The Royals have struck early in the trade market, having already dealt Carlos Santana to the Mariners back in June, they have dealt All-Star outfielder to the Yankees for three minor leaguers this week. This could be just the beginning of what could be a very active trade deadline for the Royals. But if the Royals are going to be truly transactional, they could look to trade one of their most attractive trade candidates - reliever Scott Barlow.
Typically, the Royals only trade players that are in their contract year, the obvious candidates for a team out of contention to deal. But that philosophy may be changing, at least according to Kansas City Star columnist Sam McDowell, who wrote the Royals “are willing to put more than a rental player’s name on the shelf, even if they don’t attach the same neon for sale sign to those a little more under the radar.”
Barlow is under club control through 2024, so there is no urgency to trade him. In fact, some fans may question why the Royals should trade him at all considering he has been their most reliable reliever. But the shelf life for a dominant reliever can be short, and many begin to decline quickly in their 30s once their velocity diminishes. Barlow will turn 30 in December, and has already seen his velocity dip this year. The Royals may be wise to trade him now while he is still at the apex of his value.
Despite those apprehensions, for team in win-now mode, Barlow would be a very attractive player to acquire. In the post-season, everyone needs more reliable relievers. And they don’t get much more reliable than Scott Barlow. Since 2019, only nine relievers have been more valuable by fWAR, and only 13 have been better at Run Expectancy-per-24-base-outs. He has a 3.24 ERA and 3.24 FIP over that time, with 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. His value may have taken a hit over the weekend, as he allowed seven runs (three earned) in the Yankees series, but he still carried a solid 2.45 ERA for this year with 8.7 strikeouts-per-nine innings.
Every contender could use bullpen help, so there will be no shortage of suitors for Barlow. But the return for relievers with controllable years remaining does seem to be diminishing since the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman deal in 2016 that landed infielder Gleyber Torres. What should be the expected return for a solid reliever with more than one controllable year remaining? Here are a few recent examples.
Diego Castillo was traded last summer, after posting a 2.99 ERA with 10.7 strikeouts-per-nine innings in three and a half seasons with the Rays. The Rays, who were still in contention, sent him to Seattle for 30-year-old journeyman reliever J.T. Chargois and third baseman Austin Shenton, at the time the 12th-ranked prospect in Seattle’s system according to MLB Pipeline. The Rays sent Castillo away because they are allergic to paying players for their arbitration seasons, but also because they can turn random dudes into amazing relievers - Chargois actually outperformed Castillo after the trade before he got hurt at the beginning of this season.
Richard Rodriguez had a 2.98 ERA with 10.0 strikeouts-per-nine-innings in 228 innings over four seasons with the Pirates when they traded him to the Braves last summer for pitcher Bryse Wilson and pitcher Ricky DeVito. Wilson was ranked as the 6th-best prospect in the Braves system before the season, according to MLB Pipeline, and had pitched in 23 games for the Braves, with not much success. Fangraphs ranked DeVito, a 22-year-old in High-A a the time of the trade, as the 23rd-best prospect in the system. Both prospects have struggled since the trade, and Rodriguez was non-tendered after the season after some worrying peripherals, perhaps due to the crackdown on foreign substances, and he was suspended this year for using banned substances.
Relievers are still valuable, but teams are stingier with the prospects. There could still be interesting trade opportunities out there - Cleveland threw in a prospect along with reliever Phil Maton to get speedy centerfielder Myles Straw last year. But many of the smarter teams are able to find relievers off the scrap heap, teach them a new pitch or fix their mechanics to unleash more velocity and voila, they have a dominant reliever.
Nonetheless, Barlow should be one of the more valuable trade assets the Royals have. If they trade him, it would be the strongest indication of a change in philosophy to a more transactional approach. But there may not be the huge return teams may have expected a few years ago. And that may cause the Royals to hold onto their long-haired reliever.