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Trading Relievers

Can you really get what you think you can get?

Tom Szczerbowski

The Kansas City Royals have and have had an outstanding bullpen:  not just good, but deep.  Say what you want about Aaron Crow, but when he's five or six on the list for who you want to see in the game when it matters, your team has a good bullpen.

Given that, it is not illogical to look to solve some of the Royals' weaknesses by selling off some strength where they have depth.  Add to that, the fact that relievers have a strange tendency to suddenly lose the ability to be effective and it certainly seems like trading relievers makes sense for Kansas City.

That said, what really do relievers bring in return?  A good seventh inning guy sure seems valuable in mid-August when your team is leading 3-2, but are they deemed as valuable in November?

Let's take a look at the last off-season and the trades involving relievers.  To keep things uncluttered, we will ignore trades of multiple players that happen to include relief pitchers and only examine actual 'off-season' trades.

Not surprisingly, trades that involve (or mostly revolve around) a reliever are not abundant. Last off-season, Heath Bell was part of a three-team multiple player deal.   When boiled down, Bell was essentially dealt for minor league outfielder Yordy Cabrera.  A former shortstop, Cabrera has a big arm but has never hit just .233/.302/.361 in 287 minor league games (all at A ball or below).

Not long after the Bell trade, the Indians traded Esmil Rogers to Toronto for our old friend Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes. At the time, Rogers was 26, coming of making 67 relief appearances in 2012 (Esmil has started most of his minor and major league career prior).  He had and has struck out a batter per inning, walks too many and gets hit with regularity in the majors until a mid-season trade to Cleveland.  He was good for the Indians...for half a season.   The upside to Rogers is that he has hope, despite the track record, of being a starter.  Gomes had a nice season for Cleveland, probably good enough to push Carlos Santana to first base.

Unless you want to talk about a Vin Mazzaro trade, the next reliever only trade happened about a month later when Chris Resop was traded to Oakland for Zach Thornton.  Resop was 29 and had made 137 relief appearances over the prior two seasons, but his strikeout rate had dropped by nearly 50% in 2012.  Thornton had a very good track record as a minor league reliever, but was also 24 and had not pitched above A ball.

The next day, Burke Badenhop was traded by Tampa to Milwaukee for Raul Mondesi.  No, not that one...and not that one, either, the other one.  Badenhop had made 217 relief appearances over the previous five seasons and was eligible for arbitration for the second year.  At the time, Mondesi was a 20 year outfielder with unimpressive stats in rookie ball.

Just a few days later, Wilton Lopez (along with Jose Monzon as the player to be named later) for Alex White and Alex Gillingham.  Lopez was coming off three solid years in the Houston bullpen.  White was a former number one pick who ended up on Colorado as part of the Ubaldo Jimenz deal.  Gillingham had hit and miss seasons as a 21 year old in rookie ball and a 22 year old in A ball.  White was giving up walks and hits in the majors with regularity and not really striking out anyone.  White ended up needing Tommy John surgery the following April.

Later last off-season, the Mariners dealt Shawn Kelley to the Yankees for outfielder Abraham Almonte, a 23 year old outfielder with speed who had never been above AA.  Kelley had made 120 relief appearances spread over five seasons with Seattle and was coming off his best at age 28.   How would Kelley compare to a Royal reliever?  Is he Aaron Crow without the glitz?  Or Louis Coleman without that one fantastic season?

For last season anyway, a reliever traded on his own did not yield the kind of player I expect most Royals fans would want in return for any of the relievers.   One might get lucky and get a Yan Gomes or unlucky and have your version of Alex White get hurt.

Now, last off-season had no trade involving the likes of a Greg Holland.  Frankly, no reliever was dealt as a centerpiece that likely would have ever seen action for the Royals in the last three innings of a game last season.  Do the Royals, without including Holland, have relievers of such stature that they would net players much better - or at least more advanced - than those acquired above?

Now, when we venture back to two off-seasons, we have the following trades:

  • Sergio Santos for Nestor Molina.  A newly established closer for an almost major league ready starting pitcher with number three or four upside.
  • Ramon Ramirez, along with Andres Torres, for Angel Pagan.
  • Huston Street for minor leaguer Nick Schmidt (a 26 year old AAA starter).
  • Jose Veras for Casey McGehee - who is now in Japan.
Of course, we could look for the next Brandon Sisk for Ervin Santana, but there would go all of Dayton Moore's off-season spending money.

No one would question the value of a good reliever and, more importantly, a good bullpen.  However, that value may not translate into the kind of trade value the Royals need in return for one or two of its quality bullpen arms.