M’s Trade for Joaquin Benoit; Angels Lock Up a SS
The M’s added 38 year old reliever Joaquin Benoit in a trade with San Diego. Heading south are RHP prospect Enyel de los Santos and IF Nelson Ward. Jeff Sullivan has a great post on the veteran Benoit at Fangraphs, noting that Benoit seems to have the ability to induce weak contact and thus post consistently low BABIPs. It’s an important part of his skillset, and one that hasn’t shown any signs of age-related decline. Benoit’s velocity’s been remarkably stable as well, but his BABIP has been remarkable ever since 2010, and his solitary season with Tampa.
Tampa, as you may recall, has made a habit of picking up talented-but-struggling closers, making minor adjustments, and letting them walk after big years. Hell, Benoit wasn’t even the only example on the Rays in 2010 – they also had Rafael Soriano that year, who put up a career best BABIP and ERA and turned it into a huge payday with the Yankees the following year. Fernando Rodney was DFA’d by Anaheim in 2011, then turned up at the repair shop in the Trop and turned in a walk rate that’s almost 1/2 of his next-lowest campaign AND a career low BABIP. He couldn’t sustain it the following year, but he was still a very good reliever, and his two-year stint got him a good contract offer from Seattle in 2014. Grant Balfour was a minor-league journeyman before washing ashore in Tampa in 2008.
Despite the similarity, Benoit seems to have learned something that stuck, while the rest turned in volatile performances like normal relievers. Rafael Soriano become a walking cautionary tale. Fernando Rodney had a great year in Seattle, before imploding in 2015. Balfour enjoyed success in Oakland before melting down in a return to the Rays. The key to Benoit’s success at limiting hits is in his command of up-and-away pitches. Benoit uses his 95mph fastball to induce whiffs by keeping it up or even out of the strike zone, and he’s able to keep it away from righties and lefties alike.
As a result, his results aren’t bad, even if batters make contact. In his *career*, which stretches over 4,000+ plate appearances, Benoit’s given up a BABIP of .203 on grounders and .078 on fly balls. His tOPS+ (OPS relative to all other pitchers) is 27 for the former and 80 for the latter. All the elevated fastballs have traditionally meant a fly-ball heavy batted ball profile, though this was less true last year in San Diego. He posted a career high GB% last year, and that was driven in large part by a carer high GB rate on his fastball. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course; remember, he’s been even better at managing GB contact than flies over his career. Still, any time a successful reliever’s peripherals start changing – for any reason, and in any direction – you wonder. Relievers are strange beasts. Here’s hoping Benoit stays strange for another year or two.
The cost was two low-minors semi-prospects. Enyel de los Santos, a lanky 6’3″ righty is the prize. He pitched well in rookie-level Arizona and moved up to Everett this season, pitching pretty well over 8 starts, striking out 42 in 37 2/3 innings. Jason Churchill reported a 89-92mph fastball, a slow curve and a change-up after seeing him in July (and coming away impressed). Statistically, he’s somewhat similar to recent Evertt hurlers like Seon-Gi Kim, Jose Valdivia or Stephen Landazuri and a clear notch behind the likes of Jose Campos or Victor Sanchez. Nelson Ward was a 12th round pick in 2014 out of the University of Georgia, and after a slow start to his pro career, showed decent pop and a good eye from the left side…for a 2B in the Cal League. Splitting time between Clinton and Bakersfield, Ward hit 39 extra-base hits, including 9 HRs. It’s a perfectly decent line, though at 23, time’s getting short. He also struck out in nearly 1/4 of his plate appearances. The odds are low, but to his credit, he was the only thing approaching a decent hitter on the Clinton roster for large swaths of 2015.
