- The Rays acquired 31-year-old 1B/“OF” Lucas Duda, signed through the end of 2017 and owed roughly $3 million.
- The Mets acquired Drew Smith, a 23-year-old righthanded reliever who just moved from A+ to AA.
There are several interesting things about the move, the most obvious being the trade itself. Humility at the trade deadline is a good idea, and we shouldn’t assume that we have all the information needed to fully evaluate a deal. Even so, this looks like a very light return for Lucas Duda.
Duda has had his ups and downs offensively, and really shouldn’t be pencilled into the lineup anywhere other than first base or DH. But from 2013 to the present, the lefthanded slugger has a 126 wRC+ in 1997 PAs, and the numbers are even better if you can slot him into a platoon and limit him to righthanders (138 wRC+ in 1536 PAs). He would slot into a lot of lineups, especially in the AL — the Red Sox and Yankees had both been mentioned as possible suitors — and he’ll make the Rays substantially better right away.
With Shane Peterson, who had been Tampa Bay’s primary left fielder in recent weeks, DFA’d by the Rays to make room for Duda, it seems the most likely shifting of the depth chart will see Corey Dickerson spend more time in left, with Duda filling the resulting whole at DH. Taking PAs from Peterson — owner of a career 84 wRC+, nothing special defensively and probably no better than Dickerson — and giving them to Duda will add a lot of thump to the Rays lineup. For a team that is in a very important spot on the win curve (just 2.5 games out of the AL East lead, and 1.0 game back of the second Wild Card slot), this is the kind of addition that can shift their playoff odds a lot.
Which is why it’s so surprising that they got Duda for what seems like nearly nothing. Drew Smith is a minor-league reliever, which alone should tell you a lot about his prospects of making an impact in the major leagues. At 23, and with only a hint of experience in AA, he hasn’t been a fast mover in the minors, and while his numbers haven’t been bad — a 2.20 ERA and 2.31 FIP in A+ this season, with a 24.1 percent strikeout rate and 4.3 percent walk rate — they haven’t been outstanding.
Nor have scouts been particularly impressed. Prior to the 2016 season, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs praised his “gorgeous, explosive delivery,” but noted that he possessed no pitches beyond a fastball and curveball, sharply limiting his paths to major-league success, and gave him a grade below 40 (i.e., below the grade of a future fringe middle reliever). He didn’t merit a mention in Longenhagen’s preseason prospect roundup for 2017. Nor is that an isolated opinion; Smith was featured on none of Baseball Prospectus’s prospect lists, and Baseball America ranked him as the Tigers’ #24 prospect prior to 2016, and didn’t rank him prior to 2017. Maybe Smith will crack the majors someday, but he’s got an uphill battle.
Again, as with every trade that looks lopsided, it’s possible we don’t know something. The Mets took what they thought was the best offer they got for Duda; the seemingly light return almost certainly has nothing to do with the front office’s capabilities. Maybe Duda doesn’t look as good by some non-public metric only MLB teams have access to; maybe the Mets see something in Smith that they think they can unlock.
But from the outside, this looks like a great deal for the Rays, a disappointing deal for the Mets, and a missed opportunity for the other teams that could’ve used Duda. Relief prospects are plentiful; good hitters are not. Maybe I’ll look back on this take with regret in a few months, but right now, you’ve got to like the moves the Rays are making.