Late last night it was reported by Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times (and later confirmed by Joel Sherman of the New York Post) that the Dodgers will trade backup catcher Carlos Ruiz to the Mariners for left-handed reliever Vidal Nuno, but make no mistake, the trade was primarily about Austin Barnes.
The deal has not been finalized, but LHP Vidal Nuno is the player the Dodgers are expected to get back for Carlos Ruiz.
— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) November 7, 2016
Vidal Nuno is a 29-year-old lefty relief pitcher with a career ERA of 4.02 and FIP of 4.48. In 58.2 innings last year, he posted a 3.53 ERA and 4.51 FIP, which generally fits with his habit of pitching better than his peripherals might suggest. However, that doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily good. While Nuno’s 20.7 K% was about league average and his 4.5 BB% was well above average, he also had a major homer problem and surrendered a dinger 11 times in 2016, which is not necessarily a thing the bullpen needs more of.
Nuno’s stuff doesn’t indicate anything much more promising either. He primarily uses a three-pitch mix of a fastball, slider, and change, with the fastball generally sitting in the 89-91 mph range and his change grading out as above-average even though his slider is his primary off-speed pitch. While he has allowed a .799 OPS to righties in his career and a .641 OPS to lefties, his stuff profile certainly doesn’t fit a LOOGY type, and I would think if anything he’d be less prone to ridiculous splits.
All said and done, Nuno had a 0.8 RA9 WAR and a 0.0 FIP WAR in 2016, and since he has an option year left, he’ll likely slot in at AAA behind Grant Dayton and Adam Liberatore (and Luis Avilan) as the Dodgers lefty relievers. Perhaps the Dodgers see something in him that I currently don’t, but Nuno essentially rates as solid depth and not much more. Nuno has three more years of arbitration left before he hits free agency (potentially in 2020), and projects to make $1.1MM in arbitration this year, so that control would be appealing if he does end up performing better than he has.
In order to acquire Nuno, the Dodgers had to surrender backup catcher Carlos Ruiz. Ruiz was acquired in a controversial trade of A.J. Ellis, and in 14 games before the end of the season he put up .278/.350/.333/.683 line, which was fine for a backup but nothing to write home about. However, he did allow the team to get Yasmani Grandal more rest, and most importantly Ruiz put up a .970 OPS in the playoffs and had a key hit in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Nationals that gave the Dodgers a late lead. Given his postseason contributions, it’s hard not to see that trade as a success despite the uproar. Still, Ruiz has a $4.5MM team option for 2017 or a $500k buyout, so trading him seems more about his salary and roster space than it does about what the Dodgers think of him as a player.
Speaking of the roster spot, the most important thing this trade does is open the door for Austin Barnes to be the backup catcher (and utility infielder/pinch runner), a role he could’ve arguably started filling two years ago. Barnes’ line in the MLB of .180/.315/.230/.545 is less than inspiring, but that comes in only an essentially meaningless 74 plate appearances. Conversely, in 720 plate appearances in AAA during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, he has put up an intriguing .304/.384/.460/.845 line. Not quite sure how the power will carryover immediately, but his bat-to-ball skills, pitch selection, and receiving (19.1 framing runs, second in the minors to J.R. Murphy, who had 735 more chances) figures to play immediately.
The Dodgers essentially traded away a veteran backup catcher (Ruiz) for a fringy lefty reliever (Nuno) with three years of team control left, primarily to clear $4.5MM in salary (~$3MM net) and open up a spot for a young catching prospect (Barnes). Clearly the trade is less about the Dodgers wanting to dump Ruiz or needing Nuno as it is about believing that Barnes is ready for a permanent role on the MLB team and would represent an upgrade over Ruiz. Since Ruiz and Barnes could have similar skill sets at the plate (limited pop but on-base skills and contact) but Barnes is a far superior receiver and is much more athletic, believing that Barnes could be an upgrade seems realistic and I think the decision was overdue.
This is not a trade that one should feel too passionate about either way (seriously guys, come on), but I’m mainly glad that Austin Barnes is gonna get his shot.