This deal got lost in the national shuffle, though, when the Angels and Braves stole the headlines by swapping shortstops. Erick Aybar’s been a solid but inconsistent shortstop for years, showing a plus glove and solid contact skills. The rest of the offensive profile, though, has been in flux. In 2011 and 2012, Aybar had enough power to be a plus hitter overall, posting 16 batting runs to go along with his great defense. Since then, though, his power – even gap power – has all but disappeared. His ISO by year has gone from .142 in 2011 to .126 in 2012 and dropped in every year since, down to .069 last year. At that level, a hitter who doesn’t walk (and Aybar does *not* walk) needs to post really high averages to get by, and Aybar’s has been merely good, not great. That resulted in a wRC+ of just 80. With one year left on his deal, the Angels needed to upgrade SS soon. Luckily for them, the Braves were shopping all-world defender Andrelton Simmons.
Simmons’ ISO was in an Aybar-like free fall, too, dropping from .149 to .073 from 2013-2015, and while he strikes out less often than Aybar and walks a bit more, he’s been a decidedly below-average hitter for the past two seasons. The Braves evidently thought he wouldn’t improve and made their intent to shop him quite public. This is somewhat remarkable, given the Braves locked him up through 2020 in 2014, paying $58m over 7 years. Given the ramp-ups, he’ll make only $6m next year, but the Angels are on the hook for $53m in total. The Braves are in full-on rebuild mode, but they’re somewhat unique in that they’ve sold low on young players like Simmons and Jason Heyward. Clearly, they’ve been able to restock their club and farm systems with these trades, but it’s still odd to see a team so eager to trade off players as talented as Simmons and doing so when poor seasons have driven down their value. And despite his age,
The big return for Atlanta isn’t Aybar, though, it’s Anaheim’s top two pitching prospects, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Newcomb was GM Jerry Dipoto’s first-round pick in 2014, and shot up the ladder in 2015. As LA Times beatwriter Mike DiGiovanna tweeted, the Angels got plenty of offers for Newcomb at the deadline last year, but Dipoto turned them all down:
#Angels would not include Sean Newcomb in just about any deal in July. Funny how those things change with a new GM.
— Mike DiGiovanna (@MikeDiGiovanna) November 12, 2015
Can only imagine what type of hitter (Cespedes? Zobrist?) #Angels might have gotten had they been willing to trade Sean Newcomb in July.
— Mike DiGiovanna (@MikeDiGiovanna) November 13, 2015
Just as we’ve seen in Seattle, a new GM often has a much different view of his new MiLB assets than his predecessor.
That said, just as I’m a bit surprised at the Braves willingness to part with Simmons (even if you’re down on advanced defensive metrics, you KNOW he’s adding value defensively), it’s somewhat surprising to see the Angels decide to flip Newcomb. Pitching at 3 levels this year, Newcomb struck out more than a batter an inning and posted great runs-allowed totals. He’s physically huge, and possesses a plus fastball and a good slider, and the results have been there. Command, however, is still a work in progress. The Angels – and most prospect watchers – weren’t too concerned, given Newcomb’s northeast background and limited experience on the mound. New GM Billy Eppler may see this as a way to sell high on a strong-armed question mark. Ellis has his own issues. With fewer Ks, command problems of his own, and odd HR struggles, Ellis will be something of a project. That’s OK, as a terrible junior year meant he fell to the Angels in the 3rd round, and they were able to make some adjustments that made him a legitimate prospect – I don’t want to overstate his “problems” based on a so-so 1/2 season in AA.
So, the AL West added the best defensive shortstop since Omar Vizquel, but the Angels top 30 prospect list might actually include peanut vendors or like-new iPhone chargers. The Braves now have very little payroll committed as the prepare to move into a new suburban ballpark. They’ve acquired a plethora of pitching prospects, but they are still absolutely terrible. With payroll flexibility and lots of pre-arb assets, they could make a move in free agency, but may wait a few years to do so. In the meantime, being a Braves fan seems to be a pretty dour experience, and I realize this is a bit of a pot/kettle thing to say, given my baseballing proclivities. The thing that’s striking isn’t how each team view defensive metrics or minor league pitchers’ value or any of that – it’s just a reminder that reasonable people can disagree substantially on how to value players. There really *IS* a kind of tunnel vision or preference for one’s own prospects, and that’s something a healthy org needs to work against. Remember that Jack Zduriencik shipped out the M’s previous top prospect, Jeff Clement, for a package of Ian Snell and Jack Wilson…and “won” the trade.