With MLB’s trade deadline set to expire in two days’ time, non-contending clubs are well into the annual process of selling off impending free agents. Teams that are resigned to their fate will likely prioritize trading these players so as to avoid losing them for nothing when they hit free agency in the winter.
In a surprise move yesterday, the Mariners, a franchise thought to have been a potential buyer, opted to trade one of the market’s top rentals, reliever Kendall Graveman, to who else but the Astros. He probably won’t be the last the AL West favorites acquire.
One of the premier contenders in baseball, the Astros will have use for rental players as they strive to optimize their roster in preparation of making another deep playoff run.
Like every year, the trade market will be flush with these types, but there are two in particular the Astros should steer clear of. Conversely, there’s another who could make for a savvy acquisition.
Brad Hand, Washington Nationals
Once one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball, Hand is no longer pitching as effectively as he used to. Washington’s closer has collected 21 saves (in 26 opportunities) in 2021 and has 126 total in his 10-year career, but the 31-year-old has struggled mightily this year compared to recent ones.
Hand has seldom posted an ERA above 3.00 since his breakout 2016, but right now it sits at 3.59. What’s perhaps more troubling is a drastic reduction in strikeouts. From 2016 to 2020, the veteran’s strikeout rate was consistently above 30 percent. In 2021, it’s fallen to 23 percent.
It’s a development that started in 2020 when Hand’s whiff rate notably dipped from its usual 30 percent mark to just under 25. That figure has now cratered to 20.1 percent in 2021.
Although Hand’s once-declining velocity has returned this year, his patented slider is no longer the wipeout offering it once was, as evidenced by its double-digit drop in whiff rate.
Concurrent with the lefty’s inability to miss bats is a double-digit walk rate and a career-worst barrel rate. It’s not difficult to understand why Hand’s Expected ERA (xERA) is nearly a full point higher than his ERA.
As inadequate as the Astros’ bullpen is, it wouldn’t be sensible to give up value for a reliever on the downturn.
Michael Pineda, Minnesota Twins
Roughly two weeks ago, Astros general manager James Click voiced the possibility of pursuing a starting pitcher. Pineda currently sports a sub-4.00 ERA and has a fairly extensive track record of being a league-average starter, so his availability has naturally drummed up interest around the industry ahead of Friday’s deadline.
While the massive 6’7” righty could be a fit for buyers that need a starter, there’s no apparent reason Houston should be considered a potential destination.
While the old adage of “you can never have enough starting pitching” rings true now more than ever in an era of widespread arm injuries, the Astros’ starting rotation already boasts quality depth, as the club has as many as seven pitchers that could be used as a starter, including current reliever Cristian Javier.
Even in the event of a trade, Pineda wouldn’t necessarily elevate the Astros’ pitching staff, and that’s what is most notable in this context. Perhaps past versions of him would, but in 2021, the 32-year-old has produced concerning numbers.
Pineda’s exit velocities are the highest they’ve ever been In the Statcast era (2015-), which has also led to a markedly higher barrel rate. Moreover, hitters are making more contact against him than they had in the past six years. The Dominican native still induces a lot of chases and rarely issues walks, but the overall profile is lacking, and a career-high 4.63 xERA confirms the notion.
While he could theoretically be effective out of the bullpen, Pineda has never appeared as a reliever in his entire big-league career, complicating a potential transition.
Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals
Another of the market’s notable starting pitchers, Duffy’s been one of the faces of Royals baseball for many years and was a key cog on their pitching staff during the organization’s peak in the mid-2010s.
What stands out for Duffy this year is his uptick in velocity, as his average fastball velocity is the highest it’s been since 2016. Despite being 32, the veteran southpaw is missing bats with his heater at a career-high rate.
In terms of overall output, Duffy has been a fine starter in 2021. Although his 2.51 ERA looks unsustainable when assessing the peripherals — which includes a 4.20 xERA — he looks like a perfectly capable league-average starter.
That won’t be an issue for teams looking to add to their rotation, but for the Astros, a team more interested in upgrading its starting staff than merely extending it, Duffy would simply not be the most ideal fit.
But that’s as a starter.
Duffy has experience pitching out of the bullpen — he did it when the Royals won the World Series in 2015. The Astros lack a proven, effective lefty reliever in their bullpen. Brooks Raley is frustratingly inconsistent and Blake Taylor, while pitching well, is only in his second year in the bigs and is still establishing himself as a reliable late-inning option.
Enter Duffy, who is not only throwing harder than he has in several years — and could throw harder in shorter stints — but is striking out left-handed hitters at a nearly 33 percent clip. Additionally, his batting average against same-side batters is just .217, with an Expected Batting Average (xBA) of .208.
The cherry on top is the excellent vertical movement Duffy’s four-seam fastball possesses, a trait the Astros covet and exploit the hell out of.
Duffy was recently placed on the Injured List with a flexor strain, an injury that could see him out until at least September, but that shouldn’t deter a club such as the Astros from making an inquiry. It certainly hasn’t stayed the hands of the Giants or Dodgers, who are reportedly interested in acquiring the Duffman.
Given his experience and present ability, October could be when he’s most valuable, hence the West Coast contenders’ interest. In terms of trade value, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser noted in her report ($) that Duffy’s injury could downgrade the return Kansas City would receive, meaning the Astros could avoid parting with any prospects of significance.
The injury presents added risk, but what could be the ultimate caveat for any team wanting Duffy is the fact that he has the right to veto any trade via his 10-and-5 rights. Granted, he is a California native, so the Giants and Dodgers could be more appealing than other interested clubs.
Nevertheless, the Astros are primed to play deep into October, so if an agreement could be reached with KC, perhaps Duffy would approve the deal to chase another championship.
The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant