to make any changes at all.
The hiatus means that although 37, 2023 will be Martin’s last year officiating, which will also make him a potential building block for the following year.
We say this every year, but Mychal Givens, formerly of the Orioles, has a really good change. After being traded to Colorado in 2020, he struggled a bit (which doesn’t hurt in Colorado) before being sent to Cincinnati. Now in Chicago, he’s back to throwing well, with a 2.72/3.95 FIP/3.77 xFIP ERA over 39.2 innings.
Givens has always walked a few too many batters to make the elite, but he’s close. I’m going to assume the Rays would tell him to pitch his change more than the 17% he is right now.
He has a mutual option for 2023. The Rays don’t usually allow player options, but given his performance, he’s likely to decline the player portion (32, after a good year, the perfect time to hit the free agency), making him a good candidate to be moved this timeframe.
High leverage short relief with years of team control
While the Rays might want to pick up a rental to better mitigate the 40-player roster crunch ahead of next year’s Rule 5 draft, they have historically shown they prefer to target good players with years of control. It gets tricky because the Cubs intend to struggle over the next few years, so these players are staples for them as well, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be acquired for a price.
Chicago has two short relievers that fall into this category.
A side-armed right-hander with a huge run and arm drop on his lead, even more on his switch and an upsweep on his slider, Effross is what Ryan Thompson would be if Thompson had precise command as well.
Still eligible for rookies, Effross now boasts a 2.97 ERA / 2.03 FIP / 2.73 xFIP over 60 MLB innings. He strikes out almost 30% of the batters he faces and walks just 4%. The 28-year-old took him a while to make his way through the miners, but he’s here now and he’s dead right-handed. Also just plain good. Here is the slider:
And here is the lead:
The Cubs know Effross is good, so safe to assume he won’t come cheap.
But what if someone could go back in time and trade for Effross before he had proven himself at the major league level? That would look a lot like fellow right-handed reliever Erich Uelmen.
Uelmen was just promoted and has pitched just 3.1 innings in the major leagues. He struck out three, walked one and allowed a home run. He throws harder than Effross and from a three-quarter arm lunge, which is part of what makes him so intriguing.
Here is the lead:
Most casters with real drop shots, such as Uelmen’s, cast from a launch point lower than him. Ryan Thompson, for example, drops the ball nearly a foot lower. This means that Uelmen will have an even steeper vertical approach angle on his sinker than you would expect from movement alone.
Will that make it good? I don’t know, and I don’t think the Cubs either. He walked more hitters in the minors than one would like. But weird is usually good, and that uncertainty should make it more possible to trade than Effross, either alone or as part of a larger deal (like, for a slugging receiver).
If the Rays are looking for short, high-leverage relief arms, they can find them in Chicago, both for hire or as potential bullpen mainstays for the next few years. But there are also other ways to reinforce a stretched enclosure.
In Part 2, we’ll look at starters, “starters” and long relievers who could provide the Rays with relief in the innings.