The Royals took a bit of a gamble signing Aroldis Chapman last winter, but they knew that they wouldn’t even have a chance at signing the seven-time All-Star unless there was some risk involved. The 35-year old lefty was coming off his worst season, posting a 4.46 ERA and 17.5 percent walk rate with the Yankees, with a significant drop in velocity.
The Royals thought they had identified a mechanical flaw in his delivery that they could fix, so they signed him to a one-year, $3.75 million deal with up to $4 million in incentives. There were some initial reports that Chapman turned down more money to be given a chance to close in Kansas City, but he has not been given many save opportunities - the Royals have had few leads to protect, and Scott Barlow has been entrusted with the ninth on most nights.
Still, Chapman has been a very valuable part of the bullpen. His velocity is back, with his fastball averaging just a tick below triple digits, the fourth-fastest fastball in baseball. That has helped him post the third-highest whiff rate and the fourth-best strikeout rate among relievers. Overall he has been the seventh-most valuable reliever in baseball, according to fWAR.
His performance also seems to be peaking. He has been particularly effective the last few weeks, allowing just one run in 9 2⁄3 innings over his last ten outings. In that time, he has faced 40 batters and struck out exactly half of them. If the Royals wanted to maximize his value, now would be the time to deal him.
Aroldis Chapman has officially reached the realm of depreciating asset. His value is not going to get any higher from now to July 31st. The minute you get an offer you love, hit the button. Every second he spends on the Royals roster from here on out is a ticking time bomb.— Royals Farm Report (@RoyalsFarm) June 15, 2023
According to reports, the Royals are trying to do just that, aggressively pushing Chapman to get a bigger return (and saving money on Chapman’s salary!) Buyers tend to wait closer to the trade deadline to make a move, particularly on rentals since the price goes down (everything must go!) and they need to ensure they are truly in a pennant race. But there could be some motivated buyers out there that need a reliever to help them stay in the pennant race - the team the Royals face this weekend, the Angels, are a perfect example.
There should be no shortage of teams looking for relievers at the deadline. In addition to the Angels, the Diamondbacks, Braves, Brewers, Mets, Yankees, Rangers, and Blue Jays could all be shopping for relievers. The Marlins were interested in his services last winter, and could be interested again now that they are off to a good start. Chapman even fueled rumors of a reunion with the Reds, the first team he played for, by saying it would be “awesome” to come back to Cincinnati.
What is a reliever rental worth in the trade market? A good comp can be found at least year’s trade deadline when the Cubs traded reliever David Robertson to the Phillies. Robertson was like Chapman, a former All-Star reliever enjoying a renaissance in the later stages of his career. Robertson’s contract was nearly identical to Chapman’s - a one-year, $3.5 million deal that made him pretty affordable to any contender.
The Cubs traded Robertson straight up for pitcher Ben Brown, a then-22 year-old right-handed pitcher. The former 33rd round pick was not really on any prospect radar screens before the season - Fangraphs didn’t rank him among their top 41 prospects in the system. But Brown was in the midst of a terrific year, posting a 3.08 ERA with 105 strikeouts in 73 innings in High-A for the Phillies. That performance earned him the #7 ranking in the Phillies’ system in a mid-season update by Baseball America. The Cubs saw something they liked and immediately promoted him to Double-A. After four dominant starts there this year, they shipped him to Triple-A, where he has a 3.52 ERA and 13.6 strikeouts-per-nine-innings for the Iowa Cubs, albeit with a high walk rate. MLB Pipeline currently ranks him #4 in the Cubs’ system.
Other reliever rentals last year netted far less. Fellow Cub Mychal Givens had a 2.66 ERA with 11.3 strikeouts-per-nine innings and was dealt to the Mets for Saúl González, a huge 6’7’’ right-handed reliever in A-ball with nice numbers, but not on any prospect lists. Michael Fulmer was enjoying a nice season with Tigers last year, posting a 3.20 ERA and a a solid strikeout rate, and he was traded to the Twins for pitcher Sawyer Gibson-Long, a pitcher putting up awesome numbers in A-ball but at age 24, and not someone ranking on many prospect lists.
What does seem to net a larger haul are relievers with more controllable years remaining. Baltimore traded Jorge López to Minnesota for four players, including Yennier Cano, one of the best relievers in baseball this year. Miami traded Anthony Bass and Zach Pop for former top 100 prospect Jordan Groshans. To get that kind of deal, the Royals would probably have to part with Scott Barlow or Josh Staumont.
Still, they can get an intriguing prospect for Chapman if they play the market well. I wouldn’t get too hung up on prospect rankings - it seems many smart teams pluck unheralded players enjoying good years that are on the rise. Rankings are slow to catch up to player development as performance improves. If the Royals trust their minor league player development, a lowly-ranked prospect with the right profile could be a terrific find.