It has been announced that the Padres finally traded relief ace Brad Hand. The Indians got some badly needed bullpen help in the process, but it cost them Francisco Mejía, one of the best prospects in baseball. ESPN’s Keith Law just ranked him fifth in his recently released mid-season top-50 prospect ranking. He is under contract for dirt cheap through 2021 and is guaranteed only $15 million through 2020. He does have a $10 million team option for 2021 that can be bought out for only $1 million.
The Padres were rightfully criticized for not parting with ace reliever Brad Hand last year. A noncompetitive team does not need a relief ace. I just wrote about how the Orioles traded Manny Machado a year too late. The Padres did the same thing, but ironically, it probably worked out better for them. I can’t imagine they would have gotten a Francisco Mejía last year for Hand. I thought the days of trading a Gleyber Torres for an Aroldis Chapman were gone. Looks like I was wrong!
After the Padres acquired him in 2016, Hand quickly became one of the best relievers in baseball. His walk rate was a little high, but he had a 3.22 RA9 and struck out over 30% of batters faced. He did that while leading all relievers in innings pitched with 89 1⁄3.
One would think that he should regress in 2017, but no. He improved his run average by almost a full run with a 2.27 RA9. He struck out 1/3 of hitters faced and improved his walk rate to 6.4%.
Regression finally came for Hand this year. His 3.05 ERA might not look bad, but chalk that up as another example of ERA being misleading. Hand has a 4.26 RA9. That is why he has surprisingly been a replacement level player at Baseball Reference. The Padres have a very good defense by DRS, so the high RA9 could simply be the result of small sample size bad luck.
Further evidence that Hand’s high RA9 is bad luck is that his 35% K-rate is the best of his career. The high RA9 could be the result of right-handed hitters getting to him more than they used to. They are hitting .229/.333/.404 with 4 HR against him this year. Again, small sample size, but it is something that Cleveland needs to keep an eye on. My biggest fear for Hand is that he ends up as a LOOGY someday.
There is little reason to believe that Hand is not the same pitcher he was last year. ZiPS projects a 3.41 RA9 for the rest of the season. Cleveland has a strong analytics department, so I doubt the team would have paid such a high price for him if they did not believe they were getting 2017 Brad Hand. The fact that he has a 2.89 DRA says a lot.
Adam Cimber is little more than a throw-in. It is really difficult for a reliever to find success in the major leagues when his fastball has trouble cracking 90 MPH and he gets knocked around by left-handed batters. Lucky for him, in an era when teams carry absurd numbers of relievers, there is room for a guy who is basically a ROOGY.
In my trade deadline preview for the AL Central, I mentioned Cleveland’s terrible bullpen and their need to improve it. I did suggest Brad Hand, but was skeptical that Cleveland would get him because it would require giving up a top prospect, which is a lot to pay. Well, they did it anyway.
Francisco Mejía is an awfully high price for Hand. Yes, he is one of the best relievers in baseball on a cheap contract with multiple years left. And Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are almost certainly leaving in free agency after this season. They certainly need a new relief ace for the future.
The problem is that relievers are so volatile. I just mentioned Hand’s 4.26 RA9. He has not helped the Padres much at all this season. Even if we use a context dependent stat such as Win Probability Added, he only has a 0.51 WPA this season. That is tied with Santiago Casilla for 79th-best in baseball among relievers.
As high a price as Mejía is for Hand, it isn’t that simple. Cleveland is currently full at catcher. Yan Gomes and Roberto Pérez are both better defensively than Mejía. Gomes is under contract through 2021, and Pérez is under contract through 2022. Both are making very little money, which is important for a small market team.
Cleveland was interested in trying Mejía in the outfield because his bat will play anywhere, and they have a greater need there. However, there have been some reports that he has been resistant to play anywhere else. That is likely why he has been a poor outfielder so far.
This is an outstanding acquisition for the rebuilding Padres. Even if Mejía does not stay behind the plate, he will be an impact player somewhere on the field. Sadly, this means that the days of Austin Hedges as the starting catcher are over. He is an excellent defensive catcher and pitch-framer. I’ve always been a fan of his. Unfortunately, he just never hit. He has a career line of .205/.253/.355. He’s basically Jeff Mathis. There is still hope for Hedges if Mejía turns out to be a terrible catcher, or if Mejía rakes to the extent that the Padres want to give him time at other positions.
Big reliever acquisitions are frequently evaluated in the context of the postseason. That is fair, because we have seen the impact that can have. We all remember Andrew Miller in 2016. The problem is that Miller has been hurt and ineffective, and Cody Allen has been off so far this year (though I believe he is due for some positive regression). Even if those two return to form by October, the Cleveland bullpen will still have a hard time competing with the bullpens of other teams. The Yankees, Astros, and Red Sox all have outstanding relief corps.
Mejía is likely going to be a star, and he can be considerably less than that to be worth more than Hand at his best. This is a lopsided trade, but if you consider Cleveland’s need in the bullpen, their catcher situation, and the fact that they have not won a World Series in 70 years, you can see the rationale behind it if you squint. Cleveland had better win the World Series while Hand is still good, or this trade is really going to hurt.