After a disappointing 2019 season, San Diego Padres chairman Ron Fowler was candid in his assessment of the team – “embarrassing” – and clear about what would happen if the team did not improve in 2020.
“Heads will roll,” he said, “beginning with mine.”
Nearly one year later, the Padres are one of the best stories in baseball. Led by a young core featuring the multitalented Fernando Tatis Jr., the Padres arrived at the trade deadline with a 21-15 record.
While some GMs in that position might be content to stick with what they have, A.J. Preller of the Padres was not among them. Over the weekend, the Padres acquired closer Trevor Rosenthal, first baseman Mitch Moreland and catchers Austin Nola and Jason Castro. Then, on Monday, they made their biggest deal yet, acquiring starter Mike Clevinger from Cleveland in a nine-player trade.
“Before the trades, it was a World Series-caliber roster,” Clevinger told reporters after the deal was announced.
And afterwards? Not only are the Padres baseball’s most exciting team, they’re likely to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. If they get there, no team will want to face them. Imagine going up against Clevinger, Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet in the new three game wild-card round that precedes the division series? Not fun.
Beyond San Diego, there was plenty of action even if no one kept pace with Preller. Starting with the big picture, here’s a closer look at some of the deals and non-deals that stood out on Monday…
A different kind of deadline
Everything about this year’s deadline was different from the timing to the economics to the logistics of assessing prospects. In the weeks leading up to Aug. 31, some executives predicted a slower than usual deadline, but thanks to the Padres, Diamondbacks, Mariners and a few others this year was pretty active.
Of course assessing prospects is much harder at a time that no minor-league games are taking place and no scouts are permitted at MLB games. Many teams agreed to share video and analytics in an attempt to bridge that information gap, but there are still more unknowns than usual this year, even for teams acquiring major-league players.
As Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said, “We didn’t have anything but video looks.”
Perhaps more challenging were the economic realities of making trades at a time that fans aren’t allowed in ballparks. With revenue down, few teams took on significant payroll for the stretch run.
All quiet in the AL Central
With a month to go in the season, the best race in baseball might be in the AL Central, where Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota are all within 1.5 games of each other in the standings. Down the stretch, those three teams will be facing off a lot.
Yet Cleveland traded away a frontline starter for the second straight summer (they sent Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati last year) and the White Sox and Twins were quiet. Whoever wins the Central will do so without the help of outside reinforcements.
Rangers hold onto a top trade chip
Of all the starting pitchers who didn’t get moved, it’s perhaps Lance Lynn who’s most intriguing. The 33-year-old has taken his game to the next level over the last two years, with a 3.33 ERA and 9.6 wins above replacement since joining the Rangers at the start of last year.
Teams were interested, but the Rangers ultimately held onto Lynn, whose contract runs through 2021. Perhaps more interesting is what GM Jon Daniels told reporters once the deadline passed: the Rangers expect to operate with a lower payroll next year and their window to contend may be pushed back, too.
Blue Jays among AL’s most active teams
While no American League team was quite as active as the Padres, the Blue Jays were among the league’s busiest teams Monday even after adding Daniel Vogelbach and Taijuan Walker last week. They started by adding two rentals, left-hander Robbie Ray and utility player Jonathan Villar, before adding a pitcher they can keep for a while, right-hander Ross Stripling.
Both pitchers are bounce-back candidates who were off to slow starts with their previous teams. From 2015-19, Ray posted a 3.96 ERA while generating 2.0 wins above replacement per season. But this year he leads the NL in walks and earned runs on his way to an unsightly 7.84 ERA.
One scout believes the increase in walks might be attributable to a new delivery in which Ray short-arms the ball but loses command. Yet after some early-season experimentation, the Blue Jays were encouraged to see that Ray appears to be reverting to his previous delivery with some improved results.
Either way, he has a strikeout rate of least 12.0 batters per nine innings for the fourth consecutive year, his velocity is actually up compared to last year and his spin rate is well above average.
As the scout said, “low risk, high reward.”
The same could be said about Stripling, a 2018 all-star who wasn’t deemed necessary for a deep Dodgers pitching staff. With a 5.61 ERA and an NL-leading 12 home runs allowed, the 30-year-old has struggled, but if anyone can tell you that past performance doesn’t necessarily predict future results, it’s Stripling, who spends time during the off-seasons as a licensed stockbroker and investment advisor. Stripling’s home run to fly ball ratio won’t stay this high, and his fastball velocity is up, too.
Finally, there’s Villar, who will likely see regular time at shortstop until Bo Bichette returns. While he makes some frustrating mistakes on the field, he’s undeniably talented with difference-making speed and versatility. A longtime opponent recently described him as “annoying” and it wasn’t clear whether that was a compliment, an insult or both. Regardless, he helps win baseball games with a total of 6.0 wins above replacement over the last two full seasons.
The cost for those three players appeared to be modest. Travis Bergen, the return for Ray, was clearly low on the Blue Jays’ depth chart of relievers. And while it’s unclear which players will eventually head to the Dodgers for Stripling, outfielder Griffin Conine, the return for Villar, looks like a high-risk prospect considering he struck out 36 per cent of the time as a 21-year-old at low-A.
Put simply, the Blue Jays are a better team now than they were before, and it doesn’t appear that they had to surrender any significant long-term pieces to make those upgrades.