A Bell, a Snell

Here is the full text of the latest edition of Penning Bull, sent to subscribers this morning. If you want more of this style of analysis, please consider signing up, using the Buy Now button on the page. (It’s on the righthand side, if you’re on a computer, and at the bottom of the page, if you’re on a mobile device.) I’ll be breaking down the Yu Darvish trade, and the Padres’ signing of Ha-Seong Kim, in the first issue of 2021, sometime this weekend.

On Christmas Eve, the Nationals traded right-handed pitchers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to the Pirates for first baseman Josh Bell.

The Pirates have been extremely clear about their intentions since firing Ray Searage, Clint Hurdle, and Neal Huntington last fall. They’re going for a scorched-Earth rebuild, and given their tight-fisted ownership and small-market status, that puts them on a long path back to real contention. They had the worst record in the big leagues in 2020, and will probably be similarly moribund for the next two years. Since Bell is due to hit free agency after 2022, GM Ben Cherington had no qualms about dealing him. The question was what kind of return Pittsburgh could get, for a player who has only looked like more than a second-division first baseman for about two-thirds of one season over the course of his career.

On the Nationals side, meanwhile, 2020 was a blunted but unpleasant blow to the ego. Sure, it was a 60-game season, in the shadow of a pandemic. It shouldn’t even have been played. No team was less motivated to push past the weirdness and ugliness of it all than was Washington, since they were the defending champions, and that showed. Still, if they believed they had rightfully or semi-permanently surpassed the Braves in the NL East, that notion was emphatically dispelled. The club re-signed Stephen Strasburg after his virtuosic 2019, at enormous expense, only to see him develop carpal-tunnel syndrome. Strasburg missed almost the whole season, and it’s hard to have much confidence that he’ll return to his previous level for a duration that will truly justify the seven-year deal Mike Rizzo gave him.

More foreboding still, the team’s odd decision to patch together an infield around Trea Turner backfired, and their offensive future was thrown much into doubt. Ryan Zimmerman opted out because of COVID-19, but that really wasn’t the problem. Rather, Howie Kendrick battled injuries; Starlin Castro was sidelined for almost the whole campaign; Eric Thames was a dud; Asdrúbal Cabrera finally had a subpar season; and Carter Kieboom and Luis García blew their chances to claim long-term spots, at least for the time being. Now, Kendrick has retired, Adam Eaton has returned to the White Sox in free agency, and prior to this trade, the only players the team could pencil in for above-average offense are their superstars, Turner and Juan Soto. 

It should be clear, then, that this deal can’t mark the end of Rizzo’s additions for the winter. He has a team too good to waste, with Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin (and, yes, Strasburg), Soto and Turner, and a handful of solid supporting actors. Britt Ghiroli, of The Athletic, wrote in her article about the trade: “In a perfect world, the Nationals would add two bats this offseason, and that is much more of a possibility now.” With all due respect to Ghiroli and to the sometime champions, I think that in a perfect world, they’d add four bats this winter. Assuming (as seems safe) that the team’s enthusiasm about García is undimmed by his rushed, rocky rookie season, three would be sufficient, but in that case, Bell needs to be the second-best of the set. 

As Ghiroli also noted in that piece, Soto moved to right field late in 2020, setting the stage for the team to pursue a left fielder this winter. There are plenty of available bat-first guys whose major limitation is being confined to left field on the market right now, so Rizzo still has a clear path to getting this right. The trickier thing will be finding a way to either dramatically increase the confidence of all involved in Kieboom (including, perhaps, Kieboom himself), or upgrade third base, too. 

For now, since all of that is speculation, let’s set it aside, and consider Bell purely on his merits. He’s been a compelling figure for as long as he’s been a pro ball player, plus an extra five or six months. In the spring of 2011, when he was one of the top prep prospects (and the top pure hitter at that level) in a historic class, Bell sent a letter to all 30 teams, asking them not to draft him. The son of college professors, he claimed to be irrevocably committed to playing college ball at the University of Texas. The Pirates, though, took Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick, and then, with the first pick of the second day of the draft, took Bell. (Perhaps they were just rolling the dice there. Perhaps it’s relevant that Cole and Bell were both advised by Scott Boras. Perhaps, a lot of things.) They signed him for $5 million, which (in that final year before the league hardened rules around draft bonuses) wasn’t even the kind of eye-popping money other teams had believed might tempt Bell and his family.

Fairly quickly, though, it became clear that Bell wouldn’t stick in a corner outfield spot. He became a first baseman, and has been pretty bad even at that position, to date. He had one injury-marred season to begin his career, but then embarked on a steady, reasonably rapid climb to the big leagues. He hit plenty in the minors, with one exception: he never really found the power for which one hopes, from a first baseman. 

Josh Bell, MiLB Stats (2012-16)

PASO %BB %ISOBABIPAVGOBPSLG
2,10514.59.9.151.344.303.373.454

It was never a question of him being big enough, strong enough, or even generating sufficiently hard contact. He does all of that, and is sufficiently balanced (though not Chipper Jones, or anything) as a switch-hitter. The questions were about, as a left-hander facing righties, getting the ball in the air often enough, and, as a right-hander facing lefties, hitting it hard consistently enough to make up for a few more whiffs.

It’s jarring to see what a transformation the matriculation to the majors has demanded of such a polished, well-rounded hitter. Bell posted above-average DRC+ figures in each of his first three seasons, but that’s above-average only by the standards of the whole league. For a first baseman, he fell a bit short. The Pirates successfully coaxed him into trading contact for lift and power, on both sides of the plate, for most of 2019, and it yielded a breakout that made him an All-Star and paved the road to this trade. On balance, though, in a similar sample, one can see Bell straining to be a different kind of hitter since rising to join the Pirates, and while it might be the kind of hitter one must be to thrive in the modern game, it’s clear that it doesn’t come naturally to him.

Josh Bell, MLB Stats (2016-20)

PASO %BB %ISOBABIPAVGOBPSLG
2,19119.011.9.205.289.261.349.466

Bell’s 2020 demands a bit of a mulligan. In the shortened, chaotic season, he never found his swing, from either side. His strikeout rate shot to an uncharacteristic level from which ameliorative regression is inevitable. He’s still a patient hitter. He still possesses the ability to hit the ball hard. On the other hand, the consistent penchant for pulling and elevating the ball, which he found for a prolonged period in 2019, again vanished from his profile. 

The Nationals are dedicated to the idea that hitting coach Kevin Long can unlock that for Bell again. That’s not a wholly unreasonable notion. Long is one of the game’s more accomplished and respected gurus, albeit not one of the vanguard types becoming so popular in the age of tech-based player development. Maintaining two distinct swings, especially in an era of rapidly evolving pitching strategies, will probably remain a barrier to Bell fully tapping the potential of his overall profile. Still, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine him hitting .270, with a strong walk rate and 30 homers. That doesn’t solve all the problems facing the Nationals this winter, or over the next two years, but it gives them a chance to capture upside, and this acquisition should keep their options open as they try to deepen their lineup.

That last bit is worth digging lightly into, and also helps us circle back to the Pirates’ side of this. There are, basically, two different kinds of decent prospects a team can acquire in trade, anymore: overaged guys with high floors but low ceilings, who no longer fit their incumbent organization; and far-off guys with plus tools but almost no professional experience. Elite prospects, with obvious star potential and substantial track records against high-level competition (even collegiate competition, but especially anything above High-A ball), are essentially unavailable. So are many in the vast middle class of legitimate prospects: guys who have reached the upper levels, but still have certain question marks left; and those who have well-rounded profiles but have only played one year of full-season ball. 

Prospects have huge value in the modern, money-obsessed, youth-slanted game. One either accepts damaged goods, or hunts at the very bottom and very top of the professional ladder for guys whose teams aren’t in position to assign them the full value associated with their talent. The Pirates selected one of each kind of player in this deal. That doesn’t mean it’ll pan out for them—in fact, you’ll go broke pretty quickly betting against Mike Rizzo winning trades. However, Crowe has a well-rounded arsenal, throws hard enough to be competitive without exceptional command, and (despite having the polish to be used in the big leagues right away) still has minor-league options. Yean won’t turn 20 until June, was a hot name around the trade deadline in 2019, and has three pitches that could turn out to be above-average. Cherington did well, considering what Bell has (and hasn’t) done to this point in his career. Yet, Washington held onto its key trade assets, giving them multiple ways to push Bell to the fifth spot in their batting order, where he’s a good bet, rather than a risky one.

On Sunday night, the Padres traded right-handed pitchers Luis Patiño and Cole Wilcox and catchers Francisco Mejía and Blake Hunt to the Rays for left-handed pitcher Blake Snell.

A.J. Preller is playing a different game than most of his rivals, and it’s making things look awfully easy. The free-agent market was soft for two winters in a row, allowing Preller to sign Eric Hosmer, then Manny Machado, in addition to some secondary pieces. Last winter, as the market got back to nominal normalcy, the Padres’ only big signing was Drew Pomeranz, but Preller still got aggressive in trades.

That was under different circumstances. Well-documented trends and phenomena had made the talent market an aggressive GM’s sandbox, but the pandemic and the season it wrought flung the gates open in a way that no simple economic pressures could have. Teams already disinclined to take chances became outright averse to the costs of winning. It was hard for some to decide how seriously they should even take the 2020 campaign. Preller, free of any such ambivalence, ripped through the league at midseason, with trades to upgrade his rotation, bullpen, catching corps and DH slot. 

Now, with teams claiming (some half-credibly, but all in bad faith) to have suffered staggering losses during 2020 and clamoring to save money, the path has grown wider still. The Rays might well have traded Blake Snell this winter, even if there hadn’t been a season without fans in the stands, and even if they had reached the World Series under normal financial conditions. In that alternate reality, though, they’d have had much less urgency, which would have lent them more leverage. Surely, too, had they dealt Snell in that imaginary marketplace, they would have had more potential buyers, steering the price of a deal higher.

This is the world we have, though, and in this world, Preller had the Rays over a barrel. Of course, the Rays always want you to think that’s the situation, and (like so many perceptions, even insider ones) it’s a dangerous oversimplification. The idea that the Rays have to make a trade, to cut salary and accommodate their perpetual, profit-conscious contention window, is what keeps trade partners engaged, when (perhaps) they ought to walk away. The Rays are good at the complex transaction that is a modern baseball trade. They’re good at the poker game involved—at slow-playing but never wasting an advantage, and at pouncing when an opponent overplays their hand. They’re good at the newfangled stuff, using analytics to identify trade targets and to help their own players maximize their potential, but they’re even better at old-fashioned pro scouting, of the kind that flips a close trade from a likely loss to a surprising win. 

None of this is to suggest that Preller should, in fact, have passed up this opportunity. On balance, the Padres did extraordinarily well. They needed to reinforce their rotation, after Mike Clevinger underwent Tommy John surgery, and Snell was a major reinforcement. In exchange for a pitcher with a recent Cy Young Award in his trophy case and three years of relatively affordable team control remaining, San Diego gave up significant talent, but nothing that majorly weakens them in the short term, and nothing that will make the team rue this deal, as long as Snell pitches the way they expect him to pitch.

With Snell, that caveat weighs a bit heavier than it does for other top-tier starters. He’s dominated for prolonged stretches during his career, but he’s also had significant bouts with inconsistency. He’s not elite when it comes to repeating his delivery, and especially his release point. He’s battled hittability at some times, and wildness at others. His pitch characteristics point to a pitcher even better than his track record. As an employee of another team once told me, though, if the Rays have had a pitcher a while, no one else who acquires them expects them to find a new gear.

All of this is probably too much fretting over a more-or-less front-of-the-rotation starter. Let me add one more nit to my pickings, though. In October, I wrote at Baseball Prospectus about Snell having lost some of the rising action on his fastball in 2020, and the way hitters were racking up hits against him on that pitch. Though he’s just 28, and though I think it reasonable to make allowances for the strangeness of the season and the fact that he was returning from an injury that hung over him throughout the prolonged offseason, the fact is that that vertical movement is almost as important as velocity, and (like velocity) once pitchers begin to lose it, they rarely recover it. 

Snell leaned more on his changeup last year, and it looks like a pitch with which he might consistently induce weak contact. Again, he has two quality breaking pitches. There are solid options for him to remain a good starting pitcher even if he can’t dominate with his high-spin heat. It’s just that, when a need for such significant adjustments is peeking over the horizon for a given player, we have to admit considerable uncertainty about their near future.

Ok, enough rain-cloud stuff. On the whole, Snell is a terrific addition to what was already a modestly high-upside rotation, and since Clevinger was more in the Snell mold (excellent when right, but inconsistent and incomplete, even as he established himself) than on a true ace level, he’s a perfectly adequate replacement for what injury stole from San Diego in the fall. With open questions about Chris Paddack’s development (his sophomore season was rough, and made highly salient some preexisting questions about his ability to spin the ball), Mackenzie Gore’s readiness, and Dinelson Lamet’s health, acquiring Snell didn’t banish risk from the Padres’ portfolio, but it pushed their potential ceiling higher. 

The Rays, meanwhile, got a pitching prospect over whom everyone would be mooning more openly, I think, but for the fact that he was second fiddle in his own farm system until the trade. Patiño just turned 21 in October. Last spring, he was a consensus top-25 prospect in all of baseball, and while his 17 innings with the Padres this year didn’t sparkle, it was easy to see what generated that hype. He throws 97 miles per hour, has good command of a nasty slider, and will fool lefties at times with a usable changeup that comes in almost 10 miles per hour slower than the heat. I tend to think Tampa will turn him into a five-and-fly starter, minimizing the usage (but also the exposure) of the change and asking him to dominate with the elite spin on the heat and the slider’s devastating snap, but he’s so young that there remains a chance for an elite pitcher. That hinges on changeup development; his short-term utility does not.

Meanwhile, after re-signing Mike Zunino earlier this winter, the Rays got a platoon partner for him in the deal, in the form of constant rumor-mill darling Mejía. Though this is only the second time he’s actually been traded, the former Cleveland farmhand has been bandied about in all kinds of deals for much of his professional career. He had a 50-game hitting streak in the minors in 2016, part of an age-20 breakout season that had people dreaming big on him. He’s a switch-hitter with an aggressive approach, unique swings on both sides of the dish, and obvious tools, but so far, the ascent of his star has been slower and less dazzling than prospect people anticipated. 

He’s a catcher, but so far, he’s not a good one. The defensive standards and demands of catching are higher than ever, and Mejía is a little guy (5-foot-8, under 200 pounds when properly conditioning himself) who struggles to frame well. The Rays might have ideas the Padres either didn’t have or couldn’t sell to Mejía. Tampa is good at that kind of thing. For instance, there is a new, more kinetic style of framing many traditionally weaker framers are using to find success, and it’s perfectly suited to an undersized guy like Mejía. That doesn’t mean it will actually work, though—not least because Mejía has sometimes seemed insufficiently eager to learn in that area. 

In the only sustained opportunity he got, in late 2019, Mejía did hit pretty well at the big-league level. Still, it’s not clear whether there’s still All-Star upside here, thanks to the defensive deficiencies, the difficulty of maintaining two swings while balancing a catcher’s other duties, and the fits-and-starts arc of his last few years, when the road before him seemed so smoothly paved. That’s why he was available. His potential is why the Rays wanted him.

Patiño and Mejía would have been a light, but not wholly unfair return for Snell, given the money the Rays wanted to move and the level of esteem in which the industry rightly holds the young right-hander. Thus, as usual, we have to give the Rays credit. They did the old Bob Howsam thing here: just keep circling a deal, coming down from an initially bonkers ask, then weedling an extra player out of a trade partner. There are no guarantees about those throw-in guys, but the Rays, like Howsam, have a very good track record with them. Wilcox was a third-round pick in the 2020 Draft, but had a lot of success in a tough collegiate conference, got a big signing bonus, and has plenty of supporters in prospect circles. Hunt had a fantastic showing in fall instructional league, looking like a two-way threat behind the plate. He’s already played in High-A, despite not having gotten to play anywhere in 2020, so he could be a quick riser, too.

The Rays drew heat for this deal. I understand why. On the surface, it’s a cynical, callous move, and a symbol of the cheap way they do business. I don’t agree, though. Whether because I’m too swayed by their recent success with players similar to each of the ones they acquired, or am less concerned with Patiño’s 2020 than others, or am just less sure of Snell than most, I view this is as a smart and aggressive deal by the Rays, and I suspect that it will help them achieve their goals, which run more toward contending for the AL East title every year than toward cyclically chasing championships. 

I’m also, notably, more sympathetic to that mindset than most of my current peers in the internet baseball-writing sphere. I think the highest good a team can give its fans is an interminable string of fun, simmering summers, leading into high-heart rate autumns. Flags do fly forever, but (little though some care to admit it), you peer up at them less with each passing year. It’s not ignoble to strive to be very good every year, even at the cost of being historically great in any one or two.

The Padres, though: wow. We’ll get to the rest of their doings in the first Penning Bull of the new year, but this deal, alone, captures what we all love about Preller. He gave up a lot, but in exchange, he made a very good team meaningfully better—not just for 2021, but over the next three years. If you can add someone as talented as Snell and have team control of him for three seasons, you should eagerly give up a lot to do it. 

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