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Giants, Red Sox pay steep price for bullpen help

The San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox each made a move yesterday prior to the deadline to upgrade their relief corps, but both moves came at a concerning price.

MLB: Spring Training-Texas Rangers at Milwaukee Brewers Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

At the trade deadline, both Boston and San Francisco bolstered their bullpens. The Giants acquired former Brewers lefthander Will Smith, while the Red Sox picked up erstwhile Twin Fernando Abad. The issue with the acquisitions is less the players themselves -€” although both pitchers do come with some red flags -€” and much more with the players given up in the deals.

Let's start with the Giants, who traded 26 year-old catcher Andrew Susac and High-A righthander Phil Bickford for Smith. Over the past three seasons, Smith has established himself as an above average reliever in the Brewers' pen, posting a career best 2.70 ERA and 2.47 FIP in 2015. He is still just 27, and under team control through 2019. Like a few other relievers traded this deadline, Smith is not a rental, and his value to his new team is higher accordingly.

However, there are some concerning signs beginning to surface with Smith this season. Check out this chart, highlighting Smith's yearly strikeout rate and groundball rate since 2013:
















Both numbers have continued to move in the wrong direction yet Smith has still managed to be fairly effective this season, with a 3.68 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 22 innings. The underlying numbers suggest that his luck may soon run out: his FIP (an ERA predictor statistic) of 4.27 is his worst since his rookie season, at which time, he was a starter. His home run rate is up as well, which isn't too surprising considering his continued struggles to induce groundballs.

Smith is still solid against lefties, and perhaps a move to a team in the midst of a division race will energize him, but he profiles as more of an average reliever than a good one going forward, unless he can reverse the aforementioned troubling trends.

This trade looks even worse for the Giants if Smith regresses at all, because the price was steep. With Bickford, San Francisco gave up its top prospect (per Baseball America) as well as a catcher who, were it not for Buster Posey, may have had a starting opportunity this season.

Drafted in the first round in 2015, Bickford is a lanky righthander who has torn up A-ball so far this season. Having just turned 21 last month, he is still young for his level. His fastball is solid, with late life, and his secondary offerings, while inconsistent, have shown plus flashes this season. Baseball America ranked him as the number 50 prospect in baseball in its midseason update.

Susac, a former second round pick, has strong upside as well. At 26, he has plenty of time to develop into a starting catcher, and he has displayed some of the tools necessary to do so in Triple-A. This season alone, he has saved about 10 runs with his pitch framing alone, making him one of the best framers in all of the minor leagues. He has shown decent pop in the minors, as well as in both of his brief stints with San Francisco. He should get every chance to start in Milwaukee.

This is a significant return for the Brewers. Along with the package received from Texas for Jonathan Lucroy, the Smith trade should expedite their rebuild and put pieces in place to contend as early as 2018.

In the short-term, San Francisco added an average-ish arm that is trending downward, while giving up significant potential future value. So what about Boston?

The trade of Fernando Abad to the Red Sox comes with less fanfare, because both Abad and the players going back to Minnesota are less highly-regarded than the players in the Smith deal. However, like the Brewers, the Twins did well to bring back a real piece for a middling bullpen arm.

Abad is also a southpaw, but he is already 30, with a less proven track record than Smith. He had been replacement level for much of his career before breaking out with Oakland in 2014 to the tune of a 1.57 ERA in 57.1 innings. He regressed last season, giving up an uncharacteristic 11 home runs in 47.2 innings, before finding a middle ground with Minnesota this season. Though he doesn't strike out a ton of batters (his 21.0% strikeout rate is below the league average 22.6% rate for relievers), he induces enough weak contact to get by. His career soft hit rate (percentage of batted balls against hit with a velocity classified as "soft")  is 20.0%, above the league average of 18.8%. With the exception of 2015, he has been pretty good about keeping the ball in the park, and his 0.53 HR/9 this season is less than half of the league average rate.

Abad's specialty is getting lefties out; he has held same-handed batters to an OPS of .457 this season. This compares favorably to the league average OPS of lefty batters facing left hitters, which is .681. He should be effective in a middle relief role if employed correctly, but the question remains: is he really necessary for Boston to take control in the division? Boston's current lefty specialist, Robbie Ross Jr., has limited lefthanded bats to a .472 OPS this season, and set-up man Junichi Tazawa, a righthander, has kept opposite-handed hitters to a .503 OPS. Tazawa and Ross Jr., combined with Craig Kimbrel, Brad Ziegler, Matt Barnes, and (maybe) Koji Uehara should give the Red Sox an already-strong bullpen in the postseason, should they get there.

In acquiring Abad, the Red Sox may have given up a future back-end bullpen arm. Pat Light, a former first rounder, heads to the Twins, and should join their major league bullpen almost immediately. Now 25, Light has dominated Triple-A this season, striking out almost 10.5 batters per nine innings and allowing just one home run in 31 innings. He has struggled with command and consistency in the past, and his brief stint in the majors did not go well. However, with a fastball that can touch 100, Light has the potential to be a better reliever than Abad ever has been.

Both the Red Sox and Giants improved their bullpens, if only by a little bit. Smith should give quality innings to a San Francisco bullpen that lacks a good southpaw, and Abad provides another option for Boston should Ross get hurt or struggle. However, both teams (and the Giants in particular) gave up potentially valuable assets, and should their new pitchers struggle, they may regret parting so willingly with Bickford, Susac, and Light.

The Giants gave up more for a younger, cost-controlled asset, albeit one that is trending in the wrong direction. The Red Sox gave up a less interesting piece for a pitcher who looks like something they already possess. Such is the cost of bullpen-adds this trading deadline.


Tom O'Donnell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He will be a senior at Colby College this fall. You can follow him on Twitter @Od_tommy.