Winter Meetings, Day 1

Today’s Penning Bull covered the two significant trades that went down Monday, on what ought to have been the first day of the annual Winter Meetings. Here’s an excerpt, on the White Sox getting Lance Lynn and the Rangers picking up two interesting arms in the exchange:

The Rangers acquired Dane Dunning and Avery Weems from the White Sox in exchange for Lance Lynn, which is a solid return, but I don’t have a ton to tell you about it in the context of their rebuild—because it’s really, really hard to figure out where the Rangers are in their rebuild, or whether they’re in one at all. 

Not dealing Lynn at the trade deadline in August was a strange choice, and it does seem like it cost Texas any hope of acquiring a star-caliber player or prospect in return for him. Still, they got a solid pair of arms here. On Dunning, I wrote a good amount in September, at Baseball Prospectus, as part of a piece on several rookie hurlers who had a chance to make a major impact in the postseason. Of course, he was then denied the opportunity to have that kind of impact, because the White Sox built a flawed pitching plan for Game 3 of the AL Wild Card Series in Oakland, one centered around Garrett Crochet. Dunning deserved a longer look, and had he gotten it, he might have helped the team advance in the postseason for the first time since 2005. 

That said, he’s really more of a backend starter, as I hinted within that piece. He has, in theory, four pitches, but differences in the arm paths he uses to throw them make using all four effectively difficult. He’s also unlikely to miss bats at an especially high level, even as he further progresses. The Sox are converting him from a low-grade, long-term asset into a potentially high-impact, short-term one, and that’s probably the right way for that team to use this kind of player. It adds another shoot of green to the trade tree that goes back to Chicago trading Héctor Santiago and Brandon Jacobs to the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade seven years ago Thursday, netting Adam Eaton. Later, of course, the Sox swapped Eaton to the Nationals for three young pitchers: Dunning, Lucas Giolito, and Reynaldo López. Giolito alone makes the deal worthwhile. Using Dunning to land Lynn gives the move the chance to bear fruit in the form of a deep playoff run in 2021.

Avery Weems, meanwhile, has yielded a handsome return on an even smaller initial investment, and on a much shorter timeline. The White Sox took Weems out of the University of Arizona in the sixth round in 2019, but they only paid him a $10,000 bonus. Chicago scout John Kazanas, who has worked for the team for 30 years and had seen Weems since he was in high school, saw past some hideous numbers and recommended the lefty as a senior-sign draftee.

Almost immediately, the scout’s conviction (and the team’s trust in him) paid dividends. Weems posted great numbers in the low minors after signing last year, and while he didn’t pitch at the alternate site in 2020, he turned heads in instructs this fall. He’s a reliever, eventually, but he could be a good one, and soon. He’s sitting in the mid-90s, with a plus breaking ball and command of both pitches. To get a deal for a mid-rotation starter across the finish line by throwing in a player signed for so little, just a year later, is a coup for Chicago, but Weems is also likely to be part of a good, young Rangers bullpen in fairly short order. His path to this point in pro ball also makes him a candidate to sign an outrageously team-friendly extension, should he ever merit that kind of consideration.

The Rangers have had modest success in building veteran starting rotations in recent years, but doing so is costly. Lynn and Mike Minor were grand successes, but Kyle Gibson seems to be much less of a win, and the trade that brought them Corey Kluber yielded nothing and cost them an electric relief arm. At long last, they appear to be committing to the objective of getting younger and finding sustainable success again. This move accomplishes that.

On the White Sox side, this is exceedingly simple: they (and their new manager) love a veteran workhorse. Lynn is that, even if his ceiling is lower than some of the other players they might have targeted in trades or free agency. The last two seasons are the two in his whole career in which Lynn has thrown hardest. His spin rates on each of his pitches (except his changeup, where spin is mostly irrelevant) reached career highs in 2020. He’s learning to lean more on his cutter, while still employing his sinker as another complement to his diet of high four-seamers.

Lynn’s 28-percent strikeout rate in 2019 was an outlier, and he’s unlikely to ever do that again. Everything he throws is hard, but he doesn’t actually throw that hard. Between the four-seamer, the sinker, and the cutter, he’s attacking with something in the 90s on almost every pitch. In 2020, among the 160 pitchers who threw at least 500 pitches, Lynn had the 62nd-highest average fastball velocity, but the 12th-highest average velocity on all pitches, because he just keeps pounding batters with his varying flavors of heat. That won’t lead to tons of missed bats, but if he can continue to show both command and control the way he did during his two seasons in Texas, it’s a recipe for success. Some mechanical adjustments he made upon joining the Rangers facilitated those improvements and should allow him to sustain them.

With Giolito, Lynn, and Dallas Keuchel leading the rotation, the White Sox should be able to withstand some short starts from the likes of Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech, and Jonathan Stiever in 2021. The makings of an elite rotation are here. Though it’s a one-year coalition, with Lynn set to be a free agent next winter, it’s an exciting one, and it could be a bridge to a rotation that features those young guns more prominently in 2022 and beyond. For a win-now team, this deal is a no-brainer, even though both hurlers they gave up look like quality big-leaguers.

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