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MLB trade deadline: Swarzak traded from White Sox to Brewers

The rebuild continues apace on the South Side of Chicago, while the Brewers focus on their surprising opportunity and make a win-now move.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images

Another day in late July, another trade. The details:

  • The Brewers acquire Anthony Swarzak, a 31-year-old righthanded reliever signed through the end of 2017 for about $400,000
  • The White Sox acquire Ryan Cordell, a 25-year-old at AAA who’s seen time at LF, RF, and 3B this season.

If I told you in March of 2017 that the White Sox and Brewers were making a deadline deal, you wouldn’t believe me. And you shouldn’t have; both Chicago and Milwaukee were firmly in the midst of rebuilds. True, Chicago was just starting while Milwaukee had been seller the year prior, but the players the Brewers acquired looked unlikely to be ready anytime soon. Something weird was going to have to happen for either team to be realistically planning for the playoffs.

Well, something weird has happened in Milwaukee. And in Chicago, too, but not with the White Sox (who are indeed as bad as everyone expected). The Brewers have been surprisingly good (53–48 when this trade happened), while the Cubs have been surprisingly bad (52–47), leaving an opening at the top of the NL Central that no one thought would exist. The result is a Brewers team that, to the surprise of everyone, has a real shot at the postseason, and has approached the trade deadline with an eye toward trades that can help them make the most of that surprise without damaging their future overmuch.

And that’s roughly the category this trade falls in. Swarzak might not be a household name, but he’s been legit this year, with a 2.23 ERA and 2.34 FIP that have given him the seventh-best WAR among all relievers this season. Ryan even slapped an “elite” label on him back in May, and since then, Swarzak has maintained his dominance. His calling card is a nasty slider he throws about half the time, with the rest going to his fourseamer. The basic pattern he tends to follow is to pound the zone with the fastball, then throw the slider for whiffs and weak contact, and it’s a recipe that works.

The White Sox signed him before the season to a minor-league deal, and that should tell you a lot about how his career had gone before this year. Relievers of any type are hard to trust, and that’s before you add a long track record of sub-mediocrity. But parts of Swarzak’s profile predate 2017; last year with the Yankees, he ran very similar strikeout and walk rates (25.0 and 5.7 percent, respectively) to this season (28.0 and 7.0 percent). The difference was in the contact he allowed: he gave up home runs at a waaaaay higher clip, at 15.3 percent (versus 1.1 percent his year). On the one hand, it’s nice to know there’s some precedent for his Ks and BBs; on the other hand, it’s terrifying to imagine how quickly he could revert back to his old form (he had a 5.52 ERA in 2016) if he stops avoiding the dinger.

But the Brewers just need him to sustain his success for a few more months. Corey Knebel has done an outstanding job in Milwaukee’s bullpen (1.75 ERA, 2.30 FIP, 1.9 WAR), and there are some alright pitchers behind him. But Swarzak, if he pitches like he has for the first part of 2017, will provide some very valuable reinforcement. And should the Brewers sneak into the playoffs, both the relievers will be able to play an outsized role in each game, and give the Brewers the chance to make a Cinderella run.

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Brewers Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

You might recognize the name Ryan Cordell from the Jonathan Lucroy trade, though when that deal happened, he was just the player to be named later. He was an eleventh-round pick for the Rangers in 2013, drafted after his junior year at Liberty University, and started cruising through the low minors in 2014. After a season that saw him hit .318/.385/.530 across 380 PAs at Single-A and Hi-A, he started getting some attention, and made BP’s “Prospects on the Rise” section in the 2015 Rangers prospect list. The prospect staff praised his quality contact and athleticism, good enough at the time for center field, and thought he could debut as early as 2016.

It’s somewhat telling that a) 2016 has passed with no debut, and b) Cordell hasn’t been mentioned in any subsequent Rangers prospect lists at BP. Before this season, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs slapped a 45 grade on Cordell. Per Longenhagen, Cordell still has the speed to play center, though he doesn’t have the reps to step in as an infielder yet. And Longenhagen though Cordell was unlikely to get those reps, since the bat seemed likely to be good enough for a promotion sooner rather than later.

But 2017 hasn’t gone great for Cordell either. He’s hit .284/.349/.506 in his 292 PAs at AAA, and that’s in the Pacific Coast League, which means that line is just 16 percent better than average. (Also noteworthy is that Colorado Springs, the home park for the Brewers’ AAA affiliate, is extreme even by the PCL’s standards, and Cordell appears to have benefitted.) He’s old for his level, and he hasn’t been impressive in his most recent stint, but he’s a player who has impressed scouts in the past, so a jump forward is certainly not out of the question.

If you’re optimistic about Cordell, you might think this trade reveals a lot about the state of the trade market in late July. The White Sox got back a center fielder (or above-average defender in a corner spot) who has hit well in the minors and could plausibly get called up almost immediately for just a half-season of a reliever with no track record. And if you’re optimistic about Swarzak, you might think this is a heist for the Brewers. They got a reliever with a sub-2.50 ERA and FIP for an old prospect without much pedigree who hasn’t had a clean transition to AAA.

But however the move looks now, it’s impossible not to be a bit impressed with Rick Hahn and the White Sox, who saw something worth pursuing in Swarzak that nobody else did. They’ve essentially turned half a million dollars — pocket change, for any franchise — into a AAA prospect. Maybe you think they could’ve gotten more for Swarzak, but what they got is still pretty impressive.

It’s hard not to be excited about what the Brewers are doing, too. At this time last year, they were trading veterans for prospects; now, they’re trading prospects (in fact, one of the very same prospects) for a veteran who can help them make a run at the playoffs. Rebuilds might be necessary, but they’re not pleasant, and the sooner they end, the better. This move is proof that, after less than a year of “pure” rebuilding, the Brewers are focused on the present again, and that’s awesome. In that way, fans of both teams can be happy about this move.